The Decisions of July: The European Elite Goes to War in 1914

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Far I hear the steady drummer Drumming like a noise in dreams. –A.E. Housman

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, is a wonderful, magisterial diplomatic history of how Europe went to war in the summer of 1914. (Read it, and The Guns of August will never seem the same; for one thing, Clark shows clearly how players in chancelleries all over Europe wanted war; it’s not just down to the Germans.) Thomas Lacquer in the London Review of Books:

The Sleepwalkers is also a book for our time in its emphasis on contingency and the role of what Clark calls the multiple ‘mental maps’ in the decisions that were taken. The war in his account was not the consequence of two great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe….

Statesmen at various levels and in at least five countries were testing a system whose workings were beyond their comprehension. No single logic, no master narrative led to a determinable end. There were structural limits to policy-making.

Clark’s story is ‘saturated with agency’. Many actors (the crowned heads of Europe, military men, diplomats, politicians and others), each with their own objectives, acting as rationally and irrationally as humans are wont to act, made decisions that foreclosed on others and collectively led the world into an unimaginable and un-imaged war. Collectively, they produced the greatest ‘black swan event’ in world history.

Some may think we’re seeing a similar collective failure of elite decision making — assuming one views millions of dead as a failure — in the drama of Grexit, should its resolution ultimately be the dissolution of the European Union. After all, if we abstract realpolitik, and normal human characteristics like greed, the lust for power, and class interest away, we are still left with the laudable desire to avoid another one of the Great Wars that have saturated European soil with blood, bits of twisted metal, and unexploded ordnance. 2015 – 1945 = 70 years without a major European war, and that’s a tribute to Europe and European institutions, including the European Union. If those institutions are at risk, that’s a very big deal; in fact the prospect fills me with foreboding, especially since Europe includes two nuclear powers.

We’ve been talking a lot about the decision-making, on all sides, during what I will label the Greek Debt Crisis — hat tip, German banks, for getting away clean — about European decision making, especially in the process of “negotiation.” I’m now going to quote three long-ish episodes from The Sleepwalkers, all of which focus on different aspects of the decision-making after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist on 28 June 1914. I hope we can use these episodes from the complex, chaotic, and most definitely not mechanistic past as lenses to look at the present. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.

Decision Makers: Kaiser Wilhelm II

After the Austrians decided for war (see below), they drafted a telegram to Serbia that contained an “ultimatum” so worded as to provoke Serbian rejection, and thus  casus belli. Here is how the Kaiser heard about it, what he did, and what happened. From pp. 520-523:

During these hot July [1914] weeks, the Kaiser was taking his Scandinavian cruise. Extended journeys by ship, mostly in the Baltic, had long been a fixture in William II’s summer calendar. They enabled him to escape from the tension, complexity, and sense of impotence that dogged him in Berlin. On board the royal yacht Hohenzollern, surrounded by agreeable sycophants who could always be press-ganged into imperial amusements, the Kaiser could be master of all he surveyed and give free rein to the impetuous currents of his personality. …

[On 19 July], Wilhelm was shocked into a state of “high anxiety” by a telegram to the Hohenzollern from the Secretary of State for foreign affairs, Jagow. The telegram contained nothing essentially new, but it warning that an ultimatum was now planned for 23 July and that measures were to be taken to make sure the Kaiser could be reached “in case unforseen circumstances should make important decisions [mobilization] necessary brought home to Wilhelm the scope of the crisis that now loomed. …

When Admiral Müller suggested that the ultimatum meant that war was imminent, the Kaiser energetically contradicted him. The Serbs, he insisted, would never risk a war against Austria. Müller interpreted this — correctly, as it turned out — as a sign that the Kaiser was psychologically completely unprepared for military complications and would cave in as soon as he realized that war was a real possibility. …

At ten o’clock that morning [of 28 July] The Kaiser dashed off a letter to Jagow in which he declared that since Serbia had tendered “a capitulation of the most humiliating kind,” any reason for war has now been eliminated.”

[The Kaiser’s] comments during the crisis suggest that, unlike those figures in Berlin and Vienna who saw the ultimatum as a mere pretext for military action, he regarded it as an authentic diplomatic instrument with a role to play in resolving the crisis and that he remained wedded to the idea of a political resolution of the Balkan problem.

