The main title of Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought – Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War is a bit deceptive, the subtitle is what the book is truly about. Dreadnought tells the story of the end of the British Empire’s “Splendid Isolation” and the roots of World War I. It goes far beyond a military or naval history; it is really a political and foreign policy history. The naval arms race between Britain and Germany is the common thread around which Massie brilliantly weaves the story of the relationship between Britain and Germany as well as the personalities involved.
What makes this book so great is that Massie goes beyond policies and digs deep into the personalities of the naval and political leadership of both Britain and Germany. He develops Kaiser Wilhelm II (Massie uses the English William), Queen Victoria and the Kings of England, Chancellors and Prime Ministers, First Lords, Sea Lords, and Admirals, writes about they interacted and how their relationships impacted events and policy. I got more insight into Wilhelm II in Dreadnought than any other book I’ve read on World War I. I also have a better understanding of Asquith, Grey, Haldane, Bismarck, Bulow, Tirpitz, and other politicians and officials of the time. By getting inside their heads and helping us understand what the Admirals and politicians were thinking, Massie gives us a better understanding of how and why things unfolded the way they did in the years leading to World War I.
I imagine one complaint about Dreadnought is that it leaves you hanging at the end. Having previously read Castles of Steel – Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, I recognized that what Dreadnought does is set the reader up for Castles of Steel. Having read both in the opposite order of what I should have, I can strongly recommend reading them in the correct order – Dreadnought first, Castles of Steel (which I’m now re-reading) second. This is an extraordinary book, a very easy read that you don’t want to put down. It’s a long book but one that you don’t get tired of reading because of Massie’s rich, descriptive writing and the human detail he puts in. Even if you’re not interested in the Naval aspect of World War I, read this book simply for the insight Massie offers into the political leadership of Britain and Germany; you won’t regret it. This is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read recently and it’s fully deserving of five stars!