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Friday , January 17 , 2014
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The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War By Margaret Macmillan, Profile, £25

A week may be a long time in politics but a hundred years is not a very long time in history. The First World War, which erupted across Europe a hundred years ago this August, still has deep resonances both personal and political. Who was to blame? Why was the slaughter so terrible? What was it all for? These questions arouse emotions in a way that the French Revolution (the other great turning point of modern European history) does not. Part of this is due to the scale of horror, remembered through so many family tragedies, part due to the intractability of the questions themselves. As Margaret Macmillan (picture) points out in her in-depth and highly readable account of Europe’s descent to war, there are no definitive answers and differing interpretations will continue to be debated long after this centenary has passed.

Macmillan’s central theme is that a general European war in 1914 was not inevitable. There were a number of factors which, since the turn of the 20th century, increased the chances of war, but then there was also a list of other factors, not least the international peace movement, pulling the other way. She also explodes the notion first put forward by Lloyd George, that “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”. While some crowds celebrated the outbreak of war in a jingoistic fashion, there were demonstrations in favour of peace in Berlin during the ‘July crisis’, panic on the stock markets and widespread concern.

Nor was it the case that the decision-makers were unaware of the consequences of a war amongst the Great Powers. In April 1913, in the aftermath of the First Balkan War, the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, warned the Reichstag: “No person can imagine the dimensions of a world conflagration, of the misery and destruction, which it would bring to nations.” A year later and the same man was to play a leading role in causing such a conflagration, most crucially by assuring Austria that Germany would back it unconditionally in its punishment of Serbia.

The leaders of that archaic institution, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, foresaw their own imperial destruction in a pan-European war and yet consciously pushed the Great Powers to the brink through their fanatic desire to wage war on Serbia. “It will be a hopeless struggle”, wrote Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, head of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, “but it must be pursued, because so old a Monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously”.

The problem was that by 1914, indeed for some years, the German and the Austro-Hungarian military respectively had come to believe that there was more to be feared from continued peace than from war. Faced with the inexorable rise of nationalist movements from within and increasingly powerful enemies without — Serbia and Russia — many of the Austro-Hungarian leaders urged pre-emptive military action in order to maintain their fragile Empire. Equally, the German decision-makers were acutely aware of growing Russian power and of the fact that in any future European war Germany would probably have to fight on two fronts, since Russia was allied to France. Surely it was better for Germany to defeat her enemies while she still possessed the strongest army in the world? The fatalistic head of the German general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, thought so, while his predecessor, Alfred von Schlieffen, had already devised a plan whereby Germany would in theory defeat France quickly and then deploy her full strength against Russia. Fear was thus a primary motive behind the actions of the co-belligerents, though both powers should have borne in mind Bismarck’s dictum, that ‘preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.’

Macmillan paints a vivid and thorough picture of European politics in the run-up to the First World War. Beginning with the great fair, the Exposition Universelle, held in Paris at the turn of the century, she goes on to describe the Anglo-German naval race, the rise of socialism, the Moroccan crises, the Balkan wars, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Added to this are rich portraits of the main protagonists, including the Kaiser, the Tsar, the Austrian emperor, the French president and the British prime minister. Never have so many millions been affected by the actions of such a small, woefully inadequate number of men.

The only criticism which could be made of this otherwise excellent book is that it fails to draw together the various elements which are described and offer some sort of conclusion as to why Europe abandoned peace for war. Macmillan states in her introduction that “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt, Russia’s impatience to mobilize” were the most culpable acts. But there is no concluding chapter which considers the relevance of the other and more long-term causes, such as the alliance system, the arms race, territorial and imperial ambitions, population patterns, as well as the invidious effects of increasingly belligerent nationalism.

What Macmillan makes clear, however, is that war could have been avoided if Europe’s leaders, principally those of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, had wished it. Writing in his classic tract, Rights of Man (1791), Thomas Paine speculated on a world without war. This would be possible, he argued, if “Courts were disposed to set honestly about it, or if countries were enlightened enough not to be made the dupes of Courts”. A hundred years later and the outbreak of the First World War confirmed that, at least in this respect, Europe had not progressed at all.