In 1962, when Barbara Tuchman published The Guns of August, her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the opening of World War I, she found a ready reader in President John F. Kennedy. As the Cuban missile crisis unfolded, the book confirmed the presidents belief that war was more likely to break out by accident than by design, and in the folly of a brinksmanship that leaves no fallback position short of actually fighting.
In 2013, too, commentators have been ready to see analogies between the Middle East of today and the Balkans of a century ago. Syria is paired with Sarajevo for reasons more compelling than alliteration. A small powers local concerns have the capacity to embroil stronger states in a crisis that none of them can manage.
The political and chattering classes are right to be worried: If any region today could cause a crisis comparable to that of 1914, it is the Middle East. They need a new book on the outbreak of World War I, and now they have it in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.
An outstanding historian of World War II, Max Hastings has made a victorious foray into a conflict with which he is less familiar. Catastrophe is a book written with an eye cocked to the Anglophone audience and its inherited half-truths about the war. By taking a pan-European perspective, Hastings punctures these with directness and brio. He accuses Britain of pursuing what he calls gesture strategy, which in this context means making a Continental commitment without an army designed for Continental war.
In his memoirs, Richard Burdon Haldane, principal architect of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1914, said this commitment was the task for which the force had always been destined. If so, it was singularly ill fitted for it: The army was tiny, it did not have conscription, and its higher command lacked the structures or expertise for European war. It had been optimized for colonial warfare.
The navy was Britains instrument for major war, and Britains allies held it in such high regard because they believed that its capacity to wage economic warfare would be rapidly decisive. This was the real gesture strategy: In July 1914, Britains economic strength, resting as it did on free trade and British neutrality, depended on stable international order, and so its economy was no more ready for war than anybody elses.
But these were also reasons Britain had to fight for Belgium. The rights of a small nation, the protection of its neutrality and the sanctity of international law were strategically, as well as morally of sufficient importance to British views of the international order to make this a war of necessity, not a war of choice.
It is not hard to see how the ideas in this book carry a special resonance in our time.