In This Review

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark
Harper, 2013, 736 pp.
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
By Max Hastings
Knopf, 2013, 672 pp.
The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
By Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 2013, 784 pp.
July 1914: Countdown to War
July 1914: Countdown to War
By Sean McMeekin
Basic Books, 2013, 480 pp.
The Great War for Peace
The Great War for Peace
By William Mulligan
Yale University Press, 2014, 456 pp.
July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
By Thomas Otte
Cambridge University Press, 2014, 555 pp.
The Cambridge History of the First World War (Volume 1)
The Cambridge History of the First World War (Volume 1)
Cambridge University Press, 2014, 771 pp.


The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. BY CHRISTOPHER CLARK. Harper, 2013, 736 pp. $29.99 (paper, $18.99).

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. BY MAX HASTINGS. Knopf, 2013, 672 pp. $35.00 (paper, $17.95).

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. BY MARGARET MACMILLAN. Random House, 2013, 784 pp. $35.00 (paper, $20.00).

July 1914: Countdown to War. BY SEAN MCMEEKIN. Basic Books, 2013, 461 pp. $29.99.

The Great War for Peace. BY WILLIAM MULLIGAN. Yale University Press, 2014, 456 pp. $35.00.

July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914. BY THOMAS OTTE. Cambridge University Press, 2014, 555 pp. $29.99.

The Cambridge History of the First World War. Vol. 1, Global War. EDITED BY JAY WINTER. Cambridge University Press, 2014, 771 pp. $150.00.

The diplomat George Kennan described World War I as “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century, because it led to so many further catastrophes. The flap of the butterfly’s wings that set off the subsequent hurricanes came on June 28, 1914, when the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. One hundred years later, historians still wonder how such a cataclysmic war came almost out of nowhere, deplore the failure of foolish governments to understand where their actions could lead, and mourn the loss of an imagined world of progress and harmony.

One response to this catastrophe was the systematic study of international affairs. Scholars in the 1920s and 1930s hoped that by analyzing the causes of war, they could help find a cure for it. This effort failed, in that a second world war followed the first, and so students of international relations veered away from idealistic schemes of global cooperation toward a tough-minded realism. World War II taught that a demonic dictator should not be appeased, a lesson now invoked every time some regional autocrat attempts a land grab or even when officials propose negotiations with a disagreeable regime. Meanwhile, there is still no firm consensus on the origins of World War I or on whether any useful lessons can be drawn for the present day.

That remains the case even after the publication of a slew of new accounts of the drama by skilled historians, which add to an already vast literature. Despite their differences, the books under review here all help readers navigate the intricacies of European politics and the maneuverings within national capitals that kicked off the war. Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMillan go back into the previous century. Max Hastings covers the whole year of 1914 and provides a vivid account of the first months of the fighting. Sean McMeekin looks at the single month leading up to the war, as does Thomas Otte. It would be a shame if those suffering from 1914 fatigue neglected Otte’s late entry into the field, because it is especially forensic and diligent.

The books have little new to say about the actual sequence of events, which started with Ferdinand’s assassination in June, followed by the ultimatum that Austria-Hungary delivered to Serbia in July demanding a crackdown on nationalist groups, the Russian and then German mobilizations thereafter, and the start of fighting in early August. The books do shed light, however, on the interesting question of what those involved actually thought they were doing as what could have been a manageable crisis turned into all-out war. Were they being opportunistic, taking the chance to implement premeditated plans? Or were they just caught up in the swirl of events, trapped by their fears and prejudices and stuck with past commitments?


The blame game began as soon as the war turned into a painful stalemate, and it intensified after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The belligerents published large compilations of correspondence to show how their peaceful intentions had been thwarted by mendacious enemies, in what the German military historian Bernhard Schwertfeger called a “world war of documents.” Over time, scholars grew more willing to spread the blame around, attributing the conflict to broader factors, such as militarized mindsets, outdated diplomatic practices, and the organization of the international system. In the 1960s, however, the German historian Fritz Fischer revived the question of guilt, claiming that his country was responsible because it had embarked on a premeditated war of aggression. Fischer’s student Volker Berghahn has now written a firm restatement of Fischer’s thesis, which can be found in The Cambridge History of the First World War, a comprehensive collection of essays on all aspects of the conflict.

Clark rejects such “prosecutorial narratives” of the conflict’s origins, which he criticizes for assuming coherent intentions. He prefers to focus less on “the political temperament and initiatives of one particular state” and more on “the multilateral processes of interaction.” In practice, however, even Clark makes his own distinctive indictment. By starting his account in Belgrade, he correctly highlights the importance of the Serbian nationalist campaign that led to Ferdinand’s assassination, which not only triggered the crisis but also removed the one Austrian who, aware of his country’s weakness, could have exercised a moderating influence on its course. McMeekin draws attention to the culpability of Russia, with its premature mobilization. Hastings is much more inclined to blame Germany and the determination of its military leaders to fight a war while they still had a chance of victory and before Russia became too strong. MacMillan and Otte fault Austria-Hungary (the party that actually set the war in motion by issuing an ultimatum it knew would not be met), Germany, and Russia, in that order, although MacMillan admits how difficult it is to settle on a single cause or guilty party.

