By Pamela Ruth Outwin, MLIS, Brown Library Intern
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia on June 28, 1914, was the trigger for one of the most deadly wars in human history, and a lynchpin for the massive worldwide societal and cultural changes that occurred in the 20th century. While, in hindsight, the beginning of the war seems like a matter that could have been easily settled between Austria-Hungary and Serbia without any outside involvement, such compartmentalization of conflict was not an option. Much of this was due to interconnected treaties and alliances that had been instituted in Europe over the hundred years leading up to World War 1. They had, for a time, served to keep the continent peaceful and avoid the smaller, petty conflicts that characterized much of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The death of the Archduke and his wife, however, changed everything. Austria-Hungary issued a formal letter of complaint to the government of Serbia, to which Serbia failed to respond in what Austria-Hungary considered a timely or sufficient manner. While, initially, there was a great deal of sympathy for the Austro-Hungarian position, that sentiment swiftly waned amongst the European powers as war became imminent. When hostilities commenced between the two countries, Germany, as Austria-Hungary’s ally, entered the war at the same time. France came in with Russia, as part of a different treaty, and the rest of Europe’s interlocking alliances were triggered in short order.
The given reasons for going to war were many and varied. Germany’s view of their role in the conflict was avenging sullied honor, as well as Europe’s general lack of respect for their nation and culture. Britain felt that they were defending the rest of the civilized world against German imperial ambitions. Many other European nations entered not out of any sense of outrage or indeed any strong opinion on the assassination, but simply because their alliances would not allow them to remain out of the fight. The United States’ declared neutrality seemed to be based entirely on the fact that they felt they had no business interfering on another continent. This sentiment lasted America until their entry into the conflict in April of 1917, by which time Europe had been devastated in a manner that no one could have foreseen, and that American forces could hardly believe.
The Maine Historical Society’s collection of First World War documents, many donated by Sir Gilbert Parker and Prof. W. Macneile Dixon, shed light on the many and varied viewpoints and narratives that shook the world between 1914 and 1918. The Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library is currently undertaking an extensive inventory and preservation project to prepare this collection for research, in time for the 2017 commemoration of the United States’ entry into the conflict. The collection materials cover the entire span of World War I, from works published at the very beginning that call it “The War of 1914” to documents produced at the end of the conflict that discuss the rebuilding of a devastated Europe. Moreover, the documents provide a varied viewpoint, from authors who praised America’s neutrality to those who condemned their lack of involvement; from the most anti-Prussian British propaganda, to German publications that rationalized their actions in combat and in conquered territory. Taken together, the MHS First World War Collection provides a balanced, nuanced, and revelatory view of the causes, events, and consequences of the global conflict.
NOTE: This collection is not yet available for research. For further information contact Jamie Kingman Rice, Director of Library Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.