Decisions for War: 1914-1917 by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig
Paperback, 284 pages
Cambridge University Press
December 13, 2004
Source: Purchased for my Masters Class
Decisions for War focuses on the choices made by small coteries, in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and elsewhere to address an easy, yet perplexing, question--why did World War I happen? In each case, the decision to enter the war was made by a handful of individuals--monarchs, ministers, military people, party leaders, ambassadors, and a few others. In each case also, we see separate and distinct agendas, the considerations differing from one nation to the next. The leadership of not just the major countries, but also Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, the Balkans, and the United States are explored.
Please note: this is more of an academic review that I submitted for a prior semester Masters class.
Decisions for War, 1914-1917 by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig is a book that I found to be extremely valuable to my understanding of the complex and varied reasons for the belligerents in World War I to decide to enter the fray. The topic is one that many authors have set out to cover in their books as there is a lot of interest in why the war occurred. Hamilton and Herwig set out to present their material in a different way from those other books out there that analyze this topic. Whereas many authors look at the socio-political reasons for war, or discuss the entry into war as a progressive slide, the authors here very clearly theorize that World War I was a direct result of careful decision making and deliberate actions toward war by a small group of decision makers within all of the major powers in the war.
Regarding their thesis, I found Hamilton and Herwig well supported their thesis and through their writing achieved what they set out to prove in their work. There was no question as to what their thesis was; they clearly delineated it in the earliest chapters and proceeded to further support it in each subsequent belligerent’s chapter. In the introduction to each country’s chapter, they enumerated the individual factors that related to their thesis, reminding the reader in each chapter of how they would support their goals. For example, one of the most direct statements supporting their thesis of deliberate war actions occurs at the introduction to the “Austria-Hungary” chapter, “Austria-Hungary’s leaders were the first to opt for war, and they did so with plan and foresight…their action was not inadvertent, it was no accident, or, to use the most frequent cliché, this was no ‘slide into war.’ In short, the timing and the pace of the July Crisis were set in Vienna” (pg 47). They remained focused on their point throughout the work and at no point did I lose sight of their main idea, which has occurred in others non-fiction books I have read. As much as supporting their own thesis, Hamilton and Herwig also chipped away at the thesis of other authors who wrote on the same topic and provided reasoning as to why these other interpretations left a lot of holes in the story of the origins of World War I. As I have not read very widely on this subject I appreciated the introduction of other theories behind the decisions to go to war as this helped to round out my understanding of other theories out there, without having to have read all of the other books.
With regard to my experience reading Decisions for War, 1914-1917, I found this book to be very well laid out with a logical progression and easy to follow. The authors provide background to the period just prior to the war in one concise chapter to give the reader enough information to proceed with their discussion. Then each of the major powers has their own chapter which focuses on that country’s individual situation surrounding their entry into war – providing important personages and how that group of people reached their decision to partake in the war. Following the major powers are chapters on the later entering belligerents, whose reasons for war were very different from the major powers. Focusing on each country in this way allowed me to get into the mindset of that particular country and see the situation from their perspective, rather than from the grand scheme of an outsider. I think this approach was effective in helping the authors to clearly stick to their thesis as well as to achieve their thesis. I believe that to look at something from the big picture tends to lean the resulting analysis toward a sociological rationale as you are more likely to look for trends amongst the group, rather than the individual level where you can really dig into things.
The only section of this book that I think would have benefited from being tightened up a little bit is the final chapter, “On the Origins of the Catastrophe”. I understand that the purpose of this chapter was to take what the authors compiled during each of the preceding individual country’s chapters and bring them together into the culminating analysis of their thesis, and this is what they did. While I understand the purpose, the execution left the text feeling redundant to me. There was again an analysis of the major powers and the minor powers and their respective power players. This may have worked well as an actual conclusion if they had wrapped it up there; however, they proceeded to introduce some newer analysis following this rehashing which felt like a reopening of the topic again instead of bringing it to a close. Further, when the authors did bring the book to a close, it was rather abrupt and on a seemingly new area of analysis that they had not discussed before – how World War I was a precursor to World War II. This aspect came seemingly out of left field for me. While it makes sense to draw some conclusions on the effect of World War I on the next great war, it would have made more sense to introduce this issue earlier on or at least allude to the fact that it would be being discussed at some point. These last few paragraphs which conclude the book left me more confused than complete. If the authors wanted to tie into World War II it would have made sense to also draw some parallels throughout the chapters on the individual countries to lead into their concluding section.
My reading experience with this book was very enjoyable and I learned quite a bit about the decision-makers and their rationales for war as promised by the authors in the title and at the outset of the book. I appreciated the easy flow of the narrative and how it did not appear to become mired down anywhere. Each chapter had a deliberate purpose in the greater whole and by the end of the book I felt that each of the important participants in the war had been well represented within the pages of this book.
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