I remember when I was in primary school I was fascinated by a book my father gave me about the world wars, in the first chapters I would stare at the comic like pictures of the Kaiser taking a bite out of the globe, I remember the little picture of the car in which Franz Ferdinand was killed, the whole thing just seemed odd, just one person the killing of Franz Ferdinand lead to the events that kicked off a massive world war costing millions of lives, how?
The book starts with an excellent introduction, detailing why the book is worthy of some contemplation, with philosophical points raised by Clarke, namely “Is any war really inevitable” in the conclusion Clarke also cleverly distances himself from pointing fingers at any one party and generates some philosophical contemplation about the broader problem:
The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in a conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun this story; or rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.
It is a curious way to think about things, that each party seemed to blame each other, hence mutually assuring its own destruction, a sort of ‘Mexican stand off’ of nations.
Yet standing back, from Clarkes rather ambivalent conclusions, I felt that he often set to point out something else entirely.
From the very beginning Clarke sets to outline how violent and turbulent the Serbians could be even to their own monarchy, how violent nationalist elements inside their own country were actively supported by the Serbian government, how the country never really attempted to hide its contempt for Austria for annexing Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908.
In today’s world, these kind of things are called terrorist activities and are looked on very dimly indeed. Entertain for a second that a nationalist element somewhere in the world assassinated Prince Charles, if a country was found to be clearly behind the actions there would be massive ramifications and investigations to who was behind it, if it was certain to be linked to a nation then there would be a proper independent investigation and then action taken against by the UN and then other nations.
But back in 1914 there seemed to be little interest in following up the links between the Black Hand and the Serbian nationalists. Many knew they had links to senior military leaders and politicians but never really put any effort into proving it as true. If they had done this logical thing then the cause for the war would of been extinguished, or at least the alliance may have even sought to punish Serbia or let Austria just take its revenge and keep the dispute local. It was this simple following through that could of made so much difference.
Yet in the situation that unfolded, Russia, France and England all came in defending Serbia against an Austrian invasion. This was something of a revelation to me, I had never really thought that the so called ‘good guys’ of the war could of potentially been defending a country that had essentially poured petrol on and lit the fuse to start it.
During the slow lead up to the war the mind begins to boggle at the many possibilities for peace, it seems all parties, France, Germany, England and Austria all tried but failed to secure any effort at peace, individuals had a good go at it, but all seemed to sort of give up powerless at the bureaucratic mess that unfolded.
It is also confusing that histories nominated bad guy – Germany seemed to want to avoid the war altogether right up to the very last moments and clearly thought it could be localized to the Balkan region, this is not the history that we are taught in school.
As a history book, this was tedious but rewarding, there is no doubt I have a much deeper understanding of prewar conditions including a very detailed account of the assassination itself and the events leading up the court case afterwards which made fascinating reading.
This book was a mammoth undertaking just one page of the in depth analysis of pre-war European political landscape had the effect of setting me off to a good nights sleep. There were a few times I nearly gave up, but then out of the blue an astonishing episode in history that I was previously unaware of would keep me glued to the page.
As for understanding of why it happened, I think this is a task that historians and thinkers will have difficulty really understanding for a very long time, however I am glad this book exists because there are plenty of unexpected events that unfolded that just don’t fit into any nationalistic history of the war.