2014 is an important year for us historians. This year we mark the centenary of the First World War. Over the next twelve months, we will be racking our brains in search of answers to one question: who started World War I?
Already the debate has begun. Historians Christopher Clark, Max Hastings, and Margaret MacMillan have all recently written a book on the causes of the war. Both The Economist and The Spectator had sections on the origins of the war in their holiday issues. The BBC has devoted an entire portal to World War I. Even the grandson of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor has joined the debate, recently arguing in an article that the Habsburgs did not start the war.
Even our own experts at the LSE, Dr Heather Jones, Professor Alan Sked, and Professor David Stevenson, are addressing the issue.
The July Crisis, as it is known, is very complex. Researching it puts me in mind of big data. The information involved is staggering. The mastery of the primary sources alone (the diplomatic dispatches, internal memos and meeting minutes), requires years, even decades, of patient dedication.
Then, you must make sense of it all. Who started what? How, when, and with whom did they do it? Who was informed? Adding to this myriad of documents is an infinite amount of secondary literature.
Trying to get through the process without getting a headache is a challenge. No wonder historians have yet to agree on who or what caused the war. As Christopher Clark points out in The Sleepwalkers, this is not a Poirot mystery. Your “little grey cells” may be in overdrive, but at the end, after an emphatically uttered “quel imbécile!“, you will find it hard to dramatically reveal the murderer.
Or is it? Is the road to World War I not the perfect Agatha Christie novel? Is it not a perfect allegory of Murder on the Orient Express? To argue my case, I have written my own Poirot inspired murder-mystery. The victim: Europe, the accused: you will have to read to find out.
Murder on the Orient Express
“Mes amis.” The Belgian detective was addressing a well-dressed gathering of European powers. He had arranged for them to meet in the train’s wagon restaurant. “We are here to discuss a murder. A murder most vile.” He paused for emphasis.
In front of him sat Austria, decked out in full evening wear. He was visibly frail. He had been having difficulties with Hungary. Their children had all gone their separate ways: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Some had even joined Poland and Romania.
Mother Russia sat beside him. She too was frail. Her identity crisis was the elephant in the room. Rumours had been whispered across the train. “She’s gone red you know. Completely communist. Dreadful affair!”
Britannia and France sat together, opposite Austria and Russia. France was proud and righteous. She was certain of herself, of her victory. However, her heavy make-up had not gone unnoticed. What was she hiding? Bruises could be seen on her arms. Britannia, on the other hand, dreaded being among these continentals. This was their problem, not hers. She just wanted to get through her tea.
In the corner was Germany. He sat upright and had impeccable posture. His military helmet was gleaming in the rays of sunlight that came through the compartment window. He was visibly separated from the rest of the group. The moustache that rested on his upper lip was superb and impeccably waxed. Hercule Poirot envied it.
“Last night a terrible crime occurred. Miss Europa went to her compartment after dinner. She was worried, she said, about her friend the Archduke in Sarajevo, but that did not prevent her from being in good spirits. She may have made an insensitive remark to Austria, but, mes amis, it was clearly as an offhand joke. This morning we awake and she is found dead.”
“The stab wounds – they are so horrible that her body, it is disfigured. Her Flemish jewels, which she paraded at dinner the night before, and which Poirot he saw with his own eyes, are gone. In their place are charred ruins. Her Tannenberg dress and her Gallipoli cigarette case, are also destroyed. And so, Poirot he asks himself, who would murder her? Who would murder this innocent young lady?”
“Of course he begins his investigation by interrogating witnesses. Almost immediately a picture it comes to his mind. France and Britannia are certain that they saw Germany break into Miss Europa compartment. Not only do they see Germany break in to the compartment, but they also claim they hear the victim cry as she is stabbed to death. They produce the evidence most convincing.”
“But Poirot, he is not fooled. He is not fooled by this, how do you say… this smokescreen!”
All of a sudden, France jumps up from her seat. “It is true monsieur, look at the bruises on my arms! Look at them! He did this on the Somme, on the Marne, at Verdun! He did it! It was Germany! He must pay!” Britannia restrains France and bring her back in her seat where she collapses into tears.
“Non, mademoiselle! Poirot will not be fooled by your theatrics! These accusations against Germany, they are all too obvious. The explanation, it is too simple. Trust me, mademoiselle, this is not a simple crime but an elaborate, vindictive affair which brought about the death of Europa. The motives they are most vile and the carelessness it is relentless! These stab wounds are not the work of one man. They are not the work of one woman. They are the result of a heinous murder pact in which all of you participated!”
The room fell silent. Accusing glances were shot throughout. Poirot walked towards Austria, whose fingers ran nervously along his knees.
“Let us start with you, monsieur. The affair of the Archduke in Sarajevo, for you, it is not a joke. When Miss Europa teases you, your rage builds up inside and you decide to kill her. Yes, I admit, your ultimatum, it is cleverly crafted. You show the world that you are reasonable, trustworthy, and only want to learn the truth about the assassination, but Poirot, he knows what you wanted.”
