Towards a New Consensus? The Post-Centenary Historiography on the Origins of World War I
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02 | pg. 1/1
IN THIS ARTICLE
The causes of the First World War remains a historiographical topic of contention more than 100 years on from the start of the conflict. With the passing of the centenary in 2014, a new wave of publications has expanded the scope and depth of historians' investigations on the outbreak of the Great War. By reviewing the recent English-language literature and comparing the various approaches academics have taken to analyse the July Crisis, it is clear that we have entered a new historiographical 'phase:' a flourishing of theses and arguments which have followed from - yet remain distinct to - the post-Fischer consensus of the late Cold War. The political distance from the 'war guilt' questions of 1914 has enabled historians to explore the origins of the war in greater detail and even open up new directions in the historiographical landscape. Though no clear consensus has formed on the critical question of who started the war, the rejuvenated interest around the July Crisis in both academic and public circles demonstrates that the topic remains a debate worth continuing.
The narrative remains largely unchanged: on the afternoon of June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand along with his wife are shot and killed by Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip while on a visit to Sarajevo. In the weeks following the assassination, statesmen across Europe’s Powers found their governments becoming increasingly involved with the diplomatic crisis which the Sarajevo murders initiated.1 As July gave way to August, those same statesmen made the critical policy choices which culminated in declarations of war, and by the first weeks of autumn the continent had been plunged into the conflagration of the Great War.With the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak well past us, and with no witnesses of the conflict left alive, one might wonder why works on the events of July 1914 continue to be published – or more pertinently, why it remains a contentious matter. Indeed, it seems characteristically excessive – obsessive even – for the historical academia to continue a century-old debate over events which took place in the span of 38 days; though the July Crisis is by no means a special case in the disparity between its chronological scope and the amount of historiographical attention afforded to it.2 Yet still the general public and historians remain intrigued by the First World War’s origins, whether in isolation or in relation to the conflict itself.3 Granted, the debates taking place on the matter nowadays – heated as they may be – bear considerably weaker political motivations than those which characterised the Fischer-era discourse on the question of German war guilt, but for two key reasons it would still be premature to summarise the current historiographical landscape by validating John Röhl’s observation that ‘the controversy over the immediate causes of the First World War appears to be at last drawing to a close.’4 The first reason is contextual: Röhl’s statement applied to the Fischer-era controversies which had sparked a new wave of scholarship on the events of July 1914, which by the turn of the 1970’s had mostly subsided in favour of allowing new avenues of investigation – some of which were born out of the controversy – to appear in the historiography.5 The second reason is one which this review article seeks to assert: that the historiographical debate over the origins of the First World War is far from reaching any definitive conclusions, and that in the wake of the post-Fischer shifts, there remains a need to continue the debate in two critical ways. Firstly, historians must re-tread old ground by revisiting the critical assumptions which pervade and continue to linger in the mountain of previous works; analysing the veracity of claims which lay blame – or at least assign responsibility – for the crisis’ development at the feet of a certain group or person. Secondly, new avenues and areas of investigation should be accepted as valuable contributions to our understanding of the outbreak of war; providing an element of nuance, diversity, and complexity hitherto unseen within the historiography.6
In analysing the current state of the ongoing debate, this essay consists of three sections. The first provides a brief narrative of the July Crisis, serving as the contextual background which recent publications have either emulated or investigated in further detail. The second examines the key historiographical “battlegrounds” – both old and recent – which have emerged following the Fischer debates, whilst the conclusion deals with broad areas of consensus and directions for further investigations.
The Narrative of July 1914
Following the assassination of the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary’s policymakers quickly grasped the significance of the event and the golden opportunity which it posed for Vienna to rid itself of the Serbian threat once and for all. Not only would the Dual Monarchy appear justified in punishing Belgrade for its supposed sponsoring of the assassins, a claim which remains hazy in the historiography, but a firm response to the murders would demonstrate Austro-Hungarian resolve at a time when the Monarchy believed it would soon become the next ‘sick man of Europe’.7 However, although the Common Ministerial Council and military high command were in favour of a swift confrontation, two key issues emerged which prevented any immediate steps against Serbia. The first was domestic: Hungarian prime minister Tisza was a key opposition figure to an aggressive policy vis-à-vis Belgrade, as he feared that an immediate military confrontation would lead to the annexation of Serbia; with the subsequent influx of Slav subjects exacerbating nationalist issues within the empire.8 The second reason for the Austro-Hungarian delay was foreign: Vienna had to secure the support of its Dual Alliance partner – Germany – in adopting an aggressive policy over the matter. To this end, chef de cabinet Count Hoyos was dispatched to Berlin on the night of 4 July, and the so-called “Hoyos mission” resulted in the infamous ‘blank cheque’ from the Kaiser and his ministers on 6 July.9 This was a critical development in the conflict’s escalation: by granting the blank cheque to Austria-Hungary, Germany would now be expected to stand by its ally on the Danube if Russian intervention became a possibility – a risk that the decision-makers in Berlin seemed to be fully aware of at the time.10
