Book review: “1917” by David Stevenson

I am all about military history, ever since I got a book on WWI and WWII planes from Hill Air Force base when I was 7-years-old. I was scrolling through my Goodreads to-reads, and this one seemed like a great mix-up from my latest in philosophy and politics. My wife wanted me to read Guns of August first, and that one is definitely on the list. My selection process just happens to be a little more, well, random.

I am increasingly aware of how much society has changed in the past 100 years. Without actually studying history, you get the false impression that “modern” society has always been like this. We suffer terribly from Kahneman’s availability heuristic in a historical sense. The world was a different place in 1917. Even a map doesn’t look the same. Austro-Hungarian Empire?! Wha???

This book does a great service by helping all those who learned their WWI/II history from their US history courses. My knowledge of both wars can be summarized as, “The Allies were losing until ‘MERICUH.” Additionally, a lot of players in the war (India, Brazil, Greece, Italy, the Ottoman Empire) don’t even seem to show up when in reality they were more than just a side-show. In 1917, America hadn’t even entered the war yet. And WWI really was a world war– it had impacts world-wide.

This book orients the reader from various perspectives from chapter to chapter. In one chapter, you’re accompanying Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals in Schloss Bellevue as they try to decide whether to intensify submarine attacks on neutral shipping. In another moment you’re following Tsar Nicholas on a train back to Petrograd as his foreign minister presses for him to abdicate. These multiple perspectives to the war really help frame for the reader that the end of the war was not a foregone conclusion, and that this wasn’t entirely a noble fight of the noble Allies versus the evil proto-Nazis. That comes with 100 years of hindsight clogging up your lenses.

The book is difficult to get through– definitely a good read to put you to sleep. But intermittent napping doesn’t do you any good when trying to keep track of the enormous cast of characters. This isn’t a game of Axis and Allies where you just have to remember the names United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. You have to keep track of the heads of states and heads of government of expanded alliances (United States, France, Britain, Russia, Italy– plus Greece, India, Brazil and others on the Allies; German, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Empire for the Central Powers). Rather than just surveying events in themselves, you spend hundreds of pages examining the discussions, debates, and power struggles that resulted in the events on the battle field. Really great stuff, but I really need to come up with a better system of mentally managing such large dramatis personae.

The book seems to focus on one large decision in 1917 for each of the major powers, with the underlying thesis that 1917 was really the turning point of the war. For Britain, it was the decision to use convoys to chaperone merchant shipping. For Germany, it was whether or not to bomb neutral shipping. For the United States, it was Wilson’s decision whether or not to enter the war. For Russia, it was actually multiple decisions because you go through two regime changes (Tsarist Russia, a short-lived democracy, and the Bolsheviks).

Really great stuff here. I love being able to see the war from different perspectives.

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