The best books that explain why the First World War happened

Who am I?

I am a historian of diplomacy, war, and empire. A founding editor of The International History Review, I have written books on ‘Imperial Diplomacy’, on the origins of the First World War, and on the July Crisis. I have edited: the 5-volume Encyclopedia of War and the 4-volume Encyclopedia of Diplomacy; the journals of A.L. Kennedy for the Royal Historical Society; numerous collections of essays, and the multi-volume Seminar Studies in History series. I am currently working on a two-volume study of Political Intelligence in Great Britain, 1900-1950, which is a group biography of the men who made up the Department of Political Intelligence in Britain, 1917-1919

I wrote...

The Origins of the First World War

By Gordon Martel, James Joll,

Book cover of The Origins of the First World War

What is my book about?

This book, originally published by James Joll in 1984, has become a classic account of why war broke out in 1914. The third and fourth editions, published by Gordon Martel in 2007 and 2022, incorporate the vast new scholarship accrued over the last 40 years, as the subject has never ceased to fascinate students of history. The centenary of the war’s outbreak in 2014 produced a flood of new work on practically every aspect of the subject. The latest edition continues to provide readers with a series of essays that examine the role of alliances, the ‘old’ diplomacy, militarism, domestic politics, and imperial rivalries, while adding an entirely new chapter on the July Crisis and a conclusion that reconsiders responsibility by identifying Ten Fateful Steps on the road to war.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War

Gordon Martel Why did I love this book?

There are many different vantage points from which to view the road to war in 1914, but an essential one is that which focuses on the ethos, politics, and strategy of one of the constellations of European Great Powers. In the 1980s, Macmillan published a series of books focusing on each of these, written by acknowledged experts (Zara Steiner on Britain, John Keiger on France, Dominic Lieven on Russia, Volker Berghahn on Germany, Richard Bosworth on Italy). The last in the series appeared in 1990, when Samuel Williamson published his study of Austria-Hungary.

It was well worth the wait. Comprehensive in its structure, balanced in its judgments, meticulous in its research, Williamson established a new standard for studies of the Great Powers. His conclusion – that Austria-Hungary was largely responsible for initiating the July Crisis and, ultimately, the war itself – is persuasively argued and the story compellingly told.

By Samuel R. Williamson, Jr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major re-examination of Habsburg decision-making from 1912 to July 1914, the study argues that Austria-Hungary and not Germany made the crucial decisions for war in the summer of 1914. Based on extensive new archival research, the book traces the gradual militarization of Austro-Hungarian foreign policy during the Balkan Wars. The disasters of those wars and the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent and a force for peace in the monarchy, convinced the Habsburg elite that only a war against Serbia would end the South Slav threat to the monarchy's existence. Williamson also describes Russia's assertive foreign policy…

Book cover of Raymond Poincaré

Gordon Martel Why did I love this book?

John Keiger followed his study of French foreign policy with a ground-breaking biography of the most important Frenchman of the day, Raymond Poincaré. Readers have a multitude of biographies to turn to in their quest for an explanation of the war’s origins: the rulers of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary; the leading politicians, foreign ministers, strategists, and diplomats of most of the states involved. But no biographical study has surpassed Keiger’s.

Poincaré was a pivotal figure in the diplomacy and politics of Europe before the war, serving in numerous positions, including those of foreign minister, prime minister, and president. His devotion to the alliance with Russia and his distrust of Germany led his critics to denounce him for his role in the outbreak of war. Keiger’s magnificent biography provides us with an elegantly written, thoroughly researched, and nuanced account of Poincaré’s role and policies.

By John F.V. Keiger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Raymond Poincaré as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study is a scholarly biography of one of France's foremost political leaders. In a career which ran from the 1880s to the 1930s, one of the most formative periods of modern French history, Poincare held the principal offices of state. He played crucial roles in France's entry into the Great War, the organisation of the war effort, the peace settlement, the reparations question, the occupation of the Ruhr and the reorganisation of French finances in the 1920s. His life and work is surrounded by controversy and myth, from 'Poincare-la-guerre' to 'Poincare-le-franc', which this book dissects. Using a host of…

Book cover of July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914

Gordon Martel Why did I love this book?

