The Seminal Tragedy of the 20th century.(BOOKS)(MILITARY HISTORY)

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Be thankful the 20th century - mankind's bloodiest - is over, and let us all pray for a better 21st century. The seminal event that fomented last's century's misery was World War I, and, therefore, it must be studied. Why was World War I critical? Because one can draw a direct line from World War I to most of the wretchedness of the last century.

Had the leaders the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany (especially the latter two) in July and August 1914 possessed a modicum of wisdom and maturity, that preventable war would have never occurred, and had it not happened the train of disasters that marked the 20th century would not have happened. No World War I:

No simultaneous collapse of the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires - a disintegration still affecting Europe;

No Great Depression - and the melancholy that prompted tens of millions to opt for security over freedom;

No Adolf Hitler and no World War II - the bloodiest war ever;

No Russian revolution, no Soviet totalitarianism, no Joseph Stalin, no Cold War, no nuclear terror.

Everybody in government needs to understand the origins of World War I, the strategic and operational errors that governed its campaigns and tactics, the diplomatics that dragged Germany, Russia, Britain, and France into a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the economics of total war (especially how each major power mobilized its society), and its war-termination failure. Fortunately we have recent publications to help us.

Hew Strachan is a world-renowned scholar. His The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (Oxford, $39.95, 1227 pages, illus.), the first of three volumes, will, when completed, be the prime source turned to for understanding the war economically, informationaly, diplomatically, and militarily. His outstanding chapter on "The Origins of the War" examines this topic by exploring the rich historiography of the subject, concluding: ". . . what remains striking about those hot July [1914] weeks is the role, not of collective forces [like imperialism, nationalism, xenophobia] nor of long-range factors [like the German Emperor's desire for a "place in the sun"] but of the individual. . . . [T]he statesmen of 1914 were pygmies, . . ."

The peoples of Europe marched "Willingly to War" (Mr. Strachan's second chapter). The author quotes Hitler to serve as a model for the general sentiment. On hearing that war had been declared, Hitler wrote: "I sank to my knees and thanked heaven from an overflowing heart that it had been granted to me the good fortune to be alive at such a time."Hitler's emotion was common among most of the combatant populations.

The author dissects the combatants' war plans, especially the German and French, and demonstrates how the war soon bogged down in the West in 1914. Mr. Strachangives more emphasis to other theaters - Eastern Europe, the Pacific, Africa, the sea - than other comprehensive histories.

What truly separates Mr. Strachan's book from other general treatments are his chapters: "Financing the War" and "Industrial Mobilization." Before Germany's armies collapsed, its home front died. In the climactic battles of 1918, the allies had more of everything to fight with, and their civilian populations (especially those in the United States) were better cared for. Mr. Strachan will discuss these aspects in later volumes, but he establishes an admirable foundation for such discussions in this volume. One quarter of this long text is given to economics and mobilization, in which the allies outperformed Germany and Austria. Buy this book. …