NPR logo 'War To End All Wars' A History Lesson For All Ages

Book Reviews

'War To End All Wars' A History Lesson For All Ages

The War To End All Wars
The War To End All Wars
By Russell Freedman
Hardcover, 192 pages
List price: $22
Read An Excerpt

Russell Freedman has set the gold standard in nonfiction for young people, having won virtually every award possible (including the prestigious Newbery Medal and three Newbery Honors). His work is characterized by lucid prose, primary source research and inviting book design — elements that now seem commonplace in youth nonfiction, thanks to his pioneering influence. The text of his latest book, The War to End All Wars, is liberally illustrated with 118 images: four maps, a handful of portraits, and dozens of battlefield photographs. The end result richly combines the authority of a scholarly work, the readability of popular nonfiction and the aesthetic power of a coffee-table photo essay.

In World War I's oft-told narrative, the rash, untimely assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggers an escalating diplomatic crisis as the major European powers find themselves reluctantly but inexorably drawn into open conflict because of a tangled web of alliances and treaties. Initially, the Great War is greeted on every side with patriotic fervor, confidence in military superiority and a widespread belief in a short war. But the rules of the game have changed as new weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and aircraft — wreak havoc on established conventions of war. These developments render cavalry obsolete and reduce infantry to trench warfare. Under the most adverse conditions — cold weather, poor shelter, rampant disease and spells of boredom alternating with terror — opposing armies settle in for a long, protracted fight to claim and reclaim small chunks of territory in a grueling test of endurance. The United States eventually enters the war, and the balance of power shifts, hastening the end.

Russell Freedman is the author of nearly 50 books for young people. In 1988, he won the Newbery Medal for his book Lincoln: A Photobiography. Evans Chan hide caption

toggle caption Evans Chan

Russell Freedman is the author of nearly 50 books for young people. In 1988, he won the Newbery Medal for his book Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Evans Chan

Perhaps the greatest strength of Freedman's book is that amid the epic sweep of world events, it never loses sight of the smaller moments of human drama: "There was our barrage, then the German barrage, and over the top we went. As soon as we got over the top, the fear and terror left us," British Sgt. Maj. Richard Tobin notes about the nearly suicidal experience of jumping out of the trenches and charging the enemy line several hundred yards away.

You don't look, you see; you don't listen, you hear; your nose is filled with fumes and death and you taste the top of your mouth. You are one with your weapon, the veneer of civilization has dropped away and you see just a line of men and a blur of shells.

Precisely observed moments like these not only reveal the role of the common soldier but also provide the most telling commentary on World War I.

Freedman, himself a veteran of the Korean War, dedicates this work to his late father, who served during World War I with the U.S. 7th Infantry Division in France. He follows that with this quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides: "There were great numbers of young men who had never been in a war and were consequently far from unwilling to join in this one." The juxtaposition of the dedication and the epigram recall the most irrefutable truism: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Freedman's ensuing historical narrative serves as a powerful invitation to readers young and old to ponder not only the wars of the past — including this ironically titled War to End All Wars — but also the wars of the present.

Excerpt: 'The War To End All Wars'

The War To End All Wars
The War To End All Wars
By Russell Freedman
Hardcover, 192 pages
List price: $22

European powers had been fighting one another for centuries, but as the summer of 1914 began, Europe was at peace. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, had predicted that his powerful explosives might very well put an end to all war. Rather than annihilate one another, the nations of Europe would have to settle future disputes through negotiation and compromise.

Close economic ties among European countries also made a major war seem unlikely. Prosperity depended on international trade and cooperation.

In addition, there were blood ties linking Europe's royal houses. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George V of Great Britain, grandsons of Britain's Queen Victoria, were cousins. Czar Nicholas II of Russia was a cousin by marriage: His wife, Alexandra, was one of Victoria's granddaughters. Another granddaughter, Ena, was queen of Spain. Except for France and Switzerland, every nation in Europe was a monarchy, and almost every European head of state was related to every other.

Most Europeans looked forward to a peaceful future. "The world is moving away from military ideals," declared the influential British journal Review of Reviews, "and a period of peace, industry, and world-wide friendship is dawning." It was easy enough to ignore the rivalries and suspicions among Europe's great powers that spelled trouble ahead.

Germany was an ambitious young nation. The German states had become a united country only in 1871, as a result of victorious wars against Austria and France. By 1914, the German Empire, with its dynamic economy and industrial might, had emerged as the most powerful nation on the continent of Europe. Germany was competing with its neighbors for trade, influence, and colonies overseas.

Great Britain and France, the leading colonial powers, ruled much of the world beyond Europe's shores. They each possessed a far-flung network of overseas colonies, a source of immense wealth and national pride. Germany, a latecomer to the race for overseas possessions, had only a few colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Striving to be recognized as a world power as well as a European power, Germany sought to extend its influence in the few remaining areas of the world that were not under European rule.

The Germans already had a big army, equipped with the latest weapons. To compete for colonies, Germany's leaders decided that they also needed a modern oceangoing navy that could challenge Britain's centuries-old command of the seas. German shipyards rushed to build a fleet powerful enough to engage Britain's Royal Navy in battle.

Britain relied on its navy to safeguard the trade routes that brought riches to the small, densely populated British Isles and helped feed the British people. Germany's ambitions were seen as a threat to Britain's naval dominance. British leaders responded by launching an ambitious shipbuilding program of their own. So along with a rivalry to grab overseas colonies, Britain and Germany engaged in a costly competition to build bigger and better battleships.

If Britain felt challenged by Germany's aggressive push to become a world power, Germany felt threatened by France and Russia, its neighbors to the west and east. The French had suffered a humiliating defeat in their war with Germany in 1870-71, when France was forced to surrender the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, a loss that France could neither forgive nor forget. Fear and resentment of Germany had drawn France into a military alliance with Russia, which also looked upon the newly powerful German Empire on its border as a threat.

Germany's chief ally was Austria-Hungary, an unwieldy empire of several major religions and numerous languages and nationalities, including large numbers of Serbs who wanted to break away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and declare their independence. The Serbs, like the Russians, were among the Slavic-speaking peoples of eastern Europe. They looked to Russia for protection and support. Austria-Hungary, determined to hold its rickety empire together, suspected Russia of deliberately encouraging unrest.

Rivalries among Europe's Great Powers had led to an elaborate network of military alliances, in which one nation pledged to support another in the event of war. Germany and Austria-Hungry had joined with Italy in what was called the Triple Alliance. France and Russia had an alliance of their own. And Britain, while avoiding formal alliances, had signed ententes (understandings) with both France and Russia, forming what was known as the Triple Entente.

As the European nations chose up sides, they were busily arming themselves. Military leaders warned that it was essential to be strong and prepared, as a warning to any aggressor. So along with the naval armaments race between Britain and Germany, European nations were competing in an arms race on land. Seeking security in military superiority, they recruited ever larger armies and navies, piled up more and more of the latest new weapons, and built wider and stronger fortifications along their national borders.

This arms buildup alarmed some observers. Czar Nicholas II warned that "the accelerating arms race" was "transforming the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations and, if prolonged, will lead to the very cataclysm it seeks to avert."

On June 28, 1914, the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the major European powers all had large standing armies. And they were all armed to the teeth.

Excerpted from The War To End All Wars by Russell Freedman. Copyright 2010 by Russell Freedman. Excerpted by permission of Clarion.

Books Featured In This Story

The War to End All Wars

World War I

by Russell Freedman

Hardcover, 176 pages |


Buy Featured Book

The War to End All Wars
World War I
Russell Freedman

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

We no longer support commenting on stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.