I am not big on First World War history. The war it is not as captivating to me as the Second World War probably because of the static, stalemate nature of the war and the utter senselessness, not only of why the world went to war, but how long outdated tactics were used and the number of lives wasted. The First World War was also what I studied at school (until I dropped history) and the way it was presented, dates after dates, without any personal stories, meant I never could really relate to the conflict. It wasn’t until I read Pat Barker’s phenomenal Regeneration Trilogy and learnt about the likes of Siegfried Sassoon that I started to have any interest at all. Unlike the Second World War which still fascinates me greatly..
As I’ve written about numerous times I rank Paul Ham as one of the best Australian historians writing at the moment so I had no hesitations about reading his take on the First World War. Not that this book is a book about the war. Instead Paul Ham tells the story of how the world went to war and dispels many of the myths that have been perpetuated (particularly by high school history teachers!)
The popular version of the origins of the First World War is that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered a number of treaties that led to Germany invading France and the world going to war. Paul Ham shows us that the assassination, rather than being the spark that ignited the war, was an event exploited by a small few in power who wanted war. Who chose war. Who would have found another reason, another event, to trigger the whole catastrophe. In doing so Ham also dispels the myth that Europe slept walked to war in August 1914.
Ham follows the ebb and flow of diplomacy in Europe in the years leading up to The Great War. He demonstrates that the huge divisions that seemed to cause the war were not always in evidence and that even as late as early 1914 problems between the powers of Europe were not insurmountable. However a feeling of war’s inevitability, going back a decade, seemed to cloud everyone’s judgement. This led to an escalation in high stakes diplomacy (and in other cases a complete lack of diplomacy) which coupled together with miscommunication and misunderstanding brought about a devastating war that could have been prevented. Instead those in power chose war and the world as it was known until 1914 ended.
1914 was a pivotal year in human history. It led to the Russian Revolution and The Cold War and was the seed that allowed Nazism and the horror of the Second World War to grow. It changed societies and countries around the globe. It was the beginning of the end of empires and monarchies as the world had known them. Paul Ham deftly and expertly guides us through all the pivotal events that led to this cataclysm and in doing so shows us that lessons can still be learnt one hundred years on.