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A Failure of Brinkmanship
on 19 October 2013
'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.