Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy

by David Stevenson
ISBN: 0465081851

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A Review of: Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy
by James Roots

Suggestions that the real atrocity of World War One was its political and military ineptitude seem to trivialize the suffering of soldiers. In his massive Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, David Stevenson steers sweatily close to this danger.
His thesis is that political factors, as much as doubtful military strategies, not only ignited the War but locked it into a stalemate before turning it into a long, drawn-out series of resolutions. It's a compelling, convincing approach, and he buttresses it with an absolutely staggering amount of both evidence and argument. The bibliography runs to more than 1,050 sources, and there are 2,044 endnotes!
Stevenson opens by showing how each of the five initial belligerents-Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain-took steps that cause them to share almost equally in the blame for starting the war. The steps were taken politically and were largely based on internal factors such as ethnic nationalism amongst subject peoples, and less on the mutual-defence pacts that conventional analyses cite as the major cause. He considers the options available to all the parties at each step, their potential repercussions, the factors leading to the choice of action, and the actual consequences of each choice for all the other nations as well as the home front. This is the approach he takes respecting every incident in every theatre of the war.
In short, Stevenson is exhaustive, and not infrequently exhausting. His book is so damned huge that it is often a chore to read despite one's intense appreciation of his meticulousness and ability to sustain narrative flow. It is terrific, but onerous.
Stalemate was sustained by the ability of both recruitment and war materials production to keep pace with the "wastage" in the battlefields. The war had popular support of a breadth and depth unfathomable to us today; this virtually unanimous support fostered the belief common among all nations that each had a legitimate chance of victory and should therefore fight on.
Crucially, none of the belligerents could answer the simple question: What were their war aims? The consequence was that none of them knew when to stop. And the option of negotiating a return to the status quo was absolutely untenable because it would imply that the hundreds of thousands who had already died or been wounded by the spring of 1915 had done so in vain.
Cataclysm is not a Barbara Tuchman account: Stevenson diligently avoids personalizing the war. Thus, while we get astoundingly detailed descriptions of trenches and weapons and tactics, we never see a single common soldier. The politicians and generals who dominate the story are names and catalytic agents only, with not one physical description or bit of personal background information.
Not content to deliver the most detailed, meticulous, and all-encompassing history of the Great War itself, Stevenson marches on to produce 80 more pages on the aftermath, because its "global repercussions extended down to 1945, and arguably to the collapse of Soviet Communism and the end of the Cold War, not to say beyond."

"It has become customary to see it as the opening of an age of catastrophe, or as the beginning of a short twentieth century' that lasted until 1989, after which (and especially after 11 September 2001) the world entered a different era." [p409]

Analyzing the years after the 1918 ceasefire-it took two years to complete the signing of five peace treaties, meaning the war really didn't end until August 1920- leads Stevenson to defend the treaties against the charge that they were so vindictive and inherently flawed that they led inevitably to World War Two. "The treat[ies] could have stopped another bloodbath if [they] had been upheld," he insists; instead, "1924-29 was a period of negotiated dismantling of [them]." The repercussions of that dismantling shook the world to its very core.

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