First up is David Fromkin's 2004 volume Europe's Last Summer: Who Started The Great War In 1914? The question in the title has been much argued over in subsequent historical writing; essentially Fromkin brings the state of the debate up to date, incorporating archival discoveries from the 1980s and 1990s that in his view settles the question very simply: the German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke thought war was Germany's only chance for continued world power and he ensured war came when a chance presented itself.
This is not how we usually think about great historical events -- that one man could have maneuvered many states into actions that eventually killed over 20 million people and ended up with a redrawn map of the world. Here's Fromkin's conclusion in a nutshell: I simply am not well read enough in the historiography of the Great War to know whether I accept Fromkin's conclusion that Moltke "did it." But I do take the warning implicit in his conclusions; a determined man in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead nations into dumb wars. After all, we've just seen what Dick Cheney, his sidekick David Addington, and a compliant George W. did in Iraq.
- There's nothing new about what we call "globalization." The emerging capitalist global system was on track toward full economic integration. In this light, the nationalisms of the 20th century seem almost a detour.
- Prominent politicians died by violence in that world with a frequency that makes our our time seem orderly by comparison.
- War itself was thought to be a virtuous activity, at least among the ruling elites. Even the more evil among our rulers seldom promote this kind of moral imbecility publicly these days. Roosevelt sounds like Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.
- Fromkin stresses the extent to which the war launched in 1914 set the stage for events throughout the last century. On this, I've prepared to believe him, being reminded of the long running and incalculable consequences of "hostilities" lightly begun. Wonder if President Obama has had time to notice this yet with regard to his little Libyan foray?