While I have read quite a few books on WW1, only a couple really “stand out”:
Niall Ferguson (1998) – The Pity of War: Explaining World War I [download] does justice to its subtitle, boldly reinterpreting most of the standard narrative through vivid statistical argumentation.
For instance, the claims that there was widespread enthusiasm for the conflict at the outset seems to be pretty much false. This was also the book that introduced me to the work of Dupuy et al., who have calculated that the Germans were consistently much more combat effective than the Anglo-French forces; conversely, he also very effectively shows why the war was lost for Germany after the end of the Spring Offensive.
One need not always buy into his arguments – ironically, I am rather skeptical of his “Anglophobic” thesis that it was England most at fault for making WW1 into the carnage it was – but his counterintuitive takes strike home sufficiently frequently to justify this as a must-read in addition to the more conventional histories.
Barbara Tuchman (1962) – The Guns of August [download] may not be the most groundbreaking WW1 book, but it may well be the best from a literary perspective. Seriously, just read her opening paragraph:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
Whether one agrees with her thesis that it was Germany that was overwhelmingly culpable or not – though I suppose it helps that I do – her skill at bringing the increasingly agitated diplomatic activity in the buildup to the war and the military maneuvers in its first few months is unrivalled. This is history that reads like fiction, and I mean that in a good sense.
I haven’t written too much about WW1, but here a couple of the more notable posts:
- Prophets of the Great War: Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo – on how quite a few people predicted what would happen well (not that it did anyone much good).
- A Short History of the 20th Century – on how Russia lost its future in 1917, amongst other things.
The US. And Romania.
“Surely to no nation has Fate been more malignant than to Russia. Her ship went down in sight of port. She had actually weathered the storm when all was cast away. Every sacrifice had been made; the toil was achieved. Despair and Treachery usurped command at the very moment when the task was done.” – Winston Churchill
Mostly irrelevant, actually. There’s no comparable webs of alliances. The relative importance of gross industrial production (vs. technology) is far, far lower. Nationalism is now mostly exclusionist, not expansionist.
However, one thing that is still relevant is that globalization is no guarantee that there will be no war (an argument frequently made re-the US and China). World trade was comparable as a percentage of GDP in 1914 to today’s levels.