It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in the circles I hang out in) that major historical anniversaries are celebrated not only with documentaries, blog posts and re-enactments, but with the publication of Big Fat History Books. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of writer and publishing house: the centennial of World War I is a ready-made if slightly crowded PR hook for a new book about the war.
From the point of view of a historically inclined reader, blogger, and occasional reviewer, it can be a tad overwhelming. A solid phalanx of World War I books has taken over my TBR shelf, shoving their way ahead of all the other fascinating unread books piled up in my office.* Old favorites are demanding their fair share of attention. Then there are the novels. And the poetry. In short, I could spend the next year reading and writing about nothing but World War I until next June, when the Battle of Waterloo will demand its share of attention.*** But I won’t. I’d get bored. And worse, so would you.
So I’ve decided on an interim step. Below are mini-reviews of three new WWI books that have caught my imagination. I’ve read enough of each of them to feel secure in recommending them to your attention–and enough to know I want to finish them.
Philip Jenkins. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
Possibly the oddest the WWI books to appear in my mailbox so far, The Great and Holy War looks at the role religion played in shaping the course of the war–and the peace. Jenkins looks at how the powers involved-Christian and Muslim alike-used the rhetoric of crusade, holy war, apocalypse and Armageddon. He considers the Angel of Mons, the Christmas Truce, the legend that dead French soldiers rose to fight alongside their comrades, and the British push to conquer Jerusalem in the Palestine campaign. This is fascinating stuff.
Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War.
This is a gripping account of more familiar ground: a day-by-day political history of the weeks between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I. I picked up July, 1914 with an initial feeling of “ho-hum”, then was caught by the quality of the story-telling. It’s a cliche to say that a work of history reads like a novel. In this case, it’s true.
Geoffrey Wawro. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the failed melting-pot of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A Mad Catastrophe is an in-depth examination of how the empire’s decline at the end of the nineteenth century set the stage for Sarajevo and the impact of its weakness on the eastern front. If you’re interested in the decline and fall of empires, this one’s for you.
*Actually, they piled up in my old office. In my splendid new office they are arrayed neatly on shelves, alphabetized by the author’s last name. This makes things easier to find if I know the title or name of the author. It’s still a trick to locate a book when I know only that “memory” is in the title and the author’s first name is Paul.**
**At this point a clever use of Google is the only solution.
***Save the date: June 18, 1815.