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on October 17, 2013
As a Brit, studying the First World War at school in the seventies, memories of the Second World War were still fresh and bitter enough amongst parents and teachers that there was never really a question that the Germans were the 'bad guys' in both wars while we (the Brits, primarily, though a little bit of credit was occasionally given to the Allies) were the knights in shining armour. Enough time has passed since both wars now for a more rational view to be taken and this book by Margaret MacMillan is a well balanced, thoughtful and detailed account of the decades leading up to 1914.

MacMillan begins by giving an overview of the involved nations as they were at the turn of the century - their political structure, alliances and enmities, their culture and economic status. She then takes us in considerable depth through the twenty years or so preceding the war, concentrating on each nation in turn, and going further back into history when required. She introduces us to the main players: political, military and leading thinkers. She explains how and why the two main alliances developed that divided Europe and shows the fears of each nation feeling threatened or surrounded by potential enemies. And she shows how this led to an arms race, which each nation initially thought would act as a deterrence to war. Throughout she draws parallels to more recent history and current events, sometimes with frightening clarity.

In the mid-section, MacMillan discusses public opinion and cultural shifts, highlighting the parallel and divisive growth of militarism and pacifism and how the heads of government had to try to reconcile these factions. She indicates that, although the peace movement was international, that at times of threat, the membership tended to split on national lines - an indication that the movement would falter in the event of war, as indeed it did.

Next MacMillan explains the development of military planning and how these plans gradually became fixed, allowing little room for movement when war began. She explains that the Schlieffen Plan assumed war on two fronts and that, when it came to it, the military insisted that it wasn't possible to change the plan at the last moment to limit the war to the Eastern front, with all the implications that had for ensuring that France and therefore Britain would become involved. MacMillan also shows how the plans of each nation assumed an offensive, rather than defensive, strategy, taking little account of how modern weaponry would change the nature of warfare. Thus, when the war did come, the leaders still expected it to be short and decisive rather than the long drawn out trench warfare it became.

In the final section, MacMillan walks us through the various crises in the Balkans and elsewhere in the years leading up to the war. She makes the point that not only did these crises tend to firm up the two alliances but also the fact that each was finally resolved without a full-scale war led to a level of complacency that ultimately no country would take the final plunge. And in the penultimate chapter, she takes us on a detailed journey from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand up to the outbreak of war, showing how each government gradually concluded it was left with no alternatives but to fight. In a short final chapter, she rather movingly summarises the massive losses endured by each nation over the next four years, and gives a brief picture of the changed Europe that emerged.

Overall, I found this a very readable account. MacMillan has a clear and accessible writing style, and juggles the huge cast of characters well. I found I was rarely flicking backwards and forwards to remind myself of previous chapters - for me, always the sign of a well-written factual book. As with any history, there were parts that I found more or less interesting. I found the character studies of the various leaders very enlightening, while I was less interested in the various military plans (though accepting completely MacMillan's argument of their importance to the eventual inevitability of war). I got bogged down in the Balkans (always a problem for me in European history) but in the end MacMillan achieved the well-nigh impossible task of enabling me to grasp who was on whose side and why. This is a thorough, detailed and by no means short account of the period, but at no point did I feel that it dragged or lost focus.

