Dance of the Furies

A few years back, I saw a recording of Michael Neiberg’s presentation on this book at the National World War One Museum. I picked up a copy and read it a few months ago as research for my post on Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star.

Review: Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War 1, Michael S. Neiberg, 2011.

When Gavrilo Princip stepped up to the car of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and fired his Browning pistol twice, one bullet for the Archduke and one for his wife, he gave Europeans what they had long wanted: a war to settle old grudges and to further the interests of their countries. The war had long been predicted, desired, and was greeted with enthusiasm. They all wanted it.

Or so one of the myths of World War One would have it.

Neiberg’s compelling and highly readable history is a convincing refutation of that idea. By looking at the journals, articles, letters, and diaries of Europeans – including some who found themselves in countries their home nations were at war with – and diplomats and journalists from neutral nations, he details how Europeans went from barely noticing any “crisis” in June 1914 to reluctant but resolute supporters of the war by December 1914.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t that upset about the assassination. There was no cessation of regular activities to mourn the Archduke. French, Italian, and Russians newspapers barely noted the story. The British papers were sympathetic to the Archduke since he and his wife had visited England the year before. But, really, what could you expect from Serb “anarchists”?

It was a beautiful summer, and Europe was at peace. Bestselling books had argued for years that a European war was unthinkable because of international trade and the sheer volume of material that would be consumed in a modern war. And there had been war scares before back in 1905 and 1911. The diplomats had always worked things out. It may take months, and there would be ups and downs. Maybe the Austro-Hungarian Empire would take its gripes against Serbia to a third-party arbitrator. It’s not like it was going to punish a whole country because of a small group of terrorists.

Europeans were not internationalists. They had loyalties to nations and empires, but it was not an aggressive nationalism that yearned for war. Kaiser Wilhelm, astoundingly, was regarded in the Europe of 1914 as a major force for peace. Czar Nicholas had a similar reputation. The British Royal Navy visited the German High Fleet in Kiel that July, and politicians took vacations and went to the spa.

That all changed on July 23, 1914 when the Austro-Hungarians made their demands of Serbia and gave them two days to comply. Not exactly cricket, as a British diplomat might have said. It took months to resolve these matters, not days. And why make the demand directly to Serbia and not ask for arbitration?

Von Moltke the Elder, in the waning years of the 19th century, said that cabinet wars were a thing of the past. From now on, Europe would have people’s wars. But cabinets were taking actions behind the scenes that would lead to war – even if that wasn’t that intended outcome. (Neiberg takes the conventional and, to my mind, questionable position that the war was mostly the fault of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires.)

The Serbs agreed to all demands except one, and that led, as far as the Austro-Hungarians were concerned, to the desired outcome: an excuse to invade Serbia.

But, while some European diplomats were alarmed at the Austro-Hungarian demands, most of the populace paid little attention to the growing crisis or thought war was imminent or wanted one.

The one exception was European Socialists, and Neiberg explains well why, despite their pleads to an international brotherhood of workers, they all endorsed war for their countries.

Socialists were skeptical of war which they saw as a brutal affair that ended up enriching capitalists and killing or impoverishing the workers. French and German Socialists had a tight relationship with each other.

Jean Jaurès was Europe’s leading Socialist and immediately recognized, on July 25, 1914, that Europe was closer to war than it had been in 40 years. But he also thought protracted negotiations would ultimately resolve the situation peacefully. German and French Socialists had consulted with their governments and were assured they wanted peace. The idea that alliances could drag countries into war instead of being a force for peace didn’t occur to them.

And European Socialists were not internationalists or pacificists. They believed in the right and duty of Socialists to protect their own nations. Before he was assassinated on July 31st, Jaurès met with the French government. After hearing how it turned down Germany’s demand that France turn over some fortresses – including Verdun – in exchange for being left alone, Jaurès said he couldn’t imagine what more France could do to avoid war.

Mass demonstrations were held in Austria and Germany against the war, but, eventually, Socialists in all the belligerent nations supported – reluctantly – war. The reasons were several. Governments sold the conflict as being defensive in nature, and, after the outbreak of the war, press freedom was rapidly tamped down and propaganda began. Atrocity stories stiffened the resolve to fight. Opposing political parties made temporary alliances to present a picture of unity and for possible future concessions.

For a while, the notion of a short war held sway, but the belief in that seemed to have faded by September 1914.

Privation, propaganda, a sense of grueling patriotic duty reluctantly taken up, and the sunken-cost fallacy stiffened the resolve of the warring nations to see the war through.

Neiberg presents his case with elegance and many illuminating quotes and incidents.

He also takes a look at the changing notions of the soldiers involved as they went from a bored obliviousness to the coming storm to bafflement at where they found themselves. That includes German soldiers punished for giving food to Belgiums, a country that it seemed rather hard to regard as an enemy unlike France or the Asiatic hordes of Russia.

Highly recommended for those interested in the eventful summer of 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War.

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