Thursday, September 26, 1996

The First World War: A Complete History

by Martin Gilbert

This very long work is essentially a chronology of the war, from the rapid escalation of tension before August 1914 to the problems of armistice in 1918 and how they affected state relations in the 1930s. Gilbert, the official biographer of Churchill, brings home at many points the reality of the 9 million military dead of WWI through use of poems, quotes and letters written home by the men who died, as well as graphic recollections by nurses who served at the front (one image that stays with me is the room full of amputated limbs).

It’s fascinating reading and broad in scope, but it does have its problems. First, the endless litany style does grate after a while. Second, Gilbert is intensely pro-Anglo-American. Thus he ignores all the fighting out of Europe, and while he mentions Japan once, fails to dwell on why Japan entered the war, how her people felt about it, what her success or losses were, etc. Thus, too, he dwells on German “atrocities” during the war but mentions several instances which make it quite clear that barbarism and selfishness were aspects of both sides. Finally, while arguing that superior Allied force was the deciding factor in the German capitulation, he fails to convince that internal revolution played a small part. Despite these flaws, an impressive and engaging book.

four stars

Sunday, September 1, 1996

The Days of the French Revolution

by Christopher Hibbert

Another well-told history “written for the general reader,” this book was perhaps a bit too general. That is, it flew over its horde of major and minor characters and ruck of events, only seldom pausing to clarify things by, for example, setting out the main points of difference between the revolution’s political factions, or to give the reader a brief reminder of the identity of a person last mentioned 100 pages earlier. Nevertheless, the narrative of events, from the first rumblings against the tailles and corvées to the coup by Napoleon, was cohesive.

I knew generally of the bloodiness and fickleness of the revolution, but was still repulsed by some of the more grisly details of the massacres (especially the cannibalistic episodes). I would have liked the book to attempt to answer why the leaders were so sadistic and cruel. Did they really think they were protecting freedom? Were they being cruel to save their skins? Were they, in the end, just bloodthirsty maniacs who saw their moment and took it? Hard questions to answer. A dizzyingly bloody period of history.

three stars