One doesn’t have to be Mystic Meg to make a decent fist of
creating a publisher’s calendar for history books over the next few years. Heading into next year, we will begin marking
the centenaries of the events that shaped the 20th
Century and that
are amongst the most fascinating of modern history. As well as the First World War, there will be
major anniversaries of the Bolshevik Revolution, universal suffrage, the
founding of many European countries, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression,
before we move into commemorating the Second World War and the Holocaust.
The main focus of the next four years, however, will
inevitably be the First World War and, with almost a year remaining until
August 1914, there is already a veritable slew of important and high quality
books hitting the shelves. As well as
Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914
Christopher Clarke has produced The
, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe
is in the best-seller lists and Kate Adie and Richard Evans are amongst a
number of writers who have authored books focusing on aspects of the War.
It’s hardly surprising really. The First World War was, arguably, the most
significant event of the 20th
Century, causing a fundamental shift
in the balance of power between Europe and the United States, helping bring Lenin
to Power in Russia, destroying four empires (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary
and the Ottomans) and setting the scene for the rise of Fascism and
Nazism. Although it is an oversimplification
to paint pre-1914 Europe as a kind of pre-lapsarian paradise, it is true to say
that nothing would ever be the same again.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Great War is the
fact that the great European powers appear to have walked almost blithely into
war, without any real moral compulsion.
By comparison the causes of the Second World War are both clearer and
more easily acceptable – it was much more obviously a Manichean struggle of
good versus evil, whereas it is plausible to argue that none of the combatants in
the First World War had a compelling moral ground for war.
Generally speaking, since the 1960s and the emergence of
Fritz Fischer and the group of other German historians who argued that the War had
indeed been planned by an aggressive Germany, the debate has been framed as a
blame game. It is a sign of the complexity
of the issue that almost every major combatant has been accused of
responsibility – McMeekin blames Russia (with a side-swipe at France), Clarke
points the finger at Serbia, Max Hastings sides with Fischer in putting Germany
in the frame whilst Niall Ferguson thinks that Britain was the guilty party.
Rather than picking a horse in this unedifying race, the
excellent Margaret MacMillan comes at the issue from a different angle and
poses the question – why did Europe choose war rather than peace in those
fateful days in July 1914?
If this just seems like another way of asking who was to
blame, look at it more as a question of why the political and diplomatic
systems of Europe failed to address tensions without resorting to war. For, as MacMillan concludes, war in 1914
ultimately boiled down to a failure of the politicians and diplomats both to
resolve these tensions and to control the military men.
MacMillan is an excellent narrative historian (as amply
demonstrated in Peacemakers
, her book
on the Paris Peace Conference, which is one of my favourite history books of
all-time). In The War that Ended Peace
, she skilfully tells the story of Europe’s
march to war, beginning with Germany’s doomed naval arms race with Great
Britain. Although never actually blaming
Germany for the outbreak of war, MacMillan draws out the rare ability of the
Kaiser and his successive Chancellors to achieve the precise opposite of their
aims with truly incompetent diplomacy and statecraft. As well as the arms race, this is most
impressively shown in MacMillan’s description of the first Moroccan crisis in
1905. Intended to drive a wedge between
Britain and France during the infancy of the Entente Cordiale, Germany managed
to draw the two powers more closely together, tacitly expanding the Entente to
encompass military cooperation.
Another major causal factor was the failure by the European
powers to see that the system of alliances that grew up during the 1900s
effectively to replace the old Concert of Europe could be perceived by their
opponents as threatening rather than as the purely defensive structures they
were intended to be. Professor MacMillan
also highlights the truly astonishing extent to which those in power came to believe
and accept that war was both inevitable and, for many of the military leaders,
This might have been manageable if it were not for the fact
that, having survived a number of crises (notably twice over Morocco and
numerous times over the Balkans) without major conflict, civilian leaders
assumed that their opponents would back away from the brink of the abyss and,
in doing so, allowed militarism and the power of the military leaderships to
grow. When this combined with the
inflexible military plans that Germany, amongst others, had adopted and the
pressures imposed by mobilisation requirements, all that was needed was a spark
to light the tinder. This was fatefully
provided by Gavrilo Princip and fanned by Germany’s blank cheque to Austria,
the drive and fatalism of Austria’s von Hotzendorff and the refusal of the
German general staff to contemplate mobilising against Russia alone rather than
both Russia and France. The final nail
in Europe’s coffin was the decision by Germany to violate Belgium’s neutrality,
thereby completing Britain’s hesitant entry into the conflict.
MacMillan repeatedly compares the political leaders in
Europe unfavourably with the JFK of the Cuban Missile Crisis, pointing out
that, at a similar crisis point, he had made choices that led to peace and not
war. Although there is little to credit
the Europeans for, I find the continued comparison a little unfair – Kennedy was
dealing with a single opponent in a relatively straightforward scenario. By contrast, Europe contained five roughly
comparable powers, with a range of mid-level players capable of having an
impact and all of these had their own internal issues to deal with as well as
the international issues (MacMillan also points out the nascent power of public
opinion even in the more autocratic nations).
I would submit that the overall state of play was much more complex.
As well as being an excellent, balanced and highly readable
account of the years leading up to the outbreak of war, The War that Ended Peace
shifts the argument away from the usual
blame game. Although critical of the
individual decisions of the nations and individuals concerned, MacMillan
refrains from pointing the finger at one single country, saying:
“The most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those
individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace.“
In the end, those choices led to war and to the death of 16
million people and a further 20 million casualties. At the end of The War that Ended Peace
, MacMillan summarises what happened to
many of the key actors during this period.
It is depressing to read just how many of them ended their lives in
peaceful retirement or without punishment or suffering. It is equally chilling to read that Gavrilo
Princip, the man whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the
catalyst for war, felt and expressed absolutely no regret for what he had done.
I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read The War that Ended Peace