The First World War as Political Tragedy
The First World War is most remembered for being a war of attrition, a stalemate conflict fought along hundreds of miles of trenches. It was the pioneer of aerial battles and reconnaissance, tanks, and chemical warfare. Yet while this is how the Great War is commonly viewed, much of how and why it became the attrition war that it was is best explained not through the lens of military history, but through its political conduct.
David Stevenson’s book, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, examines the Great War as fought at the top, by the belligerent governments and political leaders. Even as the war settled into a stalemate, behind the scenes the leaders actually ramped up their war efforts, further widening the war by pulling in other nations into the conflict, while constantly developing new war technologies in hopes of breaking the deadlock. The political leaderships of the main belligerents – Britain, France, and Germany – also maintained surprising unity among their countries, as their respective political parties set their differences aside and continued to support the war regardless of its human and economic costs.
The 1917 revolutions in Russia, and America’s entrance to the war that same year, gave Germany an opportunity to conduct a war of movement, and in 1918 unleashed their final salvo, in desperate attempt to win the conflict before the Americans can tip the balance to the Allies’ favor. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the offensives failed, as exhaustion finally set in among the servicemen. Once the Allies regained the offensive, desertion among the Germans and Austro-Hungarian troops broke the ranks, and their retreat rapidly continued until the final days of the war.
When leaders of the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put up one final act of resistance against the incoming Allied forces, the sailors refused to participate, and the ensuing riots among the ranks spread quickly across the empire. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary’s many nationalities have also began revolting, with independence as primary reason for taking up arms against the Dual Monarchy system. While the German leadership under Ludendorff initially tried to negotiate lighter terms while acquiescing to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the widespread revolutions, combined with fears of possible Communist takeover, forced them to accept unconditionally whatever terms were presented to them, no matter how harsh.
But no matter how climactic the war was, the Second World War was not, as the author argues, caused directly by those supposedly harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. Rather, disunity among the Allies, the post-war economic hardships, and the growth of paramilitary organizations were the greater seeds with which leaders like Hitler and Mussolini rose. And while the Versailles Treaty indeed imposed the “war guilt” unto Germany, the Allies nonetheless had greater leeway in implementing the terms, and had they cooperated well, they could’ve ensured that Germany didn’t suffer as much while also being able to comply with the terms.
A highly difficult but insightful book, Cataclysm requires sufficient knowledge of the First World War and its aftermath, as the author dissects the political and strategic aspects of the conflict. This is a lot different from the usual focus on military conduct in most overview books, and Stevenson’s rather dry style may take a while to get used to. Another book of his, 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, which was published many years later, explains in-depth a large part of Cataclysm’s main section, and having read 1917 earlier this year, it helped me get through the author’s writing style while also providing essential knowledge for further understanding – and appreciating – this book.
As long as the reader is aware of these considerations, and can confidently wade through the density of this book, Cataclysm is an illuminating read on the political conduct of the war. It also provides for arguments about the war’s history that are not usually tackled in other books related to the First World War. For the more serious readers of the First World War, this is a highly worthy book to engage in.