The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
The publication of Norman Stone’s history of the eastern front in the First World War reveals why it has had so few predecessors (virtually none in English). It covers a field of immense complexity, imperfectly recorded. Though the war started on an Eastern pretext, the killing of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist, it immediately turned into a gigantic struggle between the Western powers.
It is not merely the subjectivity of Western observers and historians that supports the view that the eastern front was a subsidiary theater of operations, and that it cannot be satisfactorily studied except in relation to the simultaneous state of play in the West. Above all, the war in the East produced no military decision. The armies, one after the other, just stopped fighting. The Germans alone held together long enough with a skeleton force to register the Pyrrhic victory of the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Soviet Russia in 1918—only to succumb themselves a few months later to the Western powers. In the East everyone was defeated: not only Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins who opposed them. It is difficult to write a coherent history of military campaigns which in the end yielded no fruits to anyone.
Stone has formidable energy and capacities, including linguistic capacities, as a research worker. He has quarried far and wide, and presents to the reader large chunks of unknown or unworked material. In this aspect he is outstanding. The trouble comes with the design and purpose of the book. Stone has been trapped in a task whose magnitude he certainly did not suspect when he embarked on it. If he had wished to write a synoptic one-volume account of the eastern campaigns of 1914-1917, he would have needed both to acquire a broader understanding of the whole period and to renounce the minutiae of research on incidental topics. If he had wished—as he undoubtedly intended at the outset—to write a scholarly piece of research based on an exhaustive study of original sources, he needed to narrow his subject to manageable dimensions, which would have enabled him to make an authoritative contribution to a limited theme.
Having failed to choose, the writer has not done justice to his abilities. The result is a muddle. An overweight of factual and statistical information, often on minor topics, alternates with slapdash impressionism on major issues; and there is little in between. All this makes the narrative heavy going. The appearance here and there in the text of overcrowded and undecipherable sketch-maps of the principal battles does not really help. Nor does an addiction to epigrams that do not quite come off: “Sukhomlinov’s administration fell victim to development-economics rather than to corruption or mismanagement”; or “the war economy illustrated the force of the maxim, ‘il faut souffrir pour être belle.’ ”
The reader who is willing to persevere can, nevertheless, learn a lot. By far the best sections are those dealing with Austria-Hungary. Stone seems to have been…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.