T.G. Otte, a Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia, has written an exhaustive and difficult to read study of the diplomatic maneuvers undertaken by the major powers on the eve of World War I. He covers the period from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 to Britain’s entry into the war the following August 4th on a day-by-day basis. The problem for the lay reader is that there are way too many characters and you have to continually update your score card to understand what is going on.
Otte is not interested in the broad historical forces that caused World War I, but rather he focuses in on the flesh and blood human beings who by their actions precipitated the war. His theme is similar to Margaret Macmillan’s “The War that Ended Peace…..” which discusses how the major powers increasingly narrowed their options making war more or less inevitable. Instead of taking 24 years to narrow options, the diplomats in his story take less than six weeks as peaceful option after peaceful option is foreclosed upon.
Otte has a set of clear villains. They are the Austria-Hungary leadership, mainly Foreign Minister Berchtold, who are so narrowly focused on Serbia; they fail to understand the European consequences of their actions. They are the “Sleepwalkers” Christopher Clark writes about. Next are the Germans, Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Hollweg and Foreign Minister Jagow, who issue the “blank check” to Austria on July 5th thereby surrendering their foreign policy to that narrowly focused dying empire.
Other diplomats singled out for blame include Maurice Paleologue, the French Ambassador to Russia, who conveys far more hawkish sentiments than that of his government to his Russian counter-party Foreign Minister Sazanov. Had Paleologue been more discreet and Sazanov less aggressive, the Russian mobilization of July 29th might have been delayed giving more time for diplomacy.
Britain’s Sir Edward Grey comes off the best as he frantically tried to come up with diplomatic solutions to the crisis. This is a different take because many historians blame Grey for not forcefully signaling Germany that Britain would enter the war on the side of France thereby acting a major deterrent. Here Grey is the neutral mediator. I am not sure what to believe. One last point when Otte discusses the role of Eyre Crow an Assistant Under-Secretary in the foreign office rather than being an above the fray civil servant, he fails to disclose that he was the long time anti-German hawk in British foreign policy circles.
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