“I had no option.”
“You had an option, sir … to say no. And you chose to say yes.”
That exchange was the turning point in a Canadian election 30 years ago. I was reminded of it often in reading Margaret MacMillan’s account of the years leading to the declarations of war in 1914, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. (In UK, The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War.)
Europe in 1900 believed it was marching to a glorious and prosperous future. Yet the strains on the international order were in the air. In the first third of the book, MacMillan outlines the foreign and military policies of the key European powers that ultimately divided them between the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy). The agreements raised expectations that each country would come to the aid of its friends if they faced a war.
The next part of the book turns from politics to the broader intellectual and societal concerns. The expanding franchise meant that public opinion was becoming more of an influence on politics.
The old landed classes hoped to hang on to power and influence, radicals were anti-clerical, middle-class liberals wanted greater freedoms, at least for themselves, and the new socialist movements wanted reform or in some cases revolution. (p. 217)
MacMillan contrasts the calls for disarmament from the peace movement with the greater rigidity in the detailed plans to mobilize troops in anticipation of war. These plans were premised on the continued value of offensive wars, even though more powerful weapons were better suited to defensive tactics.
In the final chapters, MacMillan leads us day-to-day from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 to France’s and Britain’s declarations of war on August 4, 1914.
Throughout the book, MacMillan poses “what if’s” and points to how decisions could have gone in other directions. Her conclusion: “There are always choices.”
At over 650 pages, The War That Ended Peace is not a quick read. But MacMillan is an engaging (and often humorous) storyteller who makes the characters and intrigues come alive. On the few occasions that I lost track of one of the players, I could quickly refer to the extensive index. The maps are also clear and helpful. The asides about Canada are very funny.
MacMillan and the BBC are chronicling the road to war with short daily broadcasts in 1914: Day by Day.
This book was an excellent place to start my explorations of World War 1. I plan to end this project with MacMillan’s other book about this era, Paris 1919. (In UK, Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World.) There’s much to read before I get there in November 2018.