Sam Holstein

“The First World War” by Michael Howard Demystifies an Extremely Complicated Historical Topic

“The First World War” by Michael Howard Demystifies an Extremely Complicated Historical Topic

Oh god, what is it about World War I books? Why are they always three times as long as any book about anything else? Why must they recursively discuss precedents for three chapters? And why do they always claim I need to know all this even though the both of us know I could very well live my life without knowing it?

Well, fear not, because #notallhistorybooks. The First World War: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Howard is an excellent book with a length any reader will find approachable. It does what every other WWI book does not: Gives you a short and thorough summary that teaches you everything you need to know to place your new knowledge in a broader context of the war.

See, that’s the thing these winding World War I histories don’t do. Or any winding histories, for that matter. They give such granular analyses of historical events that casual readers fail to understand the bigger picture. WWI histories tried to teach me how many men died in individual battles before teaching me about what the Germans even wanted from the war.

After reading The First World War, I didn’t suffer from that problem. When my historian friends talked to me about individual battles, I was able to place those battles on a timeline and understand the impact of those battles in a way I wasn’t able to before.


The thing you need to understand about controversies surrounding history books is that no matter what historical topic you’re discussing, there are always accredited historians somewhere enthusiastically pushing for a different conclusion. So no matter what your history book says, someone is gonna stand up and say “Well, they’re really oversimplifying it a lot, and they’re leaving this other thing out…”

Not only that, but The First World War is about, you know, the first world war. It’s an extraordinarily complicated period of time for historians. Any summary of the war that is remotely summary-like is invariably leaving lots of very important things out, and this summary is no exception.

All that said, I think the summary retains the important bits. As someone who is not a historian and not particularly interested in history, I felt reading this book was an easy investment of a small amount of my time to get a disproportionately thorough understanding of the war. A history book built like a brick would no doubt give me a better understanding, but I’m not willing to invest the 15 hours reading to find out.

What This Book Taught Me

Sometimes there are no bad guys. World War I started in a sad and regrettable way for all parties. Each individual nation had a “good reason” for getting into the war and no one started out as the obvious moral “bad” guy.

Sometimes everyone is the bad guy. Politicians at the time hoped WWI would be a short engagement, despite analysts telling them otherwise. When the war did drag on, it got ugly.

They don’t teach us anything in history class. These were basic historical facts I was reading, but much of it was content I’d never read before anywhere in my life. That’s a failure of the educational system.

You don’t need that much history to be an effective thinker. We all know much less history than we need, but the average person doesn’t need to know that much history to be an effective thinker. A good historical education is achievable. Average people don’t need to take classes or read huge books. We can start with a basic summary of humanity from civilization’s origin until now and go from there.

Who I’d Recommend This Book For

People who don’t know a daggone thing about history — which is, sadly, most of us. If you don’t know the year WWI started, or why, pick up this book and give it a read. You think you don’t need that knowledge to live your life, but not being historically literate is like being educated in a bubble. You lack insight into what your knowledge actually means or why it matters to any of us.