Dominic Lieven’s well-received study of the outbreak of the First World War from the Russian perspective, Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, takes a thorough and well-executed look at familiar events from an unfamiliar perspective: Russia’s.
Lieven’s basic argument is that the causes and course of the First World War were predominantly Eastern European, an emphasis which has been lost in previous concentrations on western tension over matters such as the British-German naval race.
It’s more a great book than an enjoyable one, for the blizzard of names and events can make it tough going at times for the less knowledgeable reader. Moreover, it reads like only half the story at times – because Lieven gives reasons for disagreeing with previous historians without always actually detailing what those others thought and why. The concentration on the history rather than on historians makes events move more quickly but is at times a little overdone.
In some ways the book reminds me of Simon Schama’s Citizens, another book about a notorious dictatorship that ended in bloody revolution. Both in France and Russia the deposed autocrats got a reputation for having failed to modernise, yet as both Lieven and Schama point out, many of the strains that led to their overthrow in fact came from the modernisation they were carrying out. Their problem wasn’t being wedded to the past and being unwilling to change; it was the discontents that came from starting to change.
Of course, the First World War – its causes and course – is such a sprawling topic that no one book can cover all the angles. This one has a good claim to be one of the five you might read on the topic, though if you’re new to the topic, this book is probably best not the first.
The book is very nicely produced – with good quality paper that is a pleasure to leaf through and clear, easy to read typography. The only disappointment is the maps, which are either light on detail or over-packed with confusing detail.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War.
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