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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sleep Walking Into War
A gripping read, suitable for a history novice, or an expert.
Beginning with the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Prof MacMillan charts European history to the outbreak of war, picking out, with the benefit of all we now know, how a series of events, along with a prevailing culture of militarism, and theories of how war should be conducted, and all the limitations of the...
Published 10 months ago by Robbie Bowen

32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, precise language but so repetitive
They Were Counted (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)

I was so excited about this book because Prof. Macmillan's general reviews have been excellent and I have just finished the Transylvanian Trilogy which she quotes (link above) so getting a better idea of the causes of WWI was of great interest.

There is no doubt that Prof...
Published 15 months ago by H. M. Sykes

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sleep Walking Into War, 26 April 2014
Robbie Bowen (Crewe, Cheshire, England) - See all my reviews
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A gripping read, suitable for a history novice, or an expert.
Beginning with the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Prof MacMillan charts European history to the outbreak of war, picking out, with the benefit of all we now know, how a series of events, along with a prevailing culture of militarism, and theories of how war should be conducted, and all the limitations of the period too, brought us closer to war.
As the introduction makes clear, it was not so much that the European powers intended to go to war, its that the various options were gradually narrowed down, so war became, apparently the only choice. I say apparently, for as Margaret Macmillan points out, there are always choices.
Even as we all know the outcome, the book holds the reader in suspense, as time and events march on.
Throughout the book we get a sympathetic appreciation for all the key players, with their strengths and foibles. Each chapter deals with significant events, e.g. the two Morocco crises, the Balkan wars, or aspects and movements of the time, e.g. the peace movements, military plans, militarism. We learn how all of this shapes the leaders of the day, and the various alliances that form between the powers. In the main, there's helpful analysis towards the end of each chapter, of what impact these events/factors had on the path to war. We also get an appreciation of the period, and how the key players were men (mainly men) of their time.
We are treated throughout the book to a then European perspective. How Europeans felt, how Europeans reacted, what values Europeans held dear, and so on. We get an insight into early 20th century European culture; this I found refreshing, exhilarating almost, drawing out a European identity. My one question, given Europe's diversity today, and even more so then, how deep could a European identity really run?
The final chapter - called the Epilogue - gives a brief summary of what happened after the close of war in 1919, and particularly satisfying, what happened to all the key players. (Did you know that the Kaiser lived until 1941 in The Netherlands?).
A great read - I'm encouraged to read MM's sequel (or the other book end to the Great War), "Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed The World" as well as her analysis of the "Uses and Abuses of History".
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143 of 151 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Failure of Brinkmanship, 19 Oct. 2013
Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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'Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death' (Bismarck).

'It had to come' (US Ambassador in London, 1914).

'Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves:and these were of doubtful utility'. (W.Churchill).

'Please restrain Conrad' (Archduke Ferdinand in 1908).

'You'll be home before the leaves fall'. (Kaiser to troops in August 1914).

'He was like a battleship with steam up and screws going but with no rudder, and he will run into something one day and cause a catastrophe'.( Sir Edward Grey describing the Kaiser).

Professor Sir Michael Howard has written that you cannot understand the causes of the Great War or indeed any war unless you also understand the political, economic, social and cultural environment in which it took place. Hence, the ramshackle nature of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the constitutional arrangements of Germany post 1870,the surging nationalism in Serbia and the fragile nature of Tsarist Russia must be understood.For this reason, historians like Professor Margaret Macmillan now concentrate more on issues and developments in all of these fields instead of researching only diplomatic exchanges.

This essential requirement reveals the paucity and trivial nature of some of the offerings in the current cascade of books on the Great War, and why this account shines like pure gold. Those accounts that 'read like novels' do so because most of them consist of fiction and myth. No war has been so subjected to mythology, or stands so much in need of the correcting force of fundamental simplicities, as the Great War. The war is also a classic example of how doctrinal theory can warp true history, particularly military history.

Given the nature of history, the mountain of variables, the dubious quality of many sources and the inability to adopt in full the scientific method that science depends on, it is no wonder that despite the over 46000 books plus articles on the Great War there is still so much disagreement about its causes and conduct.
There is, of course, no agreement among historians or political scientists about what causes war. Is it the nature of man, the type of state or states involved,or problems with the anarchical international system, such as balance of power, instability or lack of a credible international law? Opinions differ widely. Mathematical models have been built and used with poor results. Even wars that appear easy to analyse in this respect prove to be very complex, for example, the American Civil War, the Iraq-Iran war, the Korean war. Even the causes of the Second World War were hotly disputed by Alan Taylor in his highly contentious book. Only a sadistic examiner would ask students to answer the question:'Discuss the Causes of the Great War'.

