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I am making my way through as many Audible books about World War I as I can in this anniversary year (2014). I started with Margaret MacMillan's for deep background and it fulfilled its purpose admirably. The narrator spoke clearly enough that I could listen at 1.5 speed and understand everything.
I especially valued the scope of the book, as it covered cultural and general societal issues as well as the political and economic and military. The portraits of the important people, from Edward VII to the Kaiser and the Tsar, Edward Gray, Moltke, Konrad, and the French were vivid enough to help them come to life.
The writing is above average but not quite literary. Occasional references to more recent events, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the American response to 911 actually annoyed me, though many readers might find them interesting.
After listening to this book I went next to Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August." Tuchman is an outstanding writer and her coverage of the battles from August 4 through September 7 of 1914 is riveting. Tuchman is criticized for some historical errors and I may detect them as I turn to the other books on my list, but reading it made a helpful match with the MacMillan book. I recommend listening to both.
Now on my list is "A World Undone," by G. J. Meyer after which I will listen to Paul Ham's 1914: The Year the World Ended, and then Max Hastings' Catastrophe 1914: The Year Europe Went to War.
Then I will listen to MacMillan's history of the aftermath of the war with Paris 1919. I will update this review if possible so I can compare all these available titles.
32 of 32 people found this review helpful
I've read and listened to several books about the origins of World War I; this one is the best I've encountered so far. Much of the territory is familiar, but MacMillan goes back further, provides more detail and context, and weaves it into a fuller narrative than most of the others. She shifts seamlessly between lively portraits of individual leaders and analytical and statistical accounts of military and social changes.
Many books mention that Russia lost a war with Japan in 1905 and that major civil unrest in Russia followed. MacMillan goes into detail about both, explaining causes and consequences. Many books mention that Paris was distracted in the summer of 1914 by the trial of Henriette Caillaux, who murdered the editor of Le Figaro. Macmillan tells us more about her husband, Joseph Caillaux, and his prominent role in foreign affairs; the scandal of the trial made it impossible for him to act as a voice of restraint in the crisis.
The first part of the book is more geographic than chronological. MacMillan takes us on a tour of the European capitals, introducing us to the pathetic Kaiser Wilhelm II (described by someone as a warship at full speed without a rudder); the happily married and largely detached prime minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury; rising men like Edward Grey, Joseph Chamberlain, William Churchill and Lloyd George; the tragically clueless Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his family's involvement with the unwashed Rasputin. We spend time at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (which she enjoyed immensely but refused to pay for), and at the 1900 Paris Exposition. We hear about the many international conferences that tried to promote peace or at least establish rules for "civilized warfare."
And she describes the new factor in governance that sometimes hamstrung a country's leaders: the rise of newspapers and the nebulous but powerful force of "public opinion." And terrorism: the president of France, two Spanish prime ministers, King Umberto of Italy, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, the uncle and grandfather of the Czar were all murdered in terrorist attacks. It was not exactly a balmy time.
The second part of the book is a fascinating narrative account of the many crises that preceded the outbreak of war: the two Moroccan crises; Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia; the two Balkan wars; the bloody coup in Turkey - each of them playing a role in desensitizing Europe to the prospect of universal war. Germany, fearful of being encircled by enemies, drew up a war plan that violated international law left and right - and the civilian leaders abdicated their responsibility; they failed to rein in the military. Many books have traced these events, but MacMillan's book is the clearest, most detailed, and most absorbing I've read.
Richard Burnip's narration is excellent. If you want to understand the why as well as the how, this is a great place to start.
17 of 17 people found this review helpful