I started reading this book in June, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. MacMillan’s exhaustive and detailed book examines the background to the First World War and poses the question: out of all the European crises that arose in the years leading up to 1914 in which war was successfully averted, why did this one crisis — the assassination — spark a brutal, wide-ranging four-year conflict that defined the twentieth century?
There’s no one answer of course, but MacMillan explores the politics, culture and attitudes toward war and peace in Germany, England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary during the years, then the months, then the days leading up to the declaration of war in August 1914. She looks in details at the characters and personalities involved, from king, emperor, kaiser and czar down to generals and politicians, and discusses how their actions contributed to or helped to prevent the war. This is a great overview of the background to the conflict, intended for the well-informed general reader. It took me a little while to get through, but I plan to follow up by reading Paris 1919, MacMillan’s exploration of the treaty that ended World War One — and virtually guaranteed there would be a World War Two.