The Great Abyss
July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin (Basic, 480 pp., $29.99)


It was the most momentous act of terrorism in history.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, his morganatic wife at his side, traveled in a motorcade along the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, capital of the restless province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Seven conspirators carrying guns, bombs, and suicide pills lined the quay. One of them hurled a bomb at the royal automobile, but it missed its target and struck the car behind, injuring the occupants. Stiff and priggish but undeniably brave, the archduke carried on with the day’s events. After a formal but ironic welcome at the town hall, the motorcade returned along the same quay, the lead driver having been instructed not to turn onto Franz Josef Street, the previously published route. But the archduke’s driver, uninformed of the change, turned as originally planned. When he realized his mistake and stopped the car, another conspirator, a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip, fired two shots from a few feet away. Minutes later, the royals were dead.

The Sarajevo visit had been ill timed; June 28 is the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, in 1389, in which the Ottoman Empire crushed a Serbian uprising and consolidated its rule in the Balkans. By 1914, Austria-Hungary had governed Bosnia for more than four decades, since wresting it away from the Ottomans, but it had formally annexed the province just six years earlier. Neighboring Serbia, which had enlarged and consolidated its territory during the recent Balkan wars, wished to gather fellow Slavs in Bosnia and elsewhere under its own rule. To that end, elements of the Serbian government armed the assassins and dispatched them to Sarajevo.

The assassinations evoked little sympathy; despite his pacific tendencies, the archduke was an unpopular figure at home and abroad. And yet the Sarajevo murders set off an international crisis that led in five weeks to World War I. A peaceful continent at the height of its prestige and cultural influence tore itself to pieces, and liberal civilization suffered a devastating blow.

This diplomatic dance of death is the subject of Sean McMeekin’s gripping and well-researched new book. In prose of admirable clarity, he relates the enormously complex events of that fateful summer. Knowledge of the carnage to come increases the narrative drama; in chancelleries all over Europe, statesmen strolling cool marble floors made decisions that consigned millions to cold, muddy trenches. As Christopher Clark has written in his recent and more compendious account of the 1914 crisis, “causes trawled from the length and breadth of Europe’s pre-war decades are piled like weights on the scale until it tilts from probability to inevitability. Contingency, choice, and agency are squeezed out of the field of vision.” McMeekin concurs and, in his day-by-day and even hour-by-hour account, brings a sprawling cast of characters to life.

Austrian emperor Franz Josef was a survivor; after six decades on the throne, he was wary of war. But his ministers yearned to retaliate against Serbia and bolster the empire’s fading prestige. Chief among the hawks were foreign minister Leopold Berchtold, a late convert to militarism, and General Franz Conrad, the ferociously bellicose army chief of staff. Berchtold wished to efface his reputation for indecisiveness; Conrad wanted desperately to impress his mistress. Such were the motives that helped lead to war. Together they assured their cautious sovereign that, with German help, victory would be swift.

But others feared a wider conflict. The chief obstacle to the plans of the Austrian war party was the Hungarian minister-president, Stefan Tisza. Jealous of his prerogatives as head of government of a coequal half of the empire, and determined to preserve the precarious political advantage enjoyed by his fellow Magyars (which would be threatened if a large population of Slavs were absorbed into the country in a successful war), he bitterly opposed the plans of Berchtold and Conrad. In tense meetings with his Austrian colleagues, he raised every possible objection to war with Serbia. But in McMeekin’s telling, this apostle of peace may have inadvertently contributed to the catastrophe. Left to their own devices, the warlike Austrians might have swiftly committed the empire to a localized conflict with Serbia, attacking Belgrade before the other European powers could react. It might have been just another Balkan spat, of which there had been many.

But it was not to be. Austria-Hungary, before delivering the harshest possible ultimatum to Belgrade, secured a “blank check” for military support from Germany, its sole ally. The mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II had been close to Franz Ferdinand, and had a vested interest in punishing homicide against royals. A grandson of Queen Victoria, he was related to most of Europe’s sovereigns — George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were his cousins. But these blood ties did nothing to prevent bloodshed.

April 22, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 7

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