Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

By Michael S. Neiberg
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011

If you watched the first series of public television’s Downton Abbey, you may remember how the final episode concluded with an aristocratic garden party being interrupted when a servant brings a message on a silver tray to the lord of the manor. The message is loudly announced to all: "I regret to inform you we are at war with Germany." Guests, hosts, servants, all respond with a frozen posture of open-mouthed amazement and disbelief as the camera fades and the episode ends. This vignette of stunned surprise may well stand for the theme of Michael S. Neiberg’s lucid and engaging book on the months leading up to and following the outbreak of World War One.

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No shortage of books exists on why the Great War erupted in 1914. Excellent analyses are given by John Keegan, Martin Gilbert, and Hew Strachan in their impressive histories of the war, and many others have dealt with the topic as part of a survey. Jeremy Black, for instance, in The Great War and the Making of the Modern World (2011) simply labels his first, 29-page chapter "Causes." Some historians focus on specific sources of blame for the war, such as Sean McMeekin in his recent The Russian Origins of the First World War. Since 1988, James Joll’s The Origins of the First World War has been one of the most popular studies on why war came in 1914. This book, revised and updated by Gordon Martel in a third edition in 2006, now boasts a 76-page study guide produced by Cram101 Textbooks in 2009.

Rather than delving into the various real and purported causes of the war, however, Dance of the Furies focuses on the raw unexpectedness of the outbreak of hostilities for the vast majority of the people it was to embrace. Thus the sudden gape-mouthed surprise of everybody on the lawns of Downton Abbey poignantly mirrors how the outbreak of war affected just about everyone concerned other than a small group of rulers and politicians. Even most of the soldiers of the various armies soon to be mobilized and gradually decimated were unaware that war was upon them until the last minute. In fact, Neiberg presents convincing evidence that most Europeans in July of 1914 were confident that there was not going to be a war over the events of Sarajevo, or for any other reason, no matter how much sabre rattling periodically took place here and there. People were confident that Europe was past the mentality that could allow a large-scale conflict. Surely nothing could erode the various unifying and like-minded organizations and attitudes that cemented peoples and economies in ways never before experienced in a Europe that had known no significant warfare in the memories of most living people.

That people had been laboring under a deep illusion was rapidly proven by events which took place in July and August of 1914. That the results of these events dumbfounded, shocked, and depressed the majority of Europe’s population, rather than immediately stirring them to nationalistic fervor, is fully illustrated by the material the author presents. Neiberg also shows why stunned populations nevertheless could quickly undergo a transformation (with some exceptions) into patriotic and militaristic citizens. Such sentiments weren’t to last long, however, as the realities of war and a tragic sense of all that had been lost quickly became apparent.

I strongly recommend Dance of the Furies to anyone who wants to read a well-written, carefully documented, and convincing account of the hopes prevalent in Europe before and at the start of the war. Neiberg’s study is unique in that it focuses on the feelings, attitudes, and moods of ordinary people of the time and shows how these sentiments were so cruelly shattered by events beyond their control. As you read this book it’s perhaps worth remembering that the Furies in ancient mythology were the Daughters of the Night, three bloody specters who primarily concerned themselves with anger and vengeance.

David F. Beer

David Beer, the Literary Contributing Editor for all our publications has a major article on the War Poets and his recommendations for the very best war poetry anthologies in the next issue of our subscription magazine, OVER THE TOP.

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