“The war to end war,” it was called at the time—a label that even then carried the weight of tragic irony. But what have we learned about the war’s origins and its legacy, in the century that has passed since Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austro- Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand? If one can glean anything from the WWI-related titles released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, it’s that historians continue to find new perspectives through which to examine the conflict.

In his foreword to R.G. Grant’s World War I: The Definitive Visual History, From Sarajevo to Versailles (DK, April), Barton C. Hacker, senior curator of armed forces history at the Smithsonian Institution, writes:

“World War I fractured history. The world before 1914 was dominated by confident, wealthy, and forward-looking Western—mainly European—imperial states, the products of a century of progress. That world vanished in the cauldron of the Great War. After 1918, the Western world comprised destroyed or shaken polities, war-ravaged economies, the shards of empire, and dispirited citizens haunted by the ghosts of dead millions. From the wreckage left by the war grew the Great Depression, totalitarian dictatorships, and a second world war—all preface to the modern world.”

Grant’s volume is one of the most accessible of the vast array of nonfiction books being published to coincide with the conflict’s centenary, and while the realm of WWI studies continually expands, encompassing radically different perspectives, few would argue with Hacker’s succinct summation of the war’s impact.

That’s because it’s relatively easy to trace dramatic developments such as the Russian Revolution and the rise of German National Socialism to the aftermath of WWI. What has been a challenge, almost from the moment the guns of August began firing (if not before), is explaining why and how the combat began. The search for that explanation remains, a century later, one of the most significant questions of modern history, given both the cost in human misery, and the geopolitical ramifications. The war’s toll is almost too much to absorb. In The Month That Changed The World: July 1914 (Oxford Univ., June) Gordon Martel, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of War, movingly asks, “For what purpose were over 9 million men killed, almost 30 million injured, maimed or disfigured? To what end were millions of women made widows, condemned to a life of poverty, millions of children left fatherless, millions of young women rendered childless?” And if those figures weren’t staggering enough, Martel concisely summarizes the war’s consequences. “Did those men who made the choice between war and peace envision that the frontiers of Europe would be redrawn..., that their decision to go to war would unleash the revolutionary forces of communism and fascism? Was there no foreboding that war would unleash the seething resentments and hatreds that bubbled beneath the surface of European society, that xenophobia and anti-Semitism might be transformed into acceptable political doctrines?”

Martel challenges commonplace assumptions about causation and insists, credibly, that there never will be “a neat explanation that ties up all the loose ends” about the outbreak of WWI. He believes that the war was “neither predetermined nor inevitable,” and asserts that different choices could have been made that would have altered the course of events. “The challenge has been to show what these choices were, why they were chosen, and how they intersected with other decisions that were being made at the same time.” His book brings to life the people involved in making those choices, and the result is a real-life thriller that moves from the origins of the plot to assassinate the Archduke to the declarations of war by the Great Powers of Europe, in which the devil really is in the details. Martel comments, “In the context of the crisis, the narrative itself is the explanation.”

Other contemporary historians also reject the idea that pre-WWI Europe was simply a tinderbox awaiting a match. A similar approach, focusing on failures “in strategic decision-making in most of the capitals of Europe,” can be found in T. G. Otte’s July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914 (Cambridge Univ., Aug.). Otte, a lecturer in international history at the University of the West of England, Bristol, analyzes the “misperceptions and deliberate deceptions” that led to the war. As if the account of the road from Sarajevo to Flanders Field wasn’t tragic enough, Otte explains that the catalyst, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, was a mistake. The assassins “thought, wrongly, that the Archduke was the head of the war party at Vienna, and was pressing for a war with Serbia.” Counter to the contentions in the 1960s of Fritz Fischer—that Germany was responsible for the war, which was aimed at establishing its hegemony in Europe and imperial expansion overseas—Otte contends that of the Great Powers, only Austria-Hungary wanted a war. “It was not ‘criminal’ intent on the part of the German leadership that contributed to the outbreak of the war, but recklessness that bordered on the criminal.”

