CATACLYSM: The First World War as Political Tragedy

David Stevenson, Author, D. Stevenson, Author . Basic $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-465-08184-4

Although more treatise than narrative, and not for skimmers, this book should be on the shelf with the best of the many books about WWI. A professor of international history at the London School of Economics and author of two earlier books on that war, Stevenson analyzes the bankruptcy of reason that precipitated the war and kept it going. According to Stevenson, some regimes saw, in the unifying effects of a popular war, cures for menacing internal turbulence, but, as he shows, the war turned unpredictably on its makers in most nations. Stevenson's close analysis of the political, economic and cultural dimensions of the conflict unravels the reasons why Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Russia, France and even Britain saw much to gain from a war that each hoped to win in short order, with the help of allies. But the irony of unanticipated outcomes derailed strategies, loyalties, ideals and even governments—which lost control of events. "Nothing ever seen before," Stevenson writes, "compared with such massive concentrations of firepower and of human suffering... and with such meagre results." The imposed postwar settlement contained "time bombs" of political instability (such as Yugoslavia) that keep exploding even today. Stevenson is particularly critical of American involvement, which, he says, pushed Germany toward surrender, but was also belated, inefficient, badly led and (with respect to President Wilson) diplomatically unsophisticated in coping with European cynicism. Despite some inconsistencies and contradictions, and its lack of a human dimension to the horror, Cataclysm is a major re-examination of the shaping tragedy of the 20th century. 37 b&w photos. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/03/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Paperback - 624 pages - 978-0-465-08185-1
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