How Europe Blundered Into War- BBC Style.

As the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of World War I continues, and I KNOW the media has been giving it the coverage it deserves, right after Kim Kardashian's scandal update, and the latest on Michelle Obama's dance moves, I saw this little item on Amazon and decided to give it a go.

After all, no one does period dramas better than the BBC and I thought this might prove a good audio-visual accompaniment to the excellent books I have been reading about the beginning of the war, particularly the chain of events following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The series did not disappoint.  The BBC does period drama very well, and after I got over the fact that Emperor Palpatine (from the Star Wars movies, of course) played Sir Edward Grey, all was good.  The acting was outstanding, the history was pretty good (more on that below) and the drama was fantastic.  You really got a sense of how personalities, intrigue, and plain old misfortune began the 20th century with a horrific bloodletting that would set the course for the next 100 years.

A couple of things really stood out.  First, the pace of events depicted by the movie seems very, very slow by today's standards.  To a generation brought up on instantaneous communications and a 24 hour news cycle, the slow and steady pace of diplomacy, politics, and decision-making seems almost other worldly.  It does give a bit of an appreciation for what  modern statesmen (if there are any left, certainly not in this Administration) have to go through in a crisis where their every thought and action are under a microscope--present Administration excepted.

Second, the roles of individuals in history is clearly undisputed from this DVD.  The insecurities of the Kaiser, the desire for revenge of the French, the inaction of the Austrians all played a part in causing a war that no one wanted.  History is often messy, even in hindsight, and the cause of World War I is certainly influenced by chance, mistakes, and sheer misunderstanding.

I also had a couple of nits on the history.  Being a BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation movie, I think the show casts a disproportionate amount of blame on the Germans.  While Germany was certainly a major contributor to war, first and foremost, I would have to blame Serbia, which was essentially a state sponsor of terrorism against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The Serbian Secret Service, military and good chunk of the government either aided, abetted, or carefully ignored acts of violence against the Austrians, including the assassination of the Archduke.  

Second, I would blame the ineptness of the Austrians.  If they had marched on Belgrade within 30 days ans schwacked the Serbians, I don't think Europe, even the Russians, would have been able to say much...after all, they were all monarchies, and regicide was about the biggest sin a country or individual could commit. 

Finally, there are the Germans...I find their culpability more of an enabler instead of a direct cause.  By backing the Austrians to the hilt...the so-called "blank check" historians like to pin on Germany, the Kaiser had an expectation that the Austrians would get it together and act quickly, before the Russians stirred.  This did not happen due to Austrian ossification of decision making and once the great powers started down the road to mobilization of the massive conscript armies, war was inevitable.

This total inflexibility of all of the major power's war plans was pretty stunning.  This was a major part Max Hastings' book and has been studied Ad nauseam by military historians---particularly the German Schlieffen Plan that called for a rapid mobilization, crushing of France, and then turning to the east to stop the Russian leviathan.  

In hindsight, of course, it's easy to ask "What the hell were the Germans thinking?" in assuming they could move 1,000,000 men, thousands of guns, horses, wagons, etc over the French countryside in 8 weeks, but they darn near did.  

The important factor in making a Balkans fracas into a world war was, of course, the decision to invade Belgium as part of the plan, thus assuring British entry into the war.  This was the biggest factor this drama did a fantastic job of showing---the British were deeply divided about getting involved in a Continental war and may not have declared war if the Germans had not violated Belgian neutrality.  

The anguish each of the participants felt as they desperately tried to stave off war comes through as well and shows that, except for the Germans, most of the countries tried up to the first shots to avoid war.  The only reason the Kaiser and his General Staff were seemingly eager to go to war was they felt their strategic window was closing--they feared that by 1917 the Russians might be an unstoppable juggernaut.   

All in all, this was a great mini-series and pretty darn good history...if you don't like to read history, then at least watch this, it will make you stop and think about how the Great War started...and how it might have been stopped.