Michael S. Neiberg

 

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

Cover Interview of August 22, 2011

A close-up

I tried as much as possible to let the people of 1914 speak for themselves.  I also tried to juxtapose words written by people from opposing sides on roughly the same day to show how similar reactions were.

Regardless of whether one was French or German, male or female, rich or poor, reactions were much the same.  Reading a quotation in Dance of the Furies, a reader would often be hard pressed to identify the nationality of the author.

Take for example the sections on how Europeans found out about the war.  Up until the final days a remarkably small number of people thought that war would result.  Reservists went off to vacation without their military papers, generals continued their vacations in soon-to-be enemy countries, and, except in a few cases, the pages of diaries are full of every topic under the sun but war.

In an age before 24-hour news networks and the internet, people found out that war had broken out in a wide variety of ways.  Fishermen found out from flags flown on shore, farmers from men on horseback playing bugles, and in small towns from the ringing of church bells.  In many cases, people asked the men ringing the bells what the commotion was about; when they found out war had been declared, one common response was “against whom?”

Reading this section should put to rest any notion that the people of Europe were urging their leaders to fight a war.

Such enthusiasm as did exist was limited to young men and those people who thought that even a state of war was preferable to the tension of the anxious final days of July.  But even those people most enthusiastic about the war when it began had grown disillusioned within a few weeks.  As early as the end of September 1914, it is difficult to find anyone who was enthusiastic about the war, or who could remember how the shooting of an archduke had led them into this tragic situation.