- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

To the citizens of the Western world in the vibrant years of a new century, war seemed unlikely. The Great Powers had been at peace for nearly 50 years.

“It was a time of free capital flows and free movements of people and goods. Economic and financial intermingling and interdependence were among the powerful trends that made it seem that warfare among the major European powers had become impractical — and, indeed, obsolete,” writes David Fromkin in “Europe’s Last Summer.”

One contemporary believed that it was “a period of exceptional calm,” of optimism and a sunny belief that the best of all possible worlds would only become better. Science and industry, wealth, knowledge and power “exceeded any civilization that ever had existed,” writes Mr. Fromkin, professor of international relations, history and law at Boston University and the author of among other books the splendid “In the Time of the Americans.”

Then on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princips assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. The Hapsburg archduke was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In little more than a month, the young Bosnian Serb’s bomb ignited a war that would spread across the planet, with a loss of life and destruction that was beyond anything before seen.

Such is the one-dimensional explanation of the beginning of “the Great War.”

But it was not so at all, contends Mr. Fromkin. Below the new century’s surface placidity, in fact as its political and military elites recognized, Europe was in the grip of an unprecedented arms race, conspicuously the intense naval competition between Germany and Great Britain.

“[I]nternally the powers were victims of violent social, industrial, and political strife; and [military] general staffs chattered constantly, not about whether there would be a war, but where and when.” Contends Mr. Fromkin, “European civilization was, in fact, breaking down even before war destroyed it.”

In his compelling account of that last summer, Mr. Fromkin notes that much of the precise knowledge of why World War I began has been prised out of the dried leaves of history since the 1960s. After the war, many records were altered, falsified or suppressed, or, during World War II, destroyed. In recent decades, however, historians — particularly several Germans — have winkled out more coherent evidences of accountability.

In a panoramic account of the summer before the cataclysm, Mr. Fromkin lays out his case like a lawyer assembling a brief — with clarity and flavor.

Central Europe in the early years of the 20th century was a stew of nationalism, spiced by nihilists, anarchists, socialists and other fringe groups in the political underground. Serbs, Croats, Czechs and others plotted to disrupt and destroy the Austro-Hungarian empire.

What Vienna was attempting to rule, in the words of one Hapsburg statesman, were “eight nations, seventeen countries, twenty parliamentary groups, twenty-seven parties.” Not to mention, adds Mr. Fromkin, a spectrum of peoples and religions.

This validates the sardonic observation that the Balkans produce more history than can be consumed locally. There is, however, a wider canvas.

The Great Powers were grouped in two major alliances: Britain, France and Russia, and, on the other side, a Germany terrified of “encirclement,” with half-hearted support from Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Kaiser Wilhelm, the grandson of Queen Victoria, was far from the sharpest sword in Germany’s scabbard. He had reversed Otto von Bismarck’s policy of allying with both Austria and Russia to maintain peace between them. “Instead, Germany sided with Austria against Russia in the struggle to control the Balkans, which encouraged Austria to follow a dangerously bellicose policy that seemed likely to provoke an eventual Russian response,” writes Mr. Fromkin.

Austria was obsessed with Serbia and determined to crush the Slavic state, the heartland of which, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria had annexed in 1908. From this compulsion that dominated Vienna — the key to Mr. Fromkin’s thesis — would come one of two wars that would turn Europe into a continental killing field. The other war was a result of the German nightmare of being surrounded: the “Slav East and the Latin West against the center of Europe.”

The German strategy as it was developed was to fight Russia in a limited war that would compel Czar Nicholas to make peace quickly, while also battling France to achieve a negotiated settlement there on favorable terms — before the French attacked her, as Germany believed was inevitable.

Austria, in this strategy, would swallow Serbia and then hold Russia at bay while Germany engaged France, attacking through neutral Belgium. The war against the Triple Entente, of Britain, France and Russia, was bound to break out not much later than 1916 or 1917, believed Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff and, Mr. Fromkin argues, a principal force in the coming conflict — and Moltke “wanted it sooner than later.”

No summary can be adequate to the author’s intricate assembling of the deadly mosaic: Berlin and Vienna, St. Petersburg and Belgrade, London and Rome, the tatters of the Ottoman empire as well as the Great Powers’ colonial territories.

Austria-Hungary’s emperor Franz Ferdinand and the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm, the “two most obnoxious public figures in Europe,” contends Mr. Fromkin, had managed to keep their hotheads in check and in crisis after crisis opted for peace (though, at the end, the Kaiser would be undermined by his own ministers).

Britain felt that it need not be embroiled in a continental war and repeatedly offered to mediate as temperatures rose. It would require the German invasion of neutral Belgium finally to bring the United Kingdom into the cauldron.

(As the European fever climbed, however, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in the Asquith cabinet, was not sanguine that Britain could remain apart, and felt the powerful navy was vulnerable to surprise attack. He wished to move the fleets to their wartime stations but did not want to try for approval from the cabinet, which might regard the movement as provocative. “Instead, he went to see the Prime Minister with his proposal, and decided to construe a sort of gruntlike sound from Asquith as approval.”)

Austria, on the pretext that Serbia was behind the Sarajevo assassinations (the extent of its involvement still isn’t clear), cashed the blank check Germany had given her to march on Belgrade. The Austrians were astonishingly and disastrously defeated, and then not able to move to the north to hold Russia in check, a key to Berlin’s strategy while Germany invaded Belgium on its way to Paris.

Curiously, one man who presciently read the hieroglyphics was an American, Col. Edward House, who Mr. Fromkin writes “apparently was almost alone among American statesmen in understanding the implications of the Balkan wars. House proposed to President Woodrow Wilson that he go abroad and seek to dampen diplomatically the smoldering flames in Europe. During the month before Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, House consulted with the heads of state of the Great Powers. To no avail, of course.”

Mr. Fromkin’s final conclusion is blunt: “Germany deliberately started a European war to keep from being overtaken by Russia.”

America’s participation and the two Russian revolutions in 1917, he writes, “brought ideological dimensions into the conflict that had not been there before, but that were to shape the rest of the twentieth century. In the beginning, however, it was simply Great Powers fighting to stay where they were.”

Historians specializing in the period doubtless will quarrel with the author. That is how specialists earn their bacon and beans. To a layman, Mr. Fromkin’s is a persuasive thesis, tautly told.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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