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11 February 2014, Gateway House

Book review: Exploring the origins of World War I

In 'The War that ended Peace: The Road to 1914', Margaret Macmillan delves into the decades leading up to 1914, as she explores why Europe abandoned years of peace to plunge into World War I

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In July 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo led to a conflict of epic proportions such as had not been seen in the world before – 65 million men served in the war, 20 million soldiers and civilians perished, four European empires fell, and the colonial powers of Britain and France received fatal cracks in their empires. At the same time, the war provided an intellectual springboard for the rise of fascism and communism.

The events that led up to one of the most horrifying episodes of the last century have been extensively studied. While there is general agreement that the consequences were grave, lively debate on the causes of the war continues. As the centenary of the war approaches, a spate of books has appeared on the subject, many of them arguing that Germany alone cannot be blamed for the great war, but that ambitions and paranoia prevailed in Europe at that time making the war impossible to prevent.

In her previous book Paris 1919, an absorbing account of the peace conference at the end of the war, its promises and betrayal, MacMillan gave us a vivid account of the hopes and expectations in 1919, and how decisions made during that conference continue to haunt us to this day.

In The War that ended Peace MacMillan takes us to the decades prior to 1914 and presents a vast array of facts with the goal of answering one central question – why did Europe in 1914 “walk over the cliff into a catastrophic conflict which was going to kill millions of its men, bleed its economies dry, shake empires and societies to pieces, and fatally undermine Europe’s dominance of the world”? Nations have always confronted each other in games of “bluff and counter bluff”, but have not always gone over the edge. What made 1914 different?

On the question of who was to blame, she draws our attention to underlying issues such as the rise of militarism, the arms race and raw rivalry among imperial powers: “Imperialism came increasingly to be seen as a measure of a nation’s power and vitality and as an investment for the future, not least as a way to get space for expansion.”

Another question she asks is why Germany and Britain became such antagonists: “Part of the explanation lies in the way Germany was governed, which gave too much power to the complicated and bewildering character who sat at its summit from 1888 until 1914.” But the author feels it is unfair to blame Kaiser Wilhelm wholly for the war; she states, “Wilhelm did not want a general European war and in the crisis of 1914, as well as previous ones, his inclination was to preserve the peace.”

MacMillan’s research is extensive and presented with a view to asking why the peace did not last. As she reminds us, Europe had been more or less at peace for the past 80 years in which it had begun to enjoy the fruits of prosperity and global trade. The Paris exposition of 1900, to which she devotes several pages in the book, gives a picture of the pride in materialism that Europe enjoyed, describing it as a gathering “to bring the civilized nations of the world nearer to one another in the labours common to all.”  Readers will find this last statement particularly relevant to our times because of the notion, prevalent today, that nations commercially linked will be deterred from going to war with each other. The events that led up to World War I when globalisation was making the world ever more connected should shake us out of any complacency.

In the first part of the book, the author details the entente cordiale of Britain, France and Russia as it formed against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and a tentative Italy. Germany, already unhappy at its limited colonial power, became thoroughly uneasy at the entente cordiale, which left Europe in two distinct camps.

MacMillan reminds the reader that alliances seen as defensive by those who make them can appear offensive to others – Germany feels “encircled” when Britain comes out of its splendid isolation and jumps into bed with France and Russia. This has particular relevance to the geopolitics of today – note how unsettled Israel has felt at the first sniff of a thaw between the U.S. and Iran.

In the second half of the book, the author gives us the intellectual background of Social Darwinism, the belief that war would rejuvenate the economy. MacMillan gives an account of national stereotypes – of how these hardened and led to a bold militarism which peace movements tried to oppose, in vain. She also discusses the elaborate war plans each country drew up – the Schlieffen Plan, the Russian Plan, the French Plan –  and discusses how this readiness cut down the time between decision and action after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The final section of the book is particularly gripping in its description of the many crises that dotted the years after 1905: the crisis over Morocco and the repeated agitations in the volatile Balkans, which brought Russia and Austria head on, leaving a trail of resentment and indignation. When the assassination occurred, there was, with some justification, the feeling that similar crises had happened before and this one could be weathered. Surely Germany would prevail over Austria and ask for restraint; surely Britain and France would prevail over Russia. But once Austria issued its ultimatum, all the powers tumbled into war. In retrospect, peace could have held.

MacMillan distributes the blame evenly. Serbians were irresponsible, but Austria could have been less belligerent; the Germans need not have given a carte blanche of support to Vienna (although the Kaiser regretted it later); the British, the French and the Russians only exacerbated the situation.

The similarity between the final frenetic days before the guns were fired in 1914, and our own recent wars, is striking.. The American invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequently, of Iraq, were also carried out on a high note of honour and national security. But the same leaders who saw war as inevitable could have argued otherwise.

One hundred years after 1914, it can be said that the more things change the more they remain the same. So while the world is certainly more globalised, democracy is on the rise, and the media is more powerful, it remains subject to the same insecurities among nations, personal rivalries and an assertiveness that increases both when nations lose power and when they gain it.

There is a simmering tension in the world today as new nations rise, fresh dislocations occur and the old world order shifts. In addition, the marked rise of religious fundamentalism has added a dangerous element to all geopolitical relations. MacMillan’s book should be read with a degree of caution with respect to our own times.

 ‘The War that ended Peace: The Road to 1914’ by Margaret Macmillan. New York: Random House, 2013.

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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