BOOK: David Fromkin, "Europe's Last Summer"
This is a delightful book about the origins of the first world war. It presents the political situation in Europe in the years before the war, showing how a situation slowly formed in which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was able to spark a continent-wide war; it tells in detail the story of the crisis in summer 1914, from the assassination to the outbreak of war about a month later; and it ends with several fascinating chapters in which the author, like the detective in a crime novel, presents his conclusions about how the causes of the war are best explained. It is written in a pleasant style which makes it always fun to read, never boring or tedious.
Perhaps the most interesting and original idea in the book is that to understand the outbreak of war in 1914, we should really see it as two separate wars: one of Austria-Hungary against Serbia, and one of Germany against Russia. Austria-Hungary wanted to strengthen its position in the Balkans by crushing Serbia; it was also concerned that the sight of an independent Serbia might encourage Austria's Southern Slavic nations to aspire towards independence as well (p. 277). The assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided the Austrians with a good pretext to start the war on Serbia; as is well known, their ultimatum was never really meant to be a serious effort to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means. Of course there was the possibility that Russia would act in defense of Serbia, and Austria did not want to risk a war with Russia (p. 53); but after Germany gave Austria the famous “blank check” (p. 90, 161), i.e. a promise to support Austria no matter what Austria decided to do, the Austrians went on with the plans to start the war against Serbia. (Giving this kind of guarantee seems risky, but many Germans at the time felt that chances of war are small because Russia would not dare to interfere once it learned about Germany's firm support of Austria; p. 161.) If the situation in Europe had been different, all that would follow would be another small Balkan war, in which Austria would defeat Serbia and perhaps occupy its territory, convert it into a protectorate or something of that sort. However, there were in Germany many influential people (e.g. Moltke) who really wanted to start a war against Russia. They felt that, since Russia is so much larger and more populous than Germany, it will inevitably eclipse Germany as the main military power on the European continent as soon as it manages to modernize its economy (p. 87). There had indeed been considerable progress in Russia in the ten years between its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, so the Germans' concern was perhaps not so unreasonable. They therefore felt that Russia should be attacked preemptively, before it becomes too strong (p. 38, 260). (Additionally, other European countries were also arming; Germany wasn't able to increase its army much beyond its 1914 size, which meant that it had nothing to gain by waiting and starting the war at a later time; see below and on p. 93. In fact these concerns that other powers would soon eclipse Germany were probably somewhat unjustified, but they nevertheless influenced the thinking of people such as Moltke; p. 96, 110. Moltke and others felt that such a war was inevitable and that all they could choose was to start it now rather than later; p. 268.) They also knew that Russia had an alliance with France, meaning that if Germany attacks one of them it will have to fight against both at the same time. Originally the Germans' idea was to use a small part of their forces to halt the Russian army while the rest of the German army would attack France and quickly defeat it, much like in the war of 1870–71. Then the whole German army could be used against Russia (pp. 33, 240). However, since Russia had become stronger in the last few years, Germany now felt that it couldn't risk such a war on its own, and Austria was the only ally it could reasonably rely on (p. 36). Thus Germany had to maintain good relations with Austria and try to uphold Austria's status as a great power (p. 55, 87). In fact Austria wasn't terribly reliable either, as previous experience had shown (e.g. it didn't support Germany during the Morocco crisis a few years earlier; p. 78, 271). Thus Germany had to basically trick Austria into a situation where Austria would start a war on its own initiative and in its own interest (i.e. the war against Serbia, as it turned out in 1914), but the war would then be redirected into the one that Germany wanted to fight, i.e. against Russia (p. 273). When favourable circumstances occurred in July 1914, this is indeed what happened; Austria started its war against Serbia thinking that, since Germany is backing Austria, Russia won't dare to get involved. But the Germans made sure that Russia couldn't stay out of the war (p. 299), and once this started the Austrians had no choice but to use most of their army against Russia rather than for their own private little war against Serbia (p. 274). (In fact Austria did fight some initial skirmishes against the Serbs first, but suffered serious defeats; p. 301.)
The rest of the outbreak of war is more straightforward. Germany wanted to attack France from the north, as it was not so well defended and Germany hoped to reach Paris quickly and thus force the French to admit defeat (p. 34). In order to do this, Germany had to cross Belgian territory (p. 203); Belgium, being a neutral country, refused permission; Germany overran it nevertheless; and this violation of Belgian neutrality was an important factor in swaying British opinion in favour of British entry into the war (before that point many British politicians felt that Britain should not get involved; in fact Germany also hadn't expected that Britain would enter the war, but once it realized that this would happen it was too late to call the war off).
On pp. 12–14 there are some fascinating remarks about the world before the outbreak of war in 1914. “According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, ‘until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state.’ [...] John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers.” (P. 13.) I remember reading similar remarks before; but every time that some economist waxes lyrical about the pre-WW1 world, with its free trade and freedom from regulation, I cannot help thinking that the only ones to benefit from these arrangements were the wealthy classes of a handful of industrialized countries. To the working classes, and to inhabitants of colonies — that is to say, to the vast majority of the world's population — they brought nothing but misery. A state whose existence you could hardly notice is a state that does not do anything to help you in times of need; a state with no social security; one in which old, ill, or unemployed people must live off their savings, or starve if they haven't got any; one in which education and medical care are available only to the wealthy; one that for most people offers nothing but a life of grinding poverty and exploitation. A lack of customs barriers and limits on currency exchange means that capital is free to jump from one country to another in search of the best opportunities to exploit and take advantage of their populations, who have no means of defending themselves from it. In short, the world before 1914, for the vast majority of people, was simply abominable, presenting no opportunities for a life worth living. No, I will never look wistfully back on those bad old days. Strong regulation of the economy, with strong protectionism on the borders, are the only way of forcing those greedy plundering capitalists to take the people's needs into account. The market economy is a dramatic failure, one of the greatest blind alleys in the history of humankind. The sooner we re-introduce a plan-based economy, the sooner we will have the chance to live a decent life once again.
To most of the ordinary people in 1914, the international situation didn't seem such as would make a major war in any sense likely (p. 12). The public mood in the years before the war, however, was in many ways favourable to war. “Unfulfilled revolutions and revolutions betrayed had left Europe frustrated, and in a mood—following Nietzsche—to smash things.” (P. 39.) War was seen by many as an honourable and virtuous thing (p. 41-2). Indeed on p. 259 Fromkin adds that the idealized view of pre-WW1 Europe as “a sort of Eden in which the outbreak of hostilities among major powers came as a surprise” is inaccurate (see also p. 337).
Apparently, the well-known “Schlieffen plan” of 1905, which is sometimes claimed to have provided a rigid timetable causing Germany to start the war just when it did (p. 34), was not really a plan at all: “the Schlieffen memorandum [...] was not a plan. It was not operational. It did not go into details or issue orders.” (P. 35; see also p. 268.)
The growing democratization of politics and diplomacy meant that statesmen from different countries didn't have as much common ground as the royalty and aristocrats of an earlier age: “The loss of aristocratic values and the weakening of ties were what made the behavior of some of the statesmen in July 1914 possible.” (P. 45.)
Despite its expansionist aims, Germany “deliberately chose not to increase the size of its army” because the accompanying increase in the officer corps would cause the latter to lose its predominantly Prussian aristocratic character (p. 56, 60). The navy did expand, however, which alienated Great Britain (p. 60). Together with the fact that Germany allowed its former alliance with Russia to lapse without being renewed (p. 59), this helped to bring about exactly what the Germans feared: encirclement of Germany by hostile powers (p. 61). Nor was the German army funded as strongly as one might expect given the progress of the German economy; this was due to “an archaic constitutional structure and the consequent lack of a progressive tax system” (p. 57).
Although William II is often seen as an almost autocratic ruler, and himself boasted of this, his ministers often learned to disregard him, or to get him to change his mind (p. 59); nor was he popular with the Prussian junker class (p. 57). The scandal following his indiscreet statements in a 1908 interview further weakened his position (p. 73).
