Saturday, May 10, 2008

A World Undone

Andrew and I have read so many, many books about World War I and its causes that we almost passed by “A World Undone: The Story Of The Great War, 1914-1918” by G. J. Meyer. It would have been a grave mistake for us to have done so.

World War I has been the subject of a remarkable renewable of scholarly interest over the last decade, and it is interesting to speculate why this is so. I believe there may be several reasons for the rebirth of interest in The Great War.

First, the causes, developments and results of World War II have been rehashed so often and so extensively that there has not been much new to offer on the subject, except for events on the Eastern Front that may now be examined anew in light of recently-opened Russian archives. It is logical, therefore, that scholarly attention has shifted from the Second World War back to the First.

Second, World War II was not the “complex” war that World War I has always been. The causes of World War II were fairly simple and straightforward: it was Act II of The Great War, a continuation of the first great conflagration owing to round one’s unsatisfactory resolution. World War II would never have occurred had World War I’s denouement and end result been an effective final settlement. In contrast, the causes of—and even the necessity for—World War I remain inherently controversial, ripe for constant reexamination.

Third, World War I’s five great European participants—Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France, Britain—all had vastly different (and logical) reasons for participating in, or avoiding altogether, the tragic conflict. These particular considerations have been the focus of much recent World War I scholarship, especially in the case of Britain, whose participation in the war has undergone the most intensive reexamination and reassessment. No nation on the continent was in a position to sit out the war once it began. Britain, a seafaring nation, had that luxury.

Fourth, World War I was one of those wars that could and should have been avoided, in the eyes of everyone. The conflict produced only one victor, the United States. All European participants lost the war, whether they were declared to be winner or loser at the endless conference that followed cessation of hostilities. How and why the war could and should have been avoided remains the target of current scholarship, and much of this scholarship reaches vastly different conclusions.

It is fitting, therefore, that World War I histories continue to be written and published in substantial numbers, at least in the English-speaking world. Whether French, German and Russian volumes are produced in equivalent numbers I do not know—if published, they are not being translated into English and issued in Great Britain and the U.S.

“A World Undone” is different from the recent John Keegan and Niall Ferguson volumes on the subject, volumes that attempted, with varying degrees of success, to provide a new spin on the causes and effects of the war. (I wrote briefly about both recent Keegan books on October 14, 2007).

“A World Undone” is not a lengthy argument. “A World Undone” is not a veiled rebuttal of other recent books on one or another aspect of the war, nor is it a reply to critics.

“A World Undone” is also not a book filled with brilliant and original insights, providing the reader with fresh and unusual perspectives on the war, its causes and its long-term consequences.

Instead, “A World Undone” is a splendid one-volume history (704 pages) of the conditions that led to war, the missteps and blunders of all participants in that fateful summer of 1914, the constant carnage that typified the war in its fighting stages, and the long and drawn-out aftermath that required three years of negotiations to bring the hostilities to an official—but only temporary, as it turned out—conclusion.

Meyer demonstrates a grasp of the telling detail as well as a talent for portraying the panoramic sweep of the vast drama, and he displays a deep understanding of the war’s military engagements as well as its diplomatic and political developments before, during and after the hostilities. He also evidences a real talent for bringing both the war’s major personalities to life as well as the national characteristics and considerations of the various peoples involved.

His book is a rich tapestry of event, character and analysis, epic in scope, well-told through a narrative packed with incident and immediacy, demonstrating the skills of a great novelist. This may be the finest one-volume book on the subject ever written.

Despite his studious avoidance of tendentious arguments about the causes of the war or the long-term results of its aftermath, Meyer has much to offer that is not necessarily covered in other volumes or is covered elsewhere in insufficient detail.

He is excellent, for instance, in his discussion of the Alsace-Lorraine issue, inexplicably glossed over in so many other World War I studies. He is equally superb in his treatment of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front early in the war, a collapse that required the German Army to remove troops from France and to reposition them on The Eastern Front in order to halt and reverse the progress of the Russian Army. The farce (and tragedy) that was Gallipoli is handled well and at length, as is the Armenian massacre. He discusses, in detail, the oft-ignored and mind-boggling failure of General Haig to come to terms with the machine-gun, and to amend his military strategies in order to take into account the lethality of that weapon.

