Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His book “Back in Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War” will be published in 2014.

Americans often have difficulty understanding the grip that World War I exercises upon European consciousness. World War II, after all, seems more important and was more destructive. For Europeans, however, the earlier contest represents a horrible chasm between sublime grandeur and bleak modernity. Prodigious losses provided a cruel counterpoint to expectations of a short and glorious war. “We are readying ourselves to enter a long tunnel full of blood and darkness,” André Gide correctly predicted in July 1914. The immense destruction seems all the more tragic because the war lacked clear cause and noble purpose.

A century after its outbreak, Europeans remain obsessed with the 1914-18 war; they still find it difficult to shoulder its heavy burden. The deluge of books that will mark the war’s centenary is proof of this obsession. A market for these books exists because the war bewilders, frustrates and angers those who seek understanding. Yet as new books by Margaret MacMillan and Max Hastings reveal, the war’s most profound conundrums continue to evade solution.

MacMillan is a rather old-fashioned historian who insists upon the primacy of the individual in great events. The fate of the world, she believes, fell “in the end to those few generals, crowned heads, diplomats or politicians who in the summer of 1914 had the power and authority to say either yes or no.” Thus, her account of the war’s origins resembles a psycho-drama in which very powerful and often rather strange individuals quarrel on the precipice of catastrophe. In order to make these actors into human beings, MacMillan supplies plentiful detail of their peccadilloes. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey preferred fly-fishing to diplomacy. Kaiser Wilhelm liked to watch his ministers and generals dance in ballet tutus. Are these details necessary to the analysis? Probably not, but they make the story entertaining.

MacMillan’s thesis, as her title implies, is that Europe was an extraordinarily peaceful place before 1914, but harmony was interrupted when a few powerful people became convinced of the wisdom of war. This is a worthy line of argument but not a particularly new one. Since we know that war did break out, the factors that hastened its advent seem obvious, while those that militated against it dissolve into insignificance. We ignore, for instance, the tremendous popularity of Norman Angell’s pacifistic book “The Great Illusion,” which argued that war is economically absurd. The era saw enormous progress in international cooperation, especially in banking, transportation and communication, not to mention the Olympic movement and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In many ways, Europe had become, by 1913, a continent at peace with itself. Had war not materialized, historians would today analyze the overwhelming momentum of peace.

“The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” by Margaret MacMillan. (Random House)

In the latter half of the 20th century, historians often concentrated on social movements and economic forces as explanations for this war. While these underlying forces do not trump the significance of MacMillan’s great actors, neither should they be ignored. She fails to give sufficient attention to the cultures that greased the wheels of war — Slavic nationalism, German militarism and English “muscular Christianity,” to name just a few. At one point, she argues that “the idea that Europe’s tensions were the product of economic rivalry persisted long after the Great War but the evidence is simply not there to support it.” This seems an extraordinarily simplistic judgment. MacMillan offers as proof the fact that trade and investment between the belligerents were steadily increasing before the war. That is true, yet lively commerce can often camouflage rivalry and resentment. In Britain, for instance, the decline of the empire necessitated greater attention to European markets, which worried the Germans and the French.

“The War That Ended Peace” provides no new revelations or solutions to the mystery of war guilt. It is a good book in a field crowded with great ones. A few months ago, I reviewed Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and judged it the best book ever written on the origins of World War I. Having now read MacMillan, I do not have cause to modify that judgment. The great problem with the flood of books published to mark the war’s centenary is that many of them will lack legitimate reason for publication since they will not improve on the sources already available. That, however, is a matter of economics, not history.

“Catastrophe 1914” is, in contrast, a worthy addition to the literature of this war. The first five months of the conflict have never been told with quite this much drama, sensitivity and poignant detail. At a breathtaking pace, the reader is transported to battles in Belgium, France, Serbia, Poland and Prussia, all places where expectations of a glorious and heroic war quickly disintegrated into ashes and dust.

As Winston Churchill once remarked, “No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening.” After the frenetic maneuverings of 1914, the war took on the character for which it is now most famous, namely mud, trenches, stalemate and futility. Individual soldiers became mere fuel for a huge blast furnace of war. The conflict would be decided not by the armies in the field but by the industries at home. The war was deadly, but also rather dull.

Because that image of the war is so pervasive, we tend to forget that the first five months was a time of drama, decision and movement. The American journalist Richard Harding Davis captured perfectly the incredible spectacle of a million Germans advancing methodically into Belgium: “No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman, a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain.”

Those German hordes might so easily have routed the tiny British Expeditionary Force, pushed aside the mistakenly confident French army and captured Paris. How, then, might the future of Europe have unfolded? During those five months of 1914, Europe teetered on a fulcrum; tiny choices had mammoth weight.

Hastings’s book is the perfect example of what a good journalist can add to the study of war. Academic historians, overly obsessed with finding new sources, frequently lack the sensitivity to convert evidence into drama. Their accounts are impressively researched but too often dry as dust. The same can be said of conventional military historians, who have a remarkable capacity for rendering the vivid commotion of war into something resembling a flow chart.

Good journalists, on the other hand, recognize that wars are ultimately about people — their fears, their sorrow, their suffering, their cowardice and, of course, their immense bravery. “Catastrophe 1914” is a book made colossal by the obscure people Hastings raises to prominence — the miners from Newcastle, peasants from Provence and steelworkers from Silesia who became soldiers. These men had the misfortune to live at a time when Europe was able to raise large armies and had the capacity to destroy them.

Like MacMillan, Hastings is a bit old-fashioned. He displays the establishment instincts of a man who was once editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. His politics bubbles under the surface of the story he tells. As a result, many historians will find his condemnation of Germany too strident and his praise of Britain too reflexive. But these are small weaknesses, since the book as a whole is comprehensive in its outlook and fair in its judgment. “Catastrophe 1914” is especially welcome for the attention it devotes to the theaters of war so often ignored, in particular the Balkan front, where the capacity for slaughter went unmatched.

The last soldiers of World War I are gone, but interest in their plight does not wane. Europeans will continue to seek answers to the great questions of that war, even though they perhaps cannot be solved. There is, however, something noble in this desire to understand. The quest for closure, like the war itself, might inevitably be futile, but the pursuit of enlightenment remains honorable.

World War I, perhaps more than any other conflict, is an example of the monsters that idiocy can father. We need authors like Hastings to remind us of how the best of human spirit can be squandered by the worst of human motive.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His book “Back in Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War” will be published in 2014.


The Road to 1914

By Margaret MacMillan

Random House. 739 pp. $35


Europe Goes to War

By Max Hastings

Knopf. 628 pp. $35