Photo: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, June 1914
Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on an official visit to Sarajevo in June 1914, shortly before their assassination by Gavrilo Princip.

I write you under the black cloud of portentous events on this side of the world, horrible, unspeakable, iniquitous things—I mean horrors of war criminally, infamously precipitated.
—Henry James, August 6, 1914

Who started the Great War in 1914? David Fromkin’s excellent new book wants to put the question to rest. This work, from the author of the bestselling A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), makes three important claims, aimed at a general audience, about the lead-up to the Great War:

First, that Europe in 1914 was not some peaceful Eden. Rather, “as its political elites recognized, Europe was in the grip of an unprecedented arms race; internally the powers were victims of violent social, industrial, and political strife; and general staffs chattered constantly, not about whether there would be war, but where and when.” All the European nations perceived themselves in weakness—economically, politically, militarily, or demographically—and both Britain and Germany, fearing a change in the balance of power more than they feared being drawn into war, acted at times to shore up a weaker partner. Perception and reality diverged for the decision-makers of Europe in the early twentieth century. War and political violence were still very much the norm. Honor played an important role for those who controlled policy. It was an explosive and dangerous mix.

Europe in 1914 was not some peaceful Eden.

Second, Germany sought and orchestrated the commencement of a whole-European war. Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg devised Austria’s strategy toward Serbia. When this failed, the military chiefs, Helmuth von Moltke and Erich von Falkenhayn, took over and insisted on war, not just against Serbia and Russia, but on France, and the Great General Staff (Grosser Generalstab) maintained that France must be defeated first in a lightning strike through Belgium. The documentary evidence shows that Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary’s hopes while actively deceiving the governments of Russia, France, and Great Britain. The pattern of deception is remarkable, with senior military and civilian figures lying to the Kaiser to ensure that he could not opt for peace. The day-to-day manipulation of events still reads like a thriller, with your suspicions of guilt constantly hopping from character to character.

Third, there were two separate wars being planned and declared. Austria-Hungary sought a localized war against Serbia, whom she wished to crush without interference from Russia. Germany sought a war to defeat Russia, her future rival for mastery of Europe, but the immediate goal was to have Austria-Hungary fight off Russia while Germany defeated France in the West.

Austria-Hungary sought a Third Balkan War; Germany sought a First World War. Moreover, the larger war did not grow from the smaller one getting out of hand. They were differently conceived, differently motivated, but both relentlessly pursued. The little war was put aside when the big war came. Mr. Fromkin stresses that the Austro-Hungarian plan for dealing with Serbia originated in a memo that was being drafted weeks before the assassinations in Sarajevo. The death of the heir apparent was an opportunity to settle Balkan questions, not the motivation to settle them.

Thus, the First World War was caused by a German desire to settle the mastery of Europe. Russia needed to be defeated, as Austria had been in 1866 and France in 1871. The German government and the Great General Staff had been preparing for it for more than a quarter of a century. They hoped that a victorious war would also be a cathartic national event uniting the classes and the many regions of the empire. This young nation had industrialized rapidly, and the rising urban classes were seen as a threat. Germany’s ultra-conservative political and military leaders feared an evolution toward some sort of constitutional monarchy.

Wilhelm II had been only thirty when he came to the throne in 1888, and it had been hoped that he would be the outward representation of a new, enterprising nation. But Wilhelm was a capricious monarch and given to indecision and contradictory attitudes. In 1890, he dismissed Otto von Bismarck as chancellor and set in motion the events that left Germany isolated diplomatically. The reinsurance treaty with Russia was allowed to lapse. This Bismarck creation had been designed to keep Russia and France apart, so Germany would be free of ever having to fight a war on two fronts.

Germany alienated Great Britain with its naval ambitions. The goal was not naval supremacy, but rather the creation of a popular imperial rule. It was felt that if Wilhelm oversaw the rise of Germany’s navy and its use to build and maintain a colonial empire, then Germans would rally behind him. Instead, the naval building program only succeeded in draining the budget, irritating Britain, and inaugurating history’s first arms race. The Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 convinced the German government that Great Britain and France would always conspire against German ambitions and that Austria-Hungary could not be relied upon. The government saw Russia’s recovery from 1905, with an industrial leap funded by France, as another threat.

In short, Germany’s leaders felt surrounded politically, endangered economically—thanks to a lack of colonies and labor strife—and threatened militarily by the rise of Russia with its huge population. Only war could unite the country and maintain Germany’s great power position. The calculations were partly correct. The war did unify the German people behind the Kaiser, but Germany lost in the end, and all was swept away.

