Review: The German Wars: 1914 – 1945 (Goodspeed)

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The German Wars: 1914 – 1945.

After three readings, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the author’s main argument: that not only was the War Guilt Clause incorrect, but also that the vengeful French, and to a slightly lesser extent, the Slavic-imperialist Russians and the careless British, were really the ones to blame for the unnecessary First World War (and consequently, the Second, which was a necessary mop-up).

What’s more, Goodspeed reveals that he’s not quite convinced of the point he’s trying to make. After issuing several sweeping generalizations about the universal desires and intentions of the people of those countries, as a whole (such as “ears pricked up all over France,” and similar statements), on page 156 he back-pedals in a self-exculpatory footnote:

‘*Perhaps here it should be pointed out — what is surely, in any case, evident — that when the historian speaks of “France,” or “Russia,” or “Britain,” he is employing a sort of shorthand. He does not mean the totality of those nations but is, rather, speaking only of the French or the Russian or the British government, and even, in many cases, only of that sector of the government actually responsible for the policy under discussion.’

That being the case, then why make such blanket statements at all? The certitude with which the writer makes those pronouncements, as well as their volume, come across as a desperate attempt to promote a shaky hypothesis by means of hyperbole.

Then, after noting Kaiser Wilhelm’s immature, airheaded and progressively psychotic behavior, the author illogically proceeds to credit the man with intelligent decision-making, and with sincere and lofty good intentions. He takes all of the Kaiser’s statements and actions at face value, despite the obvious hallmarks of Willy’s manipulative behavior.

Goodspeed makes no secret of his contempt for Italy, by his making snarky remarks about the country and its people. This rudeness is thinly veiled by efforts to sound clever and amusing, but the effect is to impair his credibility as a serious historian.

The author’s second premise, that the two major 20th-century wars were really one war with a prolonged cease-fire in the middle, has gained credence in the generation since this book was written. His assessment of Hitler and the Nazi regime is neither better nor worse than any number of other histories of the Second World War. Although colored with typical Cold War-era pessimism and usage, his concluding chapter does foreshadow some current developments in the Near East and Central Asia.

The work is poorly organized, with no descriptive titles to its chapters, and only the vague designation of “Books” listed in the table of contents. Each chapter rambles with minutiae that purport to be exhaustively researched, but most of the quotations are not identified in the end notes, and the ones that are mentioned, are cited in a cumbersome format that eschews note numbers and other accepted forms of reference documentation, further obscuring their origins. One wonders what he’s trying to hide, by his making it so hard to follow up on his sources.

The impression this book conveys is that Goodspeed wrote a rehash of known history, and gave it an unusual but ultimately unsustainable spin to get it sold.

Caveat emptor. There are better history books out there.

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