McMeekin (History/Koç Univ.; The Russian Origins of the First World War, 2011, etc.) treads familiar ground but delivers a thoroughly rewarding account that spares no nation regarding the causes of World War I, although Germany receives more than its share of blame.
Historians love to argue about who started World War I. Blaming Germany fell out of fashion soon after the Armistice succeeded, replaced by an interpretation that blamed everyone, exemplified by Barbara Tuchman’s classic 1962 Guns of August. Within a decade, German scholars led another reversal back to their own nation’s responsibility. Russia, huge and backward but rapidly modernizing, was the key. German military leaders led by Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, believed Russia would attack Germany as soon as it felt confident of victory and that only a preventive war could save the nation. Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s murder by a Serbian terrorist proved a godsend. Austria yearned to crush Serbia, the pugnacious Balkan nation stirring up the Slav minority in Austria-Hungary’s rickety empire. Von Moltke decided it was time to set matters right since Austria’s cooperation was guaranteed. Russia’s refusal to stop mobilizing in support of Serbia allowed him to warn that it was about to attack and that Germany had to strike first. It did so by invading Belgium on August 4, the act that made war inevitable.
Tuchman remains irresistible, and David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer (2004) is the best modern history, but McMeekin delivers a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of the increasingly frantic maneuvers of European civilian leaders who mostly didn’t want war and military leaders who had less objection.