Book review: July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin

Author: Sean McMeekin
Publisher: Icon Books
Reviewed by: Nigel Jones
Price (RRP): £25

There are two conflicting schools of thought in the historiography of how the Great War – probably the biggest disaster in human history – began.

The traditional view, which might be called the ‘We were all guilty’ thesis, arose in the 1920s, partly because of a widespread feeling that Germany had received rough justice from the Versailles treaty, especially in the ‘War Guilt’ clause assigning it prime responsibility for unleashing the conflict. This thesis held that all of Europe’s great powers – Germany, Russia, France, Britain and Austria-Hungary, along with little Serbia – were equally responsible, and that pre-1914 Europe was a powder keg consisting of two armed camps awaiting an accidental spark that would ignite an inevitable conflagration. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 provided the spark.

July 1914 Countdown to War

This consensus held sway for half a century until the early 1960s, when the German historian Fritz Fischer blew it apart in his book – based on primary state documentary sources – Griff nach der Weltmacht (‘Grab for World Power’). Fischer asserted that Wilhelmine Germany deliberately used the assassination as an opportunity to launch a double-whammy strike against both old enemy France and rising rival Russia, and thus establish German hegemony over Europe, crossing its fingers that Britain, as it had for a century, would stay out of a European quarrel.

Fischer’s evidence was so convincing that his ‘German primary guilt’ thesis became the new historical orthodoxy, so that, in the words of one of his followers, Imanuel Geiss: “The retreat to the position of ‘we-all-slithered-into-war’ is finally blocked. The predominant part of the German Reich in the outbreak of the First World War and the offensive character of German war aims is no longer debated, and no longer deniable.”

But orthodoxies invite dissent, and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012) restated the traditional view, essentially absolving Germany – Clark is a passionate Teutonophile – and fixing Serbia with the guilt of organising the Sarajevo shooting and so pushing Europe into world war. Thus, as we approach the centenary of 1914, we seem to have come full circle.

Europe 1914

It is potentially unfortunate for Sean McMeekin’s sales that his book covers the same ground as Clark’s acclaimed work, and reaches broadly similar conclusions. McMeekin, although less of an apologist for Berlin, also spreads guilt around more evenly than the Fischer school, suggesting that Russia, Austria and Serbia were, at the very least, criminally irresponsible in risking war and the deaths of millions, rather than losing face or letting their opponents gain a diplomatic advantage.

July 1914 traces the diplomatic dance of death that followed the assassinations at Sarajevo when, beneath an eerie surface silence, a small band of ministers, generals and ambassadors were beavering away secretly arranging the collapse of their continent into war. The book’s chief characters are a small cast of these diplomats and statesmen in the capitals of the rival camps, its chapters switching between chancelleries across Europe as the last summer of the old order died.

Rather than Germany, the chief villains of McMeekin’s piece (besides the Serbs who armed and encouraged the Sarajevo assassins) are Austria and Russia. Austria, in the persons of its foreign minister, Count von Berchtold, and its army chief, Conrad von Hötzendorf – the men who stealthily prepared the hammer blow of its non-negotiable ultimatum to Belgrade – ensured German backing (the famous ‘blank cheque’) for its attack on its Balkan neighbour.

McMeekin is particularly strong on Russia’s eagerness to support its Slav protege Serbia, showing how Russia’s foreign minister, Sazonov, orchestrated Serbia’s refusal of Vienna’s ultimatum and thus made war inevitable. His grasp of other areas, however, is less sure. He thinks, for instance, that Sir Edward Grey’s tumbledown Hampshire weekend cottage was a “country estate”; he barely mentions Germany’s controversial Schlieffen Plan war scheme; and he refers to Vienna’s government quarter as “the Ballplatz” throughout, when it is actually the Ballhausplatz. Such apparently minor mistakes undermine confidence in the authority of the work as a whole.

Despite such shortcomings, though, there is no denying that this is a genuinely exciting, almost hour-by-hour account of the terrible month when Europe’s diplomats danced their continent over the edge and into the abyss.

Nigel Jones’s study, 1914: Peace and War, is published later this year by Head of Zeus