Book Review: Dance of the Furies
by Michael S. Neiberg
Harvard University Press, 2011
The great American historian Laurence Lafore, whose auditorium lectures often elicited applause from undergraduates stunned to learn that history could be made to come alive right before their eyes, wrote his master-work, The Long Fuse, over fifty years ago. In its pages, he examined that oft-visited subject, the causes of World War I, from antiquated, entangling alliances to rabid nationalism to simple folly. The strength of his insight and the clean line of his prose made The Long Fuse the best book in English on the subject.
I don’t know if Michael S. Neiberg has ever received a standing ovation while teaching undergraduates at the University of Southern Mississippi (given today’s youth, I doubt it – perhaps there’s an app that creates the digital equivalent), but he’s equalled Professor Lafore in the book-writing department. In fact, he’s exceeded him. Neiberg’s new book, Dance of the Furies, becomes at once the new pinnacle in brief studies of the coming of the First World War (for elephantine studies of the same period, Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Vol. I: To Arms still holds the top honor). Dance of the Furies is far-ranging, adroitly written, and consistently fascinating.
It’s also mildly revisionist, in that Neiberg doesn’t put much stock in either those antiquated alliances or that rabid nationalism. He uses an incredibly wide array of contemporary sources to shore up his point that when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian teenager Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, virtually nobody thought the event would lead to general war (one of the few exceptions was H. G. Wells, who, in a typically prescient comment, said the assassination would “set the world alight”). Neiberg does a marvellous job of leading his readers through the twists and turns of European diplomacy. Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph authorized a punitive set of demands for Serbian reparations and then invaded the country even though they’d agreed to meet those demands, and although these inconvenient facts give Neiberg’s “nobody wanted war” contentions a bit of trouble, the main point of those contentions is sound and thought-provoking: once that invasion prompted Russia to begin mobilizing its troops, the nature of the whole situation changed:
No longer was the conflict about who had been behind the assassination of an obscure archduke or what sort of diplomatic compensation Austria-Hungary might have the right to claim. Now the conflict was about the essential right of peoples to defend themselves and their homes against an enemy.
In the resulting war, all nations were able to see themselves as defensive victims fighting for outraged principles; it was the perfect recipe for the meat-grinding cataclysm that followed. The swiftness with which the subtle shift in mind-frame brought about general hostilities genuinely surprised the entire West. Royal families of many countries – virtually all of whom were interrelated through Queen Victoria – were caught off-guard on holiday at the courts of nations that were now suddenly their declared enemies. When an ocean liner from South Africa docked at Plymouth in mid-August, British soldiers promptly arrested all the German passengers, who were stunned to learn that a world war had broken out during their voyage. In his diary entry on August 4, 1914, Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Incidentally, Armageddon begins.”
Dance of the Furies brings its readers right to the edge of that Armageddon but does not plunge. We hear tales of bank collapses and hate-propaganda, and we see the idealism of all combatants quickly shredded, but the epic carnage and attrition, the big-scale generalship and diplomacy, all lies ahead when this superb volume concludes. Instead what Michael Neiberg has given us is a vast chorus of disbelieving voices, the shopkeepers, professors, poets, and farmers of half a dozen countries voicing their increasing alarm as their nations slipped toward the unthinkable. Assembling and synthesizing such a vast amount of material would be impressive enough; that Neiberg makes it all so darkly compelling is testament to a writing talent the discipline of history badly needs. Future studies of the First World War by this author will be eagerly devoured.