In 1977-8 and again in 1978-9, I taught freshman seminars at Harvard on the origins of the First World War. I had been introduced to the topic in a small group seminar myself taught by Sam Williamson, who has written several books about it, ten years earlier. I taught the seminar by giving each student (or a pair of students) responsibility for one major European power. We were enormously helped by two books: July 1914, The Outbreak of the First World War, a wonderful collection of documents edited by a German, Immanuel Geiss, and the magnificent, three-volume study, The Origins of the War of 1914, by an Italian newspaper editor, Luigi Albertini. Albertini had lived through the crisis and had spent most of the interwar period writing an exhaustive study. The first volume covered roughly the decade before 1914, the second the month of July of that year, and the last, the first week of August. It remains in my opinion the greatest work of diplomatic history ever written, and there were enough copies in Harvard Libraries for me to assign sections of it.
The seminar reawakened my interest in the topic myself, of course, and in 1983 I published an article, "Germany and the Origins of the First World War," for the Journal of Modern History, which was started in the interwar period to explore that controversial topic. The article was in a sense a commentary on what was known as the Fischer controversy. In 1961, a German historian named Fritz Fischer, who must have been about 50 by that time, published Griff Nach der Weltmacht, or grasp at world power. Until then, German historians had steadfastly defended their country's role in 1914, claiming that Germany was only trying to defend its ally Austria-Hungary against Russian aggression. Fischer showed very clearly not only that Germany had consciously risked the world war, but that the German government had done so in order to create a vast empire. He also detailed the plans for such an empire that had been laid during the conflict. His book was so unpopular in West Germany that the Bonn government tried to prevent him from getting a visa to discuss it in the United States, and only pressure from American historians, led by Gordon Craig, managed to secure his entry into the country. My article endorsed his view, while downplaying the idea, which had become popular in the 1970s, that the government had started the war to forestall a possible socialist revolution. Perhaps the proudest moment of my career occurred sometime in the 1980s, when I heard Fischer give a paper on the topic at the American Historical Association convention in Washington. I had already sent him a copy of my article, but I brought another one with me and handed it to him after his talk. His face instantly lit up and he looked me in the face, pointing at me, as if you say, "that's you?" I nodded. I referred to Fischer and his work in the last pages of American Tragedy, and I was very sad to learn that he had died shortly before it came out and did not get to read it.
I am still in fairly regular contact with two of the students in my Harvard seminar, and one of them recently asked me if I was going to write something on the centennial of the outbreak of the war. A number of new books have appeared on the topic, but I have only one of them, A Mad Catastrophe, focusing on Austria's role in the outbreak and in the first few years of the war, written by a former War College colleague, Geoff Wawro. The Fischer thesis, oddly, fell out of favor in Germany in the 1990s, as soon as Germany was again unified. Most of the new books seem to spread the responsibility for the war around more evenly, a strategy popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but based upon the reviews, nothing has really occurred to challenge the position which Fischer, other historians, and myself took from the 1960s through the 1980s.
The war, as I told an Australian radio interviewer yesterday, was really at least two separate conflicts. Serbia wanted to destroy Austria-Hungary to create what became Yugoslavia, and Serbian Army intelligence arranged the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo because they feared that he might reconcile the Slavs to the Hapsburg monarchy if he came to the throne. The Austrian government was determined to crush the Serbian threat once and for all, something they had failed to do on three previous occasions. The problem was that Russia, in particular, was not likely to let Austria-Hungary do as it wished with Serbia, and France was allied with Russia. But the German government, led by the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, thought that the crisis was an opportune moment for a trial of strength with the Russians and French, and even, if need be, the British, who had sided with the French in Franco-German crises over Morocco. Bethmann Hollweg therefore told the Vienna government to go ahead and attack Serbia, and insisted to the other powers that the great powers should not intervene, as they had several times during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 to prevent a general conflict.
Austria-Hungary did indeed face a long-term threat to its existence. It had fought off revolutions 66 years before, from 1848 through 1861, and it was thus due for another great crisis that would either change it or destroy it. But for Germany the war was tragically and catastrophically unnecessary. Yes, the German colonial empire was very small compared to those of France and Britain, but the territories in the tropics were not very significant, and German foreign trade was already outstripping that of the other European powers. Russia had plans to increase its army, but it had performed very poorly against Japan and was nowhere near ready to pose a real threat. France, while somewhat more bellicose than in the recent past, was hardly in favor of war. Civilization seemed to be progressing all over the North Atlantic world, which is why the outbreak and course of the war was such a terrible shock. Germany was, to be sure, not quite so democratic as Britain or France, but it was at least as progressive as either of them by most economic, social and cultural measurements. Indeed, many United States observers felt that Germany had the most in common with the United States.
