July 1914 – Countdown To War


July 1914 – Countdown To War
By Sean McMeekin
Icon Books – £25.00

This month, one hundred years ago, almost all of Europe’s capital cities were buzzing with recrimination and indignation; as if mere words and the slight misinterpretation thereof – rather than the lives of millions – were the only valuable things at stake.

From St. Petersburg to Paris, from Berlin to Belgrade, telegrams, along with exceedingly inept telephone-lines, were the only (fraught and unreliable) cross-border communication/s of the day. A time when countless heads of state and civil servants either pondered and dithered, were ignorant of far too many issues, or simply gung-ho to the point of reckless distraction.

The terrifying result(s) of which, still remain etched unto the very soul of a harrowing tragedy.

July 1914 – Countdown To War goes some way in deciphering and clarifying the events that led to the First world War; and it does so with linear and more than astute, political oblation. Although said manifestation did very little, if anything, to convince the European gods of power to rescind upon their duality of deadly rhetoric.

Amid the prism of hindsight, Sean McMeekin enables the reader to see for themselves just how very futile, not to mention pointless, diplomacy was a hundred years ago – as was recently written in Kirkus Reviews: ”[A] thoroughly rewarding account that spares no nation regarding the causes of World War I… McMeekin delivers a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of the increasingly frantic maneuvers of European civilian leaders who mostly didn’t want war and military leaders who had less objection.”

This is (only partially) brought to bear in Chapter twenty-five of July 1914 (‘World War: No Going Back’), wherein the French Prime Minister Rene Viviani – in addressing both houses of the French parliament – ”staked out” his ”case in moral terms, as a matter of ‘right and liberty.’ He implored the deputies, and the French people, ‘to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.’ […] In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.” While at the Reichstag in Berlin, the then German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg ”was just as dramatic” when he too ”mounted the podium.” In explaining ”why Germany had been ‘forced’ to commit a wrong, Bethmann argued that ‘he who is menaced as we are and is fighting for his highest values, can only consider how he is to hack his way through’ (sich durchhaut). Although Tirpitz (Germany’s Naval Secretary), for one, thought the brazen honesty of this confession of wrongdoing constituted ‘the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman,’ The Reichstag deputies did not agree: they broke into ‘great and repeated applause.”’

When Roy Hattersley reviewed this book in The Times, he referred to it as: ”A work of meticulous scholarship… McMeekin’s descriptions of the details of life in the European capitals – small events that influence great decisions – makes July 1914 irresistible.”

Might I say he isn’t too far off the truth; although I do feel compelled to add that one has to really be super keen on the subject matter, in order to glean some sort of literary satisfaction. Now I know the same sort of thinking can just as easily be applied to almost every book ever written, but McMeekin is so very focused, that I did occasionally find it hard to concentrate.

A prime example of which was the following in chapter ten (‘I Will Not Be Responsible for a Monstrous Slaughter’), wherein a semi-convoluted manner, the author writes: ”Reaching the Wilhelmstrasse sometime between seven and eight PM, the chancellor was in for a new series of shocks. A telegram from Pourtales had been decoded around three PM, reporting Russia’s partial mobilisation. Just minutes later a wire had come in from Chelius, the military attache in Petersburg, stating that, since Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia, ‘in the tsar’s entourage, a general war was regarded as almost inevitable.’ At around four PM, the German General Staff passed on to the Wilhelmstrasse a report of intimidating length on Russian military preparations, citing ‘troop-concentrations near the border of all arms in up to multi-regimental strength, the recall of reservists and the preparation of rail rolling stock.’ This was accompanied by the disquieting news that Belgium had called up three classes of reservists, strengthened frontier defenses, armed fortresses, and prepared bridges for demolition in case French or German troops came in. Meanwhile two telegrams from Lichnowsky painted a disturbing, if ambiguous, picture of British intentions. In the first he reported that British diplomats were certain that Italy would never fight alongside Austria and Germany. In the second, Lichnowsky passed on the impression ‘that there is a firm conviction here… that, failing readiness on the part of Austria to enter into a discussion of the Serbian question, world war will be unavoidable.”

In reading July 1914, one cannot afford to turn off or meander in the slightest; for in so doing, one might inadvertently find oneself within a potentially ponderous morass of uncertainty. Other than that, these 405 pages depict what can only be described as a superb zoom-lens on a history riddled with uncanny and explosive subterfuge.

David Marx


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