A fissure had opened within the German decision-making structure. The view of the sovereign was at odds with that of the most senior political decision-makers. But the fissure was soon closed. The most remarkable thing about the letter to Jagow of 28 July is that it was not acted upon. Had Kaiser Wilhelm II enjoyed the plenitude of power that is sometimes attributed to him, this intervention might have changed the course of the crisis and possibly of world history. But he was out of touch with developments in Vienna, where the leadership was impatient to press ahead with the strike on Serbia. But, more importantly, having been away at sea for the better part of three weeks, he was out of touch with developments in Berlin. His instructions to Jagow had no influence on Berlin’s representations to Vienna. [Chancellor] Bethmann did not inform the Austrians of Wilhelm’s views in time to prevent them from issuing their declaration of war [on Serbia] on 28 July.

In moments of crisis, the personal characteristic of decision makers placed in positions of great, or ostensibly great, power really do matter. (If Louis XVI had not been a vaccillating monarch who made his decisions on the basis of the last person who talked to him, he might have kept his head. And if Charles I had been capable of backing down from a decision once taken, he might have kept his.) This is true even if those characteristics are that staff keep them out of the loop until its too late. One can only wonder how many decisions in the Greek Debt Crisis have been structured by bureaucrats and Sherpas writing the bullet points. Finally, how many of the deadlines and ultimatums in the Crisis can be sorted into the game-playing pretext bucket, and how many into the “authentic diplomatic instrument” bucket? And do all the players sort their buckets in the same way? Are their “mental maps” the same?

Decision Making: The Austro-Hungarian Empire

Clark describes the nature of Austro-Hungarian decision-making as they wrote their ultimatum and made the choice to go to war with Serbia. From pp. 428-430:

It is worth touching once again on the oddities of the Austro-Hungarian decision-making process. [Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Leopold] Berchtold, disparaged by many of the hawks in the administration as a soft touch incapable of forming clear resolutions, took control of the debate after 28 June [when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Serbia] in a rather impressive way. But he could so this only through an arduous and time-consuming process of consensus-building. The puzzling dissonances in the documents that track the emergence of the Austrian decision for war reflect the need to incorporate — without necessarily reconciling — opposed viewpoints.

Perhaps the most striking defect of Austrian decision-marking was the narrowness of the individual and collective fields of vision. The Austrians resembled hedgehogs scurrying across a highway with their eyes averted from the rushing traffic. The momentous possibility of a Russian mobilization and the general European war that would inevitably follow was certainly glimpsed by the Austrian decision-makers, who discussed it on several occasions. But it was never integrated into the process by which options were weighed up and assessed. … [One reason for this] was that the hive-like structure of the Austrian political elite was simply not conducive to the formulation of decisions through the careful sifting and balancing of contradictory information. The contributors to the debate tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recrimination, rather than attempting to view the problems facing Vienna in the round. The solipsism of Austrian decision-making also reflected a profound sense of geo-political isolation. The notion that Austro-Hungarian statesman has a “responsibility to Europe” was nonsense, one political insider noted…. But the most important reason for the perplexing narrowness of the Austrian policy debate is surely that the Austrians were so convinced of the rectitude of their case and of their proposed remedy against Serbia that they could conceive no alternative to it….

In short, the Austrians were in the process of making what decision theorists have called an “opting decision,” one in which the stakes are unimaginably high, the impact transformative and irrevocable, levels of emotion elevated, and the consequences of not acting potentially lasting. Decisions of this kind may acquire an existential dimension, i that they promise to re-invent the decision-making entity, to fashion it into something that it was not before. At the core of such decisions is something rooted in identity that is not easily susceptible to rationalization. This is not to suggest that Austrian decision-making was irrational. … Yet at the core of the Austrian response — to an extent that does not apply to any of the other actors in 1914 — was a temperamental, intuitive leap, a “naked act of decision,” founded in a shared understanding of what the Austro-Hungarian Empire was and must be if it were to remain a great power.

