On May 30, 2006, Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, published G.J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The History of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, a one-volume history about the most misunderstood conflict that very few people living in the 21st Century know about: World War I. Overshadowed by the global conflict that erupted a little over 20 years after Germany reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the “Great War” was the catalyst for most of the ills that bedeviled humanity in its wake: the fall of three European empires, the Russian revolution and the rise of Communism, the emergence of far-right counters to Bolshevism in Italy (Fascism) and Germany (National Socialism), and the virulent ascent of nationalism and militarism that was unleashed by the second bloodiest conflict in history.
Even today, World War I is shrouded in mystery and myths. In all of the warring nations, the narrative is muddled by a historical record deliberately filled with gaps – the governments of the Entente and the Central Powers destroyed many documents full of embarrassing truths that they didn’t want posterity to know – and a sense of “victimhood.” France, Britain, Russia, and even the United States crafted a tale positing that Germany – and to a lesser extent, Austria-Hungary – were the villains who sought to conquer Europe and snuff out freedom to its peoples, while conveniently ignoring their less-than-lofty war aims. (France and Britain, for instance, were democracies that nevertheless wanted to enlarge their overseas empires. Russia wanted to gain control of Constantinople – today’s Istanbul – and achieve the long-held dream of unfettered access to the Mediterranean and thus become a “third Rome.” The United States sought no territorial gains, but President Woodrow Wilson wanted to secure America’s status as a world power and put the nation’s stamp on the peace settlement that was sure to follow an Allied victory.)
On a summer day in 1914, a nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. While the world slumbered, monumental forces were shaken. In less than a month, a combination of ambition, deceit, fear, jealousy, missed opportunities, and miscalculation sent Austro-Hungarian troops marching into Serbia, German troops streaming toward Paris, and a vast Russian army into war, with England as its ally. As crowds cheered their armies on, no one could guess what lay ahead in the First World War: four long years of slaughter, physical and moral exhaustion, and the near collapse of a civilization that until 1914 had dominated the globe. – Publisher’s blurb, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with a M.A. in English Literature from the University of Minnesota and author of The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty and The Borgias: The Hidden History, explores the origins of World War I and seeks answers to such questions as:
- Why did Europe go to war In the summer of 1914?
- Was the war inevitable?
- Why did Wilhelmine Germany’s leaders seek an all-out conflict with Russia, even though Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins and exchanged “Dear Willy” and “Dear Nicky” telegrams in English?
- Why did Great Britain and France, which had been mortal foes for centuries, become allies in the late 19th Century?
- Why was Great Britain’s “balance of power” approach to European diplomacy a factor in its involvement in the Great War?
- What role did nationalism play in the outbreak of war In August 1914?
- Was the United States really neutral in the early stages of the Great War?
- How did the personalities of leaders such as Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Helmuth von Moltke, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, Franz Josef I, Enver Pasha, Erich von Ludendorff, John French, Douglas Haig, H.H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau shape the conflict?
- Why did the war morph from a war of movement in the late summer of 1914 into the stagnant trench warfare that lasted from the fall of 1914 to the war’s end in November 1918?
- What were the war aims of both the Triple Entente (the Allies) and the Central Powers?
- Why did Germany’s Schlieffen Plan envision a two-front war? Why did it fail?
- Why didn’t the U.S. enter the war in 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania?
- What was the Zimmerman Telegram, and why did its contents push the U.S. closer to war in 1917?
The Black Hand Descends
“It’s nothing. It’s nothing.”
–Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Thirty-four long, sweet summer days separated the morning of June 28, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shot to death, from the evening of August 1, when Russia’s foreign minister and Germany’s ambassador to Russia fell weeping into each other’s arms and what is rightly called the Great War began.
On the morning when the drama opened, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was making an official visit to the city of Sarajevo in the province of Bosnia, at the southernmost tip of the Austro-Hungarian domains. He was a big, beefy man, a career soldier whose intelligence and strong will usually lay concealed behind blunt, impassive features and eyes that, at least in his photographs, often seemed cold and strangely empty. He was also the eldest nephew of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph and therefore–the emperor’s only son having committed suicide–heir to the imperial crown. He had come to Bosnia in his capacity as inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian armies, to observe the summer military exercises, and he had brought his wife, Sophie, with him. The two would be observing their fourteenth wedding anniversary later in the week, and Franz Ferdinand was using this visit to put Sophie at the center of things, to give her a little of the recognition she was usually denied.
Back in the Hapsburg capital of Vienna, Sophie was, for the wife of a prospective emperor, improbably close to being a nonperson. At the turn of the century the emperor had forbidden Franz Ferdinand to marry her. She was not of royal lineage, was in fact a mere countess, the daughter of a noble but impoverished Czech family. As a young woman, she had been reduced by financial need to accepting employment as lady-in-waiting to an Austrian archduchess who entertained hopes of marrying her own daughter to Franz Ferdinand. All these things made Sophie, according to the rigid protocols of the Hapsburg court, unworthy to be an emperor’s consort or a progenitor of future rulers. The accidental discovery that she and Franz Ferdinand were conducting a secret if chaste romance–that he had been regularly visiting the archduchess’s palace not to court her daughter but to see a lowly and thirtyish member of the household staff–sparked outrage, and Sophie had to leave her post. But Franz Ferdinand continued to pursue her. In his youth he had had a long struggle with tuberculosis, and perhaps his survival had left him determined to live his private life on his own terms. Uninterested in any of the young women who possessed the credentials to become his bride, he had remained single into his late thirties. The last two years of his bachelorhood turned into a battle of wills with his uncle the emperor over the subject of Sophie Chotek.
