Cyanide has a sketchy shelf life. So learned the seven teenage assassins from the Black Hand, the radical Serbian nationalist group, 100 years ago this summer. Most were chosen for their zeal and skill, but also because they had tuberculosis: Either way, early deaths were fated. You’ll recall their target: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the place: Sarajevo, as he visited his regime’s recently annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The killers were issued small bombs to do the job. They planned to commit suicide afterward, by pistol or poison.
I’ve rarely read a more sickeningly thrilling first chapter than the opener of “July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914” (Cambridge University, 2014) Author T. G. Otte takes you step by fateful step to the moment that changed the world forever: the first failed bomb attempt; some assassins lose their nerve; the archduke’s driver takes a wrong turn; the car stalls; Gavrilo Princip, who by luck happens to be nearby, grabs his last chance, fires his gun from just a few feet away, fatally wounding Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife as the archduke shouts “Sopherl, Sopherl! Don’t die! Stay alive for my children!” The crowd grabs and beats Princip, but he manages to rip open his packet of cyanide.
The powder, though, had degraded. The 19-year-old burned his throat, but didn’t achieve martyrdom. Had he died at the scene, notes Otte, “the Austro-Hungarian authorities might have remained in ignorance of the murderers’ Belgrade connections, and the subsequent crisis might well have played out quite differently.” He means much here: The killing may not have been traced to the Black Hand, a connection that spurred Austro-Hungary toward reprisal and a turn to Germany for help, which caused France and Russia to deepen their alliance in response, thereby making Germany feel surrounded on its east and west, pushing it to act offensively to get the jump by invading Belgium, an ally of Britain, on its way to France, bringing the UK into the war, and three years later the United States. The unbearable statistics that resulted: about 10 million combatants and several million civilians, dead.
Pinning the blame on stale cyanide, I know, is a stretch. Princip, who died in prison in 1918, speculated that Germany would’ve found another excuse to invade if he hadn’t gifted it to them. As these books hold, the causes of the war are impossible to fully suss out. Otte does credit “a near-collective failure of statecraft,” but Christopher Clark’s title is more poetic: “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Harper, 2013). Like sleepwalkers, writes Clark, the leaders were “watchful but unseeing.” There’s no one smoking gun. Instead a gun lies “in the hands of every major character.”
“The Sleepwalkers” is tremendously good. I found several threads especially illuminating, and the first spells out the challenges to World War I historians. There’s an overabundance of sources, and no one could possibly read all the national documents in a lifetime. But even if you could, many of them were doctored after the war to dilute guilt, and the most incendiary were literally burned as well. Too much and too little, this is the scholarly inheritance.
Clark also helped me see how the war can seem ancient and irrelevant — the fading empires, the mustachioed monarchs — but also uncannily modern. Since 9/11, for instance, we too know a suicide bomber can change everything. Which brings me to “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” (Random House, 2013) as it grapples with how this cataclysm followed the longest peacetime stretch in Europe since Roman times. The author is Margaret MacMillan, the historian great-granddaughter of Lloyd George, British prime minister during World War I. And she asks why, in the years right before 1914, there had been minor crises that had not burst into full-blown war (in the Balkans, Bosnia, and Morocco). Indeed, those years brought a new dedication to defusing conflicts, as Andrew Carnegie and Alfred Nobel bent all their powers toward promoting peace.
Why did Princip’s trigger serve as the trigger? MacMillan cites facts sweeping and small. For instance, all the European countries, save Britain, had conscript armies, so were more than ready for battle. And when the archduke was gunned down on June 28, many of the continent’s top leaders were on vacation (the British foreign secretary was bird watching, the German foreign secretary on his honeymoon) and so a B-team of junior bureaucrats were calling the shots, abysmally. She also zeroes in on the “vain, bombastic, and neurotic” Kaiser Wilhelm II whose derogatory nickname was “Wilhelm the Sudden” for his impulsivity.
Most of the new books are about the war’s preamble and launch. As the anniversaries pile up through 2017, we’ll surely get more about its waging. To wrap your head around all this, I suggest “World War One: A Short History” (Basic Books, 2009). Author Norman Stone, formerly of Oxford, writes in a colloquial, even cheeky tone, lending a light touch to this darkest subject. He wincingly recounts the general belief IN THE EARLY DAYS that the soldiers would be “home by Christmas” and how old-school fighting (using cavalry, storming fortresses) became hopelessly dated right away. Earth absorbed shelling much better than stone, and thus the trench system developed.
Many great details here: Spies found it easy to learn troop movements, merely by noting where train platforms were being lengthened for arriving soldiers. And many strong opinions too: Germany needlessly, tragically antagonized Britain, “and the greatest mistake of the twentieth century was made when Germany built a navy designed to attack her.”
With all these rich histories, you’re still afforded a certain distance from the horror. I can’t pretend fiction and memoir can instill the missing intimacy. But here are two books that made me feel this war, inadequate as words are. The first is “The Ghost Road” (Dutton, 1995), the stunning last novel in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy. It’s set both at the front and back in England and Scotland, with actual people (the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, who treated poet/soldier Siegfried Sassoon) and invented characters, like the British soldier Billy Prior, who blasts through cant: “Patriotism honor courage vomit vomit vomit. Only the names meant anything. Mons, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Verdun, Ypres.”
Then there’s Robert Graves’s astringent 1929 memoir “Goodbye to All That” (Anchor, 1957), which recounts trench life in its particulars, how field mice and frogs fell into the clay ditches, how rifle shots were rarely aimed at actual men but instead guessed at through map references, how your belt was hung with so much stuff (field glasses, wire cutters, etc.) it was called a “Christmas tree.”
Finally, in “The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century” (Norton, 2014), David Reynolds eloquently shows how the conflict was the crucible for modernity. It collapsed four empires, galvanized the rise of communism and a more intense form of nationalism, as a dozen new countries calved off the old empires, and worked the ground for World War II, as the punitive measures of Versailles were later avenged.
But I have to say, the book hit me more personally than panoramically. For the first time, I could truly see the chain linking my grandfather, a machine gunner in the 78th “Lightning” Infantry Division in World War I, and my nephew, now a firefighter in the Air Force, waiting, as I write this, to hear whether he’ll be deployed to the Mideast. All our freshest headlines from Gaza or Syria or Iraq are a consequence, in blood and sorrow, of the rashly drawn borders foisted on the region, as the Ottoman empire dissolved, after that multifarious armistice a century ago. I’m convinced: World War I remains very much with us. And that poison is still hard to swallow.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.