Ninety-nine years ago, why did a world war start? A book review

July 1914, by Sean McMeekin,

I am not a historian, and the 1914-1918 World War is, to me, remote, both culturally and in time. I never had a particular interest in, or knowledge of that that war, save for historical documentaries depicting the carnage of trench warfare, or being in Canada, Vimy Ridge, which commemorates  a battle where Canada is said to have come of age.  Yet, unlike the Second World War, whose causes and origins are generally known to most well educated or historically aware North Americans, the origins of the earlier world war are mystifying, and shrouded in a historical fog.  Why would Germany and Britain and France and Russia and Austria-Hungary have gotten into this mess?

What intrigued me to read this book was a joint book review in the New York Times of July 1914, and The Sleepwalkers. The review by Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, sparked my curiosity by focusing on the origins of that war that turned the world upside down. How could a world at peace in June 1914 turn into a catastrophic war by August 1914?

In July 1914, McMeekin gives a day to day account of the chief actors of the participating countries from the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne on June 28, to the beginning hostilities on August 4. From that incredibly detailed reconstruction of the events,  it would seem the parties were not merely sleepwalkers (as the title of the other book reviewed by Evans implies) but cogs in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine with no off switch.  Each of these countries had a war party pushing for brinkmanship (or worst), but none willed a world war.  All these countries had parties that wanted to pull from the brink, but were unable to. Why unable? Not because their respective war parties prevailed upon them, but merely because they were instrumental in setting in motion processes that they would not, or could not reverse.  There are moving depictions in the book of diplomatic envoys breaking into tears after presenting their host countries declarations of war.

Two things about that epoch strike the contemporary mindset as particularly distant. The first of these is the importance of something called the “monarchical principle”. Germany’s envoy to St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital at the time, appealed to the Tsar to back down from pursuing policies that would lead to the war, on the basis of that it would undermine this “monarchical principle”. But what exactly was the monarchical principle? Save for the French Republic (whose alliance Romanov Russia counted on, in spite of France being viewed by the Tsar as an “atheist republic”), all other countries of Europe were monarchies including Serbia which provided Hapsburg Austria with its casus belli. So, what exactly was the “monarchical principle”? As far as I understand it, it went beyond the protection of the ruling monarchies and was a belief that Europe’s monarchs, their kings and emperors, Germany’s kaiser and Russia’s tsar, were entrusted with the stability and peace of the continent of Europe, or maybe even ordained as custodians of European civilization.

The second thing that grates on the modern sensibility is the importance of “mobilization”, as in “war preparation”, to strategic thinking at the time. Basically, “mobilization” was tantamount to war. Once Russia’s mobilization had commenced, it was just not feasible for the powers that be to reverse course, even if chances for peace presented themselves.

A discussion of “mobilization” segues easily into a discussion of technology, and in particular communication technology. Arguably, the countdown to war in July 1914, could not repeat themselves in today’s world. Why? Because then, communication technology was so primitive that essential communications between the leaderships of the countries that would eventually fight each other took hours, if not days, to reach their destinations. Slow communications contributed to opaqueness about what adversaries were up to, and therefore to distrust of the other.

Readers may object to my stating that the events of July 1914 would be unthinkable today. Of course, war is not a thing of the past. But today, communication technology is pervasive, and if, or when, countries fight, it is in spite of instant communication, not because of communication failure.

One more point to note: the author, Sean McMeekin, an American professor at a Turkish University, anticipates some readers comparing the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, with the 2001 US ultimatum to Taliban ruled Afghanistan: hand us Bin Laden, or bear the consequence.  But the difference is critical: Serbia responded positively to Austria  and seemed to be open to allaying its concerns, to the Talibans hospitality for, and loyalty to Bin Laden was paramount.

It may seem disconcerting to finish a review of a book describing events that are nearly a century old by bringing up Afghanistan and its Taliban parasites. It shouldn’t be. History at its most interesting and riveting, is when it clarifies, and maybe explain the present.

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