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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important but do read other books, 14 Nov 2013
This review is from: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Paperback)
An important book, especially for those who may disagree with the views it implies on German War Guilt, who need to deal with the evidence prsented here.

The author does have a reputation for being more sympathetic to German views on how the war arose than is common amongst British historians at any rate.

The Sarajevo assassination and the Serbian entanglement with this is treated in great detail. There are also valuable discussions on the different ways that decisions were made in the major countries concerned. How Austria-Hungary for example to make a decision on anything will puzzle many modern political commentators. Much detail will surprise those not specialists on this historic period. For example the fact that the President of France was on a state visit to Russia at the end of July 1914, returning home only a few days before the outbreak of war.

It is a tough and complex read though. And even with this length and complexity a number of important matters are skimped over or not mentioned. The untenable strategic situation in the Polish lands for example following the partitions of Poland in the 18th Century, reinforced by the post-Napoleonic settlements. The Russian salient including Warsaw made a defence of Prussian lands very precarious in the case of hostilities. Only an international understanding such as the `Dreikaiserbund', defunct by 1914, could manage the situation in Poland. Stressing this might reinforce a more conventional interpretation of how the war situation arose.

The discussion of the politics in Britain will leave most lay readers puzzled, as there are frequent references to the Liberal Imperialists but no explanation of who they were, and how important in the politics of the time. Briefly, the rise of the British Empire in the last third of the 19th Century was not without opposition. The Liberal Party often opposed new colonial adventures. The Conservative Party built up a populist pro-Empire movement which recruited many voters who might otherwise have supported the Liberals on certain other policies. Only when a faction in the Liberal Party friendly to the Imperial State came to an accommodation with more sceptical Liberals could the Liberal Party put together an internal coalition that won General Elections and introduced social reforms to the UK. The Lib Imps as they were known were eventually the faction that prevailed in the debates on British intervention in WW1.

Entirely omitted in this book is any discussion as to how the Nederlands avoided being forced into the war, and how it remained neutral throughout. This is important as at one stage the German General Staff envisaged a variation on the Schlieffen Plan including an invasion of Belgium via Dutch territory. The Nederlands however mobilised its forces at the end of July 1914 following an intelligence tip-off on July 25th that Europe-wide hostilities were imminent. Did this cause disruptions to German planning?

For me, one lesson learned is how views on `Europe' began to change in those years. At the start there was a kind of Bismarkian dismissal - Europe was just a 'geographical expression' a space over which powers tried to establish a balance of forces. Europe was nobody's common home. At the end something perhaps a little new, expressed in the dignified Belgium rejection of the German ultimatium of 2 August 1914: that acceptance would "betray Belgium's duties towards Europe".

A "Geographical Expression" or something shared between all its peoples. Can we see here the seeds of the debate over the nature and existence of the European Union in our own day?

In short this is an important book which is in no sense the final word on the issues it raises. Four stars only because it is frankly heavy going at times.

(Those interested in the Dutch experience should read Maartje Abbenhuis `The Art Of Staying Neutral: The Nederlands in the First World War)
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Initial post: 7 Jan 2014 13:08:12 GMT
Wolfram Venn says:
Thank you for the recommendation.
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