None of these authors shows much interest in what theorists of international relations have said about World War I. Otte engages with them the most, but only to explain his distrust in structural explanations. Readers of these books will find little about whether the international system is more likely to reach a peaceful equilibrium through bipolarity or multipolarity, the comparative merits of balancing versus backing a revisionist power, or how to escape from the self-defeating logic of a security dilemma. The absence of theory is not surprising: historians tend to look askance at attempts to formulate reliable laws of political behavior and are naturally more inclined to give weight to contingency and chance.

In an early passage that somewhat belies his book’s title (The Sleepwalkers), Clark writes that the story is “saturated with agency.” The key decision-makers “walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps”; they were “political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand.” MacMillan deplores those who said in 1914 that there was no choice other than war, and she ends her book with the sentence, “There are always choices.”

All the authors insist that not only was war far from inevitable but it also came about as the result of some spectacularly bad decision-making. Otte calls it a “failure of statecraft.” The overall impression one gets from these histories is that had the players been a bit less weak-willed, vain, incompetent, myopic, delusional, and stupid, the world could have been spared years of misery.

The other strong message is that even accounting for bad judgment and bad luck, the rulers of Europe had no idea what war would actually mean in practice. MacMillan describes their “failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be.” Clark calls them “sleepwalkers” because they were “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” But Hastings takes exception to the sleepwalking label, since it suggests that the decision-makers were unconscious of their own actions. He prefers to call them “deniers,” because they persisted with “supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these.”


The problem with a focus on individuals’ decisions, however, is that it neglects the importance of context. Among these authors, MacMillan does the most to describe broader factors and prevailing attitudes, whereas Otte is keenest to downplay “impersonal, structural forces.” But these governments were not improvising. They were working with well-developed alliance obligations, war plans, and conventions of crisis management. They were reacting, moreover, to the newfound weakness of the old order, which was staggering under the weight of shifts in power, assertive nationalist movements, and domestic upheavals. In other words, structural factors clearly constrained leaders’ decisions. After all, international relations theorists keep returning to the period leading up to 1914 in part because this was a time when states corresponded most to the requirements of theory, led as they were by detached elites who thought in realist terms, dominated by considerations of security.

In the end, entrenched security policies proved impressively, if dangerously, resilient in July 1914. After many high-level wobbles -- including the extraordinary “Dear Willy”/“Dear Nicky” correspondence between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which the third cousins tried to stave off war -- the alliances largely stuck together, with only Italy holding back. The governments implemented their war plans. Likewise, the overt bellicosity of elite discourse in the preceding years, with preposterous claims about the purifying properties of battle and outlandish celebrations of race, strength, honor, and sacrifice, did much to prepare the public for war. Once countries faced the prospect of actual fighting, the bellicosity subsided and the mood in national capitals grew subdued. Governments started to worry less about glory than about being cast adrift by a reluctant ally or left vulnerable by mobilizing too slowly. Thus, the conflict was not the result of crude warmongering. Rather, it arose from a complex interaction among systemic factors with which any collection of decision-makers would have had to contend, the qualities and idiosyncrasies of this particular collection of leaders, and chance factors. 

At the heart of the July crisis lay the meaning of alliances. Nicholas declared Slavic solidarity with the Serbs, and the French stood by their Russian allies. As Clark notes, “Russia and France thereby tied the fortunes of two of the world’s greatest powers in highly asymmetrical fashion to the uncertain destiny of a turbulent and intermittently violent state.” In the same way, Germany tied itself to the dysfunction of Austria-Hungary when Wilhelm told officials from the ailing empire that they could respond to Ferdinand’s assassination as they pleased, a blank check that emboldened them to take on Serbia. Otte recalls Bismarck’s adage that every alliance involves a horse and a rider and observes that in this instance the horse was in the saddle. This phenomenon is hardly unusual. Today, for example, the United States’ weaker allies regularly demand assurances from Washington, even when they are engaging in reckless behavior, and Washington often grants such assurances for fear that failing to do so would damage its credibility. 

The challenge for great powers has always been how to provide enough comfort to weaker allies to make them feel secure while maintaining enough leverage over them to ensure they do not provoke a war. In July 1914, there was no guarantee that Europe’s alliances would hold together, given how incongruent the interests between the great powers and their weaker partners appeared. Russia carefully watched France, which needed convincing that the situation was worth a war. France, in turn, looked fretfully at the United Kingdom, which was not sure it wanted to support the tsar after having laid the foundations for improved relations with Germany. Within both the Entente and the Central Powers, the sense that the alliances might unravel generated distrust and uncertainty -- one reason so much energy went into shoring them up rather than peacefully settling the disputes at hand. 

