In Catastrophe 1914 (Vintage, $17.95), Max Hastings once again proves why he is such a lauded historian. In his latest military-political study, the author of Inferno, Winston’s War, and many others, looks at the opening events of the First World War through the strange dichotomy of great human folly coupled with noble intentions. Far from seeing the conflict as a waste, Hastings paints a picture of Europe struggling on the very edge of losing its identity and freedom; his vivid evocations of battle on both the Western and Eastern fronts follow the many generals, soldiers, and politicians maneuvering both on and behind the scenes. This book details just one year of the war and yet illuminates more about Europe in the first part of the twentieth century than tomes twice its size. Whether or not Hastings convinces you that the war was absolutely necessary, you can’t help but be engaged by his argument, his evidence, and his narrative; this stimulating book will broaden your understanding of the Great War.
A collection of interviews with some of America’s few surviving World War One veterans, Richard Rubin’s The Last of the Doughboys (Mariner, $15.95) offers fresh perspectives on what Rubin calls “the forgotten generation and their forgotten world war.” Supported by well-reported explorations of the social and cultural phenomena that shaped the lives of American soldiers in the First World War, Rubin’s oral histories allow a more immediate and relatable access to a conflict than even the best political or military histories do. Humanizing both the battles and their participants, The Last of the Doughboys stands out among the books published to mark the war’s centennial. It is an essential supplement for understanding the First World War.
Just as a cookie could kill a starving death camp inmate whose system couldn’t handle it, so restoring normality after the insanity of world war was a tricky business. In his global survey of the devastation of 1945, Year Zero (Penguin Press, $29.95), Ian Buruma describes an almost unimaginably complex situation. The old world was in ruins, and this included both the physical infrastructure of cities and industries and the “invisible ruins” of cultures and even of civilization itself. Then there were the millions of displaced persons, the famines, epidemics, and combustible mix of festering bitterness and ready weapons. Buruma, sensitive to the wide sweep of political exigencies as well as to their very real effect on individual lives, starts with his father’s experience as a slave laborer in Germany, then chronicles survival stories of civilians and soldiers from throughout Europe and Asia. Tracking a Liberation Complex, he charts the initial “exultation,” the uses and abuses of fraternization, the complexities of repatriation, and the unwillingness of the formerly powerless—women, colonial subjects—to relinquish new-found independence. The goal, as Buruma shows with great insight and humanity, wasn’t to reassemble pre-war conditions, but to create a world that wouldn’t fall prey to its own destructive tendencies.