Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with World War One and the huge transition point it represented in history. Despite knowing a good bit about the subject, I was still very impressed with The Guns of August. Tuchman accomplishes what few history writers pull off, which is to make readers forget what they know about history and see its drama unfold through the eyes of people at the center of events, who didn't know what would happen next. The book’s very detailed, but has the sense of narrative of a novel.
Tuchman opens, with a fitting sense of moment, at the 1910 funeral of King Edward of Britain, where the heads of future belligerent states gather on still-cordial terms. From there, she sets the stage with a portrait of Europe as it stands in the early 20th century, and the policies, mindsets, histories, and cultural attitudes that shape each country's leaders, as they look towards a war that everyone is certain will come. She captures the relationships and self-fulfilling expectations that drive those leaders towards fateful decisions, like players in a Shakespearian tragedy, and the gears and wheels of military plans inexorably grinding forward while diplomats search in vain for the "halt" button. Then comes the tremendous drama of the war's first weeks, when vast armies are in motion, the fate of nations hangs in the balance, and choices are made that will come back to haunt both sides. While there are probably better "academic" works on the war and books that better capture the horrors of trench warfare, I don't know of any that so well explains the key players and the flow of events, while conveying the excitement, fear, hope, and desperation that gripped each country as the crisis exploded. It was hard not get a little caught up in the emotions of events, such as the brave defense of Belgian forts, even knowing that initial success wouldn’t last against overwhelming forces.
Is Guns of August a perfect work? Probably not. Like all historical writers, Tuchman has her biases, and seems to put primary blame for the war on Germany. In her version, they’re aggressors who blindly refuse to put aside preset invasion timetables, even when the option of avoiding war with a less menacing France seems at hand. Other historians probably have more subtle pictures. Also, Tuchman covers politics and battles in equal levels of detail and some readers might get bored with the play-by-play descriptions of maneuvers and clashes that fill the latter half of the book (though I enjoyed that part myself).
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. As a chronicle of a crucial forty days in human history, The Guns of August remains fresh and alive even half a century after its first publication (when much was still in living memory). On the audiobook experience, I thought that the narrator did a good job with French, German, and Russian accents. Apparently, there’s another audio version out there, but I don’t know how that compares.
PS. If you enjoy this sort of narrative history, I recommend seeking out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which is more informal, but driven by a similar enthusiasm for recreating the moment of decision.
I found this book a fascinating exploration of the long history of conflict between East and West, and the way the powers in charge of each sphere (whether Greek, Trojan, Roman, Persian, Christian, Muslim, French, Ottoman, British, or Arabic) have often seen themselves as inheritors of all the earlier struggles. Of course, it should be noted right away that by ???The East???, Pagden generally means the near and middle east, the lands from Asia Minor to the region that's modern Iran -- China, India, and Japan don???t figure into the book at all. In fact, his focus is really more on the development of the West and its experience with the East than the reverse.
It should also be noted that Pagden has a strong bias towards liberal, secular, democratic values, which he feels are the essence of Western culture (he states as much in the forward). Religion, both Christianity and Islam, are portrayed in a dim light, as institutional obstacles to reason, human rights, and progress. Not that I don???t largely agree with this assessment, but some readers might take offense. Still, he seems to be fair-minded about it, giving Muslim societies credit for brief periods of learning and relative tolerance, and indicting the modern West for its more counterproductive forays into the Middle East, which understandably stoked the fires of Muslim distrust and resentment. Indeed, the final chapter warns, convincingly, of continued bloody conflict between an uncompromising pan-Islamic worldview, whose adherents have enjoyed few of the fruits of the West and see little of their value, and countries like the US, whose leaders naively assume that their own democratic attitudes are universally held, and fail to account for a divide with deep historic roots.
However, I don???t want to place too much emphasis on modern politics, which take a back seat to the fact that this is a comprehensive, well-researched history, outlining many episodes over 2,500 years that I was only dimly aware of (e.g. Napoleon???s adventures in Egypt), and pulling them into a readable, continuous narrative. Especially interesting was reading of the ways in which the West???s often-skewed perception of the East as an "other" to strive against has nonetheless shaped its own attitudes towards freedom, tolerance, and science.
I've previously read accounts written by German soldiers who fought in WWII, but this was one of the more interesting and personal ones. As reconstructed from his diary and interviews, we learn that Siegfried Knappe was an unusually capable and dedicated soldier who managed to rise through the ranks, starting as a humble private in the pre-war years, and ending up as a general staff officer who was present at Hitler's bunker before the end. Along the way, he experienced different aspects of German military life in that era, from being a teenager in a labor/indoctrination camp (sort of a pre-boot camp to get young adults used to regimentation), to being a proud young officer in infantry school, to carrying out his duties in an artillery regiment during the invasions of France and Russia, to watching things turn dire for Germany as Hitler's insane decisions doom the army in Russia and allow the massive Soviet military to smash its way to Berlin. A grim epilogue follows as he endures several years languishing in a Soviet POW camp, albeit one of the less bad ones.
As with most of the other German accounts I've read, Knappe pleads ignorance about the extent of Nazi lies and atrocities (i.e. he knew of concentration camps, but not their murderous function), and expresses remorse for his role in enabling what initially seemed like a just war to most Germans, but crossed the line into a war of aggression and conquest. Chillingly, he observes, "would I have spend much time thinking about this if we'd won the war? Probably not." He doesn't spend a lot of time on self-recrimination, though, and talks more about the horrors of life under Communism (which seems understandable, given his POW experiences).
Readers looking for combat stories won't find more than a few here, but there were plenty of other details that interested me. I'm often curious about the technical details of how things work, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sections describing how German soldiers were trained and organized, which go against the popular stereotype of mindless stormtroopers. Sadly, although the officers were instilled with a strong sense of professionalism, it seems that many were so intent on restoring the national prestige shattered after WWI and avoiding a redo of the trenches, that it didn't dawn on them that they were being used by crazy people. At least, not until their lives were about to be thrown away. And I could easily relate to the emotional parts of the story, to Knappe's anguish at losing friends and his brother, and at knowing that he might never see his family again.
Also interesting were his perceptions of Russia, both while on campaign and as a prisoner. Like the US, the USSR seemed to see the Cold War on the horizon. Inside his camp, the Russians used all kinds of Orwellian methods to break and indoctrinate high value prisoners, and some did cave in and become tools for the Soviet Union, as perverse ambitions or deep-rooted shame came to the surface. What little he has to say about the US and Britain is favorable, though I wonder if he was pandering to his audience a bit.
All in all, a humanizing and fairly sincere portrait of the other side. It's impressive that Knappe even survived to tell his tale, but he obviously had a lot of good luck. 60 million didn't.
Audible note: this isn’t one of the better narrated works here. The reader just rattles off the text in front of him. Didn’t bother me much, though.