A. W. Purdue considers the suspects and scenarios that led to the Great War
The inquest into the causes of the First World War began almost as hostilities commenced. And we are as fascinated today as ever. But why are we all still so interested? In part, this is because of the nature of the war that followed: the trench warfare on the Western front, the great battles of the Eastern front and the enormous loss of life. Another reason is the sense of the loss of a civilisation encapsulated in the title of David Fromkin's book. Then there is the relationship to wider and pertinent questions: whether the war should be considered separately from the Second World War or as merely the first round in a longer European civil war; and its implications for national sovereignty and for attempts at a united Europe. As George Kennan wrote, "all the lines of inquiry lead back to it".
Our interest is, above all, elicited because the events of the summer of 1914 constitute a contradiction, a cliffhanger of which we know the outcome. But the month-long journey from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, to a European conflict was by no means straightforward. The steps towards war are a complex puzzle full of mishaps, deceits and contradictions. Even if there were plenty of long-term causes that might or might not have resulted in war at any time, why did a particular spark in an obscure Balkan town set off the conflagration when crises in 1905, 1908 and 1911 had not resulted in war? For the many historians on the trail of who or what started the conflict, there has been a long list of possibilities: the "enemy" on the other side; alliance systems; the armaments race; imperialism or capitalism; mobilisation plans; railway timetables; Germany's internal problems; muddle or accident; and individuals, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Many theories have been discarded, with few now believing that imperialism or capitalism were the culprits, while "muddle" and "slithering into war" are out of favour. The present consensus is that Germany must bear the bulk of responsibility for the war.
Fromkin works with the grain of that consensus but adds his own twists to the tale. As in an English detective story, he summons all the suspects to the library for the denouement. Deftly giving a resume of the evidence, he clears one potential villain after another and then, confronting General von Moltke, demands that the general own up, which he obligingly does with the phrase: "This war that I prepared and initiated." This is an engaging and readable book that provides an analysis of the war's origins and is informed by an extensive knowledge of the literature. Whether the author is correct in so unambiguously pinning the guilt not just on one country but almost on one man may be doubted, although von Moltke is seen as representative of the German High Command and of the Junker class from which it was drawn.
It is generally agreed that German leaders were concerned that their military advantage over Russia and France was slipping away and were worried that their only dependable ally, Austria-Hungary, might not, in the event of a war that did not intimately concern it, be so dependable. They therefore gave Austria-Hungary a "blank cheque" - a promise of support for whatever action it took against Serbia, which was blamed, with some justice, for Ferdinand's death - and urged the Austro-Hungarian army to crush Serbia as quickly as possible.
But did Germany wish for a triumph for Austria-Hungary in a localised war, or did it have a darker and more ambitious plan, to use the Austro-Serbian crisis to begin a wider European war? This, the "two wars" thesis, is in essence Fromkin's view, although he accepts that the plan to turn an Austro-Serbian dispute into a European war came from an inner circle, composed mainly of generals, who more or less consistently pursued military conflict. They found it necessary to obstruct and mislead those who wished - like the Kaiser and, at the last minute, the Chancellor, Bethman Hollweg - either for a peaceful outcome or a localised war. There were divisions and deceits, even muddle and slithering. Why, if there was a determination on a general war, encourage Austria-Hungary to act swiftly early in July when a quick victory for the Austrians might have been accepted by Russia?
David Stevenson. in the first chapter of his magisterial account of the war as a whole, also deals with the war's causes. He accepts the view that Germany must take the major share of the blame, but differs from Fromkin in considering that Germany would have preferred a localised war, even if it were prepared to contemplate a wider one. He also sees Russian mobilisation as a significant escalator, which Fromkin dismisses as unimportant because the Germans were already determined on war.
Of all the powers that were at war by August 4, Britain's road to war is the most difficult to explain. Britain was not bound by any firm alliance and the bulk of the Liberal Party and much of the Cabinet were still, in late July, opposed to involvement. Once the die was cast, it was inevitable that Germany and Austria-Hungary would be opposed by Russia and France.
Britain alone had a real choice, notwithstanding the Triple Entente, military and naval talks with France, the guarantee of Belgian neutrality and fears that Germany planned to dominate Europe. It is a paradox that a parliamentary democracy went to war guided by a minority of ministers and the tacit agreements made by Foreign Office officials and senior Army officers.
Was it in Britain's interests to get involved in the war? Recent studies by John Charmley ( Splendid Isolation? ) and Niall Ferguson ( The Pity of War ) have argued in the negative. Stevenson sticks to what is still the conventional line, despite calling the evidence that Germany had plans for a Napoleonic hegemony "threadbare", and argues that "almost certainly the British leaders were right about the threat that a German victory would pose to them, and in believing that this time they could not afford to remain aloof - even if they massively underestimated the price of intervention". Whether or not one agrees with him, his central argument - that Britain's decision was of crucial importance because, without the presence of the British Expeditionary Force, Germany would probably have proved victorious over France in 1914 - is convincing.
All the governments of the day believed that war was a legitimate means of pursuing national interests. None realised quite what a modern war would be like, yet none was able to extricate itself once the nature of the conflict was apparent. Stevenson's comment that "intrinsic to all military undertakings, however legitimate their motives, is the risk that they will violate the principle of proportionality between ends and means" is apposite, as, by late 1915, the means were proving disastrous to all combatants. Why, when this became apparent, the war continued is the central question of this book. In a sense, the rational war came to an end in spring 1915 when it was apparent that the "war of movement" was over and with it any hopes for a quick victory. This should have been the time to return to diplomacy, but so many had been killed and enemies had been so vilified that logic was ignored. The second of the three stages into which Stevenson divides the war lasted from spring 1915 to spring 1917 and was marked by a combination of "escalation and stalemate". The war widened as new allies were brought in on both sides. It narrowed in France and Belgium as trench lines became "congealed". It became total as whole economies were mobilised in the service of the war effort, as new military technology was developed and as Germany embarked on unrestricted submarine warfare and the Allied Powers employed a total blockade aimed at their enemies' civilian populations. Stevenson's third phase begins with exhaustion and disillusion; again, one might have expected this to be a time for diplomacy, and autumn 1917 was marked by quests for a compromise. These failed and the Russian revolutions and US intervention opened up possibilities for both sides, leading to Germany's victory in the East and its final attempt at a breakthrough in the West, followed by the Allies'
recovery, the collapse of German morale and the Armistice.
In November 1918, the Allies' victory seemed conclusive, but it was just the end of the round. The British Army, especially, had by summer 1918 mastered the art of the military operations of the time. By 1940, however, the German Army would demonstrate that it was at the cutting edge.
A. W. Purdue is reader in British history, Open University.
Europe's Last Summer: hy the World Went to War in 1914
Author - David Fromkin
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 349
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 434 00858 3