Review of “The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began” by Jack Beatty

Most people learn that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was the spark that ignited World War I, and that, because of interlocking military alliances, the war was inevitable even without that specific immediate cause. However, in The Lost History of 1914, Jack Beatty challenges the theory of the war’s inevitability. Countries are not monolithic, and Beatty shows that there were statesmen around in 1914 who might have avoided war. He writes, “Regarding war as improbable…leaders took risks that made it possible. Armageddon happened because men believed it could not happen.”

Beatty describes the situation in each of the principal belligerent states in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the war. In each country, an event or events that “almost happened” might have been sufficient to keep them out of the war.

Pre-war Germany could be characterized as an army with a state rather than a state with an army. This status was exacerbated in 1912 when the Social Democrats, an anti-militarist party, made a political misjudgment, allowing for militaristic parties to build a majority coalition.

In Russia, some officials wanted peace at any cost, since they understood that a war would undoubtedly bring about a revolution of the country’s oppressed classes. Unfortunately, Germany was aware of Russia’s dilemma and sought to exploit it, sending a German general to command a Turkish army corps based in Constantinople. Russia became fearful that Germany might close the Turkish Straits to her, cutting off her only all-season sea route. Thus, fear of encirclement motivated Russia to mobilize against Austria after the assassination despite the risk of domestic revolution. As Henry Morganthau later observed, “In the perspective of history, [the Bolshevik Revolution] may well appear as nothing more than the economic consequences of the closing of the Straits.”

In 1914, it was actually England that may have been the country in Europe closest to revolution. The issue of Home Rule for Ireland had become extremely contentious. Beatty opines that the Ulster crisis was a contributing cause of the war rather than a barrier because Germany and Austria believed England would be unable to fight a continental war, being so close to civil war. In the event, the Irish mostly rallied around the Crown in 1914. Nevertheless, even when faced with severe manpower shortages, the British never drafted Irish soldiers because they were thought to be unreliable. Indeed, in 1916, the Catholic southern counties of Ireland erupted in the Easter Uprising.

The United States entered the war only in 1917, and did so by a circuitous route related to the Mexican Revolution. Because of America’s incompetence against Pancho Villa, Germany concluded that the American military would not pose a threat. In 1917, German ambassador Arthur Zimmerman tried to get Mexico to enter WWI on the side of Germany, offering them New Mexico, Arizona, and California if the Central Powers were successful. British intelligence intercepted the offer in the notorious Zimmerman Telegram and disclosed its contents to the Americans. This provocation proved too much for American public opinion, and the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente.

Pancho Villa

In France, Joseph Caillaux, the leader of the Radical party, favored a policy of conciliation with Germany. In 1914 he was Minister of Finance and was expected to become Prime Minister shortly but for a scandal involving his wife. Had he been premier at the time of the assassination, Beatty argues that he would have sought peace with the Central Powers, and based on his previous record, he might have been successful at avoiding war.

As for Austria-Hungary, Beatty contends that if Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated, he would have become Emperor very shortly (Emperor Francis Joseph was 84 in 1914). Since he was more concerned with controlling Hungary than with warring against Serbia, his domestic policies could have prevented Austria-Hungary from initiating a continental war.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

Beatty does not limit his analysis to events that might have precluded the war—he also describes other aspects of the era that have been neglected by historians or, as he calls them, “lost.” But for the most part, he is concerned with explicating the causes for WWI.

Beatty is contrasting (though not explicitly rebutting) David Fromkin’s thesis in the masterful book Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? Fromkin argues that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided the pretext the major powers needed to proceed with the Great War they all wanted. (As an example, he notes that Vienna started drafting the memorandum-plan to crush Serbia two weeks before Sarajevo.) Fromkin places especial blame on Germany’s General Helmuth von Moltke, but contends that all the Powers sought war. As Teddy Roosevelt said in 1897, “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.”

General Helmuth von Moltke

Adam Hochschild also addresses the war’s causes in his book, To End All Wars. His focus is more on the zeitgeist, contending that the impetus to war was built on multiple illusions: (1) wars are quick and easy; (2) you will shoot at the enemy but they will not shoot at you; and (3) weaponry doesn’t change or advance: whatever helped you in the last war will help you in the current one. These illusions were probably shared by the belligerents of WWI. Beatty doesn’t address these issues, being more concerned with specific people and events that proved definitive.

Evaluation: Beatty makes an excellent contribution to a growing body of literature asserting that the hecatomb of WWI might never have occurred but for a few little-known flips of history’s coins. This stimulating book shows how contingent earth shaking events can be.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Walker Publishing Company, Inc, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012

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