One of the problems with the way I was taught about WW1 was that we tended to talk about the nations rather than the people - 'Germany did this', 'France said that', 'America's position was'. MacMillan's approach gives much more insight, allowing us to get to know the political and military leaders as people and showing the lack of unanimity in most of the governments. This humanised the history for me and gradually changed my opinion from believing that WW1 was a war that should never have been fought to feeling that, factoring in the always-uncertain vagaries of human nature, it could never have been avoided. This isn't MacMillan's position - she states clearly her belief that there are always choices and that the leaders could have chosen differently, and of course that's true. However, it seemed that by 1914 most of them felt so threatened and boxed in that it would have taken extraordinary courage and perception for them to act differently than they did, and inaction may have meant their country's downfall anyway. A sobering account of how prestige, honour and national interest led to a devastating war that no-one wanted but that no-one could prevent. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
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on June 16, 2017
Unlike other reviewers, I found the writing neither dry nor boring. Quite the contrary I find the writing fresh and interesting. I was on the fence about giving it 4 stars or 5, but opted for 5 with the caveat that, like so many celebrities today, she cannot help but give her opinions about how 21st Century decisions by politicians she quite apparently disapproves of are somehow correlated. That being said, the actual history is well presented and while I have seen quite a bit of it in other works, her synthesis is fresh and compelling. I read quite extensively and only rarely bother to write a review because we are each so different that my opinion probably is about as useful to you as yours is likely to be to me. Having said that, if you have an interest in the foundations of the modern world, you must understand World War I, and to understand how and why this event took place, I recommend this book most highly. There are those who bring up Tuchman's The Guns of August, and with good reason: it is absolutely the best book on the opening month and causation of World War I to date. This book by MacMillan is also very good, politics notwithstanding.
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on March 6, 2014
As we approach the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War One we should pause to reflect on the terrible loss that conflict brought. In terms of western culture, 1914 was truly a watershed year that ended one way of life and introduced another. Margaret MacMillan followed up her epic study of the Versailles Treaty with this equally impressive work. She attempts to show how the war came about primarily because too many people either wanted war or did not do enough to prevent it from happening. The result is perhaps the most thorough analysis of the pre-1914 world available to the modern reader.

MacMillan begins her book with an account of the major players (France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and Austria-Hungary) to illustrate their national hopes and dreams pitted against their fears and suspicions andn introduces the reader to the primary individuals who helped shape national policy. She then looks at the psychology of war and the peace efforts and compares them to the militarism that each nation experienced. She describes how the new concept of public opinion helped drive the leaders towards certain decisions. Next she looks at the series of run ups to the Great War's outbreak, Morocco, Bosnia, the Balkan Wars, and even the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife. None of these events meant that war was ultimiately inevitable. So long as there were at least some key players willing to negotiate and work through differences, war could be avoided.

MacMillan concludes that war came about because the forces that sought it outnumbered and outmanourvered those who did not. But she also works to debunk myths that have evolved over the years. Germany and the Kaiser were not solely responsible for war in 1914. Germany had repeated backed down in the face of international pressure during the Morocco crises of 1905 and 1911. The Kaiser, while having the personality that modern day people would call a "jerk" (or worse), had a way of standing down at the last minute. Granted, he was fascinated with all things military, he was the inheritor of the Prussian military tradition, but he did not set out to bring war upon the world as he has often been blamed for doing. She also critiques the Anglo-French entente that developed after 1904. Britain and France were not a unified front as British leaders continually looked for ways to be non-committal in backing France on international affairs. She also looks at the relationship between France and Russia, and considers the challenges facing Austria-Hungary and the upstart Serbia. All of these have had myths develop around them and MacMillan works through the hyperbole to understand the root causes of national decisions. In fact, MacMillan ultimately blames no one and everyone for the war. The Great War, and she uses this term throughout the book, was the sum total of government's unwillingness to resort to diplomacy when the world needed eiplomacy the most.

MacMillan is not only a fine historian but is also an excellent writer. Thoughout the book she interjects modern analogies to compare with her subject matter to help illustrate her points. One key such analogy appears near the end of the book when she states how John F. Kennedy employed diplomacy against the advice of his advisors in part because he had recently read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. Kennedy gave diplomacy a chance, the players of 1914 did not.

