WWI “On A Knife Edge”

How did the Germans lose WWI when at times, according to this new history, they came close to winning early on?  The reasons are varied and fascinating in a beautifully detailed, in-depth exploration of German motives, perceptions, actions, and failures of imagination.

One determining factor was that Germany’s high command was riven by strategic and personal disputes and these also existed across the various “power centers” in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire at the time including the Kaiser and his court, the German parliament, the army’s Supreme Command and the army itself.  Some generals wouldn’t even speak to each other for weeks at a time.  And conditions only got worse over time with miscommunications and fiction between generals and politicians, politicians and the high Command, with the Kaiser growing more and more delusional.

Just as significant, Germany’s new intelligence service was severely understaffed and thus prone to making wildly incorrect judgments, as for instance ranking the U.S. a less significant military power than Bulgaria. Or positing that England could be handily quarantined by only a handful of U-boats.  Far more devastating, in The Battle of Verdun, the Germans grossly overestimated French losses and never planned for heavy German losses.

German prejudice about the French was widespread among the powerful decision makers.  The French were under-rated in terms of their military performance, and perhaps just as seriously, as a people.  One high echelon leader thought that “the French national character showed a tendency towards hysterical mood swings.”  That’s funny and tragic at the same time.

Another military leader believed that Germany would always beat France no matter what, since “the character of our dear neighbours has hardly changed since 1870.”  Such dismissive and contemptuous views were widespread in Germany as a whole and certainly among the military’s elite, despite French superiority of numbers in many sectors of the Western Front and Germany’s continued inability to strike a knockout blow on their opponents.   As if such arrogance wasn’t enough to tip the scales against Germany, political and military leaders could not agree on war aims, what would be an acceptable peace agreement, and whether to annex conquered territory or not.  The politicians too often “chose the stupidest possible course of action” and overall throughout the war, “Germany’s  approach was largely incoherent and chaotic.”

Though tragedy abounds, sometimes the events slip into farce.  One example: Germany and Austria-Hungary had divided Russian Poland between them and wanted to mobilize a Polish army to fight against Russia.  They proclaimed a new Kingdom of Poland without there being a king, government, constitution, parliament or anything else you’d expect for a new nation.  The plan was a dud.

While the book is somewhat slow to get going, once the author delves deeper into the often chaotic decision-making process for Germany and its allies, this study becomes truly compelling.  I’ve read many books about WWI, but because this one focuses less on the battles and more on everything happening behind the scenes,  the progress of the war seems much clearer.  It’s a refreshing narrative and the memoirs, diaries, and letters of key figures that he quotes give the book startling immediacy.  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other publications as well as three public radio stations in Michigan. He recently reviewed the classic WWI novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

One Clique to Rule Them All…


If you’ve ever wondered how someone as goofy as Boris Johnson got to be  prime minister of the UK, Chums by Simon Kuper is the book you need to read. Short, sharp and devastatingly insightful, it explains how a tiny clique of posh and semi-posh conservative aristocrats and wannabe aristos have ruled Britain on and off since 1945.

They almost uniformly attended Eton where they learned both public speaking and self-presentation as an art.  Charm, cutting wit and discoursing on subjects about which they were ignorant–and their privileged backgrounds–proved a gateway to Oxford.  Once there, they continued to be focused on style over substance.

Playing student politics in surprisingly byzantine ways prepared them for positions in Parliament and government (sometimes by way of journalism), positions which they believed they deserved.  After all, hadn’t their class historically been in charge of Great Britain?  More than one “chum” felt that entering Westminster was “coming home.”

Boris Johnson seems like the apotheosis of this trend, with his endless blather, his comic hesitations, and his “shambolic” hair:  a rumpled Bertie Wooster. Oxford was his dress rehearsal: In a setting that emphasized and rewarded eccentricity, he was glib, clever, entertaining, “an unthreatening funny man.”

Did he and his ilk stand for anything?  Power for themselves and a fantasy of Britain when it ruled he world or seemed to.

Brexit was something they cooked up as students and young men well before they actually had any power, and their well-documented deception and fakery around the vote to remain or stay in Europe have changed history.

For the Brexiteers, “Brexit was the grand cause [they] had lacked all their political careers.  It would give them a chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had.  It would raise the tediously low stakes of British politics.  It would be a glorious romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk.”

Chums is a ruthless, penetrating, and very funny indictment of a tiny class of Britons who show no sign of letting go of power no matter how hapless or wrong their policies are.  They believed, in the words of author Anne Applebaum “that it was still possible for Britain to make the rules–whether the rules of trade, of economics, of foreign policy–if only their leaders would take the bull by the horns, take the bit between the teeth, if only they would just do it.”

The clichés are deliberate mockery of a caste that has done irreparable harm to Britain and its citizens.  While some of the names might be unfamiliar to American readers, the dynamics of contempt and wanton disregard for the public good while aiding the wealthy should feel very familiar. 

Listening to the latest Oxonian PM, Liz Truss, try to explain her new economic moves that have sent shock waves through the UK and beyond, I’m reminded of lines from The Maltese Falcon.  Humphrey Bogart asks Mary Astor “Was there any truth at all in that yarn?”  Her reply:  “Some…  Not very much.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations in Michigan.