Michael Howard’s the First World War: A Very Short Introduction, Book Review Example

At the very outset of his book The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, the author Michael Howard gives the reader the theoretical framework with which he will present his history of First World War. Howard thus writes: “Karl von Clausewitz had written in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that war was a trinity composed of the policy of the government, the activities of the military, and the ‘passions of the peoples.’ Each of these must be taken into account if we are to understand both why the war happened and why it took the course that it did.” (1) As Howard also notes in his introductory paragraph, the course that was taken by the war was in fact “catastrophic.” (1) Although as Howard explains European powers had fought wars against each other throughout the world and in Europe itself, for example, the aforementioned Napoleonic wars, the First World War obviously contained within it an element of such destruction on such a scale that it merited the name of “world war.” Arguably, the approach of Howard is to explain the massive scale of this war precisely in terms of the Clausewitzian principles he cites. Accordingly, the First World War becomes such a catastrophic and mammoth event precisely because each of the Clausewtizian principles contributing to war exercised and presented themselves in a radical manner. In this regard, Howard’s work can be understood as a commentary on how the First World War satisfied such principles and took them at the same to their extreme.

Howard is clear at the outset of the work, in which he outlines the geopolitical situation in Europe at the time, that there was a continuity between the power structures and hegemonic power holders in Europe at the beginning of the First World War with previous European history. As he writes, such power structures were “much the same as they had been for the previous two centuries.” (1) Hence, the First World War in this light is presented as a certain exacerbation of the power structures of Europe which culminated in the First World War. In light of the Clausewitzian framework that guides Howard’s reading, policies, military action and the hearts and minds of the people all combined into an explosive mix to yield the situation.

Following this thesis, Howard carefully shows how the policies of the European powers were perhaps become more fragmented and conflictive, to the extent that a certain breaking point had been reached. Howard charts a basic deterioration of relations in the Europe of the time period, placing quite literally the powers of Europe at each other’s throats; in particular, “relations between Austia-Hungary and Russia deteriorated as badly as those between Britain and Germany.” (13) Here, there was a clear degeneration of the potential of diplomatic talks between the powers at stake. While as Howard also notes tensions between these powers, in various relationships and forms, had been a stable feature of European politics in the previous centuries, the First World War was marked by a point of no return in terms of these tensions. There is a point in which diplomatic conflict takes an armed aim, thus satisfying the Clausewitzian criterion of exacerbation of policy.

Yet at the same time, mere tensions were not enough to ignite the First World War in its maddening violence. Following Clausewitz, there must be military and populist elements to a conflict. It is arguably the “passions of the people” that most displayed themselves in igniting the First World War. In particular, Howard notes that it was the Balkans that played a key role in the conflict. The assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, according to Howard, was not significant in itself: “the crisis perpetuated by the Archduke’s assassination at first seemed no worse than the half-dozen or so that had preceded it in the Balkans since 1908.” (15) Hence, passions of various nationalists seeking to assert their autonomy on a national level amidst the multi-ethnic empire of Austria Hungary is construed by Howard as nothing new. What is significant was an Austrian response that intended to “crush their Serbian enemy for good.” (15) Here, the passions of the people explosively combined with national policy decisions to yield conflict, thus satisfying the basic Clausewitzian thesis that underlies Howard’s work.

Arguably, the element of Clausewitz’s thesis that Howard pays least attention to the book is perhaps the most crucial: that of military activities. For military activities and the scope of the war was only created by substantial technological gains that made a wider and more destructive war possible. This separates the First World War from, for example, the Napoleonic wars. Yet Howard only mentions modern technology once in the book: on page 106, where he discusses “a model of infantry-tank cooperation…now put to use on a very much large scale.” (106) Whereas such tactics developed only during the war, arguably what ignited the war was the technological capabilities that expanded the very potential of military activities as Clausewitz defines it. It is this large scale violence that ultimately envelops a world and suffices the labeling of a truly world war.

Howard thus not only provides an admirable summary of the First World War, providing a lucid narrative about its beginnings and unfolding, but also gives the reader a theoretical framework with which to think about why the world developed as it did: that of Clausewitz. Howard successfully uses this framework to expand his narrative to the reader, noting the significance of policy and the hearts and minds of the people. Yet arguably he falls somewhat short in noting the changes in military activity, above all demonstrated in increased technological capability. The Clausewitzian trinity seems to be wholly relevant to explaining the First World War, as Howard’s work makes clear: the only question that remains is whether Howard has developed the potency of this trinity enough in his work so as to provide a more complete picture of the conflict.

Works Cited

Howard, M. (2002). The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.