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The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914…

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013)

by Margaret MacMillan

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Wow what a fantastic book! I have not enjoyed a book of history this much in quite some time. MacMillan's has an engaging writing style and can tell a story better than most. She covers the lead-up to World War I beginning at the end of the 19th century and continuing up to the opening shots. She looks at all of the players involved in detail, yet she does not get bogged down in the detail to make the book drag. Her opening chapters on the Paris Exposition of 1900 captured me and was so good that I may assign it to my European History classes in the future. Outstanding history and I cannot wait to read her next book. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
The period before World War 1 seems to come into season roughly every generation. A new crop of historians begin to plough the rich field of controversy, blame and nostalgia in search of new insights, or at least to fulfill the insatiable appetite of a new generation of readers. The appeal lies in a number of factors - the complex interaction of events, motives and personalities bears all the fascination of the most gripping of true crimes. Like the Jack the Ripper case, the books and documentaries continue to pour forth.
The cycle began soon after the conclusion of hostilities, as participants published studies and document collections designed to deflect blame. The effort was not purely academic as Germany sought to escape the massive reparations demanded at Versailles, underpinned by the famous ‘War Guilt’ clause. The German histories were reinforced by US historians including Harry Barnes and Sidney Fay. He argued that all the powers were to blame. The most significant author arguing against these ‘revisionist’ works was Italian Luigi Albertini who spent almost twenty years writing Le origini della guerra del 1914 (1942). In its English edition it contained over 2000 pages of research and explanations, having interviewed virtually all of the surviving participants in the immediate events of summer 1914. His books are still recognised as one of the best sources.
After the Second World War had been digested another generation approached the topic, with the benefit of greater distance. Ironically it was Fritz Fischer, a German historian who became virtually the first historian for decades to put virtually the entire blame for the war on Germany in his landmark work Griff Nach der Weltmacht (1961). He was strongly attacked as a traitor by other German historians. The provocative English historian A J P Taylor argued for a complacent reliance on the old “Concert of Europe” and unstoppable military plans in War By Timetable.
The centennial of the war saw an astonishing number of fresh works appear on the subject. Probably Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace is one of the most prominent, although The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark has apparently achieved the most publicity and high sales, especially in Germany where over 200,000 copies are reported to have sold. This is likely to be partially due to Clark’s views being closer to Taylor’s than Fischer’s! A bookshelf could be filled with just some of the other efforts - Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War and July 1914, Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year The World Ended, Max Hasting’s Catastrophe, David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer, T.G. Otte’s July Crisis. Over coming years I will review and compare some of these works.
MacMillan’s book seemed like a good reliable place to begin my quest. Understanding the twentieth century for most people over forty with an interest in history is a gripping pursuit. All of us either personally or through our family have seen the effects of a century of profound change and extraordinary violence. The so-called thirty years war (not a term I personally agree with) hung over the lives of the late Victorians and the ‘great generation’ of the early twentieth century, and despite its destruction also acted as the catalyst for the age of prosperity that followed. Finding the explanation for the carnage of the trenches and the holocaust leads us to July 1914, but one quickly realises that the quest begins earlier.
Michael Howard in The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century begins his chapter on the World Wars at the turn of the century with two events that suggested that European world hegemony was under threat - the defeat of Spain by the USA, and the humiliation of Russia by Japan. MacMillan also begins her story in the milieu of 1900 with the Paris Exposition as centrepiece. She describes a world of faith in science and Progress with a capital P. The book then turns to diplomacy. The first few chapters zoom in on Germany and Britain, the leading nations economically and in Germany’s case apparently gripped by jealousy. The book describes how the nascent alliances of 1900 - the Dual Alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany, the Franco-Russian alliance - became ever more important as crutches of security. Russia relied on French finance. France’s lingering fear of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War lead her to dream of an alliance where she could “lean simultaneously on Russia and England against Germany”. Germany ended up tied to Austria-Hungary almost by default. As a German ambassador said: “How often do I ask myself whether it is really worth it to attach ourselves so firmly to this state which is almost falling apart and to continue the exhausting work of pulling it along with us. But I cannot see any other constellation that could replace … an alliance with the Central European power”.
MacMillan expertly ranges through the great powers, analysing their power structures, diplomacy, strategic options and the outlook of their leadership.
This is old fashioned diplomatic history. We arrive at chapter 9 before we ask “What Were They Thinking?”, an examination of European’s world view. MacMillan makes clear her belief that the decisions for and against war “were made by a surprisingly small number, and those men - few women played a role - came largely but not entirely from the upper classes”. Most of the chapter focusses on the elite - the arts, philosophy and in particular social darwinism. Nationalism and imperialism were natural outgrowths of elite obsessions with power and vitality. Militarism and war became glamourous.
MacMillan then explores social movements and beliefs in more detail - the peace movements and conversely the military planners. “A general war, fought at the heart of Europe, was becoming thinkable”. Again we focus on that ‘small number’ - intellectuals, financiers and the peace movement. Most of the countries of western Europe by this time had (or close to had) universal male suffrage. MacMillan spends a few pages on the Second International which through some member parties such as the SPD in Germany had a mass membership. This coverage is good, but again focusses on the leadership. One of the problems with this approach to history emphasising the individual and diplomacy is the risk of ignoring the masses. Perhaps this isn’t so serious in this period when we know that the final decision-making was taken by Presidents, Foreign Secretaries, Emperors and General Staffs. It does seem important though to consider what the views of the majority were, what influence they had through the limited democratic process and to what extent they impacted upon decision making. The sense from the book is very little but I would have liked to see a bit more consideration of this, even if the conclusion was that the ‘great man’ theory in looking at the end of peace is entirely justified.
And so from the war plans we move to the final eight chapters, a rich and detailed narrative of the crises, Sarajevo assassination and the end of the “Concert of Europe”. The impression of bluster and of crises averted is built up deftly and makes the complacency of summer 1914 (above all that of British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey) comprehensible. The length of time from the assassination to the outbreak of war, usually brushed over, is revealed in full as a month of slow, contingent and unpredictable developments. I was almost on the edge of my seat at the end of July as German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg suggested that Germany would not take any territory from France after the war, and would respect Belgium’s integrity after the war. I think MacMillan is a little kind in even suggesting that this might have been a genuine attempt at avoiding a general war. Most of the German and Austro-Hungarian diplomacy in July seems disingenuous. This is not to say that others were faultless. Doubtless Grey’s opaqueness with regards to Britain’s intentions betrayed uncertainty and left an opening for Germany to engage in wishful thinking.
MacMillan’s excellent Introduction supplies most of the interpretation in the book, as well as her attitude to the past and its study. “Very little in history is inevitable”, “the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddle or simply poor timing”, “inertia, memories of past clashes or fear of betrayal”, “a fundamentally weak character”. She certainly doesn’t ignore “the arms race, rigid military plans, economic rivalry, trade wars, imperialism with its scramble for colonies, or the alliance systems dividing Europe into unfriendly camps”. The book does tend though to reinforce the importance of the character and decisions of individuals, chance and the course of events. MacMillan does find some factors “more culpable” (blameworthy?) than others - Austria-Hungary’s intense desire to punish Serbia, Germany’s uncompromising backing of her, Russia’s haste to mobilise. More profitable however is the deeper examination of the previous couple of decades to identify why in summer 1914, with yet another crisis, war instead of continued peace was chosen. This book is an excellent source of information and explanation to understanding the reasons behind that decision.
( )
  bevok | Jul 31, 2017 |
Brilliant interweaving of the many strands that (may have) caused the Great War. Writing and punctuation style can be a bit clunky so that you have to read a few sentences several times to understand them, but what a fine mind. ( )
  Muzzorola | Sep 2, 2016 |
The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan (2013)

