Nov 10, 2007

Book Review: The Coming of the First World War

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Evans, R.J.W. (ed.)
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988


Edited by Regius Professor of Modern History R.J.W. Evans, this book is a collection of essays based on public lectures given by Oxford University historians on the seventieth anniversary of the publication of a 1914 book by Oxford scholars that examined Britain’s entry into the First World War. While the essays examine the conflict from a variety of methodological and philosophical perspectives, one gets the sense that the lengthy shadow of Christ Church Cathedral is never far from this text.

Michael Howard contributed an essay on the general situation in Europe on the eve of the First World War. The author used a model developed by von Clausewitz to frame his discussion of prewar Europe, examining the “triad of government, military, and public opinion” that he argued allowed the war to take place. One might quibble that this is an exercise in overgeneralization, but any attempt to take the prewar pulse of an entire continent will likely find similar criticisms. Howard argued that European governments did not use the war a means to deflect attention away from domestic social and political problems, which is contrary to historiographical assumptions by the likes of Henry Kissinger (see his 194 book Diplomacy). Instead, argued Howard, European governments were unsure how their citizens would respond to the outbreak of hostilities, and he maintained that the primary concerns of the belligerents were geopolitical in nature; governments based their decision to join the war based upon whether there were greater territorial, colonial, and economic advantages through the two options of war or peace. Like most European political leaders, argued Howard, military leaders believed that war was inevitable, and that it would be of short duration; the author maintained that these beliefs led to a widespread assumption that “the best chances of victory lay in immediately taking the offensive.” Among European populations – Howard’s third element of the aforementioned triad – there was little active resistance to war:
Those peoples did not reject war. Nor did they regard it as the highest good, the fulfillment of human destiny. They accepted it as a fact of life. They trusted their rulers and marched when they were told. Many did so with real enthusiasm; perhaps the more highly educated they were, the greater enthusiasm they felt.
Z.A.B. Zeman contributed an essay that examined the Balkans on the eve of the Great War, using the assassin Gavrilo Princip as a sort of microcosm of Serbian political and social contradictions. He argued that the life of Princip gave a “close-up view of a primitive peasant society and of several of its young sons who could come to terms neither with that society nor with its new Austro-Hungarian masters.” Zeman maintained that the decisive event in Balkan history as it related to the First World War was not the 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but rather the 1903 Serbian military coup that saw the assassination of the King, Queen, and other members of the Serbian royal family. Political instability among the Serbs, coupled with tremendous population growth among the rural populations of the Balkans, led Zeman to conclude that “it is hard to see how those tensions could have led to any other than a military solution.” Of course, one might argue that it is this sort of belief in the inevitability of war that led to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, but Zeman’s article is a thoughtful essay that raises disturbing questions about Balkan nationalism that remain largely unanswered in the twenty-first century.

Book editor Evans contributed an impressionistic chapter on the Habsburg monarchy in the years leading up to the war, approaching his topic from the perspective of intellectual and cultural history. Readers unfamiliar with the leading figures in prewar Vienna might need to keep a reference guide at hand, but the author makes a convincing argument that the intellectual creativity blossoming in the decaying imperial capital cannot be overlooked in any serious study of the First World War, and that the Viennese intelligentsia were all too willing to join in on the hawkish sentiments in July 1914:
Radical intellectuals, then, widely unpolitical in their general stance, nevertheless proved widely loyal in the aftermath of Sarajevo to the crisis of a Monarchy with which many felt, perhaps a sudden, perhaps a surprising, emotional identification. Of course many, if not most, were soon repelled by protracted war. And many soon realized that the Monarchy as they had known it was beyond recall.


Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914Left: Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914

D.W. Spring examined the Russian perspective on the eve of the First World War, relying primarily upon political, diplomatic, and journalistic documents in his analysis. The author noted the contradictions present in a Russia beset with domestic difficulties – and which was still smarting from a 1905 military defeat with Japan and diplomatic failures in the first Balkan Wars – and the Russia that chose the path of warfare after the July crisis. Spring argued that the February 1914 dismissal of Chairman of the Council of Ministers V. N. Kokovtsov deprived the Council of one of its strongest advocates for peace-oriented diplomacy. The French, argued the author, also played a role in prodding their Russian counterparts into avoiding “another humiliating climb-down” in the Balkans in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Spring argued that, ultimately there existed among elites and the bourgeoisie in prewar Russia a belief that the country had fallen behind its rival Great Powers in economic development, military strength, and diplomatic vigor, and that the July crisis represented a moment in which Russians needed to reassert themselves on the international scene, and that the Tsar’s decision to commence with partial mobilization was intended to support Russian diplomatic efforts at resolving the looming catastrophe.

Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, in his analysis of prewar Germany, argued that the Germans shared much of the responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, and that a majority of German political, military, and industrial leaders supported a “concept of expansion based upon a military victory” in what they believed would be a short conflict between the Great Powers. Strandmann discounted the idea that the Germans genuinely felt that they were surrounded by hostile enemies who were mere years away from gaining the upper hand over Germany, and that Germany needed to fight a preventive war for its survival. Instead, argued the author, Germany’s decision to war was “the perception of favourable opportunities in 1914 which influenced the [German] military and political decisions during the July Crisis.” Despite the ultimatum issued by the Austrians – and the Russian refusal to back down from partial mobilization - Strandmann firmly placed the blame for the conflict at the feet of the Germans:
All the available evidence suggests that it was mainly Germany which pushed for war and that without the German drive to extend her hegemony a major war would not have started in Europe in 1914.


Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, German politician who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917Left: Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, German politician who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917

The essay on prewar France, penned by Richard Cobb, is an evocative, almost stream of consciousness meditation on a nation seemingly focused on everything but a continental war in July 1914. After several pages readers might find themselves bewildered at the flurry of French literary, journalistic, and diarial passages that reference the weeks prior to the eruption of war in the summer of 1914, but by the end of the essay this reviewer found himself with a much greater appreciation of the prewar mood of France. Plucking a phrase that formerly described the new Viviani government, Cobb described France in July 1914 as “un gouvernement de vacances” a nation with its President Raymond Poincare and Prime Minister René Viviani away on a state visit to Russia and its citizens engrossed in the L'Affaire Caillaux. Moreover, given the fact that most French citizens only learned of the ominous international crisis between 30 July and 2 August 1914, there was little time for any significant antiwar protests to develop, and most citizens “pretty well all over France accepted, if reluctantly, the inevitability of war.” Cobb’s depiction of the reactions of members of such disparate groups as rural peasant families, anarchists from Saint-Etienne, and inebriated Norman vagrants provides vivid imagery that deepens the reader’s awareness of the sudden plunge into war that the French experienced.

Given the book’s recurrent motif of Oxford scholarship and interaction with the First World War, it is not surprising that the final chapter of The Coming of the First World War examines Great Britain in the prewar years. Michael Brock’s essay portrays a Britain that rapidly moved from a sort of abject anti-interventionism and pacifism to widespread support for war in a matter of ten days. Until the Austrian rejection of the Serbian response to its harsh ultimatum, argued Brock, British leaders assumed that any war would be of short duration and limited to the Balkans. The author also argued that politicians and military administrators such as Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and Director of Military Operations Henry Hughes Wilson simply failed to consider that the German military would have the audacity to completely disregard Belgian sovereignty in its war plans, and that any German advance through Belgian territory would be limited to trespassing through a narrow stretch of the Ardennes. Brock quoted Winston Churchill’s assessment of this act as one of two fatal blunders that ultimately cost the Germans victory in the war:
The invasion of Belgium and the unlimited U-boat war were both resorted to on expert dictation as the only means to victory. They proved the direct cause of ruin. They drew into the struggle against Germany mighty and intangible powers by which her strength was mercilessly borne down. Nothing could have deprived Germany of victory in the first year of the war except the invasion of Belgium; nothing could have denied it to her in its last year except her unlimited submarine campaign.
Certainly readers can choose from thousands of texts dedicated to analyzing the First World War, but The Coming of the First World War combines first-rate scholarship with some social and cultural perspectives often lacking in more traditional works. This book would be ideal for upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and non-specialist scholars, while the well-informed general reader should be able to keep up with dialogue, as the text exhibits the existence of talented writers and skilled editors in the creation of this unique addition to the historiography of World War I.

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