The Magazine

The Historians' War

The lessons of 1914

Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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In the final eleven years of the twentieth century, time seems to have run backwards. The Red Army withdrew from central Europe, rescinding 1945. A dictatorship fell in Berlin, undoing 1933. Statues of Lenin toppled across Russia, annulling 1917. War in the Balkans was the first horror we passed on our way into the century, and it is the final horror we are passing on our way out. After nine blood-soaked decades, Europe has at last laboriously reestablished a continent-wide order nearly as enlightened, decent, and free as the one that prevailed in July 1914.


Only if we decide what lessons to learn from the First World War are we right to hope that the awfulness of the past century forms merely a detour and not an eternally recurring pattern in European history, for that war and its consequences can never really be left behind. And here -- in time for the eighty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the eightieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, both on June 28 -- are two of the most important books in many years about the war and its aftermath.


In The First World War, the magisterial English military historian John Keegan -- author of such classics as 1976's The Face of Battle -- writes of the war precisely as a war: uniquely horrible, but still intelligible in the same way that the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War are intelligible. In The Pity of War, the younger Scottish historian Niall Ferguson instead presents the war as a catastrophic caesura in world history, a calamity whose strategic and tactical aspects are perhaps the least interesting thing about it.


World War I began -- as we have had cause to be frequently reminded in recent months -- in a quarrel between Serbia and the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire over Bosnia. Austria had it; Serbia wanted it. When the heir to the Habsburg throne announced he would visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, in June 1914, five young Bosnian Serbs decided to murder him.


The fatal shots were fired on the intermittently famous anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. By torturing the plotters, the Austrians quickly discovered the involvement of the Serbian military, if not the government of Serbia, in the assassination. The Austrian government presented Serbia with a stiff set of punitive demands, while the Austrian army drew up invasion plans.


Had the Austrians struck immediately, there would probably have been no wider war: Everyone in Europe more or less agreed that the Serbs deserved what was coming to them. But the Austrians hesitated for four weeks, during which the great powers of Europe became convinced their interests were implicated in the Serbian-Austrian confrontation.


Russia supported Serbia for fear that Austria would extend its empire deeper into the Balkans. Germany backed Austria for fear that its only friend in Europe would otherwise lose a war to Russia. France joined Russia for fear that Germany and Austria would defeat its main ally. On August 1, Germany, Austria, France, and Russia all mobilized. On August 4, German troops entered Belgium, and Britain entered the war against Germany and Austria. The Ottoman Empire declared war in November 1914, and Italy in May 1915. Montenegro, Japan, Romania, Greece, and Portugal would join the Allied side; Bulgaria the German. The United States tried for three years to preserve its neutrality, but was at last drawn in as well, declaring war on Germany in April 1917.


By the time it had come to an end, 578,000 Italian soldiers were dead, 800,000 Ottomans, 920,000 from the British Empire, 1.1 million from the Habsburg domains, 1.4 million Frenchmen, 1.8 million Russians, and 2 million Germans. Some 15 million men were wounded, almost half of them maimed for life. At least 8 million civilians died violently or from starvation; millions more perished in the 1918-19 influenza epidemic exacerbated by the destruction of the war. In The First World War, John Keegan puts it starkly: More than one out of every three German boys aged nineteen to twenty-two at the outbreak of the war was killed from 1914 to 1918.


In those four and a half years of the First World War lie the causes of the Second. And that second great war, by drawing Soviet soldiers into the heart of Europe, engendered in turn the Cold War -- which would not end until the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, seventy-one years to the day after Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication.