The Guns of August is the standard textbook about the origins of WW-1, known at the time as the Great War, and recently I re-read my copy. It's a meticulous chronicle of what took place in Europe in the Summer of 1914 and changed the history of the world and the course of each of our lives. But is it "history", as claimed by some of the reviews (most effusively, by the New York Times) quoted on its back cover? - not in my opinion.
That's not to demean it. Barbara Tuchman did a monumental job of research to compile this detailed record of events, and correctly concludes that this first month of the War, ending with the Battle of the Marne in which a desperate French army only a few miles outside Paris pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat and turned back what had been a phenomenally successful German invasion, did not "determine that the Allies would win the war, but... that the war would go on." For four miserable, muddy, bloody years.
The book I found also surprisingly readable, given my only slight interest in military tactics. The author enlivens every page with portraits of the key players, as if she had been a fly on several hundred walls and understood each of the key personalities and characters - on both sides.
I was reminded that Belgium was crucial to the German defeat. King Leopold had to decide whether to allow the German Army to march freely through that country on its way to invade France, or to resist; he lost no time in choosing the latter and was fully supported by all Belgians, to their very great cost. This had three consequences: it gave the French more time to prepare, it locked up two German divisions to occupy Belgium that would otherwise have fought the French in what turned out (at Marne) to be a finely-balanced conflict, and it gave the British a reason to intervene, with (initially) four divisions to augment the French defense. But for that Belgian refusal, almost certainly France would have fallen - as it had in 1870, and as it did in 1940.
In world opinion ever since, therefore, Belgians have been heroic. However, the cost of their heroism extended the war from a few months to over four years, and led to the deaths of 16 million people. Though Tuchman doesn't question their choice, I find it hard to see that as a happy outcome.
Easily the weakest part of the book is its beginning. Tuchman treats the unfolding events of July 1914 as if they were a slow moving drama with an unalterable script, and tells the story in great detail with engaging skill - but fails to pause and question WHY. Why did all these apparently honorable men, with high patriotic motives, decide as they did? Who is to blame; who did wrong? Barbara Tuchman does not tell us. Hence my opinion; this is a chronicle, but not a history. There is not much in it (aside from military tactics and mistakes) from which we can usefully learn.
The governments of Europe had, in the preceding couple of decades, developed rivalries and hostilities about their various tax farms, and arranged treaties with one another, to help in the case of attack. The theory was that any one attack would then cause a general continental war, which was of course unacceptable, and so of course would never happen. It was a form of Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD. It's a complex story, quite well summarized here, but at root there was the Triple Alliance of Austria, Germany and Italy (Italy subsequently withdrew) and the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia. The UK/France deal was an "entente" or understanding, not a formal treaty; thus the British government retained freedom to enter the war in August 1914 or not, at will; and that fact was crucial in Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm and his government gambled that it would not. They lost the bet, because at the last moment Churchill prevailed on his reluctant colleagues to honor the 75-year-old Treaty of London which gave them the right (!) but not the obligation to guarantee Belgian neutrality. Probable real reason: Brits were worried lest Germans became too powerful on the Continent, so upsetting their superpower status.
Who, however, fired the first shot, so calling all those treaties into play? - the Authorized Version is that the assassins of Sarajevo did, and are branded as "anarchists." A fiction convenient for all government people, for otherwise the war must have been started by governments, and that would never do. We can be quite certain of this, because Sarajevo is in Serbia, and Serbia was not a signatory to the treaties above. Austria coveted closer control over Serbia and unreasonably invaded that country after its Crown Prince had been shot there; but a quarrel between Austria and Serbia did not require intervention from any in the rings of alliance.
Russia also coveted Serbia, and when the Austrian government invaded, the Serbian one appealed for Russian help and Russia's Czar got ready to invade Austria - which did trigger the rings of alliance. Thus, the immediate cause of WW-1 was Nicholas II - and since the Austrian government knew in advance that he would almost certainly do so, it can be identified as the secondary cause. Perhaps there is some justice in the fact that the biggest losers in the war were, as it happened, the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires.
None of that is explored by Tuchman. Nor does she ask any of the obvious "what if?" questions that arise, and there is the weakness of her book and the reason it is so popular among those who decide what the kiddies will learn about the causes of this catastrophe. It's when we ask "but suppose that..." questions that the inevitable truth emerges: that wars are in every case begun by governments, so if war is to be abolished, governments must be abolished.
Suppose, then, that Austrian Foreign Minister Berchtold had accepted what amounted to a Serbian apology and forborne from invading Serbia; WW-1 would not have happened. Suppose the Czar had seen the actual invasion but had forborne from invading Austria, so triggering operation of the alliances; WW-1 would not have happened. Suppose that the British government had stood aside when Germans were poised to attack France, given the lack of formal treaty obligation; the Germans would have won a quick victory as in 1870, extracted some fruits of it, and Europe would have returned to business as usual. Suppose there had been no governments, nor any foolish treaties dragging them down together into the abyss; WW-1 would not have happened. No prolonged war, no Bolshevik revolution, no USSR, no Versailles "treaty" to amputate Germany, hence no Hitler, no WW-2... all the blood-soaked history of the rest of the 20th century would not have taken place.
All of those options existed, none of them were taken, and none of them were pointed out by the author of one of governments' favorite school textbooks. Responsibility for every one of those actions rests with governments. Tuchman shows no sign of even thinking of making it, but the way WW-1 began presents a solid case for anarchism.