Historians who teach classic views of the Great War’s origins often explain the conflict as an inevitable and tragic phenomenon compelled on the world; few wanted the war, but it could not be stopped (p. 4). David Fromkin disagrees with this position. He argues that the Great War began when Germany and Austria antagonistically took action to secure their position as international powers by initiating preemptive wars against Russia and Serbia (p. 282). Fromkin contends that German Generals Helmuth von Moltke and Erich von Falkenhayn--along with Austrian Count Leopold von Berchtold--were not interested in peaceful solutions to their grievances and aggressively sought war at any cost (p. 268). The end result of German and Austrian preemptive warring was the “war to end all wars.”
The German leaders were paranoid. They believed themselves surrounded by aggressive enemies clubbed together in the Triple Entente: Russia, France and Britain. General Moltke believed a war with the Triple Entente would happen before 1918, and a victorious preemptive strike against Russia was necessary to win and maintain Germany’s future supremacy in the region (p. 38). From the General’s perspective, it was advantageous to fight this war preemptively on Germany’s terms, for engaging the fully mobilized army of rapidly industrializing Russia in a territorial war would risk a German defeat (p. 38). Kaiser Wilhelm II believed the threat authentic and understood the logic of a preemptive war, but he tended--at the end of his vacillating policymaking--to disagree with his warmongering advisors and lean towards peaceful co-existence with the competing powers (p. 235). Moltke was convinced that the Kaiser would stay his hand from the necessity of preemptive war too long and lose Germany’s chance for victory. Moltke disregarded the Kaiser’s passive wishes, acted on his own accord, and helped start a preemptive war (p. 239). Moltke was not alone in his opinions and actions. General Erich von Falkenhayn also believed that war was the only answer. From his perspective, a preemptive war with Russia would solve Germany’s internal political strife by nationalistic integration of the competing German socio-political factions (p. 74). The generals wanted war at any cost, but swaying the Kaiser’s resolve toward their mission would require more than intellectual persuasion. The missing ingredient to remedy the fickle Kaiser was an external crisis. Gavrilo Princip did not make them wait long (p. 156).
Austria was becoming the new Sick Man of Europe (p. 52). Hapsburg leaders thought war would save them from such a dishonorable title and craved an opportunity to demonstrate their brawn (p. 42). Field Marshall Conrad argued that the only solution was found in the subjugation of Serbia, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand seemed a perfect pretext for this war (p. 154). Austrian leaders correctly understood that Gavrilo Princip’s murder of the archduke would push the Kaiser into unconditional support of Austria‘s war and court the Triple Entente into a respectable view of Austrian importance in the region (p. 156). Conrad was right that hostilities against Serbia--on the pretext of the royal murder--would get the attention of the European states, but the aggression did not demonstrate military prowess to the larger European powers (p. 188). On the contrary, Russia and Britain understood Austrian aggression for what it was: “bullying” (p. 188). The Triple Entente members’ realization that Austria was using the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a pretext for unjustified hostility against Serbia fused the Triple Entente alliance, but no such fusion took place between Germany and Austria.
Fromkin contends that Germany and Austria both wanted war, but not the same war (p. 286). Both wanted to stay in the positions of international dominance that they perceived themselves occupying though slowly losing (p. 281). However, arms race paranoia and xenophobia infected the two powers, intensifying their isolationism (pp. 29, 53). This behavior extended to Germany and Austria’s own alliance. Austrian and German governmental officials were unwilling to disclose tactics and military objectives to each other. Such disclosure may have solidified their common strength and potential to successfully achieve their objectives (pp. 274-275). While Germany and Austria were not communicating, the Triple Entente countries were involved in deliberations about the crisis, how to end it peacefully, and what measures should be taken in the event the Bosnian calamity turned to war (pp. 233, 183). Many among the German and Austrian leadership were enthusiastic about warring, but were not willing to make the sacrifices, deliberations, and overall compromises necessary to triumph (p. 273). Austrian sluggish political maneuvering tired Generals Moltke and Falkenhayn. In what Fromkin refers to as “unprecedented,” Moltke and Falkenhayn usurped the right of war declaration and cast the die themselves (p. 291). The result was tragic beyond compare: the obliteration of tens of millions of lives. However, we should cautiously retreat from Fromkin’s insinuation of British passivity in the initial stages of the Great War.
In his description of Edward Grey, Fromkin contends that the prime minister wanted amity with Germany and was optimistic about Germans’ desire to sustain the same (p. 209). This seems to be a new interpretation of the British Foreign Secretary. In his previous writings, Fromkin claimed Grey had already made plans for the distribution of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe prior to the outbreak of open hostilities in August 1914. He also insisted that Grey opposed the Young Turk Party’s (Y.T.P’s) peace treaty offer with England in May 1911, and that he only became concerned with temporary regional tranquility when Germany openly pursued a relationship with the newly empowered Turkish Y.T.P in 1914.[i] Obviously, a German-backed Y.T.P would undermine the British objective of acquiring more control of Ottoman territory. British intelligence knew that the Kaiser, as early as October 1898, had shown interest in British territories. By January of 1913, the English were engaged in a new ‘Great Game’ with Germany; in fact, by March 1914 the German press was running headlines of German aspirations in British India.[ii] British neutrality was oxymoronic. They were already in a conflict with Germany. Grey wanted to protect England’s current holdings and future territories against Germany, but not wanting to be perceived as the aggressor among the leading European powers, he allowed Germany the diplomatic rope to hang the whole world in the noose of war. Tact--not meekness--governed the behavior of Grey. This is not to justify the behavior of Germany and Austria; their behavior was appalling, but Britain also played a role in bringing about the Great War.
No explanation, passage of time, or repentance vindicates those who caused the Great War. No syllogism can explain the illogical behavior of the self-proclaimed demigods in Germany and Austria who inflicted this on humanity. Though Fromkin cannot soothe this international wound through detective work and clever words, he has written a unique approach to the irrational Great War. By analyzing the behavior and intentions of the main players in this conflict, he leads the reader to question the nature of the power at work and its subsequent cataclysmic usage. Fromkin gives a history of the intoxication and ensuing atrocity caused by the consolidation of power into the hands of a few. He teaches us that German and Austrian autocrats were faced with an ultimate choice of rule: how shall we use this power: peace, compromise, and potential political disintegration or war, uncompromising fool-hearted pride, and prospective political constancy? Fromkin gives us the answer: The die was cast; the choice was made, and despotic hubris had its way.
[i] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Owl Books, 1989), pp. 32, 49.
[ii]Peter Hopkirk, Like Hidden Fire: The Plot To Bring Down The British Empire (London: Koddansha Books, 1994), pp. 21, 51.