Great Blunders, Great Wars


High school history provides us with the basics of World War I and does so by making it appear that something akin to an earthquake happened.  Archduke Ferdinand, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated in Sarajevo and a month later Germany invaded France, triggering a catastrophic series of treaty-obligated interventions by Russia, England, and so forth.  Simple.

Except, what?  Why would Germany do that because the heir to a throne not theirs is shot by a lone assassin in a city in a country allied with Austria?

The connective tissue was always missing.  Something (mumble mutter) to do with Serbia and Austria blaming them for the murder (by an independent terrorist!) and Russia insisting Austria leave Serbia alone, Germany insisting Russia leave Austria alone, France insisting Germany leave Russia alone, and England insisting everyone leave Belgium alone (Belgium? How did Belgium get into this…?), and suddenly you have the international equivalent of a schoolyard pile-on.

Many books have been written attempting to explain the complicated set of relations between the so-called Great Powers and how they all triggered each others’ worst responses in what amounted to a game of chicken.  But that high school myth persists, that WWI happened almost out of the blue.

Sean McMeekin has produced a worthy examination of the month between the fateful assassination and the opening of hostilities on August 4th, 1914.  In July 1914:  Countdown To War he takes pains to show how all this transpired.  It happened quickly, to be sure, as international interactions go, but it was not either unexpected or inevitable.  The major element, besides considerable attention to a chronology which he lays out with admirable clarity, included is what so often is left out of history courses—personality.

McMeekin’s portraits of the players—Kaiser Wilhelm II, his chancellor, Bethmann, the Austria foreign minister Berchtold, army chief of staff Conrad, Russia’s Sazanov, Tsar Nicholas II, Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey of Britain, and all the rest—open the curtains on how the fatal mix of personalities led to the catastrophe that reshaped Europe so much that in many ways we are still sorting through the rubble.

Starting with the ongoing hatred among the hawks in Austria toward Serbia.  Begin with that and the long history behind it and we begin to see that nothing was really a surprise other than the fact that it actually happened.  The first blunder was the connivance of the Austrians to obtain German backing for a punitive action against Serbia for sponsoring the assassination of the archduke—an archduke, by the way, who was unpopular in his own family and whose loss as a successor to the throne was something of a relief to the Emperor.  Begin with that and the next series of events—diplomatic wrangling, lying, obfuscation, and, above all, haste—makes sense.  Insane sense, but sense nevertheless.

And because McMeekin is dealing handily with the personalities of all these people, questions of reason, caution, experience, and the deliberative conservatism one might expect from old established states become moot as we watch them all jockeying for position to prove points, gain support, establish—or in the case of Austria, re-establish—reputations.

Reading this, one is put in mind of the rush to war in Iraq in 2003, under conditions wherein insufficient information, curtailment of debate, and a drive to do overrode all other considerations.  Hindsight is frustrating.

McMeekin’s concluding chapter, wherein he discusses responsibility and offers a variety of arguments over inevitabilities, is more than just a summation.  Rather it is a sobering analysis of the fragility of circumstance and the importance of character, which so many of us would like to pretend doesn’t matter.

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