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Book Review: July 1914

By (April 21, 2013) No Comment

July 1914: Countdown to Warjuly 1914-1

By Sean McMeekin

Basic Books, 2013

The armchair bookworms who said the onslaught of World War I volumes would be “over by Christmas” were clearly wrong, and once again it’s the unwary readers in the trenches who will pay the price. The centennial of the Great War is still more than a full year away, but it doesn’t matter: the publishing world is as obsessive about anniversaries as an insecure high school girlfriend, so the hundred-year mark of unimaginably brutal conflict that gave birth to the 20th century was bound to prove irresistible. History-readers have long been prepared to for the blast.

They were perhaps less prepared for the eager-beaver historians who’ve decided to get a jump on the actual anniversary and start producing their books now, in the spring of 2013. At least a dozen historians (well known and decidedly not alike) are slated to bring out book on WWI in the remaining months of 2013, which hardly seems fair to those of us who’ve been carefully planning our endurance.

We’ve already seen one or two such titles, and this month the meatiest candidate so far makes an appearance: Sean McMeekin’s densely-researched yet engagingly readable July 1914: Countdown to War. McMeekin has already delved into the period in his The Russian Origins of the First World War (and also in 2010’s The Berlin-Baghdad Express, a fascinating and entertaining volume that was brutalized like a pimply schoolboy by the critics when it first appeared), but he outdoes himself in this latest book, examining in exacting detail the day-by-day and hour-by-hour events that unfolded in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo.

The orthodoxy regarding that assassination is that it was the dislodged pebble that started an avalanche; the death gave Austria-Hungary a pretext for punitive measures against Serbia, which drew in Serbia’s treaty-partners in her defense, and just that quick the Centra Powers were aligned along the length and breadth of Europe against the Allied Powers, a dozen great nations and empires brought into bloody conflict by an web-work of antiquated treaties.

This aspect of the orthodoxy sets McMeekin off right away. July 1914 is almost not at all a study of helpless men or helpless nations. Instead, it’s a richly detailed and often quite enjoyable (our author’s narrative powers grow considerably with every outing) dissection of the manic energies that were released when the Sarajevo tragedy slipped long-set momentums out of sync. And at the heart of his story is Austria, packed with angrily ambitious men who get some of the best personal assessments any popular historian has paid them since Robert Massie’s Dreadnought:

He [Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, chief of the Austrian General Staff] was waiting for Austria’s mobilization to proceed according to its normal schedule. Sensibly, the chief of staff saw no reason to declare war before Austria was ready to fight. Why, indeed, give Russia and her allies a diplomatic pretext against the Central Powers by declaring war now, when Austrian troops would not be able to invade Serbia for another two weeks? Curiously, Conrad was the one thinking like a diplomat, while [Habsburg foreign minister Leopold von] Berchtold had taken on the role of army hothead, warning his chief of staff that Austria could not wait two weeks, as“the diplomatic situation will not hold so long.”

Another pillar of WWI orthodoxy – that of Germany’s aggression as a triggering and motivating factor in all the followed – also comes in for the wrecking ball, in what is certaily July 1914‘s most deliberately provocative thesis. “Britain’s role in unleashing the First World War was one born of blindness and blundering, not malice,” McMeekin tells us, before astounding with: “We can say something similar about Germany’s role, although with allowance for the much greater sin of invading Belgium. For this colossal error in judgment German leaders richly deserve the opprobrium they have been showered with ever since 1914.”

Error in judgment! Has any nation’s naked aggression ever been so euphemistically characterized? And was Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland a slip of the tongue? Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait a faux pas involving salad forks?

And the terminology is only McMeeking warming up; his main goal is to invert that standard account – not Germany the bully but Germany the victim:

The Germans, by contrast, went into to war expecting that they would lose, which is why they were so keen to wiggle out of it at the last moment. Moltke’s unrealistic and ultimately suicidal war plan, involving a march across Belgium, reflected German weakness, not German strength. It is not hard to see why Sir Edward Grey was able to convince the Commons (or most of it, anyway) that Germany was the aggressor in 1914: she was indeed the Power that first violated neutral territory in Luxembourg and then in Belgium. She did so, however, out of desperation, out of Moltke’s belief that only a knockout blow against France would give her the slightest chance of winning. So far from“willing the war, the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks.

The picture of poor innocent Germany invading Belgium and Luxembourg because she just didn’t know what else to DO, and it was all so scary – well, it’s tough to see such a picture, but McMeekin makes his case with such spirit and intelligence, and if he convinces you, it’ll be because he worked damn hard to do so.

And in either case, if the rest of the gun-jumping WWI books are as excellent as this one, military history fans are in for an embarrassingly rich season.