The question of August 1914 then is not “Why war?” but “Why now?” Peace had prevailed in each of the three previous years in equally difficult diplomatic circumstances. The answer has been a source of much controversy, with the rise and fall of two main hypotheses that I will call Collective Guilt and the Fischer Thesis. While there was plenty of wartime propaganda about who was to blame for starting the war, this debate essentially began at the Versailles Conference with the inclusion of Article 231—the “War Guilt Clause”—in the Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919. Germany admitted to responsibility of the monetary costs to the Allies “as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies,” and so had to pay vast reparations. The clause was as much about money as guilt. From the start, Germany wanted to escape the monetary and cultural burden.

Revisionism began early, in December 1919, with the German government publishing four volumes of official papers, carefully edited and selected to exonerate Germany. In the 1920s, the fighting powers brought out hundreds of volumes of official documents to show they were blameless and had nothing to hide. In the words of Lloyd George: “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without a trace of apprehension or dismay.” A consensus arose that guilt was collective to all.

After World War II, when the harshness of the Versailles Treaty was cited as a key factor in the rise of Hitler, the idea of Collective Guilt became almost law. The first challenge to this had actually been published during the war, but in Italian, and so it lacked wide dissemination until the 1950s. Luigi Albertini’s three-volume Origins of the First World War was the product of ten years of interviews and dusty research. A minor politician and sometime journalist, Albertini went to great lengths to interview all the surviving players of the July Crisis and to sort through all the dissembling. His book is a compendium of source material and a diligent attempt to ask and answer the questions. The fact that he was Italian was also a help. He had no national position to defend and so presented one of the very few dispassionate accounts of the coming of war. Albertini’s work little affected the scholarly consensus, however, which had been reaffirmed by historians from all the belligerents at conferences in the early 1950s. Gerhard Ritter in 1950, at the first meeting of the West German historians’ association, noted “the victory of Germany’s main theses” in the international historical debates after 1918 as one of the great achievements of German historiography.

It was Fritz Fischer who sucessfully challenged this orthodoxy in 1961 with his Griff nach der Weltmacht (called more prosaically Germanys Aims in the First World War when it was translated into English in 1967). He ignited one of the great scholarly battles of the last century. Having plowed through a vast amount of documents—on both sides of the Berlin Wall; Fischer was the first Western scholar allowed in the archives in East Germany—he presented a wealth of evidence that Germany’s military and civilian leaders actively sought war in 1914 and so bore the majority of the blame. Fischer was saying, essentially, that the long discredited Article 231 had been right.

He was attacked not only by the scholars, but also by large parts of West German society. The president of the Bundestag denounced him in a speech in 1964, and Franz Josef Strauss—the strong man of Bavarian politics—called on the West German government to devote its resources to refuting this “distortion of Germany history and of the image of Germany today.”1 The government went so far as to try to get Fischer’s American lecture tour cancelled by withdrawing funds from the Goethe Institut, which was supporting it.

It now seems obvious that the debate was driven by political as well as historical concerns. The Collective Guilt theory that had been reaffirmed by historians across Europe after World War II fit the new realities of the Cold War. The Western powers wanted to arm West Germany as part of an “Atlantic Alliance” against the Soviet Union. Separating Germany from the excesses of Nazism—dividing Wilhelmine from Hitlerine—and establishing that Hitler was an aberration in German history was part of the rehabilitation of a former enemy. Fischer, meanwhile, maintained that German history from 1871 to 1945 could be viewed as a continuum. Fischer’s book appeared in 1961 at the beginning of a decade of youth rebellion. Fischer, through no fault of his own, found himself in favor with the generation that came of age in the 1960s who thought nothing could be better than apportioning blame for the twentieth century’s calamities on their parents, teachers, and politicians.

The Fischer Thesis needed much honing, and the debate set scholars and publishers to work. Fischer’s first book was about Germany’s war aims during World War I. It wasn’t until 1969’s Krieg der Illusionen (“War of Illusions”) that he dealt with the run-up to the war. It was here that the evidence was overwhelming. It shows that Germany’s leaders were prepared for what followed: that they had calculated how to get Austria-Hungary to fight Russia rather than Serbia, were happy to cause a world war to be able to fight Russia on the terms they wanted, and expected Britain to enter the war after the invasion of Belgium. The scholars who have continued Fischer’s work don’t all agree by any means—there is much argument over whether foreign or domestic policy concerns played the dominant role in the decision to fight—but historians like Imanuel Geiss, Samuel R. Williamson, Zara Steiner, and Volker Berghahn have taken the framework of Fischer’s thesis and fleshed it out. What we believe today is not specifically the same as what Fischer indicated in the 1960s, but he was dead right in the essentials.

