How did the First World War begin?

The war that ended peace: how Europe abandoned peace for the First World War“Archduke Franz Ferdinand is dead!” That was the shocking news that Europeans woke to on the morning of June the 29th, one hundred years ago; a grim portent of the war that would change their world forever. This war – known to contemporaries as The Great War and to those since as the First World War – had long and complex roots. Each successive generation remains obliged to rediscover this horrific conflict anew – and that obligation has never been greater than for those who will bear witness on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy’s dark beginnings. Fortunately, Leeds Library and Information Service has a number of books to help you understand the causes of the crisis that gripped Europe in the summer of 1914.

Several books have been published to mark that 100th anniversary, among them Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (rated 5* by Leeds readers) and Max Hastings’ Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War, 1914. As usual, however, readers wanting to delve deeper would be advised to investigate the holdings of our Information and Research department, where many informative texts can be found – most of which are available to borrow Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914and take home. A selection of these is highlighted below.

The tangled causes of the war stretched back to the early 19th century and the rivalries or alliances between the five Great Powers of Europe (Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and France).

The Great Powers and the European States System: 1815-1914 (F.R. Bridge & Roger Bullen) is a key text in this regard, while books such as Barricades and Borders: Europe, 1800-1914 (Robert Gildea) and The Struggle For Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (AJP Taylor) trace the development of these relationships in the wider historical context.  G.P. Gooch’s Before The War: Studies in Diplomacy and The Origins of The War of 1914 (Luigi Albertini) concentrate on the torturous diplomatic manoeuvres leading to the outbreak of conflict in August of 1914. The essays in The War Plans of the Great Powers: 1880-1914 (edited by Paul Kennedy) explain the deep influence of each nation’s military on questions of foreign policy.

The immediate cause of the war was the aforementioned death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. His assassination in the imperial province of Sarajevo, Bosnia, by advocates of a Greater Serbia is contextualised through volumes such as Bosnia: A Short History (Noel Malcolm) and A History of Modern Serbia: 1804-1918 (Michael Boro Petrovich); The Road to Sarajevo (Vladimir Dedijer) synthesises these regional approaches into a satisfying whole.

Control of the Austrian empire had been held by the Hapsburg family since time out of mind; the modern history of that royal dynasty is fully described in The Hapsburg Monarchy: 1867-1914 (Arthur J.May). Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria (Joseph Redlich) is a biography of the penultimate holder of the famous crown, while The Hapsburg Twilight: Tales From Vienna (Sarah Gainham) and The World of Yesterday (Stefan Zweig) are melancholic explications of nostalgia for the dying days of a now-vanished kingdom.

Finally, Origins of the First World War (L.C.F. Turner) is a useful survey of the different approaches to the question of cause, while the relevant essay in AJP Taylor’s How Wars Begin is a concise analysis of the events immediately before and after the demise of the Archduke.

Remember – you can arrange to have these, or any other, books in our library service reserved for collection at your local library.

Antony Ramm Information and Research

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