Book Review: Decisions for War, 1914-1917


Decisions for War, 1914-1917

In Decisions for War, 1914-1917, Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig present a new thesis for the origins of World War I.   They argue that in all the belligerent countries the decision for war was made by a one person or at most a small group of individuals regardless of the type of government.   Given the wealth of material written about the origins of the First World War it seems incredible to me that this possibility has, if not been overlooked in all previous scholarship, then certainly ignored, as the authors claim[1].   While Hamilton and Herwig do not entirely discount that other factors than pure national self-interest on the part of the leaders played a role in the decision for war, they do contend that this was the overriding concern in most if not all of the wars belligerents.

            I found the book to be a fairly easy to read, the writing style was not as dry as might be expected given the topic of discussion.   Even though I do not necessarily agree with the authors, the book was fun and captivating to read.   They write with a style similar to what I try to achieve in my own writing.   It is written such that it is simultaneously engaging, factual, and descriptive, just a good read.   I do not have to agree with a book to enjoy it, and the authors certainly made reading this enjoyable.   It was laid out well and the chapters flowed in a logical progression, discussing each country in the order in which it declared war.  

However, I do not think that the authors proved their thesis.   They seemed to think that presenting only limited evidence contrary to their view would make them seem balanced; perhaps this is true for readers who are unfamiliar with the events and personalities involved with leading their countries into war.   They tend to present positive evidence while ignoring negative evidence.   They barely give lip service to previous propositions of the wars origins, dismissing them either as simple or not supported by available evidence.  

What little negative evidence Hamilton and Herwig do present is not necessarily relevant.   In the discussion of the decision of Austria-Hungary for war, they give great prominence to the views of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was opposed to any Balkan intervention[2].   It is difficult to see how the views of the dead Archduke are relevant, especially since it was widely known that time that he was not well loved by the Austro-Hungarian leadership, mainly for what was widely to be his poor choice of wife but also because of his different views on foreign policy and the running of the empire.

One aspect of the origins of the war I had not considered prior to reading this work was how small the groups that decided for war really were.   I took it for granted that the decision for war in the monarchies was ultimately made by the monarch, but I had not considered the case of the democratic countries.   Hamilton and Herwig present the decision for in the democracies as the various legislatures essentially rubber-stamping the will of the executive.   I did not fully realize the lack of legislative debate that had occurred.

This lack of legislative oversight in the democratic nations was the most important insight I gained from the book.   It made me relook the origins of other wars and rethink some of my assumptions.   If one man or a small group could decide for war in 1914, why could the same thing not have happened in 1898, 1939, 1941, or even 2003?  This is a point I will have to keep in mind in my studies of other conflicts and wars.

One of the biggest failings of the book was the way in which the authors dismiss other theories of war origination.   I suppose it is understandable that they think they have the definitive answer of the way in the war started.   However, I suspect that even today we do not indeed, cannot know the whole truth of what happened to bring on the war.   The authors acknowledge when they discuss how some of the records have been lost or destroyed since the war.   They then go on to essentially claim that they do not need these records because what is available is enough.

            Lastly, the whole premise of this book disagrees with most previous scholarship on the origins of the First World War.   It is Hamilton and Herwig’s contention that they have discovered a new explanation for, if not the war’s ultimate origins, then at least an explanation for the way events seemed to spiral out of control.   The basics of their argument seems to pin the blame for the war on Austria-Hungary and Germany, both of which they claim had an attitude of it is better to fight now than later.   They explain the Allies reasoning as being that they were compelled to fight for two reasons one, to counter German imperialism, and two, to avoid the loss of great power prestige from failing to intervene.

            The truth of why the war started is probably somewhere in between a group of gentleman in the proverbial smoky room deciding for war and nations being in straitjacket of their own devising though treaty commitments.   I have no doubt that small “coteries” made the final decision, however they were undoubtedly influenced by many things, not only self-interest as Hamilton and Herwig seem to state.   The decision makers in the various states undoubtedly felt pressure from many directions and the true answer is probably a synthesis between the public commitments and obligations of the state and the personalities and prejudices of the final decision makers.   The result of this synthesis of factors led the various leaders to feel that they could not avoid war in August of 1914 as they could during the crisis of the preceding decades.

[1] Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger H Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917.  p. 21

[2] Ibid. pp. 54-56