Top critical review
A very good single-volume history of WWI with some serious flaws. Perfect for laymen
October 9, 2018
Review of A World Undone by Meyer (Kindle version)
Most books about WWI concentrate on specific things: a period of time, a theater of war, a certain battle, diplomacy, the issue of why the war started at all or who is to blame. Recently it has become fashionable to put forth the soldiers’ point of view and to discuss the legacy of the war. In contrast, this book has it all—it’s kind of a WWI smorgasbord. Normally, the results of such a mix would be horrendous, but here it not only works, it works fabulously. I credit the author’s immense skill in separating the wheat from the chaff, his ability to provide just the right amount of detail, and also to his successful decision to intersperse the text with short background sections that greatly enhanced my understanding of the issues without interfering with the reading experience. In addition, the author is simply a gifted storyteller. Still, the book does have some serious problems. Here are some more comments, in bullet-point form:
• The prose is fluent, and engaging, and reads like a great, sweeping novel—as far as possible from a dry, dusty history book. Also, it must have been proofread to death because I did not find even one mistake.
• The author has a subtle sense of humor that makes the text even more enjoyable.
• The level of detail in the descriptions of battles is fine enough to understand what is happening but not enough to require detailed maps, which the book rarely provides in any case (and which are too small to read on the Kindle anyway).
• As far as I can tell, the book is up-to-date with the most recent scholarship on the various issues.
• The background sections are brief but amazingly informative, worth the price of the book by themselves. Beside background on the royal families there are chapters on the Armenian Genocide, life in the trenches, shell shock, the role of women, and much more.
• No notes! I have no idea how a history books gets published these days—and in a convenient electronic medium no less—without including footnotes in the text. This is unconscionable. The book has endnotes for each chapter, but they do not refer to any page specifically, so they are just a useless mess. This really is infuriating. Basically, a history book with no sources. Unbelievable.
• The ending is real bad. Apparently, the author ran out of steam, because the description of the end of the war and the Treaty of Versailles is very brief and at an entirely different (lower) level than the rest of the book. Really a shame. The author also embraces the myth of an allied blockade starving Germany after the ceasefire, which seems to be wrong (see Sally Marks “Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty” – essay from 2013).
Bottom line: Despite its grave shortcomings, this an excellent single-volume book about WWI. It is perfect for laymen who want to understand the war without having to read a ton of books, but it can also serve as an excellent starting point for those who want to dig in deeper. For a detailed discussion of specific issues, other books will serve you better.