In her introduction to a book that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Barbara Tuchman’s landmark The Guns of August, Margaret MacMillan asks “what made 1914 so different” that European leaders were unable to back away from the precipice of general war, as they had so many times in the years following Napoleon’s exile? Unlike Tuchman’s focus on a single month, MacMillan takes the reader back several decades to identify the people, events, and decisions that led to the outbreak of war in 1914. In the process, she provides all the background the reader could possibly hope for, with a style that makes the journey absolutely enjoyable.
When it comes to the players, MacMillan goes beyond the usual suspects sitting on thrones, pacing the halls of government, or wearing uniforms; she includes peace activists, financiers, even anarchists. They all played a role—or tried to. Unfortunately for the millions killed, the uniformed crowd held sway. On the civilian leadership side, the recurring theme seems to have been one of ineptitude and complacency; the notion that no political crisis could possibly come to war. It proved a deadly combination.
Three areas are worth highlighting here: the British-German naval race, pre-war turbulence in the Balkans, and Germany’s “blank check” to Austria-Hungary after the assassination in Sarajevo. The first is straightforward enough, but essential to understand because it drove a wedge between a traditional sea power and a wannabe—tragically, for no logical reason. As for the Balkans, MacMillan’s description of the ethnic complexities, multiple crises, and how temporarily solving them in the pre-war years lulled European leaders into a false sense of security makes that region’s role in providing the spark to war amazingly clear. Finally, Germany’s support to Austria’s Serbian ultimatum is superbly recounted and fills a gap in The Guns of August. Rational diplomacy should have worked here. The fact that it did not lends credence to the theory that the First World War was inevitable. Perhaps Winston Churchill, when it became apparent late on August 4, 1914 that diplomacy had failed, demonstrated the rampant naiveté best when he mused that “at any rate the war can’t last long.”
There are plenty of accounts of the War itself, most of which demonstrate the operational ineptitude of the generals who clamored for it. This book is not one of them. It carries the much stronger message that it is not enough to merely want peace.