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Review: What led to World War I

By Avedis Hadjian
CNN

cover.summer.jpg
'Europe's Last Summer'
  • By David Fromkin
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • History
  • 384 pages
  • YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
    Review
    Europe
    David Fromkin

    (CNN) -- Historians still disagree about the reasons that led to the First World War, even if they roughly concur on the war's causes.

    The discrepancies mostly arise from the weight assigned to each cause and the way they combined to spark the war. Was Austria's insecurity more critical in the breakout of war than German bellicosity? Did it really matter that Serbia did not accept all the provisions of an Austrian ultimatum?

    In "Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?" David Fromkin does the detective work that follows every thread to the battlefields and trenches of the First World War.

    No single cause, no silver bullet, explain why millions of men were made to march to the front. From the beginning, he makes it clear that there is no single key to solve the riddle, and from there he tries them all, opening doors that lead us to the probable answers.

    In this context, no detail, however small, is necessarily irrelevant. Fromkin shows why in the grand plot of history it may be of critical importance the character of key players and their perception of reality. "Europe's Last Summer" explains how and why a blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II, who eventually came down on the side of peace, is kept away from Berlin while warmongering officials were conspiring with likeminded souls in Vienna to unleash a war on the continent.

    A powder keg awaiting a ready light

    The Great War, as the First World War was known by the generation that fought it, broke out after a Bosnian Serb student shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire then issued an ultimatum accusing Serbia of the killings. Serbia rejected some of its terms, and Vienna declared war on the Balkan kingdom to avenge the royal murders.

    But it really didn't matter whether Serbia accepted or rejected the ultimatum, Fromkin says. Austria had decided to go to war against the Balkan kingdom, regardless of its response. The ultimatum served to Serbia, deliberately worded to elicit a rejection by any nation prizing its own independence, had been drafted two weeks before the murder of the Archduke. The assassination was only a convenient excuse.

    "The Hapsburg leaders wanted to destroy Serbia before the assassination. They would have launched their campaign not in 1914, but in 1912 or 1913, had they not been blocked," Fromkin writes. "The opinion of Europe had stood in their way, as did the fear of Russia and as did the lack of German support."

    However intense Austria's urgency to crush Serbia, the fragile Empire would not have embarked without German support on a military adventure that almost surely would draw Russia, France, and Britain onto the battlefield. And Germany, regardless of the Kaiser's erratic pacifism, wanted that war as badly, precisely to provoke the Russians into entering the battlefield. Why?

    Even as Austria was afraid of Serbia, Germany -- especially its chief of the Great General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke (known as Moltke the Younger) -- was anxious about Russia.

    Preventive wars

    Despite being Europe's most advanced industrial power, a sense of gloom had descended upon the German ruling class. Moltke embodied this pessimism. He felt that Germany, by then at the peak of its military and economic power, should wage a preventive, and still winnable, war on Russia as soon as possible.

    Otherwise, he feared, Germany would be overtaken and eventually crushed by what then appeared as the Tsarist Empire's immense potential for becoming the dominant power in Europe (as it would, albeit in a different context and fashion, 30 years later).

    As the players saw it, if we believe Fromkin, they were waging preventive wars, not being imperialist. "But once at war, which opened up all possibilities, they drew up wish lists, and then grew so attached to their desires that they were determined not to make peace without achieving them," the historian says. Those wish lists bargained at the Peace of Paris by the victorious powers at Germany's expense would become the seeds of the Second World War, but that is a different story.

    The author tries, with what might appear as a last-minute tweak, to draw parallels between the notion of preventive war in 1914 and the rationale of the Bush administration for the war on terror.

    That aside, the book is a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century's seminal conflict.


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