The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday, 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, and his wife, Sophie Chotek, arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. In its complexity and the speed with which it escalated, the ‘July Crisis’ of 1914 is without parallel in world history. Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated that morning in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb students acting for a shadowy Belgrade-based ultranationalist network. The Austrian government in Vienna resolved to serve an ultimatum on its Serbian neighbour. Berlin promised support for Austria on 5 July. Encouraged by Paris, Russia opted to defend its Serbian client by mobilising against Austria and Germany. Unsatisfied by the Serbian reply to its ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany mobilised against France and Russia. France asked London for help. On 4 August 1914, following the German breach of Belgian neutrality, Britain entered the war.
The debate over the origins of the First World War is older than the war itself. Even before the first shots were fired, Europe’s statesmen constructed narratives depicting themselves as innocents and their opponents as predators and breachers of the peace. Since then, the debate has spawned a historical literature of unrivalled size, sophistication and moral intensity. In 1991, a survey by the American historian John Langdon counted 25,000 relevant books and articles in English alone.
The debate is still going strong today, for several reasons. First, the war unleashed the demons of political disorder, extremism and cruelty that disfigured the 20th century. It destroyed four multiethnic empires (the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman). It killed at least ten million young men and wounded at least twenty million more. It disorganised the international system in immensely destructive ways. Without this conflict it is difficult to imagine the October Revolution of 1917, the rise of Stalinism, the ascendancy of Italian Fascism, the Nazi seizure of power or the Holocaust. It was, as the historian Fritz Stern put it, ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. It is hard to imagine a worse initial condition for the modern era of which we are the inheritors.
A second reason is the exceptionally intricate character of the crisis that brought war to Europe in 1914. The Cuban Missile Crisis was complex enough, yet it involved just two principal protagonists plus a range of proxies and subordinate players. By contrast, the story of how the First World War came about must make sense of the multilateral interactions among five autonomous players of equal importance – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and Britain – or six if we add Italy, plus various other strategically significant autonomous sovereign actors, such as the Ottoman Empire and the states of the Balkan peninsula, a region of high political tension and instability in the years before the outbreak of war.
To make matters worse, the executives of these states were anything but unified. There was uncertainty (and has been ever since among historians) about where exactly the power to shape policy was located within the respective governments. The chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitations of the European system during the years leading up to the war. It also helps explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most opaque political crisis of modern times. There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that can’t be supported by selecting among the available sources. Some accounts have focused on the culpability of one bad-apple state (Germany has been most popular, but none of the great powers has escaped the ascription of chief responsibility); others have shared the blame around or have looked for faults in ‘the system’. There has always been enough complexity to keep the argument going.
The debate is old, but the issues it raises are still fresh. One might even say that the political crisis of July 1914 seems less remote – less illegible – now than it did thirty or forty years ago. When I first encountered the subject as a schoolboy in Sydney, a kind of period charm had accumulated in popular awareness of the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ornamentalism of a world still largely organised around hereditary monarchy, had a distancing effect. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily grew that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and dreams probably did too. But what must strike any 21st-century reader who follows the course of the crisis is its raw modernity. It began with a cavalcade of automobiles and a squad of suicide bombers: the young men who gathered in Sarajevo with bombs on 28 June 1914 had been told by their handlers to take their own lives after carrying out their mission, and received phials of potassium cyanide to do it with. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge: extra-territorial, secretive, scattered in cells across political borders, its links to any sovereign government were oblique.
Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has given way to a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914. It is less clear now that we should dismiss the assassination at Sarajevo as a mishap incapable of carrying real causal weight. The attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 is an example of the way in which a single symbolic event – however deeply it may be enmeshed in larger historical processes – can change politics irrevocably, rendering old options obsolete and endowing new ones with an unforeseen urgency. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s reminded us of the potentially lethal nature of Balkan nationalism. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe in 1914. This doesn’t mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present. Rather, it means acknowledging those features of the past where our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.
