Book Review: The War That Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace:  The Road To 1914, by Margaret MacMillan

If reading about the way that Europe stumbled through the beginning of the 20th century and finally found itself involved in the horrors of World War I is a melancholy task, as indeed it is, there is at least one ray of light in this book.  That happens when the author discusses the way that JFK had read Tuchman’s excellent The Guns Of August and decided against escalating conflict with the Soviet Union over the Cuban missiles and instead made an excellent negotiation with them that preserved the peace while ultimately leading to an American victory in the Cold War through our economic and political superiority.  But that is a rare ray of light in a book that is filled with the melancholy of reading the chorus to a Greek tragedy, where everyone knows that things are going to end very badly and yet it is compelling all the same to see the options shrink and Europe finds itself in a great war that ends up destroying much of its cultural heritage and its own self-regard as well as many of its regimes.  And if that is a great shame, the statesmen of Europe at the time largely had themselves to blame.

This book is over 600 pages long and contains 20 chapters that provide a large amount of specific and well-researched detail into how Europe stumbled through a variety of crises at the beginning of the 20th century and eventually found themselves trapped by their fears and insecurities until war seemed an inevitable release of the intolerable tension of the age.  The book begins with maps and an introduction about the question of war or peace and then the author discusses Europe (1) as well as Britain’s isolation at the time (2).  After this the author turns to talk about the follies of Wilhelm II (3) as well as Germany’s place on the world stage (4) and the destructive Anglo-German naval rivalry (5) of the time.  After that there is a discussion of the development of the Entente Cordiale between England and France (6) as well as the shift in relations between England and Russia (7) and the loyalty between Germany and Austria Hungary (8).  The author spends a chapter discussing the fears and thoughts of the people of the time (9) and how they dreamed of peace (10), thought about war (11), and made very specific and often unwise war plans (12).  There are chapters about the crises that roiled European governments in the lead-up to 1914, including Morocco (13), the Bosnian crisis of 1908 (14), Morocco again (15), and the Balkan wars (16).  After that the author discusses the last months of peace (17) as well as the assassination at Sarajevo (18), the end of the concert of Europe (19), and the last week of peace as Europe mobilized for war (20).

World War I tends to be blamed on a lot of things, from arms sales to the development of hostile but evenly balanced alliances, to various conspiracies, but this book does a great job in presenting the European leaders of the time as being a bit over their head but constrained by their own sense of honor to various secret and sometimes open-ended promises they had made to their counterparts in other European nations.  The wide gulf that existed between the blank checks and debts of honor between various governments and the extent to which this was known and recognized by a populace that was becoming increasingly jingoistic against its rivals quite naturally led to war.  What the author argues, and I think argues persuasively, is that the statesmen of the time often sought to find peace even as they felt themselves backed into a corner, which eventually led them to view war as inevitable.  And once war was viewed as inevitable it was only a matter of time before they would accept fighting even over dubious causes, and would make demands that would cause too much of a loss of face for their rivals to back down, with tragic results.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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