Over Here, over Here: Books on World War I Everywhere

By Robert ZaretskyNovember 23, 2014

Over Here, over Here: Books on World War I Everywhere

The War That Ended The Peace by Margaret MacMillan
Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings
The Deluge by Adam Tooze
The Month That Changed The World by Gordon Martel
The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

2014 saw a bumper crop in war commemorations. One hundred years ago, Europe and much of the rest of the world launched what came to be known as the war to end all wars. Seventy-five years ago, Europe and much of the rest of the world gave the lie to that earlier war’s justification when France and Great Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, thus ushering in World War II. Twenty-five years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled what the world believed to be the end of the Cold War.

While the year, with its many acts of remembrance — regional and national, popular and academic, festive and solemn — has now passed, the world will remain forever changed by the events we have marked. The wars ushered in an age in which what was once unthinkable became not just thinkable, but all too normal. From the subterranean war of barbed wire and trenches, poison gas and machine guns, no man’s land and everyman’s grave of World War I to the blood lands and death camps, nationalist furies and totalitarian nightmares of World War II; from the collapse of states, from Syria and Iraq to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, whose borders were drawn in the wake of World War I, to the resurgence of other states, like Russia, now intent on reaffirming older borders, the seismic changes wrought by these wars still rattle the world.

Inevitably, these anniversaries have given rise to a vast surge of books, far too many to read, much less review, in a single lifetime. For the past several months, LARB has nevertheless trawled among the hundreds of popular histories and academic monographs, hooking a number of books we thought worthy of your attention and ours. While they range across fields and subjects, all of these books offer new ways of thinking about these wars. Leon Trotsky famously remarked that while we may not be interested in war, war is interested in us. The reviews that will be collected in a special LARB issue remind us why, in fact, we owe it to our future to be interested in wars past.


2014 MARKS THE CENTENARY of the start of World War I, and though the year is nearly over, the march of books devoted to its history is not. In a way, this only makes sense: just as the war to end all wars went on and on, so too will the works of fiction and fact based on it.

The doughboys have long been outnumbered by the Greatest Generation. The number of books on World War I pales in comparison to those devoted to the war it spawned. According to R.R. Bowker, a firm that counts such bellicose beans, more than 43,000 books in English devoted to World War II have been published since 1960, against a comparatively paltry 12,500 for World War I.

We need not look far for the causes of this disparity. The second of the World Wars is the more recent, but it is also the more existential: it was a war that, despite the passage of time and work of scholars, remains rooted in the national imagination as the “Good War.” The moral imperatives at the heart of America’s collision with Germany and Japan in World War II are nowhere to be found in World War I. While the trenches and fields of Flanders are ideal conditions for, say, Paths of Glory, they could not give us Saving Private Ryan.

What the origins of World War I do give us, however, is a history that is equally compelling, if for very different reasons. It gives us a series of events that, when taken individually, seem prosaic or even ridiculous, yet as they continued to pile up and reach critical mass in late July 1914, they burst into a war that killed more than 16 million men and women, maimed 20 million others, and transformed the shape and texture of our world.

How did it happen? The answer depends, of course, on the historian you ask. In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark insists that there is “no smoking gun in this story; or rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” But the reader will most likely finish the book with the impression that the Serbians held the biggest gun of all. It is not an accident that Clark opens his rich and dramatic account in 1903 with the assassination of Serbia’s ruler, King Alexandar, and his wife, Draga. This makes for a gripping opening scene — one that climaxes with the battered, bullet-ridden, and bloody bodies of the royal couple heaved from their bedroom window onto a garden below — but it also makes for a provocative interpretation.

In essence, Clark gives us a pre-1914 Serbia that bears a striking resemblance to the post–Cold War Serbia. Steeped in virulent nationalism, devoted to the idea that Serbia exists wherever a Serb lives, both Serbias blurred the lines of rule and responsibility between the government and rogue terrorists. Both were states committed to a racial ideology that had murderous consequences for non-Serbians, and both were states where terrorism was politics by other means. To draw a line between the worldviews of the assassins and ministers, he believes, is fundamentally meaningless: they all wanted the same thing — a Greater Serbia — and differed only on timing and means.

