I'll take Cambridge over Oxford for books on WWI's origins



In a few days, we will mark 100 years since the first guns of August boomed beginning the First World War.

Why did it happen? Well, er, it’s complicated. Really, really complicated. So complicated that there have been, literally, thousands and thousands of books written about The Great War in several languages. And historians have argued amongst themselves – and often with the lay public — about its origins for, well, for 100 years. And they continue to find new things to argue about and talk about.

Now, while I’m employed as a journalist, journalism is not the career I sought. I wanted to be a historian. It’s the subject I studied at university. I had aimed myself at the job of historian at an early age — probably nine or ten — after reading histories of the First World War and the Second World War in the encyclopedia my parents had purchased for their children. I would read the accounts of both wars over and over in those encyclopedia and, from there, I sought out whatever histories the Guelph Public Library offered in its children’s department on the histories of both wars. (In the 1970s,  I remember finding a varied and exciting collection of Second World War history at Guelph’s public library though I cannot recall finding as many exciting histories about  the First World War.)

So, inclined as I am towards the histories of these conflicts, I have been caught up, just as professional historians have been caught up, in the anniversaries that are approaching us for the First World War. The professionals have been using the occasion to write a lot about The Great War. As an enthusiast, I have been doing my level best to keep up with the review essays, journal articles and, so far as I have the time, good old-fashioned books.

Among the books I’ve read,  I’d like to recommend a couple of titles for your summertime reading that I think will be invaluable  for those watching the inevitable centennial commemorations that governments in Canada– and around the world — will be making this year and for the next four years about the so-called “War to End All Wars”.

One hundred years ago as I write this, diplomats and sovereigns in several European capitals were not yet at war, though many were scheming for war and scheming to make war on conditions that would benefit their side. Germany wanted, to use 21st century slang, a “rep”. It wanted an empire and it wanted to have a central role in the decisions Europe (and, therefore, the world) was making. Austria-Hungary, facing what it thought might be a future existential threat from Slav nationalism within its borders sought to destroy Serbia, the symbol of Slav nationalism beyond its borders. Russia, at the time, talked a lot about supporting its Slav brothers and sisters in Serbia and other Balkan states but it also really needed to protect its ability to ship wheat and other exports via the Black Sea through the Dardenelles which the Germans were threatening to control. France was scheming to get Alsace and Lorraine back from the Germans after losing them in 1871 and figured a war now rather than later offered it a better chance of success to shut down the growing strength of its arch-rival Germany. But, of course, I’m just scratching the surface with those broad generalizations. It was much, much more complicated than that.

Two recent books really help describe and explain those complications and  both are tremendously rewarding reads. One is by an Australian teaching at Cambridge, Christopher Clark, and the other is by a Canadian teaching at Oxford, Margaret MacMillan. Clark’s book is The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War in 1914  and MacMillan’s is The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. I’m afraid to say that, if it’s just one you’ll read, you’re better off with the one from the Australian at Cambridge. Clark’s history is an absolute masterwork. MacMillan is no slouch when it comes to research on fin-de-siecle Europe and she has a wonderfully dry sense of humour  but I found Clark’s focus on the characters and political intrigue in Russia and Austria-Hungary from 1890 to the beginning of the war to be fascinating. In four years from now, as we celebrate the centennial of the end of the First World War, I will be re-reading (and encouraging others who have not yet read) MacMillan’s 2003 work Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, her masterwork which won lots of  prizes including the Governor General’s Literary Award.

Now, of course, the classic First World War work is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, first published in the early 1960s. But if you read The Sleepwalkers and you are, like me, fascinated with diplomatic and political history of pre-war Europe, you’ll want to focus on the events of July, 1914, before the shooting started. And if that’s your taste, I’m very pleased to recommend July 1914, by Sean McMeekin, an American-born historian currently teaching at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. McMeekin starts with an excellent and detailed account of the terrorist plot to killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and then gives us what is literally the day-by-day account of how that murder played itself in Europe’s capitals and led to Germany’s invasion of Belgium.

McMeekin July 1914persistence

My reception and reaction to all of those books was coloured by my reading of another work by another great historian, Arno Mayer, in his 1981 work The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War.  Mayer is what is called  a “Marxist historian” – as in Karl Marx, the guy who wrote The Communist Manifesto, etc. Being a “Marxist historian”, mind you, does not necessarily make you someone who is a Communist or a fan of the political systems Marx and his buddy Engels prescribed. But it does mean you tend to take a look at great historical events as clashes between the haves and have-nots in any society. And so, for Mayer, the origins of The Great War can be found less in diplomatic events and Grand Strategy as they are about the great aristocratic ruling classes of Europe trying to preserve their power and their mastery of restive and growing working classes by means of violence or war. The Wiki author who helped write Mayer’s entry sums it up nicely:

Mayer argued that faced with the challenge of a world in which they had lost their function, the aristocracy both embraced and promoted reactionary beliefs such as Nietzsche and Social Darwinism together with a belief in dictatorship and fascist dictatorship in particular. In Mayer’s view, “It would take two world wars and the Holocaust […] finally to dislodge the feudal and aristocratic presumption from Europe’s civil and political societies.”

McMeekin, MacMillan and Clark touch on the class conflict issue but it is very much in the background. For Mayer, it is a fundamental starting-point for any analysis of the First World War’s origins. Mayer’s book is packed — I mean, packed — with statistics and data on everything from steel production to the quantity and quality of operas performed in European capitals in the 40 years prior to August, 1914. That’s not for everyone but, as I love a spreadsheet, I’ll take the data!

So there you go. Stuff to read. You’ll be richly rewarded by spending time with any of the titles I’ve mentioned here.

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