Yves, by tracking the negotiation process in the Greek Debt Crisis in near-real time, has been creating the sort of record that will help future historians, if any, produce passages of similar scholarship (leaving aside more contemporary implications). Obviously, the Austro-Hungarian empire’s decision-making process was creaky, and some parallels to today’s European Union might be usefully drawn by readers more knowledgeable than I am; I have to say, though, that “the debate tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recrimination” and “the solipsism of Austrian decision-making” ring true for me today. I also wonder if the fragility of this “empire,” as a collection of sintered together nationalities who had in part or in large part surrendered their sovereignty, is a parallel to the baroque European “ever closer union.” (You think the filibuster is complex? Try European politics!) Finally, the Austrians were quite right: The decision for war was existential. And their empire ceased to exist. Today’s Europeans, on all sides, also view their decisions in the Greek Debt Crisis as existential.

A Decisive Moment: Prime Minister Viviani of France

French President French President Raymond and Prime Minister René Viviani have sailed the Baltic to Saint Petersburg on the battleship France to consult with Tsar Nicholas on the state of the alliance between France and Russia. From pp. 445-46:

During an embassy dinner [in Moscow on 21 July] — a splendid affair in [his] honour — Poincaré sat next to [Foreign Minister Sergei] Sazonov. To his dismay, Poincaré found Sazonov preoccupied and little disposed to firmness. “The timing is bad for us,” Sazonov said, “our peasants are still very busy with their work in the fields.” In the meantime, in the petit salon next door, where the less important guests were being entertained, a different mood prevailed. Here, a Colonel from Poincaré’s entourage was heard proposing a toast “to the next war and to certain victory.” … Later that night, after a reception by the municipal assembly, Poincaré found himself sitting in the back of the imperial yacht with Viviani and [Russian Amabassador to France Count Alexander] Izvolsky, who had travelled back from Paris to take part in the meetings. Izvolsky seemed pre-occupied — perhaps he had been talking to Sazonov. Viviani appeared “sad and surly.” As the yacht sailed along toward the Peterhof in virtual silence, Poincaré looked up into the night sky and asked himself, “What does Austria have in store for us?”

The next day, 22 July, was particularly difficult. Viviani appeared to be having a breakdown. It came to a head in the afternoon, when the French Prime Minister, who happend to be seated at lunch to the left of the Tsar, seemed to find it impossible to answer any of the questions addressed to him. By mid-afternoon, his behavior had become more outlandish. While Nicholas and Poincaré sat listening to a military band, Viviani was seen standing alone near the imperial tent, muttering, grumbling, swearing loudly and generally drawing attention to himself. [French Ambassador to Russia Paleologue’s efforts to calm him were to no avail. Poincaré’s diary registered the situation with the lapidary comment: “Viviani is getting sadder and sadder and everyone is starting to notice it. The dinner is excellent.” Eventually it was announced that Viviani was suffering from a “liver crisis” and would have to retire early.

Why the prime minister was feeling so poorly is impossible to establish with certainty. [It is likely that] Viviani — a deeply pacific man — was alarmed by the steadily intensifying mood of belligerence at the various Franco-Russian gatherings. That is certainly what [French attaché Louis] de Robien thought. It was clear [to him] that Viviani was “overwrought by all these expressions of the military spirit.” On 22 July, de Robie noted, the talk was of nothing but war — “one felt that the atmosphere had changed since the night before.” He laughed when the marines who crewed the France told him that they were worried about the prospect of coming under attack on the home crossing, but their nervousness was an ominous sign. The highpoint was Thursday 23 July — Poincaré’s last day in Russia — when the heads of state witnessed a military review involving 70,000 men against a backdrop of military music… Particularly striking was the fact that the troops were not wearing their elaborate ceremonial uniforms, but the khaki battledress they had worn for training — de Robien interpreted this as yet another symptom of a general eagerness for war.

This passage has haunted me since I read it; alone among the European decision makers whose actions and communications Clark catalogues so minutely, Viviani — as I read the passage — saw World War I coming, saw the snaky head of the Medusa, and was possessed with dread and horror, rightly, as all those who surrounded him raised toasts, cheered, sang songs of war, and selected the appropriate uniform for the great day. Then, in their millions, Europeans rushed into the bloody sinkhole, cherishing their identities and waving their flags as they did so. We would do well to pay heed to our Cassandras today.


I don’t have the sociological or political chops to read the past into the present, and in any case history, including current history, forms only chaotic patterns. However, I hope a careful reading of Clark’s book will at least help unknot some of our thinking, feeling, and saying on the Greek Debt Crisis; and we might remember that, at least in 1914, the best and the brightest were not very good, and not very bright, no matter which side they were on.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. digi_owl

    I find myself likening a Grexit more to the US civil war than WW1.

