Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Amazon Book Review of Christopher Clark's, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914"

Sleepwalkers is about how, not why, Europe fell into the abyss of war in 1914. It is a terrific work of history, but for the lay reader, it is way too long and gets too bogged down in minutia. Hence four stars instead of five. What makes this book different from the volumes I have read on the origins of World War One is that is puts the emphasis on where it started, the Balkans. After reading the early chapters of the book, Clark proves, intentionally or not, the Bismark aphorism, that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

For someone like myself schooled in the works of Tuchman (chaotic and inept decision making theory) and Fischer (Germany wanted a war from the get go) Clark's book is an eye opener. First it makes all of the players seem rational and second it puts far more emphasis on the role of France and Russia in starting the war. Both France and Russian planning was based on a "Balkan inception" scenario; something that was given to them on silver platter by the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28. Within five weeks Europe was at war. As an aside the fear of growing Russian power not only motivates Germany, but also France in that France feared that in only a few years Russia would no longer need an alliance with them.

Although Clark convincingly covers the intrigues of Belgrade, Venice, St. Petersberg, Paris and London; he does not spend sufficient time on Berlin. I know that might be more of a "why" question than a "how" question, it is necessary for the story. It speaks the need to understand whether Austria-Hungary was an independent actor or a pawn of Berlin.

These quibbles aside there is so much to learn here and there are lessons for today. Afterall the Sarajevo trigger was an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

My Amazon Book Review on Ira Katznelson's, "Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time"

There have been thousands of books written on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Instead of focusing on the executive branch, Katznelson shifts the focus to the Congress, particularly the southern Democrats who dominated the caucus and chaired the major committees. The author convincingly demonstrates that when the southerners were with him, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman got what they wanted. Conversely when the southerners opposed the Adminstration, the New and Fair Deals floundered. It is here where Katznelson makes an important contribution to our understanding of the New Deal and the early postwar era.

With respect to domestic policy, Katznelson views the approach the southerner took through the prism of race. Specifically where the southerners feared the underpinnings of the Jim Crow south were under attackl they backed away from Roosevelt. Although I largely agree with that thesis, the major failing of the book in my opinion, is that Katznelson ignored the Jacksonian roots of the southern Democrats then sitting in Congress. At its founding the Jacksonian Democrats were both racist domestically and hawkish with respect to foreign policy. Thus while the southerners, opposed Roosevelt dometically after 1938, they stood by him and later Truman in supporting the foreign and defense polcies of the emerging national security state.

I would recommend "Fear Itself..." to both serious students of American history and the casual reader interested in how much the the institutions we now take for granted came into being.