The First Calamity
- BuyThe War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
Profile, 656 pp, £25.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 272 8
- BuyJuly 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin
Icon, 461 pp, £25.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 1 84831 593 8
The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday, 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, and his wife, Sophie Chotek, arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. In its complexity and the speed with which it escalated, the ‘July Crisis’ of 1914 is without parallel in world history. Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated that morning in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb students acting for a shadowy Belgrade-based ultranationalist network. The Austrian government in Vienna resolved to serve an ultimatum on its Serbian neighbour. Berlin promised support for Austria on 5 July. Encouraged by Paris, Russia opted to defend its Serbian client by mobilising against Austria and Germany. Unsatisfied by the Serbian reply to its ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany mobilised against France and Russia. France asked London for help. On 4 August 1914, following the German breach of Belgian neutrality, Britain entered the war.
[*] Stefan Schmidt’s Frankreichs Außenpolitik in der Julikrise 1914: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Ausbruchs der Ersten Weltkrieges was published in 2009.
Vol. 35 No. 19 · 10 October 2013
Christopher Clark’s review of The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan and July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin, like The Sleepwalkers, his own book on the origins of the First World War, slyly attempts to obscure or minimise evidence that contradicts his own thesis, which attributes equal blame, malice and lack of vision to all the major European powers (LRB, 29 August).
Much of what Clark has to say is good and proper. No, the war did not have its origins in a German plot hatched two years earlier and ruthlessly pursued. Yes, the Austrians had a legitimate grievance based on an act of international terrorism that was effectively sponsored by Serbia. Yes, powerful forces within the French government wanted war and egged Russia on. No, the Serbian response did not accept almost all of the Austrian ultimatum’s demands. And more.
But Clark’s central failing is to ignore or downplay much of the evidence of German and Austrian blame just as surely as Fritz Fischer distorted and overstated it. One could read Clark and forget that there was one alliance that started military action by shelling Belgrade, and one country, Germany, that declared war against Russia and France before any nation had taken military action against it or declared war on it. The Germans’ flat rejection of the British foreign secretary’s call for an international conference and their failure even to respond to the tsar’s suggestion that the matter be referred to The Hague are not given the attention and importance they deserve.
Indeed the irony of demolishing the Fischer school and then adopting some of its tactics reveals itself in an incongruity in Clark’s review. He compliments McMeekin for showing how Russia took military measures that supposedly left Germany with ‘no choice’ but to mobilise its armies. Yet he ends his review by quoting MacMillan’s ‘There are always choices’ – to support the idea that the statesmen of 1914 together manoeuvred Europe into catastrophe. There are always choices unless they conflict with Clark’s central thesis.
Christopher Clark writes: I thank Norman Frink for his insightful and generous comments about the review and about my book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. But I don’t accept that there is anything ‘sly’ about my handling of the evidence for German war guilt. The book engages the case for German war guilt head-on, proposing in place of the primary culprit model a polycentric and interactive account of the war’s aetiology. In the process I do indeed shift the emphasis, bringing aspects of the war’s prehistory to the fore that I argue have been underexposed, and concluding that if responsibility for the decisions that brought war is so widely distributed, then perhaps ‘blame’ is an unhelpful category.
Those who remain attached to the Austro-German culpability thesis will object to this rebalancing of the analysis (they already have) and I don’t doubt that the debate over these issues will continue. But in presenting his own case for that view, Frink replicates a longstanding optical bias in the narrative of German culpability: namely, a tendency to focus attention on a selection of decontextualised moments that were in fact embedded in a complex sequence of events. Yes, the Germans declared war on Russia before the Russians declared war on Germany. But by the time that happened, the Russian government had been moving troops and equipment to the German front for a week. The Russians were the first great power to issue an order of general mobilisation and the first Russo-German clash took place on German, not on Russian soil, following the Russian invasion of East Prussia. That doesn’t mean that the Russians should be ‘blamed’ for the outbreak of war. Rather it alerts us to the complexity of the events that brought war about and the limitations of any thesis that focuses on the culpability of one actor.