MacMillan's writing style is crisp and lively. Truly, there is never a dull moment in this book. College history courses should utilize this book. The leaders of today should read this book. The average citizen who thinks that guns and war solve problems should read this book. There are lessons to be learned from MacMillan that need to be understood and appreciated. This book has all the makings of a Pulitzer Prize and as such cannot be discounted by anyone who is in the position of decision-making in international affairs. And on a large scale, that really means all of us, as public opinion is now counted for much by politicians and pollsters. This book should remain the standard for a long time to come, much like her work in Paris 1919 remains the standard for understanding our modern world as it resulted from the Paris peace conference.
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on August 16, 2015
Margaret Macmillan explains in clear and and thoughtful prose why Europe went to war in 1914 after a century of peace and material and social progress (following the defeat of Napoleon.) The intricacies of Balkan politics and and the ambitions of innumerable ethnic groups in southeastern Europe produced an eruption of conflict and hatred that shocked and surprised the rest of Europe, already divided by alliances and and rivalries of their own. While most observers suspected that war would eventually come from French-German bitterness over the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, few suspected that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would lead to minor conflicts in southeastern Europe that would drag all the Great Powers into a conflagration of unimaginable proportions. To understand the origins of the Great War and its consequences to this day, read this scholarly yet beautifully written study of a war of unimaginable tragedy.
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The author has written a book exploring the aftermath of World War 1, "1919." Here, she examines events leading to the outbreak of that same war.

She outlines, year by year, developments leading up to worldwide conflict. She tries to answer the question (Page xxv): "How could Europe have done this to itself and the world?" She observes that this is a war that did not have to happen; major powers may well have been able to call the conflict off up until August 4th of 1914 when Great Britain decided to enter the upcoming war. Without using the term, she speaks of "path dependence," in which decision after decision slowly narrows the range of options available. In this instance, as the range diminished, the chance of war increased.

The first chapter captures the European situation in 1900. However, the book goes back three decades--with the Franco-Prussian War--to provide context and lay out sources of later friction. The authord describes situations facing a number of key countries: Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Japan, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire. . . Changes were taking place, with some countries in obvious decline (the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary). Russia's military had been wrecked in its war with Japan.

Some of the events and issues that were involved in the run up to war include: The naval buildup between Germany and Great Britain, leading to mistrust between the two; the development of an agreement between Russia and France that led Germany to feel encircled; development of plans for war that depended on mobilization, with an implicit understanding that if someone started mobilizing, one needed to respond or be caught without being ready for conflict; a series of crises, some of which are obscure now but were nerve wracking then--Morocco, Fashoda, the Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles), the Balkans, the Kiel Canal, Bosnia, and--finally--Franz Ferdinand's assassination in Sarajevo. Up until the last incident, the countries had been able to work out not going into the abyss of war. After Sarajevo? The dominoes began to fall, as countries began mobilizing and promising to come to the aid of their allies (although Italy backed away from its alliance).

Overall, this is a nice examination of factors leading to war.
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The First World War fascinates us for many reasons but perhaps, for me, the most inexplicable one is how a European society that was well educated, highly sophisticated, linked by both marriage and commerce and confident of its place in history could possibly have stumbled into such a devastating conflict.
Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" told us most of that story some 50 years ago. Margaret MacMillan tells us the rest of it in "The War That Ended Peace." Carefully, she details the personalities that, through stupidity or ambition or a combination of the two, shaped the conditions that led to this most terrible of wars. She also discusses the sociopathic - sometimes even psychotic - hatreds that were fostered along racial, religious and ethnic lines and, though she may not have meant to, cautions us that many of those same forces are at play today.
This is an excellent book written in a highly readable fashion for those of us who are not scholars. Find a place for it on your bookshelf.
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VINE VOICEon November 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )|Verified Purchase
As the 100th anniversary of World War One's commencement approaches we have been treated to multiple titles focusing on the war's genesis, most notably Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers. In her The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan weighs in with her own take on the incredibly complex chain of events that led up to what was briefly known as "The Great War." The result is a richly detailed narrative that largely avoids (evades?) controversial judgments.

For MacMillan, the chief conundrum involves not "who" but rather why a continent that was enjoying wide ranging progress and prosperity after general peace plunged itself into what was then the most highly destructive conflict in history. In contrast to Clark, who largely restores the old "treaties and timetables" mechanistic interpretation that exonerates individuals and nations generally in favor of impersonal, systemic forces, MacMillan rejects the view that at some point war was inevitable.

