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  • Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War by Jörn Leonhard
  • Ian Isherwood
Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War. By jörn leonhard. Translated by Patrick Camiller. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. 1087 pp. $39.95 (hardcover).

Perhaps the gravest difficulty with any single volume book on the Great War is taming the war's complexities while still maintaining a degree of nuance and insight that goes beyond the temptation for simplification. Indeed, the war's scale itself makes this task even more unmanageable. How can an author possibly offer a nuanced treatment that takes into consideration a war fought on three continents, not to mention, the political and social realities on the war's many home fronts and the changing dynamics of differing and complex societies under strain? To be comprehensive is an impossible task especially given the wealth of history written about the war's many subfields and distinct niche subjects. No historian can truly have mastery of the Great War's deep and broad literatures and no single volume can possibly be "comprehensive."

This is not to indicate that the task of a one-volume history is impossible, but only as a caveat to its difficulty. Others have written one-volume histories that provide both insight and depth, while also to sustaining the attention spans of both the public and specialists. Hew Strachan's condensed survey of the war The First World War is a model of both brevity and complexity, the chapters arranged neatly around conceptual themes important to understanding the trajectory of the [End Page 621] war's most important and decisive theatres and campaigns.1 More comprehensive is David Stevenson's masterful Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, which approaches the war from the perspective of the political failure of peace and the dismantling of the existing political world order by war.2 Michael Neiberg's pithy Fighting the Great War is another admirable one-volume work, one that provides a sense of clarity, especially as an introduction for American students who might not have the same background as Europeans for whom the war is more acutely a part of their felt history.3 All of these authors sought to limit their framework in order to draw out the war's major themes—its causes, its conduct on multiple fronts, and its lasting consequences—in a way that makes sense of the war's complexities, while also offering concrete explanations for the reader.

Jörn Leonhard's Pandora's Box is the latest (and likely largest) single-volume history of the First World War. Leonhard is the Friedrich-Schiller Professor of West European History at the University of Freiburg and is a specialist in modern history, particularly, of the political culture of liberalism and nationalism in central Europe. His latest book is a masterful synthesis of current scholarship in First World War studies and might be the most comprehensive one-volume history of the war. The book is a phenomenal achievement of research across national boundaries and across camps of interpretation. It is an incredibly sophisticated weaving together of erudite academic research from all corners, sides, and indeed, even from the obscure recesses of the field. Those in doubt of the book's depth and breadth of the existing literature should consult its seventy-two pages of bibliography which bears witness to the very firm foundation in which Leonhard has built his house.

The organization of the book is complicated and the chapters lengthy. Pandora's Box is divided into ten thematic chronological chapters that are then divided into sub-chapters that each read like essays on a particular subject or concept important to understanding the overall chapter. For example, chapter 2—Antecedents—is divided into four subchapters: "balances of power and dynamics of change," "conflict areas and action logics," "panoramas of progress, scenarios of war," and "master narratives and open outcomes." This method of [End Page 622] organization allows for absorption of each of the key analytical points on each topic. The central drawback to this style of organization is that it places greater emphasis on argumentation rather...


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