Clark argues persuasively that the most plausible explanation for the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the tragi-comedic act that sparked the war — involves the Black Hand, the Serbian terrorist organization. No less persuasively, he argues that the Serbian government, which at best closed its eyes to the Black Hand’s machinations, was complicit in this act of terrorism. For this reason, Clark suggests that Vienna, for all of its failings, was quite right in delivering its infamous ultimatum to the authorities in Belgrade. Many historians have dismissed the ultimatum, which would violate Serbia’s sovereignty, as a deliberate provocation, one that Belgrade could never accept and would serve Vienna as an excuse for military action. Clark declares that the ultimatum’s terms were far less draconian than those imposed by NATO on Milošević’s regime in 1999. Moreover, he asks, could any state, especially one whose rule was as ramshackle but relatively reasonable as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, be expected to ignore a nation on its borders whose very raison d’être was to undermine the legitimacy of those borders?

Clark also challenges the ascendancy and long reign of the “Fischer thesis.” In two seminal works published in the 1960s, the German historian Fritz Fischer fingered Germany as the culprit responsible for the events of 1914. In particular, Fischer revealed the minutes of the so-called “war council” held by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1912. Called by the kaiser in a fit of pique at England, it was at this meeting that the head of the German Army, Helmuth von Moltke, concluded that the sooner war came, the better. The meeting has since become something of an interpretative litmus test for historians; for many, it reveals — as did the German effort to challenge Britain’s naval supremacy — that German imperialism and militarism made war inevitable. While his claims sparked a violent debate in Germany — Fischer insisted on an unbroken continuity between the geopolitical aims of Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany — the thesis eventually won the consensus of most European historians.

Clark contends that the meeting was a one-off that led to no significant policy changes, and he argues that the German battleship-building campaign was “neither an outrageous nor an unwarranted move.” Instead, it was a reasonable response of a state that was repeatedly snubbed by the other European powers. While he acknowledges the bellicosity and paranoia of German military leaders, Clark insists that they held no monopoly on such traits; the French or Russians were equally no less guilty of provocative gestures and tragic shortsightedness.

Time and again in his account, Clark insists upon the freedom of the principal actors: from Kaiser Wilhelm, whose love for uniforms trumped his attention to diplomatic detail to the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, who was more familiar with fly-fishing than with foreign languages; from the Russian Czar Nicholas II, obsessed by his son’s hemophilia and hounded by Slavic nationalists, to the French Prime Minister René Viviani, more preoccupied by the political fallout from a sensational trial unfolding in Paris during that fateful summer than events in St. Petersburg and Berlin. The story, Clark rightly declares, is “saturated with agency.”

In The War That Ended the Peace, Margaret MacMillan echoes the same claim: “Very little in history,” she announces at the start of her book, “is inevitable.” But what is very nearly inevitable, at least in the literature of World War I, is differences of interpretation. Unlike Clark, MacMillan finds that Austria-Hungary, in its “mad determination to destroy Serbia,” and Germany, with its decision to back its ally to the very end, must carry most of the blame. Whereas Clark begins his account with the 1903 assassination, MacMillan opens with the Paris Exposition of 1900, dwelling on the German pavilion and the ways in which its architecture reflected its unsettling geopolitical ambitions. Not only was its facade dedicated, in part, to its naval power, inside the pavilion, Wilhelm, his era’s Imelda Marcos of military garb, also offered a display of his favorite uniforms.

But like Clark, MacMillan has a keen eye for detail and a gift for storytelling. She offers exceptionally well-drawn portraits of both well-known and relatively obscure historical characters. For example, MacMillan devotes a number of pages to the Victorian Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury. We learn how he laid the foundations for Britain’s naval policy, but we also discover that the portly fellow rode a tricycle for exercise. A footman would push Salisbury up hills, then jump on the rear for the downhill swoop, while Salisbury’s grandchildren prepared to ambush him with buckets of water at the bottom of the slope. No less quirky, but more dire, is MacMillan’s introduction to Wilhelm. Inevitably, she discusses the kaiser’s love of uniforms: he almost never appeared in public without one from his immense collection. (It is important to recall that Wilhelm was hardly alone in this regard: nearly all of Europe’s heads of state dressed in military uniforms on official occasions.) But MacMillan also reveals that his prudishness was so great that he forbade his officers from dancing the louche and suggestive tango while in uniform. (Wilhelm’s puritan standards did not apply to his own entourage; in 1908, the head of his Military Cabinet died of a stroke in the midst of a dance routine in which he was dressed in a tutu and feather hat.)

