Cataclysm The First World War as political tragedy

D. 1954- Stevenson

Book - 2004

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New York : Basic Books 2004.
Physical Description
564 p. : ill
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
D. 1954- Stevenson (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

This history of World War I builds up the present wave of books (Europe's Last Summer, by David Fromkin [BKL F 15 04]; The First World War, by Hew Strachan [BKL Mr 15 04]) about the conflict. In contrast with many historians concerned with its military aspects, Stevenson is occupied by its underlying political dynamic, and he concentrates specifically on the protraction of the war. It bewilders expert historians as well as those who know no more about the war's stalemate than the pictures of its shell-blasted battlefields. Stevenson endeavors to explain the war's immobility and number-numbing casualties through the interaction of battlefield offensives, and of the naval war, with each participant's internal pro-war consensus and external enunciation of war aims and peace proposals. The author's arguments are very fine in both senses of the word, being intensely detailed and very persuasive, showing how the politics of defeat seemed worse, especially to the Germans, than continuing to fight. A major work of scholarship, best understood with a prerequisite reading of The First World War, by John Keegan (1999). ((Reviewed May 15, 2004)) Copyright 2004 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

This broadly conceived survey includes the origins and effects of the war, with extensive coverage of military, economic, political, and diplomatic developments. Stevenson (London School of Economics) gives more attention than usual to the Eastern Front, Africa, and the Middle East. His most original slant is to play down the role of tanks in the final Allied victory and to stress artillery and infantry weapons and tactics. Any such work will receive criticism from specialists. Stevenson seldom fully explains why his ideas are superior to more traditional approaches. This reviewer, for example, differs with his conclusion that mandates differed little from colonies (true of Class C, but not Class A mandates). The index is inadequate (neither colonies nor mandates appears, for example). The bibliography, while not complete, is large, and the footnotes reasonably extensive. The writing could be more colorful; this is not a book that most readers will be unable to put down. It is, however, up-to-date and reasonably balanced. It should be in all general academic and most public libraries. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. Copyright 2005 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Stevenson (international history, London Sch. of Economics; Armaments and the Coming of War, 1904-1914) argues that the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 resulted not from inexorable forces beyond the control of humanity but from deliberate decisions on the part of German political and military leaders. Their decisions were further exacerbated by the mindset of ruling elites in all of the countries involved. Most important, he stresses that overwhelming mass support made it possible for each belligerent to endure horrendous causalities for so long. Stevenson attributes the erosion of this support in Germany to decisions made by Gen. Erich Ludendorff in the autumn of 1917 and the Allies' relentless plan to cut Germany off from external supply sources. Of course, the entrance of the United States into the war contributed to the demise of the Central Powers, but he emphasizes that French and British unity during the years of bloody stalemate was critical to eventual victory and that the postwar collapse of this unity doomed the Treaty of Versailles. Stevenson has drawn on newly disclosed international records in creating this monumental synthesis of just about every scholarly inquiry into the events of the Great War. Though it may not be as provocative as Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War or as lively as Hew Strachan's recent The First World War, this definitive work should be in every World War I collection.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Challenging long-established ideas about the "Great War," the author suggests that the war was not caused by politicians losing control, but rather by their deliberate brinksmanship, a penchant for confrontation that was accentuated by an equal measure of callousness for the casualties once the war started. 50,000 first printing.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

The fundamental argument of Stevenson (international history, London School of Economics, UK), in this history of World War I, is that the tragedy of the outbreak of war and its continuation even as its bloody cost became clear was primarily the result of decisions by the policy makers and military leaders. As such, it is those decisions and their consequences that are the true focus of the work, as opposed to the social and cultural conditions that may have spurred or limited those decisions. Despite these self-imposed limitations, Stevenson is ambitious in his scope, seeking to chronologically describe the all of the important military campaigns how they impacted and were impacted by the political decisions being made in the various capitals. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A major new history that changes our understanding of World War I, incorporating the latest in military, political, and economic research, destined to become the definitive account for years to come

Review by Publisher Summary 4

The standard account of World War I says that the war happened because politicians lost control of events, and that once the war began, it quickly became an unstoppable machine. But in this major new work, historian David Stevenson shows that politicians deliberately took risks that led to war in July 1914, and that battle by bloody battle, their decision remained to continue the fighting. Cataclysm presents the disturbing reality that the course of the war was the result of conscious choices--including the continued acceptance of astronomical casualties.Rather than the standard Germany-vs.-England account, Cataclysm is a truly international history, drawing on previously undisclosed records from the Italian, Russian, Japanese, and Ottoman governments. From the complex network of secret treaties and alliances that eventually drew all of Europe into the war, to the way that World War I reconfigured how societies mourn and memorialize wartime dead, Cataclysm is a major revision of World War I history.