by David Fromkin

World War I is arguably the major war both least interesting to and most important to Americans. It’s traditionally viewed here as a European Civil War that we tried mightily to stay out of. It’s frequently argued even now that our involvement was largely unnecessary, Zimmerman Telegram and unrestricted submarine warfare notwithstanding. It was not our great national crusade – that was WWII.

Still, World War I created the 20th Century. World War II, the Cold War, post-colonialism and the decline of Europe all flowed from it. It remains to most Americans a mystery as to why one of the greatest civilizations the world has seen plunged to its death over the murder of a middle European royal couple.

The traditional view of the war is well-known. Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by the Serbians. The crisis built through the Summer, as all Europe anticipated war. Austria moved against Serbia, Russia moved to defend its client, and the dominoes fell in rapid succession: Germany moved against Russia, France mobilized, Germany attacked France through Belgium, which brought in Britain.

David Fromkin’s thesis in Europe’s Last Summer is that Europe didn’t jump, it was pushed by Germany. And almost everything about that narrative is wrong.

Austria did not move quickly against Serbia – it took weeks to mobilize and fight. That delay, by an Austrian government too rickety to take decisive action, gave the German Foreign Office and General Staff the opening it needed to fight the war it wanted.

Germany was gripped by an existential crisis. The Junker ruling class knew that its days were numbered. It believed that if it didn’t fight a war, Germany would slide back from its status as primus inter pares in Europe, despite all signs to the contrary. It would need a larger army, whose numbers would swamp the traditional Junker leadership whose culture defined the military. The Army and the Foreign Office had both persuaded themselves that Germany needed to fight a war, sooner rather than later, in order to preserve its position in the world.

But how? It couldn’t just invade Russia or France. It needed a provocation. It needed to catch France unawares. Russia’s mobilization provided just such an opportunity. The original plan, hatched by Germany and Austria in secret, was for Austria to mobilize and crush Serbia, partitioning the country and eliminating a nationalist threat the Austria’s integrity. The world would allow Austria to act in what it would see as justified anger, believing that Austria wanted merely to punish Serbia.

By delaying, Austria gave Russia time to mobilize. Russia probably wouldn’t have gone to war, possibly not even against Austria. But the mobilization gave Germany the alignment of the stars it needed to fight its war. Austria needed to call off its war against Serbia, take the brunt of the Russian attack, let Germany knock out France and then turn to a weakened and diverted Russia.

Here’s where the secrecy came into play. In traditional histories, the storm clouds gather all throughout the summer. In fact, it was only just prior to the war that the rest of Europe realized it had a general crisis on its hands. The German-Austrian planning had been done in secret, and Germany’s threats to Russia were almost as much of a surprise to its Austrian ally as to the rest of Europe.

In effect, Fromkin says, there were two wars, not one. Germany persuaded Austria to let its war against Serbia take a back seat to Germany’s war against, well, everyone else. Ironically, the Kaiser desperately tried to avert war, almost succeeding at the last minute, but outmaneuvered by his own Foreign Office. The next time someone tries to tell you that the diplomatic corps just implements the executive’s policy, hand them a copy of this book.

So the mystery is solved. Europe didn’t go to war over two unloved highnesses. It went to war for the best and worst of reasons – who would dominate the continent.

Fromkin is a superb storyteller. After brief character sketches of the major players, he lets their actions define them. (He’s included a directory of names at the end of the book for reference.) I’m perfectly sane, but Fromkin builds suspense so well, noting points where war might have been averted, that I had to remind myself that, in fact, it was not averted. And Fromkin does something else original: he provides periodic resets of the situation, recapping the situation, how we got there, and what the countries and their agents were thinking. In a story as complex as this one, I’m surprised I had never seen that used before.

Fromkin makes full use of archival material that has been uncovered in the 40 years since Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August. Fromkin is too smart to make arguments from silence, but one key supporting point is the unique thoroughness with which the Germans destroyed their own paperwork. They were the only country to do so. Ironically, one of the surviving memos is a letter from von Moltke, expressly taking the credit for starting the war.