The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began


In The Lost History of 1914, Jack Beatty offers a highly original view of World War I, testing against fresh evidence the long-dominant assumption that it was inevitable. "Most books set in 1914 map the path leading to war," Beatty writes. "This one maps the multiple paths that led away from it."

Chronicling largely forgotten events faced by each of the belligerent countries in the months before the war started in August, Beatty shows how any one of them-a possible military coup...

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The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began

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In The Lost History of 1914, Jack Beatty offers a highly original view of World War I, testing against fresh evidence the long-dominant assumption that it was inevitable. "Most books set in 1914 map the path leading to war," Beatty writes. "This one maps the multiple paths that led away from it."

Chronicling largely forgotten events faced by each of the belligerent countries in the months before the war started in August, Beatty shows how any one of them-a possible military coup in Germany; an imminent civil war in Britain; the murder trial of the wife of the likely next premier of France, who sought détente with Germany-might have derailed the war or brought it to a different end. In Beatty's hands, these stories open into epiphanies of national character, and offer dramatic portraits of the year's major actors-Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas II , Woodrow Wilson, along with forgotten or overlooked characters such as Pancho Villa, Rasputin, and Herbert Hoover. Europe's ruling classes, Beatty shows, were so haunted by fear of those below that they mistook democratization for revolution, and were tempted to "escape forward" into war to head it off. Beatty's powerful rendering of the combat between August 1914 and January 1915 which killed more than one million men, restores lost history, revealing how trench warfare, long depicted as death's victory, was actually a life-saving strategy.

Beatty's deeply insightful book-as elegantly written as it is thought-provoking and probing-lights a lost world about to blow itself up in what George Kennan called "the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century." It also arms readers against narratives of historical inevitability in today's world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Many historians consider WWI to have been inevitable. Not so, maintains Beatty, a news analyst on NPR’s On Point (Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865–1900), in this delightfully contrarian account. If one of any number of events had turned out differently, the war might not have been launched. Had war been delayed a month, for instance, civil war over the bitter Irish Home Rule controversy might have embroiled Britain. Russian leaders agreed that war would provoke revolution, as it had in 1905. Yet in 1914, all mysteriously and disastrously changed their minds. With far less reason, says Beatty, Germany’s leaders also feared revolution; many urged a military coup that would have preoccupied the army. Every European belligerent disliked President Wilson’s quirky support of Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa (he later reversed himself). This led to Germany’s January 1917 Zimmermann telegram (which was intercepted by the British) promising Mexico’s dictator U.S. territory in exchange for invading its northern neighbor. Beatty maintains that this, not Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare, tipped the balance in America in favor of war. Readers may find some arguments more convincing than others, but they will thoroughly enjoy Beatty’s thoughtful, often discomforting opinions. 86 b&w illus.; 4 maps. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"Thought-provoking, and often mordantly ironic."—The New Yorker

"Beatty's achievement isn't so much in discovering new material about World War I as it is in taking apart what is known about 1914 and assembling it in a different form. We see, of course, what might have been—but more important, we see, in a different light, what was. It was a calamity."—David Shribman, The Boston Globe

"Beatty seeks to navigate the historiography of the first great conflict of the twentieth century away from the 'metaphysical no-man's land of historical inevitability' and back into the 'trenches of empiricism.'"—The New Statesman

"Beatty... captures the sweep of the events that gripped the world and illuminates the epic arrogance, the paranoia, the pettiness and the myopic self-serving views of the European heads of state who had laid the cornerstone of a conflict that would lead to the deaths of millions from Moscow to Maine."—Paul Collins, Nashua Telegraph

"Beatty has a great eye for the vivid details that reveal character...'Downton Abbey' notwithstanding, the prewar era really does seem like a lost time. Beatty manages to shed some light on that receding era."—Michael Hill, The Associated Press

"THE LOST HISTORY OF 1914 brings alive much of the official world of a century ago."—Bruce Ramsey, Seattle Times

"Bold stuff...[An] exuberant and bulging rag-bag of counter-factual history that challenges the 'cult of inevitability' that Europe's war-leaders were retrospectively so eager to embrace."—David Crane, The Spectator

"[A] startling study of what Woodrow Wilson called 'an injury to civilization.'"—Eve Ottenberg, In These Times

"Spritely, captivating…[Beatty’s book] delivers his signature storyteller’s insights. Hardly any writer working today can amass such an enormous array of information and shape it all so effortlessly into paragraph after compelling paragraph. The centennial of World War I is bound to produce a tsunami of verbiage – and, if we’re lucky, some genuinely first-rate stuff. THE LOST HISTORY OF 1914…steals a march on all of them. Highly recommended."—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

"THE LOST HISTORY OF 1914 will leave its mark on how we think about World War I and perhaps, beyond that, on how we think about history and history in the making."—Harvey Blume, The Arts Fuse

Kirkus Reviews
Was World War I an inevitable disaster looking for a catalyst? Not so, writes On Point news analyst Beatty (Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, 2007, etc.) in this intermittently illuminating but deeply frustrating new history. What happened is well known. After Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, pieces locked in place that engaged the major powers in a catastrophic war. Austria, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia, which was backed by Russia; soon, Russia's ally France entered the fray, as did Britain. After years of trying to stay out of it, the United States was pulled in when it looked as if Mexico was going to try to reclaim parts of Texas. Things could have easily been different, writes Beatty, as the countries involved were all locked in internal struggles that could have taken different outcomes, and Princip's bullet could have easily missed and struck another target--if it had, the living Ferdinand would not have argued for war. Not only that, but he would have acceded to the throne following Austria-Hungary's Emperor Franz Joseph's death in 1916, and would likely have been too embroiled in civil strife to deal with a war with Serbia. Once war was engaged, it was kept alive by press censorship in the countries involved. The French, English and Germans did not know the scale of suffering endured by their soldiers, and may not have wanted to. By the time the U.S. joined in 1917, it only prolonged the struggle. A post-Armistice food blockade starved Germany, and the children of that war would unite under the father figure of Adolf Hitler. The author provides a well-researched, compelling thesis, but the narrative lacks strong portraiture, the motivations aren't always made clear and the drama, except in rare instances, remains on a simmer. This may prove to be an important book for students of "counterfactual" history, but only occasionally does this story about a world going up in flames ever ignite.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802778116
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 2/14/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 228,939
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Beatty grew up listening to his father's memories of serving in WWI as a sailor on a ship torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay. He is a news analyst for "On Point," the public affairs program on National Public Radio, and the author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, and Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900. He lives in New Hampshire.

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