Causes At War McMeekin’s WWI scholarship soars, albeit with over-stated conclusions

July 1914: Countdown to War

Sean McMeekin (Basic Books, 2013) 480 pages with notes and index

The First World War is, beyond any rational doubt, one of the worst catastrophes in all of human history. If one accepts Winston Churchill’s assertion that it began a “Thirty Years War of the Twentieth Century,” then it bears responsibility for more than 75 million deaths. If one insists on the narrowest definition, combat in the war killed somewhere between 8 and 11 million. (The volume under review here suggests “a butcher’s bill of nearly 9 million dead.”) We’ll never know the precise count. After all, many of the governments keeping the records died themselves. Still, of every 20 young men in a British classroom or trades union meeting at the dawn of summer in 1914, three would be killed and six wounded by the autumn of 1918—45 percent of a generation were “casualties.” And Britain had only half the casualties of France and a third those of Germany. Civilian deaths added another 7 to 8 million dead. Depending on which injuries we count, there were 22 to 24 million wounded survivors (records on “shell shock” are inadequate). As a parting tragedy, the war also spread the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people, as veterans carried it home, especially devastating India.

The mutilation of a generation (the French use the term “multilés de guerre”) makes it seem insensitive to discuss the monetary cost of the war, a bill reaching a total no one reading this will live to know. It was always difficult to calculate more than the direct expenditures, and governments obscured even those as best they could (as they do today). There is no agreement on what to count (much less how to calculate it) as the indirect cost. Most accept widow’s pensions (still being paid) and the continuing costs of removing unexploded ordinance from farmers’ fields; but there are more difficult issues, such as the productive hours lost to an economy by diverting labor to making those millions of shells. And, oh yes, we mustn’t forget that several of the belligerents are still refinancing their unpaid war debt. The BBC recently reported that the United Kingdom had just refinanced £2 billion in bonds from the Great War.

There is no earthly way that the politicians and generals responsible for this nightmare could adequately explain what they did. Legions of historians, however, have rushed to do it for them. Indeed, the war has been one of the better employment agencies the profession has known. From the day that the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 stated in Article 231 (the “war guilt” clause) that Germany was responsible “for causing all the loss and damage,” historians have argued over the Kriegsschuldfrage (war guilt question). Revisionists have disputed German guilt against many who insisted it was largely correct. Other historains have stressed versions of collective responsibility or shifted the focus to long-range issues (such as nationalism, imperialism, or militarism) rather than governments.

No fewer than three presidents of the American Historical Association built their reputations on this debate. Sidney B. Fay of Harvard stated a strong case for revisionism and long-range causes in 1928 (The Origins of World War I, two volumes) and presided over the AHA in 1946. Fay held that Serbia (home of the terrorist plot that triggered the war) and Russia (for mobilizing the army early in potential support of the Serbs) deserved some of the blame. Bernadotte E. Schmitt, of the University of Chicago, contributed a two-volume response to Fay in 1930 (The Coming of War, 1914), restoring primary guilt to Imperial Germany; he won both a Pulitzer Prize and the presidency of the AHA. William L. Langer, a colleague of Fay’s at Harvard, published three monumental studies of the long-range diplomatic background to the war and won the AHA election in 1957. To those three, one might add the 1945 AHA presidency of Carlton J.H. Hayes of Columbia University, author of several works on European nationalism before 1914.

Scholarship on World War One ebbed and flowed after Langer’s presidency (he devoted his presidential address to directing the profession towards psychohistory). The most comprehensive history of the war’s origins, by Luigi Albertini, an Italian historian and a senator ousted by the Fascist regime, appeared in an English translation in the 1950s, although it had been completed in 1941-1943. Albertini’s Origins of the War of 1914 (3 volumes) presented an excellent case for shared war guilt within the European state system. Yet as soon as this balanced history had conquered academic opinion, a new wave of scholarship appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, from a surprising source. German academics, led by Fritz Fischer of the University of Hamburg, explored the German archives, although they had already been thoroughly mined by the Weimar Government to publish the forty volumes of Die Grosse Politik on German pre-war diplomacy. In 1961, Fischer concluded that Article 231 was very close to the truth: Germany had caused the war in a bid for world power—a Griff Nach der Weltmacht. He even found a 1914 document revealing German war aims. This seemed to close the debate: Germany was indeed primarily responsible.

World War One has now spawned more than 20,000 books, and the centenary of the “War of 1914” has already added dozens. Several of these are provocative works that tackle the conclusions of the Fritz Fischer generation. None of the new works is more impressively researched or vigorously written than a new standard-bearer for revisionism, Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War. Even his five-page mini-essay to introduce his bibliography is a work of erudition. McMeekin is an American scholar with impeccable credentials: a Stanford Phi Beta Kappa and a Berkeley Ph.D. in modern European history. He now teaches at Koç University, a young institution (founded in the 1990s) in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a man of prodigious scholarly energy: after completing his doctorate in 2001, he published four books before July 1914 appeared in 2013.