As she does for other individuals and events, MacMillan finds the mot juste for the man who ruled Germany from 1890 to 1918: “Wilhelm was an actor and one who secretly suspected that he was not up to the demanding role he had to play.” It turns out that Wilhelm was right, but he was not the only one who failed to rise to the circumstances of 1914. It is terribly easy to lose sight of the fact, as MacMillan notes, that the decisions that led to war “were made by a surprisingly small number, and those men came largely but not entirely from the upper classes.” In the case of Great Britain, the politicians, led by Grey and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, resemble the clueless crew of aristocrats that nearly drove Downton Abbey into the ground. Their bacon is saved only when the commoners show up, this time not in the person of middle-class British lawyer Matthew Crawley, but instead David Lloyd George, the middle-class Welsh lawyer who steered the country to victory in 1918.

Both MacMillan and Clark also attend to the critical role played by public opinion. The power of the popular press in 1914 was staggering; Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid empire dwindles into insignificance when set next to Lord Northcliffe’s papers, whose Daily Mail alone sold more than a million copies a day. Across the continent, from republican France to autocratic Russia, newspapers also played a critical role in reinforcing national stereotypes and rousing the furies of nationalism.

Newspapers were not alone in their ability to mobilize the masses; states could too. MacMillan is especially good on the terrifying nature of military mobilization plans. The statistics still overwhelm: whereas Napoleon fielded about 600,000 men for his invasion of Moscow in 1812, scarcely a century later Germany and Austria-Hungary heaved more than three million men onto the fields of battle. While this strikes us as huge, for German military planners the numbers were anemic. They had to plan for a two-front war against France and Russia, and the latter’s armies alone, once fully mobilized, would swell to six million. The great challenge, for all of these countries, was getting their fodder to the cannons on time. As a result, as the July Crisis of 1914 deepened, the imperative to mobilize before the other side did became overwhelming.

As MacMillan astutely notes, the mobilization plans did not create “doomsday machines that once set in motion could not be stopped.” Like Clark, she emphasizes that the decision-makers of 1914 were, in fact, able to decide differently than they did. Despite the complexity of the issues and pressure of events, the men who gave us World War I need not have. She faults them on two scores: “First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Clearly, MacMillan has chosen to make explicit what is always already at the heart of any work of history: we write about the past from the perspective of the present. Like Clark, she is not shy in drawing parallels between then and now. The Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when a confrontation between British and French over a godforsaken expanse of desert in the Sudan augured war, anticipates the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Czarist Russia’s struggle to build civil institutions becomes a rehearsal for Communist China’s own efforts today. More tellingly, she parallels Wilhelm with George W. Bush: both men, she suggests, were determined to prove themselves more forceful than their fathers, whom they perceived as weak. In both cases, the result was wars of choice, rather than of necessity — wars that led to unforeseen and appalling consequences.

But unlike Clark, MacMillan dwells on what has lately come to be known as the “topos of improbable war”: namely, the many movements and individuals prior to 1914 committed to making peace, not war. In one of her chapters, she surveys the work of remarkable figures, ranging from Bertha von Suttner, author of Lay Down Your Arms (and confidante to Andrew Carnegie and Alfred Nobel) to Jean Jaurès, the great French socialist tribune, and events from the annual Universal Peace Congresses to the Hague Conferences, which laid the foundation for arbitration between nations. That war did seem, from certain perspectives, so improbable in the years before 1914 is, at the very least, a reminder not just of the callowness of our leaders, but also of the cunning of history.

Gordon Martel also devotes the opening of his book, The Month That Changed the World, to a prewar world that seemed committed to peace. Perhaps the age’s greatest ism was pacifism; Martel notes that there were nearly 200 peace societies across Europe, along with two dozen peace journals published in 10 languages. The continent’s largest political parties, the French and German Socialists, were committed to peace, while best-selling books like Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion and Ivan Bloch’s War of the Future reviewed all the reasons — economic, technological, and commercial — why a European war was unthinkable.