The impact of these changes can be discerned in recent writing on the origins of the war. There has been a globalisation of the field of vision. The prewar polarisation of Europe into opposed alliance blocs now looks less like a purely continental European story and more like the European consequence of world-historical realignments driven by conflicts along a range of imperial peripheries in China, Africa and Central Asia. Rather than searching for the antecedents of the actual war that broke out in 1914, recent studies have tended to stress the open-endedness of international relations in a world in which nearly all the key players had more than one potential enemy. The European alliances, it has been argued, didn’t necessarily make war more likely: they could have the opposite effect if one ally refused to back the adventurism of another, as happened on several occasions in the decade before the war. Anglo-German naval rivalry may not have predestined an armed conflict between Britain and Germany: a number of recent monographs have shown how decisively Britain saw off the German naval challenge and have questioned how much impact the matter had on British geopolitical thinking. Periods of détente before 1914 were not deceptive moments of respite from mutual hostility but represented a genuine potentiality of the international system. On the eve of the July Crisis, as a recent article by T.G. Otte has shown, the British Foreign Office was on the verge of dropping the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and seeking a rapprochement with Germany. Far from being inevitable, in other words, this war may actually have been improbable. On this reading, it was not the consequence of long-run historical ‘forces’, but of short-term realignments and shocks to the international system.
Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace and Sean McMeekin’s July 1914 both bear the imprint of these perspectival shifts. They are both attentive to the play of contingency in crises that involved multilateral interactions among numerous sovereign actors. They both have interesting things to say about the way power struggles within the respective executives muddied the water of international relations. Yet in almost every other respect they are about as different as two books on the same historical problem can be. MacMillan’s is a magisterial 600-page panorama, dotted with scene-setting vignettes. McMeekin’s is a tightly wrought drama focused on the decision-makers of summer 1914. MacMillan draws on deep reading in the secondary literature to build a rich and suggestive synthesis; McMeekin works exclusively from the printed primary sources, using them to chart the manoeuvres of his protagonists from one day to the next. And the two authors adopt very different approaches to the issue of culpability. Yet both books represent important contributions to the literature and both deserve to reach a wide readership.
‘A phenomenon of such extended malignance as the Great War,’ Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Proud Tower (1966), ‘does not come out of a golden age.’ Two recent studies of the prewar world, Florian Illies’s whimsical kaleidoscopic bestseller, 1913, and Charles Emmerson’s magnificent global study, 1913: The World before the Great War, have highlighted the confidence and the intellectual fertility of societies on the threshold of transformative change. MacMillan prefers the Tuchman view. She draws an unsentimental portrait of prewar Europe, juxtaposing the opulence and confidence of a continent experiencing phenomenal economic growth with the political, cultural and social anxieties that pervaded the fin-de-siècle. Paris was terrorised by anarchist bombers. In Russia, hundreds of politicians and civil servants were cut down in a storm of assassinations. Even in Britain it was widely feared that war would bring riots, perhaps even revolution.
There was no shortage of prophets who foretold the horrors of war in an age of machine-guns, high explosives and fast-loading fieldpieces. The plausibility of such nightmares was heightened by the spectacle of heaps of Japanese infantrymen mown down in front of Russian machine-gun posts during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. But the military experts of the last prewar years found good reasons for discounting such ill omens. The generally accepted view was that the Japanese had won precisely because they were prepared to attack and take much higher casualties than the Russians. As MacMillan puts it, ‘the lessons were not that the attack no longer worked, but that it had to be pressed harder, with more men.’
MacMillan is a wry and humane chronicler of this troubled world. Of Fashoda in Sudan, the setting of an imperial stand-off between the British and the French in 1898, she notes in passing that the town is still poor, ‘but its population is much bigger today, thanks to the refugees created by the Sudan’s civil wars and by famine.’ It gives one pause to learn that Theodore Roosevelt favoured Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, going so far as to admire the way the Japanese opened hostilities by attacking a major naval facility without troubling to make a formal declaration of war. And it is eerie to hear Alfred Nobel confiding to the peace activist Bertha von Suttner in 1895: ‘I wish I could produce a substance or machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars would therefore become altogether impossible.’
