Sorting by

Skip to main content

What Set It Off?

By October 25, 2013 2 Comments

I’ve been reading some of the flood of books coming out ahead of next year’s centennial of the start of World War I. There’s something extra about this episode, beyond the anniversary, that especially draws attention. Maybe it’s the war’s epic scale and consequences. Maybe it’s the way the dialectical drives of a whole previous century of world history converged in its opening. Maybe it’s because, after the Civil War books that were the predictable first history this American lad read as a kid, Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August sealed the imaginative deal for me as a budding historian.

All of those, but something more too. The way that bright, intelligent men (and men they virtually all were) who prided themselves on being the embodiment of true “civilization,” religion, honor, and so many other fine virtues, nonetheless started off the string of catastrophes that has given the twentieth century its reputation of horrors. I mean, it’s one thing when maniacs of evil like Adolf Hitler go on the attack. But upstanding bourgeois gentlemen? Monarchs who, three of them, were cousins? Clergy and professors and solemn editors of monthly magazines all passionate for the improvements of culture? Precisely these clean and decent sorts, in a combination of arrogance and ignorance, carelessness and all too mindful calculation, inattention and bad communication, faulty assumptions, eagerness and fear, set in motion the train of doom. Arguably, no World War I, no Bolshevik Revolution and Communist tyranny over half a continent. No hateful Hitler with a legion of the humiliated to stir up for revenge. No reparations and fearful nationalism that turned a banking shock into a Great Depression. Less opportunity for Japan to copy Western imperialism and take over Manchuria. No convergence of all these into the second total war that far dwarfed the first in casualties and wreckage. No Holocaust, no Hiroshima. Of course, many of these might, and some of these surely would, have happened anyway. But as things actually developed, they all did, and they all traced back to 1914. 

Understandably, major ink has been spilled trying to assign, or deflect, blame for starting the war. The victors’ Versailles Treaty laid it all on Germany’s back, a burden that the Nazis exploited and that embarrassed children of the winners tried to reduce. After World War II German historian Fritz Fischer tried to atone a bit for German sins in World War II by accepting German blame for World War I. Some British stalwarts still hew to the traditional line. Journalist Max Hastings’ new Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War chides the military brass on all sides for their horrendous leadership once the fighting started but puts the onus on Germany for starting it in the first place and finds the war ultimately to have been a good and necessary endeavor. Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 isn’t out yet, but her table of contents lays out the traditional narrative of a German-Anglo competition for naval supremacy that must ultimately fault Kaiser Wilhelm for the catastrophe. Tory terror Niall Ferguson, on the other hand, opines in The Pity of War that Britain’s entering the fray was a calamitous mistake, costing that noble race their empire to no avail—by century’s end, Germany was dominant in Europe anyway.

The more interesting work turns away from this Anglo-centrism to study the war where it began, in the Balkans, where the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires contested for succession to Ottoman holdings. The war began, after all, with a Serbian-arranged assassination of the Dual Monarchy’s heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand. Just how things developed from there, and just how it was Russian initiatives with French backing that stirred the pot till it boiled over, is the sad and fascinating tale newly told by historians Sean McMeekin in July 1914: Countdown to War, and Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. These are neither of them fast and scintillating reads, thick as they are with the intricacies of diplomatic maneuvering and exchange gleaned from months in the archives. Still, the folly we see gradually accumulating; the might-have-beens had telegrams been sent, de-coded, translated, or read earlier; the unintended permission given by Germany to Austrian militants; the unofficial deal of assistance sealed by British and French military planners without the knowledge, much less consent, of British authorities—all this and more unfolds page by page in what almost feels like a real-time creep of doom. The nations least at fault in these accounts are Britain—and Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm comes off as a loud-mouthed but cautious leader, capable of seeing things more clearly than most just when the situation is about to become irretrievable.

Two other titles for your attention. Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 shows how each and every one of the nations soon to be at war had far more immediate worries at home in the first half of that fateful year. Many British were expecting war—in Ireland. The French public was riveted over the daily news—of a major sex scandal that happened to drive France’s leading peace politician to the sidelines. Germany was afraid of a military coup; Russia, of Germany, of Austro-Hungary, of organized labor, of itself. Like McMeekin and Clark, and what we can anticipate of MacMillan, Beatty emphasizes all the other outcomes that were possible that summer, many of them still live options to the very end.

Then, of a different order of publication, but one no less astute, is a series of two articles in the most recent issues of Pro Rege, a faculty publication at Dordt College. Therein historian Keith Sewell charts the long course of British diplomacy to understand its fateful turn from a traditional policy of neutrality to one of binding commitments. Britain’s promise to back France against Germany changed everything, allowing France to spur on Russia to aggressive, reckless conduct. And what spurred Britain’s change? The isolation and disrepute it garnered from its conduct of the South African War at the turn of the century. A pyrrhic victory at best and a harbinger of greater difficulties to come, the war pushed Britain to secure its empire for the future by establishing an overt alliance with Japan and a covert deal with France. God is not mocked, Sewall quotes Scripture at the end of this account; what a nation sows, that also it also reaps. Direct biblical invocations like this seldom rise above platitude and may serve the Christian historian as a shortcut around hard analysis. In this case, the dictum is sadly, profoundly apt, and very well earned.

All the nations went into World War I proclaiming God to be on their side. In fact, God turned them over to the desires of their hearts, the divine’s preferred mode of punishment. God took off from these vain and holy warriors in late summer 1914. Maybe that’s why he still seems to be missing from those parts.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Dang Jim, just a great read.

  • Richard says:

    Yes, thank you. Working my way through "The Sleepwalkers" now. It's a pretty tough read–having to get through the intricacies of Serbia, Bosnia, etc. made my head spin, and I love reading history. But it is interesting the spin he puts on Kaiser Wilhelm, and the blame he puts on the French.
    I did want to thank you, Dr. Bratt, for your book on Kuyper–read it recently, it was terrific. Thank you for your work.

Leave a Reply