Ori­gins of WAR

Cana­dian his­to­rian care­fully lays out the rea­sons for Euro­pean catas­tro­phe

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Garin Bur­bank

IN 1870, the Euro­pean na­tions, em­pow­ered by their ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, sci­en­tific en­quiry and mod­ern so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion, dom­i­nated much of the world. Fifty years later, the same na­tions lay in ruin and dis­or­der, mil­lions of their young men now dead, their peo­ples hun­gry and cold, their fu­tures des­per­ately dark­ened. The Great War of 19141918 had reaped its tragic and grisly har­vest.

It is the bur­den of Cana­dian his­to­rian Mar­garet MacMil­lan’s lengthy new book to ex­plain the ori­gins of the Euro­pean catas­tro­phe. As one would ex­pect from the ac­com­plished au­thor of Peace­mak­ing: Paris 1919, the cov­er­age is as­ton­ish­ing, the style el­e­gant, the in­ter­pre­ta­tions care­fully ar­gued. In a se­quence of chap­ters akin to an elite mil­i­tary drill, MacMil­lan ex­plores the fun­da­men­tal, of­ten un­spo­ken, diplo­matic and mil­i­tarym as­sump­tions that strength­ened the drive to­wardto war. Most Euro­pean for­eign min­is­ters em­bracede def­i­ni­tions of hon­our and in­ter­est that in­ten­si­fiedin their anx­i­eties about the mo­tives of theirth ri­vals. And most Euro­pean gen­er­als be­lieved deeply in the of­fen­sive, plan­ning for a quick, de­ci­sive strate­gics stroke at the out­set of war. Crit­ics were ig­noredig when they con­tended Europe’s mar­vel­lous new guns, can­nons and high ex­plo­sives would con­fer dev­as­tat­ing ad­van­tages on a res­o­lute de­fence. MacMil­lan deftly de­picts the ma­jor pre­cur­sors of war in some nec­es­sary “chaps and maps” pas­sages: the Fashoda dis­pute, two Moroc­can crises and two BalkanB wars. Ma­noeu­vres of al­liance and aban­don­ment con­di­tionedt the cri­sis ac­tions of the great pow­ers. The naval race for new heavy ships be­tween Bri­tain and Ger­many is vividly il­lu­mi­nated. Sparkling portraits fol­low of the two lead­ing naval strate­gists, Bri­tain’s mer­cu­rial Jacky Fisher and Ger­many’s calmly cal­cu­lat­ing Al­fred Von Tir­pitz. Ev­ery­one, of course, was per­suaded that he was act­ing “de­fen­sively.” In the fi­nal few weeks be­fore war, Ger­many gave its “blank cheque” of sup­port to Aus­tria. France stuck hon­ourably with her debtor ally, Rus­sia, it­self try­ing to pro­tect the “south Slavs” of Ser­bia from puni­tive Aus­tria. Most fate­fully, Bri­tain ful­filled the im­plied prom­ise of the En­tente Cor­diale with France, and re­fused to ac­cept the ugly dis­hon­our of aban­don­ing “lit­tle Bel­gium” to the Ger­man on­slaught. While cat­a­logu­ing seem­ingly in­escapable forces at play in the cock­pit of na­tional ri­val­ries, MacMil­lan in­sists on the pos­si­bil­ity of hu­man vo­li­tion and choice mak­ing a dif­fer­ence amid the reign­ing pres­sures. Hers is a learned in­sis­tence de­serv­ing care­ful as­sess­ment. But the ac­tions of blus­tery em­per­ors and cold-eyed strate­gists, moved by an­tique prej­u­dices and bel­li­cose doc­trines, defy her con­jec­tural al­ter­na­tives. Dodg­ing the din of his­to­ri­ans’ dis­putes, MacMil­lan set­tles for a fa­mil­iar or­der of blame: Ger­many, Aus­tria, Rus­sia, France and Bri­tain. Not for her is Niall Fer­gu­son’s nose-thumb­ing provocation in The Pity of War that Bri­tain could have cho­sen to stay out of it, tol­er­at­ing what might have been at worst a bossy Ger­man cus­toms union on the con­ti­nent. It was “the cult of the of­fen­sive,” man­dat­ing rapid mo­bi­liza­tion, that primed the pow­der keg. States­men could not plead for more time when their gen­eral staffs warned of dis­as­ter if troops were not soon on their trains headed for the bor­ders of the enemy. Peace had its earnest ad­vo­cates, but The Hague con­fer­ences called to seek arms re­duc­tions were dis­missed brusquely as a fool’s er­rand. And the in­dus­trial work­ers, lead by charis­matic So­cial Democrats, ul­ti­mately re­sponded to the blare of bu­gles call­ing them to the bat­tle­fronts. In­deed, what else might have been ex­pected from cul­tures priz­ing Dar­winian no­tions of strug­gle, man­li­ness and con­tempt for “deca­dence?” French stud­ies se­ri­ously claimed that proof of Ger­man ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was found in their love for Wag­ner’s mu­sic. War could re­vive tra­di­tional gal­lantry sub­merged in the ease­ful pros­per­ity of mod­ern life. Noble sta­tus was sought when it was not in­her­ited. Asked why she had not mar­ried an am­bi­tious Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter who had ar­dently pur­sued her, an aris­to­cratic widow replied, “I have re­gret­ted it ev­ery day, but con­grat­u­lated my­self ev­ery night.” In th­ese doomed so­ci­eties, those be­low the noble es­tate-own­ers were sum­moned in their mil­lions to die for the hon­our and safety of the na­tion, sent to the killing trenches by those wear­ing “the fool’s cap un­awares.” Garin Bur­bank, now re­tired, taught his­tory in the Univer­sity of Winnipeg for 39 years.


The War That Ended Peace

The Road to 1914 By Mar­garet MacMil­lan Allen Lane, 667 pages, $38

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