War is hell. Or, at least, getting war history wrong is hell. We did not catch a glaring error on the Fourth of July. We got fireworks in return.
We offer our sincere apologies. In a cover piece about three World War I books, our reviewer misstated the outcome of a war, our editors failed to catch it, and the mistake got into print, attracting considerable attention from our readers. The number of passionate letters we received is clear evidence that Book World readers know their history. The three excerpts below represent perhaps 200 submissions.
Your review of John Keegan's The First World War, Byron Farwell's Over There, and Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (Book World, July 4) states that Germany lost the Alsace-Lorraine region to France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Prussia, not France, won the Franco-Prussian War and was ceded the Alsace-Lorraine region. France with American help won it back in World War I.
European history has not changed, though your editors, reviewers and writers seem to think so.
I found five egregious errors of fact in Chris Patsilelis's trilogy of reviews of Great War books. I have met and listened to Keegan and read his works; he is meticulous and a superb analyst, and I rather doubt he would have erred as Patsilelis cites him:
"As German power grew, France's old fear -- that Germany would recapture the Alsace-Lorraine region it lost to France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 -- made her increasingly wary. And Germany had its seemingly intractable Schleiffen Plan, a masterpiece of rigid, chessboard thinking by which it would invade France in a huge flanking movement across neutral Belgium. Then there was the Balkan Problem: all those Slav minorities in Serbia, straining toward separate nationhoods from Germany, Austria and Russia."
Three errors. First -- it was the Emperor Napoleon III who, full of himself and his army full of self-vaunting militarism, declared war on Germany in 1870. The Germans, whose armies had been wholly reformed, and whose concentration of effort had not been on forts, as had the French, but upon the building of railways so that troops and materiel might be rapidly moved from point to point as needed, were quick to move, and quicker to attack, and were totally victorious. In the end, it was Wilhelm, King of Prussia, who entered the palace of Versailles, there to be crowned Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany, thereby bringing all the varied parts of a formerly loose German Confederation under one imperial roof. At that time, Prinz und Graf Otto von Bismarck, better known as Prussia's "Iron Chancellor," who had been practicably running the whole Germanic setup for decades, was hugely and internationally respected -- until he recommended to Wilhelm, with severe warnings and black prophesies if ignored, that the new Imperium not demand more of France than monetary reparations and control of certain frontier-area forts, notably at Sedan and Metz, and around Strasbourg/Strasburg. His advice was ignored, and Germany took over both aforenoted provinces. The loss of those two provinces rankled and simmered very bitterly in France thereafter, and recovery of them was a primary WWI French war aim.
Second -- the seemingly intractable Schleiffen Plan. It was far from rigid, unless one accepts the strategic concept and its accompanying right-wing movement plan as "rigid." In fact, it was far-sighted and quite radical for its time. It called for a large and sizeable -- but while threatening, actually not really moving -- front down the east side of the French border area (all those old forts and stuff), while taking a humongous army group on a huge sweep completely north and east around the Argonne region, via Belgium, and thence swinging south directly to Paris. The plan failed because the German High Command got goosey at the last minute, and instead of keeping the right wing incredibly strong, sent those critical extra divisions to that other frontier region to defend against what it thought would be a French assault. The result was a stallout, then the Marne, then trench warfare. Britain entered the conflict not so much because of any Entente agreements but precisely because no British government -- not to mention the British people -- would tolerate a great Continental power such as Imperial Germany being on the shores of the Channel
Third -- those supposed Slav minorities "straining toward nationhood" in Serbia. There were indeed Slavs in Serbia -- the words are practicably synonymous -- but no minorities as we understand them. Serbia was an independent kingdom, with a reputation for vicious in-house quarrelling when it was not at war with neighbors, which it repeatedly was, and had been for many years, most lately in 1912. As for Slav, semi-Slav and non-Slav portions of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, they were uncommonly stable, despite a variety of languages, ethnicities, and religions -- so much variety that the Empire, which prided itself on everyone getting along, kept a huge government department devoted to nothing but minority interests.
"Once the war started, the telephone and radio proved altogether useless on the battlefield."
