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Great War: The Insane and Familiar ‘War Madness’ of 1914 | The Nation

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Great War: The Insane and Familiar ‘War Madness’ of 1914

Citizens of Budapest

Citizens of Budapest read about the Austro-Hungarian mobilization just after the declaration of war in late July 1914. (Imperial War Museum)

After noting the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and declaring that it was concern for the emperor which, as a consequence of the crime, “first makes appeal,” The Nation allowed several weeks to pass without comment about the political fallout of the deed. Lead editorials instead focused on the situations in Mexico, Haiti and Albania (ultimately connected to broader European conflict, but perhaps not obviously so just yet). With what now appears mordant irony, a scholar named H.W. Horwill—later known for his Dictionary of Modern American Usage—mused, in a laconic dispatch from London dated July 10, on the difficulties of prediction in politics. “Wars and rumors of wars,” Horwill wrote, “afford abundant opportunity for lucky and unlucky shots, metaphorically as well as literally.”

By the issue dated July 30, however, prediction was no longer the name of the game, and The Nation could no longer ignore the conflict already threatening to tear Europe apart—disturbingly suddenly, if along predictable seams.

On July 23 the Austrian ambassador to Serbia submitted the Dual Monarchy’s ultimatum: Serbia must crack down on the nationalist networks responsible for the archduke’s assassination, as well as allow an unprecedented level of meddling by Austria in Serbia’s internal affairs. The terms were impossible for Serbia to accept, and were designed to be so; militaristic elements in the Austrian government had long desired a conflict with Serbia, and the primary proponent of peace in that government, the archduke, was now dead. Serbia rejected the ultimatum. Austria rejected British offers to negotiate a resolution and, on July 28, declared war.

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“A crisis of extreme gravity has developed in the European situation,” the first sentence of The Nation’s July 30 issue solemnly observed. A subsequent note picked up the thread:

A few pages later readers found the magazine’s full editorial on the subject, written (without a byline, as most articles were then) by Rollo Ogden, the same editor of The Nation’s then-parent publication, The New York Evening-Post, who had previously written about Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The editorial gives an incredible sense of Americans in July 1914 looking in horror at the precipitate escalation of tensions on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Bishop Joseph Butler, for the record, was a widely read eighteenth-century English theologian and philosopher who influenced David Hume and Adam Smith. In a late essay, Matthew Arnold praised Butler’s “sacred horror at men’s frivolity.”)

As if in apology for having not kept its readers updated on the developing story for the last four weeks, The Nation’s editorial continued:

The editorial concludes with an unmistakable allusion to the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

Back Issues is following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

 

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