Labeling such views dangerous given the strong parallels she sees between that period and our own, she notes that statesmen had been engaging in what she calls a "controlled game of bluff and counter-bluff" for years leading up to 1914. There were numerous errors of judgment, e.g., Germany's disastrous initiation of a naval arms race with Britain, naively failing to comprehend how deadly a threat an island nation would view a challenge to its naval supremacy. Such mistakes were not the sole province of Germany or any other single nation, however. All the great powers had war plans that they viewed as defensive, but which looked aggressive to their neighbors. More ominously, few seemed to understand what changes in military technology meant for the battlefield and they were not in positions of influence.

While MacMillan is strong on narrative (even to the point of being overly dense in some instances) she summarily concludes with a general indictment of those at the helm (perhaps taking aim at Clark's claim that Europe "sleepwalked" into the war, the result of forces that put the outcome beyond the means of individuals to halt in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy). Although she does not explicitly so state, her portrayal largely involves those who thought war was inevitable and those who thought it impossible. Many of the former thought it preferable to an increasingly untenable status quo while many of the latter thought it too horrible to contemplate.

What united both sets of views was a discounting of human agency. But, regardless of the constraints imposed by such things as strong general staff systems, absolutist governments, Social Darwinism, the rise of nationalist feelings, etc., "there are always choices," she writes, and those who took Europe to war failed in terms of imagination and courage to say no to those who insisted that military plans and timetables could not be altered, nor allies disappointed even in cases where treaty obligations were not directly implicated.

In concluding that just saying "no" was the answer, however, MacMillan may take things too far. In the 1930s Europe would once again be presented with the need to respond to bellicosity, and this time it would have the "courage" to stand up against those advocated military responses. As a result, it missed its great opportunity to prevent the carnage that would strip World War One of its "Great War" moniker. However, the War that Ended Peace serves as a timely, cautionary tale about governments and peoples who delude themselves about the nature of the world, and civilian leaderships that fail to assert control over their militaries.

NB: MacMillan makes occasional asides asserting that what happened has a modern parallel, comparing for example Germany's support for Austria-Hungary to the US's support for Israel or the US's use of 9/11 to invade Afghanistan, which she alleges it wanted to do anyway (one can argue about Iraq, but Afghanistan?). Any reader well versed in current events is likely to find these to be facile, and they are best ignored. Being an historian is no guarantee that a writer will also be a shrewd observer of her own times of course, but its an odd quirk for someone who has written an entire book about the misuses of history. I have decided to lay these aside when awarding four stars, but if such a practice is bothersome to you, you may find the book less rewarding.
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on December 28, 2013
With the centennial of the outbreak of Wortd War I upon us, a torrent of books on the topic has been unleashed. When I clicked on "The War That Ended Peace" in Amazon, two other major histories on the prelude to the War popped up at the bottom of the page (Clark's "Sleepwalkers" and Harris' "Catastrophe 1914", and Amazon shows 16 PAGES of books on the War due for publication next year. That list will surely grow.

So why read this one? Because it is as good as all the glowing reviews suggest, for three reasons. The history is excellent. The writing is excellent. And the book makes the reader think. To begin with the history, Ms. MacMillan is a noted historian with no need to prove her mastery of this period. She studied history at Oxford, focussing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has taught on the period and on international relations in particular, and is widely published. But for me, what stood out about the history in this book wasn't the qualifications of the writer, but the vividness with which she used sources from the period, and her thoroughness in trying to make clear each point of view in each crisis. Her analysis demonstrates the extent to which individuals had an impact on Europe's progress from peace to war, and she brings this out in vivid sketches of the key men of the time (only a few women, mostly wives, but that's the way it was).

As to the writing, she is very clear about very complex events, a difficult and most welcome accomplishment. More than that, her writing is a pleasure to read. It pulled me along despite all the names and places and military rumblings.