But the unthinkable became the thinkable by August 1914, and Martel attempts to ascertain precisely how this happened. In his introduction, Martel insists upon a kind of epistemological modesty: he intends neither to plumb the war’s “origins” nor “unravel the mysteries of who or what caused” it. Instead, he aims to “tell the story of how Europe got from A to B” — in other words, how it slouched from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the declarations of war six weeks later. His avowed model is the mystery story where the detective must work his way through all sorts of clues, some false, some true, as he tries to solve the crime. Martel writes that he will take the reader through the many twists and turns, but will not “make a case” for any particular interpretation.

The problem with Martel’s approach is that, for a historian (as opposed to a chronicler), it is impossible not to make a case. In fact, though he limits himself to contemporary diplomatic documents, Martel does make case after case, though ones he does not always acknowledge. For example, he states that it was “not in spite of the system of alliances that peace was maintained, but because of it.” This is perhaps the case — though historians disagree on this score — but it is without a doubt a case that Martel makes. Or, again, he makes cases when it comes to the characters in his mystery. The foreign policy of French President Raymond Poincaré, Martel declares, was “steadfastly peaceful and conservative.” Again, this is one portrait — a case, in a word — and one that differs dramatically from the portrait (or case) drawn by Clark, whose own Poincaré keeps prodding France’s ally Czarist Russia to be more aggressive in its attitude toward Austria-Hungary.

Perhaps more important, by trying not to make a case, Martel fails to make a story. Moreover, by mostly limiting himself to the diplomatic exchanges and governmental meetings during those six weeks, he ignores the many cultural, ideological, and social forces that necessarily shaped these exchanges and meetings. In his embrace of a rather arid conception of objectivity, Martel also abandons the needs of narrative: pace, character, motive, and style. His narrative often slips into a “he said, he said” mode, with sentences piled like cannon shells, each one invariably leading off the subject: Grey met with X; he received Y; he thought Z. And we? We grow weary. Like the British General Haig, who didn’t trust his green recruits to do anything more than walk in straight lines across no-man’s land and into the sights of German machine guns, Martel doesn’t trust his words to do much more than march, aligned in declarative sentences, across the pages of his account.

This is a pity, for Martel can write well: his last chapter, “Making Sense of the Madness,” which takes up the history of the history of World War I — the ways in which changing political contexts have changed our interpretations of the war — hums with urgency and conviction. Once freed to “make a case,” Martel stakes a forceful one, declaring that there are no simple explanations to be had for the origins of the war, no simple lessons to be offered to those who wish to avoid another conflagration. Ultimately, he makes a powerful case for the limitations of historical knowledge, as well as for the tragic character of the war. We set down his account and realize that, while all the diplomatic pieces are there, they don’t add up to World War I.

Adam Tooze does a good deal of adding, and subtracting, in The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931. A professor of history at Yale University, Tooze fastens onto the financial aspects of American intervention. It turns out that American boots on the ground in 1917 were far less important than American dollars on British, Russian, and French treasury books. “Economics was the pre-eminent medium of American power,” Tooze convincingly argues, while “military force was a by-product.”

In Tooze’s account, the truly significant date in world history was not 1914, but instead 1916 — the year in which the United States was pushed and pulled, by forces both external and internal, into the European maelstrom. It was in 1916, Tooze observes, that the United States overtook the combined output of the British Empire. The US, he writes, “had emerged, quite suddenly, as a novel kind of ‘super-state,’ exercising a veto over the financial and security concerns of the other major states of the world.”

As history would have it, Woodrow Wilson was president during this period of unprecedented change. In Tooze’s telling, he appears as a tragically flawed leader. He was an idealist, of course, but one whose ideals sprang from sources that were not always ideal. A southern Democrat, Wilson was a racist for whom “civilization” — which the Entente powers, after all, insisted was the great stake involved in World War I — was thoroughly white in flavor. No doubt this was one reason Wilson was ill at ease with Georges Clemenceau. The French prime minister is often cast as the great villain of Versailles for his unyielding position on German war guilt. Yet “The Tiger,” who had traveled through the US right after the Civil War, was also an outspoken supporter of radical abolitionists and a fervent advocate of the Reconstruction era.

