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The making of The Great War offers lessons for the world’s nations today

I have just finished “July 1914,” a detailed account of the events that led to World War I. Starting with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, at Sarajevo on June 28, 2014; the book documents the cascade of misjudgments, misconceptions, and miscommunications that drew Europe into an August convulsion that over four years left millions dead and sowed the seeds of World War II.

In this comprehensive analysis of the actions of all the parties, author Sean McMeekin describes how frenzied diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict collapsed into a sinkhole of interlocking alliance.

What began as a plot by a small group of Serbian nationalists to assassinate the heir to the throne quickly grew into a showdown between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia. In order to deter the involvement of Russia, Serbia’s ally, Austria sought the support of its ally, Germany.

Prompt and measured retaliation by Austria against Serbia may have presented their respective allies with a fait accompli that could have avoided a wider war. Instead, the nature and extent of the response was delayed as Austria sought reassurance from Germany and Russia from its ally, France. All, including England, were involved in efforts to prevent escalation.

Austria presented a series of harsh demands to Serbia, which it believed would be rejected, leading then to armed conflict. Serbia unexpectedly agreed to most of the demands and for a time it looked like the dispute could be resolved. However, Austria’s ultimatum required that all demands be accepted without modification within 48 hours.

Frantic diplomatic efforts were under way to restrain Austria, mediate the dispute, and discourage mobilization. Once begun, mobilization set in motion military preparations that invited a similar response, thereby substantially increasing the likelihood of war. It was not quite pulling the trigger; more like loading the gun.

After getting no further response from Serbia and mixed signals from Germany, Austria mobilized and declared war on Serbia. Russia then mobilized but Germany delayed in the hope of avoiding a catastrophe. It also did not want to be seen as the aggressor in any war and was reluctant to engage Russia and France, and perhaps England, in a two-front conflict in which it would be heavily outnumbered.

Germany’s war plans called for offensive military action to begin within days of mobilization. The plan was to invade France through neutral Belgium. There was little support for war in England until Germany made the strategic mistake of attacking Belgium. That action labeled Germany the aggressor and drew England into the war.

The author concludes that Russia’s early mobilization was the proximate cause of the war. It appears that events that could or would not be controlled by the leaders of the respective countries were responsible. Feeble diplomatic efforts were eclipsed by contingency war plans activated by mobilization.

Once the war machines began, they could not be stopped. It is a lesson all too evident in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Wars generate their own momentum. The sacrifice of blood and treasure becomes the justification for continuing the conflict until something called “victory” is achieved.

There were about 10 million military and 7 million civilian deaths in The Great War. To what end?
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.