Anyone planning to wade through the vast outpouring of literature on the First World War might do well to make July Crisis their first port-of-call. Thomas Otte’s book is the meticulously-researched story of how and, most importantly, why the 1914 bloodbath happened. 

Published by Cambridge University Press, £25 ISBN 978-1107064904

None of the pre-war decision-makers, as the author points out, desired a European conflict. But individually, after a long period of more or less uninterrupted peace, they had lost what Henry Kissinger once called ‘the sense of the tragic’. With that loss, nearly a century of peace came to a violent end and the self-destruction of Europe as the powerhouse of world politics began.

What makes July Crisis different from other books about the period leading up to war is its multilateral approach. Rather than focus on one or two countries, it explores the dynamic of relations between the six great powers of the day. Beyond that, it probes into the decision-making processes in the different capitals, how problems were perceived, how possible responses were formulated, and how such policies were then applied.

The absence of strategic leadership in most countries in 1914 is one of the big themes of the book. ‘It therefore operates at two levels,’ Otte observes, ‘the systemic that looks at the interaction between the powers, and the level of individuals. It is that strange dialogue between the system and the actions of individuals that lies at the heart of the book.’

The author maintains that the First World War was not inevitable, and different outcomes were possible at different stages of the crisis. These are explored in the book, which also examines the geopolitical shift in power from Germany to Russia in 1913-1914, and so redresses some of the obsession with the Kaiser’s ships. However, the multilateral approach is not used to absolve the powers from degrees of responsibility for the escalation of the crisis and the descent into war by blaming abstract systemic constraints.

Otte advances three explanations for the ongoing preoccupation of scholars and the wider public with the war and its origins. First, the Great War rocked the sense of security, prosperity, and progress that had sustained the self-confidence of Europe. Second, its effect was a profound transformation of European society and culture, indeed of world politics, in the years following the armistice. And third, a kind of ‘world war of the documents’ began in 1919 in the form of peace treaties foisted on the defeated nations which attributed to them responsibility for starting the war.

It is important to understand that abstract concepts such as the balance of power did not cause Europe’s descent into war. The decision to go to war was made by real people, mainly small circles of advisers and officials around the crowned heads in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg, as well as small numbers of people in London and Paris.

These were individuals acting in response to external and internal stimuli, and to perceived opportunities and threats. Their hawkish or dovish views on the realities of international politics, and how they manoeuvred in the space given to them within the existing political arrangements in their respective countries, hold the key to understanding the war’s origins. The real explanation for nearly 40 million military and civilian casualties during the war are to be found, Otte tells us, in the near-collective failure of statecraft by the rulers of Europe.

The author offers a close examination of who took decisions, how they took them, and why. At the heart of the book lies that strange dialogue between the broader system of great-power politics and the actions of individuals. This is part of the book’s originality; while placing the events of 1914 in the context of the existing alliance structures, accepted norms of international behaviour, and notions of national honour, the focus is on the role of these individual decision-makers.

Military factors did not dictate the course of events, and even at the end of July 1914 the interlocking nature of different mobilisations can be exaggerated. Military factors did, however, shape some general assumptions: some of the calmer diplomatic heads in Europe – in Britain, Russia, Germany, and France – believed the prospect of war would act as a deterrent to taking matters to an extreme. In that assumption they were quite wrong.

The only two statesmen to emerge from this tragedy of errors with their reputations relatively unscathed were British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and the German diplomat Karl Max Prince von Lichnowsky. Both men clearly perceived that Europe was rushing headlong into catastrophe. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914, Grey attempted in vain to mediate the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Grey famously remarked, standing at a window of the Foreign Office at dusk, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them again in our time.’ For his part, Lichnowsky was the only senior German diplomat to raise objections to his country’s efforts to provoke an Austro-Serbian war.

There remains the issue of what lessons are to be learnt from the July 1914 catastrophe. Otte rightly questions whether history teaches any at all. The author argues that the international landscape of 1914 looks more familiar to us today than the more recent 1970s or 1980s.

But one must tread cautiously when attempting to force parallels with events today. ‘If there are any lessons, it is above all the need for clear strategic thinking and consistent strategic leadership in foreign policy,’ he says. ‘Those responsible for framing and executing foreign policy need to be sensitive to the broader sweep of history, and they need to be able to appreciate how any given international problem fits into a wider set of international issues.’

Bringing Great War lessons up-to-date, the author says, when dealing with a problem like Crimea and Ukraine, it is of vital importance to consider a number of broader issues: the future security architecture of Eastern Europe, the roles of Germany and Russia (historically the relationship between the two has been central to the international order in the East), the place of Russia in international politics, and the potential of the various points at issue in Ukraine to affect other international problems, such as the Iranian nuclear issue.

‘The Great War teaches anyone prepared to ponder its meaning that human judgment is frail, and it seems to me that politicians would do well to consider that they may get things wrong,’ Otte says.

The tragic consequences of lurching blindly into confrontation were recognised in the 18th century by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s chief-of-staff in the American War of Independence, who observed, ‘When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.’

Bringing the war’s consequences closer to our day, Otte cites the case of Osama bin Laden, who sought to justify the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US with reference to the Muslim community ‘tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years’ – by which he meant the dissolution of the Caliphate in the aftermath of the First World War.

July Crisis: the world’s descent into war, summer 1914
T G Otte
Cambridge University Press, £25
ISBN 978-1107064904

This article appeared in issue 45 of Military History Monthly.