Causes of Peace?

There are no causes of peace---only lack of causes of war. That's my take on the lessons of this book. Let me state right up front that this is not a book about World War One; this is a book about the causes of World War One.

To save you time and money, I'll summarize for you: greed, chauvinism (the rise of nationalities), class struggle (the self-absorption of the upper classes vs. the rise of middle class aspirations vs. the growing self-awareness of the working class) and just plain stupidity. Archduke Ferdinand was indeed a lame excuse for a war---but then, any excuse is a good excuse if you're going to start a war anyway.

But there are still some very good reasons to persevere and read this book.

The book starts with an exploration of the attitude that was prevalent in the world at that time---that "war was now impossible." This was exemplified by the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, which is used to explore the reasons for optimism. There had been a longer period of almost universal peace than ever before recorded; there was so much international trade that a war would be worse than catastrophic for everyone involved; that there was so much international scientific and industrial development and growth that it's inconceivable for the entire world to start "shooting itself in the foot" [my words here].

And then MacMillan spends chapters describing the competing psychologies of the local players in the greater European cultures: the royals, the government officials, the bureaucrats, the upper-, middle- and working-classes. One by one, MacMillan explores the psyches (def. soul, mind, spirit; or we may say emotional, intellectual and cultural essences) of almost every country then existing in Europe.

