on 8 September 2010
In his very detailed book Mr. Ponting traces the diplomatic events in the main European capitals that plunged Europe and then the world in the first modern world. Starting by a wonderful narrative of the murder of the Austro-hungarian heir in Sarajevo (personally, my favourite bit of the book), the author then carries on with a day by day account of events in the different European capitals where the war was decided upon.
The book itself is rather easy to read and I consider it suitable even for people who are not used to reading history books though I feel the narrative goes down somewhat towards the end. The main setback of the book is the author's goal of proving a point that his own narrative belies (or I think so), Russia's great responsibility in the start of the war. But I would recommend you to read and judge by yourself...
This book, published in 2002, is an extremely ambitious non-fictional account of the pivotal time leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. It is broken down into sections as follows:
Part One: Sarajevo, Sunday 28 June 1914
1. The Assassination
2. The Conspiracy
3. The Reaction
Part Two: Prologue
4. Europe in 1914
5. The Twenty-Four Days: 29 June – 22 July
Part Three: the Thirteen Days
6. Thursday 23 July
7. Friday 24 July
8. Saturday 25 July
9. Sunday 26 July
10. Monday 27 July
11. Tuesday 28 July
12. Wednesday 29 July
13. Thursday 30 July
14. Friday 31 July
15. Saturday 1 August
16. Sunday 2 August
17. Monday 3 August
18. Tuesday 4 August
Part Four: Epilogue
The book concludes with three Appendices:
1. The Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, 23 July 1914
2. The Serbian Government reply to Austria-Hungary, 25 July 1914
3. Individuals involved in the thirteen days (broken down by country/nation – this is particularly useful given the huge number of people involved in the diplomatic and political circles in various nations).
As can be seen, the crucial “thirteen days” are those of 23 July to 4 August, the time from when Austria-Hungary sent its ultimatum to Serbia to the time when the major European powers were all at war.
I read the book slightly out of order, reading chapter 4 with its overview of Europe in 1914 first, then chapters 1 – 3 with the detailed narration of the assassination of Archudke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June. From then, the 24 day period from 29 June to 22 July outlines diplomatic manoeuvrings, particularly in Germany and Austria-Hungary, both seeking to make political capital out of the assassination; Austria-Hungary to quash Serbia once and for all, and Germany to cultivate an opportunity for a wider war for their own aims by assisting their ally Austria-Hungary.
The 13 days 23 July to 4 August cover in great detail, by subsections moving from one European capital to another (including London, Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg, Cetinje, Bucharest, Rome, Nis, Belgrade etc.) the actions taken by diplomats, politicians, generals and rulers to serve their own interests around the Austro-Hungarian – Serbian conflict. Each country clearly had their own objectives, but it is highly illuminating also to see where conversations, memos, telegrams and letters could help or hinder in so many ways, sometimes without intention (and oftentimes limited by the technology of the day). For example, if Grey in London had been clearer about Britain’s possible involvement in any war that broke out in Europe, would Germany have been so keen to foster such a war? If Russia had had a working partial mobilisation strategy and the Tsar had not opted for a more general moblisation, would a Europe-wide war have grown from the localised Austro-Hungarian - Serbian conflict? If Austria-Hungary and Germany had better coordinated their planned western and eastern troop movements, would they still have been so eager to go to war – particularly if they had more up-to-date information on Russia’s ability to more rapidly mobilise their forces? There are so many questions that we can see now, and which were overlooked or ignored at the time and which led to such tragic and futile loss of life. This is a bitter story, but one that needs to be told. The author has succeeded brilliantly in bringing to life in glorious detail the situation in Europe in 1914, and the months of June and July 1914 in particular. Thoroughly recommended for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the play of action leading up to the War in 1914.
on 13 January 2003
This has to be one of the best books I've ever read on WW1. The day by day, hour by hour approach to tell the story really does build an incredible tension as events unfold. At one point, despite being perfectly aware of the real outcome, I even found myself starting to believe that the diplomatic efforts to avoid war might succeed! There is a confusing array of names to get your head round, including monarchs, assassins, ministers and diplomats, but fortunately Ponting provides a Who's Who in one of the appendices. A great read and a huge revelation of how and why the first seeds of war were sown. I look forward to seeing this one on the big screen!
on 4 August 2014
Ponting begins his book by rejecting '...the common view of [Germany's] primary responsibility for the war'. Sadly much of the evidence he goes on to offer supports this, the academically accepted view.
From the 'Blank Check' to Berlin's haranguing of Vienna to declare war on Serbia and subsequent failure to assist the efforts of third parties to mediate, Ponting provides a balance of evidence to suggest that Germany played not just a part, but the principal role in escalating an assassination in Sarajevo to the point of global crisis. He also offers primary source evidence of Berlin's diplomatic efforts to avoid the blame for the outcome of their actions.
Of 30 July 1914, Ponting argues that the, '... Russian decision to order general mobilisation was the one move in the crisis that was bound to produce a European war'. This conveniently ignores the fact that Russian mobilisation did not lead inexorably to war, and while Russian decision makers would have deduced that their own mobilisation would trigger a corresponding German reaction, they could not have known that for Germany, mobilisation and war were one and the same thing. These charges can be laid upon Germany alone.
Germany's only military plan, the Schlieffen Plan, demanded a speedy and direct transition from mobilisation to war - and all before Russia could complete its own mobilisation. Many senior German politicians and diplomats were entirely unaware of the details of this plan, so it beggars belief that their Russian, French or even allied Austro-Hungarian counterparts might know of its details and implications. Unlike the Russians and Austro-Hungarian military staffs who were prepared and able to amend their mobilisation plans, The German General Staff refused to do so, knowing that this allowed no other avenue but war with Russia and France, violating Belgian neutrality on the way and in all probability dragging the British Empire in.
If the densely inter-woven brocade of 'isms' - Nationalism, Miltarism, Imperialism, Social Darwinism - formed the necessary and always dangerous critical mass, it was Germany's Schlieffen Plan alone that provided the initiator for the massive chain reaction that would engulf Europe and the world in the Great War.
The main body of Ponting's book follows the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing of the 13 days leading up to the British declaration of war in concise daily chapters; I read each of these on its centenary. They offer many interesting and colourful anecdotes, personal portraits and insights, but do nothing to dispel the orthodoxy that the lion's share of responsibility for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 rests deservedly in Berlin.