On William II and Franz Ferdinand: “Time and again, during the frequent war crises that were so conspicuous a feature of their time, both men chose peace, and were distrusted by the military in their respective countries for having done so.“ (Pp. 99–100.) Thus another factor that helped in the outbreak of war in 1914 was that both of these leaders were out of the way: Franz Ferdinand assassinated and William II outmanoeuvred and ignored by his own ministers (pp. 196–7, 225, 239).
This remark from p. 118 is just plain silly: “Franz Ferdinand [...] was a reactionary: he would have liked to turn back the calendar by a century. The Slavs who plotted against him were more reactionary still; they looked back more than five centuries [...] to the First Battle of Kosovo, at which, they believed, the greatness of Serbia had been lost.” Surely it is ridiculous to call a national liberation movement reactionary merely because it is encouraged by the fact that national liberty had already existed at some past point? By this standard the Irish nationalists were even greater reactionaries (700 years) and the Zionists were probably the greatest reactionaries of all time (2000 years).
Assassination of monarchs and statesmen was quite a common phenomenon in the last decades before WW1. “On average, one head of state or head of government was murdered every year” in the period 1894–1914 (see the list on p. 121).
However, as far as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was concerned, he was hardly missed by anybody. Franz Joseph had disliked him because of his marriage to a mere countess, the Hungarians disliked him because of his anti-Hungarian feelings, etc.; his death came as a relief and provided a very welcome excuse to move against Serbia (pp. 138–9; Austria wanted to attack Serbia since the Balkan wars of 1912, but until the assassination in 1914 it did not have the German support it needed; pp. 153–4, 260). Nor was there much of a public reaction to the assassinations (p. 143). In fact Wilhelm, who had cultivated a friendship with Franz Ferdinand for years and looked on him as a future partner in the German-Austrian alliance, was among the few who would really miss him (pp. 138–9). If it hadn't been for this, he wouldn't have given Austrians the blank check and risked war (p. 263). “Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand were the two most obnoxious public figures in Europe, but they were the ones who kept hotheads in check and, in the end, always opted for peace.” (P. 264.)
After the assassination, the initial plan was for Austria to go ahead with the war very quickly, occupy at least a part of Serbia in a few weeks and thus effectively present a fait accompli to the other powers. The German and Austrian leaders went on their vacations normally to avoid causing suspicion. However, Austria-Hungary delayed, partly because the Hungarian prime minister was opposed to the war with Serbia (p. 165) and partly because the Austrian army was not ready (p. 168–9). Thus a fait accompli was no longer possible. Germany tried to dissuade the other powers from becoming involved (p. 179); to prevent the involvement of France, the ultimatum to Serbia was delivered at a time when the French leaders were returning from a visit to Russia by ship (p. 180); as for Britain, Germany hoped that it was sufficiently distracted by home rule problems in Ireland (p. 184).
In the British Foreign Office, “on weekdays ‘official hours were from twelve to six’ ” (p. 206).
Asquith writing to Venetia Stanley: “The Austrians are quite the stupidest people in Europe (as the Italians are the most perfidious)” (p. 207). (Gibbon hints at their stupidity as well; see note 27 to ch. 5 of his Decline and Fall.)
I'm amazed at Germany's ham-handed approach to diplomacy:
- At some point they suggested to France that they would not attack her if she guarantees to remain neutral during their war with Russia; as a guarantee of her neutrality, France should allow Germany to occupy certain key fortifications (without which she would be practically undefended). That is to say, the Germans basically suggested that the French should concede defeat without putting up a fight. Needless to say, the proposal was rejected. (See Robert Massie's Dreadnought, ch. 46, p. 891.)
- In this book on p. 228 we read of the similarly bizarre German proposal to Britain: in exchange for British neutrality, Germany would promise to respect the independence of Holland and to forego annexing any French territory (colonies excepted).
