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The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 29, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Macmillan, professor of international history at Oxford, follows her Paris 1919 with another richly textured narrative about WWI, this time addressing the war's build-up. She asks, What made 1914 different? and wonders why Europe walk over the cliff given the continent's relatively longstanding peace. She begins by addressing Germany's misfortune in having a child for King; Wilhelm II sought to secure Germany's—and his own—world power status by inaugurating a naval race with Britain. Britain responded by making unlikely friends with France and Russia. Germany in turn cultivated relations with a near-moribund Austria-Hungary. Macmillan tells this familiar story with panache. A major contribution, however, is her presentation of its subtext, as Europe's claims to be the world's most advanced civilization were being challenged from without and undermined from within. Exertions for peace were overshadowed by acceptance of war as a tool that could be used against enemies made increasingly threatening by alliance systems. The nations' war plans shared a deeply rooted faith in the offensive and a near-irrational belief in the possibility of a short war. Macmillan eloquently shows that turning out the lights was not inevitable, but a consequence of years of decisions and reactions: a slow-motion train wreck few wanted but none could avoid. Agent: Christy Fletcher, C. Fletcher & Company LLC. (Nov.)
Anytime something turns 100, the commemorations and look-backs are sure to come rolling in. Take WWI, which “celebrates” the 100th anniversary of its declaration come summer of 2014. Nevertheless, that war, as with most wars, was a long chain of events that culminated in disaster. MacMillan’s charting of those events comprises the bulk of this hefty text. She showcases how numerous royals, politicians, industrialists, colonial advocates, and military minds groped in the dark toward a showdown in which each nation’s respective valor could be tested. The trouble with a book like this is that everything can be lent a veneer of inevitability, but history rarely works in such a linear manner. But MacMillan, famous for her scholarship on the peace concluding WWI, avoids this trap. She shows, again and again, that events could have run in any number of different directions. What resulted was a blunder on the part of plenty of blood-stained hands all around that was far from inevitable. --James Orbesen
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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.
The major contribution of the work is the detailed and pertinent description of the main characters their weakness, follies, their basic humanity that helps to understand how we got there, which gives you a feel for why they made (failed to make) the decisions that ended peace. Terrifying thing is that things are not much different with our leaders. The details of the buildup, the plans, and the rivalries are masterfully described. So little is said about the internal situation of Serbia and on their leaders in the months before the war broke, like if it did not play a role in the conflict.
The major problem of the book is it excessive repetition that wears the reader down. How many times we need to be reminded that Russia had an alliance with France or that there was an arms race between the navies of Germany and Britain, or that Britain did not want to commit to anything, or that Russia was not ready for the war. It makes it look as if chapters were written by different hands that have not read each other. Granted, to edit these repetitions into a more coherent whole would be an almost impossible task in a volume of this magnitude, but it makes you wonder if the publication was rushed and there was no time for editing.
The books makes an extensive use of quotes from correspondence and conversations at the time, which gives you confidence that the analysis is done as if the outcome was not known, i.e. without the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, there is the real risk of choosing the quotes to benefit one's own story. Some of them seem very selective indeed.
It looks as if one has collected tons of notes and then goes on to fit them in the narrative.
Some chapter are developed based on themes, some are more chronological, which makes following the events a bit complicated. The book goes back and forth in time throughout the 10-20 years preceding the outbreak, sometimes even within the chronological chapters. It is hard to keep track where we are and the relationship between the many events.
Obviously for a story covering several decades and many countries a very large number of characters are involved. Some characters are described in detail even when their roles are very minor, others are just named but had a key role (anything about Alexander Hoyos? why are Beatrice and Sidney Webb mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 19?) The book would have benefit from having a list of names and roles (Wikipedia and Google become indispensable companions)
The book should be read in as shorter time as possible. If you stop for a few days, you may lose track of the events that were unfolding and who the characters are. There is so much going on, sometimes too much detail in side events which in the overall view of the outcomes are rather irrelevant.
But all in all, it is and extraordinary description of the events leading to the loss of peace.
Now, to read what happened during the war, go read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.