Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What We're Reading: New History, World War I

Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is one of the more weighty books published in this year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War. Along with her celebrated account of the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war, Paris 1919, published a few years ago, the two books make formidable bookends that bracket the military action of the Great War. The War That Ended Peace is a chronicle of the series of international crises and high-stakes diplomacy of the early years of the 20th Century that preceded the outbreak of war in 1914. MacMillan’s perspective--one that approaches the conflict not by asking the question of why war began but rather why a system of international diplomacy that had preserved peace in Europe for so long finally faced a crisis in which it failed--brings readers methodically along to a new and more nuanced understanding of why the first world war began.

Alfred von Schlieffen. He developed a plan
several years before the Great War for a possible
two-front war with France and its ally Russia.
The Schlieffen Plan necessitated a quick
mobilization and deployment of German forces
that, once put in motion, immediately limited
diplomatic options.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June of 1914, although it became the ostensible casus belli, was not an event that had to lead to war, according to MacMillan. The decision of Europe to go to war had behind it a history of political, strategic, and cultural developments that led to what turned out to be a rather considered decision to engage in war, a war that a number of the belligerents hoped would remove what they saw as a frustrating impasse regarding mitigation of longstanding national fears--as well as allow them to realize imperial ambitions. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia and, to a lesser extent, Russia, were interested in expanding their national prestige through the augmentation of their empires either by annexing territories or by extending their political hegemony into certain geopolitical regions. MacMillan does a fine job of explaining the alliance system that developed in Europe: why nations sought alliances, how those relationships worked, and the weight of their role in the decision to go to war. Her examination of the impact of Britain’s deliberately vague and wobbling foreign policy in the period just before Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia is some of the most interesting diplomatic history explored in The War That Ended Peace.

The War that Ended Peace examines chronologically the major foreign policy crises in Europe that were a prelude to the war; but what will perhaps be most memorable to readers is not the catalog of events, but rather the importance MacMillan attaches to a number of themes that run throughout her narrative. Some of these will be familiar to those who have read other books on the war: the problem of intrastate and interstate ethnic animosities; the growth of nationalism; the general arms buildup of all major powers; and the ambiguous command structure that seemed to exist at the top in almost all the belligerent countries. The command structure was a particularly serious problem in Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, where the sometimes uncertain role of Emperor, Kaiser, and Czar in imperial systems of government further confused the issue of whether the military or civilian authority had the power to make national policy.

German Admiral Tirpitz convinced the Kaiser
that Germany could never achieve its
national ambitions unless it was able to
challenge the British Navy. The naval
arms race between Britain and Germany
in the years preceding the outbreak of
the Great War significantly contributed
to international tensions between the
two countries.
Exacerbating the issue of command, in these same countries military plans for mobilization involved steps that--once they began to unfold--proved unstoppable. These preparations for war quickly increased the volatility of the international situation, in that they required a timely response from prospective adversaries.
In short order, military mobilization eclipsed civilian authority and foreclosed diplomatic options. MacMillan gives us an interesting account of this systemic problem, along with trenchant observations on the major personalities in that small circle of decision makers who ultimately plunged Europe into the terrible conflagration, especially the isolation and awkward assertiveness of the Czar and the bombastic personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In addition to these familiar themes, MacMillan makes a strong argument for the importance of some other currents she believes are important if we are to fully understand the historical period just before the Great War: the fueling of European rivalries caused by the void created by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire; the denouement of the international peace movement that had attempted to defeat a climate of increasing acceptance (if not a sense of the inevitability) of armed conflict; the role of the press; and the increasing pressures of domestic public opinion on decision makers.

The original “dreadnaught” the British HMS Dreadnaught. The nations of Europe
scrambled to build fabulously expensive dreadnaughts in the years just prior to the war,
a new type of heavily armed battleship that featured a large number of
heavy-calibre guns and was powered by steam turbines.

Perhaps the most interesting of all these themes is her look at how, in each country, the idea of going to war became a temptation as leaders tried to deal with major internal social, economic, and political tensions. War presented them with an opportunity to repress liberal and radical domestic opposition and to shore up the established order. Internal divisions took a back burner to the unity that became necessary to face the existential national crisis of war.

The War That Ended Peace does not suggest that there was anything inevitable about a major European conflict in 1914, but this narrative provides a comprehensive view of the political and strategic undercurrents that preceded the war, along with the experiences, misunderstandings, pressures, and miscalculations that, largely unforeseen, came together to narrow options in a surprisingly short period of time. For so long in moments of crisis the “Concert of Europe” had been able to pull peace from the fire at the last minute. This created a confidence and complacent expectation that it would do so again. This time brinksmanship failed.

Souvenir; Alsace Lorraine, a sculpture by Paul DuBois
that personified France’s lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.
France had forfeited the provinces to Germany in 1870
as a result of its loss in the French and Prussian war.
Their loss remained a continuing source of resentment in France.

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