Finally, as to her ideas, Ms. MacMillan makes it clear that she does not believe that the FIrst World War was inevitable. That is a bitterly argued point in historiography, with many arguing that nothing could have been done to stop it. If World War 1 was indeed inevitable, it does not have many lessons for the current day: we, presumably, have our own inevitabilities, which will continue peace (for some, at least) or move us into war. But if World War ! was not inevitable, one can study the choices and decisions that helped bring it about, in the hope of learning from past mistakes. Ms. MacMillan clearly thinks that this is appropriate, noting that there are some similiarities between the world of 1914, and the world of today.

I can't compare this book to the other two "big" entrants in the how-Wortd-War-I began stakes, or indeed to Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August", which I read too long ago to remember in any detail. But I do intend to reread Tuchman, and to read "Sleepwalkers" and "Catastrophe 1914". After doing so, I may revise my review of "The War the Ended Peace". I shall be very surprised, however, if I revise my very high opinion of it.
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on June 5, 2014
Since Amazon is bugging me to review the book, but since I don't think I am free to reproduce my full review that will soon appear in _Liberty_ magazine online at libertyunbound.com, I'll say just this much here. The book tells a gripping story about how some earlier international crises that might have led to war were muddled through peacefully and how hope was widespread that the crisis of 1914 would similarly have a happy outcome. MacMillan conveys a feel for the suspense that must have prevailed at the time.
The book amply deserves five stars except for one pervasive and distracting defect: sloppy mispunctuation. How did all this get by a major publishing house? I'd appreciate someone's relieving my curiosity.
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on July 22, 2015
In DEAD WAKE, the story of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, Erik Larson writes of World War I’s outbreak: “That the war had begun at all was a dark amazement, for it had seemed to come from nowhere. At the start of that beautiful summer of 1914...there had been no sign of it and no obvious wish for it.” When I first read that, I thought it was an over-simplification and an authorial effort to increase the drama of the story (not that the book really needed any). After reading Margaret MacMillan’s THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE, I’m thinking, maybe yes, maybe no.

MacMillan could have called her book THE “PEACE” THAT ENDED IN WAR, since it focuses almost entirely on the years preceding 1914 and the various tensions and conflicts between European nations and the preparations for a war that many officials, whose diplomatic missions and nationalistic musings are meticulously detailed, thought inevitable and even desirable. There was a dispute in 1898 between France and Britain over Fashoda, a small village in southern Sudan, that Germany hoped would drive a wedge between those two countries, and then in 1905 tension between Germany and France over Morocco. About the latter, MacMillan says, “Although the Moroccan issue was eventually settled in 1906 by an international conference…, it left it its wake a dangerous residue of mistrust and resentment among both the publics of the nations involved as well as its leaders.” And in 1912 and 1913 there were small-scale wars in the Balkans that MacMillan calls “a dress rehearsal for the summer of 1914.” Meanwhile, a naval arms race was escalating between Britain and Germany, Germany was crafting its Schlieffen Plan to attack France and Russia, and France was preparing Plan XVII to counter Germany. All this amidst of a feeling of progress and great optimism about the future that MacMillan encapsulates in a chapter about the Paris Exposition of 1900, which the French declared “a symbol of harmony and peace” for humanity.

That the world war that eventually broke out was a ghastly surprise to some is exemplified by a fine quote from Henry James that MacMillan includes toward the end of her book: “The intense unthinkability of anything so blank and so infamous in an age that we have been living in and taking for our own as if it were of a high refinement of civilization...is like suddenly having to recognise in one’s family circle or group of best friends a band of murderers, swindlers and villains--it’s just a similar shock.” On the other hand, German Count Harry Kessler, who traveled in elite social and artistic circles and was a life-long diarist, wrote, “That the age was heading not toward a more solid peace but toward war we all actually knew, but didn’t know at the same time. It was a kind of floating feeling that like a soap bubble suddenly burst and disappeared without a trace when the hellish forces that were bubbling up in its lap were ripe.”

MacMillan, then, presents both views: The war surprised many, but probably shouldn’t have. Her book is tremendously detailed--often more than I could take in with the profusion of Europe’s heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military chiefs, etc., traveling and scheming here and there for the decade or so before 1914--but certainly rewarding.
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