Michael S. Neiberg


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

Cover Interview of August 22, 2011

The wide angle

I wrote this book to help me work my way out of a teaching problem.

I simply could not explain the outbreak of the war to my students in one or two lectures.  The cataclysm of 1914-1918 seemed so unprecedented that my students could not fit it into the history of Europe they had learned.  Neither the traditional diplomatic explanations nor explanations based on forces like nationalism, imperialism, and militarism adequately explained matters either.

I was also uncomfortable with putting the people of 1914 into what I half-jokingly called “the stupid box,” making the war out to be some colossally rash act of a generation supposedly dumber than our own.  Such a view may help us convince ourselves that we could never repeat the mistakes of a former age but it is not accurate.

I thus started reading diaries and memoirs from, for lack of a better term, the ordinary people of 1914, to see if a different picture might emerge.  And, as I suspected, one did.

Most people expected the diplomats to solve the Sarajevo crisis as they had solved crises in Morocco and the Balkans.  They also expected Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas to work for peace as they had traditionally done, at least in Europe, since taking their thrones.  In other words, the system would work as it had in the past to prevent small problems from causing continental wars.

People soon went back to thinking about summer vacations and local news.  The first “trial of the century” was taking place in Paris: Mme. Henriette Caillaux, having shot a newspaper editor, was then testing out a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity.  This approach had never before tried in Europe.  Her lawyer argued that Henriette Caillaux had had to assume the unnatural male role of defending her honor when her husband, the French minister of finance, failed to do so.  The jury agreed, finding her not guilty just days before the war began.  The Caillaux trial, not distant Balkan affairs, occupied the front pages of newspapers until the last days of July 1914.

When, shockingly, the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum of July 23 made it appear as if war might after all result, Europeans greeted it not with enthusiasm but resignation and despair.  The most common analogy they made was to a natural disaster, an event that comes without warning, devastates communities in a flash, and leaves tragedy in its wake.  Like natural disasters, wars were to be endured, not welcomed.  I found dozens of such analogies in the letters and diaries of Europeans at the time.

Methodologically, I relied on the new “Transnational Turn” that looks at nationality as just one among a variety of identities.

Reducing Europeans to their nationhood simplifies the picture far too much.  While not ceasing to be French or German, they also had, for example, Catholic, working-class, and regional identities.  Transnational scholars originally examined forces that cross borders and are beyond the control of nation-states such as climate change.  My book is one of the first to apply it to war.