A Book by Margaret MacMillan
Most books that talk about World War I rarely speak of the causes of the actual war short of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and maybe a brief mention of the spiderweb of military alliances that pulled everyone in. Everything else is generally a footnote in the grand scheme of things and we are led to believe that the powder keg was merely a reaction to pure chance, as if one thing changed here or there would have stopped it completely. After reading The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan, I feel like my eyes have been opened to another world of historical events, each one a playing card in the massive card house that was European peace. If not the bullets of Gavrilo Princip, any other slight wind would have brought the whole thing down inevitably.
“The War That Ended Peace brings vividly to life the military leaders, politicians, diplomats, bankers, and the extended, interrelated family of crowned headsacross Europe who failed to stop the descent into war: in Germany, the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II and the chief of the German general staff, Von Moltke the Younger; in Austria-Hungary, Emperor Franz Joseph, a man who tried, through sheer hard work, to stave off the coming chaos in his empire; in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife; in Britain, King Edward VII, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and British admiral Jacky Fisher, the fierce advocate of naval reform who entered into the arms race with Germany that pushed the continent toward confrontation on land and sea.”
The timeline is this book stretches back some sixty years prior to the conflict and concentrates on how the major players all got rolling towards the inevitable conflict at hand. Some surprises for me were the many instances where it seemed Germany under Willhelm II was obsessed with the idea that The Kaiser was an extension of the ancient rulers of Teutonic peoples and had some sort of ancestral score to settle against the Gauls, or the modern day French. For decades the two belligerents swung insults at each other and sabre-rattled to save face against an idea that their peoples didn’t want them to look week. I was formerly of the opinion that Germany was sort of dealt the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to taking blame for the war, but now I can see why the overall world raked them over the coals in 1918 – they didn’t really help endear themselves to literally anyone else.
I also knew that there was a bit of an argument that the war was started somewhat due to fears of European nobility that Socialism was going to cause havoc on their bottom-lines in the near future, but never before did I know any of the background. MacMillan presents the dying days of the Empire/Serfdom relationship as the same sort of situation that led to the French Revolution. Stuffy, wealthy industrialists not understanding that their workers were about to make them obsolete and the idea that a war would somehow divert that attention somewhere else. The book goes into great detail on their disdain for the many attempts at universal suffrage and how “The Poors needed to be set in their place”. In America this topic is basically ignored in the fear that one would be on the side of Communism or something, so this was pretty interesting to me.
This is a LOOOONG book, clocking in at almost 800 pages, and is packed densely with information, but I never found it to be as boring as some much shorter books on the topic. For how important this era in the world is in terms of understanding the war, I’m amazed you don’t hear more, but am not surprised considering how few people know of the events that led to The American Civil War, opting for revisionism instead. I absolutely loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone studying World War I. I see the author has a book about Paris in 1919 that seems like a spiritual predecessor to this (written in 2007) that I need to also read, but maybe later on – 800 pages is pretty steep of an investment!
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