MacMillan offers a lively and sophisticated overview of the international crises that shook prewar Europe: the First Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6, the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908, the Second Moroccan (or Agadir) Crisis of 1911 and the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Far from alerting contemporaries to the imminence of war, she notes, the accelerating drumbeat of crisis had a deadening effect. ‘The statesmen had muddled through before, why should they not do so again?’ She is particularly good on the tensions within the European executives: no one in St Petersburg seemed able to rein in the impetuous Russian minister to Belgrade, Nikolai Hartwig, a passionate pan-Slav who constantly goaded the Serbian government into confrontations with Austria. The British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, struggled to shield his ententiste foreign policy against the scepticism and hostility of his Liberal cabinet colleagues. In France, foreign ministers, senior functionaries and long-serving ambassadors often pushed in different directions, generating a potentially dangerous confusion about the direction of policy. There was perennial uncertainty about the balance of power between military command structures and civilian leaderships, nowhere more than in Vienna, where the warmongering chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, often clashed with the dovish heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
MacMillan’s account of the aetiology of the war itself is less sharply resolved than her anatomy of the uneasy peace that preceded it. By tucking the Italian war on Libya (1911) at the end of a chapter on the Second Moroccan Crisis, she downplays the significance of this unprovoked assault on an integral province of the Ottoman Empire. Miroslav Spalajković, the former political head of the Serbian foreign ministry in Belgrade, recalled in a 1924 interview that it was the Italian attack on Tripoli that inaugurated the process that led first to the two Balkan wars and then to the Great War itself: ‘All subsequent events are nothing more than the evolution of that first aggression.’ There are evocative accounts of the wrangling between the powers in the last two years of peace, but the fragments of causality that enabled a Balkan conflict to trigger a continental war in 1914 remain only partly exposed in this account.
Where does this leave the question of culpability? By asserting that Germany and her allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of war, Article 231 of the Versailles Peace Treaty ensured that questions of culpability would remain at or near the centre of the debate over the war’s origins. The blame game has never lost its appeal. The most influential articulation of this tradition is the Fischer thesis, a bundle of arguments elaborated in the 1960s by Fritz Fischer, Imanuel Geiss and a score of younger German colleagues, who identified Germany as the chiefly culpable power. According to this view (leaving aside the many variations within the Fischer School), the Germans did not stumble or slither into war. They chose it: worse, they planned it in advance, in the hope of breaking out of their European isolation and launching a bid for world power. On this vexed question, MacMillan abstains from issuing a verdict. The historian’s task, she suggests, is not to judge but to understand.
Was [the Kaiser] to blame for the Great War? Was Tirpitz? Grey? Moltke? Berchtold [the Austrian foreign minister]? Poincaré [the French president]? Or was no one to blame? … There are so many questions and so many answers again. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases.
Yet the bulk of her book is structured around an implicitly Fischerian narrative, in which the Germans provoke and the other powers respond. The introduction opens with the torching of Louvain in Belgium by German troops in late August 1914. The impact of this horrific scene on the reader is emotional rather than rational, since atrocities committed after the outbreak of the war can hardly be invoked to explain it. But the smoke from the burning city inevitably hangs over the rest of the book. The excellent chapter on the Second Moroccan Crisis opens with the arrival in Agadir of the German gunboat Panther, rather than with France’s earlier trashing of the 1909 Franco-German Agreement on Morocco or with the occupation of West Morocco by Spanish troops. More space is given to the impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II than to all the other sovereigns and leaders put together, and more pages are devoted to Germany’s mobilisation schedule, the Schlieffen Plan, than to the war plans of Russia, France, Britain, Italy and Austria combined. The tension between a mode of analysis that strives to distribute agency across a wide range of actors and a set of framing devices grounded in the presumption of German war-guilt is never quite resolved.
