Michael S. Neiberg


On his book Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

Cover Interview of August 22, 2011

In a nutshell

Dance of the Furies is an attempt to understand 1914 by taking a wider view of European society.  Instead of focusing on the perhaps dozen or so men whose decisions brought the continent to war in that fateful summer, I focus on the reactions of the millions of people who were never consulted, but whose participation was necessary to conduct war.

I argue that the vast majority of people in Europe neither sought nor welcomed war.  They accepted it because of their fundamental belief that their nation’s war was defensive and therefore just.  Their responses show remarkable similarity across gender, class, and nationality.  Propaganda, fear, and the incredible speed with which the assassination of an obscure nobleman led to war contributed to the widespread sense of disorientation and helplessness that gripped Europe in those fateful days.

Nationalist hatreds, imperial rivalries, and longstanding mistrusts surely existed in 1914.  But they were insufficient to cause a continental war.

The blame for the war falls to the mismanagement of the statesmen and diplomats who thought they could profit from the minor predicament—crisis is far too strong a word—caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand without resorting to war.  By the time they realized their enormous mistake, it was too late.

This contrast between the minor causes of the war and its massive, worldwide effects helps to explain the overwhelming sense of tragedy that surrounds World War I.

The people of Europe were now stuck in a war they had not caused, but equally one they could not stop.  The total war of 1914 had already produced a conflict that could only end with a total peace.  Thus Europeans knew that the only possible course of action was to fight on.  The only future worse than a future of war was a future of defeat.

The first few months of the war produced atrocities on all sides, unprecedented levels of casualty, and massive disruption of stable societies.  In some places, most notably Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, the lies and misjudgments of the regimes were so vast that revolution eventually resulted.  The war also produced hatreds sufficient to leave behind them fascism, genocide, and an even more terrible war a generation later.

In a nutshell, I argue that the hatreds of the murderous 20th century were a product, not a cause, of World War I.