Cataclysm Essay - Critical Essays

Cataclysm

David Stevenson’s narrative of World War I is history viewed from the top of the political and military hierarchy. Human beings below the rank of general or cabinet minister appear only in brief examinations of troop and home front morale.

Stevenson rejects the idea that the war began by accident or that statesmen were helpless to control events. He claims the leaders of Austria-Hungary and Germany were aware a general European war might result if they attacked Serbia. Austria-Hungary thought the risk worth taking in order to punish Serbia. Germans feared they were falling behind France and Britain in military strength; better a full-scale war now, than when the balance of power turned decisively against them.

Both sides expected a brief European war. Instead the conflict spread over the whole world and the Western Front became a stalemated trench-warfare slaughterhouse. All combatants rejected negotiation or compromise. The British and French could not let the enemy stay deep in France and Belgium without admitting defeat, while the Germans might stand on the defensive, hoping the Allies wore themselves out attacking. Stevenson stresses that the war aroused an upsurge of patriotism. Until 1917 leaders had enthusiastic support from their countrymen. Faced with crumbling morale in the army and at home in 1918, the Germans gambled that unrestricted submarine warfare would knock Britain out of the war before an anticipated American involvement became decisive.

Stevenson rejects the idea that World War I and the vindictive Versailles Treaty made the rise of Adolf Hitler and a second war inevitable. He claims World War II could not have occurred if the victorious Allies had shown the political will to enforce the German disarmament clauses in the treaty.

Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy is an outstanding history of the political aspects of World War I, summarizing historical research and providing thoughtful interpretations of the evidence.