What followed after the blank cheque was a curious lull in the crisis; a “period of deception” as Graydon Tunstall terms it.11 Despite constant urging from their German counterparts to force the pace of events, Vienna’s policy-makers continued to exhibit their characteristic dilatoriness on the matter. The reasons for this are significant in of themselves: Tisza remained opposed – until 14 July – to a hostile response, while Chief of the General Staff Conrad ‘discovered’ that troops in key areas were still on the annual harvest leave until 25 July; a date which conveniently overlapped with the state visit of the French President and Prime Minister to St. Petersburg. Thus, it seemed prudent on both military and diplomatic grounds to delay the delivery of an ultimatum to Belgrade until 22-23 July. As Samuel Williamson pointed out, “the Habsburg resolve to act decisively demanded delay, not expedition.”12
Following the delivery of the ultimatum on 23 July, the crisis is often portrayed to have widened in scope, scale, and risk. Although this is certainly true for the general European public, who would have heard about the ultimatum in the newspapers, the other great powers had been alerted to Austria’s intentions through diplomatic channels as early as 16 July.13 Here the historiography branches into two interlocking focuses: the deliberate construction by Austria-Hungary of an unacceptable ultimatum – thus ensuring the highest likelihood of an Austro-Serb war – as well as the Russian Council of Ministers’ decision on 25 July to enact a partial mobilisation in response to the Austrian demarche; a choice which Christopher Clark argues “greatly increased the likelihood of a general European war.”14 Besides this branching of historiographical focuses, the narrative itself also splits into different paths depending on the intention of the author. Britain and France continue to occupy lesser roles in the crisis than the former Dreikaiserbund members, though relative to the pre-ultimatum stages their actions begin to contribute considerably more to the crisis’ development. The former is usually discussed with regards to Foreign Secretary Edward Grey’s mediatory efforts; the latter with regards to the Poincare-Vivani mission and subsequent decision-making in Paris.15 With the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July, historians’ attentions focus on the critical decisions in the other great powers to mobilise and ultimately declare war. Once again, St. Petersburg and Berlin take centre stage, with the Russian government’s decision to enact a general mobilisation on 30 July, and the ensuing panic amongst German officials over whether to respond in kind.
Here, the chain of events reaches an almost obsessive level of detail with its chronology; as hour-by-hour developments and dispatches have been analysed by historians to determine the all-important motivations and circumstances for the Russo-German mobilisations.16 What is immediately evident from the primary sources here is the erratic nature of German diplomacy following Russia’s militarized response, and the clear presence of a “calculated risk” mindset in both Russian and German officials – though at crucially different stages of the crisis. Take for example, a telegram from Bethmann-Hollweg and von Jagow on 30 July to the ambassador in Vienna which represented an about-face in their hitherto unwavering policy of support; a complete reverse course signified by an apparent withdrawal of the blank cheque, warning the Dual Monarchy that although ‘we are quite prepared to fulfil our alliance obligations…we must refuse being dragged by Vienna, recklessly and without consideration of our advice, into a world inferno.’17 On the same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov won over the Tsar in pushing for general mobilization, arguing – along similar lines to Berlin’s assessment of the likelihood of war earlier on in the crisis – that:
[W]ar was becoming inevitable, as it was clear to everybody that Germany had decided to bring about a collision … under these circumstances it only remained to do everything that was necessary to meet war fully armed… it was better to put aside any fears that our warlike preparations would bring about a war, and to continue these preparations carefully rather than by reason of such fears to be taken unawares.18
Alongside this Russo-German track of the narrative, the Anglo-French negotiations are also considerably important; if only for their contributions to the ongoing inter-ministerial discussions in Whitehall regarding the conditions for British armed intervention on the continent.19 Once the “great symphony” of the Schlieffen plan was enacted, the question which remained was whether the British would enter the conflict; the condition – by nature of its empire – for a continental war to become a world war. On 4 August, that question was settled, and Europe’s statesmen bore witness to the “lamps going out”; the final tragedy which resulted from their choices and actions over the previous 38 days of the July Crisis.
What is immediately apparent from the narrative above is the multitude of sub-topics, questions, and approaches available to historians studying the events of July 1914. Indeed, works published in the post-Fischer era have embodied this diversity of methodologies. Some focus on the internal political and diplomatic decisions of a single country throughout the crisis, dealing in minutiae with the reactions and initiatives of a certain government to the larger situation.20 Others follow an overarching ‘continental’ narrative in a similar vein to the one presented above, portraying the overlapping and interlocking decisions of Europe’s great powers.21 Edited collections often bridge the gap between these two; with chapters linking the experiences of the July Crisis in the halls of power across Europe and beyond.22 Several works have even forgone the usual scholarly commentary in favour of presenting archival sources, enabling readers to piece together their own interpretation of the crisis.23 It comes as no surprise then that the historiography of the First World War’s origins has its own subsets, with internal debates over the importance of countries, decisions, and individuals which fit – though not always neatly – into the larger narrative of the July Crisis and contribute to the omnipresent questions of responsibility.24 The next section will highlight several of these debates – or battlegrounds – which have arisen since Fischer’s controversial Griff nach der Weltmacht, and continue to feature in accounts of the July Crisis.
Battlegrounds Old and New
Before delving into the current state of the debate, it is necessary to issue a note of caution on the semantics being used. A ’battleground’ implies that two or more opposing views must exist within the sub-debate over the causes of the First World War; their co-existence seemingly impossible. Here, it might be more accurate to use the term ‘arena’, as if the various historiographical stances are gladiators in the Roman amphitheatres of old; engaged in multi-party fights to ascertain which are worthy of further consideration and which will be consigned to linger at the fringes of the debate.
