Sean McMeekin was born in Idaho, raised in Rochester NY, and educated at Stanford and UC Berkeley. He has been fascinated by modern history ever since playing Winston Churchill in a school reenactment of the Yalta Conference at age 15, and Joseph McCarthy in an even more outlandish reenactment of the Army-McCarthy hearings at age 17, which involved camcorders and double agents in the Russian Club. He pursued this interest into several dozen European and American archives, as far east as Moscow, before settling down to teach at Koç University in Turkey, where the weather is better.
McMeekin’s first book was The Red Millionaire. A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg, Moscow’s Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West (Yale, 2004). His second, History’s Greatest Heist. The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks also from Yale (2008), was listed for the Ed A. Hewett Prize in 2010. His third, The Berlin-Baghdad Express. The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power (Penguin/Allen Lane), has been translated into three languages so far. His fourth, The Russian Origins of the First World War, is forthcoming from the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press. He lives in Istanbul with his wife, Nesrin, and their daughter, Ayla.
I was contacted by an agent following the success of The Berlin-Baghdad Express, but we did not hit it off. I found the Lownie agency through Googling literary agents/history and was immediately impressed with the design of the webpage and the emphasis on non-fiction. I also noticed that the agency represented Roger Crowley, whose works I admire. Crowley, too, found the agency online, and said that he e-mailed his proposal to Andrew Lownie and heard back the next day. I did the same, and heard back the same afternoon.
Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame is one of six books shortlisted for the 2015 Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature . The final winner will be announced at the annual award ceremony in the autumn .
There have been two more great reviews for Sean McMeekin’s July 1914. History Today pairs Sean with Niall Ferguson and Barbara Tuchman as one of the most important historians of 1914.
And the New York Review of Books writes:
“Sean McMeekin’s chronicle of these weeks in July 1914: Countdown to War is almost impossible to put down…. [McMeekin] delivers a punchy and riveting narrative of high politics and diplomacy over the five weeks after Sarajevo, more or less day by day, dwelling on small groups of decision-makers in and between the various capitals, and their interactions, by turns measured, perplexed, cordial, artful, angry, even tearful.”
Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War has been warmly reviewed by Jack Beatty, senior editor of The Atlantic, and news analyst for NPR:
“When I saw July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin in a book store, my heart sank. The “July Crisis” that followed the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo and that ended in war is the most ploughed over episode in diplomatic history. Although by no means a scholar, I had read “The World Crisis, Volume I, 1911-1914″ by Winston Churchill, the two –volume history by Sidney Fay published in the 1920s, the documentary history edited by Immanuel Geiss published in the 1960s, and the three-volume opus by Luigi Albertini published in English in the 1950’s. Of more recent works, the diplomatic dance of death in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London occupies much of Hugh Strachan’s massive “The First World War Volume I: To Arms (2001)”, the first third of David Stevenson’s “Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (2005),” and nearly all of “Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (2003),” edited by Richard H. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig. How, I wondered in the bookstore, could there be anything new to say about the July Crisis? And how could Sean McMeekin, called the “leading young historian of modern Europe” by Norman Stone, how could the author of original works like The Russian Origins of the First World War and The Berlin-Baghdad Express–what was this imaginative, multilingual scholar doing spending his time on this stale subject? It took only a few pages of “July 1914″ to buoy my heart. McMeekin makes this old story new. His history reads like a novel. Better, it unfolds like a play. There is no “going behind,” as Henry James termed authorial interventions in a novel’s forward flow. There is no going ahead, either. Events happen in the text as they did in life. The historical actors don’t know the consequences of their acts; neither does the reader. The footfalls of the future echo only in the foreshadowings that end chapters: “As they awoke Monday, Bethmann and Jagow would have some quick thinking to do. News was flooding in from Belgrade, Vienna, Petersburg, Paris, and London. Almost none of it was what anyone in Berlin wanted to hear.” McMeekin adds dollops of fresh savory fact on every page. More importantly, he sees the whole crisis unclouded by bias for or against his characters or their countries. He saves moral judgment for the end. “When we examine the key moral question of 1914–responsibility for the outbreak of European, then world war—it is important to keep degrees of responsibility in mind. Sins of omission are lesser ones than sins of commission: likewise, actions are not equivalent to the reactions they occasion.” That last observation is characteristic of McMeekin’s subtle turn of mind. He applies it exquisitely in assessing blame for the war. Serbia, the source of the plot to kill the Archduke, stands first “in the dock of judgment.” Next Austria-Hungary, for its reckless escalation of the crisis. Next Germany, for giving Austria the notorious “blank check” to attack Serbia. Closely behind is Serbia’s protector, Russia: “The decision for European war was made by Russia on the night of 29 July 1914, when Tsar Nicholas II, advised unanimously by his advisers, signed the order of general mobilization. General mobilization…meant war.” Next France, for goading Russia on, and for…well, enough. ”July 1914″ is superb history and compelling reading.”
Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War has been widely reviewed and praised, and was named by Kirkus as one of the best non-fiction books of 2013. Other reviews and coverage include:
“[M]asterful.” —Washington Times
“[McMeekin is] a young, talented historian…. [He] is scrupulously fair and judicious in assigning blame…. McMeekin has written a fascinating and original study of the opening stages of World War I, a book that supersedes, in my view, any previous study of that great topic.” —John P. Rossi, Philadelphia Inquirer
“The historiography of World War I is immense, more than 25,000 volumes and articles even before next year’s centenary. Still, … Sean McMeekin, in July 1914, [offers a] new perspective…. McMeekin has chosen the zoom lens. He opens with a crisp but vivid reconstruction of the double murder in the sunshine of Sarajevo, then concentrates entirely on unraveling the choreography day by day.” —Harold Evans, New York Times Book Review
“[A] superbly researched political history of the weeks between the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I…. McMeekin’s work is a fine diplomatic history of the period, a must-read for serious students of WWI, and a fascinating story for anyone interested in modern history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Lucid, convincing and full of rich detail, the book is a triumph for the narrative method and a vivid demonstration that chronology is the logic of history.” —The Independent (UK)
There were two great reviews for agency books in Saturday’s Times:
"A work of meticulous scholarship…" Roy Hattersley on Sean McMeekin’s July 1914
"James, an expert chronicler of imperial history, shows how Churchill never wavered from his belief that the Empire was “a precious asset, not just for Britain, but for civilisation as a whole”. He analyses from this perspective the whole of Churchill’s career, bringing fresh insights even to oft-examined episodes such as the Boer War and Gallipoli. One of the many strengths of his magisterial survey, based on extensive research in primary sources — especially the records of the intelligence services — is its objectivity…. The portrait of the final years is both compelling and sad, as Churchill had unwillingly to come to terms with the fact that, “however loudly the lion roared, it needed America’s permission to pounce”. James has written a pioneering biography of Churchill from a central, specific point of view that reveals his strengths and weaknesses in an entirely new light. It will be of abiding interest to all those concerned with Britain’s past and how it influenced the world in which we live today. " DR Thorpe on Lawrence James’s Churchill and Empire
Sean McMeekin’s latest book July 1914: Countdown to War is getting terrific reviews, including the following:
“[A] superbly researched political history of the weeks between the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I…. McMeekin’s work is a fine diplomatic history of the period, a must-read for serious students of WWI, and a fascinating story for anyone interested in modern history.” Publishers Weekly
“[A] thoroughly rewarding account that spares no nation regarding the causes of World War I…. McMeekin delivers a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of the increasingly frantic maneuvers of European civilian leaders who mostly didn’t want war and military leaders who had less objection.” KIrkus Reviews
“Sean McMeekin is establishing himself as a—or even the—leading young historian of modern Europe. Here he turns his gifts to the outbreak of war in July 1914 and has written another masterpiece.” Norman Stone, author of World War Two: A Short History
“This is a meticulously researched and vividly written reconstruction of the decisions that led to war in July 1914. McMeekin captures the human drama of this fateful month and offers a provocative assessment of the different players’ moral responsibility.” James Sheehan, author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe
“Winners write the histories, so wars are misunderstood. Sean McMeekin takes a wider stance to get a fresh angle of vision on The Great War, and casts all war-making in a new light.” Charles Hill, Diplomat in Residence at Yale University, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism
“Sean McMeekin has given us a riveting and fast-paced account of some of the most important diplomatic and military decisions of the 20th century. He depicts with chilling clarity the confusion, the incompetence, and the recklessness with which Europe’s leaders went to war in that fateful summer. Any understanding of the world we inhabit today must begin with an examination of the events of July 1914. McMeekin provides his readers with a balanced and detailed analysis of the events that gave birth to the modern age.” Michael Neiberg, author of The Blood of Free Men