'Catastrophe, Europe goes to war 1914' - Max Hastings Review

In this complex and impressive book, Hastings masterfully explains the events of the fateful weeks leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.  His two critical objectives are to; firmly place the blame of the conflict on Germany and Austria and to argue that British intervention was justified. He argues that Germany recklessly escalated the conflict into general war, due to a combination of its mentally unstable autocratic Kaiser, Prussian military hubris and a gamble that Britain would stay out of the war. This view contrasts with revisionist historians such as Christopher Clark, who's 'The Sleepwalkers' I have also reviewed.  That volume places Serbia as the chief villain.

Hasting's second foe is the so-called 'poets view' of the war, in which the conflict is depicted as a futile struggle for a few blood drenched yards of scarred land, which did not better any society.  They also claim that Britain should have stayed clear of the war, and allowed the vast continental powers to slaughter each other, without compromising the lives of her people.  This view, immortalised by Blackadder, is now generally accepted by British audiences.

Hastings rightly denounces this view, by illustrating the parallels between the two world wars. He details the barbarities committed by the Kaiser's hordes as they marched through Belgium, although much smaller than the atrocities committed by the Nazis a mere 25 years later, they were inflicted in the same wanton spirit.  He also draws attention to how the Kaiserreich's expansionist war aims sinisterly mirrors Hitler's Lebensraum.  With indisputable logic, Hastings argues that if it was right for Britain to wage war in defence of Poland in 1939, It was necessary to take up arms in defence of Belgium and the European balance of power in 1914.

On the war itself, Hastings does not restrict himself to the fighting in France and Flanders - where he minimises the role of the tiny British Expeditionary Force.  He flits between theatres to describe forgotten campaigns on the Drina and the Danube with the same intricacies as the familiar clashes at Mons and on the Marne.  He humanises and truly brings the narrative to life by including the voices of ordinary people: the conscripted clerks and scholars, the wives and children displaced and demeaned by fighting and the guards of prisoners of war.  This is an incredibly detailed and also moving account of the familiar conflict.

It gets a rating of 4.5/5


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