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You can learn a lot about the origins, events, and consequences of World War I by surfing the Internet. But if you really want to understand why the Great War happened, you should read serious histories on the subject. The problem is that historians have turned out more than 25,000 books and articles on World War I. So where should you start? Here are some recommendations.
Let’s begin with some recent contributions. Seeing a market opportunity with this year’s centennial of the war’s start, several distinguished historians have written new books. They each take different approaches to explaining the war, and as is the wont of historians, they each offer different interpretations of why the war started and who is to blame:
- The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). Christopher Clark begins his epic history not with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in June 1914 but with the assassination eleven years earlier of a different royal couple, King Alexandar and Queen Draga of Serbia. Clark uses that assassination to explain why the Balkans, a marginal region on Europe’s periphery, became a central issue for Europe’s great powers. Rather than blaming the conflict on any one country, Clark depicts it as the tragic result of interacting decisions made across European capitals.
- Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (2013). Max Hastings makes no bones about who he thinks deserves blame for starting World War I: Germany and Austria-Hungary. He also dismisses arguments, popular with some British historians and many ordinary Brits, that Britain erred grievously in joining the war. For Hastings, World War I was necessary to save Europe from German domination.
- July 1914: Countdown to War (2013). Where Clark covers a decade and Hastings a year, Sean McMeekin focuses on the month that transformed the regrettable (but not unprecedented) assassination of an archduke into the cause for continent-wide war. Call it a story of vanity, hubris, deceit, aggression, and stupidity. While not letting Germany entirely off the hook, McMeekin places significant blame on Russia for egging on Serbia and France for encouraging Russia.
- The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013). Margaret MacMillan has written an excellent book on the Treaty of Versailles, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. Now she has tackled the events that made the treaty necessary in the first place, after Europe’s major powers had enjoyed peace and prosperity for four decades. MacMillan insists that the war was not inevitable. Still, she shies away from assigning blame, saying that “we may have to accept that there can never be a definitive answer, because for every argument there is a strong counter.”
These classic assessments of World War I should not be missed:
- The Guns of August (1962). Historians love to pick on Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-prize winning history of the month that changed Europe forever. Sure, she didn’t get all her facts straight, and her interpretations of events can be disputed. But few historians have a first chapter as riveting as Tuchman’s with her extraordinary account of the funeral of Britain’s Edward VII in 1910.
- Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961, published in English in 1967). Fritz Fischer, one of the most important German historians of the twentieth century, made a splash in the 1960s when he wrote Germany’s Aims in the First World War. Most German historians (and most Germans) at the time agreed that Germany had started World War II. However, they fiercely denied that Germany deserved blame for starting World War I, no matter what the “war guilt clause” of the Treaty of Versailles said. Fischer broke with that consensus to lay the blame for the Great War squarely on Berlin’s shoulders, saying that it deliberately instigated the war to achieve its expansionist aims on the continent.
- The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999). Niall Ferguson’s argument is straightforward and provocative: Britain’s decision to enter World War I was “the biggest error in modern history.” (Yes, Ferguson is whom Hastings has in mind when he criticizes British historians who fail to recognize that it was imperative for Britain to fight the Great War.) Not only was the British Army unprepared to fight, the costs of the war sped up the demise of British global influence. Ferguson argues that had Britain sat out the war, Germany would have won quickly, many fewer Europeans would have died, World War II would never have been fought, and German hegemony over the European continent would have been relatively benign.
If you don’t have time to plow through these books—and they are quite long—you might want to check out the special commemorative issue that the Atlantic just put out. It is composed of excerpts of articles it has published over the years on World War I as well as photos from the war. It makes for great reading. Alas, it is not online, but it should be available at your local newsstand. TheAtlantic.com does have a great photo essay on what World War I looks like a century later.
Please feel free to mention your favorite books in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on World War I, check out the other posts in this series: