"According to the most recent and convincing scholarship, it was not the case, as the man in the street seems to have believed at the time, and as Englishmen and others were to write later, that the European world of June 1914 was a sort of Eden in which the outbreak of hostilities among major powers came as a surprise. On the contrary, as its political and military elites recognized, Europe was in the grip of an unprecedented arms race; internally the powers were victims of violent social, industrial, and political strife; and general staffs chattered constantly, not about whether there would be war, but where and when."
—David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?
"Whatever the intentions which underlay it, German policy in the crisis of July 1914 must rank as one of the great disasters of world history. The leaders of arguably the most successful country in Europe, a country bursting with energy, boasting a young and dynamic population and an economy second to none, a country whose army, whose administration, whose scientific and artistic achievements were the envy of the world, took decisions which plunged it and the other powers into a ghastly war in which almost ten million men lost their lives, the old internal and international order was forever destroyed, and popular hatreds were released which were to poison public life for generations to come"
—John Röhl, "Germany," in Decisions for War, 1914, ed. Keith Wilson
Barbara Tuchman's book on the origins of World War I is one of the best works of history I have ever read. It has been a huge success since its publication in 1962. It has sold millions of copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for one whole year. (WHF)
The Guns of August,
Series: Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books,
Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 8, 1994),
These two books from Fromkin and Clark are both brilliant renditions of the conditions that led to World War I. And they give you two different views of the buildup to the conflict. Fromkin says that everyone knew what they were doing. Clark says they "sleepwalked into it."
Europe's Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914,
Vintage Books USA,
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (March 18, 2014),
The best overall study of rivalry between European powers during this time:
Alan J. P. Taylor,
The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918,
Oxford University Press,
A J Taylor,
The First World War: An Illustrated History,