World War I

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By the time August rolls around there will be hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of words spoken by mostly pompous people about who was responsible for starting World War I. The Brits were the first off the mark to blame the Germans. They would, wouldn’t they? Max Hastings, a very good English historian who affects upper-class mannerisms (his father was a tabloid hack) and has the most extraordinary accent in a desperate effort to show he’s a blueblood, was among the first to produce a book and place the blame where it doesn’t belong. Among the few who got it exactly right is Christopher Clark, whose The Sleepwalkers hit the proverbial nail you-know-where. The irony is that the sixteen million dead, the disappearance of the great royal dynasties and of the upper classes, and the birth of communism and Nazism could all have been avoided if a certain Joseph Caillaux had kept his pants on. Let me explain.

Caillaux was French prime minister and a friend of Germany’s. He mistrusted the British who ruled half the world. He decided that Germans should not build a larger navy lest they get any big ideas about having an overseas empire like perfidious Albion. He had stepped down in 1912 and was running against a warmonger in the 1914 elections. In early 1914, Le Figaro, France’s most respected newspaper, published an exposé of the affair of Monsieur Caillaux with a certain Madame Henriette. (Plus ça change, as they say in the land of cheese.)

Madame Caillaux, known for her elegance and noble breeding, had herself driven to the offices of Le Figaro and asked to see the editor. He was out to lunch, so she waited in his office. As soon as he entered, she greeted him politely, announced her name, took out a revolver from her gilded purse, and shot him dead. She was immediately tried and exonerated—the French called it a crime passionnel—but her hubby had to resign. The warmongering Raymond Poincaré remained in power.

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