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Over There

A historian hears the echoes of the Great War.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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The Summer the Archduke Died

On Wars and Warriors

by Louis D. Rubin Jr.

Missouri, 184 pp., $24.95

Only death is inevitable. Short of that nothing is inevitable until it happens, and everything is inevitable once it has happened. The historian deals with past events and therefore to him all history is inevitable. But these past events were once in the future and then they were not inevitable.

-- A.J.P. Taylor

In The Summer the Archduke Died, Louis D. Rubin Jr. infuses his elegant, absorbing collection of review essays with Taylor's credo. He explains not only the vagaries of history, particularly how we look back at wars and their origins, but also the role of those who led their nations in those decisive moments and how their choices determined the anything-but-predetermined outcomes. A literary critic who spent his career teaching English at the University of North Carolina, Rubin doesn't explicitly answer the question: "Does the man make history, or history make the man?" But there's no doubt that he's in the "man makes history" school.

Rubin was always fascinated by epic conflicts. Born in 1923 into a Reform Jewish family that had arrived in Charleston in the mid-19th century, he recalls witnessing the last Confederate reunion in Richmond in 1932. Looking back at that event, "I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck--seventy-five years ago as I write this." His father was a sergeant in the Marine Corps in World War I, and the "Great War" exerted a similar claim on his imagination.

In the course of his writings, he reflects on his childhood emotions and develops his adult conclusions. As for how those conclusions may apply to the world today, he leaves it to the reader to take that next step, providing plenty of ideas to ponder.

Nowhere is Rubin more convincing than in his exposition on the origins of World War I. In contrast to World War II, where the stakes were clear and Hitler left others no choice but to submit or resist, "the Great War need not and ought not to have been fought," he argues. The primary culprit, in his eyes, was
Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose chauvinistic policies and massive miscalculations amounted to "a catastrophic failure of statecraft." The interlocking system of alliances, ostensibly designed to protect each country, triggered the well-known escalation of local conflicts into a European-wide war. As a result, 10 million men died for no apparent gain.

While explaining the mechanisms that made war appear inevitable, he keeps returning to the theme of the responsibility of those who set up the alliances, dictated the timetables, and triggered the clashes. Times were different then, he points out, with almost no avenues open for negotiations. "No United Nations, no councils or forums were available for extending and broadening discussions and circulating proposals and responses," he writes. Just as he implicitly approves of those kinds of institutions today, his warnings about the dangers of alliances with automatic triggers are clearly meant to convey a contemporary message, arguing for more flexible defense arrangements among allies.

All of which gets back to his thesis about the central role of leadership. Hence his fascination with two men he considers giants of the last century: Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Among the striking parallels: "Both were renowned for their furious activity, and apparently both were manic depressives. Both were aristocrats." While he is by no means blind to TR's "touch of megalomania," or his more erratic behavior, he admires his outsized personality.

So, too, with Churchill who "was no stranger to ambition or to egocentricity." True enough, but Rubin keeps the British leader's singular accomplishment in clear focus: recognizing the evil of Nazi Germany early, and then leading his nation in its fight for survival, saving the Western world.

Little wonder that Rubin has no patience for the revisionists of the New Left in the 1960s or a later generation of "young Englishmen of right-wing persuasion" who praise Hitler's appeasers and condemn Churchill, blaming him for allegedly dragging Britain into a war it should have avoided. He icily points out, for example, that John Charmley's 300,000-word biography of Churchill never mentions "Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc." The real source of such revisionism, he argues, is frustration with Britain's loss of empire and influence after World War II, allowing the United States to emerge as the new dominant force in the world. In essence, he concludes, the revisionists' arguments amount to "a fond wish that the twentieth century hadn't happened."