Was World War I an inevitable disaster looking for a catalyst? Not so, writes On Point news analyst Beatty (Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, 2007, etc.) in this intermittently illuminating but deeply frustrating new history.
What happened is well known. After Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, pieces locked in place that engaged the major powers in a catastrophic war. Austria, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia, which was backed by Russia; soon, Russia’s ally France entered the fray, as did Britain. After years of trying to stay out of it, the United States was pulled in when it looked as if Mexico was going to try to reclaim parts of Texas. Things could have easily been different, writes Beatty, as the countries involved were all locked in internal struggles that could have taken different outcomes, and Princip’s bullet could have easily missed and struck another target—if it had, the living Ferdinand would not have argued for war. Not only that, but he would have acceded to the throne following Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, and would likely have been too embroiled in civil strife to deal with a war with Serbia. Once war was engaged, it was kept alive by press censorship in the countries involved. The French, English and Germans did not know the scale of suffering endured by their soldiers, and may not have wanted to. By the time the U.S. joined in 1917, it only prolonged the struggle. A post-Armistice food blockade starved Germany, and the children of that war would unite under the father figure of Adolf Hitler. The author provides a well-researched, compelling thesis, but the narrative lacks strong portraiture, the motivations aren’t always made clear and the drama, except in rare instances, remains on a simmer.
This may prove to be an important book for students of “counterfactual” history, but only occasionally does this story about a world going up in flames ever ignite.