- Later in the war they tried to get Mexico to attack the United States, promising they would let the Mexicans keep parts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico after the war. (Even assuming that Germany would have won, and the U.S. found themselves among the defeated, how did Germany suppose to weaken the U.S. to such an extent that the Mexicans would stand a chance at preventing the U.S. from recovering these territories?) Once the famous Zimmerman telegram with the contents of this proposal came to light, it was an important factor in the U.S. decision to declare war on Germany.
With examples like these, there's no wonder why everybody kept on harping on about how Germans are unable to see the world through other peoples' eyes and to understand how other countries would react to their actions and proposals.
Different degrees of partial and full mobilization are mentioned at various points in the book; it would be interesting to learn more about what exactly the differences were. In particular, on p. 231 we learn that “[f]or Germany, mobilization meant war; [...] ‘Russia's armies’ [...] could ‘remain mobile behind their frontier almost indefinitely.’ ” And: “for Germany, mobilization meant war—within twenty-four hours if not before.” (P. 239.) What were the reasons for this? I always thought that mobilization simply means that people are called up into the army and have to come live in the barracks and wait to be sent to the front. It isn't obvious to me why, once they have been mobilized in this way, they couldn't wait for a couple of weeks before the fighting actually begins. Unfortunately the book does not go into details about this.
Despite what is sometimes claimed, financiers were not in favour of starting the war. Lloyd George wrote: “All the bankers and commercial people are begging us not to intervene. The governor of the Bank of England said to me with tears in his eyes ‘Keep us out of it. We shall all be ruined if we are dragged in.’ ” (P. 236. Similar statements are also quoted in Dreadnought, ch. 46, pp. 898-9.) I guess he was right; the whole of Europe was ruined by the war, its predominant role in the world gone, perhaps for good. But it would have happened anyway, even without WW1, except perhaps a few decades later; the growing power of the U.S. would eventually still eclipse the European powers, and their colonies would eventually win independence just the same. Nor would it do the British much good if they stayed out of the war and let the continental powers sort it out among themselves; Germany would probably end up by concluding a very advantageous peace with France and inflicting a crushing defeat on Russia (a la the Breast-Litovsk treaty). This would make Germany by far the predominant continental power, it could eventually pick up the naval arms race again and easily out-build Britain this time, which would make the British just as much the second fiddle to the Germans as if they had gone to war and lost it.
Amazingly, Switzerland seems to have mobilized in the days before the outbreak of war, and came very close to placing its army under German command (p. 245).
This sentence from p. 245 is simply priceless: “Italy's military chief said that his country could not go to war in any event because its armed forces did not have enough uniforms.”
After Germany had already started the war against Russia, France and Britain, Austria was supposed to declare war against them as well; however, it procrastinated for so long that Moltke was worried that Germany, being unable to fight them all by herself, “would have to sue for peace on the best terms it could get” (p. 250).
Germany, as well as Austria, tried to portray themselves as the injured parties rather than as the aggressors of the war. They removed many documents from their archives to conceal the truth; they also published fake documents (pp. 252–3).
The book also contains appendices with the text of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, and the Serbian reply (see also p. 196 on the hectic efforts of the Serbian government to prepare the reply within the required time limit). After the Austrians received this reply, they declared it unsatisfactory and cut diplomatic relations; this later led to some head-scratching about how to declare war as they no longer had any diplomats in Serbia (eventually they decided to just send a cable, and the Serbian government wondered it might be a hoax; p. 220). Interestingly, Fromkin feels that the Serbian reply is not quite such a wholesale capitulation as it is commonly taken to be (p. 265); however, after reading it I don't see any reasons for this concern; the Serbian reply should have been more than satisfactory to the Austrians if they had had the slightest interest in avoiding a war.
