The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, by Margaret MacMillan

Roger Morgan on the reasons why so much blood was shed

October 24, 2013

In 1955, in the University of Hamburg’s biggest auditorium, the controversial historian Fritz Fischer lectured on the origins of the First World War. He aired the thesis later expounded in his much-debated books: in essence, that what happened in 1914 was no accident, but resulted from a proto-Hitlerian expansionist drive by Wilhelmine Germany. His lecture on the Moroccan crisis of 1911 was a savage critique of the clumsy policy of Germany’s chancellor, rising in an impassioned crescendo to the bellowed rhetorical question: “And what further bit of stupidity did Bethmann-Hollweg go and do next?” At this point the student audience, present writer included, watched as an elegant blonde – Frau Fischer – rose from her front-row seat to admonish the lecturer: “But Fritz, Fritz, don’t get so worked up!” (“Rege dich doch nicht so sehr auf!”)

In fact, of course, people have been getting worked up about the causes of the Great War since it started, when the belligerent powers competed in rushing out documentary publications designed to pin the “war guilt” on each other. The endless flow of literature was then stimulated by many factors, not least the provision in the 1919 Versailles Treaty that, since Germany was responsible for starting the war, she must pay a massive reparations bill. A century later, in the rising flood of pre-centenary studies, Margaret MacMillan’s unusual contribution will certainly hold a leading place. Part of the originality of her approach is that while she discusses all the major themes that readers familiar with the subject will expect – the controversies, the leading personalities and the crises, treaties and other episodes – she does so in a way that often makes us see them in a new light. She adroitly summarises well-known controversies – for instance, the “Fischer thesis” of German responsibility, or the argument that Britain’s foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey could have prevented war in July 1914 by issuing a stern warning to Germany that an invasion of France via Belgium would mean British intervention. These controversies are still alive: only recently on the latter point, a former Cabinet minister (Lord Adonis, no less), reviewing a new biography of Grey, argued that Grey could and should have delivered such a warning, surprisingly ignoring the fact that deep divisions of opinion in the British Cabinet made this impossible. MacMillan says enough about such controversies to make sense of them, but rather than worrying over every detail, she draws her readers’ attention to the broader context: what kind of Europe were the decision-makers of the time living in and what was the state of mind that led them to decide as they did?

The existence of the alliance would embolden one partner or the other to take risky or provocative steps it might otherwise have avoided

As noted above, all the major diplomatic and other landmarks of the pre-1914 decade and more are here. MacMillan takes us through the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902; Japan’s military humiliation of Russia in 1904-05; Britain’s entente cordiale with France in 1904 and her agreement with Russia three years later; the crises over Morocco in 1905 and 1911; the Balkan turmoil surrounding Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and the complex multilateral Balkan Wars of 1912-13; and of course, the final catastrophe triggered by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in 1914. But rather than dissecting the diplomatic minutiae of these events, the author neatly and clearly focuses on some of their critical aspects and implications, common features and causal role in the overall sequence of developments that led to the nemesis of 1914.

Significantly, MacMillan pinpoints some of the essential features of the networks of rival alliances that dominated European diplomacy by 1914 – the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia versus the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy – including the way in which their sometimes minimal formal obligations came to entail far-reaching and even life-and-death commitments in times of crisis. For instance, the actual mutual obligations of Britain and France under the celebrated entente cordiale were strictly limited to issues of colonial tidying-up – Britain to keep out of France’s way in Morocco, and France out of Britain’s in Egypt. By 1914, though, the pressure of events and the awareness of common interests had produced a degree of Anglo-French cooperation – diplomatic, military and naval – strong enough to convince Grey that Britain had an unbreakable moral commitment to stand by France in the event of war.

Another important aspect of Europe’s alliances was that although normally they were explicitly defensive pacts – one party would support the other only if the latter were attacked by a third – the practical effect was often to encourage more offensive attitudes, since the existence of the alliance would embolden one partner or the other to take risky or provocative steps it might otherwise have avoided.

Moreover, the apparatus of policymaking in national capitals was often chaotic to a degree that prevented departmental views being coordinated or decisions being rationally taken or communicated. The problem was especially acute in the imperial courts of Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg, which lacked the essentials of Cabinet government and where policy often depended on which minister or military commander could catch the emperor’s ear. But in London, Paris and Rome as well, ministers, diplomats and service chiefs kept secrets from each other, and what came to be known as Europe’s “international anarchy” had an unhealthy parallel at the national capital level.

Did some of Europe’s rulers actively want war? Certainly some military leaders, after very nearly going to war during some of these successive crises and sometimes convinced that an all‑out showdown was inevitable, argued for seizing the right moment and getting the thing over with. The political and diplomatic language of the time, dominated by concepts of “rank” and “standing”, and the conduct appropriate to the “honour” or “reputation” of a great power (as in Grey’s sense of a moral obligation to France in 1914) certainly reflected a world in which states often felt impelled to adopt an assertive or even aggressive posture rather than a conciliatory one.

Another factor, interestingly explored by MacMillan, is that by 1914 every major power in Europe was beset by more or less acute internal tensions. Stagnant but seething Russia, multinational Austria-Hungary, the France of the Dreyfus affair and even the noisily unified new states of Germany and Italy were all profoundly affected by divisive schisms; and the issues preoccupying pre-war Britain were women’s suffrage, acute industrial unrest and, above all, the civil war threatened in Ireland. It was no wonder that among all the strands of discourse about Europe’s uncertain prospects, there was one that positively liked the idea of war as a way of clearing the air and rallying one’s nation in a Union sacrée.

