Historians and journalists are engaged in a countdown to war, which, almost 100 years later, parallels that of the summer of 1914 – even if this time it is publishing, rather than mobilisation, timetables that impel the ticking-off of the dates on the calendar. Rightly so, for, if we shall spend the next four years working our way through the bloody battles of the Marne, Ypres, the Somme and Gallipoli on to the Allied victory in 1918, the great question is why, after decades of peace, European civilisation self-destructed, plunging its states into fratricidal conflict.
Few people in Britain were concerned that the assassination of an Austrian archduke whom most people had never heard of, in a Balkan town they had to reach for an atlas to correctly place on the map, could lead to a general European war. Still less was it imaginable that Britain would be involved. Indeed, for most of July, in most of Europe, there was little apprehension of the serious consequences that would result from the event in Sarajevo on 28 June.
There were few clouds on the international horizon. The British public was concerned with the Irish Question; the French were relishing a delicious scandal, the murder of the editor of Le Figaro by the wife of the finance minister after he had published letters between the minister and his mistress; Anglo-German relations seemed to be improving – the Royal Navy had recently paid a visit to Kiel and been given hospitality by the German navy; the capitals of Europe were emptying as monarchs and statesmen departed for their yachts or estates, and humbler citizens for seaside resorts; and even the Austro-Hungarian government had yet to take a decisive move to avenge Franz Ferdinand’s death. Yet a slow fuse had been lit that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War in early August.
Rather than starting a war they hoped to win, McMeekin asserts in this startling exercise in revisionism, the Germans went into the war expecting to lose
In this detailed account of the events and decisions that marked the road to war, Sean McMeekin demonstrates how, during what seemed a peaceful summer month, something that might have ended (at worst) in just another bloody Balkan battle led instead to the outbreak of the greatest conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. Readers are asked to consider which nation, if any, bears responsibility.
Appositely, as we move towards the centenary of the start of the Great War, the debate is more heated and vital than ever. For more than 50 years, historical opinion appeared to have settled on the consensus that Germany was uniquely culpable, and that its leaders, finding its diplomatic and military position deteriorating, deliberately used a Balkan crisis to launch a war they believed they could win in 1914, but not a year or so later.
One attack on this thesis returns us, via Christopher Clark’s brilliant 2012 work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, to an accidental war for which no single nation was responsible. McMeekin’s new book, however, although it finds plenty of botched and confused diplomatic and military moves, builds on his 2011 monograph The Russian Origins of the First World War and argues that Imperial Russia bore a far greater responsibility for the outbreak of war than has usually been recognised by historians, primarily because of the timing of its mobilisation orders.
Germany made a number of miscalculations. By giving a “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary, it placed its fate in the hands of a weaker and erratic ally and put an “Austrian noose” around its neck. Then, allowing military planning to override diplomacy, it invaded Belgium and thus allowed pro-war members of the British Cabinet to bring the UK into the war. Rather than starting a war they hoped to win, McMeekin asserts in this startling exercise in revisionism, “the Germans went into the war expecting that they would lose” and “out of desperation, out of [German commander-in-chief Helmuth von] Moltke’s belief that only a knock-out blow against France would give her the slightest chance of winning”.
The question of which, if any, nation was responsible for the First World War remains open.