A World Undone

World War I may be the biggest tragedy in history. It destroyed a promising civilization and led to the evils of communism and Nazism. “A World Undone” is the best book I have read about this tragedy. The title is apt. A world was indeed undone. Meyer describes that world and how its faults AND its strengths led to the tragedy. For example, virtues such as courage, perseverance and planning many times made things worse.

Author G.J. Meyer describes the privations on the home fronts. The situation in Germany is especially interesting, as we get little of that in most of the histories I have read.

I found most interesting descriptions of interactions among leaders, military and civilian. There was plenty of incompetence and short sightedness, but there were also rational and well-thought out plans that just didn't work, perhaps because both sides were similarly matched and both sides were thinking of moves and counter moves. Meyer does a good job of talking about all sides. This is a useful antidote to one-sided accounts we often get. When I say "one-sided" I am not talking about only or even mostly patriotic accounts. Rather, it is a big mistake, often repeated, to treat the other side as an object on which we apply our best efforts. Enemies adapt. We learn from each other. It is easy to say "If we did..." This is naive and not pernicious. We and our adversaries share a system in which our common actions invariably produce results neither side could have foreseen.

Viewing all human interactions systemically is a good idea. War, especially a protracted and terrible war like World War I, brings this our in sharper detail, but the complexity and unpredictable nature of human interaction is true always and everywhere. It should be one of the lessons of history and it is what makes reading books like "A World Undone" more than an academic exercise.

Others have written if there is one book you read ... I don't think it is ever a good idea to read just one book about anything, but this one would be a good start. I have thought long about the question of whether historian create history or just report it. It is clear that some creation is going on, as authors must make sense of events and put them in a context that is the creation of the historian and his/her culture. A book like this is possible only in the post-Cold War environment, where we can better see the complexity of multiple relationships.

America has ordered the world as long as most of us have been alive. We have trouble understanding the world of 1914, when was no dominant power. Our world might be becoming more like that of 1914. I hope we do better this time.

Posted by Christine & John at May 1, 2013 9:44 AM
Comment #365235

In my opinion, American participation in WWI was perhaps one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes of the 20th centuries. Of course, my conclusion is based on hindsight. However, WWI represented the very first exertion of American influence in Europe and in doing so, we have inherited much of Europe’s colonial baggage. Ultimately, I still cannot see why the Anglo-French alliance deserved our support anymore than the Central Powers.

Posted by: Warren Porter at May 1, 2013 5:17 PM
Comment #365239


I am recently read another good book called “Those Angry Times.” It was about the peace movement in the late 1930s and how FDR squashed it. In 1939, the vast majority of Americans thought WWI was a big mistake.

Frankly, I think the world might have turned out better if Germany had won that war in 1915. We would have had a economically German dominated Europe, sort of like today and we probably could have avoided the Russian revolution and the rise of fascism. But thing happened as they did and who can say?

Posted by: C&J at May 1, 2013 7:34 PM
Comment #365241
we probably could have avoided the Russian revolution

Recall that the revolution was already underway well before the end of the war. Unfortunately, once WWI had begun, Russia was well along the road to revolution. The Tsarist regime was unsustainable and anachronistic; there is no way it could ever survive the 20th century. Perhaps under different circumstances, the Russian Revolution would remain a purely liberal one rather than being co-opted by the Bolsheviks. Maybe under alternate circumstances, Alexander Kerensky would remain in control, but a German Victory in 1918 or later would not help Kerensky stay in power.

Posted by: Warren Porter at May 1, 2013 7:53 PM
Comment #365243


Russia was on the road to change. It did not have to go to hell with the communists. The Germans brought Lenin to Russia only in 1917. If the war had ended in 1915, Russia might have undergone a more evolutionary change.

Before 1914, Russia was considered a most promising “country of the future.” The economy was improving and market reforms were coming it. It did not have to go the bad way it did.

Communism was essentially the worst case scenario. Almost anything else would have been better. W/o Lenin’s evil genius and good luck to be chosen by the Germans to “infect” Russia, Marx may have languished and been something intellectuals think would be a good idea if tried.

Posted by: C&J at May 1, 2013 8:11 PM
Comment #365244


Germans had not done the deed in 1915

“In the middle of April [1917] the Germans took a sombre decision. Ludendorff refers to it with bated breath. Full allowance must be made for the desperate stakes to which the German war leaders were already committed. They were in the mood which had opened unlimited submarine warfare with the certainty of bringing the United States into the war against them. Upon the Western front they had from the beginning used the most terrible means of offense at their disposal. They had employed poison gas on the largest scale and had invented the ‘Flammenwerfer.’ Nevertheless it was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

Winston S. Churchill
The World Crisis, Volume five.

Posted by: C&J at May 1, 2013 8:14 PM
Comment #365245

For some reason, I mistook 1915 for 1918. C&J , you are correct.

Posted by: Warren Porter at May 1, 2013 9:29 PM
Comment #365334

C&J, WWI didn’t cause communism. Capitalism caused communism. The capitalistic excesses of the time caused communism. The enlightenment didn’t reach the entire world. Democracy and self rule as well as the separation of church and state were not universal.

In Russia Lenin wouldn’t have went anywhere were it not for the Czars and their authoritarian rule over the people of Russia. Lenin and communism was a bit of an improvement over serfdom and slavery that was Czarist Russia.

It seems to me you are using WWI as a means to justify a world with one superpower country. Now think down the road a bit when that superpower is China. That should be enough said.

Posted by: j2t2 at May 3, 2013 10:14 PM
Comment #365357


World War I opened the wound by which the infection of communism entered the world. There are lots of dumb ideas. Communism w/o the activities of Lenin might have ended up as a quaint 19th Century idea. W/o the opening created by WWI, Lenin might have ended life as an angry old man living in exile.

Communism was not an improvement over the Czars. Russia in the early 20th Century was developing. The reforms of Stolypin were beginning to make a big impact by 1914. The communists destroyed all this.

Russia needed to change. It did not need to go down the blind alley of communism.

RE “It seems to me you are using WWI as a means to justify a world with one superpower country. Now think down the road a bit when that superpower is China. That should be enough said.” I honestly have no idea what you mean by that or how you drew that conclusion from anything I wrote. Please explain.

Sometimes I think you confuse describing with prescribing.

Posted by: C&J at May 4, 2013 7:20 AM
Comment #365368


Communism w/o the activities of Lenin might have ended up as a quaint 19th Century idea

Conversely, if Lenin actually lived to old age the result might have been the same. Recall the NEP reforms that did much to strengthen the early USSR. If only they’d been continued for longer, perhaps the USSR could have evolved a free-market economy.

Posted by: Warren Porter at May 4, 2013 1:06 PM
Comment #365378


The NEP was cynically designed to strengthen the state until such time as they could be repealed. The communists undid the reforms of Stolypin, as I mentioned to J2.

If you have communism that allows free use of private property and relies on market forces, I have no problem with it. But I am not sure you could still call the communism.

No matter, as bad as the Czar was, I think that system had more potential to evolve quicker into a free market than did the communists. Communism was simply horrible.

The Czars were authoritarian; communists are totalitarian. I think the difference is between a really bad illness and deadly cancer. Communism is anti-human; humans should be anti-communist.

Posted by: C&J at May 4, 2013 6:39 PM
Post a comment