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

History Carnival #108-April, 2012

Side shows at the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)
Image from the Library of Congress Collection

Welcome to the Carnival!*

In the spirit of April 1st, I've sought out blog posts from the last month** that celebrate the foolish, the topsy-turvy, and the quirky.  Blog posts that stand historical truths on their head, or at least gives them a little shake.   No clown noses. No mean tricks.  No whoopie cushions.  Unless, of course, they're historical whoopie cushions.


Past Imperfect rehabilitates the barbarian's barbarian in Nice Things to Say About Attila the Hun

The Tenement Museum puts the pickle in its place in Salty, Sour and Controversial.

Stephen Cromack proves that Frodo is a Confucian hero in The Confucians Who Saved Middle Earth

Two Nerdy History Girls are a constant source of quirky delights.  In one of my recent favorites, they overturn The Myth of the Regency Sylph

Got Medieval, another personal favorite, debunks a popular  historical myth in Ring-a-Ring O'Rubbish

Streets of Salem offered an amusing selection of Green Men, medieval to modern, in honor of St. Patricks Day.

Beth Dunn muses on tight pantaloons and The Turn of the Leg.

Brushing Off the Dust tells us how to exercise like a Viking.

Frog in a Well considers the topsy-turvydom of Unesco as a cultural arbiter in the context of Japanese cuisine in Credentialism and Other Modern Traditions

Caroline Shenton tackles the complex question of how much a pint of beer would cost in The Timetravelling Beer Drinker

Vaguely Interesting looks at the unexpected names people give to different types of bread, including Devil's Fart Bread


As an extra, two great blogs that transform the idea of history blogging:

Phoebe Spanier's delightful Mirror Sense, an illustrated novel set in Paris and Venice in the the 1660s accompanied by a blog giving historical context for the novel.

Alison Taylor-Brown tells the story of sixteenth century Europe from the viewpoint of one of it's important figures in Wolfgang Capito's View.


Next month's History Carnival will be hosted by Rachel Herrman at Not Even Past.  Get in line for the ride.


*Some of my regular readers may not know about the History Carnival:  a traveling road show of blog writing about history.  A different blogger hosts the carnival each month.

** Okay, I admit it.  I've included  a couple of posts from January and February that I couldn't resist.

What Do the Rose Bowl and the Ottoman Empire Have in Common?

Marching bands.

Beginning in 1299, the elite corps of the Ottoman armies, the janissaries, used military bands made up of wind and percussion instruments to inspire their troops and terrify their enemies. (Not that different from a half-time show, right?) The music they played was called mehter, a stirring mixture of drums, horn and oboe with a distinctive marching rhythm based on the Turkish phrase "Gracious God is good. God is compassionate." Often four to five hundred musicians accompanied the army. Sometimes the music alone was enough to drive enemy forces from the field.

The European troops encountered mehter music during the seventeenth century wars against the Ottomans on Europe's eastern border. European civilians heard mehter music for the first time when Sultan Suleyman II presented Augustus the Strong of Poland (1670-1733) with a mehter band of his very own. Europe was fascinated by the new sound; by 1770 most European armies had bands featuring Turkish instruments and fanciful variations of Turkish costumes.

Turkish music also played into the taste for turquerie (otherwise known as "Turkish stuff") that swept European society in the eighteenth century. Popular composers, including Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, wrote "Turkish" symphonies, ballets, and operas using new percussion instruments borrowed from the Ottomans-- bass drums, snare drums, cymbals, triangles, and Turkish crescent (also known as the "jingling Johnny"). The fashion reached its artistic height in 1777 with Mozart's Escape from the Seraglio. The fad for turquerie soon ended, but Turkish percussion instruments found a permanent home in the western symphony orchestra.

In 1826, the janissaries mutinied against Sultan Mahmud II. They were slaughtered by troops loyal to the sultan and the mehter bands were dispersed. Today a mehter band is attached to the Istanbul Military Museum. The band performs several times a week in a specially designed auditorium. It's well worth hearing, but take your earplugs. Mehter bands don't have an indoor voice.

(In case a visit to Turkey isn't in  your immediate future, here's a sample or two.

This post previously appeared in Wonders and Marvels.