Saturday, May 10, 2008
Our book today is Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie, and it underscores one of our preoccupations here at Stevereads: the build-up to the end of the 19th century. An entire world began to end in 1914, as we've always maintained, but an old world can start to end long before a new one is fully formed.
The important thing to remember about that transition - indeed, the important thing to remember about all history - is that the past was populated by real people. A self-evident observation, one might think, but we here at Stevereads have many times seen otherwise intelligent young people confront a work of history - even one as magnificently engaging as Dreadnought - and respond with helpless despair, or complete indifference. Neither reaction would be possible if those young people knew, really felt that history books contained living, breathing people, some of whom were as young as they are themselves.
Massie succeeds better than anybody writing on the First World War in showing us those living, breathing people, people caught up in the whirlwind of changes that precipitated a cataclysm such as the world hadn't seen in two thousand years. Just look at that great monstrous thing pictured on the front of Massie's book; it (well, close to it - a free book to the first person who can spot the problem) is a picture of that cataclysm, in miniature - arm run amok, reaching for a global scale. The people living in the world of such new things grappled with them as unsurely as people today grapple with suitcase nukes or bioweapons considerably more advanced than mustard gas. They were no different in this regard than people are today - often young, often clueless, often afraid. Approaching history with that in mind reveals it for what it's always been: the best thing in the world to read. Massie's kind of narrative zeal makes it easy to see this.
Of course, his story also contains two individuals who weren't young, two people posterity has come to think of as never having been young. The first of these is Otto von Bismarck, Prussia's "Iron Chancellor" and cold-eyed designer of the calibrated steel spring-trap that would in 1914 snap closed on all of Europe. Massie has a field day with this most congenial of villains, painting a wonderful portrait of the man who so often cowed his nominal superior, Kaiser Wilhelm - as in the contest of wills they had over Bismarck's proposed savage antisocialist measures:
William pleaded that he did not wish to begin his reign by shooting his subjects. He appealed to the ministers, but they, not daring in Bismarck's presence to challenge him, meekly supported the Chancellor. What the young Emperor might do if they failed to support him, they did not know. What Bismarck would do if they opposed him, they knew exactly: he would destroy them.
The second of these never-young individuals is Queen Victoria, whose matriarchal presence on the English throne held all the simmering forces of chaos throughout the West in check. Her death, it could be argued, did more to ensure the eventual outbreak of an unprecedented kind of war than any other single factor, but despite this, and despite the way she's become frozen in the popular mind as a "we are not amused" monument, Massie never fails to ferret out just the right anecdote to show us the actual living person who wore the crown:
At dinner one night at Osborne House, the Queen entertained a famous admiral whose hearing was impaired. Politely, Victoria had asked about his fleet and its activities; then, shifting the subject, she asked about the admiral's sister, an elderly dowager of awesome dignity. The admiral thought she was inquiring about his flagship, which was in need of overhaul. "Well, ma'am," he said, "as soon as I get back I'm going to have her hauled out, roll her on her side, and have the barnacles scraped off her bottom." Victoria stared at him for a second, and then, for minutes afterward, the dining room shook with her unstoppable peals of laughter.
There are gems like this scattered liberally throughout Dreadnought, despite its somber main subject. This book - and its equally-spellbinding sequel, Castles of Steel, are still in print and very much worth your time and attention, especially if you can't in any way picture yourself reading an 800-page history of pre-WWI Europe. Especially if that's true, peak into this book and be happily persuaded otherwise.