    This because no matter how you turn it, a currency union effectively make the members a nation of nations.

  2. washunate

    Yves, by tracking the negotiation process in the Greek Debt Crisis in near-real time, has been creating the sort of record that will help future historians, if any, produce passages of similar scholarship…

    Well said.

    To me what is so interesting about the comparisons from a century ago is how different things are. Europe was a concentrated entity of a few large actors at the peak of their power. Sides were relatively clear, and the rest of the world was irrelevant (or so they thought…).

    Today, it’s unclear what the sides are, the major powers are smaller (both absolutely and relative to the rest of the world), there are a huge number of small nations, and the primary military alliance is controlled by a power foreign to Europe.

  3. jsn

    The contingency of systems grown baroquely complex excludes those who understand the risks of such complexity from ever running them: this understanding kind of intelligence looks like an existential threat because it is to particular forms within institutions and is suppressed on such grounds at ever greater cost by those only smart enough to seize power.

    All the Gordian Knots we face are the results of this simple institutional reality: our systems now dominate the aggressively smart but unintelligent people who have come to ostensibly control them. With this blindness of leadership, institutional imperatives now overwrite reality everywhere you look, but reality bats last.

    It terrifies me that it has been war historically that has cut most such Gordian Knots, I don’t see the intelligence near any significant lever of power now to prevent it this time. Keep posting, I believe you are hosting a search for better truths that maybe someone somewhere can use to lever this dread into some positive transformation!

  4. Steve H.

    Viviani, driven mad by the truth, then behaves such that one would be foolish to believe him. One aspect of identity corresponds to Baysian priors, that someone who is a We, who has been good to us in the past, is then considered a verified source for other contexts of information. This is particularly true when other sources are restricted, and accounts for much of the 3:1 ratio by which military recruits from rural areas outnumber those from major cities.

    Another example has been reporting by The Saker, on Ukraine. His blog contained extremely accurate information about battle situations, on a frequent basis, sometimes minute-to-minute. On this he is a well-verified source. His identity is pro-NovoRussian, without reserve. The U.S. government has given full-spectrum misinformation. But I do not want our country to fail and Russia to succeed at our expense. That is matter of Identity, but also thoroughly rational.

    It seems to be the anomaly, when the personal characteristics of the decision makers, the selection process for who those decision makers are, and the needs of the time all coincide at the same moment of history.

    1. EoinW

      It’s not rational, it’s social conditioning. All those mornings at school standing for the national anthem paying dividends.

  5. Oldeguy

    ” 70 years without a major European War, and that’s a tribute to Europe and to to European institutions, including the European Union”
    Doubtless so- as a consequence of the horrific savagery of European Civil War Two ( 1939-1945 ) the substitute religion of intense narrow Nationalism was thoroughly discredited and a new and exhilarating European Identity Consciousness emerged which has been one of the joys of my lifetime to witness.
    Imperiling that Consciousness is the real Great Risk of the current debt crisis- not whether some billions of Euros might not be paid on schedule.
    The Troika have engineered a Victory of Strong over Weak, North over South, Rich over Poor.
    The Greek’s great blunder was in assuming that they were a part of the “We” and thus the dire straights which they found themselves in would be treated as a “family problem”. Too late have they discovered themselves to be a “Them”.

    1. susan the other

      Yes, Oldeguy, good sentiment. I have held “The Guns of August” up as my bible on European irrationality for decades. Now this review reinforces it with detail. Thanks to Lambert who has obviously read both. I’m probably a throwback, but I still believe that the US does not want war, has never wanted war and will never want war. But, as irony would have it, we are willing to go to war to prevent a worse war. We do indeed want a planet that works to feed the oligarchs. Therein lies the shame. Because it is war on the wretched rest of us. But still, not nuclear war. In 1914 European Industrialists were already looking at MiddleEast oil and they thought the moment to act was now. So war. And total mess. But eventually oil went to Europe (controlled by England) and because of its scarcity, Germany went to war once again for oil in 1940. We are now working on a concept of “resource commons” which makes my skin crawl, except that it mitigates military conflict. As does globalism. But where is the democracy? Without democracy and sovereignty we will have desolation in no time flat. It is the nature of the oligarchs.

