New York: Longman, 1992
Among the noteworthy works of the late historian James Joll, whose last position was at the London School of Economics, is The Origins of the First World War, which is part of the Origins of Modern Wars series. Joll created this text with a scholarly, non-specialist audience in mind, although knowledgeable general readers with a curiosity about the causes of the First World War will also benefit from reading the book. The author believed that the war was the culmination of a wide variety of factors, and he was disinclined to single out any one factor, arguing that it is more sensible to “reject all attempts at any long-term, wide-ranging explanation in terms of general social, economic, or intellectual factors.” Instead, Joll argued that historians are limited to assigning blame for the war solely on “individual responsibility” by political leaders among the belligerent powers.
Joll noted the role played by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the beginning of the so-called 1914 July crisis, but argued that this “isolated act of terrorism” should be seen as merely an event that provoked responses from individual political leaders, and that there were a multitude of other directions in which history might have traveled other than a war of unprecedented destruction. Moreover, argued Joll, the subsequent decisions by European political leaders “limited or seemed to limit the freedom of action of the other governments.” The author cited memoirs and diplomatic documents to support the idea that many of the participants in the decision-making believed that they were “carried away by the tide of history,” and that the unfolding of events left political leaders with the perspective that they had few options beyond preparation for war. Still, noted Joll, European leaders in the main failed to realize the seriousness of the unleashing of a continental war, and many of the decision makers believed that any hostilities that commenced would be of short duration and limited in geographic scope.
Left: Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este and heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne
Joll argued that the unification of Germany and the Prussian victory over France in 1870 led to a significant change in the balance of power in Europe. As a result, argued Joll, Bismarckian diplomacy became accepted throughout Europe as the ideal forms for the development of treaties and agreements between the Great Powers. The author argued that, after the era of Bismarck, the details of alliance treaties and the full text of international agreements between European powers were often kept secret, and Joll credited Bismarck as the impetus behind the evolution of the alliance system that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. This alliance system, concluded Joll, “conditioned expectations about the form a war would take if it broke out,” and prompted anticipation and predictions among Great Power leaders about which nations would become allies or enemies in the event of war:
These expectations laid down the broad lines of strategic planning, so that the general staffs were taking decisions which often committed them to irreversible military actions if war threatened; and consequently in a crisis the freedom of action of the civilian ministers was often more circumscribed than they themselves realized.Much like the conclusions reached by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War, Joll discounted the traditional notion that there existed in prewar Europe a cult of militarism that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. The author noted that there were growing anti-militarist movements in most of the Great Powers in the decade prior to the First World War, and that even the supposed Prussian militarism often touted by historians as contributing to the war was more of a reaction to perceptions by Prussian elites that “their values were threatened and that only vigorous action could preserve them.” A much greater factor contributing to the war, argued Joll, was the continent-wide increases in military spending in the decade prior to the First World War and the “short war illusion” shared by most Great Power military and civilian leaders.
Unlike historians such as Fritz Fischer, Arno Mayer, and Imanuel Geiss, Joll downplays the role of European domestic politics as a major causative factor in the outbreak of World War I. While conceding that there were domestic elements in each of the Great Powers calling for war as a means of resolving internal conflict, Joll argued that there were a considerable number of domestic opponents of war, and that proponents of the Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") theory overstate their case:
Each of the European Great Powers was passing through a political and social crisis in 1914; and in some cases the problems which confronted them were solved or at least postponed by the outbreak of war. It does not necessarily follow, however, that it was in order to solve or postpone these problems that governments declared war. Indeed, many of them were well aware that a declaration of war might create more social problems than it would solve.Joll was also somewhat dismissive of the view promulgated by such Marxist writers as Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin that the First World War reflected an inherent trend in capitalism toward war. The author provided a number of examples from different industries to refute the idea that World War I was driven in large measure by profit-seeking European industrialists. Steel manufacturers might have benefitted from government contracts for shipbuilding, noted Joll, but conversely faced decreases in sales to the merchant marine industry in the event of war. While noting the heavy French financial sector investments in Russia and those of German banks in Austria, Joll argued that “the investment policy of the banks was serving the foreign policy of the government” instead of viewing such phenomena as evidence that such investments drove European foreign policy in the prewar decade. Moreover, argued the author, the lack of financial and logistical preparedness – again due to the collective “short war illusion” shared by European leaders – suggested that there was a decided lack of coordination between government and industry, and that the Marxist arguments of governments performing the will of capitalists ignores the fact that most of the belligerent European governments found themselves woefully ill-prepared for even such basic requirements as food and armaments in a war lasting more than a few months.
Political cartoon depicting the tangled web of European alliances
European imperialism has also been cited by many historians – both Marxist and non-Marxist – as a contributory factor in the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, and Joll agreed that imperialism played an important role. However, the author argued that prospect of direct conflict between European imperial powers in Africa and Asia was less of a factor in the eruption of warfare in 1914 than was the general desire by European powers to acquire and defend colonies. Joll maintained that the buildup of the German navy was viewed with alarm by the British not for any specific threat to particular colonies, but rather because it represented “a general challenge which the German navy appeared to be making to Britain’s strategic lines of communication and her worldwide trade.” The weakened Ottoman Empire – kept alive by the desire to maintain the post-1815 balance of power on the continent – represented a region that “tempted stronger powers to stake a claim for spheres of influence and economic control” of territories and natural resources controlled by the Turks. Finally, argued Joll, the First World War was as much a function of the rhetoric of imperialism – in which the risk of war and armed struggle were prominent features – as it was the reality of imperialism. This European history of an imperialist mentalité led to the development of what the author believed was the most important factor in the outbreak of World War I, what Joll described as “the mood of 1914.”
Joll argued that there were several factors present in all the belligerent countries that contributed to the “mood of 1914.” Chief among these was the short duration of time between disclosure of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and the outbreak of war, which the author believed “did not allow for much considered reflection about the implications of the crisis.” In addition, Joll argued that European governments “were very effective in convincing their citizens that they were the victims of aggression” and that they appealed “to immediate feelings of patriotism and self-preservation which proved stronger than any internationalist convictions.” This was especially true among anti-militarist and socialist groups among the belligerent nations, many of whom set aside their antiwar stances out of a sense of loyalty to their respective nations. Moreover, argued Joll, there existed a number of youth organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Jungdeutschlandbund, which instilled imperial and militant values among European youth in the decades prior to 1914. Finally, argued Joll, popular culture in the decades prior to the First World War – especially popular literature, which saw the rise of such genres as the spy novel and the invasion novel – contributed to the mood of 1914 through the prurient exploitation of themes of war and violence, creating societies for whom war seemed less frightening.
The Origins of the First World War is a thorough examination of the causative factors in the outbreak of conflicts between European belligerents in 1914 and beyond. In addition, Joll provides historiographical references throughout the text, making this book useful to those seeking further enlightenment on the topic. The author also provided detailed maps for further edification, and included a concise bibliography for further reading. Readers looking for an in-depth discussion of the causes of the First World War need look no further than Joll’s commendable text.