- July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914 by T. G. Otte
The thought of war in Europe in early 1914 was farfetched. The decades that preceded it were defined by vast growth in material and commercial wealth across the continent, unprecedented economic interconnectivity, and relative calm among the Great Powers that dictated the trajectory of Europe’s future. “Such moments of worry flew away like cobwebs in the wind,” the famous Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig reflected years later. “Although, every now and then, we thought of war, it was no different than contemplating death—as something that was possible but presumably far away.”
In the past century, plenty of ink has been spilled over the causes of World War I, with a host of new literature written in the past year on the centenary of the Great War’s outbreak. To carve out new intellectual space in such overtrodden ground is immeasurably difficult. Yet T. G. Otte, in his new book July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914, combines fastidious research and hundreds of primary sources to offer a fresh take on the beginning of the war, with the detail and meticulousness of a forensic scientist performing an autopsy.
Otte unveils the inner workings of the byzantine bureaucracies that dominated European foreign policy in the early twentieth century. Rather than focusing on one or two countries, Otte maps out the interplay of all major powers with one another—a Herculean task that few scholars have yet achieved with such clarity and insight. He delves into the minds of not only the leaders of Europe but also the diplomats in the trenches of European diplomacy on the eve of the war that broke the European continent. In this way, it makes a perfect companion to Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 masterpiece, The Guns [End Page 132] of August, which heralded a new wave of interest and scholarship about the outbreak of World War I.
One of the most poignant insights Otte offers is the attention Europe’s Great Powers gave to smaller powers. Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy establishment, for example, was scarred by the perceived loss of Romania from its sphere of influence. Vienna was desperate to hold its anemic empire together, although it was already fraying at the seams. The loss of Romania “shaped Austro-Hungarian foreign policy thinking in the first half of 1914.” Austro-Hungarian leaders, especially Hungarian prime minister István Tisza, paid great attention to the potential threat of an untethered Romania, clouding their judgment on how the loss would impact relations with Russia or Italy and fueling Vienna’s “utter disregard for the Great Power dimension of any regional conflict.”
Otte’s analysis also peels back the veneer of simplification that many historians fall prey to—the belief that foreign ministries and defense ministries at the time were monoliths, falling cleanly into step with their political leadership to form coherent, unified policies. Not so, argues Otte (and, likely, many contemporary diplomats). The policies of July 1914 that led Europe to war were the manifestations of a complex amalgam of personalities, individual decisions, mistakes, political miscalculations, and relationships.
The luxury of one hundred years of hindsight has given historians room to proffer easily digestible explanations for the causes of World War I. According to Otte, the abstract and intangible concepts of “balance of power,” “alliance system,” or the “security dilemma” did not plunge Europe into war. Instead, Otte argues, “War had come as a result of individual decisions and a rapid series of moves and countermoves by the chancelleries of Europe.” Characters such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz Joseph, Czar Nicholas II, and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were ostensibly at the helm, but the rank and file diplomats in the lower echelons were the ones actually running the ship. The ambassadors, chargés d’affairs, military attachés, foreign ministers, and their deputies all indelibly shaped their countries’ foreign policies. And their uncoordinated policies, bolstered...