Meyer also discusses at length the reasons why the parties were unable to bring the conflict to a negotiated conclusion once it was underway. He is one of the few writers to credit the Germans for attempting to reach a negotiated settlement as early as 1916. Germany and Austria’s populations were literally starving after the winter of 1915-1916, and Germany was under great pressure from a deprived populace to bring Britain, France and Russia to the bargaining table from 1916 on. Germany’s efforts were completely rebuffed by The Entente Powers. Millions upon millions of lives would have been saved by an early end to the war. Moreover, a negotiated settlement reached in 1916 or 1917 would not have differed significantly from the outcome eventually imposed upon Germany at Paris and Versailles, a final settlement not signed until 1921, three years after the war’s end.

If I have one criticism about the book, it is that Meyer fails to address in a satisfactory manner how and why the fighting finally stopped. Truly, no participant in the war achieved any sort of victory on The Western Front. There was no culminating final battle that settled the affair, allowing one set of participants to emerge a clear victor and another to witness a shattering and irreversible defeat. Instead, the armies on the Western Front, exhausted, simply stopped fighting. Battles sputtered out like an engine running out of fuel.

It was the French Army that mutinied first, but it was the mutiny of the German Army that finally ended the fighting. First one German unit, then another, laid down its arms until the German General Staff had a full-scale insurrection on its hands. Within days of the insurrection, an armistice was declared, the German Kaiser fell from power and sought refuge in the Netherlands, Germany became a nation virtually without a government, the various armies were sent home, and reparations talks began in Paris. Precisely what had happened to cause this extraordinary turn of events?

This is the question that all World War I historians fail to answer in a satisfactory and convincing manner. No one understands, exactly, how and why the great conflagration limped, in its final stages, to expiration. Meyer does not answer this question any better than any other writer who has addressed the subject.

The odd ending to the war is even more remarkable given that the Germans almost won the war during the Spring Offensive Of 1918. For the first time since 1914, the Germans broke the four-year stalemate on The Western Front, plowed through enemy lines and were on the verge of winning the war. Given the swiftness with which the great successes of the Spring Offensive were followed by abject defeat, it is no wonder that the German populace failed to understand why Germany had lost the war and it is easy to comprehend why the German populace was so ready to embrace the “stabbed in the back” theory on which so much of Germany’s politics would be based over the next twenty years.

The carnage of World War I was brutal, even incomprehensible. To this day, the scale of bloodletting remains too shocking to contemplate. The generals in charge of prosecuting the war on behalf of Britain, France and Germany were viewed at the time, and are still viewed today, as little more than hacks and butchers. Most of them lost their reputations while the conflict was underway—and all of them lost their reputations once scholarly studies began to appear after the war. Never was a war more haphazardly prosecuted, with so little value placed on human life. An entire generation of youth from Britain, France and Germany was literally wiped out, a slaughter on a scale so vast that it had never been witnessed before and has never been witnessed since.

I almost weep when I think of the suffering that the young men of Britain, France and Germany had to endure during those terrible years. Nothing is as likely to bring tears to my eyes as thinking about the inhuman events on The Western Front, where as many as 50,000 souls lost their lives in a single day during a gruesome and unending battle of attrition that went on and on, day after day after day, for over four years.

There are monuments to the fallen of World War I in almost every city, town and village throughout Europe. This is so because no locality, and no human being alive at the time, escaped the suffering. Literally everyone had family members or close friends who died fighting in the war.

