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1914: The Year the World Ended by Paul Ham

1914: The Year the World Ended (2013)

by Paul Ham

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Let me say to begin with that I greatly admired Paul Ham's books on Hiroshima and Sandokan. So I came to 1914, The Year The World Ended, in some anticipation. But left somewhat disappointed particularly with the first half of the book, mainly because Ham seems to fall between two stools in the approach he wants to take to the build up to the War and its first 6 months. He doesn't want to go into too much detail - and happily and usefully draws the readers' attention to more in depth studies of key themes and moments in the build up to war - but draws vast generalised conclusions with insufficient evidence about quite complex threads of events (which is why, after all, the detailed studies exist). So at times, his analysis feels trite and trivial

His conclusions are basically (no risk of a spoiler here) that

1. From the turn of the century, if not before, the ruling classes of Europe were looking for a good, cleansing war, to restore old certainties of society
2. That Germany bears the brunt of the blame for War actually breaking out, through the issuing of the famous "blank cheque" to Austria Hungary, but also by hopeless misinterpreting Britain's position and deliberately misconstruing Russian mobilisation
3. Austrla Hungary bears a lot of blame too; some blame can be attributed to Russia, particularly the Tsar basically surrendering control of his government to the military
4. British procrastination didn't help. The French were essentially blameless

Ham does us a service by debunking the "sleepwalker" theory of Christopher Clark. No, the military men in Germany, Austria Hungary and Russia anyway, knew exactly what they were doing. They simply didn't understand the consequences of their actions. As such, the war can be put down to incompetence on a mass scale

Once the war gets going, Ham is on surer ground. He is excellent on German war crimes in Belgium, the Marne and the build up to, and first iterations of trench warfare. He uses the diaries of participants to particularly good effect here. But as the Eastern Front engages, he seems to lose interest. Tannenburg and associated battles are casually glossed over with references to other writers work. Its really the Western Front that is his key interest.

There is a good and moving afterword. But overall I was left feeling that this book did little to advance specialist interest but wasn't really a useful overview for the general reader either. A shame, because clearly a lot of work has gone into it and Ham is not scared of a point of view. ( )
1 vote Opinionated | Dec 14, 2015 |
Popular history of the events leading to the war in Europe in 1914. Chilling stuff. Such arrant foolishness in so many leaders leading to massive loss of life and damage to those that survived. Those leaders, in Ham's words, were not fit nor trained to be leaders, but were bred to be there. One positive outcome of the war was to remove hereditary monarchies from any role in government throughout Europe. Sadly, other mental pygmies, in politics and the military continue to be a threat to the world.
Read January 2014. ( )
  mbmackay | Jan 20, 2014 |
How useful and pleasant it is for you to read this book depends on where you are in your studies of World War One, and, specifically, how interested you are in its origins.

Novices in either study will be better served by any of the three general histories of the war I’m familiar with: John Keegan’s An Illustrated History of the First World War, Hew Strachan’s The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms, or Peter Hart’s The Great War. As the title hints, this is not even a history of the whole war.

However, for the intermediate student, this book is valuable. Displaying optimism and naiveté (at least in regard to American education), Ham says “every schoolchild knows the Great War was fought over … colonies, economic hegemony, nationalism, Alsace-Lorraine, Franz Ferdinand’s death and naval supremacy”, and he’s going to get us closer to a real understanding of the war’s causes. While Strachan’s book may tell you the interest rate of the third issue of Bulgarian war bonds, even he does not go into Ham’s level of detail about the Agadir and Fashoda crises and many other events and personalities. Others may talk about Germany’s infamous “blank check” to the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the latter’s ultimatum to Serbia. Ham gives you the whole documents. It may be a cliché among historians of the First World War to say it was the most complicated man-made disaster in history, but Ham makes a good case for it being true.

Ham starts in 1870 and over half the book is over before shots ring out in Belgium. He covers all the bases of war causes: imperialism, the erratic character of the Kaiser, developing technology, Germany’s fear of a strengthening Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fear of decay, the vacillation of British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, social Darwinism, the swirling and shifting European power alliances post-Bismarck, and a whole lot more.

Ham is having none of the argument that the war was inevitable or the result of impersonal forces. Disasters don’t just happen. They are a series of events and choices, and Ham details those events and choices and who made them. Ham is out to show the responsibility of specific individuals. Two chapters in particular could stand in for the whole process. “Smash Your Telephone: Russia Mobilises” is a timetable of Russian mobilization and German responses with laziness and inattention and vagueness contributing to the disaster. Even delays of five minutes mattered. To read it is a bit like getting caught up in the Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora! – inevitable and inescapable doom played out in detail. The other chapter is simply an exchange amongst family members unable to stop their countries from going to war – family members who just happen to be King George V, the Kaiser, and the Tsar. Ultimately, he places blame, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain, and France.

Ham is an impassioned writer not shy about making judgements. There’s nothing wrong with reminding readers that we are talking about the suffering and death of millions by highlighting some specific individuals. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking useful lessons from these events, even if just to trace an historical development back to the Great War.

