The answer to the question: "Who started the Great War in 1914?" is very easy to answer at one level and impossible to answer at another. The easy answer is that it was Gavrilo Princip, when he fired the bullets that killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. However, nations do not send millions of their children to kill each other over one assassination, so the real answer must be elsewhere. The circumstances that caused what was first perceived to be a minor event to explode into what we now call the First World War took a very long time to develop. This book is a recapitulation of the major forces that made the assassination a catastrophe, and there is very little that is new. The real reasons why the great war grew out of such a trivial incident were the pressures that European society was under. The rise of the industrial working class was stressing all of the societies of Europe. Monarchical systems that had existed for centuries were tottering on the brink of collapse. Japan unexpectedly defeated the Russian Empire in 1905 and they were still in the process of recovering. Austria-Hungary was clearly on the road to dissolution and the nationalist movements in the Balkans were a strong force for change. Even two nations considered stable were not. The Irish question was the dominant topic in the British Empire and Ireland was on the brink of a civil war between the southern Catholics and the northern Protestants. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm did not have the level of political control that he has been credited with. His civilian and military subordinates often overruled him, and he was rarely the primary decision-maker. The three monarchs holding the thrones of the former Bismarkian three Emperors league were all very weak. Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was aged and well past his prime, Wilhelm of Germany showed signs of emotional and mental instability from a young age, possibly due to complications of childbirth. Nicholas, Czar of all the Russians, was a man who could not possibly have risen to power if he had not been born to it. These weaknesses, especially those of Wilhelm and Nicolas, took years to rise to crisis proportions, as it meant their subordinates gradually rose in power to overcome their failures. Therefore, when the crisis arose, their natural unwillingness to commit to war was overcome by the remaining leadership that convinced them that there was no alternative. Fromkin does a good job in describing the circumstances that caused the war, although I disagree with his conclusions. At the end, he makes the following argument: "Briefly and roughly stated, the answer [to the who started it? question] is that the government of Austria-Hungary started its local war with Serbia, while Germany's military leaders started the worldwide war against France and Russia that became known as the First World War or the Great War." Since he cites conclusive evidence of Serbian government complicity in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and no country could allow that to go unpunished, he dodges the issue of Serbian guilt. The local war was caused by Serbian complicity in the assassination of the Archduke. To say that Germany started the larger war is to give the German leadership more credit than they "deserve." The reality is that the leaders of all countries allowed events to overwhelm them until there was nothing they could do to stop it. Fromkin is quite correct in emphasizing that initially no one considered the assassination to be a crisis and yet it changed into a conflagration in a matter of hours. In such circumstances, to say one particular leadership started it is historically inaccurate. Sometimes events happen that just cannot be stopped and the outbreak of the Great War was one of them.
Finally, a clear explanation of how the Great War started and who did it. Late 20th century history as relayed in public education survey courses relied on vague statements of wonderment about how millions could fight and die in a world-wide struggle triggered by the assassination of an inconsequential Archduke of some type in some country in Eastern Europe. In fact, the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife was a pretext to trigger the war that Austria-Hungary wanted … more
Charlie Ashbacher is a compulsive reader and writer about many subjects. His prime areas of expertise are in mathematics and computers where he has taught every course in the mathematics and computer … more
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The world of nihilistic terrorist conspiracy, paranoid empires and diplomatic opportunism that Fromkin (In the Time of the Americans) describes in this terrific account of WWI's underpinnings will seem eerily familiar to 21st-century denizens. Fromkin allies a direct, compulsively readable style with a daunting command of sources old and new, unrolling a complex skein of events with assurance and wit and dispatching numerous conventional wisdoms. The view (most influentially stated in Barbara Tuchman's Vietnam-era Guns of August), that the war, unwanted by all, was the result of an unfortunate series of accidents, is neutralized by the clearly presented evidence of careful premeditation and planning on the part of Germany and Austro-Hungary, as is the more recent assertion of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War that if only the rest of Europe had acceded to Germany's imperial ambitions, the whole business might have been avoided. The enormity of the horrors unleashed in that fateful summerand the culpability of all sides in exacerbating themhas made laying blame for the war squarely at the foot of the German and Austrian leadership unfashionable, but the evidence assembled by Fromkin is strong. His pictures of a Germany feeling itself (without real cause) surrounded, convinced of an imminent national demise from which only war could save it and of the Kafkaesque Austro-Hungarian empire lurching toward Armageddon are pitiless and sharp. Readers who ate up Margaret ...