Andrew finds the most moving such monument to be the Cenotaph in London, situated in the middle of Whitehall. The Cenotaph was designed by architect Edwin Lutyens in 1919. A wood-and-plaster version was erected for the 1919 Remembrance Day observances, and a permanent version, constructed from Portland stone, was erected the following year. The Cenotaph is a series of simple, recessed steles, about eighteen feet high, of the starkest severity, free from decoration except for a stone wreath carved into the base at each end. Imperceptibly, its sides are not vertical—they curve inward as they rise, and all four sides would meet 1000 feet above ground were the monument to reach that height. Only three words are carved on the Cenotaph: “The Glorious Dead”, from Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son in the war. The London Cenotaph proved to be so popular that over the next two decades it was reproduced endlessly throughout the British Commonwealth, with recreations erected throughout Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India and South Africa. No version of London’s Cenotaph, however, was ever erected in the United States.

I thought that the Hamburg Ehrenmal was even more moving than the London Cenotaph. The Hamburg Ehrenburg is situated at the water’s edge on the Alster Lake, at one end of the great plaza on which lies Hamburg’s giant Rathaus. It is one of the most beautiful and moving monuments I have ever seen. It is twice as tall as London’s Cenotaph—the Hamburg Ehrenmal is 12.5 meters high—and it is nothing more than a simple white stone stele. It was designed by architect Claus Hoffman and erected in 1932. Its only words appear on one side: “Forty thousand sons of the city lost their lives for you 1914-1918”. On the opposite side is a cartoonish relief of a mother and her soldier son, by sculptor Ernst Barlach, removed by the Nazi’s in 1938 but recreated in 1949. I hate to express agreement with anything associated with the National Socialist regime, but the monument would be far better off without that ludicrous Barlach relief, which adds nothing to the dignity or solemnity of the monument. Our personal observations, while we were in Hamburg, were that people simply and assiduously ignored the side of the monument with the Barlach relief. We did, too.

Meyer is unafraid to criticize the politicians and generals, on all sides, in “A World Undone”. No one is immune from his harsh assessments. One of the strengths of his book is that he is very good at describing the personalities responsible for leading their nations into cataclysm and self-destruction and for making military decisions of astounding brutality throughout the engagement.

He ends his book by telling the reader what became of these various figures—politicians, rulers, monarchs, generals, cabinet ministers—after the war. Hardly anyone with an important role in World War I had a happy or fulfilling post-war life or career; on the contrary, almost all such persons had nothing but tragedy to face in their remaining years.

There was, however, one exception.

That person, the final such figure he addresses in his book, is Winston Churchill. Meyer briefly recounts Churchill’s 1920’s career and his 1930’s “wilderness years”, when Churchill served as an oracle issuing unwelcome warnings about the rearmament of Nazi Germany and the grave threats Hitler and his policies posed to Britain and the world.

Meyer’s discussion of Churchill’s post-war career—and Meyer's book—stops short, abruptly halting at the end of the 1930’s, with Churchill not yet in power and with Europe once again on the brink of war:

“But that is another story.”


  1. Very fine writing, Joshie. Very fine indeed.

    I hope you and Drew are bracing yourselves for your 2400-mile road trip to Oklahoma, Denver and back!

  2. Thanks, Paul.

    Actually, Andrew and I were sort of counting on you to do all the driving. We were just going to sit back and relax, and eat snacks, and take naps, while you kept your eyes on the road.

    Departure time is 6:00 a.m. next Thursday morning.

    Be alert!


  3. I have to say I don't share your enthusiasm for World War I books.

    "A World Undone" does not appear to have been published here. I could not find it in a search. Perhaps it was given a different title here.

    Have you read "Testament Of Youth"? That is my favorite book of the era, although it does not cover the fighting per se.

    What's this about a long road trip? It sounds bloody awful.


  4. Calvin, I have never read "Testament Of Youth".

    Not this coming weekend, but the following weekend, my sister graduates from high school. Andrew and I will drive down to Oklahoma to attend her graduation.

    The following morning, we will head out to Denver to help Alex pack some things, and to bring some of his stuff back home with us.

    This way he will only have to make one trip when he moves back home this summer.

  5. Dear Sir,

    Thank you very much for your very detailed and useful review. I have been able to get a copy and am really looking forward to "diving" into it.
    Greetings from Argentina.