Historians often blame another factor for the outbreak of World War I: the cult of the offensive. In this view, prevalent at the time, wars were best won by taking the initiative as quickly as possible and getting troops to push through defensive barriers by relying on morale and élan. Because early action might just produce a victory and delay would surely spell doom, in other words, the fighting could never come too soon. This conviction explains why mobilization mattered so much, especially to the generals, who imposed their sense of urgency on their civilian leaders. On account of its vast size and cumbersome infrastructure, Russia mobilized first. McMeekin quotes Nicholas lamenting, tellingly, that his decision to do so potentially involved “sending thousands of men to their deaths.” Nicholas could not grasp the true stakes; Russia ultimately lost some two million soldiers. 

Elites across Europe expected that even a highly costly war would prove quick and decisive. After a few cataclysmic battles, the thinking went, the conflict would end and the continent could adjust to its new political realities. What is striking is how little strategic discussion actually took place. Decision-makers neither scrutinized the practicality of their war plans nor related them to political objectives. In Berlin, only in passing did planners question the wisdom of charging toward France through Belgium, even though that course, by triggering London’s treaty obligations to Brussels, guaranteed British participation in the war.


Those who make the sleepwalking critique presume that although the outbreak of World War I was not inevitable, its prolonged and catastrophic character was. MacMillan shows how militaries airily dismissed warnings from such figures as the Russian industrialist and scholar Ivan Bloch, who cautioned that strong defenses would result in a drawn-out war. Hastings convincingly characterizes the grand German offensive as fundamentally flawed, despite the meticulous planning that went into it. (The strategy depended on moving the army far and fast enough to deliver a knockout blow to France before Russia’s military strength could make itself felt, but the plan put far too many demands on German logistics and inexperienced reservists.) McMeekin goes too far in saying that the Germans expected to lose, but they certainly knew that the invasion was a gamble. They simply worried that the longer they waited, the more of a gamble it would become. 

Yet Berlin’s bet almost paid off. Although Belgium’s unexpected resistance held up the German advance, the Kaiser’s forces pushed the French far into retreat, until the momentum was reversed in the First Battle of the Marne, which began on September 5, 1914. The battle marked the end of any German hopes for a swift conclusion. The failure of the Allies to follow up the victory led to the stalemate that became the defining feature of the western front. The week before, Russia’s pretensions to having rebuilt itself into a serious military power were dashed at the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg. Both sides experienced moments of desperation before the trenches were dug and the long stalemate began. As governments cast around to see if they could achieve a decisive victory, questions about the durability of alliances cropped up once again. Would their partners persist in battle or succumb to the lure of a separate peace? In the end, the belligerents never found the various proposals for negotiation sufficiently attractive, even when compared with the costs of continuing with war. Leaders could never overrule the objections of the hard-liners who believed that only complete victory could justify the pain already experienced.

Once the fighting began, as so often happens, the stakes moved up a notch and turned existential. And as leaders played more to idealistic urges than geopolitical fears, their goals got more ambitious. In a phrase that later became derided for its pretension and innocence, the English novelist and futurist H. G. Wells wrote in August 1914 of “the war that will end war.” Having long urged world government as the only alternative to destructive wars, he now thought that once Germany, a “nest of evil ideas,” was defeated, good sense would reign. Although the optimism was misplaced, the sentiment was real. As William Mulligan demonstrates in an original study of the ideological impulses at the time, even as they prosecuted a war of cruel viciousness, European governments pondered the peace that might follow.

After the war, its participants promised to pursue that peace. They pledged to disarm, and they called for a new international organization that would provide “guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” (to quote the last of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points). The international community adopted these ideas with surprising speed in the 1920s, culminating in the 1925 Pact of Locarno, which formalized Europe’s new borders. Three years later, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the brainchild of the U.S. secretary of state and the French foreign minister, renounced war as an instrument of policy.

Given what followed, realists mock the interwar period for its naiveté. Scholars are inclined to dismiss the push for peace that came after 1918, just as they deplore the tug toward war that preceded 1914. Mulligan urges readers not to assume that the peace project was doomed just because of what happened during the 1930s, or even that the core themes underlying this effort died on the battlefields of World War II. They returned after the war, albeit with a more cautious gloss, with the politicians who had first heard them in the 1920s, such as West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the French diplomat Jean Monnet. In this respect, the outbreak of World War I was not the seminal catastrophe of the century. Catastrophe was fed by later decisions: namely, both sides’ insistence on continuing the war and their refusal to look for diplomatic ways out, as well as the victors’ imposition of a harsh settlement on Germany and then appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

In the end, the lesson of 1914 is that there are no sure lessons. War has no reliable solutions, because contexts change. What resolves conflicts in one setting will provide cover for aggression in another; actions that deter aggression under some circumstances will at other times provoke it. Yet there are always choices, and the best advice for governments to emerge from the story of 1914 is to make them carefully: be clear about core interests, get the best possible information, explore opportunities for a peaceful settlement, and treat military plans with skepticism.

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