MacMillan's subject is one of the great conundrums of 20th century history, chewed over ever since the Great War of 1914-18 began. As she points out, disputes about how the war happened and who was at fault that already raged during the fighting have never abated. Vast troves of memoirs and archives have become available. As the hundredth anniversary of the war begins, we should see a bumper crop of additional offerings.
MacMillan sets the scene for her story with this not-at-all-novel description of the context:
Essentially, MacMillan plumps down for a "great man" theory of this history. In her telling, particular rulers, politicians and generals in the great European states made successive calculations and miscalculations that destroyed the long 19th century European peace. She convincingly asserts that whatever impression we may have of that "peace" floats in an illusory afterglow of delusion. (She neglects to mention that for many resident's of Europe's colonies in the 19th century, there was never any meaningful "peace".) She's not much for economic or demographic explanations. As she points out, the data barely exists to measure what "public opinion" might have been in these countries at the time.
Instead, MacMillan gives us vivid portraits of her cast of historical actors. I think it is fair to say that she subjects the great men of the time to the sort of dismissive gossip that is usually only accorded to famous women. The result is enjoyable. The German Kaiser Wilhelm has been a comic-opera figure in many histories, but MacMillan is downright vicious:
She doesn't confine her ridicule to Kaiser Willie; here she describes a German politician who served as Chancellor in the pre-war decade:
When she's not mocking her actors, MacMillan describes the long series of late 19th and early 20th century "crises" over trade, colonies, and military alliances through which European states maneuvered. She quotes one of her actors, the English Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, about this sequence of nearly-missed conflicts:
In 1914, according to MacMillan, accumulated humiliations, misunderstandings and some real conflicts of imperial interests turned the assassination of an Austrian Crown Prince who nobody much liked by a Bosnia anarchist in Sarajevo into the proximate cause of the Great War. She is caustic about this causes belli.
In the end she gently blames the men who went to war and suggests we should do better:
I'm not, ultimately, an enthusiast for "great man" history. But this is a wonderful telling, much deeper than my summary, without the dry heaviness of many historical recitations. This is, after all, a terrible saga of human folly. MacMillan's volume probably shouldn't be anyone's sole source for the origins of World War I, but it certainly deserves to be a major source. And reading it is delightful.