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Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy [Hardcover]

David Stevenson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

5 May 2004
A major new history that changes our understanding of World War I, incorporating the latest in military, political, and economic research, destined to become the definitive account for years to come. The standard account of World War I says that the war happened because politicians lost control of events, and that once the war began, it quickly became an unstoppable machine. But in this major new work, historian David Stevenson shows that politicians deliberately took risks that led to war in July 1914, and that battle by bloody battle, their decision remained to continue the fighting. Cataclysm presents the disturbing reality that the course of the war was the result of conscious choices--including the continued acceptance of astronomical casualties.Rather than the standard Germany-vs.-England account, Cataclysm is a truly international history, drawing on previously undisclosed records from the Italian, Russian, Japanese, and Ottoman governments. From the complex network of secret treaties and alliances that eventually drew all of Europe into the war, to the way that World War I reconfigured how societies mourn and memorialize wartime dead, Cataclysm is a major revision of World


Product details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (5 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465081843
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465081844
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.8 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 653,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"David Stevenson is the real deal....His defining characteristic is his outstanding rigour as an historian.... [ think him tremendously clever."

About the Author

David Stevenson is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He is the author of numerous publications on this subject, including "The First World War and International Politics" and "The Outbreak of the First World War: 1914 in Perspective." He lives in London. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The war to end all wars. 3 Sep 2005
Format:Paperback
It has been a while since I've really gushed about a book, but I won't be able to help myself with this one. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, has to be one of the best books I have ever read on World War I, and one of the most compact yet comprehensive history books I've seen. It is less than 500 pages, but it covers every aspect of the war, from the strategy involved to the politics of starting, running, and, most importantly, ending the war. It goes beyond even that, though, by discussing the impact the war had on the post-war years, analyzing the years between the two world wars and even how memories of the war affected how the second one was fought. As a final thought, the conclusion discusses how the war has been looked at over time, how perceptions have changed, not only of who started the war, but also how it was fought.
All of this in under 500 pages? The coverage must be fairly superficial then, right? Not at all. Not only is Cataclysm thorough, but it's incredibly dense. This is not a book that you will read quickly. I am a fairly fast reader, and it took me nearly two weeks to finish the book, because it is extremely packed. Long paragraphs (sometimes almost a page long) abound, with the richness of the detail flowing off the page. Some books take this long to read because they are excessively dry, trying to stuff everything into the book but not integrating it very well. This book doesn't do that. Everything is related, and Stevenson draws the reader in with a lot of interesting information about whatever he is talking about.
The flow of the book is logical, but it is not completely chronological. The first section discusses the outbreak of the war, giving extensive detail about what led to the war.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The war to end all wars 3 Sep 2005
By David Roy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It has been a while since I've really gushed about a book, but I won't be able to help myself with this one. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, has to be one of the best books I have ever read on World War I, and one of the most compact yet comprehensive history books I've seen. It is less than 500 pages, but it covers every aspect of the war, from the strategy involved to the politics of starting, running, and, most importantly, ending the war. It goes beyond even that, though, by discussing the impact the war had on the post-war years, analyzing the years between the two world wars and even how memories of the war affected how the second one was fought. As a final thought, the conclusion discusses how the war has been looked at over time, how perceptions have changed, not only of who started the war, but also how it was fought.

All of this in under 500 pages? The coverage must be fairly superficial then, right? Not at all. Not only is Cataclysm thorough, but it's incredibly dense. This is not a book that you will read quickly. I am a fairly fast reader, and it took me nearly two weeks to finish the book, because it is extremely packed. Long paragraphs (sometimes almost a page long) abound, with the richness of the detail flowing off the page. Some books take this long to read because they are excessively dry, trying to stuff everything into the book but not integrating it very well. This book doesn't do that. Everything is related, and Stevenson draws the reader in with a lot of interesting information about whatever he is talking about.

The flow of the book is logical, but it is not completely chronological. The first section discusses the outbreak of the war, giving extensive detail about what led to the war. He even gives a few details about the minor wars that happened in the years leading up to World War I, such as the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and discusses what the world was like before the outbreak of the war. He uses all of this information to give insight into the thought processes and events that led to the almost inevitable conflagration that turned into one of the most horrific wars of our time. After this section, he discusses the widening of the war, the battles of 1915-1917, and then jumps back to cover other aspects of the war. This includes the home front, the political maneuverings in all of the belligerent governments, naval warfare, tactics, economics, and war aims, just to name some. He then moves on to the outcome of the war, how it ended, the politics of the ceasefire, and the collapse of the German army. Finally, he discusses the aftermath, and he doesn't just stop at the peace treaty. He goes all the way up to the end of World War II and beyond.

This is what I loved about Cataclysm. Stevenson doesn't just give us what happened. He discusses the purpose (or at least what the purpose was at the time, even if it doesn't seem to make any sense in modern times) of what happened, what the politicians were thinking, and what they were trying to accomplish. He delves into how the politicians managed to keep the civilians engaged in the fighting, and how limited any anti-war movements were until the war seemed to be an intractable stalemate. Stevenson even gives great detail about lesser-known campaigns, such as that in the Middle East which has produced much of the modern-day strife. He covers Austria-Hungary and their battles against both Russia and Italy, as well as the war with Serbia, most of which have been given short shrift in World War I books I have read.

The writing, as I have said, is quite dense, but it's not his prose which makes it a slow read. I did not see any superfluous text in the book at all, and almost all of it was interesting. I kept stumbling upon things that I didn't know, or I knew little about, and Stevenson covers it all in a depth that is surprising in a book under 500 pages. I did have to laugh at his introduction, where he says that he has deliberately kept the end notes to a minimum in each chapter. Then I discovered that there are many chapters with notes that run into the three digits. I think this is a good thing, as I love notated history books, but I did find it funny that he would say that. Cataclysm is thoroughly researched, and the number of notes reflects this. The bibliography is quite extensive too. All of the maps are at the front of the book, and there are definitely many.