Finding the causes of war is akin to finding the causes of cancer; there are so many varieties of each. The idea that wars can be caused by one specific factor, individual or systemic has long been derided. Taylor once likened the problem to finding the reason for a car accident. Was it, he asked, poor maintenance, excessive speed,drunkenness, faulty brakes, a blowout, ice on the road or was it the fault of the nut behind the wheel? There is a view that a war of such titanic proportions must have been determined by causes of a similar titanic scale. The word 'titanic' is not irrelevant. Why did the Titanic sink with a loss of 1513 lives on 15 April 1912 when all the experts said it couldn't happen? Why did so many ships navigate the same route without mishap? Was it the hull design, excessive speed, lack of lifeboats, more ice than normal, or human error?
Those, and they exist, who still look for one cause remind one of the drunk who has lost his watch. When asked why he is looking under a street lamp he replies because the light is better here.

Margaret MacMillan agrees that all the major Powers must
share the blame for a war that caused around 10 million deaths, 15 million wounded and destroyed four major Empires (as well as 1 million horses). However, and I share her view, she believes Austria-Hungary and Germany were the main culprits. In so doing, she disagrees with Clark (Siberia) and Mcmeeken (Russia). Instead she supports the writings of some leading German scholars and the superb accounts by Albertini, Strachan, Stevenson, and many others that the available evidence would convince any unbiased jury to convict these two countries.

Professor MacMillan is a Canadian who is Warden of St Antony's College Oxford, She is the author of several best sellers including: 'Peacemakers' that won the Wolfson prize, 'Women of the Raj', 'Nixon and Mao', 'An Uneasy Peace' and 'Canada and Nato'. As the titles suggest she is not only a leading historian but also an international relations scholar. She writes beautifully clear English making a 700 page book easy to read. She is authoritative, fair and objective. At times she can be delightfully politically incorrect. Her Great Grandfather was David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain during the war from 1916.

In her book of 20 chapters she spends 17 of them examining the period from 1900 to 1914. She discusses the many Balkan crises and the Moroccan crises, pointing out how these had all been settled diplomatically. She, like others, mentions how the war had surprised many Europeans given the economic, technological and commercial progress during the previous 30 years. Those like Ivan Bloch, the Polish entrepreneur, who gave, in five brilliant volumes, dire warnings about the nature of a war in the 20th century, were ignored by generals for the simple reason his views, if believed, would have put them out of a job, as were the lessons of the Russo-Japanese war and the American Civil War. This was not the first or last time that the past was to be ignored. The other major reason why few were willing to believe that warfare had changed was because in all previous interstate wars it had been possible to turn a flank. Come Xmas 1914 this was no longer possible. Siege warfare became the name of the game. No general had any knowledge of this nor was it taught in our Staff College. No wonder the learning curve was almost vertical.

Given the focus and structure of her book, it could have been entitled:'European History: 1900-1918'. It is NOT a military history book, there being hundreds of those available. Whereas they deal with the: How, When and Who, this book deals with the far more complex question 'WHY'.

She addresses the key question, namely, how did an incident in a far away country result in a terrible war, or why did peace fail in 1914 when it held in 1908 and 1912? It is a question that has perplexed many, many historians.
She points out that the war took place among much bellicosity and militarism, and that it was confidently believed that if war came it would be limited as had the wars of 1866 and 1870-71. Only in the Epilogue does she touch briefly on the war and its conduct. The author discusses the various plans for war. These have been misunderstood by many who know little of military matters. These 'plans' reveal that it was only the German plan which involved an attack upon another power (France). It was only that plan which involved the violation of a neutral country, and it was only in the German plan that mobilization meant not preparation but war.
Also as Lord Haldane said at the time Germany had allowed decisions about war to be made by soldiers instead of by civilians. He said (echoing Von Clausewitz) 'It is not their business to have the last word in deciding between peace and war'.