The interpretive controversies remain, and worthwhile studies appear almost every year. John Keiger’s 1997 biography of Raymond Poincaré—written in English—was the first to draw on Poincaré’s private papers. Annika Mombauer’s research on the chief of the Great General Staff between 1906 and 1914—published in 2001 as Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War—has caused a general rethinking of Moltke’s character and actions. He now comes across as the key advocate of going to war in August 1914, where before he was seen as indecisive. On a similar note, Terence Zuber’s 2002 Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning, 1871-1914 has thrown all sense of just what is meant by that phrase into question. John C. G. Röhl’s exhaustive biographical study of Wilhelm II remains an ongoing project, with a volume, not the last, due this summer.

Still, this scholarly ferment has had little impact on popular perception; World War I remains a great unavoidable accident in the media. The view is also still widely held among political scientists. In his Diplomacy, from just ten years ago, Henry Kissinger perpetuated the Collective Guilt canard in a chapter that claims that all would be well if diplomats had control of military chiefs: “Since the military plans depended on speed and the diplomatic machinery was geared to its traditional leisurely pace, it became impossible to disentangle the crisis under intense time pressure.” The July Crisis lasted more than a month, hardly a rush. The analysis is based on the faulty assumption that war occurred because of mobilization schedules. Even Kissinger has not kept up with the latest research.

The Great War was not just about economic forces, nihilism, or the machinations of the Zeitgeist; it was about high politics, “who should rule the world.”

Mr. Fromkin has sorted through a tremendous amount of the material published in the forty years since Fischer proposed his thesis. He presents the evidence in a more lucid and compelling way than I have ever come across. It not a long book: one hundred pages set the scene of European power politics, fifty pages narrate the assassination, one hundred describe the four quiet weeks that followed and then count down the feverish ten days that led to war, and a fifty-page analysis of the evidence and its lessons brings the book to a close. The brevity is welcome. The book reminds me of the essays of Macaulay, those long essays he did for the Edinburgh Review smoothly surveying the available material on a historical subject and fearlessly laying out an interpretation. Europes Last Summer never bogs down, covers the ground, and makes its points. It is also charmingly written.

Mr. Fromkin evokes place well:

It looks very much as though the drift toward war began, insofar as any movement in history has a beginning, in the old imperial city of Constantinople: yesterday’s Byzantium and today’s Istanbul. Dominating the straits that separate Europe from Asia, it occupies a site that has been at the center of world politics since the fabled, and perhaps fabulous, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and Achilles embarked for nearby Troy. For more than a thousand years after the fourth century A.D., Constantinople had served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. For five hundred years afterwards it was the capital of the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire. It had outlived two civilizations and in the early 1900s seemed poised to outlive a third.

He is also adept at defining our players:

A new Chancellor took office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, a civil servant, but of an old and wealthy Rhineland family. Bethmann knew he was not Wilhelm’s preferred choice for the office, and his willingness to stand up to the Kaiser was questioned then and is questioned still. Bethmann was an outsider—not Prussian, not military—who did not have, nor did he ever develop, personal relationships with the leaders of the armed forces or with the emperor.

He has the revealing anecdote:

President Poincar‚ of France was at the Longchamps racetrack when news of the Sarajevo killings was brought to him. He remained to see the end of the races. He then went about his usual routine. Paris was unaffected.

And the telling fact:

To add to the murkiness, there was no agreement on what constitutes a nationality. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a “vague term” and remarked that “a ‘nationality’ . . . represents a common feeling and an organized claim rather than distinct attributes which can be comprised in a strict definition.”

Finally, Mr. Fromkin understands that the Great War was not just about economic forces, nihilism, or the machinations of the Zeitgeist; it was about high politics, “who should rule the world.”

The decision for war in 1914 was purposeful; and war itself was not, as generations of historians have taught, meaningless. On the contrary, it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.

I could quote at great length from this fine book, but my point is that Europes Last Summer is an excellent addition to the history shelves. We badly need general history books that translate the best of our scholarship for popular consumption. I can only hope that it will be a success and prompt other such books.

  1.   This quote is drawn from Annika Mombauer's Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (2002), which is a superb short study of the long-running debate on war guilt. John Langdon's July 1914: The Long Debate, 1918-1990 (1991) is another useful survey.

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