The early years of the 20th century in Europe were characterized by an accelerating arms race. According to historian David Fromkin, "Europe's main business had become the business of preparing to fight a war." In Germany alone, about 90 percent of the Reich's budget was spent on the army and navy. Total arms spending by the six Great Powers of Europe increased by 50 percent between 1908 and 1913. Yet the Great Powers had lived in peace since 1871. Why should the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand have led to the world's most devastating war up to that time?Fromkin, best known for his highly regarded study A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Middle East, tackles the origins of this deadly conflict in his magnificent, consistently compelling Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? Using the latest scholarship, and writing with clarity and insight, Fromkin presents evidence that demonstrates that WWI was really two wars. The first was the local war between Austria and Serbia, which was connected with the killing of the Archduke and his wife, Sophie. The second, and much larger, Great War "was caused by the struggle for supremacy among the great European powers . . . Germany deliberately started a European war to keep from being overtaken by Russia," Fromkin asserts.
The author points out that in the years before the war, many Germans thought their nation was becoming weak. This idea was entirely false: the country was actually growing stronger, in part because of its concern about encirclement by other powers. This concern spurred military funding and development to even greater heights. Germany's growing military might so concerned its neighbors that France, Russia and England began making contingency plans for self-defense if Germany attacked them.
The author masterfully guides us through the complexities of appropriate prewar European diplomatic and military history. His portraits of the various decision makers and detailed discussions of their policies command our attention.
One of the most fascinating political relationships Fromkin discusses is between Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. "Time and again, through the frequent war crises that were so conspicuous a feature of their time, both men chose peace, and were distrusted by the military in their respective countries for having done so."Fromkin believes the questions about the origins of the Great War are the most important in modern history. Since the 1960s, new information, primarily from German, Austrian and Serbian sources, has become available. The author asserts that his book "is an attempt to look at the old questions in the light of the new knowledge, to summarize the data, and then to draw some conclusions from it." I can enthusiastically recommend the result. Roger Bishop is a bookseller in Nashville and a frequent contributor to BookPage.