The German plan for war called for an all-out attack on France, moving through Belgium to outflank the French Army and force a great battle around Paris. Germany had defeated the French armies within a few months in 1870 and forced France to surrender the next year, and counted on doing the same thing again. But armies were now too large and firepower too effective for that kind of decisive victory. By the time the Germans reached the site of the presumed decisive battle before Paris, their troops were low on supplies and exhausted. They had to pull back after the Battle of the Marne, and trench warfare began. The great tragedy was that the Germans refused to re-evaluate their objectives after the stalemate and make peace, and instead risked everything again and again in a series of gambles designed to win the war. One such gamble, unrestricted submarine warfare, brought the United States into the conflict in 1917. A second, General Ludendorff's great offensive of March 1918, wrecked the German Army and led to Germany's collapse in November. Communism was already in power in Russia thanks to the war, and the collapse of the German empire paved the way for Nazism 14 years later.
The July Crisis, as is well known, had an enormous impact on John F. Kennedy. Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August--actually a very mediocre account of the outbreak of the war, but an excellent narrative of its first month--had come out only a few months before the missile crisis. Kennedy was not going to strike Cuba rashly the way the Austrians had struck Serbia or the Germans had invaded Belgium. He remarked that he did not want some future historian writing a book called The Missiles of October. He got the world through the crisis without war.
Albertini, as well as Fischer, has remained a model for me as a historian all my life. His book is both extraordinarily thorough, drawing on numerous interviews with key figures as well as published documents, totally engaged, and remarkably exciting. He wrote in the knowledge that the world the war destroyed was never coming back, and he assigned responsibility to many statesmen, although mostly to the Austrians and the Germans. Yet he was equally harsh on his own government. Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, but it was far from clear that the alliance would obligate the Italians to join in a war over Serbia. Indeed, Albertini argued that Italian public opinion would inevitably reject such a war, and that Italy should have declared neutrality at once. That is what an earlier Italian Prime Minister, Giolitti, had done during the Balkan Wars of 1913-14, telling the Austro-Hungarian government frankly that Italy simply could not join it in a Balkan war. But in July 1914 the Italian Prime Minister Salandra and his Foreign Minister San Giuliano embarked upon a different course, refusing to say what they would do in hopes of being bribed into (or out of) the war by territorial concessions of their own. Albertini wrote as scathingly about this strategy as he did about any of the events of the crisis, and one passage in particular recapitulated what it means to be a fully engaged historian of one's own country reflecting on a time of crisis.
"The great mistake committed by Salandra and San Giuliano was not to be certain from the first that it was disastrous and impossible for Italy to intervene with her allies in a war of this kind and she must shape her course accordingly. This mistake--and let this be admitted by the present writer who in almost all things has been Giolitti's political adversary--would never have been made by Giolitti, as is proved by his firm attitude in July 1913. . . .[Salandra and San Giuliano] had no realization of the fact that by posing the question in such terms, by letting Austria have her will without putting in their veto, by confining themselves for the moment to declaring that for some time being there was no obligation for Italy to intervene, by making their subsequent action depend on an agreement on compensations, and by regarding Italian participation in the war on the side of the Central Powers as even remotely possible, they were losing sight of the nature and aims of the Austrian aggression against Serbia and bartering away the supreme interests, both material and moral, of Europe and Italy in return for a strip of national territory which Italy ought to gain by more honorable means."
Let me once again repeat that today's publics are too self-absorbed and today's governments are too weak to unleash a similar conflict any time soon, and that our own very serious problems are of a different nature. Yet Albertini's words remain a powerful warning--and no more so than in the very last paragraph of his three-volume work. The last third of the third volume deals in detail with the decisions of various powers to remain neutral or join the war, and Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and Montenegro receive a chapter apiece. The final chapter is entitled "The Attitude of the other States," and sections deal successively with Sweden, Norway, Holland Luxemburg, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and Japan. The very last section is entitled, "The United States and Wilson's last attempt to save peace."
Yes, in the last days of July 1914, as war began to break out, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan asked his representative in London whether the good offices of the United States would be accepted in an effort to avoid general war, and on August 4, Wilson himself addressed an appeal to the governments of all the major powers offering to act "in the interests of European peace." No favorable replies were forthcoming, and Albertini then closes his account with one of the greatest paragraphs of western historical literature--one which I read several times to conclude lectures on the outbreak of the war, first at Harvard, and more recently to smaller groups of students at Williams College.
"It is right to remember that relations between the United States and Europe were not then what they became after the war, and the American President did not yet enjoy the prestige he was later to acquire. Wilson's appeal did not carry enough authority to influence the course of events and was made when the European states, flung into the maelstrom of war, and wholly dominated by the will to fight and to win, had no idea of the length of the struggle, the destruction of life and property it was to cause, or the train of evil consequences it was to bring in its wake. European diplomacy, which in the course of the July Crisis had so often demonstrated its ineptitude, was henceforth silent. It was now the turn of the big guns to speak."