- - Monday, October 28, 2013


By Margaret MacMillan
Random House, $35, 683 pages

After asking for her autograph, the first thing I would do if I ever met British historian Margaret MacMillan would be to ask her if she ever wonders whether peace is merely an interlude between the seemingly inevitable cycle of wars that mankind visits on itself.

A cynical question, perhaps, but an unavoidable one, especially after reading this authoritative, engaging chronicle of how after a palmy, self-assured century of relative peace, Europe’s monarchies first and then the rest of the world were plunged into an orgy of mechanized carnage that horrifies even now, 99 years later. It is also a timely question because so many of the mindsets, instabilities and perceived threats that drove a tiny elite have such disturbing parallels in today’s global arena. Now, as then, world leaders say they want peace even as they go about preparing for the next war.

In an earlier review, I recommended British historian Max Hastings’ most recent study of part of the same period. His “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” is a superb examination of the nine months leading up to the outbreak of World War I. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of that conflict, the lay reader would do well to start a study of that countdown with Ms. MacMillan’s book. It starts earlier, in 1900, and walks us through the slow, steady but far from inevitable deterioration in the reasoning of a handful of decision-makers as each step taken led everyone else to opt for military solutions to what were still political problems.

Mr. Hastings and Ms. MacMillan approach their history from different perspectives. He is a celebrated war correspondent who emphasizes the role the general staffs of the rival governments played. Ms. MacMillan is at her best on the diplomats and politicians. Both have a keen eye for the telling personal anecdote, and each has an easily accessible writing style that carries the reader through what are, by necessity, long strolls through a complicated story. Rather than rivals and despite their differing interpretations on the question of Germany’s responsibility for the war, I consider them colleagues whose books are companion pieces worthy of permanent shelf space in any library.

Ms. MacMillan begins her story with a scene-setter — the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. This was an important international event for several reasons. It assuaged the French military humiliation at the hands of the Prussians 30 years earlier, and showcased the marvels of the nation and its colonial possessions. It also was a celebration of the spectacular advances that Western culture generally had scored in science, technology and social reform. The various pavilions of the invited nations were an all-encompassing display of progress — electric dynamos were displayed along with the first X-ray machines, moving-picture projectors and advances in education, public health and food preservation. Campbell’s Soups won a gold medal.

More broadly, the exposition celebrated the universal certainty that progress was so pervasive as this new century dawned that the kind of total wars that had wasted Napoleonic Europe a century earlier were impossible to occur again. One of the ironies in this conviction was that among the technological advances of the age, the innovation of modern armaments — the machine gun, poison gas, the Dreadnought-class battleship and, soon, the airplane; that is, the weapons of mass destruction of the time — were so frightening that no nation would risk using them.

Ms. MacMillan rejects the traditional charge that Kaiser Wilhelm started World War I for imperial gain. Rather, she argues persuasively that the Germans felt hedged in on all sides by other nations — or more precisely, by the alliances of rivals, notably the Russians, the French and British. The series of clumsy muscle-flexing exercises that began in 1905 when the kaiser tried to seize Morocco, his missteps in the Bosnian crisis of 1908 and a series of bloody dress rehearsals in the Balkans in 1912-13 all ended up driving Germany’s rivals into even tighter alliances, where the military responses steadily gained pre-eminence over diplomatic conciliation.

Still, some attribution of blame must be made. Ms. Macmillan certainly shows how individuals, from the kaiser and his generals, to British parliamentarians, Serbian terrorists and Hapsburg dunderheads all added their weight to the war side of the scales. But so, too, did institutions and cultures — absolutist governments, social Darwinism and national pride all played a role. In the end, though, she blames complacency, a disease alive and well in the world 100 years later.

“We must remember, as the decision-makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914, and what they had learned from the Moroccan crises, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe’s very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically lead to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last moment and the pace would be maintained,” Ms. Macmillan concludes.

She adds, “And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century, we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

So to answer my question, Ms. MacMillan would probably say no, wars are not inevitable. But to the extent that the same imagination and courage are in short supply again today, we need to heed the lessons of this fine book lest some future historian tell of our failings and yet another global horror.

James Srodes is author of “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint, 2012).

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