The historian Fritz Stern memorably called World War I “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” No one in late June 1914 anticipated that the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would draw in all five major European powers and their various allies into a cataclysm that would snuff out the lives of 20 million soldiers and civilians, destroy three empires, and lay the groundwork for an even bloodier World War II.
Shock and disillusionment over such vast, seemingly senseless destruction led the writers and artists dubbed a “lost generation” to toss out most of the old assumptions about the meaning and purpose of human experience, and gave birth to what scholars in the humanities generally refer to these days as “modernity.”
Historians have never stopped debating the Great War’s causes and consequences, and they never will. The centenary of the conflict’s outbreak this year has ushered in a torrent of new books about its origins, as well new editions of contemporary memoirs and classic histories.
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It’s fair to say, though, that the first literary event to mark the centenary of the War happened a bit further back in time, when in 2012 the Library of America published its edition of Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I.
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Originally published in 1962, The Guns of August spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1963. It has never been out of print. Rereading the book for the first time since the early ’70s, it’s not hard to see why it continues to attract a wide readership even to this day.
The Guns of August is a spell-binding exploration of the failure of great-power diplomacy to prevent a war no one wanted, and an elegantly written, lucid military history of the war up to the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. It was at the Marne that the German drive on Paris was miraculously halted at the very last moment, and the Western front settled down into a seemingly futile, static war of attrition that would not break open for more than three years.
“After the Marne,” Tuchman writes with characteristic sagacity, “the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies would ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back …”
And so in a single paragraph she captures brilliantly both the tragedy and the significance of the basic story line of her fine book.
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Academic historians over the years have generally praised the elegance and incisiveness of Tuchman’s prose, but they have also taken her to task, often with an undeserved measure of condescension, for being too tough on the Germans, as well as for leaving developments on the Serbian-Austrian and Russian-Austrian fronts out of her narrative entirely. She’s also been criticized for abstaining from extended analytical forays into what one might call abstract causes, such as the inadequacy of supranational institutions for crisis resolution, or the absence of transparent decision-making protocols within the key government departments.
Tuchman, of course, never earned a PhD; nor was she ever affiliated with a university history department. She described herself as a writer whose subject was history, not as a historian. She struck back at the “professional” historians more than once over a long and distinguished career. “The academic historian,” she opined, “suffers from having a captive audience, first in the supervisor of his dissertation, then in the lecture hall. Keeping the reader turning the page has not been his primary concern.”
As it happens, The Guns of August is one of the greatest page-turners in the English language. And it has to be said: having been a longtime editor of history books at an Ivy League press myself a few years back, the problem with academic history writing that she alluded to in the ’60s has only gotten considerably worse—a development that deeply troubles many of the best academic historians, as well as the readers of history, wherever and whoever they are.
PG will add his recommendation of Ms. Tuchman. He is not certain whether he has read all her books, but he has read a great many and found her to be an immensely-talented writer.