Book review: Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917

17 Jun

Decisions for War 1914-1917

The book Decisions for War, 1914-1917, by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, offers an effectively formatted review of the causes which led to the First World War. The authors, by segmenting their work by the individual countries involved, provide the reader with a less complicated route in understanding their new thesis – Hamilton and Herwig’s contention that the decision for war was formulated by small coteries and not by the prevailing schools of thought that include: alliance-systems argument, nationalism, social Darwinism, imperialism, militarism, the press, domestic sources, and the “slide” theory.[1] By exploring their coterie theory among the combatant-countries separately – Austria-Hungary; Germany; Russia; France; Great Britain; Japan; The Ottoman Empire; The Balkans (Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece); Italy; and the United States – Hamilton and Herwig’s argument succeeds.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book in its entirety, Chapters One and Twelve were of particular interest to me from both content and contextual perspectives. The first chapter, “The Great War: A Review of the Explanations” was engrossing as the authors laid out their coterie thesis against the prevailing schools of thought; additionally, the chapter works well, an arbiter of sorts, for the ongoing discussion of causal relationships. Chapter Nine, “On the Origins of the Catastrophe,” provides a coherent, concise summation of the decision-making coteries’ immediate genesis into war in July 1914. I also found particular interest in their three conclusions: “First, World War I resulted from decisions taken by the leaders of the five major European nations. Second, in each of those nations the decision for war was taken by a coterie, by a group of no more than eight or ten individuals. And third, an adequate explanation for the war’s origins must center on the considerations that moved those groups of decision-makers.”[2] To the author’s point, they have successfully provided adequate support for their thesis of the coterie process. Hamilton and Herwig objectively looked at the other competing hypotheses against the known history and effectively negate their validity.

Without changing the complete nature of Hamilton and Herwig’s literary character in Decisions for War, it would have been appealing to see their thoughts on the coterie-process among the combatants both during and after the war. This could have been accomplished within the structure of Chapter Twelve or with the addition of subsequent chapters – necessitating a title change however.

By Hamilton and Herwig proposing an alternative hypothesis as an explanation for the outbreak of the First World War, I have acquired a greater understanding of the era – one that includes the geo-political, economic, and social structures of those countries which were involved militarily. Just as the Great War is associated with new technologies that conflicted with outdated leadership and that era’s tactics, the historical events leading up to the war are far more intriguing as scholarly exploration. Hamilton and Herwig’s Decision for War has further revealed (to me) that the literary contributions by academic historians is of far greater value than the works that strictly encompass “battle histories.” Those have their place; and, make great movies, but genuine scholarly literature by way of academia produces far superior historical interpretation – in my opinion.

The key concept in Hamilton and Herwig’s Decisions for War is the decision-making processes of the small coteries; each which were moved by “separate and distinct sets of concerns – as opposed to the former historical hypotheses.”[3] The acceptance of this concept is critically important to understanding the momentum for the Great War as well as the similar historical events that were to follow leading up to the next world war.

While not a recommendation for improvement per se, I would have preferred the earlier, unabridged edition of this book from 2003, The Origins of World War I, which included more material along with the footnotes and complete bibliography. My understanding is that this older version represents much more research and insightful information; however, as it is a bit cost-prohibitive I understand the university’s choice for the 2004 abridged edition.[4]

To be completely honest – I am not yet fully-read on the subject of the historical events and origins which led to the First World War as written by other authors; and as such, I cannot yet compare Hamilton and Herwig’s interpretations of these events to those by a selected, larger group of historians. However, I have begun research and reading on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson for my research paper, and their contention that Wilson was a coterie of sorts does concur with other historians who have written on the American president during his two terms in office.

Decisions for War has helped me to more adequately frame my own research efforts on the American presidency of Woodrow Wilson and his infamous zealous nature towards lone decision-making in foreign affairs. I anticipate utilizing Decisions for War as a model, or template of sorts, in the composition of my own research paper as it evolves. It is quite fascinating that conditions existed among the aforementioned countries; that their leaders were so aptly capable of reaching a war decision within the constructs of small coteries – and that Woodrow Wilson was no exception even after the war had started. It opens up an entirely new set of questions waiting to be researched and answered: Could it have been the era? Had the industrial revolution and those new economies fostered new challenges for leaders at the beginning of the Twentieth century, as had never been experienced or realized in the past? Hamilton and Herwig advise that this was in fact the case for Germany.


Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[1] Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 9.

[2] Ibid., 230.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, The Origins of World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Book Reviews


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