Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: A World Undone

The world of turn of the century Europe seems like a complete fantasy land compared to modern times yet it is separated from us by only 100 years. Archdukes, kaisers, empires and honor or the edge of insane pageantry fill that world. World War 1, or the Great War, destroyed all of that. In "A World Undone", GJ Meyer tries to educate the reader of how the war came about, what happened and why such a horrific conflict erupted so quickly.

After reading Barbara Tuchman's classic "The Guns of August", my interest was piqued to learn more about the Great War. Meyer's book goes into the currents that swept the world into this conflict, and how the conflict would be completely different from anything those countries could envision in 1914. After each chapter, told in chronolgical style, Meyer inserts little 'background' sections about specific figures, countries, empires or elements to warfare. This was very helpful to put a person's actions in context. The chronological progression is great as you understand how actions on the Russian front affected the decision made on the Western Front. Meyer is critical of the 'idiotic', romantic notions that some generals had. He is also critical of the hyper-aggressive generals who use the new weapons of mass killing recklessly and throw men (and horses) to the machine guns. He does spotlight generals who thought of their troops, protected their men, understood the dangers to the brain of trench warfare, and those who were flexible in such a rigid world (trench warfare).

It is heartbreaking to read about thousands of men dying over 5 square miles of 'gains'. It is horrifying to read about the staggering number of deaths each day. Meyer does not just throw stats at you, but he has quotations from soldiers about what a specific attack, battle or time in the trench system was like for a common soldier. The imagery of rats running around a trench, buckets of excrement in a corner and then shelling for a week straight is enough to make a person want to travel back in time and choke one of the generals who spoke of the valiant fight for justice and right. Meyer is not just recording facts, but he is telling the story of the death of a world. World War 1 was the death of the order Europe had enjoyed for years. After its armistice, Europe would be in constant struggle for decades, and the America would be ascendant. Teenagers are oftentimes assigned "All Quiet on the Western Front" in lit or modern euor history classes. It would be better served to set a lit class up with a few discussions on the Great War prior to the reading assignment. Meyer's book, "A World Undone" deserves to be used as a reference for all of those who wish to learn and remember what happened from 1914-1918.

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