Geoffrey Wawro has a different focus in A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (Basic, Apr.). For Wawro, professor of military history at the University of North Texas, “Vienna is the essential starting point for any inquiry into the origins of World War I. It could only have begun in the Balkans at the instigation of Austria.” He maintains that the war had numerous causes and his fascinating study of prewar Austria-Hungary reveals facets of the appropriately-dubbed catastrophe not often highlighted. Austria-Hungary, then the second-largest country in Europe after Russia, “with a population of 52 million and an industrialized economy, had the weakest army of all the great powers.” Wawro believes that this “weird anomaly has never been properly explored by historians,” and his exposure of the monarchy’s financial problems, inefficiency, and “the self-nullifying rivalry between Budapest and Vienna,” makes a strong case for those factors’ role in the conflict’s beginnings. He also argues that Austria has undeservedly gotten a “pass” from generations of historians, even though it was even “more dangerous and destabilizing a power as the Kaiser’s Germany.” (He doesn’t absolve Germany—for him, “German manipulation practiced during the July Crisis bundled a willing Vienna into war.”). Readers whose knowledge is limited to the Western Front will find a stirring parallel account of the realities of war on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts.

Frederic Morton also shines the spotlight on his native Austria in his revised Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 (Da Capo, Apr.), claiming that there was “enormous popular sentiment surging up for war on both sides of the coming conflict. This factor compelled governments, against their will, into war.” Morton rejects the thesis of the best-known, and bestselling, recent book on the topic, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War In 1914 (released in paperback by HarperPerennial in March), which was one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2013. “The top people like the Kaiser and the Czar, who wrote these desperate telegrams to each other imploring each other to stop the mobilizations, they knew what was coming. They were wide-awake to this but they couldn’t stop the popular surge coming from below. The Austrian emperor didn’t want war.” Perhaps most surprising to lay readers will be his roster of well-known Austrians who were among the first to speak out in favor of their country’s militant posture.

In War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (Overlook, May), William Philpott, professor of the history of warfare at King’s College, London, argues that the war’s origins stem from a “breakdown in the system of international relations in the medium term caused by the rise of German power in central Europe and a growing rivalry between great powers. In the short term it was local Balkan politics which had always been fractious, but... if Germany did not directly start the war, it was her policies which made a war probable rather than possible.” Philpott concentrates on the course of the fighting and its consequences, analyzing “why the war developed in the way that it did and why one alliance was victorious.”

Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins offers yet another theory in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, May). For Jenkins, “Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. All the nations involved loudly claimed to see God’s hand in the struggle.” He considers the prime movers to be Germany and Russia, “both of which had visionary ambitions that could not be reconciled with the interests (or survival) of other Powers.”

Jenkins supports the notion that Morton advances; having originally accepted that religious rhetoric and propaganda was entirely driven from above, he concludes that much of it was “spontaneous and grass-roots.” And he echoes Morton’s rejection of the sleepwalking trope: “the prospect of war was very much on the horizon from 1906 onwards. It might have been a big surprise for Britain, though it should not have been, but it certainly was not in most European countries.” Jenkins may get the most attention for the analogies he draws between “the justifications for violence in contemporary radical Islam and the mainstream Christian world of just a hundred years ago.”

Douglas Newton explores the divisions created by Britain’s decision to enter the war in The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (Verso, July). He categorizes Britain’s decision to enter the war “a very close run thing,” and examines the contest between those urging intervention and those opposing it in government, in the press, and among the activists of the various lobbies and leagues. Newton challenges the consensus that British intervention in the war was inevitable, wildly popular, and bound to be all-consuming. As for responsibility, Newton notes that “the Russian elite, and the Russian generals, were just as reckless, impetuous, and vainglorious as the Germans.” He recognizes that “we have to accept that some things about the crisis will never be known,” suggesting that the origin question is not the most important one; it must not “blot out all consideration of the even more important question of its prolongation.”

Whatever the war’s real causes, and whether that is ultimately an answerable question, it’s at least as important to ponder its legacy. Yale University history professor Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931 (Viking, Nov.) presents what the author believes “may be the first comprehensive treatment of the continuous flow of military action, political argument and economic power struggles around the entire northern hemisphere, between the intense mid-point of World War I in 1916 and the eventual pacification of Europe and Asia, around 1924.” Tooze also reevaluates “the forces that made for the disastrous collective deflation that made the Great Depression into the worst economic disaster on record,” as well as “the way in which the rise of American power that became unmistakably apparent in 1916 changed the strategic calculus for all the major powers around the world.”

Surprisingly, for Tooze it’s still too soon to pin down WWI’s legacy. He’s also a contrarian with respect to the popular belief that the conflict was “a meaningless war that should if at all possible have been avoided.... For the Western powers it was a meaningful struggle for the rule of law in international relations that had however to be fought by all means necessary. For the central powers it was above all a defensive war against the threat of a resurgent Tsarism.”

