Toward a Transnational History of the Origins of World War I

Michael S. Neiberg, History, University of Southern Mississippi

Research Grant, 2009, 2010

This project examines the outbreak of war in 1914 from a transnational perspective. Rather than see Europe in this era as a set of homogenous and hermetically sealed nation-states, it begins with the proposition that a series of transnational forces (including socialism, pacifism, and international diplomacy) mitigated against nationalism as a cause of war. While this study does not deny the importance of nationalism to Europeans in 1914, it assumes that nationalism was but one among many identities. Among its conclusions are that while nationalism certainly existed in Europe it was far from sufficient to cause the outbreak of war. Indeed, the vast majority of Europeans greeted the outbreak with surprise and confusion rather than relief or joy that supposed slights to national honor could be at long last avenged. Europeans neither wanted nor welcomed this war. They consented to war based on the shared idea in all of the great powers that their war was both defensive in nature and just. They continued to consent to the war within an atmosphere of limited information due to government control, censorship, and propaganda. Atrocities, the desire for revenge, and the totality of the rhetoric of 1914 created a situation that made any notion of compromise peace impossible. Regardless of their nationality, Europeans experienced the war in remarkably similar ways. This study is an examination of how a war with a small cause developed into a total world war by its first Christmas. Images of a Christmas truce and the horrors of 1915 to 1918 should not blind us to the reality that the disillusion, bitterness, and totality of this war was well in place before its first year was over.

Europeans neither wanted nor welcomed this war.

  1. Neiberg, Michael S. Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914 (Harvard University Press, 2011).

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