The author, Stanley Weintraub, was born April 17, 1929 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a National Book Award nominee, most respected for his biographies. A Stillness Heard Round the World was a best seller. At the time of the printing of this book he was the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanist Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Weintraub’s work includes interviews with some of those still alive who remember the events of the last few days of World War I, and apparently extensive research into letters, journals and official reports. The author has combined this material to create a biography of hundreds of people involved in the war that reads like a novel. As much as possible, it follows the chronology of events a few days before and after the declaration of armistice. But, Weintraub’s interest is the personal aspects of the war. A lot of the dialogue is presented in quotations, as if originally recorded word for word, which seems impossible. Yet, there is a great deal of credibility in what he has written since it does not seem at odds whatsoever with the accounts of others or with what is presented in the official documents of World War I. But, where those accounts are very dry, Weintraub’s little history is engagingly peppered with the stories of individuals from the Kaiser to foot soldiers. Indeed, Weintraub makes the events seem real and personal, as if the reader is a fly on the wall in the rail car, the Kaiser’s own quarters or any of the other locations he draws so vividly.
If the author’s purpose was to draw this picture of the last days of World War I in an entertaining, personal format, it was accomplished. But, the book is for the reader with some background on the events of World War I. The events leading up to the war and the major players are not explained. The curtain opens at the time of the false armistice and proceeds in the next chapter to the real one. This great leap into the confusion of this time makes for difficult reading in the first chapter or two, until the reader assimilates some of the major personalities and events. Still, little background is given. For example, the reader is finally told in a later chapter that the Chancellor Ebert had once been a lowly former apprentice-saddler, but there is no information about this Social Democrat’s rise to authority in the German chancellory. The account includes the abdication of the Kaiser where again the political motives are left to the reader’s discretion. The book ends with the Beer Hall Putsch with which Weintraub demonstrates the refusal of some German soldiers to give up the fight or accept the terms imposed up on them by the Allies. It may be that Weintraub admires the Nazis for this perseverance and courage, nevertheless, he criticizes the Nazi rationale.
Cleverly, Weintraub uses the political aspects of the war as a mere framework for his intricate weave of information from letters and journals, newspaper articles, anecdotes and heart-tugging descriptions. For example, political motives for the German request for armistice are of less interest to Weintraub than the alleged emotions of those present at its reading. Yet, the reader senses that the author tries to be objective, but he is only human. He cannot help subtly including his own judgments. He cannot seem to help repeatedly asking what horrors the Germans would have imposed had they won the war. The question is inappropriate in an objective history. To ask the question show bias in favor of the Allies. Still his power of self-restraint is strong. A Stillness Heard Round the World is, for the most part, surprisingly impartial.
At any rate, Weintraub, at least, appears to give an historically accurate account of the events at the end of World War I , which would be of interest to an educated audience. His account is intended to motivate the reader’s interest on a human level. Certainly for the average reader, the straight forward accounts of historical events are lackluster. Weintraub polishes these facts nicely and puts them into a format that appeals to the average reader who in not a historian. Weintraub’s extensive research has brought some lesser known facts about the last days of the war to the surface. The false armistice is not widely discussed. His research also confirms that which has been said by others in autobiographical accounts of the events of the war. In this way Weintraub’s book contributes to a fuller and more accurate picture of the events of that time.
The extent of Weintraub’s research is admirable. The finished product is both scholarly and entertaining, however, it is material for the informed reader. A short examination of the actual documents of World War I and a little background on the major players in it are pre-requisites in order for the reader to have an accurate perspective. Overall, it is an accurate account, when compared to others and far more fascinating than most.