I suspect as this year moves closer and closer towards August, we will be surrounded—I hesitate to say bombarded—with more and more books, programs, commemorations, celebrations and lamentations of what my great-grandparents called The Great War and what later generations labelled the First World War. If you are interested, you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_last_surviving_World_War_I_veterans_by_country and discover the list of last surviving veterans from each country and the year that they died. A few civilians who were born during or just before the conflict are still living, so “the war that ended peace” hasn’t quite passed from living memory, but that light is fading fast. Soon, if we want to understand the conflict, we will have little to draw on but historical/political record, family tradition, or the excavated, burnt, scarred and greened-over landscape of the old battlefields, and the monuments and graveyards to suggest why European nations felt the need to initiate a catastrophic train of events, the echoes of which still resonate today. Margaret Macmillan’s book The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 comes, then, at a timely moment, when perhaps more than ever “the Great War still casts its shadow both physically and in our imaginations” (MacMillan xxv).
Attempts to explain the causes of that war have like “the Schlieffen Plan . . . . produced polemical arguments worthy of the forum in Rome and hair splitting of an order to delight medieval scholars, which continue to engage academics today” (338). The War that Ended Peace is an important contribution to that debate. Unsurprisingly, it is not a short book. It includes maps and black and white illustrations drawn from contemporary sources. The chapter-notes are easy to follow, and, as one would expect, the bibliography, extensive.
Once begun, the book is almost impossible to put down. Organized fairly chronologically, particularly in its last third, The War That Ended Peace begins with an examination of Europe in 1900. It then devotes individual chapters to the situations specific to Great Britain, to Germany, to the development of the naval rivalry between Germany and Great Britain, to the development of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, to the relationships between Britain and Russia, and between Austria-Hungary and Russia, and between the dual monarchy and Germany. I found the chapter “What Were they Thinking? Hopes, Fears, Ideas, and Unspoken Assumptions” especially interesting as an overview of the contemporary zeitgeist.
I suspect that at times, we often buy into the idea that the period 1900-1914 was not really a part of the “modern” period but was, instead, a last, glorious sunset of traditional(?) values. Rather, it was a time of intense intellectual, artistic, and scientific excitement, even upheaval, not least in Vienna. (Think Freud, Klimpt, Schoenberg.) MacMillan reminds us that the early years of the twentieth century were indeed a time when “European pre-eminence and the claims of European civilization to be the most advanced in human history were being challenged from without and undermined from within (250-51).
The second half of the book moves chronologically through the series of political crises such as the rivalries over influence in Morocco and Balkan ethnic aspirations and divisions: rivalries that brought the parties to the brink of war but which they managed to resolve peacefully if not necessarily to each party’s complete satisfaction. MacMillan does not mince words when she asserts “a power, as Britain was then, and the United States is today, inevitably resists its own intimations of mortality and the rising one is impatient to get its fair share of whatever is on offer, whether colonies, trade, resources or influence (58), but she also asserts strongly that “the idea that Europe’s tensions were the product of economic rivalry persisted long after the Great War but the evidence is simply not there to support it” (275).
So what was it then, according to MacMillan, given that “very little in History is inevitable” (xxix) that made the crisis resulting from the assassination of the Austrian Arch-Duke in Sarajevo different from all the earlier crises?
While national rivalries and greed played some part, other contributing factors were the national collective memories of previous defeats and perceived humiliations and collective aspirations towards ethnic homogeneity and national autonomy, as well as the pressure for more democratic and egalitarian societies. Throughout Europe, public opinion was becoming a real influence to be reckoned with by those in power. Then there were the insecurities and individual anxieties of Europe’s monarchs and politicians. The War that Ended Peace is a very personal book in terms of the way it reveals the private challenges, anxieties, and ambitions of the politicians and military men involved. “It was Europe’s and the world’s tragedy in retrospect that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressures building up for war” (xxvi).
MacMillan captures the characters of those involved in the decision-making, allowing us to see the situation from divergent points of view. Perhaps she’s right in suggesting that the politicians and military strategists of the time were not necessarily as gifted as their predecessors. Moltke the Younger was not his Uncle’s equal, for example. And Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was no Bismarck. MacMillan suggests, “It was Germany’s tragedy and that of Europe that his [Bismarck’s] successors were not the man he was” (564). Would things have been different had there been someone of Bismarck’s calibre manipulating events? After all, Bismarck did say “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death (qtd. 560).
As I said earlier, once begun, this is a hard book to put down. Even though one knows the ending, The War That Ended Peace feels at times almost like “a thriller”; one wants to know what happens next and turns the pages with a kind of fascinated despair as events move towards catastrophe. Depressing, too, is the awful familiarity of it all. As MacMillan says, “It is hard not to compare them [the Young Bosnians] with the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later” (546). Perhaps, for me, what is more depressing is the familiarity of some of the rhetoric used to justify aggression: rhetoric about “national interest,” about “honour,” and “responsibility to fellow . . . .”; you can fill in the blanks for yourself.
Perhaps World War I could have been avoided. It wasn’t, and so we live today with the results of decisions made by those politicians and strategists a century ago. That legacy ought to be enough to remind us how we shouldn’t forget to “never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddle, or simply poor timing” (xxxi). MacMillan tells us that President Kennedy’s having read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August led him to resist advice to fight the Soviet Union in 1962. MacMillan’s book should be required reading for our current politicians; let us hope for imaginative and courageous leaders.