As she describes the German power structure and we decide that Germany was indeed the source of all evil in the world, she then goes on to France, and then Russia, and then Great Britain and we're left with no undamaged rudder in these "ships of state." And just when we find ourselves lamenting the status of the poor innocent by-standers (not the least being Italy and the Ottoman Empire)---countries like Serbia, Rumania, Greece, Albania, etc. who were physically at the mercy of the larger forces in Europe---we learn that they are at least as bad, if not worse, because they want a "piece of the action" in China, in Africa, in South America (and in the decaying Ottoman Empire).

And all through this MacMillan occasionally interjects notes on the parallels with today---which should inspire some fruitful contemplation on Santayana's “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (in The Life of Reason, 1905).

Each and every country wanted security (which requires strength—i.e. military power); prosperity (which requires trade outlets—i.e. colonies); and respect (which requires strength—i.e. military power).

Just recently I heard an interview on the radio:
"Who I support [in the 2012 Presidential elections] is not important, what's important is that America is strong, respected and safe." Cindy McCain interviewed on NPR (Wikipedia: "an American businesswoman, philanthropist, and humanitarian, and the wife of United States Senator John McCain")

One of the most entertaining aspects of this book for me is the exploration of the individuals who were making, or trying to make, the political decisions in their nations. MacMillan describes at least a dozen different personalities from each country in gross detail. No one nation had a monopoly on men of greed, arrogance and stupidity and we see their flaws as described by their contemporaries.

As an example: Jean Jaurès was a French Socialist leader of the time and a strong anti-militarist.

It was typical of Jaurés that the cause was more important than himself and that he did not bear grudges. In his own life his friendships crossed ideological lines and in politics he was always ready to reach out to his opponents. "His human sympathy was universal," said Romain Rolland, "that he could be neither nihilistic or fanatical. Every act of intolerance repelled him."

Jaurés was assassinated at the start of the war.

Or Sergei Sazonov, Russian foreign minister from November 1910 to July 1916

[Sazonov] Unlike some of his colleagues…was upright and honest and even his enemies agreed that he was a thorough gentleman and a loyal servant of both the Tsar and Russia. And, as described by Baron Taube, who worked with him in the Foreign Ministry, would have done well in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was not … cut out to be Foreign Minister: "Sickly by nature, overly sensitive and a little sentimental, nervous and even neurotic, Sazonov was the type of womanly Slav par excellence, easy and generous but soft and vague, constantly changing because of this impressions and intuitions, resisting all sustained efforts at thinking, incapable of following through his reasoning to the logical end."

In this manner we get some interesting insights into the leaders of the world: the German Kaiser, the Russian Tsar, the French President, the British Prime Minister and all their associated political and military advisors. And what they thought of each other.

With the growth of the industrial revolution we get the growth of the proletariat and the growth of the media and the growth of the use of propaganda.

The industrial revolution made it possible to have bigger armies and Europe's population growth had enlarged the pool of manpower. And the new media found that creating international enemies sold papers.

Quoting German poet Stefan George (1868-1933)

"…the cowardly years of trash and triviality" led people to welcome war as something to cleanse society.

From the Journal of the Royal United Services Institution in 1898: "Is not war the grand scheme of nature by which degenerate, weak or otherwise harmful states are eliminated from the concerted action of civilized nations, and assimilated to those who are strong, vital, and beneficial in their influences? Undoubtedly this is so …"

It seems that every nation made an effort to instill a negative attitude in its people for whoever the enemy of the day was. There were few "non-villains" in this story.

And, interestingly, MacMillan points out that terrorists abounded during and after the turn of the century…and for the same causes and rationales as today. If this review weren't already too long I'd give some examples. But there just doesn't seem to be anything new under the sun.

If you want to know the causes of WW 1, it was basic human stupidity and the weakness of humanity to see beyond its own tribal noses. [that's me again]

"The Great War was not produced by a single cause but by a combination and, in the end, by human decisions." Margaret MacMillan

What frightens me is that we, meaning you and I, have not changed so very much from those who started and fought the Great War.

What gives me hope and encouragement is that we've managed to survive as long as we have. In spite of ourselves. ( )
1 vote majackson | Apr 28, 2016 |
C.J. Critt
  jmail | Mar 21, 2016 |
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There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise. - Albert Camus, The Plague
Nothing that ever happened, nothing that was ever even willed, planned or envisaged, could seem irrelevant. War is not an accident: it is an outcome. One cannot look back too far to ask, of what? - Elizabeth Bowen, Bowen's Court
To my mother, Eluned MacMillan
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On April 14, 1900, Emile Loubet, the President of France, talked approvingly about justice and human kindness as he opened the Paris Universal Exposition.
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Presents a narrative portrait of Europe in the years leading up to World War I that illuminates the political, cultural, and economic factors and contributing personalities that shaped major events.

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