1913: The Eve of War–Paul Ham (Kindle Single)

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Paul Ham at times sounds like he’s writing German apologetics in 1913: The Eve of War.  Germans, he argues, had been left behind in the colonial race for prestige and power and countries like Britain, France, and Russia should be faulted for aggressively denying Germany any place on that colonial stage.  The Triple Entente, in effect, pushed Germany into the arms of Austria and Italy. France’s loan to Russia for expanding their railways understandably excited German fears, for example.  Chapter Four is titled, “English Germanophobia v. Germany’s King Neptune.”  Ham argues repeatedly that the German government was not warmongering prior to 1914, but his evidence seems to contradict this claim in several places, such as when he writes that the German government and “its press poodles overtly managed the people’s expectations” with regards to nationalistic possibilities.  The warmongers, he argues, were generals and the press across Europe.  The Germans had legitimate concerns about blockades by the British navy, but lost the naval race despite huge financial expenditures.  The French come under heaviest fire for racist attitudes.  The French president, Poincaré’s “governing animus,” Ham says, “was hatred for, and fear of, Germany, gleaned in his youth in 1871” (the year the Prussians defeated France and completed Bismarck’s program for unification of Germany.  This is starkly contrasted later with Bismarck’s “guiding animus” to acquire power peacefully, an odd characterization for a man who led Prussia into three wars, at least two of which he manufactured to further his nationalist and economic goals.  Britain and Russia eyed the chance for war as an opportunity for distraction from internal conflicts brought about by gross disparities in the distribution of wealth.  Ham repeatedly characterizes the Belle Epoque as soft, ineffective, and elitist, touching very few ordinary people, who were increasingly concerned about God and country.  Indeed, Ham criticizes cultural historians for paying too much attention to this elitist movement.  “Nostalgia-laden hindsight has imposed on the pre-war years,” Ham writes, “the notion of an artistic revolution that touched everyone.  It did not.”  Ham must have hated the attention to the centennial of the Arsenal Exhibition, which focused on the culture shock of 1913, as done in the splendid set of programs by the Fishko Files, Culture Shock: 1913. This argument, too, seems contradicted elsewhere in the work, such as when Ham says that Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia saw the world they knew under serious political and social threat.  

In the end, Ham attributes the war to passive politicians buoyed along by a nationalist press, personal animus, and the need to squelch internal conflicts.  Young men wanted glory and discounted the warnings of their elders from the decadent Belle Epoque (which, again, had no significant impact on anyone).  

In a 2011 interview with the Sydney Herald, Ham says he does not consider himself a historian.  In fact, his training is in economic history and political science (M.A. London School of Economics) and his professional experience is in journalism.  He also says he does not start a book with the end in mind, but does the research, weighs the evidence, then reaches his conclusions.  That is sound practice, but how one reads the research is key and, in this case, Ham’s conclusions about what led to war sound more like a commentary on our own times (he has chastised American foreign policy in other works) than on the early twentieth century.  History teaches us lessons, but there is a danger in mining history to teach the lessons we want it to give.  

Ham’s short work is thought-provoking and offers an interesting place in which to play with ideas, but its internal logic does not hold for me and makes me suspicious of its methodology and goals.  To be fair, however, I may read his longer work, 1914: The Year the World Ended, to see if this is a function of the compressed format or a characteristic of his work generally.  If you are interested in WWI and want a quick read, try out Ham’s 1913: The Eve of War, but keep your critical thinking cap on.

Finished 1/5/14

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