Book Review: 'Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War'

Dust jacket design: Eric White. © 2013 Alfred A. Knopf
On September 24, 2013, 99 years and one day after Japan – in an ironic historical twist – declared war on her future Axis partner Germany, Alfred A. Knopf published Sir Max Hastings' Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, the U.S. edition of the esteemed British historian's account of World War One's first five months. Published in Britain as Catastrophe, the book examines the diplomatic, military, and human errors in judgment that led to the outbreak of Europe in the summer of 1914 and set in motion the chain of events that caused future horrors in the 20th Century and beyond.

In this nearly 700-page volume, Hastings focuses exclusively on the conflict – known then by most people as "the Great War," although some prescient German writers called it der Weltkrieg: "the World War" – in the Eastern and Western Fronts in Europe. (In his introduction, Hastings writes, "Hew Strachan, in the first volume of his masterly history of World War I, addressed events in Africa and the Pacific, to remind us that this became indeed a global struggle. I decided that a similar canvas would burst through the frame of my own work. This is therefore a portrait of Europe's tragedy, which heaven knows was vast and terrible enough."


The book begins with a prologue that describes the event that triggered the war: the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, at Sarajevo in the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The terrorist attack was carried out by a group of young Serb nationalists sponsored by high ranking officials in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The motive? Serbia – a modest kingdom in the Balkans which had only gained its independence from the ailing Ottoman Empire in 1878 – wanted to separate Austria Hungary's Slavic provinces from the Empire and unify them in a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

But, as Catastrophe points out, Serbia's ambitions were not only catastrophic for the plot's immediate victims but for the existing European order. Due to the rise of a unified Imperial Germany in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War a generation earlier, the great powers of Europe – France, Great Britain, and Russia – strove to contain the new Kaiserreich and maintain the delicate balance of power that had kept the peace on the Continent for nearly 30 years. For his part, the "new kid on the block" in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, feared that the Triple Entente was an existential threat to the German Empire and formed an alliance with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the reticent Kingdom of Italy.

Through a series of diplomatic and military miscalculations and conflicting national interests, what should have been a bilateral dispute between Austria-Hungary (whose ruling class despised Franz Ferdinand and Sophie but seized on their murders as a convenient excuse to declare war on Serbia a month after the assassination) and Belgrade soon escalated into a war that involved most of the major European countries and brought death, disease, and destruction to millions of people.

As commandant of the British Army's staff college in 1910, Brigadier-General Henry Wilson asserted the likelihood of a European war, and argued that Britain's only prudent option was to ally itself with France against the Germans. A student ventured to argue, saying that only "inconceivable stupidity on the part of statesmen" could precipitate a general conflagration. This provoked Wilson's derision: "Haw! Haw! Haw! Inconceivable stupidity is just what you're going to get." Sir Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Although the war in Europe (particularly in the battlefields of Belgium and northern France) is remembered for its static nature – the nearly 400-mile long parallel lines of Allied and German trenches, the deadly role played by machine guns, the introduction of poison gas, and the employment of heavy artillery on a scale never before seen in warfare – Catastrophe points out that the first months of the war involved huge movements of armies across broad swaths of territory as both sides raced to seize (or defend) strategically valuable regions and cities in various parts of Europe. During the last weeks of the summer of 1914, Germany's armies raced through Belgium and northeast France in a bid to capture Paris and defeat the Anglo-French forces quickly in order to turn the Kaiserreich's full attention against Tsar Nicholas II's Russian armies in the east.

In 1914, Europe plunged into the 20th century’s first terrible act of self-immolation – what was then called The Great War. On the eve of its centenary, Max Hastings seeks to explain both how the conflict came about and what befell millions of men and women during the first months of strife.

He finds the evidence overwhelming, that Austria and Germany must accept principal blame for the outbreak. While what followed was a vast tragedy, he argues passionately against the poets’ view’, that the war was not worth winning. It was vital to the freedom of Europe, he says, that the Kaiser’s Germany should be defeated.

His narrative of the early battles will astonish those whose images of the war are simply of mud, wire, trenches and steel helmets. Hastings describes how the French Army marched into action amid virgin rural landscapes, in uniforms of red and blue, led by mounted officers, with flags flying and bands playing. The bloodiest day of the entire Western war fell on 22 August 1914, when the French lost 27,000 dead. Four days later, at Le Cateau the British fought an extraordinary action against the oncoming Germans, one of the last of its kind in history. In October, at terrible cost they held the allied line against massive German assaults in the first battle of Ypres. The author also describes the brutal struggles in Serbia, East Prussia and Galicia, where by Christmas the Germans, Austrians, Russians and Serbs had inflicted on each other three million casualties.

This book offers answers to the huge and fascinating question what happened to Europe in 1914?’, through Max Hastings’s accustomed blend of top-down and bottom-up accounts from a multitude of statesmen and generals, peasants, housewives and private soldiers of seven nations. His narrative pricks myths and offers some striking and controversial judgments. - Publisher's dust jacket blurb, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. 

My Take

Although Max Hastings is best known for his books about World War II and other modern conflicts (including Korea, Vietnam, and the Falklands/Malvinas War, which he covered as a war correspondent in 1982), he is no stranger to the topic of the First World War. Not only did he read Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August when it was published in Britain as August 1914 in 1962, but a young Max Hastings worked as an assistant researcher for the BBC's 26-part documentary series The Great War in 1963 "at a salary of £10 a week, at least £9 more than I was worth."

Although Catastrophe is Hastings' first book about a conflict that is now a century behind us, it is, in the words of the Sunday Times' reviewer, "Magnificent … Hastings writes with an enviable grasp of pace and balance, as well as an acute eye for human detail … his book is at once moving, provocative and utterly engrossing."

The author, a respected reporter, foreign correspondent, and newspaper editor, delved deeply into the archives of the major combatants and pored over vast amounts of contemporary newspapers, magazines, and personal correspondence of people from all social classes as part of the research for Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. He also benefitted from his work on The Great War TV series, on which he worked from 1963 to 1964, a youthful experience that Hastings describes "as one of the happiest and most rewarding of my life, and some of the fruits of my 1963-64 labours have proved useful for this book."

Even though Alfred A. Knopf gave the book's American edition a different title – a marketing decision that seems to be common with books published in Great Britain – and a dust jacket designed by Eric White that draws inspiration from poster art of the early 1910s, the content is identical to the original British edition published by London-based William Collins.  As a result, the book's text is written in British English ("colour" instead of "color," for instance) and uses British punctuation rather than U.S.style.

I enjoyed this book when I first read it in the winter of 2013-14; I received it as a Christmas present from a relative not long after its U.S. publication, and although it took me a while to get through it (I was my late mother's primary caregiver, so I didn't have lots of spare time then), I was fascinated by both Hastings' skills as a writer and the stupidity of the diplomats, monarchs, and generals whose decisions and miscalculations plunged Europe - and the world - into a catastrophic war that caused millions of deaths – and left future generations a legacy of nationalistic resentments and big power rivalry that have continued to this very day.

Comments

  1. A very interesting and well written review. I am wondering about the claim I read somewhere, that the geopolitical situation emerging at the end of the 19th century made a large scale conflict between Germany and France/Britain inevitable. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just one of many potential sparks that could set it in motion. Basically if the assassination had not happened then another spark could have set the war in motion let say 1915. I wonder how that claim looks like with respect to the background of this book?

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    1. Considering that Hastings is of the opinion that the Kaiserreich under Wilhelm II had a national sense of being hemmed in by the powers of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) and that Germany, Austria-Hungary, and all of the European Big Honchos were armed to the teeth, war was inevitable. Clearly, the crisis in the Balkans created by Serbia's bid to cause unrest in the Balkans and create "Jugoslavia" from the restive Slavic provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would still have been the most likely casus belli even if the Archduke had not been killed at Sarajevo.

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