Friday, March 07, 2014

How could Europe have fallen into barbarism in 1914?

Can a book be called "delightful" whose subject is how European states blundered into a war that took about 37 million lives and set the stage for another 20 years later that killed 60 million more people? Delightful is an adjective I'd use for Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. "Accessible," "arch," and "wry" would also apply.

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:

The nineteenth century was an extraordinary time of progress, in science, industry, and education, much of it centered on an increasingly prosperous and powerful Europe. Its peoples were linked to each other and to the world through speedier communications, trade, investment, migration, and the spread of official and unofficial empires. The globalization of the world before 1914 has been matched only by our own times since the end of the Cold War. Surely, it was widely believed, this new interdependent world would build new international institutions and see the growing acceptance of universal standards of behavior for nations.

... War, it was hoped, would become obsolete. It was an inefficient way of settling disputes. Moreover, war was becoming too costly, both in terms of the drain on the resources of the combatants and the scale of the damage that new weapons and technology could inflict. ... Why did the forces pushing towards peace -- and they were strong ones -- not prevail? They had done so before, after all. Why did the system fail this time?

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:

He was naturally restless and fidgety, his features animated and his expressions changing rapidly. ... He was handsome, with fair hair, soft fresh skin and gray eyes. In public he played the part of ruler quite well, in his variety of military uniforms and his flashy rings and bracelets and with his erect soldier's bearing. ... Wilhelm II was vain, bombastic, and neurotic. ... insecurity ... lurked behind the bristling mustache, which his barber carefully waxed every morning. ...Wilhelm was an actor and one who secretly suspected that he was not up to the demanding role he had to play.

She doesn't confine her ridicule to Kaiser Willie; here she describes a German politician who served as Chancellor in the pre-war decade:

[Bernhard von] Bulow, the man who was supposed to solve Germany's international problems, was an amusing, charming, cultivated, and clever career diplomat. He was also intensely ambitious and, like his new master, Wilhelm, lazy. ... Over the years, Bulow had gained a deserved reputation among his colleagues for being devious, untrustworthy and slippery as an eel, said [Frederick von] Holstein who initially considered him a friend. "Bernhard von Bulow," wrote Holstein in his diary, "is clean-shaven and pasty, with a shifty look and an almost perpetual smile. Intellectually plausible rather than penetrating. He has no ideas in reserve with which to meet all contingencies, but appropriates other people's ideas and skillfully retails them without acknowledging the source."

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:

"The consequences of such a foreign crisis do not end with it. They seem to end, but they go underground and reappear later on." The powers had fresh reasons to mistrust each other, and key decision-makers and their publics were closer to accepting the likelihood of war. ...

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.

That gave Austria-Hungary, as happens surprisingly often in international relations, power over its stronger partner. By 1914 Germany's leaders felt that they had little choice but to support their ally even as it pursued dangerous policies, much as the United States continues to support Israel or Pakistan today.

In the end she gently blames the men who went to war and suggests we should do better:

We must remember, as the decision makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914 and what they had learned from the Moroccan crises, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe's very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically led to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last moment and the peace would be maintained.

And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.

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.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

As she points out, the data barely exists to measure what "public opinion" might have been in these countries at the time.
I've been reading Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind, and he answers some of the questions about what public opinion was in Germany and Austria. Most people were ignorant and uninformed thanks to a press that cared only about selling papers and for whom personalities and good stories always trumped reality.

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