If you want to know what really went on in the period leading up to the First World War, I suggest you read Margaret MacMillan’s account, The War That Ended Peace. It is densely detailed and thoroughly absorbing. It has the pace of a thriller, even though we know the outcome. I would say it ranks higher than Barbara Tuchman’s famous, and to some, seminal work on the subject, The Guns of August.
MacMillan, a Canadian by birth, is a professor of international history at Oxford. Her book is, predictably a work of scholarship. But for all the research, which must have been prodigious, the narrative never comes across that way. She writes fluently, with occasional ironic asides, capturing pre-war Europe in all its geopolitical complexity and, at times, its disputatious idiocy.
The cast of characters is as vast as one convened to cover the entire works of Shakespeare. Some of them may be regarded as out-and-out villains, according to taste or prejudice, but most are more complicated than that.
Like Kaiser Wilhelm, a man of sudden and sometime inexplicable passions, a paranoiac who constantly veered, depending on the time of day, or who he had lunched with, from informed man of reason, a potential peacemaker, to one of prideful bellicosity, a warmonger waiting for his opportunity to strike.
Likewise Tsar Nicholas of Russia, Wilhelm’s cousin (another was King George V of Britain), who was tugged haplessly in different directions by various advisors of doubtful integrity. A weak man of no great intelligence, he ruled his vast under-developed country as a careless and often cruel autocrat, forever fearful – justifiably as it would turn out – that the masses would rise up against him unless he could distract them with foreign aggression.
The Austro-Hungarian leaders were no better, and may be considered much worse, since their sole foreign policy was to stir up trouble in the Balkans in order to expand their own fragile empire by feeding off the remains of another, equally fading remnant, the empire of the Ottomans (Turkey, its incompetent guardian, was derided at the time as the ‘sick man of Europe’).
Germany, for reasons of language and culture – and by treaty – invariably backed Austria-Hungary. France and Britain instinctively chose to be bystanders whenever the Balkans exploded, which happened with almost impeccable regularity, but France was enthusiastically committed to a treaty with Russia – largely because it offered an outlet for French loans and commerce – and Britain, supreme in its command of the oceans, was fearful of Germany’s naval ambitions.
MacMillan delves into this mare’s nest of conflicting histories, ambitions, and personalities until one’s head spins. In that respect, readers are bundled into the same leaking vessel as the cast list.
So, who was to blame for starting what became known as The Great War?
The answer seems clear at a superficial level, but such was the political turmoil in Europe at the time that each of the eventual belligerents can make some kind of case for its defence. It seems to me that, amid all the madness of 1914, and the years that preceded it, the personalities involved loomed far more in significance than the nations they represented. The Austrian Emperor, the Kaiser and the Tsar were men who represented a simpler agrarian age. Suddenly forced to struggle to get to grips with a new industrialised world, in which people in every country were agitating for some form of democracy, they had neither the wisdom nor the advice that would have allowed them to cope with such complexity. Instead, they picked an easier option: they listened to the shadowy military figure advisors who surrounded them, mostly men unqualified in the ways of diplomacy and in some cases bent on taking their leaders into war for reasons of their own. Such subterranean villains abound in the pages of The War That Ended Peace. The book is a masterpiece of exposition. At 600 pages it qualifies as a weighty tome, but wading through it is well worth the effort.
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