A Review of ‘Fall of Giants’ by Ken Follet
The last century witnessed two major wars that change the course of human history. The world as we see it today, is a result of these two great conflicts. The Fall of giants is the first book in the century trilogy by Ken Follet and takes us through the tumultuous times in the beginning of the 20th century and we get to experience an event of far reaching consequences through the eyes of some fictional and some real characters. We see these remarkable men and women quietly playing a part behind the scenes in their worlds while also getting a peep into what life looked like for the different strata of the society.
The story begins with a fictional meeting of the King of England with a group of remarkable gentlemen from the United States and various kingdoms of Europe. In this chance meeting, an American diplomat, a Prussian military attache and a Welsh earl gather around the coffee table with the King of England to contemplate on the future of Europe as dark stormy clouds gather on the horizon after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by Serbian nationals. The complex geo-political ties present between each of these countries and their own vested interests are clearly reflected in this conversation. America doesn’t want a war in Europe. Even if there is one, America does not want to be dragged into it. Prussia believes that the growing influence of Russia on its border is a threat to its sovereignty. The English try to play the peacemaker in the continent and assert their own dominance in the process.
Outraged by the Serbian involvement in the assassination of their heir presumptive, Austria makes unreasonable demands to Serbia which are naturally declined. Russia, comes to its ally Serbia’s rescue and mobilises its vast army. Prussia is threatened by this and puts into action the Schlieffen plan, a focused attack on France via Belgium that will conclude in 6 weeks with a Prussian victory leaving it capable of focusing on an all out war against the might of the Russian Empire on the eastern front.
As always, real war goes nothing like the ideal plan that the Prussian’s have in mind and Russia mobilises much sooner than anticipated and mounts and attack on the eastern borders of Prussia and starts taking over the estates which leads to a general situation of panic among the Prussian nobility who then pressurise the Kaiser to divert some troops to the eastern front to protect their assets. The western front assault on France is also a stalemate with both sides of the troops hardly moving ahead barring a few trenches being captured or regained.
While this is happening, civil unrest brews in the Russian Empire against the Czar and his brutality which leads to him being overthrown by his people and in the ensuing chaos, the Bolsheviks seize power and declare ceasefire on the eastern front signing a peace treaty with Prussia giving them some much needed respite. This where Prussia drives in the final nail into its own coffin and begins to sink American passenger vessels as a part of its Naval blockade of allied troops bringing in America into what started out as a European war.
As the story ends, we see clearly the reasons that will lead to another European war led by Germany as the allies brutally beat its predecessor into a corner. Having hard reparations imposed on it, its territories distributed among the victors and being humiliated badly is the perfect precursor to the rise of a jingoistic ultra national party like the Nazis.
I have some issues with the narrative of this book despite having thoroughly loved it. We really see the world through a very narrow European/American lens. Despite the Ottoman empire, Italy and the Middle East playing an active part in the war, we hardly see any mention of them. Nor do the colonies of these European countries feature in the book. While these “giants” are busy squabbling, it is the systemic loot of the wealth of the colonies that enables these powers to play god. In fact although not mentioned in the book, it is the subsequent colonisation of the middle east and the graph sheet like divisions of land that leads to the chaos, political instabilities and border issues in these countries even today.
Like every Ken Follet novel, there are some common tropes that are also present in this book. We have forbidden love between a Prussian gentleman and a Welsh lady. Steamy romance and unrequited love between a Lord and his house staff. Super quick and page turning battle episodes that really leave you hanging on the edge of your seat and rooting for one side or the other and in some rare instances both the sides.
Despite all these complaints I still love the book for its true and brutal depiction of the futility of war. Often the poor and young are conscripted into the armies of lords or ministers and are puppeted into their deaths by general and admirals who do not have their skin in the game. These young men often pay for the sins of their lords if they lose but they go back to leading their old lives once they win while the bosses siphon away all the laurels and prizes often leaving them poorer than they were at the beginning of the conflicts.