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Behind the Storm | The Nation

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Behind the Storm

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No Man's Land Near Lens, France

As Europe’s great powers mobilized their armies in August 1914, many of their citizens and subjects were in denial. They were convinced that war had died out—at least among the “civilized” nations of Europe. “War is declared! Up to the last minute I would not believe it…. I thought that in our day and generation disputes were settled…without bloodshed,” wrote one observer. During World War II, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled that at the onset of the previous conflict, “People no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts or witches.”

The War That Ended Peace
The Road to 1914.
By Margaret MacMillan.
Buy this book

The Sleepwalkers
How Europe Went to War in 1914.
By Christopher Clark.
Buy this book

Dance of the Furies
Europe and the Outbreak of World War I.
By Michael S. Neiberg.
Buy this book

About the Author

Tara Zahra
Tara Zahra is professor of history at the University of Chicago and Berthold Leibinger Fellow at the American Academy...

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When war came on August 4, the most common metaphor used by Europeans to describe it was that of a natural disaster. It was a “terrible storm,” a “bolt from the blue,” a “flash of lightning,” a “tempest,” a “peal of thunder,” a “volcano on which we have slumbered for years,” an “avalanche that could not be halted”—images that evoked the shock of the event and its seemingly unstoppable nature. Whatever its form, the force that spoiled the summer vacations of middle-class Europeans in 1914 also “ended the peace” to which they had become accustomed and ushered in a century of unprecedented mass slaughter on European soil. On August 4, 1914, Rudyard Kipling remarked in his diary, “Incidentally, Armageddon begins.” Four years later, 65 million people had been mobilized, 8.5 million killed, 21 million wounded, and untold others psychologically maimed or destroyed.

What caused Europe to immolate itself? World War I, after all, was neither an avalanche nor a tempest but a ghastly man-made disaster. The question of responsibility has preoccupied Europe, and its historians, since the war began, and the identification of culprits has also varied over time, running the gamut from German militarism to reckless diplomacy, the faceless forces of imperialism and nationalism, and ideologies like social Darwinism. The debate has never been purely academic. Disagreement over the causes of World War I profoundly shaped the subsequent course of European and world history, most immediately through the Treaty of Versailles and its infamous “war guilt clause,” which assigned sole blame to the Germans and exacted severe reparations in retaliation. Both provisions were bitterly resented by many Germans, and their anger helped to fuel the Nazis’ rise to power and Europe’s second descent into hell in 1939.

Not surprisingly, the approaching centenary of the fateful summer of 1914 has elicited new reflections on the war’s causes. While the current crop of books on the outbreak of the war offer a range of perspectives, they tend, on balance, to find blood primarily on the hands of Europe’s “Great Men,” a small cabal of diplomats, kings, military leaders and their advisers. In her highly readable The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan concludes that “the decisions that took Europe into that war—or failed to prevent it—were made by a surprisingly small number, and those men—few women played a role—came largely but not entirely from the upper classes, whether the landed aristocracy or the urban plutocracy.” Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers likewise locates the causes of the war in the decision-making of key individuals rather than broad categorical forces. In Dance of the Furies, written from the very different perspective of social history, Michael S. Neiberg comes to similar conclusions yet holds responsible an even smaller circle of men: “the elites in Berlin and Austria (and to a lesser extent St. Petersburg) were the only ones who truly did want war” that summer. “War broke out because a select group of perhaps a dozen men willed it or stumbled incompetently around a situation that they thought they could control until it was too late to stop the machinery they had set in motion.”

MacMillan, Clark and Neiberg all blame “Great Men” for the war, and all assume that such an approach can offer an accurate account of the forces that propelled Europe to war in 1914. In several respects, their arguments are compelling and convincing. National loyalties, after all, were not the only or overriding influence on politics at the turn of the twentieth century—to the extent that ordinary Europeans cared about politics at all. “A focus on nationality at the expense of other sources of identity clouds our understanding of the war,” Neiberg argues. “To be sure, people of European nations came together in the face of a common threat, but they did not stop being socialists, farmers, Catholics, or members of the middle class even as they did so.” The nationalist hatreds routinely associated with the war years, he claims, “were an effect, not a cause, of the outbreak of war.”

This interpretation also offers a more optimistic portrait of Europeans (and human nature generally) than other accounts of Europe on the eve of war. Contrary to popular images, most Europeans were not rabid nationalists hankering for a blood feud. In fact, they were mostly rather indifferent to the news from Sarajevo that June about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and member of the revolutionary Black Hand movement. Ultimately, ordinary Europeans were victims of a war that no one wanted but in which everyone suffered. 

The focus on diplomatic decision-making also accords well with historians’ desire to challenge teleological thinking and to emphasize human agency. Accordingly, all three books tend to eschew structural explanations and to emphasize that war was not inevitable. Down to the last days and hours before the first shots were fired, individual decisions could have averted the worst-case scenario.

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