Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

April 28, 2011

One scenario of the road to war in 1914 depicts early 20th-century Europe as cracking beneath a serene exterior as it was riven by divisive forces: nationalism no longer in harmony with liberalism, and socialism threatening class warfare, while rickety anciens régimes were desperate to find ways of maintaining mass support.

Strikes and demonstrations in Europe's great cities pointed to the flimsy construction of the proud tower of Europe, and the Balkans were a proverbial powder keg, which, if ignited, could create a conflagration involving the great powers via their alliances and military preparations.

Even in the arts, dissonance and violence were increasingly present; and many, like the Italian Futurists, yearned for a cleansing war that would sweep away a bourgeois peace. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 was welcomed with enthusiasm by the crowds, which gathered in every European capital.

But Michael Neiberg will have none of this. He depicts a Europe enjoying a peaceful summer in the weeks before the war, a Europe on holiday, with even the Kaiser on his yacht. Few expected a war and even fewer wanted one. Europe had a social and cultural unity and was emphatically not a place of hermetically sealed nation states.

The fact that a month earlier an Austrian archduke had been assassinated in Sarajevo did little to disturb the calm. The event had made headlines for a while and led those who took an interest in foreign affairs to reach for their atlases, but more important matters soon drove it from the front pages: the British read about the Irish crisis, while the French were transfixed by a juicy political scandal.

After all, there had been Balkan assassinations and even Balkan wars before, and they had not led to a general conflagration. There were a number of brakes: diplomacy had managed to dampen previous crises that might have led to war; the monarchs of Europe were a cousinhood - surely Willie, Nicky and Georgie wouldn't go to war with each other; influential books had been written proving that war was economically irrational and too expensive for governments to afford; while massive strikes in the name of the international working class might prevent a conflict. Even if there were a war, it was bound to be confined to the Balkans.

Nevertheless, the war did happen and Neiberg accepts that the people of Europe rallied reluctantly to their respective national causes, believing that the other side was to blame, and that their wars were defensive. Even then, he argues, disillusionment soon set in and, once a rapid and decisive victory failed to transpire, allegations of corruption, mismanagement and profiteering became commonplace.

Why then did the war continue and troops continue fighting? Neiberg's answer is that there was little choice, for, if the war was frightful, the cost of defeat would be worse: "Throwing down arms and hoping the other side would do so as well was simply not an option."

This fascinating book goes with the grain of much recent work, which has been sceptical of the concept of a general enthusiasm for war in August 1914, but Neiberg moves too easily from an eirenic vision of a Europe with no appetite for war to a Europe at war. Even if we accept the idea of a war brought about by the ambitions, plans and mistakes of governments, diplomats and generals, popular support was forthcoming.

Public opinion is notoriously difficult to evaluate and, while this study is based on numerous letters, diaries and memoirs, a different selection of sources might well underpin the contrary picture of a Europe ready for war. There had to be music for the Furies to dance to.

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

By Michael S. Neiberg Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 336pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674049543. Published 26 May 2011

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