The claim is uncompromising and clear. “The war was not precipitated by popular nationalistic fervour,” writes Sir Max Hastings in his magisterial new study of World War I’s apocalyptic dawn, “but by the decisions of tiny groups of individuals in seven governments.”
About 24 individuals, in fact. All that seismic upheaval; all that misery; all that mud. All swept into being, insists Hastings, not by the mood of the many, but by the careless whims of the few.
“I just don’t believe in the doctrine of historical inevitability,” says the writer, editor and historian, who speaks about his latest tome, Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914, at the Richmond Literature Festival this month. “Some periods do exhibit great national trends that cause things to happen in a certain way. The Russian Revolution was like that. But it was not the case in 1914. If the key players had been different – notably the Kaiser, who was unhinged – events could have been different too.”
His view of how the world changed for ever, a century ago next year, may not be universally shared. But when Sir Max Hastings talks about war, the world does well to listen. As a distinguished foreign correspondent, he covered 11 conflicts and was the first journalist into Port Stanley as the Falklands War reached its denouement. His contributions to military literature are legion and widely admired, most notably on the subject of World War II: his book Bomber Command won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1980. War, he acknowledges, is always and for ever a “just cause for lamentation”, but it is also the field in which the flower of his scholarship has bloomed.
“In 1914, not everyone thought that conflict was such a terrible outcome,” he reflects. “Germany had done pretty well out of fighting. It still had the memory of victories over Denmark, Austria and France. No one quite realized, as almost everyone did by 1945, that war was the worst possible thing.”
A century on, a sepia mist shrouds the sequence of steps that led the nations into the pit of hell. Out of the haze steps a Bosnian Serb nationalist, pistol in hand, firing into a car at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, hated symbols of Austro-Hungarian rule. But, says Hastings, the bodies crumpled in death that Sarajevo midsummer morning were the excuse, not the catalyst for war; a fig leaf of indignation for premeditated Austrian design.
Claiming government complicity in the killings, Austria invaded Serbia, backed by history’s first ‘blank cheque’: the assurance of more powerful Germany that it would not interfere, and that it would, in fact, support Austria against any attack by Serbia’s gargantuan ally: Russia. When Russia began mobilizing its troops, Germany thus declared war. This, in turn, brought France into the fray, in accordance with a Franco-Russian entente. And when Germany responded by invading France through Belgium, Britain too was in, bound by a 75-year-old treaty to protect Belgian neutrality. Europe’s sun had set. Assassination to mass conflagration had taken just 37 days.
The sequence is crucial. Drugged by a potent cocktail of war poems, hindsight and horror at the scale of destruction, history has generally plumped for what Sir Max calls the “Blackadder view”: the idea of the Great War as an act of collective madness; a plague justly visited upon each house equally with no need to apportion blame. But Hastings himself has no doubt as to where culpability lies: with Germany and her Austrian friends.
“Even by 1914 standards, Austria’s plan to break up Serbia was a bridge too far. I really don’t think that the Serbian government was complicit at Sarajevo. Of course, you could argue that Russia should have left Serbia to its fate, but in any case, without Germany’s blank cheque Austria would not have dared to proceed. It was within Germany’s power to stop the war – and it didn’t.”
Could Britain have stayed out?
“Well, the Belgian situation changed everything. But in any case, I can’t see how Britain could have allowed Germany to become the master of Europe. Niall Ferguson (the historian) believes that we could have stayed neutral and happy and just carried on running our empire. I don’t think so. No way would a victorious Germany have left Britain ruling the waves. The Kaiser had actually talked about fighting a ‘Second Punic War’ to finish Britain off.
“It’s curious. Almost everyone believes that we were right to resist Hitler, but so many people think the threat from the Kaiser wasn’t serious. We won’t forgive Hitler for being a nutter, but we happily let the Kaiser off the hook.”
So, the world went to war. And yet, as Catastrophe spells out, it did not head straight for the trenches. For a few weeks of mobile mayhem, largely excised from folk memory, armies ill-prepared for the 20th Century marched hopefully into battle beneath the waning late summer sun. Amid fields white unto harvest, swords glinted and bands played. French and Belgian troops advanced in the dazzling uniforms of decades past, like peacocks proud before a fall.
But against all this fragile, archaic pomp came the unforgiving weapons of a new age – with predictable results. World War One was the crossroads of military history: the place where the century of Hiroshima obliterated dreams of Waterloo.
“It was a time of fantastic transition,” agrees Hastings. “Of course, it didn’t help that most of the commanders were deeply unloveable, unsympathetic human beings who presided over vast slaughter without losing a moment’s sleep. Most of them had grown up in an age when war meant pointing your Gatling gun at Dervishes. Now it was all different. But it would be wrong to say that cleverer generals would have made much difference. The situation was practically impossible. Even if Wellington or Napoleon had been on the field, the results would have been much the same.”
As delusion died, multitudes perished with it. On the Eastern Front, three million were dead by Christmas, while in the West the bloodiest day of the war had been and gone before summer was out. On August 22, 1914, the French saw 27,000 men killed – almost 8,000 more than the British were to lose on the infamous first day of The Somme.
“One of the good things about the 21st Century is that we’re moving away from thinking that it’s all about Britain,” reflects Sir Max. “Our fathers thought that we won World War II with just a tiny bit of help from the Americans. In fact, we were quite small players. And it’s the same with our fixation about the Somme. Of course it was terrible, but when you look at what the Serbs suffered, or the French on the Marne, it was far worse.”
As summer shaded into autumn, the nations went to ground. Beneath the barred clouds, the chastened combatants dug in for the long haul, fantasies of rapid victory withered like sedge from the lake. Gradually, the pattern familiar to history took shape: the world of trenches and tin hats, barbed wire and floating corpses, the shrill, demented choir of wailing shells and the ravaged wastelands of despair.
And yet, insists Sir Max, futility is not the final word. Like the Virginian statesman John Page, at the turbulent birth of the USA, he discerns an angel riding in the whirlwind, its wings clearly audible down the years.
“We are so influenced by the War Poets, and of course they were right about the horrors of it all. We do now have a much better understanding of how little war can achieve. But there are times when, without it, something even worse might occur. We didn’t get much out of World War II except bankruptcy, but we did at least stop Hitler.
“With World War I, we have to step beyond the horrors and look at the causes. We can’t just say: ‘Oh God, oh God, it’s all so terrible that it really doesn’t matter whose cause was right.’ It does matter. And if I have a message as we approach the forthcoming centenary, that is it.”
Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings, is published by William Collins (£30)
Max Hastings speaks at Duke Street Church, Richmond on Nov 6 (7.30pm), as part of the Richmond Literature Festival (in conjunction with artsrichmond). For further info, booking and the full festival programme visit: richmondliterature.com