The author , unusually in books on the war, includes a chapter on the importance of the Peace Movement, that was instrumental in setting up the Hague Conferences. This important movement in fact began after the Napoleonic Wars largely due to Quakers and liberal middle class business men. It drew on the ideas of Bentham, Say, Turgot, and James Mill. Its aim was to end war. In fact although it flourished in Britain, France and The USA it met opposition from growing militarism by 1900. It became vilified at the time of the Boer War.

There is very little that is new in this book-how could there be? What makes it a gem is the way the author synthesizes the mass of evidence available in such a convincing manner. The result is a book that is by far the best so far on the war. Students will find it indispensable. It is not, to use an overused word, definitive. No historical work can ever be. When interpretation and judgement are the name of the game, there can never be a final agreed verdict.

Her view that it was the handful of decision-makers who failed to control the crisis from escalating into a crisis slide out of honour, fear, hubris and incompetence and, in part, by public xenophobia is, I believe, very sound. They had grown used to peace. It is people, not systems that cause war. They say, like Bush and Blair did:'Yes' instead of 'No'. What if Kennedy had allowed the Air force Chiefs to have their way and bomb the missile sites in Cuba? What if Obama had not listened to critics and gone ahead and bombed Syrian bases? What if Truman had agreed to 'bomb the Soviets back to the stone age'as one very senior general advocated? Wars are determined not by vast impersonal forces. They are the result of deliberate policy decisions by men (almost always men) who are at the mercy of the whole range of human frailties. Unfortunately, there are few signs that our decision-makers today are any different or better than those in 1914 despite the availability of computers and a bevy of special advisers.

It is for this and other reasons why I have long advocated the study of human psychology along with history. Among other things, students would learn the traps awaiting decision-makers caused by false assumptions, mirror-imaging, and self-fulfilling prophecies. They would also benefit from a study of the'law of unintended consequences'.

Some of the author's pen portraits of key personnel are quite superb. Anyone who thinks they were lesser beings than their equivalents today would be well advised to read the new book by Professors Crewe and King entitled: 'Blunders'. They reveal the appalling incompetence and errors made by politicians in Great Britain in the past 16 years, errors that have cost the country at least £50 billion!

The author does not shrink from making a number of analogies with problems in today's world, for example, terrorism. She could have made several analogies to the problems in Syria. That state has, in my opinion, the propensity, like Serbia in 1914, to draw in several major powers like the US, Russia, Israel, Turkey and Iran resulting in a Middle East powder keg.

She rightly places little importance on the assassination. It was, like W M D, a pretext for action by Austria to destroy Serbia. She could have mentioned also that assassination was all the rage after 1890. Four Presidents (2 American), two Queens, two Prime Ministers, a Shah, two Kings and a Crown Prince were murdered in this period. None it should be noted caused a war.
Even the Emperor showed little concern over the Archduke's demise. The Archduke was disliked by many, yet ironically as he was anti-war he may have been the only person who could have prevented the lemming-like process.

Finally, although she does not say so, there are glimmers of Chaos Theory in her account. Leaving aside the mathematics, this theory is all about change over time. All systems alter over time. The theory attempts to explain irregular behaviour and the difficulty of prediction. Small changes can make systems unstable; this certainly happened in the 19th century.

At the end of the war European dominance of the globe had ended. After the fighting on the Western Front, and elsewhere, Europeans could no longer speak of a civilising mission to the world. Did it end war? Unfortunately not. We are still awaiting the solution to that question. One fears it will be a very, very long wait.

A wonderful book by a superb historian (a long book though of 700 pages that perhaps could have had up to 50 pruned without affecting the quality). I would respectfully suggest that others put away their pens, close their laptops and find another subject to write about.

The Bibliography and Notes are excellent. The maps are adequate, given the focus of the book. I have tested the index, it is sound. It is very pleasing to see that Professor Macmillan thanks her team of researchers: so often these very hard working people are overlooked.

This is an enthralling, detailed book full of brilliant points. It is illuminating, written with pace, verve and demonstrates excellent judgement. I repeat,it is not definitive but, and it is an important but, this work comes as close to being definitive as is possible given the available evidence (unfortunately some priceless documents were destroyed during the bombing of Germany in 1944). This is a very major contribution to a true understanding of the Great War. The debate will continue over the attribution of responsibility for the Great War but this book will raise the level of the debate. The war was not, as the author says, inevitable. However, as MacMillam shows once it began its course depended on a range of contingent factors. Finding out why war broke out is a very important historical and political endeavour for we need to learn lessons from it even today.