Franz Joseph finally tired of the deadlock and gave his consent. What he consented to, however, was a morganatic marriage, one that would exclude Sophie’s descendants from the succession. And so on June 28, 1900, fourteen years to the day before his visit to Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand appeared as ordered in the Hapsburg monarchy’s Secret Council Chamber. In the presence of the emperor, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, the Primate of Hungary, all the government’s principal ministers, and all the other Hapsburg archdukes, he solemnly renounced the Austro-Hungarian throne on behalf of any children that he and Sophie might have and any descendants of those children. (Sophie was thirty-two, which in those days made her an all but hopeless spinster.) When the wedding took place three days later, only Franz Ferdinand’s mother and sister, out of the whole huge Hapsburg family, attended. Even Franz Ferdinand’s brothers, the eldest of whom was a notorious libertine, self-righteously stayed away. The marriage turned out to be a happy one all the same, in short order producing a daughter and two sons whom the usually stiff Franz Ferdinand loved so unreservedly that he would play with them on the floor in the presence of astonished visitors. But at court Sophie was relentlessly snubbed. She was not permitted to ride with her husband in royal processions or to sit near him at state dinners. She could not even join him in his box at the opera. When he, as heir, led the procession at court balls, she was kept far back, behind the lowest ranking of the truly royal ladies.
But here in Bosnia, a turbulent border province, the rules of Vienna could be set aside. Here in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie could appear together in public as royal husband and wife. It was a rare experience, and they were enjoying it as much as any pair of small-town shopkeepers on their first vacation in years. They were staying in the nearby seaside resort town of Bad Ilidz, and on Saturday they had browsed the local antique markets. They had started Sunday with mass in an improvised chapel at their hotel, after which the archduke sent a telegram to the children, Sophie, Max, and Ernst. Momma and Poppa were well, the wire said. Momma and Poppa were looking forward to getting home on Tuesday. –G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Although I am an aficionado of military history and had read a few books about World War I when I was younger, my main focus on the subject of war and military campaigns has largely been on the Great War’s “sequel,” World War II. Part of it, of course, is that the conflict that engulfed the world between 1939 and 1945 occurred within my parents’ lifetime and thus closer to my frame of reference. (My parents were young when World War II began in 1939; my father was weeks away from his 20th birthday when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, and my mother was almost 10.) My older half-sister Victoria was born almost five years after Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were vanquished in 1945, whilst I came along almost 18 years after V-E and V-J Days. Mom didn’t talk much about growing up in Colombia during the war, but like everyone alive at the time, she and her family were touched by it in one way or another.
The other reason, obviously, is that as a kid born at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I grew up watching Hollywood renditions of World War II on TV as well as in movie theaters. The first movie I remember watching at a movie theater (in Bogota, Colombia) was John Sturges’ The Great Escape: the first “grown up book” I read as a lad of six was an excerpt of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day. So for 50 years or more, World War II has dominated my studies of war and history in general, not just because that conflict is more compelling to readers and watchers of films and documentaries because its origins are less ambiguous and its moral imperatives are clearer and easier to understand.
But as I grow older – and hopefully a bit wiser – I have noticed one important fact: If we are to understand why the modern world is so messed up now, why the 20th Century is a catalogue of armed conflict, world power rivalries, and bitter hatred between nationalities and ethnic/religious groups, we have to study and understand the Great War and its consequences.
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 is the first book in a loose duology about World War I. G.J. Meyer’s follow-on book, The World Remade: America in World War I focuses on the United States and President Wilson’s unsuccessful attempts to mediate a peaceful solution to the conflict in 1914, his Administration’s lip service to neutrality, and the various crises and policies – on both sides of the Atlantic – that led to American intervention “over there.” (Though the books are thematically linked, Meyer wrote them in such a way that you can read one without necessarily reading the other, although A World Undone only covers the highlights of U.S. involvement in the Great War and has to dispense with in-depth coverage of topics such as the Committee for Public Information, the “Four Minute Men,” and the suppression of civil liberties on the homefront from 1917 to Armistice Day 1918.)
Meyer, a former journalist and professor who has taught history at several post-secondary schools in the U.S., does a great job of making this sadly-obscure and badly-neglected conflict come alive. It is a one-volume history, and as such you won’t find every single skirmish of the Great War in its pages. However, Meyer has a good eye for detail and a sharp analytical mind that delves not just into the dry minutiae of grand strategy and modern warfare in the early 20th Century, but also into the personalities and worldviews of the civilian and military leaders on both sides of the trenches.
Every so often, Meyer will interrupt the main narrative of A World Undone with interstitial chapters labeled Background. These Background detours focus on specific individuals or nation-states and give readers detailed personality profiles of major figures or overviews of each combatant nation’s viewpoint or strategic goals. The reader then gets a better grasp on the events and personalities that shaped the way the war was waged, and why the peace that followed the “war to end all wars” was so hollow and full of bitterness, even among the victorious Allies.
The book is excellently written and fast-paced. It explodes the prevailing myth that the subject is boring because World War I, at least on the infamous Western Front, was a mostly-static version of siege warfare. It is a work that covers the Great War from the perspective of the various warring nations, and Meyer’s clear, crisp, and convincing prose makes it easier for even the newest visitor to this topic to read and follow.
So if you want to understand why the Middle East conflict that is still ongoing today is the result of secret compacts such as the Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916 and the public Balfour Declaration of 1917, or how the Balkans Wars of the 1990s had their seeds planted in the events of June 1914, read A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
I have the paperback edition, which was published by Bantam Books in March of 2007.