At an initial glance, it would seem as though the narrative presented in the previous section is an accurate retelling of the events of 1914. Indeed, the author attempted to synthesize both primary accounts and secondary literature to portray a diplomatic crisis which originated, progressed, and ended with deliberate choices made by the statesmen of the day. Although textbook readings often paint a reductionist narrative – akin to dominoes falling over in a preordained pattern and pace – the reality was, as the historiography has continuously shown, that war was not inevitable until the first shots were fired; to paraphrase A.J.P. Taylor.25 Historians often write and speak about the July Crisis in ‘stages’, with clear chronological or event-based boundaries between the ‘phases’ of the crisis’ initiation and escalation. Whilst this is certainly helpful to situate ourselves within the narrative, such divisions are arbitrary impositions; belying the fact that the discussions and policy-making processes which took place in one capital often occurred simultaneously, in response to, or even in expectation of those which were happening elsewhere.26 While the domino metaphor is certainly a convenient one which suggests that war was bound to occur in Europe regardless of what course the July crisis took, it downplays to a severe degree the agency of those who committed their nations to policies which ultimately narrowed the window for peace and opened the door to hostilities. These were the men who were tasked with determining their nation’s policy; and the characters who constitute the first key battleground we must consider: the role of individuals.
This arena is more recent than one might initially suspect. Prior to the Fischer debates, the post-war consensus on the origins of the First World War rested comfortably on two key foundations, both related but hardly conducive to the idea of individual agency. The first was the belief that structural forces had pushed the Great Powers towards war in 1914, and that these impersonal influences had acted as the “invisible hands”; guiding government officials to choose war over peace. The second was the notion that the war was an “inadvertent” one; the unintended result of decisions which were intended to bring about a different outcome to the crisis. Llyod George’s statement that ‘the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’ may have been a suitable aphorism in the immediate post-war era, with the war guilt debate still plagued by the recency of Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles; but after the Second World War (which Europe’s leaders most definitely did not ‘slide’ into), it was quickly discredited.27 The view of inadvertence was one which sat well with the contemporary political situation when it was propagated, as Denis Showalter highlights:
The assertion of a collective responsibility usually proved so pervasive that the Great War came to be understood as a war that no one wanted, a failure of systems rather than a product of decisions. This approach fit well with a wider cultural and political effort in liberal Europe to heal the wounds of 1914-1918 in the face of the contemporary threats of totalitarianism and depression. It became part of the effort to sustain the Third Reich’s presence as a “Western” power, rather than seeing Germany turn rogue under Adolf Hitler. Its intellectual and political appeals possessed enough strength to sustain it for at least a decade after 1945, permitting the perception of Nazi Germany as an aberration in German and Western European history – an aberration illustrated as much by its starting World War II as by its genocide of the Jews.28
Marc Trachtenberg, in an earlier work refuting the inadvertent war thesis, agreed with the contemporary appeal of the argument; noting that it provided the ideal compromise over the thorny issues of war guilt that accompanied the interwar period:
After the war, it became apparent in Western Europe generally, and in America as well, that the Germans would never accept a peace settlement based on the notion that they had been responsible for the conflict. If a true peace of reconciliation were to take shape, it required a new theory of the origins of the war, and the easiest thing was to assume that no one had really been responsible for it. The conflict could readily be blamed on great impersonal forces - on the alliance system, on the arms race and on the military system that had evolved before 1914.On their uncomplaining shoulders the burden of guilt could be safely placed.29
Clearly then, the inadvertent war thesis no longer stands as a credible explanation for the July Crisis. On the one hand, to suggest that the decision-makers of 1914 were all compelled to go to war by factors beyond their control simultaneously equalises their responsibility and neutralises it altogether. If all the statesmen were at the mercy of structural forces, then should it not stand that they were all equally responsible, regardless of what those forces led them to do? In this light, Grey’s efforts at mediation take on the same degree of escalation as Moltke’s military hard-line; Paris’ reaction possesses the same significance as Vienna’s initiation. Further, if everyone was responsible for the war’s outbreak, then what need is there for continued scholarly interest on the matter? In essence, stripping the agency of decision-makers in 1914 and laying the blame on abstract forces – nationalism, militarism, and the alliance system to name a few – is tantamount to abandoning the field (or arena) of historiographical battle altogether; ignoring the wealth of documentary evidence which goes against the stance of inadvertence. As Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig explain:
The use of metaphor, the talk of slides and cauldrons, is a digression, one that avoids the documentary record. The commentator simultaneously avoid the essence of decision making: human beings making choices. Nations do not simply “slither” into wars, driven by overpowering dark forces. Human beings at the highest levels, leaders, elites, decision makers, collect information, evaluate their chances, and make decisions. Their choices may have been mistaken, flawed, and ill-chosen. But their nation’s involvement stems from a choice based on some kind of intention.30
