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A glorious waste
on 31 May 2005
A huge but amazingly readable account of the political manoeuvrings between Great Britain and Germany in the years leading up to WW1.
There is much to recommend this book. It is brilliantly written and sustains the reader's attention through every one of its 900 or so pages. The portraits of the various characters are masterful and unforgettable, as are the writer's descriptions of the various set-pieces within his story. To take just one example, the portrayal of the Battle of Trafalgar, in the book's preface, is so superbly written as to almost qualify as poetry.
However, having finished the book I was left with a number of grave doubts as to whether, apart from its entertainment value, reading it had been worthwhile.
Most seriously, the final two chapters make it clear that war between Britain and Germany would almost certainly have occurred even had the Germans never built a single ship! This invalidates the author's main point; that the German Naval building programme (and the British response) was a major cause of the disaster that engulfed Europe in 1914.
Secondly, the author's decision to treat the whole period purely in terms of the personalities and machinations of the leading statesmen is inexplicable. What were the effects of this massive Naval expenditure on the British and more particularly the German economies? Did the German decision to create such a large Navy waste resources that could have been spent making their land forces even stronger? (Given the narrow margin between victory and defeat in the land campaign of 1914, an extra 50,000 soldiers on the ground in France might have enabled the Germans to capture Paris, push the BEF back across the Chennel and win the war before Christmas.) I've heard it said that the huge military expenditure in Germany pre 1914 created such economic problems that a short, sharp war actually appeared to be a reasonable financial instrument - what does Mr. Massie think of this theory?
It is clear, as the British pointed out at the time, that the German Navy was designed for one task only - to fight the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Did the German people and press even think about this? And what did they think in general about Britain? Again, we are not told.
Finally, could Mr. Massie learn the difference between 'England' and 'Britain'? I can imagine Scottish, Welsh and Irish readers throwing away this book in disgust...
However, I don't want to finish this review of this fascinating book on too sour a note. It portrays graphically to the general reader what happens when a new Great Power, backed by a large and intensely patriotic population and a formidable manufacturing base, rises to challenge the established World Order. For this reason alone it should be essential reading in both Washington and Peking.