Why did World War I happen? Who was to blame?
Since many of us would agree that World War I was one of the most significant events in world history, it stands to reason that people continue to be interested in how the war started.
Sean McMeekin helps us immensely. He has written a well-researched, well-reasoned book entitled July 1914: Countdown to War, which was first published in 2013.
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, in Sarajevo, Serbia, is always pointed to as the spark which set off the war which has had such a disastrous effect on world history. But Professor McMeekin makes it clear that WW I was not inevitable because of the assassination. The assassination took place on June 28, 1914. It took another four to five weeks before it became likely that war would take place. Even then, the war might have been avoided, or perhaps greatly limited. I will make no attempt to trace the diplomacy. Read the book, and it becomes clear that the diplomacy was complex.
Professor McMeekin’s Prologue gives us the background to the assassination, and the events of the day. Here are the last couple paragraphs of that prologue. The archduke and his wife Sophie have already been shot.
‘As the archduke’s car, having turned around at last, sped in the other direction toward the Konak, it was not yet clear to the others in the car that the shots had hit their target. Sophie, sensing something was amiss, thought only of her husband, asking him, “In God’s name, what has happened to you?” Franz Ferdinand, likewise, although knowing he had been hit, could think only of Sophie. “Sopherl, Sopherl,” he managed to say even as blood dripped from his mouth, “don’t die on me. Live for our children.” Asked by Count Harrach whether he was badly injured, the archduke replied, with all the reserve expected of a Habsburg, “It is nothing.” As both he and his wife slowly expired, Ferdinand repeated again and again, each time more softly than the last: “It is nothing.”
‘By eleven thirty AM on 28 June 1914, Ferdinand and Sophie were dead.’ (p. 20)
It is moving to read of their concern for one another in their last minutes alive.
As I read this book and followed the actions of the main characters negotiating with one another, I kept wanting to shout “Turn back!” or “Stop while you still can!” or something similar. No one listened to me, of course. (They never do.)
For me there were several broad takeaways by the time I had finished the book. For one thing, both during the negotiations, and after when the memoirs came to be written, there was a lack of honesty. This is what we would expect, of course. But does it have to be this way? Perhaps everyone negotiating would have been much better off–and the people they were representing would have been much better off–if they had all been more honest.
Am I being naive here? Perhaps, but also perhaps not. One point stressed in the Bible–as research for a future book has shown me–is that truth is a very crucial thing, which God takes very seriously. Maybe if we fibbed less, we all would be better off. That applies to heads of state and their ministers, just as it does to all of the rest of us.
Also, treaties promising to go to war on behalf of another country are a mistake. They are intended to warn potential enemies that “Hey, if you fight us you will have to fight this other country too” and thus keep potential enemies from taking up arms. What they seem to do instead is to cause conflicts to expand in size. If all the potential belligerents had been willing to protect their own country but not necessarily fight on the side of some other country, everyone would have been better off.
If, for example, Austria and Serbia had insisted on going to war with one another after the assassination, why not let them go ahead while staying well clear of the carnage? This would have reduced the harm done, to a huge degree.
Leave aside the fact that millions of soldiers had their lives consumed, and millions more were wounded and often crippled for life, and that most of this could have been avoided. There is also the likelihood that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would have been avoided–if only Russia had stayed out of World War I. Russia’s involvement in the war led to its revolution, and to disaster for Russia and for the world. It did not inevitably lead to the Russian Revolution, but it gave the revolution a much greater chance of happening. Russia should have minded its own business, and should not have been treatied up with France. Germany should not have been treatied up with Austria.
If leaders of Russia, France, England, and Germany have the best interests of their own people at heart, they would all stand aside and let Austria and Serbia have at it. Austria and Serbia, knowing that they would be going at it alone, might even have thought twice or thrice about engaging in a war. At the worst, the carnage might have been limited to the participants of those two countries.
Any country can learn to avoid making treaties with other countries. Notice I said “can learn.” I didn’t say we have learned.
A minor fact I gained from the book is that Winston Churchill, at the time first lord of the Admiralty, with one or more of his actions “had committed an act of insubordination.” (p. 239) The more I read about Winston Churchill, the more it seems to me that it is way past time that we have a reevaluation of this man. This is not at all central to Sean McMeekin’s topic–it is simply a crotchet of mine. But some scholar who cares about ideas and truth, and is also cheerfully suicidal about his own career, needs to examine the career of Winston Churchill in great depth. I think we would find he was largely a disastrous man. I wouldn’t mind taking on the job myself, but I am probably too old to have time to do the proper amount of research.
Which country was most to blame for World War I happening? Professor McMeekin’s 22 page Epilogue deals entirely with the question of responsibility. I will not try to summarize his opinions. I will just say that there is a popular opinion, sort of in the air we breathe, that Germany held the most responsibility. Professor McMeekin believes that the Germans went into the war reluctantly, “kicking and screaming.” (p. 405) Because he has given us 400 pages of careful research and careful evaluation of events, his opinion carries a lot of weight with me. If you want to know more about the professor’s thoughtful opinions, buy and read the book. As you might expect, there was a lot of blame to go around. Buy the book, if you enjoy learning from history.
Buying the book won’t cost you an arm and a leg–unlike the price often paid by the soldiers fighting a foolish war which has brought Christian civilization to the brink of destruction–because July 1914 can be purchased for a pittance on the Internet. Today I saw used hardcover copies available for $5.24 (shipping included, but sales tax extra) at AbeBooks.
Sean McMeekin’s dedication to his book is brief but lovely: “For the fallen”.
Sean McMeekin has written at least seven books. He is currently a professor at Bard College in upstate New York. I hope to read his Stalin’s War soon.
As disastrous as was World War I in its consequences for world history, the thing about the war which is the most important fact, and which still seems not to be understood, is that it was first of all and most significantly, a symptom of the impotence of the West’s brand of Christianity as the twentieth century opened.
At least one man knew it at the time. Nikolaj Velimirovic, a Serbian Orthodox priest, gave a series of lectures in England in 1917, as World War I raged on. Collected in a very short book of 53 pages, The Agony of the Church points us to the fact that it is our brand of Christian thought and action which is crucial for all of history–and which had permitted World War I to happen. The book is available for $8.51 at AbeBooks. I discuss the book at greater length in two blog posts, April 5 and April 12, 2018.