Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Great Wars

Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started The Great War in 1914?, by David Fromkin, Read by Alan Sklar, Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc, 2004

Of all the tragic periods in the world’s history, I have always found the First World War, mostly for the culture that preceded its destruction and for the first rate literature and art it occasioned, to have a singularly romantic and mournful quality different from and more innocent than WWII. The loss of human life is always to be deplored — a statement in the “goes without saying” category, but which must be said always after such a sentence preceding. As a catalyst for almost all of the future geopolitical developments of the twentieth century, WWI changed the world in such a drastic fashion, drawing a clearly demarcated line in history that forever severed what came before it from what came after psychologically, artistically, religiously, and politically. It was truly with what is called The Great War that the twentieth century really began, fourteen years after the clock ticked over, and that decade and a half before was the last gasp of an earlier order and sensibility.

While there are clearly always belligerent parties in a war, a point historian David Fromkin is at deliberate pains to point out in Europe’s Last Summer, the First World War lacks the stark differences between the good side and the bad side that characterizes its sequel. Without the Nazis, WWI Germany is presented more as merely a deluded, desperate nation, at war with itself in the run up just as much as at war with the other countries, paranoid and insecure about its place in the Continental order. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is not Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and the victims of this war are those of any war, without the added horrors of mechanized genocide.

It’s a commonplace belief that it was merely the “blank check” Germany extended to Austria-Hungary in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife which led to the First World War. That is how I was taught it in my high school AP European history class — and my teacher was no slouch. This has often seemed to be a rather small fuse to such a huge explosion, and recent historians have been busy debunking that particular legend. It was, perhaps, the final public straw necessary to move the shadowy powers working toward war out into the public light and the newspaper headlines, but in and of itself it was no more than a pretext manipulated by Germany and Austria-Hungary for the wars they wanted. Fromkin illustrates this simply by demonstrating the Archduke’s singular unpopularity and the complete lack of funeral services accorded to he and his wife, but he backs it up with timelines of action and selected quotes from wires, diaries, letters, cables, and many other official and non-official communiqués of the time. Further, the powers that be in Vienna had a draft ultimatum against Serbia written up two weeks before the assassination even occurred.

No one was much exercised about the assassination in other countries either, and Fromkin provides a list of all the various political assassinations of the preceding years, nearly one per year for the last fifteen or so years in nearly every major country on the globe including the United States (RIP William McKinley). As well at the time, France had a sexy political scandal erupting; England was possibly about to go to civil war over the Home Rule for Ireland issue; and Russia was amidst the upheaval that would culminate in the 1917 revolutions. There was a great deal of shoulder shrugging globally and the other countries would surely have allowed Vienna their revenge, but Germany had other plans.

The delusional German feeling that it was being suffocated, that it was growing ever weaker in relationship to its neighbors, was part of the mass delusion that lead to war. It is still not clear why Germany felt this way, as they had the best educated populace, the fastest growing economy, the strongest military on the Continent. It is much like how America could have felt threatened by Iraq in 2002 (and there were many caught up in that martial panic). Mostly, the belief seemed to exist among the military officers who believed that a war with Germany’s neighbors was coming and it was better to fight it then while Germany was so strong and mobilized and the other countries were unprepared. Through bullying, Berlin convinced Vienna to declare war on Serbia, then Germany declared war on Russia and on France by default as the two countries were allied by treaty, and followed that up by bullying Vienna to give up its war against Serbia and to attack Russia instead.

This is the book’s major thesis: that many confuse the Vienna-Belgrave conflict as being a part of the actual First World War when in fact it was a second war, used merely as a blind for the larger conflagration Germany sought. While the two were interconnected, it is important to keep motivations clear for each of the actors. What we are taught in schools, what still passes as conventional wisdom, is, in fact, greatly mistaken if it suggests otherwise.

Fromkin’s brief overview of all the irons in the fire is aimed more at a general readership than history buffs who have a deep and abiding knowledge of the time and its actors. He manages to give decent thumbnails of the various countries and various players, all the while showing how events of over 80 years ago influence us to this day. He cites as examples, bin Laden’s reference to the events of The Great War as being part of the beginning of the modern humiliation of Arabs by Christians, and how reporters called history professors to discuss Iraq’s formation in the lead up to the current war there, Iraq having been created as a result of WWI. This short form history makes grasping the essentials behind the relationship between different types of nations (Protestant Germany and Catholic Austro-Hungary, likewise Republican France and Czarist Russia) easier and gives a comprehensible overview of what set things in motion.

The most remarkable thing I’ve learned from this book is that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II actually tried to sue for peace, that he wrote to his military advisors and told them to call off the war, orders they clearly ignored. The military oligarchy was even prepared to dethrone him had he pushed harder for peace. There were multiple currents between the Kaiser, the Chancellor, the War Office, the Ambassadors, the Foreign Secretaries, the Navy, the Army, all of them pursuing their own particular plan either for peace or for war. A cable was sent to the troops at the Luxembourg border to start the war; a second cable came and said to stop; finally a third cable arrived and the war was back on.

The hesitant German people were convinced by military lies that the Russians had invaded and that they were under attack. The idea of rolling out a war like a marketing product, swaying public opinion to their wishes, is an old, old field as this story clearly shows, and Fromkin is not coy about drawing parallels between past and present. As the military readies itself, political calculations on each side, switching their defensive treaties (backing their allies if they are attacked) to offensive ones (backing their allies even if their allies are the aggressors) basically determines the unfolding of history.

If there is a weakness to books of this nature in audio format, it’s that there are no photographs to help keep the players straight, nowhere you can flip to to inspect various bushy moustaches and Van Dyks and monocles in order to keep everyone straight in your mind. It is also the weakness of this Reader that my historical knowledge of the time consists of three or four big names and the fuzziest of outlines of the buildup to the war (which we’ve seen is a bit flawed). Prior to reading this book, one may wish to consult a short, encyclopedic account to better be prepared. Fromkin operates on the faulty conceit that his readers will be fairly well versed in the history, if from a layman’s perspective, a belief the marketing of this book in no way makes clear.

Reader Alan Sklar has a meaty tenor that is easy on the ears and versatile on the pronunciation of so many names and words of so many nationalities and ethnicities. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from tagging a long ‘e’ on the end of Nietzsche even as he pronounces Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović, and Ujedinjenje ili Smrt with great flair, but that’s a small complaint made even smaller by the German philosopher’s relative unimportance in the story. Nevertheless, Sklar has the kind of authoritative voice that well befits histories and other works of non-fiction, weighing the text with an aural gravitas hard to question.

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