Saturday, April 30, 2011

Michael Neiberg's "Dance of the Furies"

Michael Neiberg, a native of Pittsburgh, is an historian who specializes in the ways that societies interact with war and military institutions. His latest book, Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914, analyzes the events of that fateful year from the perspective of “ordinary” Europeans. He has been a Guggenheim fellow, a founding member of the Société Internationale d’Étude de la Grande Guerre, and the Harold K. Johnson Visiting Professor of History at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Dance of the Furies and reported the following:
In the British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, Private Baldrick pronounces to his fellow soldiers “I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.” While Blackadder is obviously not meant as serious history, the line does reveal two basic truths about 1914. First, like Baldrick, few Europeans had hatreds for people in other countries strong enough to lead them to war. Second, most of them had no idea how the assassination of a little-known nobleman had put them in trenches to fight a war with no end in sight.

Page 99 of Dance of the Furies speaks to how the people of Europe responded to the events of the tragic summer of 1914. They did not go to war for the archduke or to avenge some distant slight to their national honor. Page 99 relates three strikingly similar anecdotes from three nations in the last days of peace. An English mother, in a journal to explain the war to her infant son, wrote that “if we fight, it is because we shall have been dragged in.” French food writer Claire de Pratz spoke with two fishermen who told her that although they did not want war, it was now obvious to them that the Germans did and so they saw no choice but to fight. The Berliner Tageblatt editorialized that “We didn’t want a war and we have done everything in our power to prevent it.” The responses were the same across the continent: few wanted war, but all were determined to resist what they saw as foreign aggression.

I hope that Dance of the Furies will help us to see the people of 1914 as they were, not as sepia-toned figures too simple or too stupid to see what they were unleashing. Their experiences tell us a great deal not only about their age, but ours. If we understand them, perhaps we can understand that the poor old ostrich didn’t die for nothing after all.
Learn more about Dance of the Furies at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue