Arrogance and Anxiety

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Today the fear of global war seems to vie with the fear of economic disaster. In Europe, pacifists have demonstrated against the stationing of American missiles on their territory; in America itself, Cassandra-like voices have been raised again and again to decry the danger posed by the ever-quickening arms race. The terrible anxiety, the fear that some unexpected incident might bring about a war nobody wants, has its roots, it is clear, in the collective memory of that first presumably accidental world cataclysm of modern times: the Great War of 1914-1918, which ended more than forty years of uninterrupted peace among the Great Powers. Why did the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, by an obscure Bosnian Serb set off a chain reaction that ended by unleashing a long and bloody war?

L. L. Farrar, Jr., a Professor of History at Boston College, has devoted himself for a long time to that currently unfashionable branch of Clio’s art, diplomatic history. In this closely reasoned work, he assesses the many theories propounded by scholars concerning the origins of the War of 1914, and arrives at a conclusion of his own, one that emphasizes the characteristics of the Great Power-system as a whole rather than the guilt or innocence of any one Great Power. The grim fatalism and mechanistic determinism of this book may disturb some readers, yet Farrar’s main argument, although not acceptable to everyone, certainly deserves careful consideration by every thoughtful student of history, whether amateur or professional.

Farrar’s approach to the origins of World War I is analytical rather than chronological. He is interested in trying to resolve a historical problem rather than in attempting to tell a colorful and exciting story. Thus, four different chapters (III, IV, V, and VI) all deal, each from a slightly different vantage point, with the same three years; the pre-crisis period, lasting from the beginning of 1912 to the assassination at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. In the chapter on the July Crisis, speculation about the assassins’ motives is confined to one brief paragraph, in which the fact of their association with the Serbian national societies is mentioned. The background of the young principal assassin and his accomplices, the genesis of their plot, and the actual sequence of events on the fateful day of the assassination are not treated at all; the name of the principal assassin, Savrilo Princip, is nowhere mentioned in the book. Although such bits of information might be fascinating to the individual with a deep interest in the phenomenon of political assassination, the author does not regard them as relevant to his attempt to explain why the Great Powers went to war in 1914. There are almost no personal or biographical details about the statesmen of the day; one rare anecdote given in the footnotes, that of German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow’s departure for his honeymoon in the very month of the Sarajevo assassination, is used only to show just how unexpected was the crisis that led to war.

The victorious Allies, in dictating the Treaty of Versailles to Germany in 1919, held Germany solely responsible for the outbreak of World War I; the Germans, on the other hand, denied this allegation, asserting that the responsibility for the coming of the conflict had to be shared by all the major powers. The issue still remains a controversial one today. In the early 1960’s, the Fritz Fischer school of historiography in West Germany once more argued that Germany bore primary responsibility for the coming of the war.

Farrar, however, disagrees with all theories that ascribe responsibility for the war to the supposedly inherent aggressiveness of Wilhelmine Germany. Instead, he sees the War of 1914 as a natural consequence, not of the wrong decisions of wicked individuals, but of the existence, within the same international system, of several Great Powers, each of them sovereign and independent, none of them willing to risk individual survival as a Power for the sake of general peace. The arrogance and anxiety shown by Germany during pre-1914 times, the perception of the nation as both powerful and threatened, was, he suggests, characteristic, to some degree, of every major European power. During the crisis itself, the author concludes, “Each Power had done what seemed necessary to remain a Power.” Farrar’s approach is, therefore, based on an analysis of the international system of pre-1914 days as a whole, rather than on the analysis of a particular crisis situation.

Throughout the book, Farrar makes clear that he does not consider Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, or any of the other key men in the Imperial German government to have been, by their decision-making during the July Crisis or their policies during the immediate pre-crisis years, any more guilty of the outbreak of the war than such statesmen of the Entente as Nicholas II and his foreign minister Serge Sazonov, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey of Britain, or President Raymond Poincaré of France. He denies that, prior to the crisis, the German government consciously planned a preventive war, and cites instances during the immediate pre-crisis years when Germany tried to avoid war. In the beginning of 1913, the author points out, the German Foreign Secretary, Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, tried to impose restraint on Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, who were determined to prevent a Serbian annexation of a port in Albania; in the spring of 1913, Kiderlen-Wächter’s successor, Gottlieb von Jagow, reigned in Austrian impatience over the possibility of Montenegro’s seizure of the Albanian town of Scutari; and in the summer of 1913, Gottlieb von Jagow once again imposed restraint on...

(The entire section is 2383 words.)