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Uncertain origins, global consequences

Europe's Last Summer Who Started the Great War in 1914? David Fromkin Alfred A. Knopf: 368 pp., $26.95 The First World War Hew Strachan Viking: 366 pp., $27.95

June 06, 2004|William I. Hitchcock | William I. Hitchcock is the author of "The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent, 1945-2002" and teaches history at Wellesley College.

If you find yourself in London anytime soon, stop at the Imperial War Museum. There, on the ground floor, is a vast permanent exhibit on the history of World War I, a conflict in which 745,000 soldiers from Britain gave their lives. Among the display cases filled with various weapons, maps, uniforms, mess kits, letters home to loved ones and, of course, the predictable dioramas of battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, there is a small panel devoted to a lesser-known subplot of the war: the Mesopotamian campaign.

In November 1914, British forces began an invasion of what is today Iraq. Starting in Basra and fighting against Turkish troops from the Ottoman Empire, British forces slowly, with heavy losses, fought their way up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, taking aim at towns that are now on the lips of all observers of the Middle East: Nasiriya, Kut, Baghdad, Fallouja, Tikrit, all the way to Kirkuk and Mosul. The Mesopotamian campaign was long and difficult; 27,600 British soldiers died in it. Eventually, Britain defeated the Turks and, after the war, found itself in control of a new state, which proved an unruly territory to govern.

After a decade of uneasy occupation, British troops departed, leaving King Faisal I, a pro-Western monarch, on the throne. British soldiers have since returned, alongside a much larger force of Americans, all of whom find themselves in an eerily similar predicament to those bedraggled Britons of 1915: isolated in hostile territory, unwanted, the target of attack. World War I is like that: Wherever you look across the map of today's world, you find its footprints.

How is it possible that British lads, reinforced by Indian troops, could have found themselves fighting on the banks of the Tigris against Turkish soldiers in a war that started over the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serb nationalist in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo? The lines that connect these far-flung dots have fascinated -- and bedeviled -- generations of historians.

World War I defies easy explanation, and historians have come to distinctly differing interpretations over why it started and what the powers were fighting about in the first place. Many contemporaries latched onto the simple formulations offered by their leaders and the press: This was a war to end Prussian militarism, to stop the beastly Hun, to avenge neutral Belgium, to keep the seas open to trade and even, Woodrow Wilson would say in 1917, to make the world safe for democracy. Yet none of these aims was present in the minds of the men who led Europe to war in August 1914. Why then did the great powers go to war, and what did they hope to achieve?

David Fromkin, author of a much admired book on the effect of this war on the Middle East, and Hew Strachan, whose books include "The First World War: To Arms," the first of a projected three-volume study, examine these important questions. Their answers do not differ markedly, but these two books are nonetheless worlds apart. Fromkin, who writes with ease and has always had a talent for portraiture, leavens "Europe's Last Summer" with much drama, making this a fast-paced read. Yet his work is far too breezy for the complexity of the subject matter, and his research barely skims the surface of the available scholarship and sources.

Strachan, by contrast, is no stylist, but "The First World War" is a marvel of synthesis and is based on a lifetime of careful research on the subject. It appears there is nothing Strachan does not know about World War I; at times, he struggles to keep his mastery of detail from burdening the narrative of his concise overview.

It seems odd that, 90 years after the fateful guns of August first erupted, the origins of the war are still in dispute. Actually, few people today would disagree with the assertion that Germany bears principal responsibility for the war. Starting as far back as the 1930s, scholars such as Bernadotte Schmitt, Pierre Renouvin and Luigi Albertini found ample evidence to show that the German leadership had sought a war with Russia and its ally France to break what it saw as the encirclement of Germany by rival great powers and to assure Germany's future status as the dominant power in central Europe. In the 1960s, the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer published two books based on newly released documents confirming this view, further detailing the imperial ambitions of the German leadership. The case for German guilt seemed closed.

Historians are professional contrarians, however, and they have not all been reconciled to Fischer's thesis. Some have said that Austria-Hungary bears chief blame because it was Vienna's long-nourished determination to crush Serbia that led Austria to pick a war with the Serbs over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This then triggered Russia's backing of Serbia and Germany's defense of Austria. Hence, a spreading war.

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