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Whose fault was the horrible First World War? In an age of enlightenment, of European prosperity where its tribes had not been to war for decades, how did such a catastrophe occur that would kill millions, wreck economies and undermine the very value of life?
Of course the answer is that there is a huge complexity of factors, people and circumstance that led to the start of the war. And in 607 pages, esteemed historian, Margaret MacMillan in The War that Ended Peace, explores, connects and explains this complexity in an immensely readable style that takes the reader along at a clip that is almost like a classic “whodunnit”.
The subtitle to the book, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War provides a significant clue to MacMillan’s primary point. It was not so much that the First World War started by design or intent, but rather that Europe and its leaders ran out of ideas of how to keep the peace. Before she gets to that point however, the author tracks with considerable research skill and narrative style the cultures, economies and personalities that all played a part in the abandonment of peace.
A particular feature of the book is the revelations of the personalities and relationships of the leading figures – kaisers, tsars and kings, emperors, presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries. She reveals how democracies and autocracies developed and the pressures each brought to bear on the outcome. In Britain and probably France, elected politicians had sway over their military. In Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the monarchy of Germany, the leaders either had direct authority over their armies and navies or, particularly in the case of the German army and separately, the navy, the generals and admirals made their own plans for war without bothering too much to think of ways of preventing it, all to the delight of the Kaiser.
The competition between the great powers for world domination; carving up Africa, wanting to carve up China, controlling the trade routes through the Mediterranean, Atlantic and the Pacific also created jealousies and friction. Germany certainly wanted to break Britain’s domination of world trade (‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ rankled greatly with the Kaiser). Tsar Nicolas hated the thought of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire controlling Serbia, and would have gone to war on that point alone.
The way alliances formed and the reasons behind their formation is also analysed with skill and clarity by MacMillan. The formation and the factors leading to the formation of Entente Cordiale, The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance are discussed behind a backdrop of shifting considerations of “who is my friend and who is my enemy and who is my enemy’s enemy “
Certainly, there was every good reason why Europe should not have gone to war and dragged the rest of the world into it. Europe and its people were enormously prosperous at the time, with extraordinary achievements in science, technology, social systems, education and health. Unfortunately, its very wealth allowed for the creation of large armies by the central powers – that eventually had to do something other than sit around. It allowed for massive expenditure by Britain and Germany on an arms race, particularly with the building of great fleets, especially the Dreadnought battleships. The German Admiral Tirpitz wanted to build a navy bigger than Britain’s. Britain feared he might so they built an even bigger navy.
There were attempts at retaining the peace and structures which could have helped. The concert of Europe was not a forerunner to the Eurovision Song Contest, but rather something like the later League of Nations and the United Nations General Assembly, used as a mechanism for keeping the peace between squabbling nations. But it was probably less effective than the song contest in promoting peace and harmony among the tribes.
So who did it? In a way, the answer is “everybody,” MacMillan concludes, “and if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”
Don’t read another serious book about the First World War before you read this one – it helps in understanding the sacrifice.
By Lincoln Gould
The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
by Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books Ltd