In the current historiographical landscape, the role of individuals is emphasised in greater depth than ever before. The cast of 1914 has expanded in recent decades, encompassing the men who occupied the highest echelons of power, those who bridged the military-civilian spheres of decision making, and those diplomats who reported from embassies abroad to their respective foreign ministries. When historians nowadays speak of “Germany,” “Britain,” or “Austria-Hungary” in the July Crisis, they are quick to identify the group of figures whose decisions truly mattered in the nation’s policy, and thus establish the cadre of men who represented the political apparatus of their country – regardless of how liberal or autocratic that system appeared to be.31 One need only glance at the list of ‘principal dramatis personae’ in Otte’s magisterial account to realise that there was also a plurality towards decision-making within the governments; a fact which impacts any scholarly effort to present the decisions for war as unanimous choices. Indeed, the current sub-debates over the personalities of 1914 deal with determining the extent to which internal friction between leaders and ministers compounded the ease of crisis management at critical stages. Put crudely, the battleground over individuals in the July Crisis is a matter of differentiating between the ”doves” and “hawks,” and identifying the conditions which finally enabled the latter to emerge with greater influence.32
To be certain, structural forces are not entirely excluded from the current historiography. Rather, they occupy a secondary position in the arguments over the actions of Europe’s diplomats and statesmen. To suggest that the First World War was the sole fault of a group of decision-maker – specifically those who held office during the crisis – is leaning dangerously close to reducing the role that other officials played in the leadup to the conflict; not to mention to dismiss outright those practices and precedents which characterised a state’s foreign policy preferences prior to 1914. There was, as hinted at previously, no dictator at the helm of any of the powers; the plurality of cabinets, imperial ministries, and advisory bodies means that the personalities of those decision-makers must be analysed in light of their influence on the national and transnational course of the crisis. To then suggest that the “larger forces” of mass demand served as invisible guides on these men is to dismiss the complex and unique set of considerations, fears, and desires which descended upon Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, London, Vienna, and Belgrade in July of 1914. Though these forces may have constituted some of those fears and considerations, they were by no means the all-powerful structural factors which plagued the continent during the July Crisis. Holger Herwig sums up this middle-ground stance:
The ‘big causes,’ by themselves, did not cause the war. To be sure, the system of secret alliances, militarism, nationalism, imperialism, social Darwinism, and the domestic strains… had all contributed toward forming thementalite,the assumptions (both spoken and unspoken) of the ‘men of 1914.’ There is no doubt that most senior policy makers in 1914 gave some consideration to expansion, imperialism, nationalism, armaments, and mass opinion. [But] it does injustice to the ‘men of 1914’ to suggest that they were all merely agents - willing or unwilling - of some grand, impersonal design… No dark, overpowering, informal, yet irresistible forces brought on what George F. Kennan called ‘thegreat seminal tragedy of this century.’ It was, in each case, the work of human beings.33
Hence it might be more appropriate to term this battleground, or arena, as one of “personalities” against “precedents,” because although historians are now quick to dismiss the work of larger forces as crucial in explaining the origins of the war, they are still inclined to analyse the extent to which these forces influenced each body of decision-makers in 1914 (as well as previous crises). Within each nation, indeed within each of the government officials, there were precedents which changed and remained from previous diplomatic crises.34 Understandingwhythey changed (if they had at all), as well as determining how they factored into the decision-making processes, is to move several steps closer to fully grasping the complex developments of July 1914. Margaret Macmillan echoes this assertion when she reflects on the continuing debate:
There are so many questions and as many answers again. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds, and biases. To do that we must also understand their world, with its assumptions. We must remember, as the decision-makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914 and what they had learned from the Moroccan crises, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe’s very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically led to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last moment and the peace would be maintained.35
Tied intrinsically to the larger forces and the assumptions which played on the minds of Europe’s statesmen during the July Crisis is the critical debate over the role of the military in 1914. Alongside the inadvertent war stance outlined earlier, another line of argument handed all responsibility – with the critical implication of blame – for the war on the military staffs in the Great Powers, who had seized control of the decision-making apparatus and diminished the agency of their civilian counterparts at critical points.36 In tandem with the interlocking mobilization schedules in each of the powers, A.J.P Taylor’s “War by Timetable” thesis certainly appears credible on the surface. In recent historiography however, the fundamental propositions in these arguments have been criticised and emphatically challenged. Contrary to the thesis, there are clear examples to disprove the claim that the generals dictated policy to the rest of the government; hardly were they “pounding the table for the signal to move.”37 The reality, as is usually the case with the July Crisis as a whole, was far more nuanced and complex. Sazonov’s calls for a partial mobilisation were later protested by the Russian General Staff, who argued that enacting the required measures for this plan would complicate – with grave consequences – the transition to a general mobilisation if the need arose.38 St. Petersburg was not the only capital where the military appeared to be pulling in different directions to the civilian leadership. In Vienna, Conrad informed Foreign Minister Berchtold that the army would not be able to commence offensive operations against Serbia until 12 August at the earliest, despite the latter’s insistence for a swift resolution to the whole affair.39 Much scholarship has focused on the “chaos and confusion” which characterised the German leadership in the final days of July, with Moltke and von Falkenhayn repeatedly urging – and initially failing – to persuade the Kaiser to declare the Kriegsgefahrzustand (state of impending danger of war).40