It’s just that I question some of his claims on the significance of pre-war avante-garde art and that, after the war, the implicit claim that it was embraced by the public at large because it prematurely revealed truths they learned only in war or that German brutality in Belgium was a direct model for American conduct in Vietnam. And I could have done without the barely concealed sneer at the Edwardian values of “God, King and Country”. The war provided, before, during, and after, meaning in the lives of some. Some modern Westerner, besotted by the cant of international brotherhood and the disdain of nationhood, can barely conceive of a fight for blood and soil and revenge or that many more will fight for those than a secular welfare state. Indeed, socialists in Europe made that very decision on the eve of war. .

Those looking for a combat history even of 1914 will probably be disappointed in this book. Ham cheerfully refers readers to other books to get the details on the Marne or Tannenberg those he does provide rough outlines. What he does capture in the combat sections, as well as the other sections, is the emotions of the time and his characters. A chapter on the rape of Belgium – including an answering of the charge it was greatly exaggerated – is well done. His use of quotes from soldier’s letters and diaries effectively gives the feel of the war before the trenches of the Western Front are dug and the book ends. In a coda, Ham talks about the unknown soldiers, to whom the book is dedicated, of the war. Three million soldiers were listed as missing in the war, their bodies never found. But, since 2006, some remains have been identified with DNA work.

So, those seeking greater detail on the origins of the war will find this book worthwhile. Those looking for a quick, general history of the war’s beginnings and the battles of 1914 will want to look elsewhere.

I do have to comment on the pros and cons of the Kindle edition. Ham includes a lot of nicely detailed maps covering the Balkans, the phases of the Battle of the Marne, the Schlieffen Plan, Tannenberg, and the Western Front after trench warfare begun. However, on a regular size Kindle, some are just too small to be legible. I did not look at them on a larger Kindle or laptop, but I suspect they are legible at that size. Ham has several photos at the back of the book including of less common subjects like Schlieffen or Gavrilo Princep being hustled away after shooting the Archduke. The book also has a nice section of “searchable terms”. Since the Kindle edition has no page numbers, you simply highlight the terms you want and select the search this book option to find them in the book. (Though you can’t really use the format of names like “Asquith, Violet” as search terms.) There are also enabled links to digital archives. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 15, 2013 |
There is no denying that Paul Ham is a skilled historian. His research for this book is thorough and meticulous. He has a very firm grasp of all the events that built up and eventually lead to the war and the players involved. This book is very detailed and gives a very complete explanation of the causes of World War I.

While as a history text it does succeed, in every other way this book fails. It is billed as a narrative account and it is anything but that. The book is packed full of references and quotes. This is great if you need to as a reference source for a college paper, but not so great if you just want to read it. Although there is no doubt that Mr. Ham is a skilled writer that skill is purely academic focused and not made for entertainment. The book is incredibly dense and slow to read. Not that it isn’t interesting. For hard core history fans there is good information here. The big issue is that there are more enjoyable ways to get the information.

The subjects covered in this book are far from unique. Other writers have covered the same ground and done so in a much more enjoyable fashion. When put up next to something like The Guns of August which makes many of the same points, 1914 just doesn’t hold up. Barbara Tuchman managed to give us the same information but in a truly narrative way that is significantly more readable. I didn’t find any of Ham’s conclusions unique, and many of the “myths” about the war I would never consider myths. Anyone who has enough interest in history to read this kind of book already knows that the “myths” he describes aren’t correct. People that believe in these “myths” would never read this book and if they did would never finish it.

The other big issue is that the way he tells the story comes off as pretentious. There were times when it felt like Ham went out of his way to quote French poets and Italian artists. I get that he was trying to give a feel to the way people saw the world just before the war, but it felt more like the author saying “look how smart I am.” I am sure that isn’t what he was actually doing, at least not consciously, but it came off that way all the same.

homeofreading.com/1914-the-year-the-world-ended/ ( )
  TStarnes | Oct 25, 2013 |
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1914: The Year The World Ended is a history of the events, and the people who lived through them, which led to the outbreak of the First World War and the creation of the front line that became the scene of the most concentrated slaughter of human beings in history. The lives of millions of young men would be wasted - killed or dreadfully wounded - in a doomed struggle to control a trench line running from Liege in Belgium to Verdun in France, which barely moved in four years. 1914 is, of course, much more than a date: it is emblematic of terrible events, the vortex of the gathering storm. As such, '1914' will draw on the well of the deep past to show how political, economic and social change coalesced into that singularly disastrous year. In this way the book gathers the reins of decades, and binds them to those few irreversible months, as revealed through the experiences of ordinary British, French and German people, who found themselves u willingly and unwillingly u caught up in what would be the most dreadful conflict the world had known. The narrative hinges on the personal histories of British, French and German soldiers; as well as others involved, or touched, by in the war, such as parents, nurses, deserters, pacifists, drawn from primary source material - eg diaries, letters, and memoirs. Their individual stories will be set against the great swim of political events that led to the outbreak of war.… (more)

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