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WWI shaped the world we live in

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Updated: January 14, 2014 12:55PM

The New York Times’ list of 100 notable books of 2013 includes three about World War I. That same issue of Book Review magazine reviews two more books about the Great War, one an “illustrated panorama” of the first day of the Battle of the Somme by cartoonist Joe Sacco. Prepare for a deluge of books, films, TV shows and commemorations as 2014 marks the centennial of the start of the “war to end war.”

The war to “make the world safe for democracy” claimed more than 10 million lives and shaped the 20th century. It marked the beginning of the end of four centuries of Europe’s domination of the globe. Its bitter peace spawned Hitler and Nazism and led to a bigger, bloodier war — some argue there was only one war with a 20-year interlude — and the Holocaust. The Soviet Union was born in the Great War. By bequeathing us World War II, the calamity of 1914-1918 can be blamed as well for the Cold War that divided Europe for decades and cast the shadow of nuclear conflict over the globe.

In 1914 Europe was at its imperial height, expanding trade portended globalization, liberal democracy seemed ascendant. How could the world descend into the hell of industrialized war because a Serbian fanatic assassinated the heir to the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire?

To this day that question can start a debate. Some see a series of decisions by various governments unintentionally leading to war. Others point to the mobilization by Russia to defend fellow Slavs in Serbia as provoking Germany. The 1919 Versailles treaty laid the entire blame on Germany. Certainly there are historians who agree, saying Germany wanted war sooner rather than later because it feared the being surrounded by foes growing in power, France and Russia. At the very least, goes one popular argument, Germany brought on the war by giving a “blank check” to Austria to destroy Serbia.

I’ve read one of the Times’ three notable books, “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” by Max Hastings, and will no doubt get around to the other two. The Hastings book is a riveting account of the events that led to war and the opening battles.

As someone who’s spent many happy hours reading history, I’d like to mention a few older works I hope don’t get lost as a flood of new books take advantage of the anniversary.

The great historian of war, John Keegan, wrote an outstanding general history of “a tragic and unnecessary conflict” in “The First World War.” The first chapter on the suffering of the war and its legacy alone is worth the price of this compelling volume.

Senseless battles over a few yards of no man’s land can be baffling to general readers. No one I’ve read has done a better job of describing and explaining the massive battles of this war than G.J. Meyer in “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War.”

“Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age” by Modris Eksteins is a cultural history of the war with keen insights about the experience of trench warfare.

“The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for its account of the lead-up to the war and the battles that ended 1914 with stalemate and trench warfare. Tuchman dazzles the reader with a sweeping narrative and lucid portrayals of key players.


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