Once again, military concerns do persist in recent narratives of the July Crisis, but historians have also looked to previous crises in comparative attempts to understand why they did not defuse the situation as they had in the pre-war diplomatic scuffles of the Great Powers over Morocco, Bosnia, and the Balkan Wars.41 Additionally, there remains the subsequent question of whether the military situation on the continent in 1914 fed into the policy-making mindset of a “calculated risk,” most pertinently in the Austro-Hungarian and German cases. In the great web of the historiography, we find ourselves going back to the battleground of individuals, pondering if any of the statesmen and generals “wanted” a war in 1914, and what kind of war they envisioned as likely to result from the crisis. Again, we find cautionary notes in adopting such a lens; the contentious argument of intention against action. Put simply, it was one thing for Europe’s military staffs to plan a war, it was another thing entirely for their governments to declare one. Here the debate focuses mainly on two key events: the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July and the Russian Council of Ministers’ decision for mobilisation – both the partial and general. With this “armed diplomacy” being employed by St. Petersburg, was there now a “point of no return” so to speak? Was the chance of war significantly heightened by the introduction of a military dimension to what had previously been a diplomatic situation? Historians have stressed that Sazonov’s push for mobilization did not necessarily reflect his desire for war, and that unlike with Germany, the Stavka’s plans did not automatically translate to an offensive; as with the Aufsmarsch of the Schlieffen Plan.42 Likewise, the Austro-Hungarian declaration did not lead seamlessly into an invasion of Serbia.43
As it stands, the current fascination on military considerations in July 1914 appears to be at something of a standstill. Recent publications have shed significant light on the development of military-civilian relations in each of the European powers in the leadup to the crisis, as well as the militarisation of the continent in the decades prior to the outbreak of war. In both these respects, the historiography appears to be taking a step back in its lenses; viewing the militarisation in the July Crisis as part of a larger thread of armed diplomacy, and suggesting how military considerations factored into the mindsets and assumptions harboured by the “men of 1914,” ultimately contributing to the decisions for war. As with the larger trend however, any whiff of fatalism on the part of these writings has been largely dispelled; the same historians continuously remind us that the pre-1914 arms race by no means precipitated the coming of war.44
These battlegrounds over the importance of individuals and the military, as well as the increased interest in the context to the geopolitics of 1914, are somewhat overshadowed by the most notorious topic on the origins of the First World War: war guilt. We are invited, somewhat as a result of the century-old debate, to ask the question of who started the Great War; a query which has spawned all manner of theses and finger-pointing even while the war was being fought. With Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers however, it seems that such questions have become tainted with the “war guilt” associations of the 20th century, and pose more limitations than opportunities for historians in the current age. As Clark outlines early on in his work:
Questions of guilt and responsibility in the outbreak of war entered this story even before the war had begun. The entire source record is full of ascriptions of blame (this was a world in which aggressive intentions were always assigned to the opponent and defensive intentions to oneself) and the judgement delivered by Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles has ensured the continuing prominence of the ‘war guilt’ question. Here, too, the focus of how suggests an alternative approach: a journey through the events is not driven by the need to draw up a charge sheet against this or that state or individual, but aims to identify the decisions that brought war about and to understand the reasoning or emotions behind them. This does not mean excluding questions of responsibility entirely from the discussion – the aim is rather to let the why answers grow, as it were, out of the how answers, rather than the other way around.45
It seems as though the exhaustive writing on the July Crisis has made the question of who a harder one to settle – perhaps even nullifying the need for any answer given the current political climate. The idea of collective responsibility for the First World War, as touched on previously, still has a place – secondary though it may be – in the historiography today. Yet it is no longer the dominant idea amongst historians. Nor, for that matter, is the other extreme which Fischer began suggesting in the 1960s: that the burden of guilt, the label of responsibility, and thus the judgement of blame, could be placed (or indeed forced) upon the shoulders of a single nation or group of individuals. The interlocking, multilateral, and dynamic diplomatic relations between the European powers prior to 1914 means that to place the blame on one is to propose that their policies, both in response to and independent of those which the other powers followed, were deliberately and entirely bellicose. The pursuit of these policies, both in the long-term and short-term, then created conditions which during the July Crisis culminated inthefatal decision to declare war. To adopt such a stance in one’s writing is to dangerously assume several considerations that recent historiography has brought to the fore and rightly warned against possessing:
It might be more apt then, in light of the recent historiographical changes, to term this battleground; indeed the battleground which has generated such intense discourse and discussion over the July Crisis, as one of responsibility rather than guilt. For in doing so, the academic community would be leaving the field open for further research to test and investigate all manner of factors – old or new – that played a role in the deliberations and decisions which occurred during those hectic and uncertain days in the summer of 1914.
Conclusion: Towards A New Consensus?
