Alibi V.23 No.7 • Feb 13-19, 2014 

Book Review

How It Begins

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Max Hastings
Alfred A. Knopf
hardcover
history
$35

Think of a decision you once made that completely changed your life—a move, or a marriage, or a serious commitment to an idea. And then ask yourself: What led up to that? Maybe there’s a simple answer—“I read a book about Alaska,” or “I needed the money,” or “This city couldn’t go on without a cupcake bakery just for men.” Or maybe there are no simple answers. Maybe the simple answers only raise more questions. Maybe what’s led up to anything is literally everything, a ragged network of causes and effects that will never be completely untangled.

Historical decisions are the much the same. What led up to 9/11, for instance? Or Pearl Harbor? Or World War I? Any one-line explanation is an oversimplification. In the case of World War I, the reason most often given is that the Emperor of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a man who may have been part of a Serbian conspiracy. But a new book by war correspondent and historian Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War—available in hardcover from Alfred A. Knopf—shows that this explanation is so basic it’s just wrong.

Hastings has a gift for finding overlooked facts and haunting quotes—Edith Wharton writing that at the start of the war, “everything seemed strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare which precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and woken up in an unknown world. And so I had.”

Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary’s Emperor, was a widely disliked buffoon, and his death was just a convenient excuse to go to war. In 1914, the people of Austria-Hungary already didn’t like the people of Serbia and thought a war might be just what they needed to sort out their differences. England didn’t like that Russia controlled the Black Sea. Russia didn’t like that England, France and Germany seemed to be developing an exclusive friendship. Almost every country had a problem with almost every other country, and Europe felt a bit like an overcrowded house filled with disgruntled, inconsiderate roommates. These people were going to fight about something—and the trigger for that fight could be anything.

What no one expected, however, was that this fight would be so long-lasting, brutal and lethal. With clarity and directness, Catastrophe 1914 details the cause of, and the first year of, that war. Hastings has a gift for finding overlooked facts and haunting quotes—Edith Wharton writing that at the start of the war, “everything seemed strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare which precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and woken up in an unknown world. And so I had.” Or a Serbian officer writing, “What will happen to me? …I am all sickness; I have no sensation in my feet due to frostbite…. I doubt that I am still the same human being that I once was.”

In a sense, we’re still living in the ashes of World War I. That war led to World War II, and the two wars changed everything. Our present is still lit by the yellow glare of their flames. Catastrophe 1914 is about how that first fire began.