Readers with a taste for the counterintuitive should also find appealing William Mulligan’s The Great War for Peace (Yale Univ., May). Mulligan asserts that “one of the most important transformations that took place during the war was in the understanding of peace—how peace was imagined, constructed, and ultimately maintained after the end of the war.” Looking beyond the obvious destructive legacies of WWI, his goal is to “show that participants were not caught in a warped dynamic of violence, but that they thought long and hard about to forge a better world and made considerable progress during the 1920s.”

Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the war’s aftermath comes from Cambridge University international history professor David Reynolds. In The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (Norton, May), he considers the war as “America’s first real involvement in great-power politics outside the Western Hemisphere, and the way Woodrow Wilson addressed that challenge has been a reference point, good or bad, for subsequent policymakers.” Reynolds examines the creation of new nation-states across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, some of whom, like Ukraine and Iraq, remain trouble spots. He also explores the shift from Britain to America as the global financial power; the emergence of Japan, China, and India; the way the post-war years became inter-war years; and how “1914–18 looked when it became the First World War—botched prelude to a second and more decisive conflict.”

The desire for definitive answers as to the war’s origin and legacy is understandable, but antithetical to the historian’s craft. James McPherson, recipient of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, once observed that “history is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable ‘truth’ about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, ‘revisionism’—is what makes history vital and meaningful.”

Long after the arbitrary chronological landmark that 2014 represents has passed, inquests as to the nature of WWI will continue and people will still grapple with unanswerable questions, such as whether a planned or an inadvertent conflict with such far-reaching and calamitous consequences is the more tragic.

War, Powers, Books

WWI’s complexity calls for discussion beyond its prelude and aftermath. The roster of other impressive new titles being published for the centenary ranges from a story of a heroic dog named Stubby to a study of the social world of military hospitals to books examining international relations, humanitarian organizations, and, of course, specific battles. Echoing aspects of William Mulligan’s thesis, Yale history professor Bruno Cabanes asserts, in The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism 1918–1924 (Cambridge Univ., Apr.) that it “did more than create disaster. It fostered deep and long-term pacifist feelings among a substantial population, and it made the protection of all the war’s victims, civilians and soldiers alike, an absolute necessity.” This shift in attitudes towards victims’ rights was essential to the development of post-WWI humanitarian practices.

In terms of international relations, Isabel V. Hull’s A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War (Cornell Univ., May) shows that “international law was so central to how contemporaries interpreted the war because law was a linchpin and guarantee of the post-Napoleonic European state system that the war seemed to be destroying.” Leila Tarazi Fawaz traces Middle East tensions to European battlefields in A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War (Harvard Univ., Nov.), and actual military operations in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt receive scrutiny in Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s The First World War in the Middle East (Oxford Univ., May).

Nick Lloyd details the military strategy that brought fighting to an end in Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I (Basic, Feb.), while U.S. Air Force Colonel (Ret.) Terrence J. Finnegan focuses on an earlier battle in ‘A Delicate Affair’ on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches (History Press, Dec.). One of the best-known Western losses is re-examined in Climax at Gallipoli: The Failure of the August Offensive by Rhys Crawley (Univ. of Oklahoma, Mar.).

A dramatic alternative to these subjects can be found in The World War I Diary of José de la Luz Sáenz, edited by Emilio Zamora (Texas A&M Univ., Feb.), a memoir that appeared in Spanish in 1933 and is “the only extant war diary published by a World War I doughboy of Mexican origin.” Similarly, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914–1918 (Yale Univ., March) details the firsthand experiences of a French soldier. A personal look from a noncombatant’s viewpoint—derived from diaries of the author’s grandfather—is presented in John Baxter’s Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light During the Great War, 1914–1918 (Harper Perennial, Apr.).

Richard Van Emden’s Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War (Bloomsbury, Sept.) offers yet another way of thinking about the conflict, as does cultural historian Ana Carden-Coyne’s The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War (Oxford Univ., Dec.), which examines military medical institutions and reveals how the British government’s pension system placed social and economic values on the body parts of disabled soldiers. Another peculiarly British angle on the war comes from David Crane, as he gives proper due to an undeservedly obscure hero, Fabian Ware, in Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves (William Collins, May), a book shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction.

And to show that it wasn’t just humans affected by the war, Ann Bausum’s Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation (National Geographic, May) presents the first book-length treatment of the mascot of an American regiment that survived 17 battles and learned how to “recognize enemy soldiers by using his sight, smell, and other senses.”

And that’s just, so to speak, the tip of the bayonet.