Canadian Journal of History author, Dr. Ian Germani, discusses the centenary of World War I

Ian-Germani-pictureWritten by guest blogger, Dr. Ian Germani.

The First World War did much to shape the contours of the twentieth century and the world in which we now live. Many writers and historians have seen it as the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. Indeed, we can see its imprint upon the Middle Eastern wars which dominate today’s newspaper headlines. As the centenary of the war’s outbreak approaches, much attention is being focused, by both historians and politicians, on the lessons that might be drawn from it. There is, however, little agreement as to what those lessons might be. This is inevitable, given the controversy that continues to swirl around both the war itself and its origins. For some, the First World War is the ultimate lesson in the dangers of militarism as well as in the futility and senselessness of war itself. For others, it is a reminder that national independence and international security depend upon the readiness to fight and to sacrifice. Commemorative events around the world will oscillate between the contrary urges of deploring the wastefulness of war and recognizing – even celebrating – its accomplishments and sacrifices.

The centenary has once again focused attention upon the perennial problem of the war’s origins. This topic has been hotly contested ever since the first shots were fired. During the war, both sides argued vehemently that the other bore sole responsibility for its outbreak. Indeed, in 1914 it was the conviction of citizens of all countries that they were fighting a defensive war against unprovoked attack which was essential in mobilizing their support for the war effort. The issue of responsibility was further politicized by the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which held Germany and its allies responsible for the war and consequently imposed much resented reparation payments upon them. The five books reviewed in ‘1914: A Very Human Catastrophe’ demonstrate that, a hundred years later, the war’s origins are as controversial as ever. Although their authors agree that all the great powers bear some share of responsibility for the war, they nonetheless apportion that responsibility very differently. For some (Max Hastings and Margaret MacMillan), the emphasis is placed upon the role of the Central Powers: on the belligerence of Kaiser Wilhelm and his military advisors; on the ‘blank cheque’ given by Germany to Austria-Hungary; and on the disastrous ultimata of Austria-Hungary to Serbia as well as of Germany to Belgium and France. For others (Christopher Clark and Sean McMeekin), attention is focused on the Entente: on Serbia’s role in destabilizing the Balkans; on Russia’s early mobilization of its army; on French determination to back Russia to the hilt; and on the prevarication of English foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

Ultimately, there is plenty of blame to go round. Furthermore, with all due acknowledgement for the long-term pre-conditions that prepared the way for war – nationalism, the arms race, the alliance systems, Social Darwinism – the war that happened in 1914 was not inevitable. It was the result of specific choices and decisions made by individual statesmen in Belgrade, Saint Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London. Pressured by military contingencies, erratic communications, uncertainty about the intentions of other powers and by public opinion, those statesmen sooner or later made the choice for war. Afterwards, they would seek to exculpate themselves, arguing that it was not humanly possible to halt the momentum toward war once events were set in motion by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June, 1914. Today’s historians, wary of politicians unwilling to accept responsibility for the wars they fight, are not so ready to let them off the hook. It is not hard to find fault with the individual political and military leaders who precipitated war in 1914. Collectively, they failed to master the situation with which they were presented by the July Crisis. Individually, their flaws were exposed by that crisis and revealed in the choices they made. In that sense, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was indeed a very human catastrophe.

On this 100th Anniversary of what came to be called the “July Crisis,” the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire offers historian Ian Germani’s overview of five recent books on the war. Access it free today by clicking here: