- July 1914:An Interview with Sean McMeekin
As we noted in our April 2013 issue, with the approaching centenary of the outbreak of World War I we can anticipate an avalanche of books dealing with the conflict. In these pages we intend to put a spotlight on some of the best of these, such as Sean McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War (Basic Books, 2013). McMeekin teaches modern history at Koç University in Istanbul. He is the author of several books, including The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), winner of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies' Barbara Jelavich Prize and The Russian Origins of the First World War (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), winner of the World War One Historical Association's Tomlinson Prize. In July 1914 McMeekin examines the five pivotal weeks following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and concludes that the outbreak of war "was no accident of fate." Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed McMeekin in May 2013.
Would you provide our readers with a brief summary of what you are doing in July 1914?
On one level, what I am doing is very simple: I inform readers of what happened in 1914, day by day and even minute by minute, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28 to Britain's ultimatum to Germany on August 4, which turned a European conflict into a world war. Telling the story in this way also allows me to frame an argument about the outbreak of the First World War, which blends contingency and accident together with evidence of plotting by various statesmen. Above all, I aim to show that the war was not some kind of inevitable event, predetermined by structural factors such as the European alliance system, the arms race, or a deliberate plan cooked up in Berlin. The war did not have to happen.
How would you situate your book historiographically?
Since Fritz Fischer published his famous exposé of Germany's Aims in the First World War (Griff nach der Weltmacht) in 1961, the field has been dominated by discussion of Germany's role. While few historians still subscribe to the more extreme Fischerite thesis that the war was a premeditated "German bid for world power," the general consensus is still German-centric, with a kind of modified version, exemplified by Holger Herwig and David Fromkin, claiming that Germany willed a "preventive war" (Präventivkrieg) in 1914 not so much out of greed as out of her fear of the growth of Russian power, in a kind of panicky "leap into the dark."
My last book, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011) was in part a critique of the modified Fischer thesis, based on my interpretation of Russia's own war aims in 1914. And yet I never really meant for it to be a definitive "origins" book—in Russian Origins the July crisis merits only one chapter out of nine. (My original title for the book was "Russia's Aims in the First World War," an allusion to Fischer, whose book is not really about the war's outbreak as everyone seems to think it, but rather German aims in the conflict. Harvard University Press, reasoning that few readers today know who Fischer was, wanted a more "dynamic" title: hence Russian Origins.)
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July 1914, unlike Russian Origins, is clearly intended as a full-on interpretation of the outbreak of the war. In the sense that I do not subscribe to the German "preventive war" thesis, some scholars may describe my book as revisionist. I think these labels are unhelpful. I do not exonerate German statesmen of their responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and certainly not for the violation of neutral Belgium in August 1914, which I judge severely. I do, however, emphasize...