"A classic [that] covers superbly a whole era...Engrossing in its glittering gallery of characters." CHICAGO SUN-TIMES Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Robert K. Massie has written a richly textured and gripping chronicle of the personal and national rivalries that led to the twentieth century's first great arms race. Massie brings to vivid life, such historical figures as the single-minded Admiral von Tirpitz, the young, ambitious, Winston Churchill, the ruthless, sycophantic Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, and many others. Their story, and the story of the era, filled with misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and events leading to unintended conclusions, unfolds like a Greek tratedy in his powerful narrative. Intimately human and dramatic, DREADNOUGHT is history at its most riveting. From the Trade Paperback edition.
The studies of individuals are quite fascinating. Not only do we get the movers and shakers of the day, but we also see lesser-known personalities such as ambassadors, second-rank politicians and Admirals. I warmed in particular to Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal Prime Minister from 1905 - 1908, who from this reading appears to have been a surprisingly decent person. And it was intriguing to see how little things have changed in the world: the Liberal party were liable to splinter and defect to the Conservatives (I had not previously grasped that the 'Unionists' in 'Conservative & Unionist Party' were Liberals who split from their own party on the question of Irish home Rule and crossed the floor of the House to side with the Conservatives); German foreign policy was dependent on driving a wedge between France and Britain; and the Daily Mail was a xenophobic hate rag in 1905!
The story is one of mounting military and political tension between Britain and Germany, two nations which held each other in high regard and which had close ties through Royalty, Kaiser Wilhelm II being a grandson of Queen Victoria. The first years of the Twentieth century had so much tension that war was almost inevitable; yet on the eve of war, relations between Britain and Germany were as cordial as ever and indeed had improved in the months preceding the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Yet once that act took place, the intricacies of interlocking alliances, and the insistence of each side on sticking to their policies irrespective of what it was actually sensible to do, made war inevitable.
Some more detail on the political situation in the Balkans would have been helpful; we are mainly discussing Germany and Britain, and looking at events from those two countries' points of view; and then we are suddenly faced with the Austro-Hungarian position vis-a-vis Serbia when this had hardly been discussed. And the relationship between Germany and Austria - who fought a war in the 1860s over which of them should be Top Dog in central Europe, and which Austria lost - needs further analysis. Having defeated Austria, it seems strange to us that Germany considered Austria a major ally. The psychology of 19th and early 20th century German politics also has a great bearing on this; all these are subjects little touched on by Massie. But then again, this book is big enough already!
The 'Schlieffen plan', enabling Germany to contemplate a war on two fronts, is also little discussed, surprisingly. By requiring any war in the East to be prefaced with a war in the west to rapidly knock out France purely on the grounds that it would be dangerous not to do so, is considered by many to be the final step that made war unavoidable, and the German General staff's insistence that this was the course that must be followed has to be a major contributory factor. Massie explains why it was that the German military establishment came to this conclusion - basically because of everything that had happened up until then - and ultimately that is the subject of the book.
All the same, if you can manage to quell your impatience at his technique, it is a very engaging, readable book, the sort of thing to dip into with pleasure on long winter evenings. And anyway, the underlying story is so familiar that we aren't really that eager to find out how it ends.
Some of Massie's opinions are maybe a bit facile - I've certainly read other accounts of Kaiser Wilhelm II that give him credit for rather more intelligence and put more of the blame for the lurch into war on Tirpitz and the general staff, but that doesn't really matter: this is the sort of book you read for entertainment rather than analysis.
I also found it took a long time to get to the ships, which was my main reason for reading the book, but bear with it dear reader...
The depth of research is evident on every page and given that this was written some time ago I find it incredible still that there are debates over who was to blame for the start of the war. Unless someone has shown Massie to be hugely at fault somehow and has confused his sources, then this veritable tome leaves the issue in no doubt.
The soft spot I already have for Churchill has become fully ripe as a result of this book and Sir Edward Grey emerges from what were shadows for me to be a man of great honour , tenacity and imagination who did everything possible to avoid the unavoidable.
If you are interested in royalty, politics, diplomacy, power, war in general or ships in particular, this book is a must read.
Robert Massie is an excellent writer of narrative history. However, the book is flawed in that it is simply too long and there is too much repetition and coverage of the same ground in different parts of the book. The lengthy biographical portraits, covering the lives of all the main protagonists, are both a strength and a weakness: they are often fascinating and entertaining, but are often too lengthy and stray too far from the main thrust of the narrative for too long. Much of this detail might usefully have been included in an appendix.
Read Aug 2007