Radio, sure -- it was in its infancy, and was indeed practicably useless in France, though it became increasingly helpful at sea, where it had been for years. Telephones, however, were a very different matter. In fact, phone lines were being run all over the place on both sides by all concerned, all the time. The problem was shell fire, which tended to break lines and kill line-carriers -- but that did not stop the phoning or line-running, not even at the pockmarked lands around Verdun in 1916. As the war went on, both Britain and the late-arriving U.S. troops established entire telephone centers from major headquarters out as close to the fronts as they could safely get the women who ran them.
The notorious Zimmerman telegram. Farwell is referred to as saying that discovery of that bit of paper "revealed an alliance between Germany and Mexico that encouraged Mexico to recapture its lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona . . ." Hardly. There was no such alliance, which was the whole point of the telegram: to induce Mexico to leap into what the Germans presumed was a national and easily inflamed wish to get all that territory back again. The object was to have Mexico open what would amount to a southern front for the U.S. Army, thus keeping it too busy to get into any war in Europe.
As a retired newspaper editor and publisher, and reporter long before that, I sometimes wonder if moderns actually read history any more.
Frank Pierce Young,
I was intrigued to read in yesterday's review by Chris Patsilelis about France's prewar fear "that Germany would recapture the Alsace-Lorraine region it lost to France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71."
Can we next expect to learn that the U.S. South feared after 1865 that it might have to give up the slavery the North failed to abolish when the North lost the Civil War? Or that Germany feared that the USSR might recapture the East Prussian region it lost to Germany in World War II?
Perhaps it all just confirms that war is at best a doubtful enterprise. Hell, even the experts can't remember who won.
Why would you ask Eddy Harris, a young, urban, American black man, to review a book about African white hunters (White Hunters, by Brian Herne; Book World, June 6) who lived in a time and place that thrived before he was even born? Is The Post so politically correct (read bigoted) and real-world-disconnected (read elitist) that you would expect anything other than what you got, which may or may not have had anything to do with the contents of the book?
When I read a book review, I expect insight from someone with a connection to, or a knowledge of, the subject, story or author. What you delivered was so trendy and predictable (and factually incorrect) that it not only diminished the worth of The Post's efforts but those of Eddy Harris as well; which is a shame, for I recall Harris's Mississippi Solo as an insightful and passionate memoir. To ask a city-raised black man who is neither a hunter nor a naturalist, nor understanding of either, and whose most vivid personal experience with white "hunters" was an incident where he feared for his life at the hands of two rednecks, to review a book about "white hunters" is a setup, and not worthy of even the most mediocre journalistic standards.
Ralph W. McDowell,
God only knows what book Ken Ringle read when he pretended to review The Immaculate Invasion (Book World, April 18), my chronicle of the American military invasion of Haiti, but the apparent malice aforethought with which he approached the task is breathtaking, and reeks of serious payback.
Ringle is of course free to dislike my book, and I would not even be writing this letter if his contempt for my book was the beginning and the end of the story. Ringle is not however at liberty to serve forth brazen lies, deliberate distortions and irresponsible omissions (not to mention factual errors) in a transparent attempt to assassinate the integrity of an author, any author.
Why has he done this, and why was he not prevented from doing this? In 1995, the Columbia Journalism Review asked me to write a critique of the media's coverage in Haiti. My article spoke unfavorably of the "voodoo journalism" practiced by the major metropolitan dailies during the late 1980s and early '90s. To date, except for The Washington Post, every newspaper in the United States has displayed the grace, common sense and professionalism not to assign the review of my book to a staff reporter who, like Ringle, has spent some time, however minimal, in Haiti.
Coincidental or not, the appearance of a vendetta brings discredit to Book World, and erodes Ringle's negligible credibility as a reviewer, an intellect and a fair-minded spirit.
Ken Ringle responds:
It certainly gave me no pleasure to find fault with The Immaculate Invasion, since as I tried to make clear in my review, Bob Shacochis is a writer whose obvious talents and past work I much admire. Thus the mystery as to why his book on Haiti is as chaotic and incoherent as it is. The author may indeed be brave, trustworthy, loyal and kind. I hope and expect he is. But the picture of himself he presents in The Immaculate Invasion -- a picture I argued too often gets in the way of his story -- is less laudable. Why he would so portray himself I would never presume to guess. As for his suggestion that my review represents some sort of payback for a four-year-old article of which I was wholly unaware, that's as astonishing as the author's suggestion that newspapers should assign his book only to reviewers who never witnessed the events Shacochis purports to describe. And, unfortunately, I fear both statements speak for themselves. n
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