Shelby Foote’s The Civil War is a vibrant account of America’s great tragedy. The same goes for Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Random House, 2013), an action-oriented introduction to a conflict that was terrible in itself and also led to Communism, Nazism, and World War II.
Hastings tells well how Europe’s civil war began, a story few now know. He keeps the narrative moving and also creates cutting exit lines. A section on how England’s army leaders disliked each other concludes with this zinger: “The only band of brothers to which Britain’s generals might be likened was that of Cain and Abel.” Or sample this description of incompetent Russian General Samsonov: “The Russian presented his troops to the enemy like successive courses of a banquet, to be devoured in detail.”
But Hastings also brings out the role of ideology. Gen. Friedrich von Bernhardi’s 1912 bestseller, Germany and the Next War, emphasized a German “duty to make war. … War is a biological necessity of the first importance. … Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of heavy, budding elements.” England also had its Social Darwinists, as well as scholars who pointed out the misuse of historical analogy: “Several British academics warned of the prevalence of opinion in German universities about the inevitability of a historic struggle between the Kaiser’s people and their own, identified as ascendant Rome and doomed Carthage.”
These days we complain about media emphasis on the relatively trivial, but it was no different a century ago: On July 28, as Austria declared war on Serbia (and thus provoked Russia, which provoked Germany, which provoked France and England), coverage of a sensational murder trial was the big news in Paris. Hastings also corrects the canard that the populaces of combatants-to-be welcomed war. He quotes the Rheinische Zeitung concerning the mood among typical Germans and their families: “no noise, no songs. One hears sobbing and sees men looking grave.” Similarly, a visitor to the Russian countryside reported a “stunned silence” broken by the sound of “men, women, and children weeping.”
The role of domestic politics in foreign policy calculation is also worth analyzing: Russia went from 222 strikes in 1910 to 3,534 in 1914, but instead of dealing with Russian labor’s fair demands, the president of the Duma (Russia’s legislature of sorts) told Czar Nicholas II that a war “will raise the government’s prestige.” In the end, the prediction of Baron Nikolai Wrangel was far wiser: “A period of barbarism is about to begin and it will last for decades.”
The celebrated musician Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is the subject of more than 30 biographies, some very good, and he wrote an autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. But (and it is a big “but”) none of the previous sanitized books deal adequately and forthrightly with the issue of Ellington’s flawed character in the midst of his musical brilliance.
Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham, 2013) wades into these waters with tender and illuminating observations about the musician’s serial infidelities, his contemptuous treatment of early musical rivals (Jelly Roll Morton), his credit-taking for songs he didn’t write, and his manipulation of relationships with colleagues, especially the brilliant young gay lyricist/composer Billy Strayhorn.
And yet Teachout notes Ellington’s ambiguous “embrace of Christianity” by relating that he read the Bible daily—Ellington read the Scriptures through three times in his lifetime—prayed in his hotel rooms and dressing rooms on a consistent basis, wore a small gold cross around his neck, and composed three massive sacred concerts at the end of his life. Teachout quotes Ellington, “I’ve had three educations—the street corner, going to school, and the Bible. The Bible is the most important. It taught me to look at a man’s insides instead of the cut of his suit.” —Robert Case creates Great American Songbook segments on The World and Everything in It.