A catastrophe of the scale of the war of 1914-18 can only be understood when the specific 'causes' such as: the alliance systems, the Balkans, colonial rivalry, arms races, nationalism, miltancy, and so forth are meshed with larger political, economic and societal trends that took place after, say, 1850. These trends, for example, industrialisation, mechanisation, growing Empires, an explosion of communication systems, railways and increasing populations that by 1914 allowed states to put millions of men in uniform, an act that revolutionised the problems of command and control on the battlefield, are crucial to any true analysis and understanding of the war. Margaret MacMillan has done all interested in the most terrible war since the 30 years war a massive service by reminding us of these developments.

Buy this book. it is a tour de force.
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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war...", 17 Oct. 2013
FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Clarity of Writiing, 31 July 2014
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In this book Professor Margaret McMillan has written the clearest account humanly possible of the manifold causes, both long term and short, of the First World War.

The clear and pacey writing style make the pages turn rapidly.

Although understatement is the author's preference, one is nonetheless struck by the strutting be-uniformed stupidity of the Austrian general Conrad and his German counterpart Moltke and their treatment of the huge risks to European stability and human life like a couple of addicted gamblers throwing the dice.

Their baleful legacy was the slaughter of millions of young men across Europe and beyond, along with those countless young women in the 1920s who had no one left to marry. And all those never to be born children.

The foolish, autistic posturing of the Kaiser finally rendered him unable to reject the insane counsel of his war obsessed advisers - whom he had appointed in the first place.

Moreover, the Tsar was by temperament hopelessly unsuited to reasoned and calibrated decision making and he too accepted impetuous, warmongering advice,

The consequent world war ruptured many years of peace, scientific advancement, rising wages for workers, increasing trade and growing prosperity within the powers of Europe.

A golden age was well under way before August 1914 and it will baffle the reader as to why on earth it all had to end.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Absolute Gem!, 1 May 2014
If, like me, you believe the Second World War was really little more than an extension of the first, understanding how it all started goes a long way to putting the 20th century into perspective. Margaret MacMillan does a brilliant job of it in this book.

It’s easy to criticize the individuals involved in making the decisions that led Europe to war in 1914. Perhaps a little too easy. To fully appreciate how a tragedy of this magnitude could be allowed to happen, one really needs to step back and look at the period in question as a whole, the politics of the age and the social and economic trends that conspired to lull so many into a false sense of security in what was, in retrospect, a powder keg waiting for a match. This book is a detailed, thoroughly researched and brilliantly written account, offering a look at the wider picture so essential to gaining a true understanding of the period. From the inherent dangers of autocratic rule to the influence of social Darwinism and the unintended consequences of strategic alliances, the author exposes the intriguing web of interconnected circumstances and historic shifts that conspired in the most monumental calamity of the modern age.

I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone wishing to gain a deeper insight into this dark chapter in history, much of which still shapes the continent today.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvellously illuminating count-down to WWI, 14 April 2014
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This review is from: The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War (Hardcover)
Macmillan's lively study of the various contributing factors to a European slaughter as pointless as unavoidable, shows how decisions of a defensive nature by the major players added up in the long run to a general offensive --- a war long awaited as inevitable, and which could have been sparked at several flash-points before 1914. But every diplomatic solution seemed to leave less room for manoeuvre in the future, till the cataclysm (or should one say orgasm?) of nationalist exuberance found its outlet and downfall in the trenches. Lessons for the future? Can resurgent China be accommodated in the world order, as Wilhelmine Germany could not? After its 1905 debacle against Japan and 1908 humiliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia was set on re-asserting itself. Does the same hold true for present-day Russia, after the debacle of the Soviet Union and (as it believes) humiliation in Kosovo? Given recent events in Ukraine, one is inclined to say, yes. Ominous.
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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, precise language but so repetitive, 10 Dec. 2013
They Were Counted (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)

I was so excited about this book because Prof. Macmillan's general reviews have been excellent and I have just finished the Transylvanian Trilogy which she quotes (link above) so getting a better idea of the causes of WWI was of great interest.

