The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914

The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, paper.

            Margaret MacMillan describes in detail the complicated great-power diplomacy that led up to World War I. There was, she argues, no inevitability in the series of diplomatic and military events in the decades before the War. She believes that war could have been avoided and looks to the failure of diplomats and the ruling classes to take the threat of war seriously.

            She is critical of the European royal families, many of them related. They were playing with a new set of strategies and weaponry which encouraged a rapid mobilization of armies and on planned short, but decisive, military campaigns. These ‘shielding strategies’ were, however, quick on the trigger. Strike before your rival was capable of doing so.

            These new strategies required the great powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Russia, and France – to have well-formulated plans for mobilization and attack. The Schlieffen Plan is a good example. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff, Imperial Army. The plan that bears his name was worked out by the General Staff between 1906 and 1914. The strategy avoided crossing through the Netherlands, which had declared its neutrality, instead invading France through Belgium and Luxembourg on 4 August 1914

            MacMillan’s focus on the importance of European royalty and social elites, but ignores the fact that most of the military and civil leaders of the time were drawn from a rising middle class. They had made their money during the prosperous nineteenth century, and service to their country was now expected of them. They were imbued with the nationalism they had picked up in their education and at the public spectacles of the decades before the war.

            Oddly MacMillan begins her story with the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. It was the world’s fair of that year with pavilions dedicated to harmony and peace. But in the midst of the Boer War (1899 -1902)! The British fought an alliance of the small Dutch-speaking republics in the Cape of South Africa. Although they won the War, Britain’s armies performed badly and much of Europe had cheered for the Boers.

            Russia also looked unprepared, even weak, after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Russians needed a year-round warm-water port and Vladivostok wouldn’t do. But they took on a formidable opponent, Japan, and their supply lines were stretched over the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad. There were demonstrations and strikes in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the Imperial Guard fired on the marchers approaching the Winter Palace. Bloody Sunday, it was called.

            It was feared that military defeat would lead to revolution within the belligerent country. Defeat would also complicated efforts to establish a system of alliances and alignments like the international structure that had kept the peace during the Bismarck era. For example, was a defeated Russia a dependable partner for France, given the revolutionary activity that had convulsed St. Petersburg?

 And France had its own weaknesses as an alliance partner.  The French public was distracted by the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906. Alfred Dreyfus, a young artillery officer from Alsace and of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason on a trumped up charge in 1894 and again in a second trial in 1899. He was eventually acquitted, but this and other public controversies made France a somewhat doubtful alliance partner.

Thus neither France nor Russia appeared to have the domestic stability to make them an easy choice for the British. And Great Britain was having its own “troubles,” conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Sir Edward Grey was serving as Foreign Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal British cabinet from 1905 to 1916. He is often treated as a clairvoyant by historians because of his famous statement to a friend, as he looked out over a courtyard in the Foreign Office as it was being lighted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” But he was less successful as a peace-keeper.

Grey was uncertain about how to proceed – join up with Russia and France or pursue an understanding with Germany. Germany and Britain had been engaged in an armaments race for several years – constructing battleships. Just when Britain seemed to be winning, the battleship count was complicated by the opening of the Kiel Canal across the isthmus between the Baltic and North Seas in 1895. Now the two German fleets could serve on either Sea during a war.

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist while being driven through the streets of Sarajevo was but one of several violent events that are considered to be “The Road to 1914.” But the “peace of Europe” was crumbling step-by-step as diplomacy no longer settled anything.

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