- - Monday, June 3, 2013

By Sean McMeekin
Basic Books, $29.99, 480 pages

By Christopher Clark
Harper, $29.99, 736 pages

These two books, which can only be described as masterful, are the first ripples of what is certain to be a tsunami of works marking the 100th anniversary of the Great War (as World War I was known at the time). The conflict that began in August 1914 ultimately involved 65 million troops and caused 20 million military and civilian deaths; an additional 21 million were wounded — a calamity that spawned other calamities that spanned a century.

So, who was to blame? Did the assassination of two relatively minor royal figures in Sarajevo in June 1914 warrant the carnage that followed? For decades, historians have grappled with the question of which nation bore primary responsibility for the war. A major problem they faced was the lack of trustworthy documentary sources. For instance, a book of diplomatic correspondence issued by the French government after the war is described by Sean McMeekin as a “dense farrago of distortions, omissions and lies … .”

Now, prodigious research by Mr. McMeekin (“July 1914: Countdown to War”) and fellow academic Christopher Clark (“The Sleepwalkers”) reach conclusions that are both parallel and convincing. Mr. McMeekin especially is scornful of the accusation leveled in the Versailles Treaty (which ended the war) that Germany caused the conflict. “So far from ‘willing the war,’” he writes, “the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their neck.”

Although centuries-old hatreds dominated the continent, the average citizen had little interest in seeking redress of past wrongs through war. The villains, in Mr. McMeekin’s view, were “statesmen” (do they deserve such an honorific designation? I think not) who “all but oozed with malice as they rigged the decks for war.”

Considerable blame must be assigned to the tottering czarist regime of Russia, which had faced considerable unrest because of its defeat by Japan a decade earlier. Russia felt ethnic kinship with Serbia; formal treaties bound it to France. Czar Nicholas II, sensing an impending disaster, cried out, “I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter!” But he continued with a vast mobilization that Mr. McMeekin calls a precipitant of war. Oddly, the mobilization order did not identify an enemy. In Asian Russia, rumors abounded that the war must be with China, or even England.

To be sure, Germany was not without blame. Mr. McMeekin cites the “strategic stupidity” of its decision to invade Belgium (a prelude to a strike at France) as Russia began its mobilization. Mr. McMeekin feels that “Germany’s sin was not one of intending a world war — British belligerence was the last thing anyone in Berlin wanted — but of botching the diplomacy of the European war’s outbreak.”

Berlin’s move was one of a series of diplomatic blunders that marked the crucial weeks before war. The British Foreign Office suffered from inept reporting from Moscow by ambassador Sir George Buchanan. The prime minister, Sir Edward Grey, feigned neutrality, yet was clearly siding with France and Russia. He had no clear policy and sought guidance neither from his Cabinet nor Parliament.

In the end, the hapless Grey fell victim to machinations of France and Russia to join in the blundering to warfare.

Mr. Clark’s summation is damning: ” … the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Blame? After reading these hundreds of pages, the thought came to mind that I was watching a circular firing squad in action.

Even as war loomed, beneath the shadowy power struggles lurked the even more secret work of the various intelligence services that employed the traditional tools of spycraft. Bribery, for instance: French President Raymond Poincare was said by critics to have won his office through Russian bribes. “As much as two million francs a year were wired in from Petersburg,” Mr. McMeekin writes. In hopes of stirring an Irish civil war, Germany dispatched 35,000 Mauser rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition to rebels. Or plain old spying. Col. Alfred Redl, a flamboyant homosexual and chief of Austrian counterintelligence, was “an easy target for the blackmail specialists of Russian intelligence.” He passed critical information to St. Petersburg. Russian cryptographers broke Austrian codes and monitored diplomatic cables in the days before war.

What modern lesson can be gained from the calamity of 1914? Mr. Clark ends “The Sleepwalkers” with a chilling conclusion: “Behind the outrage of Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization … . Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.”

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on military and intelligence matters.

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