Guns of August, Pity of War
I’ve been delving into histories of the First World War. I recently finished two books by popular historians, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Niall Ferguson’s Pity Of War. Though the first covers only the first month of the war, and the second examines several topics over the time frame of the whole conflict, they try to answer many of the same questions.
With any war, but especially one so destructive and world-changing, we are naturally curious about the causes of the war and whether it could have been prevented. Ferguson begins by examining pre-war thriller novels, gauging the fears held by some of spies, plots, invasions. Tuchman begins with the funeral of the English king in 1910, the largest-ever gathering of royalty, the last time the Kaiser could be seen in England as a friend and a sympathetic figure.
Tuchman blames the war on Germans’ desire for power, paranoia about encirclement, and poor ability to win allies, as well as elaborate military planning that made major strategic decisions extremely difficult to change or reverse. War in the era of poor communications and precise railroad schedules meant that once an operation began, it had to be seen through for better or worse; path dependency doomed Germany, a single step into the Schlieffen Plan, to stay the course till the end.
Ferguson, a proponent of alternate history, tries to imagine how things could have worked out differently. Being Scottish, his book largely focuses on the war from the British perspective. He wonders what would have happened had Britain stayed out of the war- if Foreign Minister Grey and the Germans could have reached a diplomatic understanding in earlier years, if a definite commitment to France had dissuaded Germany from attacking, or if the cabinet had simply decided not to fight (as it very nearly did). He imagines that Germany would have quickly won the war, humiliated France, and begun to dominate central Europe. He argues that Britain should have stayed out; that a quick German victory would have been better for Britain than a war which brought so much death, the end of British domination of finance, and the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Furthermore, Bolshevism in Russia would have been delayed or avoided entirely; a shorter war would likely have left the government more stable, and Germany certainly would not have sent Lenin to Russia in 1917 had they not been in desperate straits themselves.
Tuchman also imagines another war. She describes how narrowly the Ottoman Empire entered the war, how Britain would never have fought with such unity and intensity, or even at all, had the Germans not chosen to invade through Belgium. She focuses heavily on how the abilities and personalities of those who happen to be in the right place at the right time have enormous impacts on the course of the war and on world history: a King of Belgium willing, perhaps irrationally, to stand up to a much more powerful enemy; a stunningly corrupt and incompetent Russian Minister of Defense; a cowardly leader of the British Expeditionary Force; the last-minute appointment of a French general who vowed to make a stand at Paris even as the government fled to Bordeaux. These were the people on whom suddenly so much would depend. With every change in command and in plans, Tuchman wonders what else might have been.
Ferguson likes to incorporate the thoughts of people who at the time were marginal figures, but would later become important. He quotes Wittgenstein- who hoped the war would bring him a “variety of religious experience to turn him into a different person” but worried that “the English- the best race in the world- cannot lose. We, however, can lose, and will lose, if not this year than the next. The thought that our race will be defeated depresses me tremendously.” He quotes Churchill (who was important in the Admiralty, but whose greatest hours lay ahead), “I think a curse should rest on me- because I love this war. I know its smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment- and yet- I can’t help it- I enjoy every second of it.” He continually refers back to Hitler, who in the post-war economic chaos said “I’ll see to it that prices remain stable… that’s what my stormtroopers are for.” Ferguson paints a very unflattering portrait of a young John Maynard Keynes. He sees Keynes as a man who badly misunderstood war finance, regurgitated German propoganda in The Economic Consequences of the Peace and in his other essays on the topic. Ferguson appears to blame Keynes’ poor judgement on his homosexuality, saying “it may be that Keynes’ subsequent declaration that he ‘got to love’ Melchior[a German represenative] during the armistice negotiations at Trier and Spa obliquely alluded to a sexual attraction. As we have seen, Keynes was an active homosexual at this time.” Ferguson seems to have almost a vendetta against Keynes, who appears to be consistently wrong throughout the 30-odd pages he occupies. He also refers often to homosexuality, usually in even less relevant situations, though sometimes quite amusingly; a caption of a photo from the Eastern Front of naked German soldiers on horseback reads “Homo-erotic connotations should probably be ignored.”
Tuchman is something of a British partisan, genuinely offended the large-scale killing of civilians in Belgium and France, and appalled at the German destruction of the library at Louvain and the cathedral at Rheims. She maintains the absolute moral superiority of the allies, even as her tactical criticisms fall most harshly upon them. Ferguson, himself Scottish, thinks the Germans have been judged too harshly in almost every field, maintaining that their morals, diplomacy, and wartime economy were not all that bad, while their tactics and manouvers were vastly superior for at least the first three years of the war.
Both are quality books; Pity of War is more balanced and comprehensive, Guns of August a more gripping narrative.
Both raise important questions about the meaning of the war and its political implications that I plan to address in a future post.