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

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When Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek arrived at Sarajevo train station on the morning of 28 June 1914, Europe was still at peace. If any of the key European statesmen of that era had been asked whether they thought a major European conflagration was likely in the near future, they would all have replied that a major war had, in fact, been getting less likely in the past two years. The reason, above all, was because the two recent Balkan wars had come and gone without triggering a wider European conflict. Crises seemed to crop up without descending into a full-blown continental war between the great European powers.

In her latest book, Margaret Macmillan makes the point that the drumbeat of repeated crises, before 1914, rather than reminding Europeans to remain alert to the dangers of a major war, had in fact the opposite effect, it numbed or deadened their awareness of the dangers of a major escalation. Such complacency, Macmillan argues, fostered a “world … dangerously inured to crisis”. The puzzle she attempts to solve is why European leaders of the most prosperous and powerful part of the world decided to turn away from peace and unleash irrational and uncontrollable hatreds between peoples that still haunt us today.

Few could imagine the poison and dislocation that the Great War would release into the world system as Europe laid waste to itself in an orgy of senseless destruction. Macmillan re-examines the complex sequence of interactive events making war more likely in the decades before 1914. European rivalries over African and Asian colonies, economic competition, the rise of nationalism, rigid and secret military planning, new scientific and technological progress that brought with it new and more destructive weapons, among others, stoked the fires of envy and bitterness in the key European capitals.

While all these forces were certainly fanning discontent among the European powers, it is all too easy to neglect the factors pulling in the opposite direction including, most notably, the proliferation of societies and associations dedicated to outlawing war and to promoting peace. Pacifism was on the march in early twentieth-century Europe, although the chorus of militarism ultimately drowned out these voices of restraint. The late nineteenth-century’s admiration of the military as the noblest part of the nation and the spread of military values into civilian societies fed assumptions that war was part of nature’s rule and that in the end the fittest and strongest would survive. And that often meant war.

Crucially, the relationship between war and European society underwent a fundamental shift throughout the course of the nineteenth century. The prosecution of war, the shift from the glamour of a short, swift and offensive campaign to a slow, protracted and defensive war, and the resources that must be devoted to its conduct, all point to a larger role for the state, if only to coordinate the various activities around a prolonged conflict. However, military planners and commanders were often slow to recognise how this changing relationship animated military planning and civilian diplomacy before the outbreak of war in 1914.

Enthusiasm for a bygone age and the persistence of older ways of thinking about war in relation to society often strained relations between civilian leaders and military commanders, narrowing the options available for a peaceful resolution when a crisis emerged. This in turn bred layers of resentment, fear, suspicion and hostility among the Great Powers and their key domestic stakeholders. The contest of competing domestic voices often made it difficult to locate exactly where the power to make policy decisions actually rested within many continental European governments. In the end, the choices made by a small group of decision-makers at vital stages in the years before 1914, though especially during the days and weeks following Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, slowly but surely led their nations along narrower pathways toward war.

Experience has shown that very little in history is inevitable and that talk of the certainty of war is dangerous because it encourages the construction of a self-serving narrative that the decision to go to war was the only choice available to key political actors. As Macmillan remarks, “[t]here are always choices”. All the Great Powers chose to fight because of the perception of what others had done, while the public was led to believe that they were being pushed into a war to defend their nation’s honour and prestige. All the Great Powers were thus prepared to accept war so long as they were not seen to be provoking it.

Margaret Macmillan’s account of the origins of World War 1 offers a compelling analysis of the changing dynamics of power in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of the 1914-1918 conflict, capturing the tone and timbre of a vanishing world, the end of the age of European grandeur, with scene-setting vignettes and vivid pen portraits of leading protagonists that draws on deep and wide reading to produce a rich synthesis. Every page was a pleasure to read.

Margaret Macmillan. The War That Ended Peace, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. London: Profile Books, 2013.

Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.

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