A perfectly absurd book. I read this 900 page tome while dreadfully sick, unable to move from bed or really do anything else. And that is the ideal way to read this book, and about the only way that I could recommend reading it.
The book is immensely overwritten. It tells the pre-history of WWI via character and family. Each of the dozens of historical figures is introduced with a 3+ page life sketch. In addition, you learn about their ancestors, often just to the level of their parents, but the author is really happiest when he can also write another ten or twenty pages about their grand parents and great grand parents too. And there really doesn't seem to be anything that the writer felt the need to leave out. Anecdotes, letters, relationships, adulteries, hobbies, estate histories, early careers, daily habits, office arrangements, inter-office rivalries, everything that the author turned up in his researches is stuffed into this book. If I had come across this manuscript typewritten on someone's desk, and without the official binding and "Pulitzer Prize Winner" quotes on the front, I would suspect the author of severe mental illness. It would be something akin to the hoarder's inability to tell useful material from junk, and never being able to edit out anything that they've accumulated.
And it is a shame; Massey can write with great acuity and precision when he puts his mind to it. There are excellent sections which perfectly explain the European balance of power and diplomatic considerations, or various strategic naval considerations at play. He clearly has a great understanding of the material, and I think he could have written a really wonderful 300 page book on the subject.
Unfortunately though, the clear and useful sections are buried under this weight of European politics as high school pettiness and cliques. There are endless sections on who snubbed who, which royals liked each other, how this state visit went, which ministers disliked each other, how they nepotized or back-stabbed each other, etc. etc. It is kind of interesting in that it paints a picture (an accurate picture?) of the British and German civil service, and their various monarchs. In the end though I'm not sure that all those 100's of pages shed any light on anything. No matter what the soft-relations, Britain's continental policy was the same as it had been for the last 300 years, to support the weaker alliance over the stronger alliance in order to keep any one power from dominating the continent. So in the end I'm not sure that the personal relationships or snubs really mattered that much. Similarly, when writing about 1914 and the arrival of war, Massey is quite clear that A) the German's wanted war, and that B) they saw it as a preventive war, that they needed to undertake when they were at a relative maximum of power and before Russia could start displacing them. And when you are reading this section, it's like "well, why didn't you write about this at all in the previous 850 pages?". I mean, if this was the hard rational for a war that the Germans knew would trigger the various alliance structures, why even bother with all the fluff in the rest of the book? Especially so since at this phase the Kaiser was basically sidelined, so all the pages of psychological modelling of him is moot as he did not affect this key decision.
So, anyway. If you'd want a book that talks about the high level royal and diplomatic life in the 100 years before WWI, I guess this is your book. If you're looking for a book in the vein of the Guns of August, which explains how WWI came to be, then this book is not something I could recommend.
Memorable tidbits from the book:
- The case of the Hussar's breeches. The royal navy was transporting some Hussars, however on arrival their breeches were found to be damaged by saltwater. The hussar's officer tried to get the ship's captain to pay for the damages, he refused, the Hussar appealed to his commander, he made a case to the equivalent naval commander, he kicked it up the chain of command, and so on and so forth through the army and naval hierarchy. At last it reached the First Sea Lord, Fischer, the head of the British Navy. On reading the case file, he promptly threw all of the papers into his fireplace. Problem solved! In some ways things were much simpler before email.
- The beautiful Princess Alexa, who was married to the English King before the war. The book mentions that she was a hottie on approximately ten different occasions. Later on, there is a picture of her at age 64, and wow they were not lying. That was not good genes, or make-up, or the lighting of the photograph. She was obviously a vampire. There is no way that a 64 year old person looks that good. Later on there is supporting evidence; on having to cross the north sea, she was said to have lain motionless on deck "like a corpse". This also agrees with the history laid out in _Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter_.
- Churchill's parents, who took the English habit of ignoring their children to ludicrous extremes. There are about a half dozen of the most over the top, puppy-dog-eyes pleading letters from a tween Churchill, asking for just the barest crumb of kindness or attention from his parents.
- It turns out that among his other douche-bag features, Bismark was a proto-libertarian. He was violently opposed to the German State curtailing the freedom of women and children to work for 14 hours on Sundays.