The Outbreak of the First World War Paperback – 16 Dec 2004
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About the Author
Hew Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford.
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The book comes in three parts. Part I, entitled "The Origins of the War," considers the political situation of Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Britain. Strachan makes a point of disagreeing with the Treaty of Versailles and Fritz Fischer. He does not accept that Germany was the main cause of the war. Instead, he argues that Austria-Hungary was more to blame because of their attempted power-grab in the Balkans. Strachan also discusses, in great detail, the July Crisis. This part is the high politics section of the book.
Part II, entitled "Willingly to War," considers that in July 1914 the statesmen of the European powers were confronting issues that they saw as deeply serious. They were aware that they were courting war, and that the war would be of a horror and intensity unequalled in history. However, most of the peoples of these powers saw self-defense and national aggrandisement as the legitimate demands for war. A war which began for reasons of national self-interest became defined in terms of universal values. War became an existential act. Strachan shows how this apparent paradox came about.
Part III is the conclusion. It describes how the war's outcome continued to matter even when the cost-benefit calculations outstripped the issues at stake in July 1914. The policies which bring a country to war may not be those which cause the war to continue. Strachan looks at how World War I was one of the defining moments of present day life.
This book was originally a part of Strachan's "To Arms," one of the definitive studies of the opening of World War I. The companion book to "The Outbreak of the First World War" is "Financing the First World War." Both books compliment each other, but can be read alone.
The Parliamentary Liberal Party proclaimed on 30 July 1914, "On no account will this country be dragged into the conflict." Five days later, it backed the war. The Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey argued for war, "We shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside." So, logically, stand aside. Each state claimed to be fighting in self-defence, each claimed God's blessing. Lies united the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties behind the war.
Strachan writes, "Within the International the revolutionary left did not share the majority's abhorrence of war." (13 pages later, he writes that this majority `embraced the war'.) He claims the Bolsheviks wanted war because it would bring revolution, but cites no evidence. If a meteorologist predicted a storm, would Strachan accuse him of wanting it? The Bolsheviks warned that imperialism made war inevitable, but, unlike Churchill, they did not call it a `glorious delicious war'.
After citing the French and German social democrats' excuses for their treachery, Strachan agrees with them and parrots their fraudulent, idealist claims: "The First World War was therefore not the sort of war against which socialism had aligned itself: it was a war for justice and liberty, not of imperial aggrandizement."
The historian Fritz Fischer wrote of Germany, "the aim was to consolidate the position of the ruling classes with a successful imperialist foreign policy, indeed it was hoped a war would resolve the growing social tensions." He should have written the same of Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
Strachan acknowledges that in 1914 Britain "had the most restrictive male franchise of any European country outside Hungary, and it was home to jingoism, navalism, and imperialism. Evidence not dissimilar to that used by Fischer to castigate the Germans could also be deployed to mount an attack on Britain."
Strachan writes, "By July 1914 each power ... felt it was on its mettle, that its status as a great power would be forfeit if it failed to act." Eyre Crowe of the Foreign Office wrote, "if England cannot engage in a big war [it] means her abdication as an independent State." The evidence points to the conclusion that the First World War was a war between rival imperialisms, as Lenin said. But the job of state propagandists like Strachan is to deny this and smear those who tell the truth.