Questions of culpability are, by contrast, at the heart of McMeekin’s learned, punchy and enjoyable treatment of the July Crisis. The book reads like a crime drama. There are slangy noir touches and mildly caricatural pen portraits. The ‘über-belligerent’ Austrian chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, is ‘army fit and ramrod-thin’; the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, ‘looked like an orthodox monk from the pages of Dostoevsky, still virile at the age of 68’; the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, ‘could have been the inspiration for Gogol’s empty overcoat’. British diplomats act with ‘characteristic British reserve’, Austrian and German ones exhibit ‘truly Germanic efficiency’ or ‘impeccable German logic’. Many of the chapters close with cliffhangers: ‘The next move was up to Berchtold.’ ‘A secret this big, however, could not remain secret for long.’
We are a long way from the mandarin prose of Margaret MacMillan. But inside the garish wrapping is a tight and bracingly revisionist analysis of how the crisis unfolded. McMeekin roots out many hardy perennials of the July narrative: the 1914 summer manoeuvres of the Austrian army were not, as has often been claimed, held on the Serbian border to intimidate Belgrade, but to keep away from trouble on the other side of Bosnia. There was no German ‘jamming’ of French radio transmissions to and from the battleship France as President Poincaré and his colleagues made their way back from summit meetings in St Petersburg in the fourth week of July. This canard, which can be found in many standard accounts (including MacMillan’s), originates in the postwar memoirs of Poincaré himself, who offered it as proof of Germany’s determination to start a war.
McMeekin treats every encounter as a crime scene, uncovering motives and exposing deceptions, contradictions and failures. None of his protagonists does well under this scrutiny. The Austrians secured from Berlin a guarantee for their risky enterprise against Serbia, but failed miserably to reconcile the strategic imperatives of imminent war in Serbia with those of a subsequent war against Russia. The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, contributed to the escalation of the crisis through his support for an Austrian ‘local war’ against Serbia, but failed to stay abreast of developments. ‘The chancellor,’ McMeekin comments crisply, ‘was not up to the job.’ By contrast, he is surprisingly kind to the kaiser, finding that his most intemperate rants often contained a kernel of sound geopolitical reasoning. Distracted by ill-health and the rapid deterioration of his eyesight, Edward Grey remained ignorant throughout July of developments in Russia and the Balkans. Britain’s role in the evolving crisis was thus confined to the agonising decision whether or not to intervene, in the first days of August, in a continental war that was already underway and that Britain had done nothing to prevent.
Drawing on a brilliant but as yet untranslated recent study by the German historian Stefan Schmidt, McMeekin highlights the belligerence of the French policymakers, who pushed Russia into a confrontation with the Dual Alliance while ‘manipulating British opinion’ to ensure that London entered the conflict on the side of the Entente.But it was above all the Russians, and in particular the Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, who moved the crisis across the threshhold from regional conflict to continental war. Folding arguments aired in his earlier book, The Russian Origins of the First World War, into the convolutions of the July Crisis, McMeekin shows how quick Sazonov was, once he had the support of Paris, to continentalise the conflict. In a sequence of closely observed encounters, McMeekin catches Sazonov lying to or manipulating his interlocutors while he launches Russia on the road towards military measures that will leave the Germans with no choice but to mobilise their own armies in support of their Austrian ally. Some of the steps in this analysis are more compelling than others – once he is on the trail of his villain, McMeekin occasionally succumbs to the temptation to over-read his evidence – but overall this is a powerful and effective corrective to the received narrative, in which the Russians and the French are depicted as responding belatedly to Austro-German provocations.
All the actors in this terrible story, McMeekin concludes, were mired in ‘sin’, a term whose deployment in this context will surprise some readers. Whether or not it’s true, as McMeekin claims, that ‘sins of omission are lesser ones than sins of commission’, the focus on sin has the merit of restoring to the actors their freedom of action and thus their ethical responsibility. Even as they manoeuvred Europe into catastrophe, the statesmen of 1914 proved adept at constructing narratives of inevitability that pushed responsibility from their own shoulders while presenting war as the only possible option. Their present-day colleagues have not lost this skill. And yet, as MacMillan observes in a closing sentence that is well worth taking to heart, ‘there are always choices.’