James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: World War I Histories

by James M. Lindsay
July 29, 2014

World War I Books French General Emile Eugene Belin visits the front line near Arras, Northern France. (Collection Odette Carrez/Courtesy Reuters)

You can learn a lot about the origins, events, and consequences of World War I by surfing the Internet. But if you really want to understand why the Great War happened, you should read serious histories on the subject. The problem is that historians have turned out more than 25,000 books and articles on World War I. So where should you start? Here are some recommendations.

Let’s begin with some recent contributions. Seeing a market opportunity with this year’s centennial of the war’s start, several distinguished historians have written new books. They each take different approaches to explaining the war, and as is the wont of historians, they each offer different interpretations of why the war started and who is to blame:

These classic assessments of World War I should not be missed:

  • The Guns of August (1962). Historians love to pick on Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-prize winning history of the month that changed Europe forever. Sure, she didn’t get all her facts straight, and her interpretations of events can be disputed. But few historians have a first chapter as riveting as Tuchman’s with her extraordinary account of the funeral of Britain’s Edward VII in 1910.
  • Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961, published in English in 1967). Fritz Fischer, one of the most important German historians of the twentieth century, made a splash in the 1960s when he wrote Germany’s Aims in the First World War. Most German historians (and most Germans) at the time agreed that Germany had started World War II. However, they fiercely denied that Germany deserved blame for starting World War I, no matter what the “war guilt clause” of the Treaty of Versailles said. Fischer broke with that consensus to lay the blame for the Great War squarely on Berlin’s shoulders, saying that it deliberately instigated the war to achieve its expansionist aims on the continent.
  • The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999). Niall Ferguson’s argument is straightforward and provocative: Britain’s decision to enter World War I was “the biggest error in modern history.” (Yes, Ferguson is whom Hastings has in mind when he criticizes British historians who fail to recognize that it was imperative for Britain to fight the Great War.) Not only was the British Army unprepared to fight, the costs of the war sped up the demise of British global influence. Ferguson argues that had Britain sat out the war, Germany would have won quickly, many fewer Europeans would have died, World War II would never have been fought, and German hegemony over the European continent would have been relatively benign.

These recommendations only scrape the surface of the vast literature on World War I. You can find more extensive bibliographies here, here, and here.

If you don’t have time to plow through these books—and they are quite long—you might want to check out the special commemorative issue that the Atlantic just put out. It is composed of excerpts of articles it has published over the years on World War I as well as photos from the war. It makes for great reading. Alas, it is not online, but it should be available at your local newsstand. TheAtlantic.com does have a great photo essay on what World War I looks like a century later.

Please feel free to mention your favorite books in the comments below.

For more suggested resources on World War I, check out the other posts in this series:

World War I on the World Wide Web
World War I Novels
World War I Poetry
Top Ten World War I Films

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Günhan Karakullukçu

    Sean McMeekin, “The Russian Origins of the First World War,” Belknap Press; 1st Ed. (December 30, 2011), ISBN-13: 978-0674062108

  • Posted by Jesse Sloman

    Great list Jim, though I would have to add Andrew Gordon’s “The Rules of the Game,” a masterful assessment of the performance of the British Grand Fleet at the battle of Jutland (and, to a lesser extent, Coronel and Dogger Bank). He argues that the Royal Navy’s ossified institutional culture created risk-averse commanders who lacked the initiative of their peers during the Nelsonian era. As result, the Fleet’s heavy reliance on flag signals crippled its ability to react quickly and was one of the factors that prevented it from achieving a decisive victory at Jutland.

    “The Rules of the Game” is also a wonderful character study of some of the leading naval figures of the pre-war and wartime years and a surprisingly easy read. Heartily recommended.

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