MacMillan’s superb and very entertainingly written guide to this Europe – a Europe, as she shows, similar to our own in some ways, but very different in others – will be warmly welcomed by different kinds of reader. Those who “know” the subject will find new perspectives and new ways of looking at it, while those less familiar with it could hardly find a better introduction or a better basis for judging some of the centenary polemics we now face.

The author

Margaret MacMillan, professor of international history and warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, was born and raised in Toronto. “The Toronto of my childhood was rather dour and sedate - it has changed out of recognition, thank goodness - but it did instil in me the notion that hard work is good and that people should be respected for what they did rather than who their parents were.”

Canadians, MacMillan observes, “are moderate, low-key and have a well-developed sense of the absurd (except perhaps when we are playing or watching ice hockey), and that has helped me in writing history. It also helps that Canada has never been a great power, so we can look at the world with a certain detachment that may be more difficult for citizens of China, the US or the UK.”

In her schooldays, she recalls, “there was never a moment when I said, ‘Oh, I want to be a scholar or intellectual’. It just happened. I was a studious child, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I loved reading. I read constantly, and everything I could get my hands on. My parents were wonderful and encouraged us all to follow our interests wherever they led. And I had an outstanding teacher at our local school in Toronto when I was about 10 who let me read in class as long as I did the rest of the work.”

MacMillan lives on her own, but she has “a very large family of several generations who I am glad to stay come and stay quite often. My main home is in Oxford but I spend part of the year in Toronto where I have an apartment.” The most pleasant thing about Oxford, she says, “is its size. It is easy to get around especially by bicycle and you are always bumping into people you know. It doesn’t feel like a small town, though, because there are so many people from all over the world coming and going. The best thing about Toronto is that it is a big multicultural city; the worst thing is its politics, which are currently awful.”

Were she to have the opportunity to live elsewhere, her choice “would depend very much on my mood and the time of year. I sometimes think I would like to live in Canmore in Alberta and spend the summers hiking and the winters skiing. At other times I want to live in a big exciting city - Paris perhaps because it is so beautiful and I might finally become really fluent in French.”

She regrets that the demands of work in recent years have made it challenging for her to indulge her love of cooking. “I used to bake cakes, make jam or fill my freezer with soups, stews and sauces; now I mostly read cookbooks and clip recipes out of the papers and dream of what I will make when I retire.”

Confessing that her love of sports endures in spite of “never having been very good at them”, MacMillan says: “I persuade myself that my tennis backhand really is getting better, and go skiing once a year - usually in the Canadian Rockies - and think that at last I am getting used to deep powder snow. That is usually when I go headfirst into a drift.”

Many Canadians have felt that the country is often overlooked when accounts of the 20th century are given. MacMillan agrees that her compatriots “do justifiably feel a bit sensitive about much of the history of the two world wars - and so do Australians, New Zealanders or Indians - where the huge contribution of the empire is often ignored or treated cursorily. I did not write much about Canada in The War That Ended Peace because I am looking only at the outbreak and not the war itself. Canada did not play a significant role in the outbreak although it certainly did in the war itself. And I think I give it due prominence in my book on the peace that followed.”

And, she adds, “I have over the years written quite a bit on Canadian history - and I have been editing a series on key moments in Canada’s history with a colleague in Canada. I did it not so much out of duty but because I found it interesting.”

After she took her undergraduate degree at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, MacMillan carried out her doctoral studies at Oxford. Some years later she came full circle, returning to Trinity College to serve as provost until in 2007 she decamped for Oxford once more.

At a university with a long tradition of intercollegiate rivalry, Trinity College is often the subject of criticism for what others see as its air of white Anglo-Saxon elitism, and for Oxbridge-esque affectations - including college scarves and blazers and the wearing of gowns at dinner - that are rare in the Canadian academy. Arguably, MacMillan is perfectly placed to compare the British original to the Canadian echo, and to weigh in on the question of whether New World institutions should have Old World trappings.

MacMillan laughingly agrees to see the raising of the matter as a reminder of the mischievousness for which Trinity College’s rival University College (where the interviewer was an undergraduate) is renowned.

“If you go anywhere in the former British Empire, you will find universities modelled on British ones, often with buildings that look like Oxbridge,” she rejoins. “Some of it no doubt reflected a colonial inferiority, but British universities were the best in the world (some still are) and so not a bad model to have. And the locals always made them their own. My old college, Trinity, was never like the Trinity at either Oxford or Cambridge and the University of Toronto was Canadian, not British. We were Canadians; we played hockey (I was a mean defenseman on the ice) and Canadian football; and we took an intense interest in Canada, not in Britain.

“As for gowns,” MacMillan adds, when asked if any university really needs them in 2013, “the external trappings are one thing; the content another. Oxford is very different from the place I came to as a student over 40 years ago. Just to give one example, it used to be much more English; now the students, especially graduates, are international and some 40 per cent of the people who work in Oxford are foreigners like me. The gowns are merely a nice reminder of the past and that we are the latest version of a scholarly community that has existed for centuries in one form or another.”

Karen Shook

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War

By Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books, 704pp, £25.00
ISBN 97818466828 and 9781847654168 (e-book)
Published 17 October 2013

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