(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Bismarck created the German Empire in three short wars, then through two complementary policies avoided putting it at risk again: The first policy was to keep Republican France and Czarist Russia isolated; the second was to maintain British friendship. William II, motivated equally by personality defects and the militaristic machismo of the era, first drove Liberty and Despotism into one another’s arms, then by building a fleet of dreadnoughts made enemies of the British. Massie adds little to this conventional story, but tells it excellently.

The narrative is remarkable more for its descriptive power than its insights. Many of the individuals involved in the naval race were accounted skilled and intelligent by contemporaries, served adequately in various high offices, and nevertheless were incredibly stupid. The new battleship, the DREADNOUGHT, was ruinously expensive; the German insistence in building a fleet of them threatened Great Britain’s traditional dominance at sea.

This massive tome is firmly in the Massie style: a description of an era which reads like a novel and still meets the standards of the historical profession. Unlike NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRIA, however, he did not have a romantic couple to place at the center of this tragedy. His major figures— the royal family, Churchill and Fisher, Tirpitz and William II—march through the pageant, say their lines (often very wittily), and depart, having entertained us, but without having taught us very much. Not that the author promised more: He delivers strong personalities, clear motivations, proud traditions, and splendid spectacle. Only the DREADNOUGHT fails to give a strong performance—it appears on a few pages and in one photo.

Massie describes the era and the arms race rather than analyzes them. His pen portraits remind us that policies are made by men (and here, indirectly, by women, too) of flawed character who have careers to consider, supposed slights to revenge, old memories to overcome, and too many distractions; in addition that leaders of this generation were so filled with ambition, fear, suspicion, and hatred that they would not halt the construction of dreadnoughts even when they could see that the naval race was leading straight to war.