The point of July 1914 is not simply the exculpation of Germany; it is much more the inculpation of Russia. … McMeekin shifted the frame of reference to an Ottoman perspective. He reminded readers of more than a century of Russian expansionism in the Balkans and the Caucasus, expansion that would not be finished without another fall of Constantinople, giving Russia control of the straits and access to the Mediterranean.

McMeekin devotes more than 400 pages to the five weeks of the “July Crisis” of 1914 which preceded the “Guns of August.” The main events of that month are well-known and little disputed. A crisis began on June 28th with the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serbian nationalist. Although that killing took place inside the Austrian empire and the assassin was captured, Austria blamed neighboring Serbia for supporting terrorist nationalism. The Austrians turned to their long-time allies, Imperial Germany, for support and received an infamous “blank check” on July 5. Vienna then sent a detailed ultimatum to Belgrade on July 23 while the Serbs appealed to their “Slavic brothers,” the Russians, to protect them. St. Petersburg sent multiple warnings to Vienna. The Russians also met with their closest military ally, France, and both agreed to stand together in the crisis. On July 25, the Russians began a “partial mobilization” of their army (later changed to a general mobilization) and Serbia mobilized its army (which had fought in two small Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913).

On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, beginning a third Balkan War (or the first phase of World War One). Three days later, the German government sent an ultimatum to Russia demanding the cessation of mobilization, without success. The following day, both Germany and France began to mobilize their armies. Later that day, Germany declared war on Russia, converting a Balkan War into an East European War of the three great powers. On August 3, Germany chose to declare war on France too. A few hours later, the German army went to war over the Balkan crisis by invading neutral Belgium as the best route into France. The violation of Belgium brought Britain into the war alongside France. The Balkan War had become a European War (global due to the vast colonial empires of the belligerents) between July 28 and August 4.

Long before McMeekin says it bluntly on page 402, readers of his account of the July Crisis know his view: the thesis that Germany caused the world war “is not supported by the evidence.” Instead, McMeekin maintains the Germans were reluctant to fight and “went into the war expecting that they would lose.” He disputes the conclusions of Article 231, Bernadotte Schmitt, and Fritz Fischer and offers this conclusion: “So far from ‘willing the war,’ the Germans went into it kicking and screaming.” (Despite their invasion of a small, neutral country.)

The point of July 1914, however, is not simply the exculpation of Germany; it is much more the inculpation of Russia. This will not surprise those who know McMeekin’s previous book, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard University Press, 2011). There, McMeekin denied German responsibility for the war in eastern Europe. He challenged the accepted view, stated by Dominic Lieven’s Russia and the Origins of the First World War (also Harvard University Press, 1983). Lieven, professor of Russian studies at the London School of Economics, examined the July crisis from a Russian perspective and concluded that primary war guilt “rested unequivocally on the German government.” McMeekin shifted the frame of reference to an Ottoman perspective. He reminded readers of more than a century of Russian expansionism in the Balkans and the Caucasus, expansion that would not be finished without another fall of Constantinople, giving Russia control of the straits and access to the Mediterranean. Thus, “it was Russian statesmen who unleashed the war.” McMeekin had inverted Fritz Fischer with a Russian Griff Nach der Weltmacht. He argued his defense of the Ottoman Empire against the Russian menace so vigorously that he suggested the empire’s Armenian population was part of the Russian threat, accepting the Turkish perspective on the Armenian massacres.

In July 1914, McMeekin has expanded his demonstration of Russian guilt by tracing a day-by-day exploration of Russian statecraft. It is a polished and riveting read. McMeekin teaches both German and Russian history at Koç, and his work shows his knowledge of the German archives and an especially impressive use of the Russian archives. (He is a bit weaker with French sources—not using, for example, the French classic on the origins of the war by Pierre Renouvin, and citing limited primary evidence from the Quai d’Orsay and the Documents diplomatiques français.) McMeekin’s language and research skills serve him well in building a case against Russia. The published Russian documents (the Krasnyi Arkhiv) were always a slender offering compared to the massive German and French publications. Some important Russian sources became available in German translation early in the war guilt debate, but McMeekin has worked in several Russian archives in order to revise the chronology of Russian mobilization to prove that they forced a German response.