Briefly then, it is worth discussing how these current battlegrounds have shifted the foundations of the historiographical debate. Returning to the notion of “structural forces,” an implicit element of the idea that “mass demands” had pushed Europe towards the final conflagration was that they imposed an overarching thread; an omnipresent motivator which guided (and at times “forced”) the decision-makers to commit to courses of action which moved the continent one step closer to war. As we have seen, these overarching theories have since been refuted by historians, and the current historiographical approach emphasises case-specific analyses of each nation’s circumstances, decisions, and impact in crisis diplomacy prior to and during 1914. Whilst these investigations have certainly yielded key patterns and preferences within the diplomatic manoeuvres of each nation, they sensibly stop short of suggesting that thesemodus operandiwere inflexible to different scenarios, or that they even persisted as the decision-makers came and went. The contextual questions now revolve aroundwhyandhowthe diplomacy of the powers shifted in the years prior to 1914, leading to the geopolitical situation of “two armed camps” when the Archduke was assassinated.46 What all of these new focuses imply - indeed what they necessitate - is that historians utilise atransnationalapproach when attempting to explain the origins of the war. Alan Kramer goes so far as to term it thesine qua nonin the current historiography; a claim that many historians would be inclined to agree with.47 Of course, that is not to suggest that a work of high quality should not give more focus to one nation over the others, but those which focus on a single country’s path to war are certainly rarer than they were prior to the centenary.48
It may very well be the case that the next anniversary of 1914 will see yet another flood of scholarly material on the outbreak of the war, with theses and approaches wholly different – or even in direct contention to – the current historiographical consensus. In recent decades, the foundations of the historiographical debate on the July Crisis have shifted towards more neutral – perhaps more holistic – starting points. Rather than beginning with the question of who started the First World War – a query intrinsically connected to the politically-charged idea of ‘war guilt’ – research now focuses on the how. In this regard, the choices and circumstances which allowed the world of 1914 to exist in the first place are worthy of further investigation from the political, military, and diplomatic lenses. Here, rightly, the focus centres on two “epicentres” of geopolitical developments: the Balkans and the wider European continent. Although systemic thinking poses its own dangers when considering the July Crisis in isolation, such an approach might prove useful in analysing – as some already have – the collapse of the so-called “Concert of Europe” in the last decades of the Victorian (or Bismarckian) and Edwardian eras. Further, the role of public opinion, though thoroughly shown to be unsatisfactory in explaining the decisions of statesmen, ought to provide an interesting look into the extent to which the larger public – and perhaps by extension diplomats and policymakers – viewed the otherwise nebulous diplomatic situation as it unfolded.49
To what end then, are historians of the July Crisis today inclined to pick up where those of yesterday left off? If one thing has become clear in this review, it has been the delicate tightrope that the current historiographical battlegrounds compel us to balance on; avoiding the temptation of falling into the mire of reductionist, impersonal, deterministic, and counter-factual arguments which were - at various points in the historiography’s evolution - the accepted tools of our predecessors. Neither should historians shy away from the heavy-handed task of determining the faults of individuals and decision-making groups in 1914, as T.G. Otte counsels:
Throughout the ‘long debate’ there has been a strong temptation for historians to cast themselves in the role of prosecutors…Notions of sin and atonement, of course, are deeply rooted in human consciousness, and it may well be argued that in operating with concepts of guilt historians generate more heat than light. It may also be asked how useful the concept of blame is for the purposes of historical analysis. It is after all the definition of a tragedy that a rightful cause clashes with another equally rightful cause…And yet, whilst students of the past would be wise to strive for balance and fairness, ‘tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ is no useful guidance either. It is a form of intellectual surrender and an abdication of the historian’s task to examine and to offer a rational judgement on the past.
Drawing lessons from the past is always dangerous, and the July Crisis is an oft-cited example of this maxim. Though to 21st century eyes the Europe of 1914 appears like a bygone era; the final chapter of a world wrapped in the romantic fatalism of marching armies, globe-spanning empires, and coattail-clad diplomats, it remains a fertile ground for historians and academics to explore. Perhaps the search for consensus on the First World War’s causes, much like the men of 1914’s tragic search for solutions, will end without success. But where those same statesmen reaped the catastrophic whirlwind of their collective failures, the historians’ harvest of the ‘crisis of crises’ continues to yield bounties of new perspectives through which to view a perplexing narrative, challenge old assumptions, and pose ever more nuanced questions.
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Penguin Books, 2012.
Dedijer, Vladimir. The Road to Sarajevo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Evans, Richard J. “The Road to Slaughter.” The New Republic. December 5, 2011. https://newrepublic.co m/article/98085/the-road-slaughter.
Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig, eds. War Planning 1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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1.) Most accounts of the July Crisis focus on the policies of the ‘Great Powers’(in addition to Serbia): Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Great Britain; although considerable bodies of work have been produced on the other belligerents (such as Italy, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States).
2.) 28 June – 4 August.
3.) In particular, the centenary saw an outpouring of new works on the July Crisis as well as those on other aspects of the war. See Annika Mombauer, “Guilt or Responsibility? The Hundred-Year Debate on the Origins of World War I.” Central European History 48, no. 4 (December 2015): 541-564, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43965205.
4.) John Röhl (ed.), 1914: Delusion or design? The testimony of two German diplomats, (London: Elek, 1973), 21. Quoted in Hew Strachan, “Review: The First World War: Causes and Course,” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (March 1986): 227, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24538564.
5.) A good overview of the evolution of the debate following Fischer’s work can be found in Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus, (London: Longman, 2002), 149-208.
6.) This article is far from the first of its kind. For more detailed reviews of particular works, see Mombauer, “Guilt or Responsibility?”; Hew Strachan, “Review: the origins of the First World War,” International Affairs 90, no. 2 (March 2014), 429-439; William Mulligan, “The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War,” The English Historical Review 129, no. 538 (June 2014): 639-666, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2 4474190.
