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The Greatest Family Feud : DREADNOUGHT: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, By Robert K. Massie (Random House: $35; 1,004 pp., illustrated)

December 08, 1991|Geoffrey Moorhouse | Moorhouse's latest book, "Hell's Foundations: A Town, Its Myths and Gallipoli," is to be published in the spring

It's almost three years since Barbara Tuchman died, and Robert K. Massie has been an obvious aspirant to her title as the finest narrative historian alive. Though his track record has been relatively short, it has already won him a Pulitzer Prize, his study of Peter the Great crowning his earlier work on the last of the Romanovs. Like Tuchman, Massie handles epic themes, and now he has tried one of the biggest: nothing less than the origins of World War I.

What on earth, it may be asked, can anyone possibly say on this topic that hasn't already been said a thousand times? Moreover, Massie daringly invites a direct comparison with Tuchman, who tackled it twice. She didn't take up anything like the space "Dreadnought" occupies in order to do justice to her talent and her theme, but never mind about that; there's nothing wrong with a blockbuster now and then, provided it carries its reader all the way through.

If anything justifies the lengthy approach it is the events leading up to August, 1914, though I can't think of anyone else who has started rummaging through the 19th Century as early as Massie, who starts his book with glimpses of Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. From then on, the scope becomes immense, encompassing the Pacific, the Falkland Isles, China, South and East Africa, the Sudan and Morocco, as well as the whole of Europe and the empire of the Czar. And what a cast list to work your way through: Victoria and Albert, two Kaisers, Bismarck, Churchill, Von Tirpitz and Admiral Fisher, to sample only a few of the dominant figures from the two chief protagonists.

What makes the Anglo-German rivalry more fascinating than the preamble to all other non-civil wars is that the rulers of both nations were blood relatives, as often as not close to each other. Victoria, who spoke nothing but German until she was 3, was "Dearest Grandmama" to Kaiser Bill, and he it was who held her in his arms as she died on the isle of Wight only a few years before their countries tried to wipe each other out. Edward VII actually made the emperor a field marshal in the British Army in an attempt to seal that bond in 1901. But, as Massie demonstrates, Wilhelm II wavered between "I adore England" and "petulant grievance which came close to hate. He wished to be understood and accepted as an English gentleman and, at the same time, feared as a Prussian warlord."

The grievance was to do with British naval supremacy and her vast territorial possessions overseas, which made conflict inevitable, once Germany had decided to challenge both. As late as 1898, the British were ready to abandon their isolationist attitude to Europe and form an alliance with the Germans, but Joseph Chamberlain's advances were spurned in Berlin and London turned to Paris for consolation instead. The assassination at Sarajevo was merely the spark that fired tinder that had been accumulating for decades. When the Kaiser and his generals decided to take on all the Slavs and their French allies, using Austria's wrangle with the Serbs as a vaulting horse, they did not believe that the British would wish to intervene when the Balkans were so far from her shores. This was a ludicrous misjudgment of a country that had been fighting wars at much longer range than that for well over a hundred years.

Massie's book is well named, after the British battleship that was more powerful than anything in preceding naval history. With her armor, her speed and her firepower, HMS Dreadnought was as revolutionary as the jet fighter of a later age. As she sank only one vessel in her entire career, a submarine she rammed in 1915, it might be thought that Lloyd George was right when he condemned her building as "a piece of wanton and ostentatious profligacy." To Massie, however, she symbolizes the most important single factor leading up to the Great War. At least, it is the factor that, by a long way, most interests him.

He is so brilliant on everything he writes here about ships and the sea that one almost suspects he has willfully overemphasized the Anglo-German rivalry in the dockyards and afloat in order to enjoy his work the more. Starting with that genuflection to Nelson and the wooden hulls of 1805, there is little he doesn't tell us about 19th- and early 20th-Century naval affairs, and he is especially fond of Jacky Fisher, "England's greatest admiral since Nelson."

Vain, cocky, anti-Establishment, an endearingly simple soul in many ways, Fisher believed that soldiers were congenital incompetents whom the sailors had to salvage whenever they made a mess. He transformed the Royal Navy in gunnery, in messing, in propulsion, and he gave it new weapons. He introduced the submarine and, with an eye to publicity, persuaded the Prince of Wales to take a trip in one. As it submerged, the future Queen Mary was heard to observe under her breath, "I shall be very disappointed if George doesn't come up again."

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