Despite its title, The Making of the First World War: A Pivotal History by historian Ian F. W. Beckett is not another account of the events leading up to World War One. Instead Beckett is concerned with what he describes as “pivot points”: decisive moments that affected not only the course of the war itself but also that of later history.
Beckett begins with a theoretical discussion of what makes a moment pivotal, but the heart of the book lies in the twelve chapters that follow. Each is a self-contained essay dealing with the genesis and consequences of a single episode in World War One. The events Beckett discusses are an international mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. He considers military turning points, political decisions, and symbolic moments. Along the way he analyses seeming turning points that are actually dead ends, makes asides about smaller long term changes, and offers an occasional breathtaking insight. The creation and impact of the first war documentary, The Battle of the Somme, is treated with the same seriousness as Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare.
The sheer range of Beckett’s chosen key moments is ultimately the book’s weakness as well as its strength. The theoretical framework for the book seems strained: too flimsy to support the powerful chapters that follow it. Nonetheless, whether he is discussing the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire or the introduction of daylight savings time, history buffs will find Beckett’s combination of storytelling and nuts-and-bolts analysis compelling.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.