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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War”, by Robert K. Massie

1007 pages, Random House, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394528335

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War examines the first arms race of the 20th Century, that of the modern battleship. Robert Massie lays out the development of the Dreadnought-class battleship and its implications, beginning with Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne and ending with the declaration of World War I. The focus is on the monarchies and constitutional governments, and the book closes with the sequence of declarations of general European war in the summer of 1914.

Interestingly, the book does so from a biographical perspective. Virtually every word is focused on giving the reader a clear picture of the personalities involved, from the Queen herself to Kaiser Wilhelm (referred to unfailingly as William in the book), from Cecil Rhodes to Prince Bismarck. This makes the book somewhat more readable, but leaves the reader with the impression that the arms race (and thus the War) is entirely due to individual personalities. Very little time or attention is given to broader social developments, reducing the citizenry of each nation to little more than observers, often even less given the secrecy behind many of the developments.

Kaiser Wilhelm is especially closely considered, making it clear that, at least in part, his own inferiority complex and vacillation between Anglophilia and Anglophobia led to Germany's near-inexorable march towards war. At times, he desired nothing more than the acceptance and respect of his grandmother and uncle (Victoria and Edward VII); at others, he would repudiate any possible tempering influence they might have had. After Bismarck, one chancellor after another rotated through the government, serving at the Emperor's pleasure (due to Bismarck's design in the constitution). Still, the volatile Emperor was occasionally easily manipulated by experienced politicians without realizing it. In most cases, this maintained peace and allowed the danger of war to pass.

Particular attention is also given to Admiral Jacky Fisher, whose reforms in the British Navy at the close of its heyday are still seen in modern navies all over the world. During the great sail-to-steam conversion, it was his focus on gunnery and simulation of wartime situations that kept his Navy at the top of the game. Realizing the importance of speed in naval operations, he continued to push for steam vessels even when this was still controversial. The development of the modern battleship is due in large part to his driving force, constantly seeking to defend his island nation.

Dreadnought does a fine job of illustrating the developments, both military and political, that led to the declaration of one of the most important wars of the last century, little-discussed though it may be. While Dreadnought spends practically no time on the war itself, gaining familiarity with this era of history leads to a sense of sadness at the loss of the world's innocence nearly one hundred years ago.

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