The Lost History of 1914

Anyone who’s been following along on this blog knows that, like most history people, I have events and periods that I return to over and over again. Some I’ve followed for years; others are relatively new interests.  One of the constants in my historical life is the First World War.*  It’s always a pleasure to discover a book at looks at the war in a new way.

In The Lost History of 1914, NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. Most books about the war’s origins focus on the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June, 1914, and the subsequent domino effect of alliances that pulled Europe into war.

Beatty, by contrast, considers a handful of events that dominated international headlines in the months before the war: a threatened coup in the German Reichstag over military actions in Alsace, a change in Russian foreign policy based on the Tsar Nicholas’s fears of seeming weak, a potential civil war in Ireland over Home Rule, Woodrow Wilson’s support of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, and the defeat of a leftist minister in France because his wife murdered a right-wing newspaper editor. At the end of each chapter, Beatty offers a counterfactual account of events that would have changed Europe’s response to the events at Sarajevo.

None of these events is unknown to historians, though they may not be familiar to the non-specialist reader. The originality of Beatty’s work lies in bringing them together as threads in a single story. Looked at individually, each story is a compelling slice of history, told in a conversational style. Taken as a whole, The Lost History of 1914 makes a powerful argument that the chain of events leading to the First World War was not only complicated, but fragile–so fragile, perhaps, that the inevitable war might better be described as the unlikely war.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers

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