By Michael S. Neiberg
The publisher's dust cover for this interesting and well researched study of European public opinion on the eve of the Great War sets up a highly flammable straw man by declaring that "Michael Neiberg
shows that ordinary Europeans, unlike their political and military leaders, neither wanted nor expected war during the fateful summer of 1914.... [He] dispels the notion that Europeans were rabid nationalists intent on mass slaughter.
Fortunately, Neiberg (US Army War College) himself avoids such overstated claims in his finely crafted, often eloquently composed, transnational study rooted in a wealth of letters, diaries, and memoirs of ordinary folk responding to the greatest upheaval of their lives.
Neiberg's focus is both broader and narrower than that of some books about the origins of the Great War appearing in time for its centenary.
Broader in that he
digs into wide, if not always deep, strata of opinion among several national publics, trying to extrapolate general views from private letters, diaries, and recollections.
Narrower in that he
is ostensibly uninterested in historiographical debates, old and renewed, on the diplomatic and political origins of the war: "It is not my intention to assign blame for the causes of the war....
I concur with the general consensus of historical opinion that the blame for the outbreak of the war rests with a small group of German and Austrian military and diplomatic leaders" (4).
In fact, his
study has at least tangential implications for those debates: most explicitly regarding the role of nationalist sentiment and grievance as a possible causal backdrop to July Crisis political decision making.
Neiberg lays out six major arguments.
First, that, like Europe's military and political elites, its peoples indulged in delusions of peace in the lead-up to fightingâ€""Few Europeans expected a war and even fewer wanted one"â€"and, debatably, but crucially to the argument of the book, that "Europe was not a place of white-hot nationalist passions looking for a spark" (5).
shows that many, perhaps even most, people were shocked and surprised when their leaders started a classic "Cabinet War" in summer 1914.
goes too far in asserting that "Europeans in 1914 ... shared much in common, including a pronounced aversion to war" (234).
How and why they went along, and with such gusto, becomes a central problem that Neiberg
has more difficulty resolving.
emphatically rejects the old view of seething, antagonistic nationalisms long heading toward a collision in arms.
again stresses that, by the end of 1914, people understood that they had been misled by inaccurate statements at best and "willful lies at worst" (8).
confronts this question explicitly, arguing that hate came out of the war rather than caused it (202â€"7).
The book's sources include private diaries, correspondence, and other accounts by ordinary (albeit, mostly well educated, middle-class or aristocratic) witnesses to history, people with no say in the decisions made in the dread summer of 1914.
Granting that the articulate classes tend to record their impressions for posterity more often than do the working classes or peasants, it is still disappointing that, in a study of popular attitudes, Neiberg
so frequently quotes and cites well known poets, novelists, and intellectuals, including (far too often) Sigmund Freud, whose views cannot be called representative.
quick survey chapters on background to the assassination in Sarajevo, the summer crisis of 1914, and delivery of the Austrian ultimatum are competent but sometimes wander beyond the primary source documentation into large generalizations that may, or may not, be true.
The evidence for wider public opinion is gathered primarily from newspaper editorials, which hardly reflect the perspectives across, say, the array of ethnic minorities in the Austro-Hungarian empire or the German political spectrum.
Like most academics, Neiberg
overvalues the opinions of the intelligentsia and newspaper editors.
perusal of the editorial pages of Central European countries yields the expected conclusion that "Even in Germany, there was hardly a wave of public opinion taking unwilling leaders along with it toward war" (77â€"80).
contends that Europeans exhibited a sudden and powerful "war enthusiasm" despite the absence of pro-war sentiment before the war.
accounts for the transformation alternately as resulting from mounting casualties or government propaganda that duped the peaceful but opposing publics of the warring powers.
cautions that violent popular views "should be read not as a pent-up desire among the people of Europe for war but as the determination of people to fight a foe that would not respond in kind to what they believed were sincere efforts of their own nation to work for peace" (119).
Here and elsewhere, Neiberg
uses people of Europe as an implicit moral construct, when it would be more accurate historically to use peoples.
ascribes hatreds evident (he admits) "as early as the war's first few days" to each side blaming the other for "the unleashing of a war that no one had wanted" (136).
then argues, with some success, that the great hate associated with World War I sprang from the actual fighting of the war.
It did not even appear in his
sources until the killing and dying started.
In the last third of the book, Neiberg
contends that "by the end of the war's first year, desires for vengeance and genuine enmity had developed, with lasting and terrible consequences" (137).
In this section of several chapters he
most original and persuasive use of ordinary, daily sources not usually considered in the literature on the first months of war.
goes too far in arguing that there was a "rapid return to prewar lack of enthusiasm for going to war.