REVIEW: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (Review by Justin Cahill)

28 June 2014 marks the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, at Sarejevo. The conflict it spawned destroyed four empires, brought two of my great-grandfathers to the trenches strung out along the Western front and one of my great-granduncles to Gallipoli.

A library of books already exists documenting every facet of the conflict. The coming anniversary has inspired many more. Can there be anything left to say? Max Hastings shows us there is still much to learn about the outbreak of World War I; that “war to end war.”

Hastings offers three important lessons. The first is on causation. For far too long, the standard accounts of the War’s origins have been dominated by the assumption that Europe’s great powers blundered into conflict. Hastings shows that each made a series of calculated decisions that they knew would lead to war. Nor did they underestimate its extent.

The second is on sources. Most accounts of the War are dominated by the views of monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, generals and diplomats. The voices of ordinary people are rarely heard. Hastings redresses this imbalance, including an impressive range of quotes for their letters and journals in his account.

Sir Max Hastings

Max Hastings

Hasting’s third lesson is about guilt. He makes it abundantly clear that Germany and Austria-Hungry were to blame for the escalation of international tensions after the Archduke was killed and the eventual outbreak of hostilities. And therein lies Hasting’s unspoken fourth lesson.

After the War, Germany was forced to accept guilt for the losses its aggression caused the Allies. It agreed to pay them reparations of US$63 billion (about US$768 billion in 2010, the year the last instalment was paid).

Germany was promptly torn apart by civil war. By the 1920s its economy was crippled by hyperinflation; the Depression wiped out what remained. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, savings and homes. Who could lead Germany out of the darkness? Cue the rise of Adolf Hitler, already undergoing his metamorphosis from Viennese derelict to genocidal psychopath.

The rest is not quite history. We still live with the War’s ultimate results; all arguably caused by two gunshots one sunny day in Sarajevo. Hasting’s book is a timely reminder the past is never that far away. And it always has something more to tell.

Grab a copy of Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 here


Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

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