The real trigger for World War I

Updated: 2014-01-26T03:21:35Z


The Kansas City Star

Conventional wisdom holds that the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie in Sarajevo represented the spark that set ablaze the “tinderbox” of Europe.

Sean McMeekin, author of “July 1914: Countdown to War,” believes the First World War was not inevitable.

But it was made more likely, he said, by diplomats who exploited the murders.

“It was individual statesmen, pursuing real if often short-sighted agendas, who conjured up armageddon,” McMeekin said in an email from Turkey, where he teaches at Koc University.

McMeekin’s book includes the occasional cinematic detail. One of them: the “royal plate” on which Franz Joseph I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, received the telegram bearing news of the assassinations.

Such moments can make a complicated story vivid for readers, McMeekin said.

“But there is a more serious aspect to this,” he said. “We cannot really understand a complex event like the outbreak of the First World War without getting the little things right, up to and including a very precise chronology of events.

“We cannot understand decision-making without knowing the context — what statesmen knew or thought they knew, as they were sometimes wrong — and when they knew it. To tell the story truthfully, the historian needs to keep this in mind, with a sympathetic, though not uncritical, eye to the dilemmas policymakers were facing in real time.”

McMeekin speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For details, go to

The lure of Lawrence

By the early 1980s, William Burroughs was done with New York City.

Barry Miles, author of “Call Me Burroughs,” the new biography of the “Naked Lunch” author, documents the locations in Mexico, Morocco, England and elsewhere that Burroughs lived or visited, and how he eventually felt at home in Lawrence.

“He was looking for somewhere cheap, quiet, where he could his shoot his guns and find a sympathetic group of friends,” Miles said. Burroughs’ longtime friend James Grauerholz, who had attended the University of Kansas, lived in Lawrence, Miles said. Burroughs, who died in 1997, spent his last years in the community.

“He liked James’ friends,” Miles said. “They accepted him for what he was and made no demands on him.”

Miles speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. For more details go to

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to

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