7.) For more on the Serbian involvement in the assassination and the Austro-Hungarian view of their precarious situation within Europe, see Vladimir Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966); Laurence Lafore summarizes the all-important question of Serbian responsibility by noting that the answer is a confusing “yes and no. Some members [of the Serbian government] knew something, and they tried, not very resolutely or efficiently, to stop it.” See his review of Dedijer’s work in The Journal of Modern History 40, no. 3 (September 1968): 439-442, https://doi.org/10.1086/240232.
8.) Although Tisza is often portrayed as a figure who staunchly opposed war against Serbia, recent works have shown that he was far from an “anti-war” figure. Although he endorsed the need for a military solution, he remained hesitant to support his colleagues until diplomatic means had been exhausted and the Serbian link to the perpetrators had been established. See Samuel R. Williamson Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), 192-193; Marvin Benjamin Fried, Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans During World War I, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 30-42.
9.) For more on the Hoyos mission and its significance, as well as the blank cheque, see T.G Otte, July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 72-101; Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 412-423.
10.) Note for example, the recorded remark of Under-Secretary of State Zimmerman’s to Hoyos that there was a “90% probability of a European war, if you [Austria-Hungary] took steps against Serbia.” Even if this remark was not actually made, the litany of statements by the German government prior to and following the bank cheque’s issuing indicate a clear awareness of the risk of Russian involvement. See Otte, July Crisis, 78-100; Holger H. Herwig, “Germany,” in The Origins of World War I, ed. Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), 175-177.
11.) Graydon A. Tunstall Jr., “Austria-Hungary,” in The Origins of World War I, ed. Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), 131.
12.) Williamson, Austria-Hungary, 199-201. Otte takes this irony further by noting that “if Vienna had struck immediately after the murder of the Archduke … no world war would have ensued,” Otte, July Crisis, 104.
13.) Of particular note are the “leaks” from Italian diplomatic telegrams which were picked up by both Vienna and St. Petersburg on that day. The British Foreign Office and the Quai d’Orsay were made aware of an impending demarche shortly thereafter. See Otte, July Crisis, 174-198.
14.) On the latter, see e.g., Dominic Lieven. Towards the Flame: Empire, War, and the End of Tsarist Russia, (London: Allen Lane, 2015), 325-332; Clark, Sleepwalkers, 451-587; Otte, July Crisis, 231-247; Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War, (London: Icon Books, 2013), 182-196; David Alan Rich, “Russia,” in The Origins of World War I, 218-223.
15.) For Grey’s efforts to propose mediation and the Foreign Office’s reaction to the developing Balkan situation, see Otte, July Crisis, 254-330. On France’s role following the ultimatum’s delivery, see M. B. Hayne, The French Foreign Office and the Origins of the First World War, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 273-301; John F. V. Keiger, “France,” in Decisions For War, 1914, ed. Keith Wilson (London: Routledge, 1995), 123-145.
16.) See, e.g., Herwig, “Germany,” 180-182; McMeekin, July 1914, 306-349; Clark, Sleepwalkers, 506-537.
17.) Quoted in Otte, July Crisis, 413 (emphasis added).
18.) “30 July: Daily Record of Russian Foreign Ministry, 1914,” in The origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and military documents, ed. Annika Mombauer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 439-440 (emphasis added). See also David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 386-387; Marc Trachtenberg, “The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914,” International Security 15, no. 3 (1990-1991) , 145-147, https://doi.org/10.2307/2538909.
19.) Otte, July Crisis, 471-504; J. Paul Harris, “Great Britain,” in The Origins of World War I, 281-290; Zara Steiner and Keith Neilson, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 233-257.
20.) See, e.g., Williamson, Austria-Hungary; Steiner and Neilson, Britain and the Origins; Lieven, Towards the Flame; Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2013).
21.) See, e.g., Otte, July Crisis; McMeekin, July 1914; Clark, Sleepwalkers; Gordon Martel, The Month that Changed the World: July 1914, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
22.) See, e.g., Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, eds., The Origins of World War I, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Wilson, ed., Decisions For War.
23.) See, e.g., Annika Mombauer, The origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and military documents, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013); Samuel R. Williamson Jr. and Russel Van Wyk, July 1914: Soldiers, Statesmen, and the Coming of the Great War, (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003).
24.) An overview of these sub-debates within the historiography, specifically those over the role of the to-be belligerents, can be found in Samuel R. Williamson Jr. and Ernest May, “An Identity of Opinion: Historians and July 1914.” The Journal of Modern History 79, no. 2 (2007), 335-387, https://doi.org/10.1086/519317; for an overview of the conceptual sub-debates, see John A. Vasquez, “The First World War and International Relations Theory: A Review of Books on the 100th Anniversary,” International Studies Review 16, no. 4 (2014), 623-644.
25.) A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 518.
26.) Consider for example, the flurry of diplomatic activity taking place within London, St. Petersburg, and Berlin from 28 July – 1 August, or the simultaneous presentation of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum with the Franco-Russian alliance talks in St. Petersburg.
27.) Originally from Llyod George, War Memoirs, vol. 1, 52. Quoted in Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, “World Wars: Definitions and Causes,” in The Origins of World War I, 38.
28.) Dennis Showalter, ‘The Great War and Its Historiography,’ The Historian 68, no. 4 (2006), 715, http://www.jstor.
29.) Trachtenberg, “The Meaning of Mobilization,” 148-149.
30.) Hamilton and Herwig, “World Wars,” 40.
