Book review: “July 1914: Countdown to War” by Sean McMeekin

I have gotten into a bad habit of buying whatever books I want to read on my Goodreads list instead of trying to find available copies from the library. As the books I’m usually interested in are a little more obscure, they often aren’t available at the library. Still. I decided to try browsing ebooks available through the library instead of insisting they come from my Want-to-Read list. That’s how I came on July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin.

The book is kind of a prequel to the events of WWI, documenting the diplomatic machinations before the first shot was even fired. The title itself almost seems to be a play on classic Guns of August, the moment most people associate with the beginning of WWI.

Without looking up more details, how do you picture the beginning of WWI? Who are the “good guys” and “bad guys”? Before reading this book, I knew there was an archduke that was murdered by Serbians. Then the generalization explained in my high school history textbook: this small conflict escalated due to all the international treaties on both sides. This somehow leads to a conflict between Germany (and Austria? But they didn’t matter, it was all Germany) and the good guys, Britain, France, Russia, and eventually the US. Germany was the aggressor, because they violated Belgian neutrality to get to France. This led to a miserable 4-5 years of war in the trenches after which the good guys eventually won.

That’s the simplified narrative I keep in my head. Which to some extent is correct, but also clearly is biased, as the narrative has been told by the winners.

While McMeekin’s book does attempt to answer the quest “Whose fault was it,” he doesn’t really start analyzing responsibility until the epilogue. The whole of the book is a play-by-play of diplomatic maneuvering. We jump from Vienna to Paris to St. Petersburg to London to Berlin, examining the decisions of heads of state, heads of government, chancellors, foreign ministers, war ministers, and diplomats. The reader has keep track of all the major players on each side. For example, in Germany:

Kaiser Wilhelm II theoretically calls the shots, but is a bit reluctant to go to war and the war hawks think of him as an “old woman.”
Bethmann Hollweg is the kaiser’s chancellor and has kind of the same relationship with Wilhelm as the prime minister has with the queen of Britain.
The main players from the military are Moltke (chief of staff of the army), Falkenhayn (Prussian minister of war), and Tirpitz (representing the Navy).
Not present in Berlin are Germany’s various ambassadors:

  • Griesinger, ambassador to Serbia
  • Lichnowsky, ambassador to Britain
  • Pourtales, ambassador to Russia
  • Schoen, ambassador to France
  • Tschirscky, ambassador to Austria-Hungary
    Then on the other side, the ambassadors from each of these powers to Germany:
  • Goschen, British ambassador to Germany
  • Cambon, French ambassador to Germany
  • Szogeny, Austrian ambassador to Germany

And that is just for a single power. Keeping track of these while reading is absolutely essential. I would lose track at times, and perhaps it would have been helpful to map these out to keep track of the plot. You will have sentences or paragraphs like this one:

Baron Schoen was instructed to inform the French government that, in response to France’s preliminary mobilization preparations, Germany would have to proclaim Kriegsgefahr, which, Schoen was to insist, fell well short of mobilization. More ominously, Pourtales was asked to “please impress on M. Sazonov very seriously that further progress of Russian mobilization measures would compel us to mobilize and that European war could then scarcely be prevented.”

And that one is fairly light! I would keep getting certain names mixed up (like Paleologue and Pourtales).

The book is broken into two asymmetrical sections: Part I (“Reactions”) and Part II (“Countdown”). Part I, as indicated by the title, covers the reactions of the various world powers to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Essential background knowledge, for sure. Like I said above, I wasn’t sure why Archduke Ferdinand was an important player. It turns out Archduke Ferdinand was the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary (for some reason, I associated an archduke with religion, like an archbishop?). So definitely an important player, and perhaps makes clearer why this could potentially result in war. It’s hard to think of an equivalent today, as we don’t have hereditary forms of government. In America, the closest thing I can think of is the assassination of Kamala Harris.

McMeekin does a great job in this section in establishing the major events of the day, like you were reading the daily newspapers. For instance, we may not remember in 10 years from now some of the major headlines now (“heat wave in the Pacific Northwest” for instance going on right now). He also does a great job at trying to establish personalities and relationships between major players. Getting this set up in Part I helps set the flow for the rest of the book.

I was surprised at how long Part II was compared to Part I? But that must be intentional. Part II is much different. Each chapter essentially represents a day in July, a countdown to war that starts in August. You will probably get events in Berlin, London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Belgrade in a single chapter, so it can get confusing.

What are the main takeaways?

The first is that: Germany can’t be painted unilaterally as “the bad guy.” We probably feel that way now because The U.S. fought on the side of the Allies, and the later events of WWII seem much more black and white. McMeekin doesn’t try to point blame at a single player, and he does still hold Germany responsible for two big mistakes: (1) giving Austria-Hungary a blank check for retaliation against Serbia without establishing any type of constraints and (2) violating Belgian neutrality. But his final diagnosis– in fact, the last line of the book– is so far from “willing the war,” the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks.

McMeekin seems to hold Russia as the most culpable when it comes to WWI. In his Epilogue, he states, The decision to European war was made by Russia on the night of 29 July 1914, when Tsar Nicholas II advised unanimously by his advisers, signed the order for general mobilization. While Austria was still wanting to try to “localize” the response to Serbia, Russia was the first great power to get involved and thus sparked a world war. Russia also seems to have been very sneaky in how it portrayed this initial response. It started pre-mobilizing without letting anyone know, essentially starting the dominos as other powers had to respond in turn.

There are other centers of blame as well– McMeekin paints Austria-Hungary inept in its diplomatic response, and Britain wanted to appear neutral as long as possible while secretly favoring France and Russia.

An interesting re-evaluation of history.

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