Among his contemporaries, John Keegan is one of the most distinguished authorities on military history. Keegan’s many books on warfare are certainly among the most accessible in this field, and each of them brings a clarity of exposition to even the most complicated of campaigns and battles. With The Face of Battle (1976) Keegan redefined the very concept and approach to military history, giving warfare a reality and emotional presence that was almost novelistic in its power. In subsequent books such as The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare (1990), A History of Warfare (1993), and Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1996), he fashioned studies that brilliantly combined a comprehensive knowledge with a clarity of presentation. Keegan’s The Second World War (1990) is currently the definitive one-volume study of that conflict. Now he has turned his attention to a slightly earlier struggle, World War I.
The immediate cause of World War I was what the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had long feared: “a damn fool thing in the Balkans.” Specifically, the precipitating incident was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, capital of the Austrian province of Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. Monarchs had been assassinated before, including an empress of Austria and a czar of Russia, without bringing on war. This, however, was different. Austria-Hungary was anxious to use the incident to punish the small but threatening Serbian state to its south; Russia, self-proclaimed protector of the Slavs, was drawn into the dispute; France, Russia’s ally, was prepared to fight; and Germany, which had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” in resolving the issue, half regarded war in 1914 as preferable to inevitable war later when its enemies, especially Russia, would only be stronger. Great Britain, whose military had been cooperating with the French since 1900, felt it could not allow German domination of the continent. Moreover, since the general staffs of all the nations already had their mobilization and war plans prepared down to the precise minute, Europe plunged into a war that would have a pause, but no real ending until 1945.
Behind this immediate cause were more profound and long-lasting ones. There was the scramble for colonies, which had brought France and Britain close to war in the closing years of the nineteenth century. There was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, which threatened Great Britain’s undisputed control of the seas, upon which her empire (and indeed, her very existence) depended. There was the burning desire of the French for revenge over their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Perhaps above all, there was fear on the part of Germany that it was encircled by enemies, being denied its “place in the sun” (as Kaiser Wilhelm II phrased it), and compelled to strike first in order to survive as a great nation.
Still, as Keegan writes, “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” It was based on false premises, fueled by blatant misconceptions, and engendered by confusion and error. It could have been averted at any number of points along the tragic trajectory which arced across a generation and culminated in five fatal weeks in the summer of 1914. Keegan’s view is not merely historical hindsight; there was a widespread belief in prewar Europe that a general conflict should be impossible, not least because it would mean economic collapse, if not the end of civilization itself. Economists such as Norman Angell of Great Britain argued that the interdependence of European nations required that any war, should it ever come, be brief; otherwise, national economies would collapse within a matter of weeks. Added to this was a general sense of the triumph of rational globalization: The creation of the International Meteorological Organisation, the International Telegraph Union, and the first International Copyright Conventions were just a few examples of this sense that the world, at least the European world, had learned not only to communicate but also to cooperate.
Yet there was another side to internationalism, that of power politics and military necessity. By 1914, as Keegan demonstrates, both had reached a point where they made war not inevitable but surprisingly acceptable for rulers, cabinets, and generals. The seeming stability of Europe was undercut by a series of fissures that ran throughout the...
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