      1. Foy

        I wonder if US really doesn’t want war. I’ve seen it argued that a nuclear war is winnable by those deluded to believe it. After the Iraq war I think anything is possible, the way that was sold to the public. The problem as I see it is that the US Defense forces have been virtually completely privatised to within an inch of their lives, about the only thing not contracted out is the soldier and his gun, everything else is delivered by private contractors which is very different to 30 years ago. So there is a huge vested interest (what Colonel Lang over at Sic Semper Tyrannis calls The Borg) that has great incentives to go to war, any war, just as long as it’s not on US turf. When one hears John McCain singing “Bomb Bomb Bomb..Bomb Bomb Iran” and the incessant sabre rattling from The Borg I get the feeling that there is a large group of very powerful people who are saying amongst themselves “a toast to the next war and certain victory!”

        And I feel the Ukraine situation could go really pear shaped at any time, just like WW1, The Borg is agitating. You’re right though, without democracy and sovereignty there will be desolation in no time flat, as Greece are finding out, which is just another version of war.

  6. alex morfesis

    very well put

    the king of ithaki did not want war…only the threat of the death of his son forced him into action…axileas(achilles) also had no real interest…

    let us hope the weak but power hungry do not repeat the nursery rhymes of war (physical, economic nor mental war) they may have been sung by their sycophant while they were still in the craddle…

  7. Lambert Strether Post author

    I think this sentence from Laquer’s review is interesting:

    There were structural limits to policy-making.

    I would use it as an antidote to this line of thinking from Barry Eichengreen:

    Path to Grexit tragedy paved by political incompetence

    Admirably, Eichengreen is marking his views to market — he had previously urged that the chances of a Grexit or any Exit were very small. However, if one accepts that there are “structural limits to policy-making” in the decision making that led to World War I, then incompetence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a horrific outcome.

    For example, Kaiser Wilhelm was less than competent. However, his impulse to avoid war was nullified by a competent subordinate. If the best and the brightest are structurally constrained by institutions or ideology (hellllloooo, neoliberalism) competence avails nothing.

    1. JTMcPhee

      …And “we Americans” got Exceptional Foster Dulles and Kermit Roosevelt and Cheney and Wolfowitz and asses like Krauthammer and on and on, war wimp chicken hawks who get rich off the FLOW of blood and money, all the incentives point to more war (in all its forms, shattered bodies and rubble and destroyed communities and the “market-mediated” eating of the planet.. All the incentives, and the equivalents of the Schlieffen Plan and Plan 17 all neatly incorporated (pun intended) into the Operating Manual(s) For The Global Network-Centric Interoperable Incomparable Battlespace (OMFTGNCIIB)…

  8. ennui

    a very interesting book to read is the memoirs of Count Witte, the Russian Finance minister and then Premier during the 1905 revolution and the Russo-Japanese war. Witte is an odd combination of liberal-minded technocrat and staunch and emotional royalist. But, you can clearly see the start of WWI, in the resolution of the Russo-Japanese war. The Russian loss was catastrophic and approaching unconditional surrender when Witte was able to negotiate a surprisingly generous peace (so surprising that it partially destabilized the Japanese government). However, the Russian war debts were enormous and (combined with the dishonor of having been defeated by a lesser race) threatened to bring down the Czar. It was thus of the utmost necessity for the Russian government to obtain loans on the international capital markets of the day, something WItte was able to negotiate. The important thing is that Russians ended up being shut out from funds from the German banks. It was this which put a fundamental wedge between the Russians and the Germans, where previously the Czar and Kaiser had been quite close, and pushed the Russians into an Anglo-French alliance. Witte died before WWI, so his account suffers from none of the looking backwards that other contemporary accounts of early 20th century European history do.

    1. sam s smith

      Teddy Roosevelt got a Nobel Prize for negotiing the peace between Russia and Japan.

      The Japanese were so horrified by the terms that WWII was a direct result.

  9. James Levy

    Thank you for those excellent excerpts from a book I have yet to read. The most up-to-date major history of the crisis is still likely Strachan’s To Arms, but that’s massive and not for the less than well informed. I re-read a book from the 1980s by James Stokesbury (a Canadian historian) that is a wonderful introduction and still holds up admirably. The old “let’s blame the Krauts for everything!” school has been taking a beating from scholars, but that meme will likely never die as everything the Old School said of Germany that was untrue of 1914 was so true of 1938-41 that it’s just too easy to read the July Crisis as a prelude to March and September 1939.

