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Europe’s Last Summer

How does pre-World War I Europe reflect current Western attitudes to international relations?

December 14, 2004

In the opening years of the 20th century, men who dreamed of battlefield adventure had been hard pressed to find a war in which they could participate.

In 1901 — and in the 13 years that followed — the peoples of Western Europe and the English-speaking Americas were becoming consumers rather than warriors. They looked forward to more: more progress, more prosperity — more peace.

The United States at that time “sailed upon a summer sea,” but so did Great Britain, France and others. There had been no war among the Great Powers for nearly half a century — and the globalization of the world economy suggested that war had become a thing of the past.

The culmination of those years in the hot, sun-drenched, gorgeous summer of 1914 — the most beautiful within living memory — was remembered by many Europeans as a kind of Eden.

Stefan Zweig, the Austrian-Jewish author, spoke for many when he wrote that he had rarely experienced a summer “more luxuriant, more beautiful, and, I am tempted to say, more summery.”

Unhindered freedom

Middle and upper-class Britons in particular saw themselves as living in an idyllic world, in which economic realities would keep Europe’s Great Powers from waging war on one another.

For those with a comfortable income, the world in their time was more free than it is today.

No borders or boundaries

According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, “until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state.” You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go to practically anywhere in the world without anyone’s permission.

For the most part, you needed no passports — and many had none. The French geographer André Siegfried traveled all around the world with no identification other than his visiting card — not even a business card, but a personal one.

John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers. You could bring anything you liked into Britain or send anything out.

Real financial freedom

You could take any amount of currency with you when you traveled, or send (or bring back) any amount of currency — your bank did not report it to the government, as it does today.

And if you decided to invest any amount of money in almost any country abroad, there was nobody whose permission had to be asked, nor was permission needed to withdraw that investment and any profits it may have earned when you wanted to do so.

Intermingling and interdependence

Even more than today, it was a time of free capital flows and free movements of people and goods.

An outstanding current study of the world as of 2000 tells us that there was more globalization before the 1914 war than there is now —”much of the final quarter of the 20th century was spent merely recovering ground lost in the previous 75 years.”

Economic and financial intermingling and interdependence were among the powerful trends that made it seem that warfare among the major European powers had become impractical — and, indeed, obsolete.

The Golden Age of Security

One could easily feel safe in that world. Americans felt it at least as much if not more than Europeans.

The historian and diplomat George Kennan remembers that before the 1914 war, Americans felt a sense of security “such as I suppose no people had ever had since the days of the Roman Empire.”

No need for government

They felt little need for government. Until 1913, when an appropriate amendment to the Constitution was ratified, the Congress was deemed to lack even the power to enact taxes on income.

Stefan Zweig, remembering those antebellum years decades later, remarked, “when I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency.”

In the Western world, it was by and large true that ordinary people felt no apprehension. As will be seen, there were leaders who worried — but in the winter and spring of 1914, not even they expected war to break out in the summer.

Like airline passengers on United Airlines Flight 826, Europeans and Americans in the glorious last days of June 1914 cruised ahead above a summer sea and beneath a cloudless sky — until they were hit by a bolt that they wrongly believed came from out of the blue.

What Europe was building up toward was not a better world, but a giant smashup, as — in the first 20th century war among modern industrial societies — the accumulated explosive power that advanced science had developed was concentrated on the goal of mass destruction.

Why did contemporaries believe that they were headed for a more peaceful world? How could they dismiss the possibility of a war among European powers from their fears and their minds? Why were they taken by surprise by the outbreak of war? Did they never look to see what their leading industry was manufacturing?

In large part, in the new industrial age, European business had become the business of preparing to fight a war. In retrospect, the intense arms race was the most visible feature of Europe’s political landscape in those antebellum years.

It is odd that the man in the street did not see this with equal clarity at the time. The European war economy had become immense in scale, but it did not bring security.

Was it fear of one another, driven by the arms race — and feeding on itself — that was pushing Europe to the brink? Or was it inborn aggression, pent up during the unnaturally long four decades of peace among the Great Powers, that now threatened to explode?

Potential causes of war

Or were governments, as many were to say, deliberately maneuvering their countries toward war — in order to distract attention from domestic problems that looked to be insoluble?

Or were some governments pursuing aggressive or dangerous policies they should have known that other countries would be obliged to resist by force of arms?

Is violence endemic?

It may well be that the European sense of frustration — the sense of stalemate in life, art and politics — led to a violent sense of abandon, of letting go: a sense that the world ought to be blown up — and let the consequences be what they may.

In the opening years of the 20th century, Europeans glorified violence and certain groups among them, at least, felt a need for radical change. Across the whole spectrum of existence, change was overcoming Europe at a pace faster than ever before — and far faster than Europe knew how to cope with.

A panoramic view of Europe in the years 1900 to 1914 would show prominently that the continent was racing ahead in a scientific, technological and industrial revolution — powered by almost limitless energy — that was transforming almost everything.

Violence was endemic in the service of social, economic, political, class, ethnic and national strife. Europe focused its activities largely on an escalating, dizzying arms race on a scale that the world never had seen before.

Given these conditions, does not the question “How could war have broken out in such a peaceful world?” rather answer itself?

Adapted from “Europe’s Last Summer.” Copyright(c) 2004 by David Fromkin. Used by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


For those with a comfortable income, the world in their time was more free than it is today.

In the opening years of the 20th century, Europeans glorified violence and felt a need for radical change.

In the new industrial age, European business had become the business of preparing to fight a war.