It has been a while since I've really gushed about a book, but I won't be able to help myself with this one. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson has to be one of the best books I have ever read on World War I, and one of the most compact yet comprehensive history books I've seen. It is less than 500 pages, but it covers every aspect of the war, from the strategy involved to the politics of starting, running, and, most importantly, ending the war. It goes beyond even that, though, by discussing the impact the war had on the post-war years, analyzing the years between the two world wars and even how memories of the war affected how the second one was fought. As a final thought, the conclusion discusses how the war has been looked at over time, how perceptions have changed, not only of who started the war, but also how it was fought.
All of this in under 500 pages? The coverage must be fairly superficial then, right? Not at all. Not only is Cataclysm thorough, but it is incredibly dense. This is not a book that you will read quickly. I am a fairly fast reader, and it took me nearly two weeks to finish the book, because it is extremely packed. Long paragraphs (sometimes almost a page long) abound, with the richness of the detail flowing off the page. Some books take this long to read because they are excessively dry, trying to stuff everything into the book but not integrating it very well. This book doesn't do that. Everything is related, and Stevenson draws the reader in with a lot of interesting information about whatever he is talking about.
The flow of the book is logical, but it is not completely chronological. The first section discusses the outbreak of the war, giving extensive detail about what led to the war. He even gives a few details about the minor wars that happened in the years leading up to World War I, such as the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and discusses what the world was like before the outbreak of the war. He uses all of this information to give insight into the thought processes and events that led to the almost inevitable conflagration that turned into one of the most horrific wars of our time. After this section, he discusses the widening of the war, the battles of 1915-1917, and then jumps back to cover other aspects of the war. This includes the home front, the political maneuverings in all of the belligerent governments, naval warfare, tactics, economics, and war aims, just to name some. He then moves on to the outcome of the war, how it ended, the politics of the ceasefire, and the collapse of the German army. Finally, he discusses the aftermath, and he doesn't just stop at the peace treaty. He goes all the way up to the end of World War II and beyond.
This is what I loved about Cataclysm. Stevenson doesn't just give us what happened. He discusses the purpose (or at least what the purpose was at the time, even if it doesn't seem to make any sense in modern times) of what happened, what the politicians were thinking, and what they were trying to accomplish. He delves into how the politicians managed to keep the civilians engaged in the fighting, and how limited any anti-war movements were until the war seemed to be an intractable stalemate. Stevenson even gives great detail about lesser-known campaigns, such as that in the Middle East which has produced much of the modern-day strife. He covers Austria-Hungary and their battles against both Russia and Italy, as well as the war with Serbia, most of which have been given short shrift in World War I books I have read.
The writing, as I have said, is quite dense, but it's not his prose which makes it a slow read. I did not see any superfluous text in the book at all, and almost all of it was interesting. I kept stumbling upon things that I didn't know, or I knew little about, and Stevenson covers it all in a depth that is surprising in a book under 500 pages. I did have to laugh at his introduction, where he says that he has deliberately kept the end notes to a minimum in each chapter. Then I discovered that there are many chapters with notes that run into the three digits. I think this is a good thing, as I love notated history books, but I did find it funny that he would say that. Cataclysm is thoroughly researched, and the number of notes reflects this. The bibliography is quite extensive too.
The book contains a large number of maps that cover all theaters of the war, plus numerous time frames. They are all at the beginning of the book, and aren't really tied to any one part of the text, which was slightly annoying, but they are so extensive that I am willing to forgive the placement. Besides, given the format of the book, I think it would have been hard to integrate them into the chapters themselves.
The other minor fault was the use (or non-use) of commas, and this could just be a legitimate way of doing it that I have never heard of before. A number of times, I would read a sentence and have to go back and re-read it because a comma appeared to be missing, completely jarring my understanding of the sentence, or at least the flow of it. For example: "In the campaign against the submarines offensive measures still did less than convoying to keep the sea lanes open." This was quite common throughout the book, and was the only thing that marred my reading enjoyment.
However, if that is the worst thing I can say about the book, it must mean the book is wonderful. And it is. This could be considered the definitive book on World War I and all its aspects. I do know that you won't find anything like this in as small a package as Cataclysm is. If you have any interest in the war, or just military history in general, you should pick this one up.