What I’ve been reading…
Last year I went to London for a week in August. The weather was wonderful and as my hotel was quite close to Hyde Park, I must admit that I spent more than one day just lying in the sun reading.
One of the things I intended on reading during my stay was “1914-1918, The History Of The First World War”, by David Stevenson. I had for some time wanted to get a closer look at The First World War, and Stevenson’s book was supposed to be a good place to start. Also, I knew the book could be bought at half price in the UK – books are very cheap in London – (it only cost £9.99, and shipping is always prohibitedly expensive), so I purchased it in The Imperial War Museum during my stay.
However, as I had already begun reading Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” at that time, I just couldn’t put this book down (incidentally, my hotel was only about 6-700 yards from the Notting Hill Gate Station, which meant that during that week I probably wasn’t living more than a kilometer or two away from Chang’s home address) and a week later I had finished this and begun reading “Harvest of Sorrow”, by Robert Conquest, as well as “A briefer history of time”, by Stephen Hawking. The latter was a little bit of a disappointment, because I had already read the original Brief History and I found that not much new was added. Chang and Conquest are very much recommendable though.
So for the last six months, Stevenson have done nothing but increased my unread/read ratio of books, thus it has increased my risk of becoming a book hoarder. Now I’ve put an end to that – and a good thing too that I finally got around to reading it. The book is very well-documented, rich in details and requires only a minimum of, if any, background knowledge. The book consists of 500 pages that describes the war itself, and of a hundred pages describing the post-war situation and the developments leading up to the Second World War. The bibliography, notes and index are altogether almost 150 pages long. The book has quite a few very detailed maps as well, making the strategic aspects of the war relatively easy to understand for the laymen as well.
The main part of book, that on the war itself, with all it’s different angles and subjects, is very good. However, the last part of the book, the one with the post-war description, was a little bit of a disappointment. It is by far the weakest part of the book, and it could have been done better – especially when it comes to the developments in Russia. Stevenson correctly describes how Russia was “not part of the good company” until at least the mid-thirties, where France started to get really worried about Hitler’s intentions. He also describes a few of the reasons why France (and especially GB) preferred to look west rather than east for potential military aid. What he does not mention, is that the development towards legitimizing the Stalin regime could be considered quite paradoxal, as it would happen at a time where this very regime was arguably far worse and more repressive than the German counterpart, due to the mass killings of peasants in the Ukraine and Soviet Central Asia during the dekulakization in the early 30’es (costing as many (civilian) lives as the total number of war deads on the allied side during the Great War). The Soviet repression is simply not mentioned at all.
Conquest’s point (from The Harvest of Sorrow) that the terror-famine has been largely forgotten or neglected by historians, Stevenson’s work unfortunately is a good example of – and this omission is by far my biggest problem with the book. The Russian repression during the 30’es – both the dekulakization and the show trials later on – was a very important element in the fast German advance on the eastern front in -41 and -42, as well as an important diplomatic issue that made cooperation and coordination between France and Russia difficult – and arguably also cooperation between Stalin and Hitler easier. In short, it made a German-initiated war far more likely. Even if the mass killings didn’t deserve to be mentioned on their own merit, there were good reasons to include them in an analysis linking the First and Second World War together, as they could be considered a consequense of the Russian collapse and the resulting communist takeover that had direct and obvious consequenses wrt. the way the Second War developed.
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