There can't be much question that Stanley Weintraub and his publisher hope "A Stillness Heard Round the World" will do for the end of World War I what Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" did for the war's beginning, and that it will enjoy a comparably stupendous success. But this, unfortunately, is a most unlikely prospect. Weintraub is a gifted, accomplished biographer and literary historian, but he has been unable to make a coherent tale out of the events of November 1918; "A Stillness Heard Round the World" is a serious and thoughtful book, but it is not the "magnificent Tuchmanesque history" that a publicity flier claims it to be.
Essentially the problem is that although a great deal happened in November of 1918, little of it is conducive to narrative history of the sort that Tuchman writes so effectively. There was a false armistice (on Nov. 5) followed six days later by the real thing; there were wild celebrations in cities and towns throughout the Allied nations, though on the front the reaction was often curiously muted; there was a desperate effort by the German establishment to ward off a communist uprising in the defeated, demoralized nation; there was contemptible indifference to human life on the part of many Allied commanders, who led their troops into unnecessary battles right to the moment the cease-fire took effect.
All this and a lot more occurred within the space of only a few days, and Weintraub dutifully reports it in lavish, if not stupefying, detail. His most astonishing case of overkill involves the victory celebrations, to which he devotes fully 100 pages. First he describes the tumult in Paris, then in provincial France; then London, then provincial England; then New York, then provincial America. Champagne corks pop, bells ring, sirens shriek, revelers revel -- over and over again, and again, and again. Perhaps Weintraub, having done a great deal of thorough, careful research, simply could not bear to let any of it go; but for the reader, plowing through the results is simply exhausting.
There's a similar problem in Weintraub's chapters about various aspects of the war's military conclusion. Rather than orchestrate these different elements into a structured whole -- a difficult and challenging task, but surely not an impossible one -- he devotes a separate chapter to each: the last shots and combat actions, the stillness after the cease-fire, the reaction along the front lines, the reactions on fronts outside Europe, the effect of the armistice on prisoners of war. Occasionally all this dogged documentation produces interesting results, and occasionally Weintraub has provocative insights, but there is no real connection between chapters, nothing leads naturally or gracefully into what follows, and the overall result is a great mass of undigested material.
Yet another difficulty is that Weintraub's background, if it does not betray him, ill serves him. To a far greater extent than is justifiable, his sources are literary: novels, memoirs, journals, letters, poems and other writings by men who acquired literary reputations during and/or after the war. To a degree this obviously is inescapable, since literary folk are more prone than others to record their thoughts and experiences on paper and thus to provide evidence for the historian; but to rely on them as heavily as Weintraub does is to distort the record, to make literary people seem far more important and representative than they actually were.
Where Weintraub is strongest is in his analysis of the terms by which Germany agreed to an armistice. Though this analysis is not especially new it certainly is keen, stressing as it does that the Allies' failure to conquer or even occupy Germany permitted it to rebuild and rearm without serious external opposition: "Germany would be pruned, plundered and punished, but as long as the nation and its infrastructure remained largely intact it could begin the process of circumvention while its citizens were still seething over the alleged unfairness of the settlement." Or, as a French general cried upon learning the terms:
"No! No! No! We must go right into the heart of Germany. The armistice should be signed there. The Germans will not admit they are beaten. You do not finish wars like this . . . Who will see that the conditions are enforced? The Allies? A coalition has never survived the danger which has created it. It is a fatal error and France will pay for it!"
The conventional wisdom is that the terms of the armistice and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, especially the insistence upon reparations, set Germany on the path toward Hitler and World War II. But that path was made far easier by an armistice that left Germany whole and, in the circumstances, relatively unscathed; Weintraub is correct to emphasize this, and in doing so he compensates for many of his book's shortcomings.