The Origins of the First World War
It is over seventy years since Gavrilo Princip’s shots plunged Europe into the “Great War,” and only a dwindling number of people alive today can be old enough to have been called to the colors, or to have joined the mass demonstrations which took place in the capitals of Europe in the late summer of 1914. Yet our fascination with those events seems as strong as ever—far stronger, for example, than our interest in the outbreak of the Second World War—and manifests itself in a ceaseless flow of films, novels, television documentaries, and books beyond all counting. No doubt this is so partly because the 1914–1918 war has been regarded as a watershed in world history, leading to the collapse of old empires, the decline of a Eurocentric global order, the creation of the Soviet Union, and the shattering of so many traditional political and social assumptions, all of which have cast shadows across the remainder of this century.
Perhaps, too, the pre–First World War atmosphere has a particular fascination in the troubled international circumstances of our own times. Arms races, a mutual jockeying for advantage between rival military blocs, Manichaean utterances about the world being divided between the forces of good and those of evil, and nervousness about the way in which local crises can have larger consequences (Nicaragua and Afghanistan, instead of Morocco and the Balkans?)—all these have made many observers, like Helmut Schmidt, the late Geoffrey Barraclough, and George Kennan, deeply uneasy at what has been termed “the 1914 analogy.”1
But if we are to derive lessons from the fateful decisions of 1914 (an exercise which many professional historians would regard as spurious), we first need to understand what caused the politicians, generals, and others of that time to act in the way they did. Herein, alas, lies the greatest problem: for despite all of the books on the causes of the First World War, and despite all of the revelations from military archives, the records of international bankers, and the private diaries of ministers and diplomats, we are as far away as ever from any commonly held explanation of the conflict. Was it the inevitable consequence of capitalism, as Marxists then and later charged? Was it caused by entrenched, reactionary elites seeking to divert internal challenges to their rule? Was it the consequence of inflexible military-operations plans, a “war by timetable,” as A.J.P. Taylor once explained it?2 Was it the result of imperial rivalries—or of changes in the European balance of power? Did not the real cause lie in men’s minds: in their rising nationalist passions, their rejection of the stuffy liberal-bourgeois codes of peace, free trade, and compromise, their Social Darwinist Weltanschauung and belief in the value of struggle and conflict? Or was it simply a dreadful accident, a unique concatenation of misperceptions, untoward events, and mistaken decisions, leading to results that no one intended?
If it was the latter, then of course no lessons can be drawn, and purposeful human causality…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.