Monday, September 27, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman

I finished reading my ARC of Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth recently, and figured now would be the perfect time to pick up a book on World War I. The first World War was woefully under-represented in my history classes - I only remember one lesson on it (it was a pretty cool lesson, where we drew country names from a hat and role played being the leaders of those countries to see if the war would turn out any differently. It didn't). Freedman's The War to End All Wars helps correct that glaring deficit in my education.

The War to End All Wars: World War I
The book is organized more thematically than chronologically, starting with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Serbia before backtracking slightly to look at the military buildups and general tension in Europe before fighting broke out. Freeman's writing is excellent in this part, as he made the tension in Europe feel very real, and like this war might have been inevitable, as my high school history class demonstrated.

From there, the sections tend to cover one aspect of the war from the beginning to its conclusion, such as trench warfare and naval battles, with the occasional look at notable battles like the Battle of Verdun, which was a long and bloody battle in France for a tactically insignificant fort that was nevertheless a matter of national pride for the French. Absolutely horrifying.

I wanted to recommend this book for Leviathan fans who want a peak at the real history behind Westerfeld's alternate history, but the book focuses almost entirely on the Western Front, whereas so far the Leviathan series has been more focused on the East (at the end of Leviathan, the great ship is headed for Istanbul, and Behemoth picks up there). While I understand the need to choose something to focus on because the war was so huge, that means that some events are mostly glossed over. For example, can anyone tell me why on Earth Japan declared war on Germany? I've never understood that one. And the communist revolution is covered in three paragraphs. And those are just the questions I recognize I have; I know so little about WWI, who knows what else I'm missing?

On a positive note, the pictures in this book are absolutely fantastic and devastating. Freedman has found some stunning photographs, including action shots that could only have been achieved through luck, like a ship that's just been struck by a shell, or a group of advancing soldiers where one has just been shot but hasn't fallen yet. These aren't pretty pictures, but they do an excellent job of giving the war a human face.

Finally, I found it incredibly interesting in the last chapter where Freedman notes that modern historians often consider WWII an extension of WWI, quoting historian John Keegan saying WWII "is inexplicable except in terms of the rancor and instabilities left by the earlier conflict." Yet I'm sure if you ask the average high school student, they have a much better understanding of what started WWII than WWI. Freedman gives a brief glimpse at how the anger and unresolved tensions of WWI led into Hitler's rise in Germany, but it's clear that whole story would take up a whole other book.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wendie's Wanderings. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles reviewed today!

Thank goodness for fall - after a relatively quiet summer, I've got book events to attend again! Check out my re-cap of yesterday's Books for Teens & Tweens event at Books of wonder.
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