“You wanted war, monsieur! You wanted that ultimatum to be rejected. You wanted your war, so you appeal to Germany for help and you hear what you want to hear; and not even the warnings from Russia, that this will be a general war, that this will be la guerre, stop you. You want revenge to protect your honour! You want revenge to give yourself a sense of purpose! And so, you ruthlessly stab Miss Europa!”
Poirot momentarily regains his composure. Mother Russia knows it is now her turn to be accused. She tries to preempt the detective. “I did not do anything wrong, monsieur,” she says in a heavy Russian accent, rolling her “r”s with her tongue.
“Indeed, that is what you think, madame. But your role in this murder, it was crucial. You are greedy. You want access to the Mediterranean and you will do anything to obtain it. Even murder does not stop you. Yes, it is true, you say you are helping your Slave brothers and sisters, and yes, you did warn Austria that an ultimatum would mean war, but you escalated the crisis. Diplomacy is not your strength, madame. You do not restrain Serbia. You encourage her to think big, even if it brings conflict with Austria. When conflict finally arises, you mobilize. It is you who mobilizes first, and in so doing brings war so much closer! It is you who stabs Miss Europa and makes sure she will not rise again!”
“But of course, all of your efforts, all your bellicose talk, they are encouraged and financed by one person. Are they not, mademoiselle?” France is visibly frightened. Her voice is trembling, “You have seen what he has done to me. The bruises! The scars! They are all Germany’s fault!” Poirot stares into her eyes with purpose.
“Non! They are not all Germany’s fault! You played your part as well. You convince yourself and those around you that Germany, he is the bad guy. Always you portray yourself as the victim. Always the drama! You talk of the Franco-Prussian war, of how Alsace and Lorraine they were stolen from you, of how evil and wicked Germany is, but never do you consider your own wickedness!”
“I am not wicked!” France screams, and is once again brought to tears.
“Yes, you are, mademoiselle. You are engulfed by revanche. This revanche, it consumes you! You convince Russia to join in your quest to eliminate Germany, you finance her armies, her industry and when a crisis it emerges, do you restrain her? Non! You encourage her and tell her that war must come. You do not want Miss Europa to survive because she does not suit you, because she has in her midst that Germany which you loathe! So you stab her! You stab her with the others!”
Britannia is incensed. “Stop that, Poirot. Accusing a young lady in such a manner. It’s indignant.” Poirot smiles.
“Ah, yes. Britannia, always so righteous. Always on the side of the underdog, always in the fight against evil.” He pauses as he move closer to Britannia. “That is not true, madame. We both know that you are more pragmatic than that. As long as there is the balance of power in Europe, these, ‘continentals’, as you say, they do not matter. Non, madame. We must not forget that it is you who declares war on Germany! Here, you are the aggressor.”
“For you it is your fleet. The mighty Royal Navy. She rules the waves, does she not? And when Germany, he tries also to rule the waves, you panic. You enter into an arms race, even if always you maintain the advantage. But no, your ego it cannot take a challenger. Only you can patrol the seas, and those who try to take a subsidiary role must be punished!”
“That’s preposterous.” Britannia almost spits out the words. Poirot’s reply comes back in a flash. “Is it? I think not, madame.”
“And of course when Germany she asks what would happen if she were to violate Belgian neutrality, you send mixed signals. You stand back and you wait until it is too late. You too, madame, are to blame for the murder of Miss Europa.”
“So the simple answer to the crime, German aggression, it appears to be discredited. Does it not, Herr Germany?” Germany remains quiet.
“No, you know you are responsible. All have stabbed Miss Europa to death, but your role, it was crucial. You made sure that the wounds they were deadly. When your friend Austria, he comes to ask for your assistance, do you refuse? Non, monsieur! You say you will back him up into Belgrade. Then, when a general war, it seems inevitable, you panic. You see Russian mobilization as tantamount to war and you lose no time. For you, the solution it is always aggression. You leave yourselves diplomatically isolated and cling onto your only friend: Austria. And when his antics engulf you, you are the first to strike!”
“Why not? Your tactics of aggression, they have worked so well in the past. Yet, this was not like the past, mon ami. You ignored the changing circumstances and you made your most devastating mistake. You used the Schlieffen plan. You did not wait for a declaration of war against you. You created war! Non, war against Russia was not enough for you, because you were convinced that France would support her. So you struck! You struck through neutral Belgium! This was the fatal stab wound!”
The room fell silent once more. Poirot’s monologue had left his mouth dry. The pursuit of the truth lead him to continue.
“There is both a simple and a difficult answer to this crime. The simple solution is that Germany broke into Miss Europa’s compartment and killed her. Yes, it is simple and the victors they are quick to point to the lone remaining defeated state as the culprit. Considering his track record it is easy enough to see why. Yet, the simple solution, she does not tell the whole story.”
“You are all murderers! Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Germany, and even you, Britannia! All of you, by your backhand dealings, conspiring, and yes, by your pure negligence, are responsible!”
“It is not for Poirot to judge. It is for history to decide. Poirot, he only lays the facts before you. Do with them as you wish. He offers but one warning: never again! When the system is broken, when it has let you down, you do not destroy it. You pick up the piece, and you build it up again, better and stronger!”
“Alas, I fear that already my words will not stay with you.”
“Adieu.” And with this parting word, Hercule Poirot left the train.