The architects of the war now become Sergei Sazonov (Foreign Ministry of Russia) who had “decided on a military response” even before the Serbs responded to the Austrian ultimatum and V.A. Sukhomlinov (Russian Chief of Staff). McMeekin’s attitude towards Russia is unyielding. When he mentions the great German victory/Russian defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914 (at which 78,000 Russians were killed, 92,000 taken prisoner, and the commanding general committed suicide), it is to say “Russia received her comeuppance.” He does, however, in blaming Russia implicate the French for encouraging their ally (which they certainly did), especially during President Poincaré’s visit to Russia in late July.

McMeekin is careful to locate his revisionism within an argument about “degrees of responsibility.” His concluding section, Epilogue: the Question of Responsibility, begins by noting the importance of Sidney Fay’s long-range factors such as militarism and the inflexible alliance system, but he finds this “structural background” insufficient to explain what happened. He then blames Gavrilo Princip and his Serbian nationalist companions for provoking the July crisis, but without any intention of causing a world war. Next, McMeekin rightly blames Austria-Hungary and Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold for “bringing the crisis to the danger point;” but he reaches the verdict that “serious as Berchtold’s errors were, it was not he who began the countdown to European war.”

Nor does McMeekin deny much of German culpability for the war. He looks at Germany’s “strategic stupidity of invading France by way of Belgium” and agrees that “German leaders richly deserve the opprobrium they have been showered with ever since 1914.” He is a strong critic of “Moltke’s (the German commander) folly” in attacking the Belgian city of Liège (“a kind of strategic hari-kari”). His revisionism clearly leaves Imperial Germany an important share of the war guilt. Nonetheless, with Serbian, Austrian, and German crimes all considered, it remains Russia who is primarily guilty.

Hmmm. It may be important for historians to shift more attention to eastern Europe and to increase the Russian share of the collective responsibility for the war, but one cannot allow this to outweigh Germany’s primary guilt for converting a Balkan War into a “world war” rather than a regional war. McMeekin still disagrees: “Important as the German violation of Belgium was, it did not cause the First World War.” (The House of Commons would have been fascinated to learn this.)

No amount of academic argument can alter the facts that Imperial Germany (1) initiated and (2) waged a war of aggression against Belgium beginning on August 4, 1914, or that it was (3) a blatant violation of the Treaty of London of 1839 … 

McMeekin’s July 1914 is, of course, part of a torrent of new works on the origins of World War One. Readers seeking competing perspectives might also consult Geoffrey Wavro (professor of military history at the University of North Texas), whose A Mad Catastrophe, gives a devastating critique of Austro-Hungarian leadership and Vienna’s responsibility for the war. Those wanting yet more revisionism and exculpation of Imperial Germany should consider several works on the famous German military plan leading to the invasion of Belgium, the Schlieffen Plan; Terrence Zuber (an American military historian and a retired army office), argues in The Real German War Plan that there was no Schlieffen Plan. Those preferring a balanced history without focusing on the war guilt question should read Christopher Clark (professor of modern history at Cambridge), whose The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 may become the most-read account. Readers wanting a British perspective to the tragedy instead of a debate over continental war policies might choose Adam Hochschild’s well-written To End All Wars.

The present reviewer confesses to being the author of a 1969 doctoral dissertation at Washington University in St. Louis on French diplomacy on the eve of the war, and a 1964 honors thesis at Northwestern University on Austro-German pre-war diplomacy. So he is a tiny figure in the ranks of the revised. That said, he admires McMeekin’s scholarship and prose, but finds his conclusions over-stated. Instead, it would be better to consider the perspective of the charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, drafted in 1945. It defined “Crimes Against Peace” as “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties … ” It was an ex post facto standard when applied to Nazi Germany, and it is so when applied to Imperial Germany. But it remains the highest moral and legal ground historians have. The Schlieffen Plan (or German military plans, whatever their name) began the war in the west with an invasion of Belgium, and it is difficult not to see this as a war of aggression. No amount of academic argument can alter the facts that Imperial Germany (1) initiated and (2) waged a war of aggression against Belgium beginning on August 4, 1914, or that it was (3) a blatant violation of the Treaty of London of 1839, by Article Seven of which the Kingdom of Belgium became “an Independent and Neutral State.” This is the treaty that German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg told the British ambassador was just “a scrap of paper” as the war began. True, Bethmann did confess to the Reichstag that Germany had committed a crime, and he promised to make things better after the war. A dubious defense, that.

Most historians will agree with revisionists that there is a collective responsibility for the slaughter of millions of people, shared among multiple governments, in the unrestrained militarism and nationalism of the age, or in the dangers of the alliance system mentality. Yet it is impossible to deny that a German crime against the peace started the war in the west. When Georges Clemenceau (the wartime leader of France) was asked in 1919 if he believed that future historians would still say that Germany bore the guilt stated in Article 231 (which Clemenceau had demanded), he responded that he could not predict the future behavior of historians, but he was certain of one thing: they wouldn’t say that the war began because Belgium invaded Germany.