  10. sid_finster

    I didn’t know that it was a secret that Germany was not the only Europower looking for a war in 1914.

    Austria was increasingly nervous about Serbia. Konrad von hotzendorf was a sort of a Cato in that he had been calling for war to destroy Serbia, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

    France had lost Alsace-Lorraine, and was looking at Germany’s growing population and industrial might.

    Britain was losing ground to Germany in an increasingly expensive naval arms race.

    Germany was also looking east to Russia, fearful that an industrialized and rapidly developing Russia would soon be an unstoppable juggernaut.

    What each of these nations had in common was a sense that they would soon be overtaken by their rivals, at least.if they did not stop them now.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I wasn’t aware that I claimed it was a secret. Did you read the post? That said, the history is still unknown to some; see this comment today.

      Thanks for the potted talking points. Frankly, I prefer the work of a historian, especially if it has reference to the current day. To each their own!

      1. guest

        There is much talking about the fateful decisions in Summer 1914.

        Is there a comparable study explaining why several countries joined the war after it had become amply clear that (a) it was a mass destruction of human lives and industrial material that they could ill-afford (b) a quick decision was by then excluded?

        Italy and Bulgaria entered the war only in 1915; Romania and Portugal even later, in 1916.

        That governments of major countries throughout Europe strongly wanted war in Summer 1914 is one thing; but how could governments of small, poor countries want that kind of war one or two years later is beyond me.

        1. James Levy

          Italian elites saw their country as a great power and believed Austria was terribly vulnerable. They, like the rest, wanted to bandwagon on with the winners. It’s just that at different times and from different perspectives, each state made a guess as to which side was going to win. Romania jumped in at the tail end of the brilliant Brusilov Offensive in summer 1916 because it looked like Austria was going to completely fold and they were promised rich pickings from the carcass. Portugal was an economic satellite of Britain and like Mexico and Brazil in WWII was pushed into fighting for fear of financial and trade retaliation if they did not. So each state entered either because they felt they had no choice but to choose sides, or they thought they could jump on the winning side and obtain territories that they coveted but lacked the power to grab for themselves.

  11. Pelham

    The mission of the European Union to knit together Europe in such a way as to avoid future wars is certainly laudable.

    But among many Europeans, the growing suspicion is that this originating motive long ago gave way to a baldly sinister plan by elites to render effective government more distant, opaque and unaccountable, achieving much the same high degree of abrogation of representative democracy that U.S. elites have enjoyed for generations.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Yes, it seems that the EU went over to the dark side with the ECB and the Euro (“an authoritarian monetary dystopia,” as AEP calls it the EZ). But perhaps that was always the plan? I don’t know.

  12. ambrit

    In your opening you say that Europe has two nuclear powers. May I suggest that we add Israel to the list of ‘European’ powers? Their government is based on European templates. Their elites operate nearly identically to the ‘continental’ European elites, and, they have nukes. (I most definitely do not consider them a client state of Americas. They act too independently to be a true client state.) Israel also has close and complex ties to Germany and France. The French helped then go nuclear and the Germans have always had a love hate relationship with them. In 1914, Serbia was considered the edge of Europe. Today, Israel fulfills that function. Both, through self serving political agendas caused trouble for their friends and foes alike.

  13. MartyH

    Sleepwalkers is on the shelf waiting for the “Great Summer Read.” Thanks for the post.

    I wish this was only about Greece and failure within the structure and theory of the EU. The very unsettled situation throughout the Balkans (again? Still?) with the Armenian unrest links nastily with the meddling in Ukraine and the Middle East. Which is the stand-in for an Archduke? Which fractures weak “alliances” (of convenience) and brings out the real divisions?

    Somehow, you wish someone were busy trying to bring order but it is clear that the US and its EU allies are bent on DISorder.

  14. Elliott

    Thanks for this, Lambert. Just today
    The Somme: a terrible learning curve

    Today the northern part of the Somme battlefield is dominated by the huge Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Here are inscribed the names of 72,085 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were killed but have no known grave.

