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on 13 October 2017
Thorough and engaging study of the origins of this most calamitous and avoidable of all wars. Not your usual brief skip through the events immediately before the descent into madness but a well researched and presented look in depth at all the participants and their histories, explaining what drove their decisions and actions. Be prepared to be astonished at the illogical and crazy notions that otherwise apparently sane leaders thought made sense and weep for mankind and the future.
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on 20 September 2017
An authoritative history of the lead up to WW1. Beware that the epilogue is full of spoilers on the war itself, get another book to cover that, I'd recommend Stevenson.
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on 4 June 2017
Brilliantly written.
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on 22 October 2017
excellent
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on 19 October 2017
Very detailed and informative.
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on 26 April 2014
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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on 23 June 2016
In this long but easy-to-read volume, Professor MacMillan describes the events leading to the world’s greatest ever traffic accident. She shows that, while all the various parties with their varied and often wildly divergent interests actually didn’t want war, for various reasons (fear, honour, national pride, wanting to be perceived as a great power or simply taken seriously, and fear for the future in a changing world) they were prepared for it. Indeed, many seemed to accept it as inevitable and even necessary. In the succession of minor (and generally successfully defused) international crises leading to the First World War, the parties were often to be found calculating when they could afford to go to war, and perhaps more importantly, how this related to the preparedness of the putative adversary, even to the point of contemplating a pre-emptive strike. However, they were all basically relying on bluff, and had given relatively little thought as to what would happen when all the bluffs were called.

Whose fault was it? Everybody’s and nobody’s. They all – Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Serbia – made individual blunders in the affair. Those individual blunders were of themselves survivable, but together they represented a pile of tinder. The spark was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo and the pig-headed determination of Austria-Hungary, backed by the thoughtless “blank cheque” provided by Wilhelmine Germany, to use this as a reason have it out with the detested Serbia, but the tinder was ready and waiting.

Professor MacMillan brilliantly brings out all the varied threads of these events of a century ago, reinforcing Christopher Clark’s “sleepwalkers” thesis in his book of the same name. Besides, it was (a) not going to be that bad, and (b) all over by Christmas anyway. Pity nobody happened to mention which Christmas.

Only one teensy-weensy niggle – Erich Ludendorff was never ennobled, so he was never “von Ludendorff”.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 August 2014
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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on 23 February 2014
I bought this book for a present to my brother in law because it was recommended by one of the book critics in the Mail on Sunday he his enjoying reading it at the moment.
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on 2 April 2017
The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan is a very good book examining the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. It is well-written, detailed and informative, even if it is rather a long read scrutinizing some rather dry - and arguably esoteric - subjects. Overall, a very good book.
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