1914: The Year the World Ended shows how the old world of empire and monarchy died. It offers a fresh understanding of the causes of the Great War. In Paul Ham’s vigorous telling, the world did not stumble or sleepwalk into war, as many suppose. The men who ran the governments of Europe chose war. Some did so exuberantly; others, reluctantly.
All knew their actions risked a European conflagration.
Why did 8.5 million young men have to die over four years of slaughter? Paul Ham shows that the usually cited causes of the Great War are woefully inadequate in understanding why it began - and why it continued. Something deeper ran through the veins of Europe than imperial rivalry and national distrust.
The Great War, in essence, was a ‘preservative’ war: the European Powers went to war – and continued fighting it - to preserve their ailing political regimes. They were fighting to sustain a decaying world. Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary hoped the conflict would crush the revolutionary forces within, and reinforce the power of their ancient imperial systems. France and Britain had their own nationalistic reasons for slouching towards Armageddon.
In the end they all embraced war – a war that would destroy the very structures they strove to preserve. And afterwards, the governments who unleashed this abomination on the world washed their hands of it and denied all responsibility.
Years later, they would look back on those summer days through the lens of a global conflict of unspeakable horror, loss and waste. And the contrast was unbearable. Understandably, they longed for that blissful peace, engraved in their minds as warm and sunbathed, as if idealising the weather would somehow suspend in aspic, if never quite retrieve, the ‘eminently pastoral’ pre-war world.
The myth of the Belle Époque:
The great lights of modernity dazzle with hindsight but shone on precious few at the time. The pre-war artists articulated a new consciousness that eluded the old order. Not until years later, after a world war had devastated Europe, would the bourgeoisie concede the point in the only way they knew how: by putting a price tag on the sublime and appropriating it as their own. In 1870–1914, however, the democratic ideals of a more humane and tolerant world, expressed in art and literature, were to be throttled, ignored or postponed.
It was the privileged few up in the boxes, not the Social Democrats in the stalls, who would plunge the world into chaos. The eminent, bewhiskered men in plumed hats, their chests heavy with medals, the top-hatted, white-tied elite, with their bejewelled wives at their sides peering down their lorgnettes on the rabble below . . . they would decide how and when Europe descended into hell. And in time these pied pipers of the apocalypse – kings, reactionary politicians, generals and media bosses – would send millions of their nation’s students, shopkeepers, workers and sons of the landed gentry to the trenches without giving a fig for Zola, cubism or Nijinsky’s faun. And millions would follow.
European society before 1914:
The conservative mainstream stoutly resisted democratic reforms such as votes for women, better working conditions, social welfare and universal healthcare... By the turn of the century, Australia and New Zealand were the only Western countries to have extended the vote to women, and Germany under Bismarck was the only European country to have introduced a recognisable welfare state and universal male suffrage...
Behind this social gossamer were the iron laws of laissez-faire economics, which prevailed through to 1914 and were worshipped as if they existed in an objective reality beyond the reach of mankind’s ability to amend them... A family may prosper one moment and be ruined the next. Charity remained the chief form of welfare. Government intervention was frowned upon, and deemed helpless before the ‘natural law’ of the invisible hand: trade cycles, price fluctuations and unemployment.
The Schlieffen Plan:
A war plan that reflects glory on those for whom the plan is intended and aggrandises the victory implicit in its design carries a curious potency. It sits in the mind, and on the desk, gathering a strange potential energy. It reconciles divergent or hostile opinions. It transports the commanders, who fondly imagine the realisation of its dormant power. The plan thus acquires a legitimacy and strength in its own right. By laying the spectacle of the mobilisation of millions of men and thousands of machines on the page, the war planners had somehow prefigured their own triumphant destiny...
Edward Grey, British foreign secretary, on the eve of war:
Grey’s diplomatic qualities were utterly inadequate to the challenge of 1914. He refused to make promises or commitments, and seemed to assume sheer niceness would please everyone. Times such as these, however, called for sterner stuff. Grey’s ‘wait and see’ style, his glad-handing of friend and foe, had the effect of raising suspicions and ratcheting up the tension. The more he strove for conciliation, to befriend all comers, the less he conciliated any of them. When Europe needed an assertive British bulldog, they got a vacillating fly fisherman.
A decent hypocrisy:
The Great War was an avoidable, unnecessary exercise in collective stupidity and callousness, launched by profoundly flawed and (if we may be permitted the phrase) emotionally unintelligent men, most of whom were neither fit nor trained but bred to rule, and who saw the world as a Darwinian jungle in which Teuton, Slav (and their Latin and Anglo-Saxon allies) were somehow predestined to bash each other’s brains out until the ‘fittest’ won.
Perhaps there is a decent hypocrisy in the ‘boo-hoo brigade’ of militarists, chauvinists and warmongering politicians who tearfully look back on the war as a great tragedy. It is a curious phenomenon that the very people who were most responsible for driving the world to fight, who goaded young men into uniform and delighted in their ‘lovely war’, would later ostentatiously mourn the victims at ceremonies and anniversaries.
Yet if the tears and bowed heads of they ‘who grow old’ are sincere, they will reasonably protest the next time their government compels a new generation to fight an unjust war, rather than rallying their people to arms. The unthinking reflex of youth is forgivable: war is an adventure; war makes heroes. The exploitation of that reflex by politicians is grossly irresponsible and, in the broadest sense, criminal. Only a legal construction distinguished the Great War from the government-sponsored mass murder of European youth. At least Winston Churchill had the honesty to say he enjoyed it.
"1914 is a gripping depiction of events which transformed the world... It’s the total package with vivid descriptions of German gunboat diplomacy, the unruly Bosnian Serb anarchists who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the meat-grinder horror of Western Front, civilian slaughter in Belgium, lice, shell shock and the withering anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In short, it is a compelling and panoramic work for the general reader." ― David Costello, Australian Institute of International Affairs
"I rank Paul Ham as one of the best Australian historians writing at the moment, so I had no hesitations about reading his take on the First World War. He tells the story of how the world went to war and dispels many of the myths that have been perpetuated (particularly by high school history teachers!). Ham deftly and expertly guides us through all the pivotal events that led to this cataclysm..." ― Bite the Book
"This brilliant reappraisal describes in full the circumstances that led to World War I; it also presents a rational narration of the military and political course of events during arguably the most momentous year in human history. From the very first moment, 1914 re-creates the climate of the period with efficacy, thoroughness, accuracy and lucidity. It is a magnificent book." ― InDaily