Josef Joffe at The New York Times:
World War I was the greatest empire slayer of all time. Down went the Ottoman Empire, ruling from Bosnia to Basra. Hapsburg shrank into tiny Austria. Germany and Russia remained largely intact, but Wilhelm II ended up in exile, while the Romanovs were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Exit sultans and kaisers; enter authoritarians and totalitarians.
The irony can’t be topped. All four dynastic regimes went to war for the usual reasons: security, power and possession — as did democratic France, Britain and the United States. But beset by indomitable nationality and class conflicts, they also fought for sheer regime survival, following Henry IV’s counsel, in Shakespeare’s words, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”
It was a momentous miscalculation that would transform 20th-century history. Had the old despots been gifted with foresight, they would have opted for peace über alles.
This is the takeoff point for Dominic Lieven’s book “The End of Tsarist Russia.” The tomes on the Great War fill a small library by now. Since history is written by the victors, the first batch fingered the German Reich as starring culprit; later works spread out along an explanatory spectrum that ranged from inevitability to contingency.