This summer, 100 years will have passed since the outbreak of the First World War, so it is not surprising that historians and others are trying or will try to explore the causes and effects of that great tragedy yet again.
Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace. How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (London: Profile Books, 2013). 704 pp.
Margaret MacMillan, a historian at Oxford University, has written a marvellous book of the story that led to the Great War. Its nomination as one of the best books of 2013 by publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg Businessweek and The Globe and Mail is only proof of its value.
Why is this book so good? Its greatness derives partly from a “happy” coincidence: I was reading it exactly at the time the annexation of Crimea had begun and events in eastern Ukraine were taking an increasingly ominous turn.
However, the book also naturally deserves praise simply for its contents. Unlike other historians, who search for some specific aspect that could be explored as the cause of a historical event, MacMillan looks at practically everything. The book features historical inevitability, friction between states, and colourful historical figures who may have had personal motives in making political decisions. In addition, MacMillan is able to connect her text with subsequent history and the world of today. This is all supported by an extensive list of sources and references.
MacMillan tends not to make revolutionary discoveries. It was still the “blank cheque” assurance granted to Austria by Germany that initiated the war, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 remained the main motive for it. Still, MacMillan does not write only about 1914, but also of the diplomatic actions and figures since 1871 (when Germany was unified) that led to the outbreak of war. The ways in which these people, their personal lives and the power relationships in Europe and the world, made up a whole out of which the war emerged make for fascinating reading.
It is precisely in terms of the logic of war that this book is remarkable. A number of classic works have been written on the emergence of war and the consequences that may accompany it—first and foremost by Carl von Clausewitz—but MacMillan specifically focuses on the First World War. The fact that mobilisation—particularly German mobilisation—in itself meant war (since no one was planning to lie in wait, according to the ideas of offensive warfare) was one of the main reasons the war broke out, so to speak, automatically. Mobilisation equalled assault; it would have been too dangerous to wait. Or so they thought …
Another aspect in the logic of war (which creates a connection with the present) has to do with Germany. Having lost the maritime arms race with the United Kingdom, Germany understood that it had run out of time. It had to attack at once, or others—including Russia—would have gained too great a developmental advantage. MacMillan eloquently explains that it was not Germany’s strength that led it to attack, but its weakness. Let us recall what US President Barack Obama said about Russia’s annexation of Crimea—according to him, it was an expression of weakness …
In principle, historians have a choice: they can write a dry, fact-based chronicle or connect their text with later history. MacMillan is a proponent of the latter approach; for example, she underlines that one of the reasons that the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 did not turn into a nuclear holocaust was that President John Kennedy had read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August—a story about how easily a war can emerge out of nothing.
Although the military was bellicose and participated in the arms race, MacMillan shows convincingly that society incubated widespread latent militarism. Militarism became an inextricable part of society, something that was self-evident. British children used to wear sailor suits and in continental Europe schoolchildren wore little uniforms. Schools taught how to remember important battles. These are good points to remember—there are people in our society who yearn for the old order, where everything is said to have had its proper place. They do not want to remember that the order ended in a colossal catastrophe and bloodshed.
Actually, the First World War did not teach the lesson. Another one was needed for that. MacMillan is the author of another book, on the Paris Peace Conference—Peacemakers. Six Months that Changed the World: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War—where she reaches a conclusion that differs from the work of many other researchers. She thinks that the Second World War was fundamentally caused by Adolf Hitler, not the “unjust” peace conditions imposed upon Germany (MacMillan does not consider the conditions unfair). All the more reason to study the causes of the First World War, since they triggered a chain of violence in the 20th century.
The main topic of the book is the apparent inevitability and spontaneity of the outbreak of war. The author provides a highly characteristic description of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who had made a decisive speech in support of war in Parliament on 3rd August 1914. After the speech he returned to his office and drummed his fingers on the table, saying: “I hate war … I hate war”. Grey looked towards St James’s Park, where workers were lighting gas lamps at the time, and said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.
MacMillan’s book is a veritable gold mine for readers interested in diplomacy and politics, also considering current events. Why did the First World War start? MacMillan thinks that if we want to point the finger at someone from our 21st-century viewpoint, we can accuse those who led Europe to war of two things. “Firstly, in the inability to see how destructive such a conflict may be, and secondly in the cowardice to confront those who said that there is no other choice than going to war. There is always a choice.”
Erkki Bahovski is a Communications Officer with the European Commission representation in Estonia, and a historian by education. The views expressed are his own.