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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: Background & Origins of the War

By Frederic Krome

Background & Origins of the War

Perhaps no other subject has received as much scholarly attention as the origins of the war.  For over a generation, the historiography on 1914 was dominated by the study of the war plans of the Great Powers, while human agency seemed to play only a secondary role.  Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is a recent addition to the literature and, along with her Paris 1919, which covers the aftermath of the war, is a masterful study of the politics and personalities that brought Europe and the world to the brink of calamity.  MacMillan’s study considers the diplomatic and military alliances in light not just of new research, but without seeing the war as inevitable, reminding readers that human agency is an important part of decision-making processes.

Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War, provides a close reading of the extant primary and secondary sources from the major players (Austria, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain) and returns human agency to the events that lead to war.  His study of Austrian and German ham-handed diplomacy (bordering on cluelessness), combined with Russian and French duplicity, and with a dose of British disengagement added for good measure, reorients understanding of the war’s origins from an obsession with Germany’s infamous Schlieffen Plan to an analysis that also considers the belligerent policies of France and Russia.  Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, provides a broader chronological and topical approach to the war’s origins.  Clark’s book is in the tradition of the master narrative and takes readers back to the diplomatic split between the various alliances in Europe.  Like many of these recent publications, Clark rejects the notion that politicians were abject servants of binding military alliances and inflexible war plans.  His book, like McMeekin’s, returns human agency to the story.

Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig’s collection of essays in Decisions for War, 1914-1917 is an edited down version of their 2003 volume, The Origins of World War I.  The goal was to craft a book specifically for students, and it is one of the essential volumes for any collection on the war.  The basic focus is on the decision-making processes that led the various nations of the world to either go to war in 1914, or join the war later.  The essays provide detailed perspectives on each nation, and students will come away with a sense of each country’s governmental structures and be able to identify the major decision makers and actual decision-making processes that led their countries into war.

Libraries would also do well to have in their collections Annika Mombauer’s The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and Military Documents, which will enable students to move from Hamilton and Herwig to an examination of primary sources.  Mombauer’s work divides the documents into two major sections—the pre-1914 era, when the international system successfully avoided war, and the 1914 period, when it did not—thereby further moving the historiography away from the narrow war guilt obsession and to a more nuanced understanding of why the July crisis led to conflict.

In addition to the diplomatic angle, scholars continue to consider the role of soldiers.  In Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War, Mombauer revises the traditional picture of a weak-willed chief of the German General Staff with a nervous stomach who lived in the shadow of his greater uncle, Moltke the Elder (victor of the Franco-Prussian War).  Mombauer argues that rather than being under the thrall of the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke was actually an advocate for war, based on the fear that Germany was facing a position of relative decline.  In this context, Moltke’s influence on the kaiser’s decision making was critical, allowing Mombauer to illustrate human agency in the decisions to go to war in 1914.

Of recent historiographical vintage is a move away from a Eurocentric vision of the war to a more global perspective, and Mustafa Aksakal’s The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War is a welcome addition to the literature.  Traditional accounts of the Ottoman decision to join the Central Powers in the fall of 1914 were laid at the feet of the minister of war, Enver Pasha, who was often depicted as being single-handedly responsible for the move to belligerent status.  Aksakal’s study provides an important corrective to this view by situating Enver as one of the many players in the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) who sought revenge for the Turkish defeat in the Balkan Wars.

Another set of books by Sean McMeekin will help add depth to collections.  In The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, McMeekin examines the establishment of a nascent Ottoman-German alliance in the late nineteenth century, which then played a major role in the Turk quest to reform and modernize the empire and the German pursuit of greater influence in world affairs.  Unlike Aksakal, who focuses on a very narrow chronology, McMeekin takes his story through the war years.  McMeekin also wades into the historiographic minefield of war guilt in The Russian Origins of the First World War, arguing that Russian imperial officials wanted to be well situated to take advantage of what they believed would be the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire when war broke out (an ironic assumption, considering that it was the Russian Empire that collapsed first).

In addition to studies on the military and diplomatic antecedents of the war, several books approach the background and origins of the war from new perspective.  Matthew Seligmann, in Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War, examines the role of information provided by naval and army attachés in Germany and their impact on British foreign policy decisions.  Many of these military attachés operated without much detailed training in information gathering, and this lack of standardization and professionalism was apparent in the reports.

For a novel approach to the same rise of Anglo-German antagonism, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire by Jan Rüger is another example of the historiographical trend toward comparative history; in this case, how naval power developed into a form of public spectacle in the decades leading to the war.  Rüger pays particular attention to popular culture associated with the naval theater, especially postcards of naval reviews, mementos of guided tours, and toys and board games, which enabled civilians to participate, in a visceral way, with the actual performances.

Works Cited