Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 480 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-03145-0; $17.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-465-06074-0.
Reviewed by Rian van Meeteren
Published on H-War (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
A Chronicle of a Countdown
The year 2014, being the centennial year of the outbreak of the First World War, has given rise to a large number of books describing and analyzing the origins of what is considered by many to be the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. Sean McMeekin has contributed two books to the growing number of publications that address war guilt and take issue with Fritz Fischer’s thesis that lays war guilt squarely at the feet of imperial Germany. In his first book, The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011), McMeekin drew attention to how Russian strategy and its focus on the Ottoman Empire and the Straits determined the Russian role in the outbreak of the First World War. Although the author’s archival research and the provocative nature of his thesis were applauded, several reviewers pointed out that his conclusions were stronger than the provided evidence warranted.
His second book, July 1914: Countdown to War, is a detailed look at the July Crisis. It describes the series of events that took place between June 28, the day of the Austro-Hungarian heir’s assassination, and August 4, the day that the entry of the United Kingdom transformed the war into a global conflict. The narrative’s 405 pages are divided into a prologue that describes the Sarajevo assassination, an epilogue that provides the author’s analysis of the responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and twenty-five chapters divided in two parts. Part 1 (four chapters) describes the mood and preoccupations of the political elites in the capitals of Europe on the day of the assassination, while part 2 describes the development of the July Crisis in twenty-one chronological chapters.
An advantage of the chronological approach is that it brings out clearly what certain individuals knew at any specific point in time. The author points out crucial details; for example, he notes that the amount of time elapsed between sending a message and it being received was significantly prolonged by the need to code and decode such messages. It appears that Sir Edward Grey (foreign minister of Great Britain), René Viviani (prime minister of France), and Kaiser Wilhelm II were two days behind in interpreting the dispatches on July 27. The intended recipients were also not always immediately available. For example, in Berlin, three days elapsed between the receipt of the Serbian response to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum and the moment Kaiser Wilhelm II read it. As a result the kaiser’s subsequent attempts to mediate between Vienna and Belgrade were too late.
Another advantage of the chronological presentation is that it brings the paucity of primary sources about critical periods to the forefront. In descriptions of several important events, like the mission of the Austro-Hungarian diplomat Alexander Hoyos to Berlin (July 5-6) and the visit of the French president Raymond Poincaré to St. Petersburg (July 20-23), the author is forced to rely on secondary sources. These sources are sometimes of a questionable value (for example, memoirs written by some of the main actors). In his discussion of the Hoyos mission, when describing the process leading to the “blank cheque,” the author has to rely to a large extent on the messages of the Habsburg ambassador in Berlin rather than on documents of German origin. In the description of the proceedings of President Poincaré’s visit to St. Petersburg, the memoirs of Poincaré and the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue feature prominently.
In the epilogue, McMeekin addresses the responsibility for the outbreak of the war. He argues clearly that all the involved countries share a part of the responsibility. As in his earlier book, McMeekin sees Russia as one of the states carrying a high level of responsibility due to its early and (initially) secret mobilization on July 24. This secret (partial) mobilization had been ordered even before formal receipt of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, and was only to be announced in case of an Austrian declaration of war or the outbreak of military operations. This order for partial mobilization was confirmed by the Russian council of ministers on July 25, where also (and more important) the “Period Preparatory to War” was (again secretly) announced in all of European Russia. It is only during the “Willy-Nicky” correspondence on July 30 that Czar Nicholas inadvertently admitted that “the military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago” (p. 283). This admission makes Kaiser Wilhelm’s reaction that “the Czar has secretly mobilized behind my back” and his support for German mobilization definitely understandable. Still, only when this information was confirmed by the actual Russian mobilization placards was the German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg convinced. Mobilization was initiated with the proclamation of the “Kriegsgefahrzustand” on July 31 followed by the German mobilization on August 1. Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the author’s view lies in providing Austria-Hungary with its unconditional support for action against Serbia; its failure to ensure that Austria-Hungary acted rapidly after the assassinations; its inability to restrain its ally after Austrian delays and hesitation made a rapid reaction impossible; and its foolish invasion of Belgium, which ensured Great Britain’s participation in the war on the side of the Entente.
Like its predecessor, July 1914: Countdown to War is a provocative book that forces readers rethink the origins of World War I. It is eminently readable despite the great number of main actors, who are all well introduced. Everyone who is interested in the First World War should have it on their reading list.
. Timothy C. Dowling, review of The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin, Journal of Military History 76, no. 2 (2012): 582-583; and Matthew Rendle, review of The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin, First World War Studies 5, no. 3 (2014): 340-342.
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Rian van Meeteren. Review of McMeekin, Sean, July 1914: Countdown to War.
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