Category: history

The Guns of August (75 Books – XIV)

I hate to say it, but for me the main takeaway from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is that I don’t find military history as interesting as I used to. This surprised me, since I used to read a lot of it – back in middle school and high school, I read several books on the World Wars, as well as several other military histories from around the Napoleonic Wars on. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t read Tuchman’s book earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, of course; it’s brought up every time there’s a discussion of the First World War, and deservedly so. It’s well-written all around, and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the beginning of the war. Even those with only a small interest in the subject might find it engaging simply from a narrative perspective, and I did find several memorable passages that made the book worthwhile. For example, while I knew that the Germans’ plan for invading France, the Schlieffen Plan, was meticulously worked out in every detail years prior to the war, I did not know much about French or Russian plans. The Russians seem to have intended to mobilise as fast as they could and then march in the general direction of German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while France had only slightly more detail:

Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz” … That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operation but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. … Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.

I especially liked Tuchman’s description of some of the participants of the war, like this anecdote about Count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s plans (though he did not live to see the war itself):

Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in matter, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.

Finally, on Sir Winston Churchill:

Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should to and to act upon it without hesitation.…

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The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815 (75 Books – XI)

More history, this time The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao, which I read as a complement to A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the monarchy in the century after this.

Ingrao is, unsurprisingly, more positive in his judgements than Taylor. Of course, this is partly because he covers the empire at its height whereas Taylor covers its decline and fall, but Ingrao does a good job treating his subjects even-handedly, but Taylor was relentlessly critical to almost comical proportions, to the point of describing Rudolph II’s suicide as “fortunate.” That said, he does show some Liberal bias in a couple places, like his assessment that the French Revolution was worse than a “mixed blessing” because it prompted a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment across much of Europe. Frankly, when an ideology’s strongest proponents preside over an era known as the “Reign of Terror,” a good dose of skepticism is quite appropriate. For the most part, though, he consistently gives credit where it’s due and avoids judging his subjects entirely by modern, Liberal standards.

At 247 pages, the book can’t get into too much detail on any one subject, but Ingrao does spread his attention evenly across the two centuries he covers. Material on domestic issues and foreign policy is split roughly 60/40.

One consistent theme I noticed across the different reigns was the interesting mix of idealism, like the embrace of the Catholic Reformation or Joseph II’s enlightened despotism, with a sense of realism in the Habsburgs’ willingness to compromise when these ideals weren’t feasible. Actually, the book itself could be used as an argument for monarchism, and late Eighteenth Century Austria looks like the very picture of a great civilisation. As with the events in Taylor’s history, some of Austria’s problems went unresolved because the monarchy wasn’t powerful enough, though this would be more clear under Franz Joseph. Not that Ingrao intended this interpretation; though he treats the emperors fairly, he clearly takes the superiority of republicanism, or at least representative government generally, for granted.

In any case, I’d highly recommend this one to anyone curious about the Habsburgs or, really, to anyone who wants to know how real, historical monarchies actually functioned.

Up next on the 75 books project is a foray into Japanese Japanese comics, then even more history, probably Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.…

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75 Books in 2015 – IV (The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918)

Alright, we’re not even half a month into this challenge, and we’re bangin’ on all cylinders. My fourth completed book of the year is The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t help but feel a fondness for the Habsburgs, but I don’t feel confident that I know enough about them, so this book was a good step in correcting that. Well, somewhat, at least – because it focuses on 1809 onwards, much of it only covers one Habsburg, Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848-1916. Furthermore, the book is actually fairly depressing, as it covers the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. There are very few triumphs here, and there’s a lot of muddling along and compromising, trying to hold the empire together for as long as possible, yet knowing that things cannot go on forever. Indeed, if the empire hadn’t been necessary to maintain stability in this part of Europe and thus been handled with kid-gloves by its neighbours, it may well have collapsed earlier than it did. As Taylor put it, “Austria was preserved to suit the convenience of others, not by her own strength. A Great Power becomes a European necessity only when it is in decline; the truly great do not need to justify their existence.”

Taylor isn’t afraid to state his own opinion on the people and policies he covers, and the vast majority of his judgements are negative. When an Italian war seemed possible in the early Twentieth Century, for example, he writes, “A war against Italy would have given even the Habsburg Monarchy the tonic of victory; for Italy was a ridiculous imitation of a Great Power, impressive only to professional diplomats and literary visitors.” This is fine with me, though some people might find his constant negativity grating, and he does get carried away at least once, when discussing Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolph: “[H]e intended to save the Empire by a more violent dose of German liberalism, and would have paired well with Frederick III, who had similar projects for Germany. Fortunately for himself and for others, Rudolph committed suicide.”

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in European history. I likely will supplement it with another book covering an earlier era of the Habsburg monarchy, to see how the situation covered here arose in the first place.

Next up is more graphic novel fun (most likely either Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin or A Bride’s Story), then Tanizuki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows.…

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75 Books in 2015 – I (Iron Kingdom)

As I mentioned in the 2014 year-end post, I’m going to make an attempt at this challenge at LibraryThing to read 75 books in 2015. You can find my specific thread here, but I’ll also be sharing my progress on this weblog and use the thread mostly as a means of “officially” entering the challenge and to talk with any other LibraryThing members who care to stop by. I won’t be doing full reviews of these books; in most cases I’ll probably just share a few things I liked or didn’t, maybe a notable passage or two, and whether I recommend it or not.

I don’t have a particular strategy going in, and honestly have no idea how many books I typically read in a year. It generally takes longer than I’d like to get through prose books, which lowers my books-per-year average, but I also read a fair number of graphic novels, which typically don’t take me very long.

I probably will try to pick a few “themes” to focus my reading somewhat; with Mishima Yukio last year, I simply alternated between one of his novels and something, anything else, ending with a biography about him. So, I was able to make some progress on just one author, since every other book I read was by or about him, but didn’t get burned out, since I had several other things mixed in. This year, my first goal is to get through the stack of books I got for my birthday and Christmas; after that, I’ll probably focus on either reading more of William Shakespeare, or an array of political writers or philosophers (e.g., Joseph de Maistre and Julius Evola). We’ll see.

In any case, I finished book #1 today, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark. Recently I’ve felt that I need to deepen my knowledge of history, and I’ve seen recommendations for this one, so it seemed like a good start for that project. Clark’s writing is clear, and I appreciate that he doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind, even though Prussian history can get especially controversial around the issue of Prussian “militarism.” He says in the introduction, “The polarized judgments that abound in contemporary debate (and in parts of the historical literature) are problematic, not just because they impoverish the complexity of the Prussian experience, but also because they compress its history into a national teleology of German guilt.”

I also appreciate that he distributes his attention mostly equally across the entire time period covered by the book, rather than giving disproportionate space to, say, just the modern era. He does jump over a few subjects quickly, which is unavoidable in a one-volume history covering several centuries; there’s less about Wilhelm I and II than I’d like, for example. One small thing that annoyed me is that he uses typically uses anglicised names, so “Friedrich” is “Frederick,” “Wilhelm” is “William,” and so on.

So, that’s one book down, seventy-four to go. Next up I’ll knock out a couple graphic novels that I’ve had sitting around, then move on to a related subject with A.J.P. Taylor’s The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918.…

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