This is a book which seeks to challenge a major myth about the first world war, and to describe the consequences of that myth throughout the war. That myth is that the masses of the European countries vigorously and optimistically applauded the declaration of war in August 1914. Uncounted textbooks and middlebrow documentaries have referred to this primordial chauvinism and naivetee. But is it true?
Verhey's book is about Germany, and in what is roughly the first half of his book, he answers no. The demonstrations that occurred in late July 1914 were largely middle class and urban, with university students playing a particularly prominent part. The working classes showed little enthusiasm, the marches were smaller than many previous Socialist demonstrations (as well as Socialist calls against war), and the countryside and smaller centers were largely quiet. Verhey demonstrates these facts by copious sources such as newspapers, the large secondary literature, and whatever archival sources he can find. A problem develops here. When the war began the German government concluded that the war was sufficiently popular enough that it would not bother its agents with reporting popular opinion. So Verhey must look for other sources. One source is underdeveloped in my view. It has long been argued by the supporters of German Social Democracy that they voted for war credits because they feared being abandoned by the working class. Verhey argues that German Social Democrats in fact were rarely influenced by this source, not surprisingly given his thesis of working class unenthusiasm. But I believe there is not sufficient attention paid to the papers of Social Democratic leaders in order to learn how their opinions developed.
As for the second half of the book, about how the myth of 1914 percolated throughout society, it is comparatively bland and rather straightforward. There are some interesting accounts of the failure of pro-war groups to cross class divides, and there is an interesting deflation of the Rightist Fatherland Party, which according to Verhey was not a proto-Nazi populist movement, but another unsuccessful political mobilization by the elites. Otherwise, there is much talk about myth and propaganda and the general failure of the myth of 1914, which gives the second half a somewhat padded feeling.