There are some regrettably anti-Serbian sentiments on p. 265. “The opinion was widespread at the time that no country that accepted it [i.e. the Austrian ultimatum] could thereafter remain independent. But after the experiences of the brutal twentieth century, historians have grown callous; they no longer find the Austrian demands outrageous.” He goes on to justify this with the fact that Princip and his fellow conspirators were supported by anti-Austrian organizations based in Serbia (even though they had no official sanction from the Serbian government itself), and the people of Serbia largely welcomed the assassination. Thus, since the Serbian government had failed to suppress these activities, it had in effect forfeited a part of the sovereignty over its territory and Austria is supposed to have had a good justification in trying to step in with its own armed forces. As further support of this principle, Fromkin mentions the U.S. attacks against Mexico in 1916 (after Pancho Villa's raid on U.S. territory), and its attack against Afghanistan in 2001. I'm afraid I don't agree with him in the least on this question; it seems to be just another example of imperialists sticking together: U.S. imperialism of 2001 going hand in hand with Habsburg imperialism of 1914. After all, Serbia had every good reason to hate the Habsburg monarchy and wish it all the worst, and I sure can't blame its people for celebrating in the streets when they learnt of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. But then maybe I shouldn't complain too much; in a way it's good that Austria started the war after all: the war was just the kick that was necessary for Austria-Hungary to collapse like the decrepit rotten house of cards that it was. I sure am glad it collapsed, and, if it had happened a few decades earlier, would be gladder still.
The initial motivation that drove Germany to war against Russia was that it tried to maintain the status quo and prevent Russia from becoming too strong. Austrian motivation against Serbia was similar. However, it is true that a few months after the war started the belligerents expanded their war goals, including demand for new territories and colonies etc. (pp. 278, 280). “The common assumption today is that everybody wants peace if it can be had on acceptable terms”; but for Germany (and Austria) in 1914, no terms would have been acceptable: “it wanted to crush its adversary to an extent that only a successful war makes possible” (pp. 282, 288). WW1 was not the result of a small Balkan conflict going out of hand; it was “the result of premeditated decisions by two governments” (p. 293). For Russia and France, the matter of becoming involved in the war was something they had little choice in, as they were both attacked by Germany. For Britain, the main motivation was to prevent Germany from becoming too strong, as it would become if it defeated France (p. 280). Thus, basically WW1 was about the “relative ranking among the great European powers that at the time ruled most of the world” (p. 195). Insofar as the war can be blamed on a single person, this must be Moltke, the chief promoter of the belief that Germany is on the way down, soon to be eclipsed by Russia unless it starts a pre-emptive war against it (p. 305).
The photographs of the leading personalities, included in the middle of the book, are interesting. It seems that Britain was the only European power with a predominantly clean-shaven cabinet (Asquith, Grey, Churchill; Lloyd George had a mustache); everywhere else, mustaches and usually also beards predominated. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, is patriarchally bearded and looks as if he stepped straight out of some Russian 19th-century novel. The photograph of “The scene of the first assassination attempt” in Sarajevo also fascinated me, as it shows very nicely what a diverse mixture the population of early 20th-century Bosnia was. Some of the people in the photograph are dressed in respectable modern bourgeois attire, with bowler hats or panama hats; there are a few proletarian-type people, wearing simpler modern clothes; there is a peasant in traditional costume with a fez on his head; and then there's a curiously-looking man in a three-piece suit but also wearing a fez.
I read the paperback edition of this book; at the end there's a publisher's advert for another Fromkin's book, The Way of the World. I couldn't help laughing at the following sentence: “Fromkin reminds us of the astounding record of human achievement, and the potential in each of us to improve the way of our world.” Alas! how I wish that I was able to have such a positive and optimistic view of mankind. Unfortunately, I am apparently unable to think of other people as being any better than myself: greedy, selfish, abominable little idiots. The “astounding record of human achievement” is nothing but a long tale of exploitation, oppression, and abuse; and the only “potential in each of us” is to make this world, thanks to our greed and selfishness, an absolute hellhole to inhabit. The history of the last couple of decades is a case in point. Our inability to use the progress of technology to improve our quality of life is truly astounding. Despite all the so-called “progress”, people work more than they did a couple of decades ago and quality of their lives is worse rather than better. Exploitation is running amok, freedom is being crushed on all sides, the environment is being ruined at an unprecedented pace. No, I can't bring myself to think there's any hope for humankind. The sooner an asteroid blows us all into dust, the better. Good riddance, I say. We won't be missed.