The only minor fault was the use (or non-use) of commas, and this could just be a legitimate way of doing it that I have never heard of before. A number of times, I would read a sentence and have to go back and re-read it because a comma appeared to be missing, completely jarring my understanding of the sentence, or at least the flow of it. However, if that is the worst thing I can say about the book, it must mean the book is wonderful. And it is. This could be considered the definitive book on World War I and all its aspects. I do know that you won't find anything like this in as small a package as Cataclysm is. If you have any interest in the war, or just military history in general, you should pick this one up.

David Roy
65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent history of the First World War 27 May 2004
By 1. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
David Stevenson has written a superb history of the First World War that describes how and why the war lasted for over four years. The first factor according to Stevenson was the unreal war goals of both of the combatants. Another factor was that all of the great powers were able to keep large armies on the field for an indefinite amount of time due to advances in medicine. Military technology impeded further advances on the front since railways could transport troops to threatend sectors of the front and thereby making any future breathroughs by either side impossible. The final factors was the support of elites and the ability of the governments to alleviate economic hardships on the homefront due to stipends to farmers and wives of servicemen. The Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and later German empires fell because they lacked public mobilization and were unable to tend to the hardships of their citizens.In the end the allies won beacuse they were able to out produce the Germans and had better tactics that allowed sustainable advances by the British and French forces. Stevenson concludes his book by stating that the Peace Treaty of Versailles failed not because of harsh penalites, but because the Russians and the Americans were left out of any postwar security arrangements. The main weakness of the book is that it tends to be somewhat dry and academic and probably will not appear to readers of popular history.Another failing of this book is that the author does not fully described the faults of Russian munition makers as written in Jonathan Grant's work about the Puitilov factory. Otherwise, I would highly reccomend this book to those who are serious students of European and military history.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting 5 Mar 2006
By Clifford S. Stanford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I stumbled on this excellent book via a review in the Atlantic Monthly, and bookmarked it as a curiosity. Receiving it as a gift by surprise, I immediately put it in line behind other books on my shelf. For some reason though, the mood struck me to open it, I barely put Cataclysm down until I finished.

Stevenson interjects no sentimental pining for the time before the 20th Century's wars, and leaves no room for romanticized notions of warfare. He could be accused of cold rationality. But his objective and unsparing view allows for a great massing of facts and analysis in a compact but thorough history. The reader can sense the depth of understanding lying behind Stevenson's words, without having to wade through an historian's primary sources and two-handed waffling.

Having spent many an hour considering the Second World War and the Cold War, I now understand how "cataclysmic" the Great War was in its day. It was perhaps an even more important event in world history, in terms of the turn the world took from the past, than either of the later world wars. Further, I have new appreciation for how the First sowed the political, economic, diplomatic, military, and cultural seeds for the rest of the 20th century and beyond.

Stevenson has given us an important gift for understanding this critical event in world history. Don't miss it.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and Thoughtful 7 Mar 2005
By Zdzislaw Nagengast - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is not a book for the casual student of World War I. In fact I would not recommend it as a first introduction into the subject. The book's organization could be confusing. However, if you are a serious student of WWI then this book will make a marvelous addition to your library.

Stevenson avoids the all too familiar chronological inventory of the battles and political manueverings. Although there is a chronology to the book, it is a loose outline. What he does instead is organize the the subject thematically and that is its strength. He is truly masterful in explaining the role of the financiers, and the munitions manfacturers. He recognizes the role of strategy, or rather the lack of it. He discusses morale of both the troops and the populations at home, and effects of technology. He also does the best job I've read in explaining the reasons why a peace was never negotiated once stalemate was reached. I have to admit that he gave me new ideas to consider when it comes to my personal assessment of the war and its conduct. I don't agree with all his ideas but that in no way detracts for the power of his insights.

I particularly liked part four of the book especially the closing chapter where he summarizes his conclusions. All too often historians of the war end it at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Stevenson shows the longer term effects of the conflict and how they set the stage for subsequent conflict.

What prevented me from rating this with five stars? First the writing style was a bit too academic, not the worst thing in the world but this is not a book you scan. You have to invest time to read it well. The second reason for losing a star was his excessive use of acronyms. It might have been unavoidable but it didn;t stop it from being irritating. I had trouble remembering them all.

In conclusion. If you want to be challenged, if you want to really begin understanding this war in all it's dimensions then read this book. You will not walk away disappointed. Oh! A comment about other reviews. This is a well reasoned, thoughtfully written book. It does not in any way exhalt the role of the British army. In fact I thought he was fairly harsh in his overall assessment.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Work 21 Nov 2005
By J. B. Tulgan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
While my other esteemed reviewers rightly highlight the impressive scholarship into virtually all social, political, military and diplomatic aspects of the Great War, I think the real treat of this tome is the final chapters on the Versailles Treaty, rememberance of the war and its impact on later European developments. The author impressively argues that the Peace was not in fact a Diktat in practice, but largely the outcome of precedence and geo-political and social necessity. Likewise, the author rightly in my mind faults the Allies for abandoning France in terms of the enforcement of the peace, debunking the notion that Gallic torpidity and passivity caused French leadership to crumble at the onslaught of Facism. As insightful as the discussion of the war, its causes and the social aspect of the conflict, I think that his final chapters on peace and aftermath are truly revealing.
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