The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan

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The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A searching account of the years 1900 to 1914 in Europe, and of events in every major European power, which led up to the outbreak of the First World War
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 699 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Profile
ISBN: 9781846682728

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One could argue that the main title of this book is slightly questionable. Throughout the half-century or so before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Europe had rarely been free from conflict, with the Franco-Prussian, Graeco-Turkish and Balkan wars for a start. Nevertheless, the majority of the continent was at peace with itself and most of its neighbours during this period.

The story has been told from different viewpoints and with varying time frames often before, but as new theories are propounded, it is always interesting to re-examine the sequence of events in the light of new scholarship. Professor MacMillan’s book is written from secondary sources and does not use any new archives or offer startling revelations, but this is still a splendid account covering the period from the beginning of the twentieth century.

The starting point is 14 April 1900 when Emile Loubet, President of France, opened the Paris Universal Exposition, seen as a suitable way to mark the end of a century which had begun with revolutions and wars but now stood for progress, peace and prosperity. At that point the British Empire had no firm alliances with any of the other European powers, a fact which had not previously caused it much concern. However, now it was deeply unpopular throughout the continent because of the Boer war, with victory against two smaller Afrikaner republics which on paper might have been a foregone conclusion not yet within sight, and looking weak as well as dangerously alone, friends and allies might become necessary. With mutual suspicion still simmering between some of the other countries, it was inevitable that new alliances would be forged in the years ahead – and thus almost inevitable that the powers concerned would drift into two armed camps.

Beginning with a broad overview of Europe and Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’, the next few chapters assess the state of each of the major European powers in turn and their relations with their neighbours. There was the Second Reich, with the vain and unstable Emperor William ruling Germany although too often at the mercy of his military high command. I enjoyed the incisive character sketch that McMillan provides of the self-proclaimed ‘All-Highest’, although something might have been said of the recent research which suggests that William was not only physically handicapped with a deformed left arm and hand but also had mental issues, due to a difficult birth in which mother and child almost died. The Anglo-German naval rivalry, which historians have rightly never ceased to pinpoint as a major cause of war, is also fully examined, as is Germany’s place on the world stage. There was the Entente Cordiale, in which the often mutually antagonistic Britain and France found sufficient common ground to patch up their differences, and as a result of which the former British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery told the future leader Lloyd George that it would mean war with Germany in the end. There was the often fractious Anglo-Russian relationship, which blew hot and cold and was nearly torn apart in 1904 when the Russian fleet fired on British trawlers from Hull, thinking they were Japanese warships, with fatal results. Then there was the dual monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian empire, a vast but creaking patchwork of different states, presided over by the elderly Emperor Francis Joseph, who had the melancholy distinction of not only losing his brother, wife, and son and heir in tragic circumstances but also never being on the winning side during any of the wars in which his empire was involved during his reign of sixty-seven years.

At the time, many described the Balkans, a constant source of unrest at this time, as a powder keg. It was a description which probably applied to the whole continent at a time of change when social and political adjustments were subtly changing the very fabric of Europe. In France, revolution had destroyed the status and power of the old landed aristocracy; in Britain, the landed gentry were fighting their corner against a new order while a new reforming Liberal government was grappling with the question of Irish home rule and suffragette demands; in Austria, the Jews were being blamed for the end of the old hierarchical society based on sound Christian principles. There was an increasing view that the end of the old order was nigh, and that they may as well finish it sooner rather than later. In the words of a Prussian Minister of War, General Erich von Falkenhayn, ‘Even if we perish, it was nice’.

Having thus set the scene, MacMillan takes the successive stepping stones, especially the Tangier incident of 1905, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, and the Agadir crisis of 1911. These demonstrated that Europe was fortunate not to go to war as a result, but might not be able to pull back from the brink next time. Above all, there is the episode which has only been uncovered by relevant research in recent years and is still being evaluated – the German Emperor’s war council of December 1912, which demonstrated almost beyond doubt that his high command was actively preparing for war at the most advantageous moment.

Even then, had a few more cautious individuals been listened to, it might have been otherwise. Ironically it was Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, who was urging restraint on the more hawkish forces around him, whose assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 set in motion the final headlong rush to arms. Even the infamous Russian peasant and so-called ‘Holy Man’ Rasputin, a committed pacifist, tried to hold the Tsar back from war. An element of black farce hung over the leading French radical minister Joseph Caillaux, who was convinced that France and Germany could work together, and had helped to broker a peaceful solution to the Agadir crisis. Unfortunately, his second wife chose to silence a leading newspaper editor who was threatening to publish some indiscreet love letters by shooting him dead in his office. That was the end of Caillaux’s career and thus influence at a time when the latter was needed most.

McMillan recounts the complicated story very well, ending with a short chapter on the war and a paragraph in which she asks who was to blame for the war – was it any one of half a dozen individuals, institutions or ideas, nationalism, or several other culprits? The answer is still the stuff of many an exam essay. With 600 pages this book is not a light read, but it examines the issues with thoroughness and readability, recounting the basic facts and bringing the persons involved to life very well. She also draws a telling comparison between August 1914 and 9/11, noting that in both instances the hardliners were given the opportunity to urge what they had advocated all along. In the first instance, it was a solution to the long-festering Slav problem – in the second, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Who says that history never repeats itself?

For those who want a sound overview of what to me has always been a fascinating period of history, or for those who want to understand how the issues of the early twentieth century were mirrored to some extent in events several decades later, this book is an essential read.

For more general reading on the war itself:

The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

For a more detailed account of the final event which precipitated the conflict:

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

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