With The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began, Jack Beatty has written not so much an alternative history of 1914 as an amplified history. There are things about the year leading up to and into World War I that we have forgotten or lost sight of in the accepted narrative that war was inevitable because of the ineluctable dynamic of Great Power politics. But Beatty contends that war was not inevitable.
Much like alternative history, the book offers many “What ifs … ?” In the author’s view, history is a game of inches and war could have been avoided if certain events had gone slightly differently. Beatty cites, in particular, not only the shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but also the bullet that killed the editor of Le Figaro in March, shot by the betrayed wife of peace-loving Joseph Caillaux, who might have become the premier of France only a few months later.
Beatty’s thesis is that the war resulted as much from domestic crises that propelled the various parties to war ― or crises averted that would have hindered war ― as from any international alliance or strategy. He describes what he sees as five paths that would have forestalled war. However, after reading the author’s account of possible revolution or coup in Germany, the fragmentation of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the militarization of the United States in its Mexican intervention, the fragility of Tsarist rule in Russia and the festering sore of Ulster in Britain, along with that unruly domestic situation in France, the reader might be excused for thinking it was a miracle that war didn’t break out even sooner.
The fact is, for whatever reasons, the European powers were willing to countenance war because they had no idea just how terrible modern warfare would be. And, as Beatty so tellingly recounts, when its full horror became evident, the leaders of those countries lapsed into shocked denial and kept the details from the public, allowing the war to continue and take its terrible toll in lives and lost hopes.
The author saves his harshest criticism, though, for those leaders who have hardly been forgotten but who generally come across as callow and foolish in Beatty’s unflinching portraits. Not only Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, both of whom history has treated unkindly, but U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, French President Raymond Poincaré and British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Austria-Hungary’s emperor Franz Josef is portrayed alternately as senile, silly and monstrously self-centered.
At this distance, it is perhaps easy to see their folly, but Beatty might have been better served ― since his goal was to take us back and immerse us in the confusion of issues that led to war ― by drawing somewhat more balanced portraits. After all, the contemporary perception of these leaders, especially those democratically elected, could hardly have been so one-sided. Who would understand the enthusiasm at the time for President John F. Kennedy, for instance, if one had to go on what intervening history has taught us?
For many Americans, in fact, much of this history will not be so much forgotten as simply overlooked in the skimpy education we get regarding the rest of the world. There is the delightful tale of the Captain from Köpenick, for instance, and what it tells us about German attitudes to Prussian militarism. And the ultimately sad story about Joseph Caillaux’s too-numerous dalliances and how that sent his wife to shoot a newspaper editor, preventing Caillaux from becoming premier and appointing his colleague Jean Jaurès as a foreign minister who would have avoided war at all costs.
Even the history of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, the Tampico Affair and the American occupation of Veracruz ordered by Woodrow Wilson is not likely to be familiar to casual students of American history, let alone how it predisposed the United States to enter the European war. Beatty also resurrects some of the early successes of Herbert Hoover ― notably his logistical achievements in providing food aid to Europe at war ― that most of us have forgotten in the wake of his hapless tenure as president.
Beatty is not an academic historian, but the extremely well-read news analyst for NPR’s “On Point” and a longtime senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. He writes authoritatively about the complex domestic politics and international entanglements of the six major players in what was known as the Great War. It is not an easy task, and Beatty demands some engagement from his reader to follow the intricate details of people and events, many of which, as his title indicates, have been largely lost to history.
A war that was supposed to be over within weeks, World War I dragged on an agonizing four years. Beatty does not end his chronology with the beginning of the war in August 1914. Part of the lost history is indeed the failure of Europe’s ruling class to acknowledge their tragic mistake and to come clean with the public about what the war entailed once it became evident in those early months. Beatty leaves us with the dismal thought that it was Wilson’s belated entry into the war that prolonged it for an extra year ― giving us communism in Russia and a peace that led to fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.
America’s much longer engagement in the two-front World War II has pushed this earlier conflict into the mists of time for us. Beatty’s book serves not only to recreate, in highly readable prose, some of the lesser known factors leading to World War I, but to recall vividly a tragedy whose lessons otherwise risk getting lost. Reading his account of the year the Great War began, we realize we cannot take peace for granted, we should not underestimate the costs of war and we must closely monitor our political leaders, for there is no guarantee they will do the right thing.