by Margaret MacMillan
So, I don’t know that any of you have been following me since I first started this book blog (originally on tumblr) back in December 2011, but the very first book I ever reviewed online was called George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I. At the time, I had realized that my 20th century history was incredibly weak, and was determined to do an independent study on the subject. Using Tapestry of Grace as a general outline for reading material, I jumped right in. But, per usual, I found myself getting bogged down with questions. By Week 3 of Tapestry, I was already supposed to be blowing through World War I, but I had no idea why World War I was happening. I stumbled across the George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm book and decided to give it a whirl, and it was fantastic. The problem is, that was in 2011, and I’m still only partway through World War II. THEN FictionFan published a review of The War That Ended Peace. Despite all my reading on World War II, the first World War is the one that’s continued to hold my fascination, and I couldn’t resist what sounded like an amazing read, even if it did mean spending almost 700 pages going backward on my history timeline.
This book was well-worth the effort. As an American, I always greatly appreciate reading world history books written by non-Americans, especially covering a topic wherein the Americans were (per usual) rather late on the scene. MacMillan takes a gigantic topic and makes it incredibly readable. The book flows well, and the writing was excellent. I also loved the fact that the pictures/photographs were scattered throughout the text instead of in clumps of pages here and there (this means the pictures aren’t on the traditional glossy paper, but that’s okay with me), because it really helped to break the text up a bit, aiding in the ease-of-reading.
In a way, this covered a lot of the territory I’d read in the Royal Cousins book, but the perspective is different enough to make this read just as interesting for me. MacMillan makes an effort to draw some parallels between the ramp-up to WWI and current events. Most of the time this was interesting, although sometimes it felt almost too random – I’d be right in the thick of a narrative from 1907 and all of the sudden, “very similar to China in 2011” or something, and it was a bit jarring.
Overall, though, I highly recommend this book. For the amount of information that it covers, it is remarkably easy to read. Frequently, non-fiction books involve far too many people, but MacMillan makes them interesting enough that they are memorable, and she reminds the reader of who someone is if it’s been too long since he was last mentioned, which I appreciate. (It can be very frustrating when an author expects me to remember who “Copenhagen” is when I haven’t heard from Copenhagen in 173 pages.)
I will say that one of the things that really struck me was how, relatively, a very small number of people made the decisions that started the war – millions of people die, and for what? Did normal, every-day Germans really want more territory? Or were they just interested in growing some food, going to work, raising their children, living their lives? So often, history books use country’s names as though they are people – Germany did this, Belgium thought this, France wanted this. But the truth is, it’s a few leaders of each of those countries who are doing, thinking, and wanting: I truly believe that what most of the people want is simply to be left alone to live their lives in peace.
One of the reasons that this book was so intriguing was because, besides the obvious parallels that MacMillan specifically mentions, there are plenty of times where it is easy to see similar things that are happening around the world today. The quote “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” seems particularly apt when reading about World War I and its seemingly arbitrary causes. Sometimes, when the circumstances are just right, it doesn’t take much to start a war.