Saturday, August 23, 2014

"There are Always Choices": Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace

Author and historian Margaret MacMillan (Photo by Brett Gundlock)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Jessica L. Radin, to our group.

For those of us who love to read, finding a work of history that is that perfect combination of well written and well researched is something of a Holy Grail. Well-written histories often tend toward the personal, and, while such books are enjoyable, the knowledge that they yield is often at best sparse, and at worst dubious and ideologically inflected. Well-researched histories, full of information, can be so dry and so lacking in narrative that they suck the life out the stories that they (barely) tell. It is tempting to resort to summaries – and particular this month, with the world commemorating WWI, such summaries abound.

But, if you can find a history which is well written and well researched, there is almost nothing more satisfying – those are the texts which illuminate moments, facts, and people that perhaps we have heard of, have seen illustrated in photographs and paintings, but about which we know very little. Margaret MacMillan’s two books on WWI provide precisely that illumination and, with a light touch that always avoids pedantry, can remind readers of why the Great War still has lessons to teach us today. While Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Random House, 2003) – MacMillan's award-winning account of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the war – is perhaps the more famous of the two, in this centenary year it serves us best to start at the beginning. In The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Random House, 2013), MacMillan provides a riveting account of how the world went to war.

Moving slowly from the Paris Exposition of 1900 to the entry of Britain into the Great War on August 4th, 1914, MacMillan paints a picture of the people, the politics, and the movements that allowed the world to tear itself apart in a conflict that killed more soldiers than any conflict since then. No single cause can be given for the Great War, she suggests; rather, it was a particular combination of circumstances, histories, and personalities that tipped Europe over the edge.

Among these influences are some great historical events: The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 resulted in the emergence of a powerfully unified German state for the first time in history, at the expense of the French who lost both their provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and their honor in that conflict. It embedded in the French political psyche an awareness of the danger that Germany posed to France. Demographic factors heightened the French discomfort, as German had a far larger (and faster growing) population, and therefore a greater potential number of conscripts: this was a concern of Britain’s, as well. But more important to Britain was the naval race. Britain’s military power had always resided with its navy, which had no parallel in the world. When, in 1898, the German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz began a naval race, his explicit goal was to build a navy two-thirds the size of the British navy, and therefore capable of significantly neutralizing the British forces.

These factors – strategic, psychological, and economic – all contributed to the bifurcation of Europe in the years leading up to the War. Germany, Austria-Hungary (the grand old empire that was increasingly weak and at the mercy of the Slavic revolutions) and Italy made up the Triple Alliance; Britain, France, and Russia (itself fighting against an emerging revolution, lacking a strong leader, and concerned about its loss of prestige in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the Balkans) made up the Triple Entente. In the years leading up to the war, the two groups almost went to war a number of times – but with brinksmanship, and with the threat of war, they always managed to resolve relatively local conflicts before they could spread throughout Europe.

But there was an ideology of nationalism, and a belief in what was necessary in order for a nation to grow and thrive, that made war look sometimes appealing, and often inevitable. Nations must grow in order to thrive, went the theory: they must therefore increase their sphere of influence, or, in other words, colonize more land, acquiring more resources and greater populations that would then support even further expansion. In fact, it was in a series of crises over Morocco in the years before the war that the distrust between Britain and Germany solidified, contributing substantially to Britain’s popular (and sometimes vicious) condemnation of Germany. So while the ‘Great Powers’ went about their negotiations, all in the name of peace, they also drew up war plans –  hundreds of pages of documents detailing the troop movements necessary for Britain to close off German sea access, or for Germany to successfully invade France. Railroads were built almost solely for the transport of troops, and as those plans were solidified over time, the declaration of war became a switch that would galvanize a war machine into action.

For those who are most appalled at the carnage of WWI, of the millions of lives thrown away to gain a mere ten feet of earth and the hundreds of thousands send over hillsides to be mowed down by machine-gun fire and other artillery, in The War that Ended Peace MacMillan provides a sobering explanation. No one thought, she writes, that defense was that important. Military strategy was based upon an ‘ideology of offense’, what might be rephrased today as the theory that “the best defense is a good offense.” If you could attack fast enough and hard enough, you could simply overwhelm the enemy’s defense.

Royal Irish Rifles, at Somme July, 1916.
But this ideology did not take into account the advances in trench warfare and artillery that had changed practical warfare in the decades before 1914. There was no plan to uproot an army ensconced in trenches and defended by machine-guns, and certainly no air force (as there would be in the next war) that could rupture such a defense from above. The Great Powers went along drawing up offensive strategy plans, confident in their belief that this was the only way to ensure their victory and the glory of their nation.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist. Austria-Hungary, in consultation with Germany (which basically told Austria-Hungary that it could do whatever it liked and receive German support), presented Serbia with a list of demands that it knew would be refused. When the Serbians, appalled, rejected the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war, one month exactly after the assassination. In support of Serbia, Russia ordered a partial mobilization, and following a German protest, a full mobilization of its troops in support of the small Slavic state: Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Germany then declared war on France on August 3; it was on August 4th, the day that we now commemorate the war, that Germany violated the neutrality of Belgium – Britain entered the war specifically in order to defend the neutrality of Belgium. And with that, the great players, and the great plans of war that would kill millions across the world, were all set into motion.

MacMillan’s conclusions from her research are not, by any means, that the Great War was inevitable. At every moment, people made choices. It is all the little choices that they did make, the assumptions they held (either that war was productive, or that it would always be avoidable at the last minute), the pressures that they felt, that destroyed Europe. MacMillan reserves the greatest praise she gives to any world leader to, a-chronologically, John F. Kennedy. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was surrounded (like the Tsar and Kaiser in 1914) with advisors that urged him to go to war; Kennedy resisted the pressure, and the world that has survived so far is, MacMillan suggests, a result of that fortitude. Kennedy made a hard choice, one that went against military advice and much of popular opinion. The leaders of Europe in 1914 could have made different choices.

Today, with the multitude of small and large conflicts growing around the world – some military, some economic, some ideological – inspiring in all of us the belief that there is only one way forward, or only one response (even while there is at little or less agreement than ever on what that way or response might be), MacMillan’s history of the Great War can be an important corrective, an essential reminder that even when it doesn’t seem like it, “there are always choices.”

The War that Ended Peace is published by Random House (2013) and is available in print and as an ebook.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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