Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's beautiful outside! Let's talk about CALAMITY

The first thing to say about this book (Sean McMeekin's July 1914 -- I have this feeling that half the posts I write don't actually identify what I'm talking about) is that it came from Powell's Books, and they are awesome. When I went to see (online) how much this newly published hardcover book might cost, I noticed that Powell's had a used copy listed at a respectable discount. Sweet! So I ordered it. What arrived, however, was a brand NEW book with an adorable note saying that the used copy was no longer on the shelf and so they'd sent me a new one. That is thoroughly awesome.

shiny and eager!

So, on to the content of the book. In my world, the fact that this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War is a really big unmissable deal, and this book, July 1914, is one of many that have been published for the occasion.

McMeekin's account of the July Crisis that led to the declaration(s) of war has several distinct features. For one, it is almost entirely focused on the highest reaches of government and diplomacy. There are a few mentions of public outcry, public reaction, etc, but mostly it keeps to the point: the men who had the power to actually make or influence the decisions about war and peace. Toward the end of the story, there are mentions of "rumors" and "reports" of border crossings and skirmishes which McMeekin dismisses as "mostly false" without much explanation of what's going on here; but you can't fault the guy for sticking to his own can of historical worms and not opening another. (I'll return to this below.)

Most of the book consists of day-by-day chapters, with a few covering overnight periods. Helpfully, there is a "dramatis personae" in the front of the book as well as a summary timeline. The really delightful thing is that McMeekin is meticulous -- like, meticulous -- with his sources. Time and again his analysis slows down to take into account the time a message was decided on, composed, approved, encrypted, sent, arrived, decoded, (possibly translated,) delivered to, and read by various people. I am totally serious when I say that this is THRILLING. Not just because I am a document nerd, but also because it allows the book to retain suspense even when you know all along that everything's going to end in disaster. McMeekin is not telling a story of dominoes falling but of a constantly shifting landscape in which people are choosing from the options they see on the table, based on the options they wish they saw or hope will be made available to them shortly.

One of the themes of the book is thus communications. McMeekin is constantly pointing out where people are making decisions based on bad, outdated or ambiguous information. (This is where I think it could have been proper to discuss the "rumors" that start to factor into decision- and excuse-making at the start of August. But as I say, that's a whole 'nother kind of research, and McMeekin is quite within his rights to leave it alone!) Individual diplomats and politicians tell lies, make unintentionally misleading statements, deliberately leave their answers vague, send cables at the worst possible times and choose exactly the wrong words. I kept thinking about the speed of modern communications as I read this book, and wondering whether we might consider that to be a factor in the crisis.

McMeekin's book prior to this one is titled The Russian Origins of the First World War which might give you a sense of some of his conclusions here. He firmly refutes the idea that the Germans had some special predilection for war, for instance, and argues convincingly that France and Russia were just as guilty of underhanded war mongering as Austria or Germany. In fact, in McMeekin's view, Germany is often disadvantaged by being too honest and rule-abiding, where her enemies are lying and sneaking around and thus saving face. The epilogue contains a straightforward discussion of blame -- which is nice; by that point I was ready to hear how the author would make his judgements.

Perhaps what comes across most of all is human frailty. These men all have their own weaknesses and interests, not all tied to the national interest (however that might be construed). Fear and anxiety, not least over reputation and one's own political future, all play a role in what gets said, when, and in what tone. I don't have an in-depth knowledge of this subject (the July Crisis or the First World War) so I can only judge the book so far; but I thought it was very worthwhile and informative. Above all, this note of human frailty, so effectively conveyed by a focus on the nitty-gritty and practical aspects of diplomatic communications, is an important counterpoint to easy generalizations about national interest and national character. Fathers Day (also Mothers Day -- #FEMINISM) is coming up, and if a War Book is something that qualifies as a good gift in your household, this is a solid choice. It's a bit complex -- there are a lot of names, and sometimes German diplomats have French-sounding surnames and so on -- but I really was surprised how it sucked me in in spite of that, and it ended up being a compelling read. So maybe not the best choice for my dad, who spends a lot of time in airports waiting for flights (to be cancelled) (poor dad), but for a dad who does lots of reading in an armchair. But YDMV.

No comments:

Post a Comment