We are reminded at almost every turn that 2014 is the Centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Of the many books published in the last year, which might one read to gain a fresh insight into this most ugly of wars?
Margaret Macmillan is a History Professor at Oxford University and her book “The War that Ended the Peace,” is not about the War so much as how the war came about. For me it is a much more interesting read than the endless accounts of mass slaughter that describe most of the World War I accounts. She has a chapter on each of the main protagonists, Germany of course, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, France and Great Britain. She gives a detailed analysis of the thinking of their politicians and of their rulers. In the case of Germany’s and Russia’s rulers, the Kaiser and the Tsar, they had power over the politicians in a way that the Western democracies did not have. This was one important reason for the conflagration.
But she also dwells on the broader human factors which lead to a warlike attitude by the leaders and peoples of these countries. The section dealing with the emergence of a Social Darwinism was poignant. She sees the distortion of Darwinism into a desire to prove the survival of the fittest by some of the protagonists as a virtue to be pursued. The result was animosity leading to war. The philosophy of Nietzsche and the bombastic militarism, which proceeded from this and even the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss as possibly instrumental, gain her attention. Very few saw the likely cost of the war in terms of human lives lost and empires destroyed.
The fact was that the industrialisation the Western Countries was at such a stage that the resultant weaponry would lead to the superiority of defence over attack. A few visionaries realised that the war would therefore become a long drawn out slugging match between the two sides. Most did not. Some even thought that war would result in the quick collapse of one side or the other because of the costs. Few foresaw the revolution there would be in national economics so that by very large scale borrowing both sides could keep up arms expenditure well beyond previous limits.
Finally (the schoolboy question) the reason why the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo lead to the outbreak of the War is, for me clearly explained. Many saw the march to war as being an inevitable consequence of the times as personal antagonism lead to large scale conflict. But Professor Macmillan’s theme and finishing sentence is, “There are always choices.” Though she does not say it she implies that this was an avoidable war but in the end the wrong people with the wrong opinions prevailed.