The First World War — “the war that was called Great,” as the poet Vernon Scannell said — was the most tremendous event of the modern age, a jagged gaping fault line right across Western history. Even at a distance of ninety years it overwhelms the imagination. Sixty-two million men were mobilized; eight million of them died. Empires that had endured for centuries were swept away. The world economy was massively dislocated, whole nations reduced to beggary. Freedom dwindled, and the power of the state increased, everywhere. Fringe phenomena and minor fads — paper money, cigarette smoking, income tax, daylight savings time, the wearing of wristwatches — became universal features of modern life. Art, music, poetry, literature, architecture changed direction. The military sciences were of course transformed. And it is a commonplace that the national resentments and economic devastation caused by that first war made the second inevitable.
What induced the nations of the West — prosperous and civilized, bound to each other by trade and culture, the health and welfare of their people improving in leaps and bounds, their arts and sciences at a lofty historical pinnacle of achievement — what on earth made them plunge into this abyss of nihilism? Of the victorious allies, only one, the United States, can be said to have gained anything from the war, and that was at a cost of 115,000 dead. Of the others, Britain was bankrupted, Russia enslaved herself, Italy turned to Mussolini, and France sank into an solipsistic torpor from which she has never since fully awoken. How ever did such a horrible civilizational catastrophe come to pass?
In Europe’s Last Summer, David Fromkin, who is a Professor of History at Boston University, has presented the most detailed account I have yet seen of the diplomatic and military events that led to the outbreak of hostilities. The book’s dramatis personae include the rulers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, Britain and France, together with their chiefs of staff, their ambassadors, and, especially, their foreign and defense ministers. For the most critical period, the ten days from July 26 to August 4, 1914, the author gives a day-by-day account, covering fifty pages, of events in the parliaments and chancelleries of Europe. From all of this he draws firm conclusions, answers to the question posed in his subtitle.
The reasons for the outbreak of war, on Fromkin’s telling, look rather like those given by Thucydides for the Peloponnesian War 2,373 years earlier: “The Lacedaemonians voted that … war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians …” The Germans of 1914 were likewise moved not so much by the arguments of their Austrian allies as by fear of the growth of Russian power. That growth, together with the sentiment (it hardly rose to the level of an ideology) of Pan-Slavism, was also what worried the Austrians, who were in any case obsessed with their own decline relative to everyone else.
The international conflict in the summer of 1914 consisted of two wars, not one. Both were started deliberately. They were intertwined. They were started by rival empires that were bound together by mutual need. One war was launched by the Hapsburg Empire and the other by the German Empire … Both Germany and Austria believed themselves to be on the way down. Each started a war in order to stay where it was.
It is not very surprising that matters came to a head just where Austrian imperialism overlapped Slavic irredentism, in Bosnia. The spark that set Europe burning was, as everyone knows, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort Sophie, at Sarajevo on the morning of June 28, 1914. The murderer was Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist, inflamed by Austria’s formal annexation of his native Bosnia in 1908-09. Fromkin reminds us how common political assassinations had become in those times, listing twenty instances between 1894 (the President of France) and 1913 (the King of Greece). It is especially unsurprising to find the Serbs supplying an assassin. Serbia, autonomous for a century, had a long tradition of political violence, and was looked to by the Slavs of the Austrian Empire, beyond Serbia’s actual borders, as their champion. She was, in modern terminology, a state that harbored terrorists.
The assassinations gave Austria an excellent excuse to do what she had long wanted to do: crush Serbia. They also, paradoxically, removed the one voice in Austria’s councils that might have prevented war. Franz Ferdinand was, by the standards of the Vienna court, pro-Slav, an intelligent reactionary who would have liked to recreate the Holy Alliance of 1815, with Austria, Russia and Germany co-operating to keep the peace under a stable order of monarchical paternalism. The assassinations had the further effect of inflaming the German Kaiser, who was of much the same reactionary mind himself (so far as his thoughts on international affairs can be said to have had any consistency), and who, almost alone among the German and Austrian ruling classes, liked Franz Ferdinand personally. The pro-war faction in Berlin already wished to attack Russia — and of necessity France, Russia’s ally — in the belief that war was inevitable, and would be better fought before Russia became stronger. The Kaiser had been the major obstacle to their plans. After the killings at Sarajevo he was an obstacle no longer. As the author remarks: “[F]rom Vienna’s point of view, Gavrilo Princip had committed the perfect crime.” From Berlin’s, too.
Could it happen again? Fromkin opens his book with a graphic description of the phenomenon called “clear air turbulence,” which, without any warning or visible agency, can send a passenger airliner plunging out of control. The outbreak of war in 1914 was, he tells us, similarly seen by many observers to have come out of a clear sky. That view of things is, he demonstrates very well, false. The sky in 1914 was dark with national anxieties, the resentments of restless subject peoples, terrorism, revanchism, and militaristic bombast. (He quotes a fine example of the last from Theodore Roosevelt.) The scope, duration, and appalling consequences of “the war that was called Great” were foreseen by no-one, and perhaps could not have been; but anyone surprised by the outbreak of that war simply hadn’t been paying attention.