August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month That Changed the World Forever, by Bruno Cabanes; translated by Stephanie O’Hara (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 230 pp., $27.50).  This superb and marvelously readable work of social and political history, drawn from a wide variety of personal and official documents and records, recounts the first weeks of World War I as they were experienced by the French people, the French Army, and the French government.  The war, half-expected since 1905, that commenced on August 1 was widely imagined by the French nation to be concluded in a matter of weeks, and certainly by Christmas.  Instead, between August 20 and 23, France lost 40,000 men in battle, the worst military defeat in her history, before the army was forced to retreat at the end of the month.  “This early catastrophe,” Cabanes writes,

left an indelible imprint on French soldiers and civilians alike.  Had it not been for the counteroffensive on the Marne at the beginning of September, the war on the Western Front might have ended there, inflicting an even more humiliating defeat on the French than had the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Cabanes describes his book as being “first of all a history of the French as they faced one of the most frightening collective ordeals of the twentieth century”—and he includes the whole of France, rural and urban.  “In short, this book is an intimate history of the end of a world.”

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, by Mark Lilla (New York: The New York Review of Books; 145 pp., $15.95).  The comprehensive title of this book promises more than a collection of essays, including expansions of reviews published in The New York Review of Books, can deliver.  Political reaction is an important subject deserving of considered historical analysis, but Mark Lilla’s book amounts to a mere collection of impressions taken from the careers of writers he considers reactionaries, including Franz Rosenzweig, an Hegelian scholar who turned to the study of Jewish thought and practice, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, the contemporary historian Brad Gregory, and Éric Zemmour, the French journalist and author.  Lilla insists that the belief that revolutionaries think while reactionaries only react is mere prejudice.  Nevertheless, “The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind.  Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.  He is time’s exile.”  Sketchy as Lilla’s explication of reaction is, he makes it clear from the first chapter (on Rosenzweig) that “nostalgia,” which he considers the basis of reaction, is simply the religious impulse subjected to secularizing pressure over the last millennia.  To Lilla, religion is reaction.  The Afterword, slyly conflating the Western right with militant Islam, comes as absolutely no surprise.

North/South: The Great European Divide, by Ricardo J. Quinones (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 177 pp., $50.00).  Certain historians describe the parting of the ways between industrializing countries and the rest at the start of the 19th century as the Great Divergence.  In this book Ricardo Quinones considers what he calls the Great Divide that preceded it, beginning much earlier, in the early 16th century.  North and South, he says, are not “two trains heading for a collision, but rather different means of locomotion, moving in the same direction, with the one setting the path where the other will lay its tracks.”

“Without discounting the prolific expansion that industrialization, colonization, and capital contributed to a continuing northern pre-eminence,” Quinones argues, “there was already a remarkable split between the North and the South in Europe prior to the eighteenth century . . . ”  He cites a divergence of views on Christian liberty, skepticism, tolerance, and time as the basis of the division between Northern and Southern Europe, “the most far-reaching event of the second half of the second millennium.”

Though well researched and well argued, the book is written in a rather turgid, verbose, and academic style that is likely to aggravate further the impatience of naturally impatient readers.         

        —Chilton Williamson, Jr.