One prevailing theme of most First World War histories is the inevitability of conflict: Europe wanted a war in 1914 and was just waiting for the perfect excuse. In her wonderful new book, Margaret MacMillan takes a different approach. Why, she asks, was Europe unable to keep the peace as it had done so many times before?
MacMillan begins with a portrait of the Continent in 1900, sketching each European country’s recent history and major personalities. She addresses questions not often raised, such as how Germany became
Britain’s enemy, even though the two seemed like natural allies. She examines prevailing philosophies of the time, both for and against war. There is also a fascinating chapter on how the entire continent’s war plans arose out of an obsession with being on the offensive and a refusal to consider alternatives, a military mindset that politicians were unable or unwilling to rein in.
Having deftly set the stage, MacMillan describes the series of crises facing Europe in the early 1900s. With each conflict, alliances become firmer and countries that once backed down appear unlikely to do so again. The book ends with the last months of peace, and traces the path each country took, often unwillingly, to a brutal war. In addition to the usual suspects (the naval race, the men in charge), MacMillan explores lesser-known causes of war, such as the rising importance of public opinion and the disconnect between military and civilian leadership.
The strengths of The War That Ended Peace are the same as those in MacMillan’s Paris 1919: she clearly breaks down complex historical events, paints vivid portraits of key personalities, and brings an entire era to life. The book also draws fascinating parallels with our own time – it is easy to recognize how terrorism led the public to support aggressive leaders touting various military interventions. MacMillan’s focus on keeping the peace rather than avoiding war is welcome, and the book’s accessibility will ensure that it appeals to anyone seeking guidance on how to avoid repeating some of the worst mistakes of our past.