Annus Horribilis

The centennial of that enormous calamity later known as World War I saw the release of about a dozen books on the subject.  Catastrophe 1914, by Sir Max Hastings, one of the foremost British military historians writing today, is an exhaustive, one-volume history of that annus horribilis and the events leading up to the fatal self-rending of the West.

It is a magnificent book, written with the author’s characteristic verve, full of captivating detail, and with dry British humor.  (“Franz Ferdinand’s ruling passion was shooting: he accounted for some 250,000 wild creatures to his own gun, before ending his days in Gavrilo Princip’s threadbare little gamebag.”)  The book is refreshing in refusing to make the unfortunate archduke and his rotting empire into innocent martyrs of bloodthirsty, conniving Southern Slavs.  According to the author, Franz Ferdinand “regarded southern Slavs as sub-humans, referring to the Serbians as ‘those pigs.’”  (Czar Nicholas II was revolted by the intemperate prejudice of the Habsburg heir.)  Yet the archduke was astute enough to realize that a war between his country and Russia would result in the downfall of both monarchies.

Also refreshing is Hastings’ opposition to the stance of some historians who view Serbia as a rogue state whose government was responsible for the fatal bullet of...

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