The centennial of that enormous calamity later known as World War I saw the release of about a dozen books on the subject.  Catastrophe 1914, by Sir Max Hastings, one of the foremost British military historians writing today, is an exhaustive, one-volume history of that annus horribilis and the events leading up to the fatal self-rending of the West.

It is a magnificent book, written with the author’s characteristic verve, full of captivating detail, and with dry British humor.  (“Franz Ferdinand’s ruling passion was shooting: he accounted for some 250,000 wild creatures to his own gun, before ending his days in Gavrilo Princip’s threadbare little gamebag.”)  The book is refreshing in refusing to make the unfortunate archduke and his rotting empire into innocent martyrs of bloodthirsty, conniving Southern Slavs.  According to the author, Franz Ferdinand “regarded southern Slavs as sub-humans, referring to the Serbians as ‘those pigs.’”  (Czar Nicholas II was revolted by the intemperate prejudice of the Habsburg heir.)  Yet the archduke was astute enough to realize that a war between his country and Russia would result in the downfall of both monarchies.

Also refreshing is Hastings’ opposition to the stance of some historians who view Serbia as a rogue state whose government was responsible for the fatal bullet of Gavrilo Princip.  After all, the sinister and psychopathic Colonel Apis, who ran the Black Hand, was an inveterate enemy of Prime Minister Pašic, whose government rightly considered the secret society a threat to Serbia.  The Black Hand considered assassinating Pašic only a year before the outbreak of war.  Hastings even speculates about the Black Hand’s responsibility for the murder in Sarajevo: “[I]f Apis was wholly committed to the assassination plot, it is puzzling that the embryo assassin had to pawn his overcoat for a few dinars shortly before leaving Belgrade, to pay his expenses.”

The author puts the blame for Princip’s success on the criminal negligence of the local Habsburg officials in Bosnia:

Officials were later said to have devoted more energy to discussing dinner menus, and the correct temperature at which to serve the wines, than to the guest of honour’s safety.  Official negligence alone gave Princip and his friends their chance.


The plot to kill the Archduke was absurdly amateurish, and succeeded only because of the failure of the Austrian authorities to adopt elementary precautions in a hostile environment.

Sir Max places the archduke’s murder in its proper historical context.  The years leading up to 1914 were dense with the smoke of assassins’ bombs and bullets.  Franz Ferdinand’s aunt Empress Elisabeth of Austria was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898, and within a year of the war King George I of Greece and the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire were shot dead.  (Hastings relays the “condescending” joke from Britain’s Punch, in which one anarchist asks another, “What time is it by your bomb?”)  Political assassinations and acts of anarchist terrorism became so familiar to the European masses, that, according to Hastings, they were not unduly shocked by Franz Ferdinand’s demise.  His funeral lasted an obscenely short 15 minutes, and the aged Franz Joseph returned to his sanatorium immediately afterward.  Even the Austro-Hungarian press was unusually muted in its reaction.  After all, Franz Ferdinand “was not much loved by anyone save his wife.”

Unlike most Western historians, Hastings demonstrates an excellent understanding of Russia, both before and during the Great War.  This, indeed, is Catastrophe’s greatest strength.  The author shows that, contrary to the myth forged by the Bolsheviks and readily accepted by so many Westerners, the czarist economy had become the fourth largest in the world and one of the fastest growing.  The much maligned Russia of Nicholas II had the largest agricultural production in Europe, “growing as much grain as Britain, France and Germany combined,” a feat that the country’s subsequent communist and democratic rulers could not repeat.  Per capita income, education, and literacy skyrocketed, while the death rate and infant mortality dropped sharply.  And Russian aristocrats, later derided as backward, bigoted, and Asiatic, were cordially accepted by Western European royalty and nobility and felt “as much at home in Paris, Biarritz and London as in St. Petersburg.”

