I just finished reading Dance of the Furies- Europe and the Outbreak of World War I by Michael Neiberg.  It is an excellent companion to another book he wrote about WWI:  Fighting the Great War.  Michael is a history professor with a focus on World War I,  and my nephew. His other books about World War I include The Second Battle of the Marne, Warfare and Society in Europe, The Eastern Front and The World War I Reader.

Fighting the Great War was a broad view of the military campaigns.  The carnage of WWI was a confluence of history and technology.  Picture the Civil War with machine guns, high power artillery, tanks, airplanes and poison gas.  Yet medical care had little improved.  The carnage was incredible and the war ended from an exhaustion of resources and people.  For many European nations WWI was more significant and devastating than WWII. Britain and France lost twice as many soldiers in WWI than WWII.

Dance of the Furies focuses on Europe outside the military campaign.  Neiberg researched volumes of civilian correspondence and finds a Europe that did not want nor expect this war.  The conventional academic wisdom is that WWI was an inevitable outbreak of nationalistic and jingoistic developments.  Neiberg argues that while these attitudes existed it did not explain the outbreak of the war.  Few people felt these attitudes justified war.

There had been violent acts and smaller conflicts that had been mediated without leading to war.  The success in preventing war by mediation for decades gave a sense of comfort that war was a very avoidable outcome.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian national seemed a relatively minor incident in the scope of the European concerns and few expected it to lead to WWI.

But efforts to mediate the harsh terms the Austro-Hungarians placed on Serbia after the assassination failed and war ensured. Few people, however, believed it would last very long. Shop keepers hung signs on their stores that they would soon return.

The book notes the impact on the civilians: inflation, unemployment, critical shortages of foods and commodities. 800,000 people fled Paris. “3,000,000  in France and Belgium were homeless by the end of the year (1914)”.

Few soldiers from any army understood why they were fighting. The news from the German, British and French papers was controlled and bereft of any current information on the state of the conflict.  The American papers were sought even though they were weeks old because it had more information on the war than their local papers allowed.

Few civilians understood what was happening until the casualties started, and they were significant.  At the Battle of the Marne, not far from Paris, “200,000 wounded men from the battle came into a stunned and unprepared city…. more men had been wounded in this one battle than had been present at either Gettysburg or Waterloo.”

Tales of atrocities, some verified and some rumored, dissolved any reluctance the fighters may have harbored at the onset of the conflicts.  Neiberg suggests that the nationalistic sentiment many suggest caused the war was more the result of the conflict.  Every country thought they were fighting a defensive war, as difficult as that rationalization is to understand today.

Though few expected or wanted this war, once it started it took on a life of its own.  Attitudes hardened and were sustained long after the war ended.  The war was a decision of a dozen leaders.  Michael referred to it as a Cabinet War.

Thus the war developed from a political structure where the leaders were distant from their constituencies and where a free press was the first casualty.  There was little civilian support for the war from either side and few made plans for either the duration or depth of the losses.

WWI may have been an avoidable war but the outcome just laid the basis for WWII.  The nationalist hostilities may have been a result of the first world war but it led to the second. Yet the utter exhaustion and devastation from WWI led to appeasements that ultimately made WWII far more costly than it would have been. From one perspective WWII seems like a continuation of WWI.