    One battlefield, 72,000 bodies UNRECOVERABLE!, and that’s just the British. In a war that didn’t have to happen!

    I recently listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History on WW I, Blueprint for Armageddon (thanks to NK commenters). Why did this war happen? We’re still feeling the aftereffects today.

  15. VietnamVet

    The European countries with nuclear weapons are France, United Kingdom and the Russian Federation. It is subtle how framing and propaganda changes perspective. Western media is filled with “Russian Aggression” for seizing Crimea from Ukraine. Yet, the peninsula has been a Russian possession longer than there has been a United States. America has placed troops in Kiev right on Russia’s border although Ukraine is not a member of NATO.

    As a relic of the first Cold War, it is engrained that a shooting war with Russia will inevitably escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Ukraine and Greece crises are cut from the same cloth. Western ideologies have become so divorced from reality that risking a nuclear war over Ukraine or the EU pillaging a NATO member state is unremarkable.

    Today sure feels like a replay of the insanity of 1914 all over again except the extinction of mankind is possible with nuclear weapons involved.

  16. Newtownian

    Clark’s story is ‘saturated with agency’. Many actors (the crowned heads of Europe, military men, diplomats, politicians and others), each with their own objectives, acting as rationally and irrationally as humans are wont to act, made decisions that foreclosed on others and collectively led the world into an unimaginable and un-imaged war. Collectively, they produced the greatest ‘black swan event’ in world history.

    This reminds me of the McNammarra documentary The fog of war and others which also analysed that other moment of logical rational insanity still in some living memory, the Cuban missile crisis.

    Fortunately we got lucky, as we did again in the 1982 Abel Archer + dodgy Soviet electronics fiasco when a nuclear war meltdown was prevented by just one man apparently saying ‘this is madness, lets ignore the rules and regulations’. The Man Who Saved the World

    But the Europeans dont seem to have learn from this at least the economic controllers.

    Working in risk assessment it fascinates me that whereas a routine nostrum is we have to deal with ‘Hazardous Events’ that the latter could happen also in economics seems to have been beyond most practicioners understanding or that such things were just a natural correction or some such rot. The Black Swan by the way is largely nonsense as we can today predict that crises are on the cards as happenned in 2008, its just we arent good at getting timing right, a sin for which they lock a geologists in Italy.

    And so here we are with another ‘natural correction/creative destruction’ of the Grexit guaranteeing a ‘Brexit’ in the near future too (as if the imposition of the European sausage standard wasnt enough of an affront to British pride). Ironically these events which are undesirable from a neoliberal perspective seem to have been brought on by a misunderstanding that the latter is more effective if it is allowed to be adaptable and sneakly which apparently is more an Anglosphere trait to judge by the TPPS and the TAPS and Yves comments on the differences between Common Law systems and those applying in Erurope.

    Anyway this is a really nice post so thanks for this. its good to be reminded it wasnt just about the Drednaughts.

  17. EoinW

    Europe has always been a parasitic psychopath. The two world wars were an inevitable conclusion for a violent society to reach once it stopped exporting its violence. Had the spark not occurred in 1914, it would simply have occurred later. You reap what you sow.

    As for the post 1945 EU project being laudable, was it not more a case of a default position rather than anything to be admired. Given their first chance to show their true nature Europeans did so in Yugoslavia. Naturally the rest of Europe couldn’t wait to get involved in 1998.

    As basically an European nation(anglo-saxon white) the US is following the same path. The blood lust of 9/11 was a convenient excuse for the world’s largest military to take the gloves off. However there are powerful people who have chosen not to turn the blood lust tap off. We’re now in the early stages of internalizing that violence – in a society with the most heavily armed citizens on the planet! But creating a country through violence and genocide, aren’t the chickens bound to come home to roost sooner or later? Or is that point taking karma a bit too far?

  18. PeterD

    Thank you for the article, Lambert. I enjoyed it very much.

    Just one little quibble :) The Archduke was assassinated in Bosnia and not in Serbia.

  19. vidimi

    [One reason for this] was that the hive-like structure of the Austrian political elite was simply not conducive to the formulation of decisions through the careful sifting and balancing of contradictory information. The contributors to the debate tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recrimination, rather than attempting to view the problems facing Vienna in the round.

    change vienna to washington and you have an accurate description of the political situation in the US

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