The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann
Paperback, 322 pages
Princeton University Press
March 3, 1997
Source: Purchased as required reading for class
“David Herrmann's work is the most complete study to date of how land-based military power influenced international affairs during the series of diplomatic crises that led up to the First World War. Instead of emphasizing the naval arms race, which has been extensively studied before, Herrmann draws on documentary research in military and state archives in Germany, France, Austria, England, and Italy to show the previously unexplored effects of changes in the strength of the European armies during this period. Herrmann's work provides not only a contribution to debates about the causes of the war but also an account of how the European armies adopted the new weaponry of the twentieth century in the decade before 1914, including quick-firing artillery, machine guns, motor transport, and aircraft. In a narrative account that runs from the beginning of a series of international crises in 1904 until the outbreak of the war, Herrmann points to changes in the balance of military power to explain why the war began in 1914, instead of at some other time. Russia was incapable of waging a European war in the aftermath of its defeat at the hands of Japan in 1904-5, but in 1912, when Russia appeared to be regaining its capacity to fight, an unprecedented land- armaments race began. Consequently, when the July crisis of 1914 developed, the atmosphere of military competition made war a far more likely outcome than it would have been a decade earlier.”
The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann is a book that I was inclined to dislike from the outset, before even opening to the first pages. I am a self-proclaimed “cover snob” and the cover of this book does not make me want to pick it up to read it. Additionally, the title is uninspiring and actually makes me cringe. A discussion of the armaments leading up to the First World War does not sound like riveting material to someone who does not enjoy an undertaking about the intricacies of actual warfare. When choosing to read about war, I tend to lean more toward societal issues, outcomes, or personal accounts of wartime experiences. These seemingly cosmetic issues made this the book I was least looking forward to reading of all of the required selections for this past semester of my WWI class.
The one thing that I appreciated the most was the chronological progression of events leading up to the First World War. Herrmann covers European events from 1904 to 1914 which gives a sufficient and succinct overview of the time period. He breaks up his chapters into topical events, such as the First Moroccan Crisis and the Balkan Wars, while continuing to maintain his continuously forward progressing chronology. As a reader of history, when encountering a subject for the first time, I prefer to initially study it in its chronological order; a topical study I find more useful after I have a concrete understanding of the event itself. The chronology helps me to understand the progression of events that transpired and how each event contributed to the next. In presenting the decade proceeding the war, Herrmann helped to set the event of the war itself within the wider context of the increasingly militaristic atmosphere building in and around Europe.
I did find the material to be difficult to progress through and also rather dry. One thing that Herrmann is very adept at is providing a multitude of figures. He makes ample references to the numbers of howitzers, pieces of field artillery, and manpower headcounts that various belligerent nations had throughout the decade. While this information might be useful for relative comparisons of the participants, what it did was bog down the flow of the text and caused me to lose track of the real concepts being explored. There is an appendix at the back of the book which presents both peacetime and wartime troop strengths of the various nations. If this material is semi-important enough to be included as the only appendix material, is it necessary to rehash all of it again in the text? I do not think that this was the best way to utilize the page length or the appendices. Conversely, would it possibly have improved the flow of the text to include the tactical strengths of the nations as additional appendix material rather than presenting the raw numbers within the body of the work? I think so.
Overall, Herrmann adequately serves the objective that he set out to accomplish. He does show in depth how Europe increasingly armed itself in response to various events that transpired over the decade leading to the First World War. He also illustrates how seemingly minor events, such as the First Moroccan Crisis, in which nothing really transpired, served to amplify the path toward war. In these two goals, Herrmann succeeds. His style is where this book is flawed. It gets bogged down in specifics and numbers, which the average reader will likely not find any real purpose. While this information is indeed important, if presented in a way that supports the greater message of the book it would be more helpful. While The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War was not the terrible book I had in my mind from the outset, I can say that I certainly did not enjoy the experience of reading it.
If you are interested in the book, check out this excerpt.
This is author David G. Herrmann's only published work.
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