Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Max Hastings, Sir, Author
Max Hastings. Knopf, $35 (640p) ISBN 978-0-307-59705-2
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Hastings's latest invites consideration as the best in his distinguished career, combining a perceptive analysis of the Great War's beginnings with a vivid account of the period from August to September of the titular year. Those were the months when illusions died alongside hundreds of thousands of people. Hastings (Inferno) considers Germany principally responsible for starting the war, asserting that German victory would have meant that "freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit." Hastings notes, "Every society experienced successive waves of jubilation and dejection," a condition shared by the generals and the politicians who found war easier to initiate than to resolve. He is particularly successful at reconstructing war-zone fiascoes from the perspectives of those who bore their brunt—the soldiers on the frontlines. On the front lines, "foolish excess of personal bravery" was juxtaposed with questions like, "Won't the murdering soon stop?" While "rape, pillage, and arson" were commonplace, "new technologies created many opportunities and difficulties"—but far more of the latter. The fighting around Ypres, Belgium, in October and November epitomized both the combatants' determination and their "unbounded power to inflict loss and grief upon each other." "There was never a credible shortcut" to the suicide of a civilization. Agent: Peter Matson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Sept. 25)
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