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4.6 out of 5 stars121
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on 21 July 2014
Superb book. If you're interested in the causes of the great war then I can't recommend this book enough.
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on 14 April 2014
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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on 8 April 2015
Fascinating and well written. A period of history I knew very little about. Thoroughly recommend this.
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on 26 August 2014
An epic in all senses with an immense amount of detail about the idiots that were responsible for WW1.
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on 8 December 2013
A very good, solid read displaying the author's usual mix of scholarship and lightness of touch. Not quite as vivid or sparkling as Peacemakers and marred by several condescending and unnecessary analogies to more recent events.
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on 9 March 2016
Wish this had been written when I studied the period at university! Cogent and an easy read.
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on 13 December 2013
I would not add a review to the many already published ones, but they neglect main lessons to be drawn from the comprehensive and enlightening treatment in this (and other) books of the path to World War One. I will try to partly rectify this omission by prevent five of the lessons that I draw from this book, directly and indirectly.
But let me start with two point of criticism: (1) the author inserts a number of uncalled-for and partly misleading comparisons to recent and current issues (e.g., pp. 561, 563). And (2) the index does nor covering subjects, as necessary in such a book. But, of course, these aberrations do not impair the high quality of the book as a whole.
Moving on to the five crucial lessons, out of many more, here they are in a nutshell:
1. "There are always choices" (p. 645). However important cultures, imaginaries, implicit assumptions and so on are in shaping history and choices, historic processes are not over-determined. Thus, the World War did not have to happen. It is quite likely that some war was hard to avoid given the stream of events. However it could have been local and limited in scope and consequences. As stated by the author "it so easily could have been different" (p. 140). True, decision makers were subject to many constraints, such as posed by growing importance of public opinion and mass media. But, still, they had a range of options and significant freedom of choice. Therefore if a leader claims "I had no other choice," he is either at least partly blind or not saying all of the truth.
2. Very few top level politicians and senior advisors make critical choices shaping the fate of multitudes. As explicated clearly by the author "the decisions that took Europe into the war - or failed to prevent it - were made by a surprising small number" (p. 247 and 249). This continues to be the case in many though not all critical domains, despite liberal democracy, the importance of "public space," and so on. A few top level politicians and their senior advisors do impact significantly on the future, increasingly so given the growing capacities of human action to shape the future thanks to the tools supplied by science and technology.
3. Civilian leaders should closely supervise military planning and choices, going also into details. As stated by the author "Europe's civilian leaders failed, first by not informing themselves as to what their war plans entailed and secondly by not insisting on a range of plans..." (p. 323). This grave error has in no way disappeared, much of military planning in many countries suffering from inadequate political supervision and direction; and many top level political leaders lacking the will, knowledge and staffs to do what is necessary.
4. Forget Clausewitz! Despite awareness of the effectiveness of machine guns and barbered wire for stopping massive infantry attacks, the "the lessons were not that the attack no longer worked but that it had to be pressed harder, with more men" (p. 329). Examples abound, then and now, of militaries fighting the next conflict with the doctrines learned from the last one, also when using novel technologies. Given the rapid changes in political, social and normative contexts and the wherewithal of conflicts, my conclusion is that military history and most of "classical" military theory, including writings of Clausewitz, are becoming more misleading than enlightening.
5. The quality of high level politicians must be radically improved. The problems facing humanity are getting even more serious, such as environmental degradation, increasing possibilities to synthesize mass killing viruses in "kitchen laboratories," and "human enhancement." Free markets, self-regulation by scientists and so on cannot cope with them, doing so being the mission of politicians. But there is no reason to assume that present political leaders are now better than those in charge of the choices bringing about the catastrophe of the First World War and its repercussions: Communism, Nazism, the Second World War and their barbarities. Therefore, the most important lesson which I draw from the road to World War One, as ably presented in this book, is that the taboo subject of radically improving democratic political leaders must be seriously taken up.
Reading this book and pondering seriously its lessons is therefore strongly recommended. I will surely include it in the recommended reading list of my next book.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 12 October 2015
Outstanding review of that pre-war situation and all causes that led to the conflict.
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on 15 July 2014
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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on 14 March 2014
A good write-up in the Economist magazine promoted me to purchase this book. I am well read on W.W.1 & 2 matters, via W.C. Churchill, General Spears inter alia. The detail is amazing. The build up is relentless. The tragic outcome, of a war that should never have happened, and it's even worse aftermath, 20 years later, is pitiless. For anyone who wishes to review these events, this 600 page magnum opus is a must. The most frightening thing is that little within Europe seems to have changed as a result - we are still a collection of now impoverished, bickering nations. Buy today!
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