31.) Two parallels serve to illustrate this: Russia, supposedly the most autocratic of the powers on the eve of the crisis, was led in practice by a body of ministers; with Foreign Minister Sazonov exercising considerable negotiating power with the Tsar (although the ability to declare war and authorize mobilization remained with Nicholas II). Conversely, Britain’s parliamentary system did not stop Grey and the Liberal cabinet from withholding crucial information from other MPs and the rest of the Foreign Office until their support for intervention was deemed necessary.
32.) The line between the two parties is often less than concrete: as recent scholarship on Tisza portrays him as more of a hawk with reservations than a dove in the Austro-Hungarian camp. Semantically, the use of such metaphors also misleadingly suggests that certain statesmen wanted war in 1914 and actively worked towards realising that desire. See, e.g., Annika Mombauer, ‘Guilt or Responsibility?’, 556-557; John W. Young, “Emotions and the British Government’s Decision for War in 1914,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 29, no. 4 (2018), 543-564, https://doi.org/10.108 0/09592296.2018.1528778.
33.) Holger H. Herwig, “Why Did It Happen?,” in The Origins of World War I, 451.
34.) Works on particular individuals and their roles prior to and during the July Crisis are an interesting glimpse into this multifaceted sub-topic. See, e.g., Annika Mombauer, Helmuth von Moltke and the origins of the First World War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Annika Mombauer, “A Reluctant Military Leader? Helmuth von Moltke and the July Crisis of 1914,” War in History 6, no. 4 (1999), 417-446, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2601 3968; T.G. Otte, Statesman of Europe; A Life of Sir Edward Grey, (London: Allen Lane, 2020).
35.) Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, (London: Profile Books, 2014), 605.
36.) This argument is outlined further in Trachtenberg, “The Meaning of Mobilization,” 120-124.
37.) Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 72.
38.) With the Russian railway network underdeveloped, and no plans for partial mobilization to refer to; Otte remarks that “Russia could opt for either partial or general mobilization, but she could not move from one to the other.,” Otte, July Crisis, 242. Stevenson further argues that the declaration of the “Period Preparatory to War” was itself a form of mobilization, as it involved the acceleration of reservist training and the purchasing of draft animals. Stevenson, Armaments, 383-384.
39.) Jack S. Levy, “Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914,” International Security 15, no. 3 (1990), 172.
40.) See, e.g., Trachtenberg, “The Meaning of Mobilization,” 133-142; Levy, “Preferences, Constraints,” 178-184; Stevenson, Armaments, 403-405; Otte, July Crisis, 440-449, https://doi.org/10.2307/2538910.
41.) See, e.g., Clark, Sleepwalkers; MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace; Lieven, Towards the Flame; David Stevenson, “Militarization and Diplomacy in Europe before 1914,” International Security 22, no. 1 (1997), 125-161, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539332.
42.) Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 45.
43.) Tunstall Jr., “Austria-Hungary,” 143.
44.) See, e.g., William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 95-135; Stevenson, Armaments; Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, eds., War Planning 1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); David Stevenson, “War by Timetable? The Railway Race before 1914,” Past and Present 162 (1999), 163-194, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/162.1.163.
45.) Clark, Sleepwalkers, xxviii. It should be noted that the author finds Clark’s other major claim, that the men of 1914 were “blind to the reality of the horror they were about to unleash into the world,” somewhat unconvincing given the wealth of documentary evidence that recent works have used to show that – to varying degrees of accuracy and severity – the cast of 1914 were conscious of the consequences their choices might (and in some cases did) bring about. For the second quote, see Clark, Sleepwalkers, 562.
46.) This once popular term is yet another case of semantic fiction: although the Franco-Russian Alliance and Triple Alliance did possess mutual defense clauses (or promises of neutrality) in their agreements, case studies of the pre-1914 crises have shown that the member states of both camps were not always able to count on the support (either political or military) of their respective allies; and even during the July Crisis German officials expressed unease at handing the initiative to their Austro-Hungarian partners; and shared Vienna’s mistrust towards their Italian ally. Britain of course, did not strictly belong to any of the camps, though the matter of Anglo-French and Anglo-German sympathy within the Foreign Office and Cabinet continues to divide historians.
47.) Alan Kramer, “Recent Historiography of the First World War (Part I),” Journal of Modern European History 12, no. 1 (2014): 9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26266110.
48.) A recent work which attempted this methodology with less than commendable success was Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War. Richard Evans critically remarks that McMeekin “writes not like a historian but like a prosecutor in a criminal court,” sharing with Fischer an “almost monomaniacal obsession with a single country and its behavior before, during, and after the crisis of 1914, rather than seeing it in the broader European context.” Richard J. Evans, “The Road to Slaughter,” The New Republic, published December 5, 2011. https://newrepublic.com/article/98085/the-road-slaughter. For more reviews of his Russo-centric arguments, see Mulligan, “The Trial Continues,” 658; Laurie Stoff, “Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin,” Journal of World History 24, no. 3 (September 2013), 719-721, doi:10.1353/jwh.2013.0080.
49.) A recent work which has made a convincing argument for the importance of British press releases in Anglo-German diplomacy during the crisis is Nathan N. Orgill, Rumors of the Great War: The British Press and Anglo-German Relations during the July Crisis, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020).
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