Rather than the traditional storyline of how President Wilson, “the American prophet of a liberal future,” fell victim to the machinations of the “corrupt old world” of Europe, Tooze proposes a different perspective. He argues that, in the eyes of the liberal order’s eventual nemeses, Stalin and Hitler, the world had already fallen into America’s hands. Instead of seeing 1919 as a failure of America’s effort to dictate the terms of a new order, the founders of the century’s totalitarian movements were “convinced that a fundamental change had come over world affairs.” This change was the work of the United States, and it’s the failure of the US to build a lasting order on this change that claims Tooze’s attention.

Tooze does a signal service in tracing these developments, but there are hitches along the way. He writes that, in order to understand these changes, “we must narrate [them]. That is the task of this book.” It is a task, though, that Tooze does not fully realize. Steeped in the economic and financial aspects of the war, he sends salvos of statistics across his pages. The numbers often light up the historical landscape. Thus, the table that shows the purchases made of American material with American dollars by Great Britain stuns in its simplicity: by 1918, the UK resembled the soldier in white in Heller’s Catch-22. American dollars and American material, like the two containers attached to the soldier — one for incoming, the other for outgoing, with nurses periodically switching the two — had rendered a prostrate Britain utterly dependent on the US.

Moreover, the loans guaranteed by the American government came along later in the story. They were preceded by staggering sums provided by J.P. Morgan. By the summer of 1916, we learn that the bank had spent, on behalf of its venerable client Great Britain, more than a billion dollars in the US. In essence, the bankers at J.P. Morgan were already working under the principle of “too big to fail.” They made possible what had formerly been unthinkable: thanks to their loans, the British had the means to launch the catastrophic Somme offensive, in which 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives on the first day.

Tooze is more at home with numbers than words. He seems to dislike the traditional “storyline” of American involvement precisely because it is a storyline, one that, in an odd phrase, has shown its “usefulness for historical writing.” Yet his own writing, while a vehicle for important information about the economics of World War I, is bland and blind to nuance and historical details. Take the first page. He observes that the traditional view of the Great War, one of static lines along which hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives, is “deceiving.” But the word he wants is “partial,” since this view was precisely what the Western Front (though not the Eastern Front) was like.

He then turns to Verdun, stating that the German aim was “to bleed the Entente to death.” Here Tooze himself falls victim to the traditional storyline of Verdun — namely, that the German commander in chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, deliberately sought to turn the French series of forts into an abattoir, one that would bleed the nation white. But as a recent book by Paul Jankowski concludes, Verdun was an accident, a place where Falkenhayn sought to provoke a rupture elsewhere along the front. Ausblutung, or bleeding out, was a rationalization offered by Falkenhayn after the battle failed to achieve its original aim. Tooze then notes that Verdun “sucked in” — a verb he uses often — more than 70 percent of the French Army. This leaves the reader with the impression that once sucked in, these poilus never returned. Rather than “suck,” a far better verb is “cycle”: nearly three-quarters of the French Army did cycle through Verdun, and while the final body count was appallingly high, it was not nearly as high as the nightmarish battles during the first months of the war.

Elsewhere, he describes a “ruthless General Pétain struggl[ing] to restore order” to a mutinous French Army by “court-martialling several thousand French mutineers.” This description gets Pétain profoundly wrong: he ended the crisis by promising the men there would be no more pointless and murderous offensives, as well as improving their material lot. Tooze also gets the mutinies wrong: they were not mutinies — officers were not fragged, men did not run away — but instead they were military strikes. (While there were slightly more than 3,000 court-martials, the army executed just 43 soldiers.) The men were not refusing to fight the “Boches,” but instead refusing to participate in the sort of catastrophic plans drawn up by generals like Robert Nivelle, author of the Chemin des Dames debacle. Later, he reports that in 1940 the French Third Republic was “overthrown” — in fact, the Republic signed its own death warrant when it granted “full powers” to the same General Pétain.

With the reader’s confidence rattled by such slips, she will find other tests posed by Tooze’s narrative. It is dense, takes much for granted on the reader’s part, and, most damningly, is devoid of drama and drive. This is not at all the case, however, with Max Hastings’s Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. A popular historian who specializes in World War II, Hastings brings to World War I the same talent for sharp narrative and keen eye for detail. He also brings few hesitations about distinguishing between the good and bad guys. “I am among those who reject the notion that the conflict of 1914–18 belonged to a different moral order from that of 1939–45.”

