Nineteen fourteen. Not even Orwell’s nineteen eighty-four can quite match it for evoking a sense of foreboding and doom. A century after it broke out, the First World War’s hold on our collective imagination is as strong as ever.
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Published, August 2014
(Roughly) 120 pages
Yet, familiar though it seems in many ways, we are much less clear about what the Great War was actually about.
It stands in sharp contrast to the Second World War, which we usually think of (not, let it be said, entirely accurately) as a war to stop the spread of Nazism. Since most people see Nazism as a uniquely evil creed, the Second World War, for all its many moral compromises and double standards, remains for most people a Just War: we know which sides were the ‘Good Guys’ and which the ‘Bad’. No such certainty holds good for the First World War.
Beyond a vague awareness that the Germans invaded Belgium (and even this is eclipsed in popular consciousness by the 1939 German invasion of Poland) few people nowadays could pinpoint exactly why Britain entered the war, and fewer still could say why the war needed to go on as long as it did.
The manner in which the First World War broke out has long been the subject of satirical comment. Oh! What a Lovely War!, Joan Littlewood’s celebrated 1964 Theatre Workshop production, later filmed by Richard Attenborough and still regularly performed in amateur productions, presented the outbreak of war in scathingly comic terms, as a falling-out among heavily caricatured national stereotypes. In the BBC TV satirical show Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Blackadder gives a fairly accurate overview of the alliance system designed to prevent war breaking out in Europe but adds that this plan contained just one tiny flaw: ‘It was bollocks’. Since satire has a way of settling in the memory more securely than the truth ever can, it is perhaps worth getting clear at the outset a rather more accurate outline of the events that resulted in a general European war breaking out in August 1914.
Table of Contents
- Outline of Events
- Was it inevitable?
- The Great Powers
- The Great Powers in Arms
- Was it a Militaristic Age?
- The Paralysing Fear of Defeat
- Was 1914 a Failure of International Relations?
- Dangerous Colonial Conflicts
- The Anglo-German Naval Race
- Conflict in the Balkans
- New Regime in Serbia
- Turkey: the Sick Man gets out of bed
- The Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina
- The Balkan Wars
- The Assassination
- The July Crisis
- Berlin’s role
- Russia acts
- France’s role
- The Failure of Containment
- Britain’s proposals
- Who Was to Blame?
- The ‘War Guilt Clause’
- The Fischer Thesis
- Were the Alliances to Blame?
- Was the War Caused by Domestic Policy?
About the author
Seán's career spans different sectors of education. After graduating from Oxford University, he worked for many years in schools and colleges in Cambridge, including nine years as Head of History at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. He was also Lecturer in Education at Exeter University for four years. He served twice as Honorary Secretary of the Historical Association and has acted as adviser both to Government and to Opposition, as well as the Council of Europe, on issues related to history and history education. In 2005 he chaired the group that produced the Historical Association's important report on 'History 14-19'. He has spoken on matters relating to history on Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live and about the First World War on Al Jazeera and Sky News. He features regularly on local television and radio. He has written textbooks and is joint editor of Twentieth Century History Review for which he writes regularly. He has written four works of popular history in the 'for Dummies' series, including 'First World War for Dummies'.