Could the Great War have been avoided? Ian Kershaw’s new book offers an explanation:
Kershaw argues that World War I could have been forestalled if Vienna had acted with speed to punish Serbia for its complicity in the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it had the Kaiser’s reckless blank check for punishment, but as Kershaw puts it, the Austrian Empire “knew only two speeds, slow and dead stop.” By the time Vienna sent its ultimatum to Belgrade, three weeks after the assassination, Russia, with France in tow, had encouraged the Serbs to be more bloody-minded. More bloody-minded, in my own judgment, than justified.
Kershaw identifies a second missed opportunity to avert mass slaughter. He writes that even as Russia started to mobilize in the summer of 1914 — much before Germany — “a firm British declaration of neutrality . . . might even at a late hour have prevented general war. But Grey’s disastrous hesitation meant that the room for diplomatic initiatives vanished.” Pretty well every history nods to the poetic prescience of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, in the foreboding he expressed on Aug. 3. Standing by his big window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, he watched the gas lights being lit in the street below and said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They were, though Grey lived to see Europe, with the lights on, begin to fumble its irresolute way to World War II.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story