There is no doubt that Prof. Macmillan knows her subject well but she repeats many of the circumstances that she cites as cause for war and the book seems to me a little muddled in the chronology of characters and events. It is easy reading, it is not overcomplicated, it just takes me back to school where the historical facts had to be repeated several times to ensure that us dummies did not forget them. That said, I have learned a few relevant and more irrelevant facts.

If it were not disrespectful, which is certainly not my intention, I would comment that Prof. Macmillan may have either been otherwise preoccupied during the writing of this book or her publishers may have asked her to pad it out. So many books coming on to the market at the moment do not seem to have been properly proof-read and maybe the combined pressures of Christmas and the 100th aniversary of WWI have led to the sad faults that I have found in this volume.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Thoughtful., 15 July 2014
Andrew Howell "andyhowell3" (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
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A marvellous book. At the end of the 19th century there was a very common view that we would never see a major war again. MacMillan asks not why war broke out but why peace failed and this approach, I think, is a nice way of looking at the events that shaped the war. The book is constructed around a series of in-depth essays that look at events in each of the nations who played a role in the war.

This is not a book that deals with the conflict itself. But it is one that strikes me as being very important when considering contemporary issues, such as the Ukraine/Russia disputes and tensions.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The first half of the book is better than the second half, 2 Aug. 2014
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
I recall studying the causes of the First World War at A-level. The experience was tedious, an anatomy lesson of various alliances, the relative number of dreadnoughts built by Germany and Great Britain, etc. etc. The whole thing seemed like a lesson in mechanics. It put me off coming back to the topic for years.

If only this book had been around when I was doing my A-level. It is a well written and well-structured and light enough to be holiday reading, but never superficial or glib. In over six hundred pages of text, my interest did not flag. The material is well organised, too. The first half of the book provides portraits of the key personalities of the time, and a portrayal of the socio-economic situation of the key powers of the time. It also adds something about the current of ideas fashionable among early 20th Century Europe's chattering classes , and throws in additional discussions like contemporary military doctrines but also of the influence of the peace movement, which was stronger in Europe that one might have been led to expect.

Much of this challenges a lot of perceptions of Europe in the decade leading up to the war. Yes, a lot of intellectuals were gagging for action. Intellectuals tended to be disaffected then, as they are now. But whether the masses generally were likewise gagging to die for higher cause was and is a moot point.

The first half of the book, setting the all-important context, is excellent. The second half is good but as good as the first half. The pace flags a bit, as the author turns to answering the question of how the war broke out. Then we get into an anatomy of alliances, of how one alliance perceived as defensive was perceived by the other side as offensive; how aristocratic notions of honour and prestige informed much of policy making and the consequent disparagement of compromise and the seeking of the middle ground that entailed; of the cult of the offensive among European militaries; notions that national survival entailed territorial expansion and such like.

This all seems like familiar stuff, and has been said before. The ` how ` is answered well but the why is not. She scrupulously avoids assigning blame to one country over the other. It seems to come down, as far as the author is concerned, to key choices that European leaders made that led to war, that they were bad choices, made under pressure, and they could have chosen otherwise. They seem to have blundered into war without any one country really wanting it to happen.

Now the fact that key individuals made fateful individual choices that literally changed the course of history is not disputed. Some of us have more power than others and hence what we do and say has greater consequence. History is not all about impersonal forces. But we don't make choices alone. We learn from groups. And some groups form different impressions of the world than other groups and act accordingly. Key decision-makers in Austria-Hungary decided for instance that Serbia had to be done away with in the wake of Franz Ferdinand's assassination and they rejected diplomatic solutions to the crisis (issuing a set of demands to Serbia that were calculated to provoke the Serbs' rejection of the Austrians' terms, therefore giving the latter a pretext for war). It is not unreasonable to attribute a great degree of blame to Austria-Hungary in the sense that its rulers opted for a course of action which they knew might well provoke a general war - an outcome which they foresaw, although did not necessarily want to happen - nonetheless they were prepared to bear the risk. Such a course of action was deliberate.

