Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
on 14 June 2014
I had started 2014 feeling I was fully done on World War 1 causes books (thanks, Christopher Clark) but was moved by Simon Montefiore's stunning review of the final volume of John Rohl's trilogy to go for one more book. And boy is this a big book: at over 1200 pages of text (plus notes, index, etc) it is (not inappropriately) expensive to acquire and represents a real commitment of time to work through. I'm not there yet, and have just reached half way. I agree with Mr Montifiore that this is a magisterial work of scolarship, perhaps the definitive work, but I differ that I don't believe this is a great biography on a par with the likes of Caro's LBJ as he suggested.
There are two reasons for my misgivings. First, the books is a highly detailed chronology of William's thinking. And I'm afraid inside the mind of the Kaiser is not a pleasant place to be locked up for 1200 pages. One gets the picture by the end of the first chapter that the Imperial Warlord was more than a little unstable. To be taken blow by blow through every gust of enthusiasm or rage that grips him is just wearing. One minute it is pursuit of an entente with Britain, because the real threat is America and Russia. The next he is courting America because the threat is the Anglo-Japanese alliance. And round and round it goes like an endless and debilitating game of Risk. The bit players, especially Bulow in the opening half of the book, are an unatractive bunch of sycophants.
There isn't much the author can do about his subject. But the second point about the book is, I am afraid, simply that it is immensely dull. It is a chronology covering momentous events that evokes remarkably little sense of excitement. I persevered through to the downfall of Eulenberg, in the vain hope that it would be difficult to make that extraordinary event sound boring, but Rohl manages it. I can't imagine a narrative of the Oscar Wilde trial, that close analogy, being so. Ironic in a sense that Montifiore raved about it, given that in his work on Stalin, he is gives such a lesson in how to add pace and interest to the most unpleasant subjects. As I say, this is a work of scolarship no doubt, but requires unusual commitment by the lay reader.
Obviously, there is much in the book to learn. There can hardly help being, given the detail. Of all the pre-1914 events, I had never previously heard about the intrigue over the Norwegian throne. On a more thematic note, it was curious how much of a key role, from at least the German view, was taken by Edward VII: he comes across as very much a player in his own right, not merely a constitutional figurehead. But, on balance, this is a book I regret buying. I have firmly finished my WW1 reading, though now that new book by Adam Tooze looks so enticing.....