in Book Review


War, Peace, and Revolution

The book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson, examines how the leaders of the belligerent countries desperately looked for ways out of a seemingly endless war of attrition. From failed offensives, to peace overtures, to war declarations, and even revolutions, the book goes through the climactic 1917 in detail, offering perspectives on how the leaders struggled with the decisions they had to make to seek an end to the endless slaughter that is the Great War.

A desperate Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk of drawing in the United States. The US, in turn, entered the war after the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram. The British adopted convoys to reduce shipping losses, despite arguing about its effectiveness for the first few months of 1917. The French mounted an offensive; it failed, and contributed to morale deterioration and a mutiny.

Meanwhile, Russia had it even worse. The centuries-old tsarist monarchy was overthrown, and socialist revolutionaries took over. They weren’t exactly anti-war, however, and participated in yet another failed offensive. In its aftermath, even greater social unrest followed, and the revolutionary Lenin maneuvered himself and his Bolshevik faction to power in the famous October Revolution. Once in power, he worked to finally end Russian participation in the war, culminating in the Brest-Litovsk treaty the following year.

But the book doesn’t confine itself to the major participants, and also discussed developments outside Europe. Greece entered the war on the Allies’ side; Italy suffered catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, but emerged stronger and more united than ever; Brazil entered the war against Germany, though its efforts are limited in territory; Siam and Japan entered with the intention of having themselves represented in a post-war conference, in order to leverage against unequal treaties forced upon them by the West.

There were also peace initiatives, which, however, failed due to various reasons. It is also worth noting that, even at this point in the war, the belligerents still haven’t fully decided the extent of their war aims. This contributed to the collapse of peace talks, as the participants couldn’t agree on exactly what they want for themselves, and what they want (and don’t want) the opposing sides to get.

The question of what will happen to the Ottoman territories is also discussed in the book. Designs for the Middle East after the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire figured in discussions among the Allies, specifically France and Britain. The issue of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is also raised – the book narrates how the Balfour Declaration was shaped, paving the way for a more concrete design for Palestine, which in any case won’t be realized until after the Second World War.

The year 1917, as the author argues, is the major turning point of the war. A lot of things could’ve turned out differently, but how and why they turned out as they actually did is a major theme in 1917. And the events and decisions that happened and were taken in the year 1917 ultimately shaped the course of the war in 1918.