CRF Blog

‘The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen’

by Bill Hayes

In ‘The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen’ for the New York Review of Books, R.J.W. Evans reviews these books on the origins of the First World War: The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan, 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson, The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, and Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings.

June 28, 1914, Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the multinational Habsburg realms, resplendent in the dress uniform of an Austrian cavalry general, but also absurd in his plumed headdress, was shot at close range by Gavrilo Princip, a local student dropout obsessed with the Serbian national cause. Sarajevo was one of history’s most purple passages: there was the drama of bungled security and hamfisted conspiracy; spectacle and gore; the play of intention and chance; the clash of generations and civilizations, of the old monarchical Europe and the modern terrorist cell.

But of course the Sarajevo assassination captivates posterity for its consequences. Piqued in its prestige and fearful of the threat to its status as a great power by subversion fanned from Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian government delivered an ultimatum to its obstreperous little Balkan neighbor, demanding a say in the management of its internal affairs.

Russia stepped in to protect its Serbian clients; the Germans supported their Austrian allies; the French marched to fulfill their treaty obligations to Russia; Great Britain honored its commitment to come to the aid of France. Within five weeks a great war had broken out. At the very least, this is a gripping tale. Sean McMeekin’s chronicle of these weeks in July 1914: Countdown to War is almost impossible to put down.

Thus was unleashed the calamitous conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically. A century on we still search for its causes, and very often, if possible, for people to blame. [more]

For a free classroom lesson with numerous activities on the beginning of World War I, see A Fire Waiting to Be Lit: The Origins of World War I from our Common Core Archive.