Book Review: The Lost History of 1914
by Jack Beatty
Walker & Company, 2012
Even as we approach its centennial, the First World War is still barnacled with reductions and simplifications, and surely the foremost of these is what Jack Beatty, in his spritely, captivating new book The Lost History of 1914, refers to as “the cult of inevitability.” Before the shooting had even stopped (indeed, before it had started), historians and experts were sadly proclaiming that the whole bloody mess was inevitable, the tragic consequence of a vast and antiquated system of alliances and enmities and arms programs, as pre-ordained as a funeral. This was certainly a popular assertion in many of the memoirs of the generals and statesmen who would otherwise have had to explain why they let it all happen in the first place. For a century, it’s been rhetorically fashionable to characterize the Great War this way, and for half a century, there’s been a counter-fashion aiming to restore accountability by de-emphasizing the pre-ordained.
Beatty’s book is one of the most readable and stimulating new examples of this counter-fashion; he’s a firm believer in people, in contingencies. Responding to the typical historical assertion about WWI that “Armageddon happened because men believed it would happen,” he resists:
A twenty-first-century generation of historians demurs, finding that ‘the European population as a whole shared a common belief in the improbability of a Great War” with the civilian and military elite. Regarding war as impossible, [one such historian] hypothesizes, leaders took risks that made it possible. Armageddon happened because men believed it could not happen. Other things seemed so much more probable than war, and some seemed to rule it out.
His book is, consequently, full of people, of personalities big and small on whom the hinge of fate might turn – figures like Czar Nicholas’ minister for war General V. A. Sukhomlinov, “a rum character” who took bribes from an Anglo-American weapons manufacturer to support his beautiful young wife’s lavish lifestyle, or Madame Caillaux, whose murder of the editor of Le Figaro for “prosecuting a politically inspired vendetta” against he husband, France’s minister of finance Joseph Caillaux, prevented Caillaux from becoming French premier in 1914 and perhaps appointing a more pacifist ministry than the one that eventually came to power. Characters like these – as well as more familiar names like Rasputin, Winston Churchill, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Woodrow Wilson – are the focal points of the half-dozen stories Beatty tells in these pages. As he puts it:
Throughout, I treat personality – temperament, grandiosity, obsession, conviction – as event making, even history changing. That Kaiser Wilhelm believed a “racial struggle” between “Teutons” and “Slavs” was imminent was not without bearing on the war.
That last line is where the trouble with a ‘personal’ approach to history can creep in: the more we learn about most people, the more we might be inclined to sympathize with them, and tout comprendre rend très-indulgent. The fact that the hysterical, bellicose leader of pre-war Germany was convinced an apocalyptic race war was inevitable is indeed ‘not without bearing’ on the war that followed – some might put it in far less diffident terms.
This is the danger of historical relativism, and it’s even more of a danger when dealing – as much of Beatty’s book perforce does – in “counter-factual” what-if style hypotheticals (by far the most noxious of these, Richard Ned Lebow’s “If Germany had won, there almost certainly would have been no Hitler and no Holocaust,” is dutifully trotted out and given no explicit refutation by our author). The risk of discounting the ways of ‘fate’ in the calamities of man is that it can come very close to discounting the ways of nations, which can often look like the ways of fate. If you take the position that the First World War wasn’t, in fact, inevitable, you’re obliged in very short order to explain the ways of one nation: Germany. In fact, you’re obliged to excuse those ways, as much as you can. “Germans liked the image of a strong army,” Beatty writes. “They were unwilling to pay for the reality … Considering its security dilemma, Germany’s martial bluster was an unfunded bluff.” And yet the German arms escalation in the fifteen years leading up to the war was no illusion, nor was it unfunded: under the demoniac flailings of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany doubled, tripled, and quintupled its naval expenditures, and that forced England into a matching escalation and ratcheted up war-fever abroad. Germany either instigated or badly worsened a long series of international crises – Tangier in 1904, Bosnia in 1908, Agadir in 1911, Serbia in 1913 – and fine-tuned the concept of crisis-as-diplomacy that more than anything else provided the trigger for war (and that was explicitly duplicated by Nazi Germany in the following generation, triggering another war). Insinuating that all of that was some kind of bluff to which the Entente powers over-reacted is carrying counter-fashion way too far.
Luckily, the bulk of Beatty’s book (after a rocky start; the last page of the Introduction is printed twice) steers well clear of such quagmires and instead delivers his signature storyteller’s insights. Hardly any writer working today can amass such an enormous array of information (the footnotes in this book display an almost eerily wide reach) and shape it all so effortlessly into paragraph after compelling paragraph. Even some of the most familiar of his main actors come across as freshly interesting, like the oafish Franz Ferdinand:
Unpopular in life and unmourned in death, “Franz Ferdinand lacked everything that counts for real popularity in Austria; amiability, personal charm and easygoingness,” recalled Stefan Zweig, who observed the archduke “with his bulldog neck and his cold staring eyes” and his wife in their box at the theater, “never casting a friendly glance toward the audience or encouraging the actors with hearty applause.” The couple “had no friends” and “the old Emperor hated him with all his heart because he did not have sufficient tact to hide his impatience to succeed to the throne.” Franz Ferdinand was in a hurry in a country where nothing happened fast (“red tape was legendary: at Vienna twenty-seven officials handled each tax payment”), and the old emperor never died. Convinced that no one liked him, Franz Ferdinand gave up trying to be liked. Tetchy, he was notoriously sensitive to slights, especially to his wife.
Likewise the best chapter of The Lost History of 1914, which deals with the surprisingly humane innovation that was trench warfare:
On the relative safety of the trenches, consider the contrast between the casualties suffered by the German army in February 1918, when it stood on the defensive, and in March, when it attacked. Manning the trenches in February found 1,705 soldiers killed, 1,147 missing, and 30,381 wounded. Attacking in March the figures were 31,000 killed, 19,680 wounded, and 180,898 missing.
The centennial of World War I is bound to produce a tsunami of verbiage – and, if we’re lucky, some genuinely first-rate stuff. The Lost History of 1914, fascinating even when it’s infuriating, steals a march on all of them. Highly recommended.