Check It Out: The Road to World War 1

Otto Von Bismarck, the 19th century Prussian statesman, is reputed to have said that the next great European war would probably result from "some damn foolish thing in the Balkans." His off-hand remark was shown to be prescient during the summer of 1914.

On June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, were assassinated in Sarajevo by a 19-year-old Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip.

This event became the catalyst for what soon followed. Within a month the great powers of Europe — drawn in by defensive alliances, old antagonisms and antiquated notions of national honor — were at war with one another. Looking back, 100 years later, can be interesting, intriguing and enlightening.

In "The Assassination of the Archduke," Greg King and Sue Woolmans depict the ill-starred relationship between Franz and Sophie against a backdrop of court intrigue and political instability. Their marriage was bitterly opposed within Viennese society. In Sarajevo, a shadowy network of conspirators bided their time for a chance to strike a blow against the empire. One hundred years later, lingering questions of accountability remain, but "history reverberates with the effects of this couple's deaths."

"The Guns of August," by Barbara Tuchman, is considered the classic account of the run-up to war and the first few weeks of battle. Written in 1962, the book is said to have provided inspiration to President Kennedy "as a cautionary tale of how nations blunder into war," according to one reviewer. Her narrative begins with the funeral in 1910 of Edward VII of England, at which nine European sovereigns were present, and ended with the German defeat at the Battle of the Marne, after which the conflict settled into the stalemate of trench warfare. It was, as she said, "the last crusade of the old world."

Margaret MacMillan, in "The War that Ended Peace," argues that a general war could have been prevented at any moment until the British, last among major powers, decided to enter the war. In her estimation, the pivotal pre-war events include France's forming of an alliance with Russia, Germany's decision to challenge Britain's naval supremacy, and Britain's efforts to improve relations with both France and Russia as a result.

MacMillan is also the author of "Paris 1919," about the international peace conference that resulted in the Versailles Treaty, the formal end to World War I. This agreement imposed punishing terms and the lion's share of responsibility on Germany and most likely planted the seeds for the next war. Historians have struggled ever since with the question of guilt.

In "Catastrophe 1914," British historian Max Hastings covers the crucial six-month period between the archduke's assassination and the Christmas truce. Hastings sides with those who believe Germany's support for Austrian aggression against Serbia provided "the most important immediate cause" of a larger war.

Sean McMeekin, in "July 1914," argues instead that a greater degree of responsibility should go to Russia. The author, who teaches history at Koç University in Istanbul, contends that "the decision for European war" was made when Russian Tsar Nicholas II "signed the order for general mobilization."

In "Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914," Christopher Clarke suggests that understanding how the war came about may be more important than why. Clarke cites the difficulties in unraveling objective truths from the massive amount of primary source records. In his account, war was the result of a multitude of conscious decisions made by key players including politicians, diplomats and military leaders. They were "sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing … blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."

CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All of the titles above can be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, please contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.

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