2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. There have been numerous books published about the causes of this cataclysmic event sharing a common theme: conflict was inevitable considering the circumstances of early 20th century Europe including the arms race between the Great Powers and the rise of militant nationalism. In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan, the award winning author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, focuses instead on the key individuals who made the decision to go to war. Early 20th century Europe experienced numerous crises that made a general war appear inevitable but the eventual outbreak of hostilities occurred because Heads of State, government ministers and military strategists made choices that gradually ended a century of comparative peace in Europe.
While MacMillan discusses all the key figures who contributed to Europe’s decision, the abrasive personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany stands out above all others in The War That Ended Peace. The Kaiser emerges as the most undiplomatic figure who even considered himself to be a master of foreign affairs. While the Kaiser argued that his intentions toward his fellow Great Powers were peaceful, his bombastic speeches consistently soured relations with other nations, most notably Great Britain. Over the course of the narrative, Wilhelm spoils otherwise productive state visits with ill timed remarks about German supremacy, “listens at the keyhole” when his cousins King George V of England and Czar Nicholas II of Russia attempt to speak privately at his daughter’s 1913 wedding and offends senior members of the Russian government with his loud, tasteless jokes. By 1914, there was a wide gulf between the Kaiser’s peaceful intentions and the public perception of his behavior across Europe.
In the shadow of the Kaiser’s overbearing and counterproductive attempts at “diplomacy,” MacMillan brings comparatively obscure figures out of the shadows and takes a fresh look at those considered most responsible for the failure of peace. For example, while studies of the outbreak of war on the Eastern front usually focus on Czar Nicholas II, MacMillan looks at the key figures who influenced him in the years and months prior to the outbreak of war. Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov emerges as a key figure who believed that Russia’s historic mission was to protect the Balkan nations. A chapter devoted to war planning including the notorious Schlieffen plan reveals that the blame for Germany’s offensive military strategy should not rest on the shoulders of Alfred von Schlieffen alone. Instead, there was a larger pattern of civilian leaders leaving military planning up to “the experts” and not coordinating diplomatic and military initiatives.
The final chapters detailing the final weeks of peace reveal just how significant chance factors were to the outbreak of hostilities. Key figures who had argued for peace during previous crises were dead or incapacitated by 1914. MacMIllan observes that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand removed one of the most prominent advocates for peace in the Austro-Hungarian empire in addition to precipitating a larger crisis. In Russia, faith healer Grigori Rasputin was recovering from assassination attempt in Siberia and was only able to communicate his pleas for peace to the Czar through letters. The 1914 crisis also occurred when governments were out of session and leaders on summer holidays. British foreign secretary Edward Grey was on a bird watching trip at the time of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and French president Poincaire was aboard a ship in the Baltic sea for part of July, 1914. These circumstances contributed to the breakdown of peace in Europe in 1914
In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan reveals the human drama that led to the outbreak of the First World War, presenting the choices of Europe’s political figures and military strategists in slow motion. Throughout the book, MacMillan presents parallels between the Europe of 1914 and our own time including the continuing development of nationalism and fears of increasing terrorist activity. MacMillan observes that President John F. Kennedy was mindful of the lessons of 1914 when he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis and encourages twenty-first century readers to apply the lessons of the past to the present.
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