The First Calamity

Christopher Clark

  • The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
    Profile, 656 pp, £25.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 272 8
  • July 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.

The debate over the origins of the First World War is older than the war itself. Even before the first shots were fired, Europe’s statesmen constructed narratives depicting themselves as innocents and their opponents as predators and breachers of the peace. Since then, the debate has spawned a historical literature of unrivalled size, sophistication and moral intensity. In 1991, a survey by the American historian John Langdon counted 25,000 relevant books and articles in English alone.

The debate is still going strong today, for several reasons. First, the war unleashed the demons of political disorder, extremism and cruelty that disfigured the 20th century. It destroyed four multiethnic empires (the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman). It killed at least ten million young men and wounded at least twenty million more. It disorganised the international system in immensely destructive ways. Without this conflict it is difficult to imagine the October Revolution of 1917, the rise of Stalinism, the ascendancy of Italian Fascism, the Nazi seizure of power or the Holocaust. It was, as the historian Fritz Stern put it, ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. It is hard to imagine a worse initial condition for the modern era of which we are the inheritors.

A second reason is the exceptionally intricate character of the crisis that brought war to Europe in 1914. The Cuban Missile Crisis was complex enough, yet it involved just two principal protagonists plus a range of proxies and subordinate players. By contrast, the story of how the First World War came about must make sense of the multilateral interactions among five autonomous players of equal importance – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and Britain – or six if we add Italy, plus various other strategically significant autonomous sovereign actors, such as the Ottoman Empire and the states of the Balkan peninsula, a region of high political tension and instability in the years before the outbreak of war.

To make matters worse, the executives of these states were anything but unified. There was uncertainty (and has been ever since among historians) about where exactly the power to shape policy was located within the respective governments. The chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitations of the European system during the years leading up to the war. It also helps explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most opaque political crisis of modern times. There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that can’t be supported by selecting among the available sources. Some accounts have focused on the culpability of one bad-apple state (Germany has been most popular, but none of the great powers has escaped the ascription of chief responsibility); others have shared the blame around or have looked for faults in ‘the system’. There has always been enough complexity to keep the argument going.

The debate is old, but the issues it raises are still fresh. One might even say that the political crisis of July 1914 seems less remote – less illegible – now than it did thirty or forty years ago. When I first encountered the subject as a schoolboy in Sydney, a kind of period charm had accumulated in popular awareness of the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ornamentalism of a world still largely organised around hereditary monarchy, had a distancing effect. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily grew that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and dreams probably did too. But what must strike any 21st-century reader who follows the course of the crisis is its raw modernity. It began with a cavalcade of automobiles and a squad of suicide bombers: the young men who gathered in Sarajevo with bombs on 28 June 1914 had been told by their handlers to take their own lives after carrying out their mission, and received phials of potassium cyanide to do it with. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge: extra-territorial, secretive, scattered in cells across political borders, its links to any sovereign government were oblique.

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[*] Stefan Schmidt’s Frankreichs Außenpolitik in der Julikrise 1914: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Ausbruchs der Ersten Weltkrieges was published in 2009.