In a word, Hastings is a follower of Fischer, convinced that the war was desired and willed into being by Germany’s civilian and military leaders. When he writes that in the years leading to World War I Germany’s leaders “aspired to secure a dominance in the management of Europe which no British government would concede, and thereafter they proposed to reach out across the oceans of the world,” Hastings hauls Germany into the dock of history. What right, he expostulates, had Germany to challenge Britain’s dominance? As for Clark’s suggestion that Germany’s demand for its share of colonial spoils reflected the nature of states vying for recognition and influence, Hastings shows little sympathy.

As a result, far from taking up the “topos of improbable war,” as do Martel and MacMillan, Hastings instead takes for granted that war was not just probable, but inevitable. For many Europeans, he writes, “Far from being regarded as unthinkable, continental war was viewed as a highly plausible, and by no means intolerable, outcome of international tensions.” Not surprisingly, Hastings finds the “war council” of 1912 as damning proof of Germany’s desire for war. It is largely on the basis of this document that he then claims: “There is vastly more documentary evidence to support the case that German leaders were willing for war in 1914 than exists to sustain any of the alternative scenarios proposed in recent years.” But not only does he fail to cite any other documents to support this otherwise implausible claim, he also fails, unlike MacMillan and Clark, to place the meeting in its context.

With a Javert-like pursuit of German culpability, Hastings brushes aside the ambiguities and doubts raised by other historians. Consider the role played by the British foreign minister, Edward Grey, in the lead-up to war. Grey was notoriously secretive and slippery in his dealings with not just his fellow ministers, but also with other European powers on Great Britain’s intentions should France go to war. Depending on the day and his interlocutor — and this included his French allies — Grey insisted that Britain had France’s back covered. Except, that is, when it didn’t. For a number of historians, the opacity of Grey’s actual policy was a principal cause of the war. If Wilhelm and his government had known that Britain would join France in case of war, would they have not thought twice before delivering the famous “blank check” to Austria-Hungary?

Hastings, however, has little patience with such questions. He absolves Grey of all responsibility, reassuring the reader that the “Germans, in pursuing their course in 1914, had discounted British intervention.” The reader might well reply: If Grey refused to clarify Britain’s position should its ally France be attacked, why wouldn’t Germany discount British intervention?

Similarly, Hastings dismisses the recent claims of historian Sean McMeekin, seconded by Clark, that Russia played a larger role in the outbreak of war than previously thought by the hasty timing of its mobilization orders. He writes: “Unless St Petersburg proposed to acquiesce in the Austrian invasion of Serbia, immediate warning orders to the Russian army represented not eagerness to precipitate a European catastrophe, but prudence.” This sentence is loaded. First, the Serbian government was itself prepared to agree to Vienna’s demands in the wake of the assassination — that is, until Russia assured Belgrade of its support in case of war. Not only have historians scratched their heads over Russia’s decision, but so too did many Russians at the time (at least those who did not belong to the small, but bellicose, nationalist circles).

Second, no one apart from the occasional nihilist was “eager to precipitate a European catastrophe.” Russian diplomacy instead made war more likely: it was by turns hesitant and hasty, compounding the confusion and fears on the part of both its allies and potential enemies. Finally, Hastings wants it both ways: while he gives a pass to Russia in its reckless support of Serbia, and finds prudence in its hair-on-fire diplomacy, he damns Germany for supporting its ally, Austria-Hungary, and for failing “to manage events in such a way as to avert a wider calamity.”

Most dubious, though, is Hastings’s haste regarding Serbia’s role in the years leading to June 28, 1914. He quickly skims what is no doubt the most convoluted and jagged piece to the puzzle of the origins of World War I — namely, Serbia’s domestic and foreign politics. Hastings rushes through the policies and personalities that dominated Belgrade’s diplomacy, and gives little more than a shout-out to the virulent strain of pan-Slavism that blossomed in prewar Serbia, one that infected the entire Serbian political class and created the conditions for the pandemic of war.

While we might not be interested in war, Trotsky once remarked, war is interested in us. Of course, if the number of books published on the 20th century’s two World Wars is a gauge, Trotsky got it only half right: clearly, we are interested in war. Whether such interest can prevent war from ever again being interested in us is far less clear.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor, and the author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!