Book Review: One for the history buffs

Published: Sunday | February 26, 2012 Comments 0

Title: The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began

Publishers: Walker & Co

Author: Jack Beatty

By 1914, the doddering Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph, had been on the throne for more than six decades. "Aged, isolated, incurious," he read only the happy parts of the newspaper that his aides marked in red. Those same aides fed him false information before war was declared on Serbia, which led to more dominoes falling on the way to World War I.

World War I histories typically focus on the tragic decisions of European political leaders like Joseph and mind-numbing carnage as 19th-century military strategies ran into the mechanised death machines of the 20th century. (One result: France suffered 329,000 casualties in the first six weeks of the war.) Author Jack Beatty takes a different tack in The Lost History of 1914. He focuses not on the events that led to the war, but on selected forces at play in Europe and America that could have led away from war if things had worked out differently.

For instance, what if the boiling civil strife in Ireland had forced Great Britain to focus on matters closer to home? Prime Minister H.H. Asquith saw it as providential that the "hateful war" at least settled his Irish problem - for a time. In France, the gifted pacifist politician Joseph Caillaux favoured detente with Germany. It's far from clear if he could have succeeded, but things became more complicated for him in 1914 after his wife shot dead a hostile editor who had threatened to publish letters dating from when she was Caillaux's mistress. Beatty looks at Austrian politics not so much to analyse the emperor's actions, but to ponder the less belligerent path the throne's heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, might have followed if he were not assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914.

confession

Beatty has a great eye for the vivid details that reveal character. Kaiser Wilhelm II exhorts his soldiers in 1900 to fight "like the Huns under their king Attila." President Woodrow Wilson confesses to a contemporary that he felt sorry for people who disagreed with him "because I know they are wrong." Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa orders the body of a man shot dead in his office under mysterious circumstances to be exhumed and shot full of holes to make it look like he faced a firing squad.

Coincidentally, this book was published just after the last known surviving veteran of World War I - a waitress for the Women's Royal Air Force - died at age 110. Downton Abbey notwithstanding, the prewar era really does seem like a lost time. Beatty manages to shed some light on that receding era.

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