- The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics, and Decision-Making ed. by Jack S. Levy and John A. Vasquez
Prejudiced by bookstore tables laden with books on the Great War, I approached this review with some trepidation, wondering if we really need another book on the origins of the war. This collection of essays, with its sophisticated probing of the emerging new orthodoxy represented by the multi-causal approach of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, makes a strong case that the answer is “yes.”
It is appropriate that the first essay is by historian Samuel Williamson, a long-standing campaigner against the “German paradigm.” Williamson emphasizes complexity, highlighting the mounting series of crises in the international system that began in 1911, and the consequent co-responsibility of (at least) Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Russia, and Serbia for the outbreak and generalization of war. In an important corrective to narratives focused on international politics, Williamson gives weight to the fact that in 1914 several governments faced internal political crises with their working-class opponents. Williamson closes by noting, not without a hint of triumphalism, that the model of a multi-faceted “perfect storm” defended here signals the demise of “unilateral” histories and of the attempt to pin sole responsibility for the war on Germany (pp. 61, 57).
The second section explores the relationship between structure and agency. Political scientists Karen Rasher and William Thompson advance a carefully charted model of “nonlinear rivalry ripeness” based on a numerically tabulated series of binary conflicts. Initially, the authors’ faith in the ability to assign numerical values to political and diplomatic tensions took this historian-reviewer aback, and some of their figures clearly reflect “crude operational measures.” But the resulting matrix, in which four “streams” of interlocking conflicts merge into a “turbulent gyre,” provides convincing reinforcement for the notion of a “perfect storm” (pp. 71, 83–84).
Diplomatic historian T.G. Otte develops some of these themes, joining the assault on teleological and German-centric analyses by stressing Russia’s agency and potency. By 1914 Russia had largely recovered from the nadir of its 1905 defeat by Japan and, although threatened by domestic instability palliated by aggressive pan-Slavism, was able to pursue a German policy that combined war preparation with efforts at détente. From this point of view, Otte argues, the crisis in German-Russian relations in 1914 was the “latest twist of the kaleidoscope,” and a conjunctural rather than a structural phenomenon (p. 104).
The next section contains three essays on preventive war. William Mulligan shows that, while military circles in Germany were undoubtedly [End Page 583] attracted to preventive war, the international crises in 1875, 1886–1887, and 1904–1906 demonstrate that the desire to launch such a war was constrained by fear of losing and by ethical considerations. The “temper of the age,” he concludes, “inclined toward peace” (p. 138). Jack Levy reinforces some of Mulligan’s conclusions, showing that while preventive war dominated the thinking of some German leaders, the evidence does not substantiate a “consistent strategy” geared toward launching such a war (p. 165). John Vasquez likewise challenges causal explanations centered on German preventive war, noting that key leaders, including Tirpitz, Bethmann-Hollweg, and the Kaiser, were to various degrees skeptical of launching such a war. Vasquez points instead to the centrality of the Serbia-Austria Hungary dyad, picturing a third Balkan war that “got out of hand” (p. 218).
The foil to these broadly complementary essays is provided by Dale Copeland, who asserts that the only “primary cause” of the war lay in Germany’s fear of growing Russian power and in its consequent commitment to launching a preventive war (p. 167). Copeland’s arguments are hardly without merit — they are essentially a defense of the previously-regnant narrative — but in a collection focused on broad themes they are narrowly centered on the machinations of German policymakers and couched in a defensive tone that suggests that the...