One wonders why this book was ever written. Although written with clarity and making use of original documents, as have many others, this account of the causes of the First World War tells us nothing that has not been known for at leasy 40 years. In recent years there has been a deliberate attempt by a number of well-known writers to declare Germany innocent of bringing about the Great War of 1914. They have failed miserably because the facts (documents) refuse to support their thesis. To their credit, several outstanding German historians refuse to go along with this desire to find Germany not guilty. Of course, other nations piled fuei on the growing bonfire after 1911 but it was always Germany's intention to seek European hegemony. Her Kaiser and leaders believed passionately that Germany deserved her place in the sun. The success of her military ventures during the 19th century served to encourage this arrogant view. This new work is therefore yet another attempt to sully the record. It also fails to achieve its objective for several reasons. Germanphiles will, of course, remain unconvinced of this allowing emotion to overide the evidence.
McMeeken's book rehashes the well-known assassination, the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, the involvement of Berchtold, and the various mobilisations. It is diplomatic history that lacks a deep knowledge of military strategy and politics. He is very reliant, often without attribution, on previous works, for example the late Professor Alan Taylor's work on the link between mobilisation plans and railways. His attempt to blame Russia for 'a monstrous slaughter' fails to take into account the key fact that Russia had to mobilise early given the size and configuration of her armed forces.
The idea that Russia not Germany was to blame for the war is hardly new. Recently, Christopher Clark attempted the same in his 'The Sleepwalkers'. The author's claim that the Kaiser invaded Belgium as an act of desperation shows a lack of understanding of that monarch's personality and aims. To claim that Germany was dragged into the war 'kicking and screaming' flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
McMeekin's criticism of Britain is grossly unfair and again at odds with the evidence. We did not lie to Germany about our alliances. There was no need as the latter was fully aware of them. The thesis seems to be that the war was a collosal mistake. It was not. The crucial role was played by the German Empire. The superbly trained German army was a clear threat. The Kaiser and his leading advisers wanted a greater voice in World affairs given her industrial strength. This was made very clear in many speeches in the period 1912-14. As a result of this and other factors, Germany was perceived as threatening European peace.
The author ignores the importance of the so-called 'September Programme' which clearly laid out Germany's expansionist aims. He also fails to mention that Germany continued to pursue expansion when Austria-Hungary had achieved its war aims by 1916 with the defeat of Serbia, the containment of Italy and the pushing back of the Russians. From the outset, the evidence shows that Germany always intended using Austrian-Hungarian fear of Serbian expansion to further its own plans for European hegemony. Russia was seen as a desirable, and increasingly vital, breadbasket and source of raw materials for its rapidly growing population. Germany was well aware that Russia would come to the aid of Serbia. This held no fears for the Germans who were scornful of Russia's military. Regarding the latter, the writings and speeches of Ludendorff and Hindenburg make this very clear. The outcome of the recent Russo-Japanese war was often quoted by these two who effectively ran the war from August 1916 with the dismissal of Falkenhayn.
The book is very weak with regards to the importance of the German military in 1914. The enjoyed a prestige that even Hollweg found hard to challenge. 40 army and 8 naval officers had the right of direct access to the Kaiser, whose mood swings increased their influence on policy.
The author fails to examine in detail the crucial importance of the emerging working-class Social Democratic Party in Germany. The SPD had a very strongly articulated nationalism. By 1912 it was the largest party in the Reichstag. Its influence on polical decision-making has only recently been revealed by German scholars and others.
Those who want to understand what really happened in 1914 would be well advised to balance this account by reading books by, for example, Stevenson, Herwig, Beckett, Taylor and Bourne.
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