Of course, it's possible to attribute to other countries greater or lesser culpability but my point is that the author's approach of singling out bad choices on the part of individuals was not one that I found satisfactory as a general explanation of how the war broke out. Most conflicts are not like Star Wars - one side is the embodiment of goodness, the other the personification of evil. But that does not mean that it's simply a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Some parties should bear greater degrees of culpability than others - an equal division of responsibility to various individuals doesn't convince, as far as I am concerned. The second half of the book therefore brings down the first half. Not enough to have diminished my enjoyment of the book, but enough to say that this is a four, and not a five, star effort.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant but challenging read, 1 Aug. 2014
mjhobbes "mjhobbes" (Kings Heath, Birmingham, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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A few days ago, I finished reading this tome of over six hundred pages for the second time. Margaret McMillan’s book is a long read, and requires the reader to try to put him- or herself into the mindset, or rather the various national mindsets, of pre-1914 Europe.
I can certainly say that the book does not yield any easy or pat answers to the origins of the Great War. No simple (or simplistic) chains of causation are identified: rather, Margaret McMillan weaves an intricate tapestry of personalities, countries, their institutions, their alliances and the events that occur. She provides an extraordinarily detailed history starting from the late 19th century and tries to shed light on how the Great War came about, this enormously destructive global conflict that claimed the lives of over 9 million soldiers, left some 15 million wounded and resulted in widespread and often senseless devastation in – to mention a few examples - Belgium, much of northern France, Serbia and parts of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. How could this cataclysm have emerged out of the apparently civilised Europe that existed before 1914?
The book does not have an easily identifiable executive summary, but I did find the following useful précis tucked away in Chapter 19, and it certainly confirms my understanding of the broad conclusion of the book (the small amount of text in square brackets was added by me for clarification):
“The crisis in July 1914 was initially created by the recklessness of Serbia, the vengefulness of Austria-Hungary and the blank cheque [to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia] from Germany. Now it was increasingly the turn of the Entente powers to do what they could either to avert war or, if it came about, to bring it on favourable terms for themselves. While many of the historical debates have centred on the question of Germany's or Austria-Hungary's or even Serbia's culpability for the war, others have placed the blame on the Triple Entente, whether on France for following a policy of revenge against Germany, on Russia for the alliance with France and for backing Serbia, or on Britain for not recognising Germany's legitimate demands for a place in the sun and a greater share of the world’s colonies or for not making it clear early in the crisis that it would intervene on the side of France and Russia. While these have fascinated and will continue to fascinate historians and political scientists, we may have to accept that there can never be a definitive answer because for every argument there is a strong counter. Was France really intent on revenge on Germany? Even nationalists such as Poincaré [the French President] had resigned themselves to the loss of Alsace and Lorraine and were not prepared to risk war to regain the provinces. True, France's treaty with Russia led Germany to feel encircled but from both the French and Russian points of view the treaty was a defensive one, triggered only if Germany attacked. (As so often in international relations, though, what is defensive from one perspective may appear a threat from another, and that is certainly how Germany saw the treaty.) How much responsibility should Russia bear for encouraging Serbian nationalism? Sazonov [Russian Foreign Minister] should have done more to keep his ambassador Hartwig under control but for all the Panslav rhetoric in nationalist circles not all Russia's leaders wanted to come to Serbia's defence if it meant risking another major conflict so soon after the catastrophic defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. As for Britain, while an early declaration that it would unhesitatingly fight on France's side might have acted as a deterrent on Germany, that is not at all clear. The German military regarded the British Expeditionary Force as negligible and hoped to win in France long before naval power came into play. In any case, Britain could not have made such a declaration before the Cabinet approved it - and the Cabinet was deeply divided over what to do in the last weeks before the war broke out.”
McMillan asks the question in the paragraph preceding the one quoted if war could have been avoided if certain voices of moderation had not been removed by death or loss of office. One of these would have been Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered the final fatal sequence of events. Another would have been Alfred von Kiderlen, the German Foreign Minster, who died at end 1912. As McMillan writes, “If Kiderlen had been in office he might have just been strong enough to stand up to the military and persuade Bethmann (the German Chancellor) and the Kaiser to take the path of peace. His death is yet another example, like that of the Archduke’s assassination, Rasputin’s stabbing or Caillaux’s forced resignation, of the role of accident in history“. [Rasputin could have been an influence for restraint on Czar Nicholas, and Joseph Caillaux (French Prime Minister, 27 June 1911 – 11 January 1912), favoured better relations between France and Germany, believing that France and Germany had much to gain by working together.
McMillan concludes the book by saying “And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who led 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.”
There are always choices - that’s a message for the politicians of the twenty-first century!
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The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War
The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War by Professor Margaret MacMillan (Hardcover - 17 Oct. 2013)
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