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Did Europe sleepwalk into the Great War?


A Stygian night descended upon Europe in August 1914. It shattered nearly a century of sunny peace the Continent had experienced since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This peace was fragile, to say the least. The century was marked by portents like Bismarck’s limited wars against Austria in 1866 and against France in 1870-71, which led to the ascendancy of Prussian arms in Central Europe; the Crimean imbroglio of 1854-56 (which cost half-a-million lives); the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Further, the breath of the French Revolution spurred the upheavals of 1830 and 1848, which irrevocably altered the social fabric of Europe. At the same time, advancements in military technology and greater economic interdependence were thought to have created deterrents to prevent the sort of cataclysm that finally erupted in 1914. Was this inevitable?


Jack Beatty, an American news analyst, emphatically does not think so. He buttresses his engrossing counter-factual history with scrupulous facts, delineating five flashpoints buried under the avalanche of World War I that might have altered the course of 1914. While tomes on the Second World War and Nazi historiography continue to thrall readers, the Great War isn’t exactly in the shade either. A staggering 25,000 books, monographs and pamphlets are estimated to have been published till date as we enter the centenary year of the ‘War to end all Wars’.


The first great human Armageddon in modern history is witnessing a renewed fascination with a veritable flood of first-hand accounts, ‘revisionist’ theses and ‘forgotten’ novels (the recent reissue of Gabriel Chevallier’s 1930 gut-wrenching frontline classic Fear) keeping the history book trade alive and kicking.


There’s nothing new about Beatty’s arguments, though. From A.J.P. Taylor to David Stevenson, the most brilliant historians have long held the Great War to be a deliberate political act. Taylor’s acidulous masterpieces, The Habsburg Monarchy (1948), The First World War: An illustrated history (1963),War by Timetable (1969) and most notably, the stylistically brilliant collection of essays Europe: Grandeur and Decline (1967), precede the arguments of Beatty and his like by half-a-century. Nevertheless, Beatty’s book is an admirably up-to-date synthesis; engagingly presented, like an Umberto Eco novel and generously sprinkled with cartoons from contemporary periodicals like Der Wahre Jacob and Simplicissimus and drawings by wartime artists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Felix Vallotoon. Beatty remarks in his introduction that 1914 might have been remembered as a coup in Germany, a leftist ministry in France pursuing detente with Germany, a civil war in Britain or a shift in Russian foreign policy.


France’s Third Republic, Beatty argues, would have followed a different course in July had a ministry led by Joseph Caillaux and the anti-war Socialist giant Jean Jaures (who would have served as Caillaux’s foreign minister) formed the government, instead of the hawkish one led by the nationalist Raymond Poincare. Elements conspired to keep Caillaux (who then served as finance minister) away from the premiership after his wife Henriette, shot dead the editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmette, for prosecuting a politically inspired vendetta against her husband. Caillaux, who successfully navigated France out of a potential conflict with Germany over the Moroccan crisis of 1911, would have, along with Jaures, pursued a policy of detente with Germany, argues Beatty.


The United Kingdom hovered on the brink of civil war in 1914 over the Irish question in the last days of July. The ‘Revolt in Ulster’ was the most covered story across the world as millions followed Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s ‘attempt’ to grant Home Rule to Ireland. At a time when German guns were landing up and down the Irish coast, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination at Sarajevo provided Asquith’s Liberals the key to deflect domestic tension by clamouring for unity in the face of a common enemy, thereby putting the Irish question on the backburner. Britain’s entry into the war was the singular condition for Germany’s defeat.


Likewise, Beatty argues that America would not have entered the war had President Woodrow Wilson recognised the dictator, General Victoriano Huerta back in 1913 itself, as most European powers expected him to do so. But Wilson, wallowing in his nobility, shipped arms to rebel leader Pancho Villa. In his anti-imperialist zeal, Wilson, who declared that America would not seek “one additional foot of territory by conquest”, paradoxically got his country embroiled into the European war by intervening in the Mexican Revolution and occupying the port city of Veracruz. The world press clamoured that the occupation unravelled American “imperialist ambitions.” Germany then began wooing Mexico, which ultimately led to the infamous Zimmermann Telegram incident and facilitated America’s entry into the war. The author claims to have broken fresh ground (citing evidence that became available only after the fall of the Berlin Wall) by debunking long-held myths like the “short war illusion” and the so-called “Schlieffen Plan”.


Beatty cogently retells events leading up to the Sarajevo assassination, remarking that Franz Ferdinand, while possessing a thoroughly unattractive personality, was nevertheless the sole restraining force in the decaying Habsburg monarchy’s lurch towards war. His death was no pretext, but a major cause of the Great War. The prime mover of bellicosity was the Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf; it was sanctioned by the aged, lifeless, deceptively kind and eternally self-pitying Emperor Francis Joseph. The Austrians had sown the wind; Europe would reap the whirlwind as History froze its face in a terrible rictus.


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