Sunday, January 12, 2014
I don't usually allow myself the privilege of reading books in English (little time to study means all my reading should be done in other languages) but this book was impossible to resist buying when I saw it at the store two days after Christmas. Impossible to resist because it deals with perhaps the part of history I find the most compelling, the period from 1900 (and some decades before) until 1914 when the Great War began and the world was changed forever. It is no coincidence that the first interlinear translation I made also takes place during that time, and the second as well.
So how was the book? Were I to have to give it a rating it would be four out of five stars. It is very close to ideal, and only has one annoyance: too many references to modern times. A very restricted few is fine, but MacMillan has put what felt like no less than fifty parallel references throughout the book to more recent events, stretching from the Cuban missile crisis to the Iraq War, compared German support of Austria-Hungary to American support of Israel and Pakistan, and so on. About half of those references could have been removed, and would have made for less jarring reading.
Some reveiwing the book have said that the book focuses too much on the individual characters at the time, and I might have agreed were it not so well woven together by the end of the book. Seeing the reaction of the characters near the end of Europe's peace was particularly poignant. One example from the last chapter:
At 6 p.m. an emotional Pourtalès, the German ambassador, asked Sazonov three times whether Russia would accede to Germany's demand to stop mobilizing. Sazonov replied each time that Russia was still willing to negotiate but that the orders could not be revoked. "I have," he said, "no other reply to give you." Pourtalès then drew a deep breath and said with difficulty, "In that case, sir, I am instructed by my Government to hand you this note." With trembling hands he passed over the declaration of war and went to the window and wept. "I never could have believed," he said to Sazonov, "that I should quit Petersburg under these conditions." The two men embraced. The next morning the German embassy staff along with representatives of the separate German states left by a special train from the same Finland station Lenin was to arrive at three years later to make his revolution.In short: prepare for a very well-written account of Europe up to 1914, and forgive the book its meanderings into the modern world because the rest of it is very well worth it.