The First World War broke out in August 1914; by September 1914 articles and essays began to appear that defended – or attacked – the policies of the men responsible for the July Crisis. Books soon followed. And they have never stopped. No crisis in history has received more attention than that of July 1914. The topic, with its vast complexities, missed opportunities, and contradictory explanations, continues to fascinate us.

No book on the subject is more captivating than Thomas Otte’s day-by-day unravelling of the complicated diplomacy pursued by the statesmen of Europe. His mastery of the subject is impressive (he has written dozens of articles and essays on the diplomacy of prewar Europe) and his balanced treatment of the topic serves as a model of dispassionate scholarship.

By T. G. Otte,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked July Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a magisterial new account of Europe's tragic descent into a largely inadvertent war in the summer of 1914. Thomas Otte reveals why a century-old system of Great Power politics collapsed so disastrously in the weeks from the 'shot heard around the world' on June 28th to Germany's declaration of war on Russia on August 1st. He shows definitively that the key to understanding how and why Europe descended into world war is to be found in the near-collective failure of statecraft by the rulers of Europe and not in abstract concepts such as the 'balance of power' or…

Book cover of Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits

Gordon Martel Why did I love this book?

One of the most enduring explanations for the outbreak of war in 1914 is that of ‘imperialism’. The argument that competition for resources beyond the ‘natural’ frontiers of European states created bitter rivalries among the Great Powers had been made many times before 1914, whenever a crisis in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East threatened to turn into a shooting war. But disentangling the complex motives, strategies, and tactics that intersected Great Power politics is a daunting task.

One of the finest case studies of the imperial mentalité can be found in Bobroff’s fascinating book. Not only does he break new ground in this study, but he has mined the Russian archives to great effect, moving the subject along from grand, unproven assertions concerning Russian policies to a detailed and persuasive understanding of both their ambitions and their fears.

By Ronald P. Bobroff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Roads to Glory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Until now, it has been accepted that the Turkish Straits - the Russian fleet's gateway to the Mediterranean - were a key factor in shaping Russian policy in the years leading to World War I. Control of the Straits had always been accepted as the major priority of Imperial Russia's foreign policy. In this powerfully argued revisionist history, Ronald Bobroff exposes the true Russian concern before the outbreak of war: the containment of German aggression. Based on extensive new research, Bobroff provides fascinating new insights into Russia's state development before the revolution, examining the policies and personal correspondence of its…

Book cover of Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914

Gordon Martel Why did I love this book?

One of the most popular explanations for the outbreak of war between 1918 and 1939 was that it had been caused by the ‘Merchants of Death,’ i.e. the large armaments firms and their financiers who profited from international animosity. Although the conspiracy theory tendency in this belief gradually dissipated, the idea that the arms race was a significant contributory factor leading to war has long featured on any list of ‘causes’.

David Stevenson’s exhaustive research in the archives of most of the combatant states has provided us with massive and fascinating detail on the thinking of those involved and the relationship between geopolitical ambitions, strategic calculations, and financial realities. His treatment makes for fascinating reading, enhanced by crisply argued interpretations of the role of military and naval preparedness in the crises that plagued prewar Europe.

By David Stevenson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Armaments and the Coming of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The global impact of the First World War dominated the history of the first half of the twentieth century. This major reassessment of the origins of the war, based on extensive original research in several countries, is the first full analysis of the politics of armaments in pre-1914 Europe.

David Stevenson directs attention away from the Anglo-German naval race towards the competition on land between the continental armies. He analyses the defence policies of the Powers, and the interaction between the growth of military preparedness and the diplomatic crises in the Mediterranean and the Balkans that culminated in the events…

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Book cover of Aggressor

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What is my book about?

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