Michael S. Neiberg


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

Cover Interview of August 22, 2011


Scholars have spilled gallons of ink on the elites of 1914 and on trying to assign blame for the war’s outbreak.  Neither of these approaches helps us to understand the fundamental meanings of the war.  I hope that Dance of the Furies will generate new questions and reenergize debates about the events of 1914 and their wider meanings.

I also hope to move the scholarship on the war away from national models.  There is, of course, a value in studying national history; without the work of many fine national scholars I could not have written this book.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the scholarship on this war is not yet international enough.  As a result we see the war through too narrow a lens.  Only when we try to see this world war through international lenses will we see it in all its complexity.

Finally, I am aware that historians cannot separate themselves from the age in which they write.  The story of a nation that went to war believing its struggle to be defensive only to find out that the logic was rashly based on evidence that later turned out to be questionable struck me as not limited to 1914.

In 2003, the United States found itself in a much more complex environment than it anticipated.  Nevertheless, as in 1914 Europe, public criticism largely ceased once the war began and the nation supported or acquiesced in a war far different from the one it had gone to war to fight.

Thus I ended the book with a quotation from a letter to the editor of a British newspaper in the final days of peace.  The writer warned his readers not to believe the promises of a quick, glorious victory being sold to them by politicians and journalists.  Instead, he foresaw that the leaders of Europe were “trifling” with a dangerous game as likely to destroy the winners as the losers.

What this reader wrote in 1914 remains true today: “All who participate in war, of course, intend to put the death and destruction (sic) on [their] enemies, but history shows that crushing punishment has often fallen on those who thought they could impose it on others.”

© 2011 Michael S. Neiberg