December 14, 2013

Review: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

American readers: Take this British book with a grain of salt.

Why? Because while Max Hastings is very good on military tactical issues, and solid on strategic ones in the first shifting of his pen from World War II to World War I, he's close to being all wet on geopolitical issues related to the start of the war.

First, the good.

Hastings gives more detailed coverage to the Eastern Front at the start of the war than do many WWI intros, which often talk about the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and nothing else.

Hastings also covers how the Russians rolled back the Austrians in Galicia.

And, even more exposing the dry rot of the Hapsburg Empire, how Serbia, the cause of the war, also rolled back the Hapsburgs' two different early fall and late fall 1914 invasions.

On the Western Front, he rightly faults Joffre's Plan 17 and has little good to say about Sir John French as the BEF commander. And, he notes how Moltke had weakened the original Schlieffen Plan even before the start of the war, how he weakened it further with Tannenberg worries, and how he had a nervous collapse before the two sides made their race to the Channel. He also notes that the French army, outside of things such as the rouge pantaloons, was not that much worse than the German, and how some German commanders, like Kluck and Bulow, as well as the royal commanders, were either too old (them) or not fully competent for general reasons (some of the royals).

On larger strategic issues, he raises the issue of whether the Schlieffen Plan could even succeed with a pre-mechanized army. I say, just possible. The Germans would have needed to have more fodder ready for horses, and definitely more replacement boots for troops. If this AND an unaltered Schlieffen plan had been in place, the Germans might just have pulled it off.

The one thing Hastings gets right on geopolitics is wondering why Germany didn't do a better PR job on the international law violations of Britain's blockade by extension later in the war.


Now the bad, and why this book gets just three stars.

Hastings subscribes to the traditional German war guilt idea on the cause of the war, and from that, seeks to build a legal-type case for British intervention.

First, on a "balance of powers" issue, you don't have to have German war guilt as a primary cause, or even No. 2 after simple balance of powers issues. Britain's early 1700s intervention in the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, didn't go looking for "war guilt."

Second, related to that, is that his attempt to "pin the collar" on Germany is just wrong.

Hastings engages with Christopher Clark's excellent new book, "The Sleepwalkers," but only to reject it, and Clark's labeling of Serbia as a "rogue state."

I'll go one better than Clark, myself. I rarely use the term "cultural DNA," but with Serbia, having read books about the original battle of Kosovo and its aftermath, and seen the 1990s ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I make an exception. "Rogue state" might be a bit mild; "semi-failed state" might be even better.

Third, and related to that, Hastings talks about the would-be violations of international law that were in Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. True, but it had less such violations than NATO's 1990s ultimatum to Serbia. This issue got mention online at about the time Hastings' book was headed to press. Surely, he could have addressed it in the prologue, within modern book publishing time frames. And, he chose not to.

Fourth, near the end, Hastings adds in what I can only call a "British imperialism whopper." In the last chapter, an epilogue though not officially titled as such, he claims the US contributed "little militarily" to World War I.

True in 1917; not true in 1918, where the US had 1 million troops on the Western Front by early July and 2 million by the end of the war. Yes, the US was using Allied artillery and some other munitions and weapons; it was cheaper than shipping them, since an unoccupied France could make them onsite. At the same time, the US had been supplying warhorses for Britain and France from the start of the war.

The increasing American flood of men spurred the desperation behind Ludendorff's Kaiserschlact, and the expected continuation of that into 1919 led to Ludendorff's collapse in October 1918.

Beyond that, at St. Michel and elsewhere, American troops contributed significantly to the Hundred Days Offense that rolled back German gains from spring 1918.

Without American intervention, Germany still couldn't have won the war. It might have been able to keep Austria propped up, and keep from losing, though.

In addition to justifying British entry, despite his dismissal of American military contributions, I have the feeling that Hastings is trying to sell American readers on the worthiness of American intervention.

Well, there, he's plain wrong.

It's true that a German Mitteleuropa, while certainly nowhere near as bad as Nazism, wouldn't have been ideal. But, it would have been much less a problem for the US than for Britain. And, if achieved only at the price of Austro-Hungarian collapse, might not have been worth that much anyway.

In any case, I've always said that we should have protested the British blockade by extension, on international law grounds, just as much as German submarine zones, then followed George Washington's warning against entangling alliances and let the Entente and Central Powers beat each other senseless.

Hastings' "war guilt" and seeming British imperialism get this book knocked down from 4-plus stars to 3. His whopper about American intervention costs it another star to fall to 2.

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