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  • Catastrophe 1914:An Interview with Max Hastings
  • Donald A. Yerxa

In This Issue Senior Editor Donald Yerxa Interviews two authors of recently published books on World War I. The first is Sir Max Hastings, author of Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, 2013). Hastings is an award-winning journalist and author of more than twenty books. No stranger to these pages, this is his third interview to appear in Historically Speaking. Yerxa interviewed Hastings in 2004 and 2008 for his two books on the end of World War II in Europe and Asia (Armageddon and Retribution) and on September 11, 2013 for his new book on the early months of World War I.

Donald A. Yerxa:

How do you assess responsibility for a regional Balkan crisis erupting into a “general European catastrophe”?

Max Hastings:

We have to be clear that the war had many causes. You can’t blame it on any single thing. That said, and having pored over this question for many months, I’m driven again to a simple fact: the one power in Europe that could have averted the catastrophe of 1914 was Germany. If at any time in July and the beginning of August 1914 Germany had told the Austrians to “stop,” the war need never have happened. For that the Germans have to be held most blameworthy. Some highly respected historians in Germany argue that the Germans actively sought a general European war in 1914 because they wanted to fight Russia before 1916, when they calculated Russia would become militarily stronger than them. I do not subscribe to that conspiracy theory; I don’t believe the Germans wanted the war that they got in 1914. But the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that the Germans did will a Balkan war. After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary decided that it was going to crush Serbia. Whatever the Serbian response to their ultimatum, they would invade Serbia and break it up so that it would never again trouble the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On July 6, 1914, an Austrian diplomat visited Berlin and told the German chancellor and kaiser exactly what Austria-Hungary was planning. The Germans warmly approved, endorsed the plan, and gave the Austro-Hungarians what has since been called the “blank check.” Germany would support Austria-Hungary diplomatically and if necessary militarily. And if Russia were to step in to protect Serbia, then the Germans would accept the consequences and would fight. It was an act of incredible irresponsibility to will a Balkan war. Yes, they willed a Balkan war and not a European war. But everything that happened later in 1914 stemmed from those decisions in Germany.

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A captured English autobus used by Germans in Belgium, ca. 1914. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There are some historians who contend that Britain could have remained neutral, even when it became obvious that there was going to be a Great Power clash between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia and France. I don’t think that was a realistic option. Had Britain remained neutral in 1914 it is hard to imagine that there could have been a happy outcome. Once it was clear that there was going to be a European war and once it was plain that if France were to be defeated, there would then be German dominance of Europe, I believe the British had no choice but to fight. German dominance would not have been acceptable to the British, who had historically supported the idea of a balance of power on the continent, on the whole for good and honorable reasons. That said, I don’t think British entry into the war was inevitable until the Germans announced that they were going to invade neutral Belgium as part of their plan to crush France. That was what tipped the scales for many British politicians and much of the British public who would have certainly not wanted to go to war to save Serbia and who cared nothing for Russia. Once they saw the German army roll over a small neutral country, they decided that this was a just casus belli...


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pp. 13-15
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