However, there were dark clouds on the horizon.  Baron Nikolai Wrangel, the father of a future anti-Bolshevik leader, warned of an impending “period of barbarism” that would last for decades.  Unfortunately, for all his pious decency, sensitive rationality, and conscientiousness, Nicholas II was a tragically naive, weak, and rather limited man who “existed in an almost divine seclusion from his people, served by ministers of varying degrees of incompetence.”  Russia was also fatally weakened by the treasonous hatred large swaths of her intelligentsia felt for the czarist regime.  This sentiment was especially ferocious among the youth of the educated classes.  Additionally, Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Asiatics, derided as “macaques” by Nicholas II, in the Russo-Japanese War did not enhance national self-esteem.  As for the Pan-Slavic attachment to the Serbs, which so many Russian intellectuals harbored and which led the British minister in Belgrade to call Serbia “a Russian province,” it meant little in practice.

Sir Max Hastings is also head and shoulders above other historians in his knowledge of the Russian military campaign.  For example, he describes the heroism of young Russian aviator Pyotr Nesterov, the first man to fly a loop.  Serving with the nascent Russian air force, he set yet another record by becoming the first pilot ever to down another plane.  The young officer rammed the biplane of Austrian Baron Friedrich von Rosenthal, and his own plane crashed as well.  Nesterov died the next day and became an instant national hero.  The detail in which Nesterov’s suicidal feat is described shows Hastings’ diligent research into and familiarity with the Eastern Front of the Great War.

The author provides an extensive description of the atrocities perpetrated against Serbian and Belgian civilians by the Austro-Hungarian and German armies, respectively.  From the first days of the war, the Austro-Hungarian invaders of Serbia summarily executed thousands of civilians: In the first two weeks alone of the Great War, around 3,500 Serb civilians—hapless peasants accused of taking part in guerilla attacks against the invading armies—were murdered.  An Austrian officer recalled that when his men came under fire from a cornfield, the patrols dragged out 63 civilians, including women, children, and an Orthodox priest.  The civilians were murdered with bayonets and buried in a mass grave.  In their rage, the Austrians then ripped out the priest’s beard.

Hastings emphasizes that the Austro-Hungarian military officials, far from being embarrassed by the mass executions of civilians, were proud of them and had them photographed and published with “hangmen present[ing] bodies for the camera like sportsmen displaying animal trophies.”  The worst atrocity took place in the small town of Šabac after the Serb army withdrew without resistance, “leaving behind only women, children and old people.”  Gen. Kasimir von Lütgendorf then had 120 of the civilians executed, claiming that the old men, women, and children had engaged in street fighting against his troops.  Atrocities were also committed in areas of Bosnia temporarily conquered by the Serbs.  World War I was an unmitigated tragedy for the Serbs, one in six of whom did not survive the war, “by far the highest proportion of the population of any belligerent nation to perish in the conflict.”  As for Belgium, Hastings shows the extent and brutality of German atrocities, which were real and not the creation of Allied propaganda.  Major General von Krae wel’s brigade summarily executed 117 civilians, including a family of five hiding out in their cellar, in a matter of days in Liège and its suburbs.  Another German brigade shot or bayoneted 118 civilians in the village of Soumagne and burned down a hundred of their houses.  Two hundred Belgian civilians were used as human shields by the Germans when they advanced on the Embourg and Chaudfontaine forts.   And 72 people from Melen, among them eight women and four little girls, were executed by German infantrymen.  Most of the village was then burned down.  According to Hastings, around a thousand Belgian civilians were murdered, and over a thousand buildings burned around Liège in the first days of the war in an unsettling foreshadowing of the Wehrmacht atrocities a quarter-century later.  After the French left the town of Rossignol in southern Belgium, the site of their greatest loss of life throughout the whole war, the Germans murdered 122 people there, in what Hastings calls “another orgy of violence against civilians.”

Sir Max Hastings’ book is naturally not without its faults.  The author burdens at times an otherwise masterly narrative with the reminiscences of soldiers, officers, and politicians, thereby distracting the reader from the flow of events.  He also devotes excessive space to the rivalries of various British military leaders.  On balance, however, Catastrophe is a tour de force and a welcome addition to the historiography of the Great War.


[Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 672 pp., $35.00]