Monday, November 11, 2019

November's Book: The War That Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
History (2013 - 645 pp.)

The War That Ended Peace is Margaret MacMillan's fourth book I've read (Paris 1919, The Uses and Abuses of History, History's People). This is Margaret MacMillan's second appearance on this blog (History's People). Whereas Paris 1919 is understandably clumped within an approximately 18-month span, The Uses and Abuses of History is about historiography, and History's People is a set of interconnected biographies, The War That Ended Peace takes the veteran MacMillan reader to an unfamiliar place: the geopolitical strategy rooms of the two decades preceding World War I. In the setting, The War That Ended Peace brings James Joll's seminal Origins of the First World War to mind more than MacMillan's other works.

Like any holistic take on when, how and why World War I began, there can be no true thesis. Attempts to identify singular causes of World War I are sometimes extremely slanted: for example, following the French narrative of "German aggression", or following German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg's acidic remark that the British started the war through their neglect to rein in France and Russia. Similarly, narratives like "nationalism", "the alliance system" or "the cult of the offensive" are too vague to be accurate: as MacMillan reiterates over the course of the book, if these concepts were to blame, why did a general European war not erupt over Morocco or Bosnia? Stating that there were a multitude of factors is true, yet so unsatisfying and so uninsightful it scarcely needs to be said. The trigger events - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand,* the responding Austro-Hungarian ultimatum toward Serbia, the Russian general mobilization order, Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality - are all well-known. What led to those trigger events, though, and why was it in the summer of 1914 that the guns, mortars and cannon were finally fired? That is the question MacMillan valiantly tries to answer.

Like Mary McAuliffe's Twilight of the Belle Epoque, which I reviewed back in June/July, The War That Ended Peace opens at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. MacMillan deals with some of McAuliffe's characters in her chapter "What Were They Thinking?" (247), but the Exposition Universelle portion showcases MacMillan's own characters perfectly: each nation has its own pavillion, replete with artifacts of national pride. (3-5) The year 1900 was twenty-nine years since the close of the last major European war (the Franco-Prussian War), but the Great Powers would become increasingly violent as the 20th century wore on.

The commonly cited, and not entirely accurate, World War I alliance map commonly shown in high school history classrooms was far from a certainty, especially where the United Kingdom was concerned. Early in the twentieth century, Germany and the United Kingdom had frequent alliance discussions. Shocking as it might seem today, the largest obstacle to an Anglo-German alliance was frequently Germany's desire to build its strength while the United Kingdom went to war against Russia: "Much better for Germany, [German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow] felt, to remain neutral between Britain and Russia in their continuing conflict." (86) In 1905, two radical peers in the British Parliament formed the Anglo-German Friendship Committee. (298) Over a decade later, when William II would step down at the end of World War I, he suggested becoming a British-style constitutional monarch. It is fitting, then, that so much of the first quarter of the book discusses the background behind the Entente Cordiale. Although the United Kingdom and France were allies during the Crimean War, British public opinion had backed Prussia in 1870, and the Fashoda Crisis in 1898 nearly put the United Kingdom and France at war. Although Fashoda was temporally detached from World War I,** MacMillan's account is hilarious, including Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand's futile trek across a substantial portion of Africa, map included. (144)

That the United Kingdom and France would sign the Entente Cordiale in 1904 was a miracle. Even then, British politicians (especially Edward Grey) waffled on how far they would honour it, right up until the start of the war, intent on maintaining a "free hand" in European affairs. The only scenario that seemed assured was that France and Germany would not end up on the same side of a general European war. Britain, cognizant of this, knew that in siding with France, it was rejecting Germany. The ongoing Anglo-German naval race, which bled into the political sphere as German Admiral von Tirpitz and British Admiral Jacky Fisher constantly lobbied for naval spending increases,^ further pushed the United Kingdom toward France. Austria-Hungary was a useful partner for the naval status quo in the Mediterranean, but the French navy easily inherited that role as World War I drew nearer.

So much of the pre-World War I world is locked in a time capsule, unable to ever be recovered, at once romantic and barbaric. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires have no clear modern equivalents, and what once was the German Empire is vastly different now. MacMillan's best comparison between the world of then and the world of today is in how major countries compared failed states: "Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity." (165) These were the days of Fotochrom, of Ruritanian romances and of the invention of Fry's Turkish delight.

Although the Ottoman Empire was targeted in Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and again in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Austria-Hungary and Russia would fail sooner. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Navy accidentally set off the Dogger Bank incident, in which Russian ships sunk British merchant ships and the British almost declared war in response. France, by then Russia's ally and the United Kingdom's friend, had to mediate the dispute. (173) This was all the more embarrassing when considering the Russian ships' ultimate destination: they belonged to the fleet that would be massacred by the Japanese at Tsushima. For years afterward, the Russians would call any foreign policy blunder "a diplomatic Tsushima". Outmuscled by Japan in the Far East, and then outmaneuvered by Austria-Hungary over the Bosnian Crisis, Russia's foreign policy was in tatters. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which guaranteed nothing except peace in Persia and Afghanistan, was cold comfort. Russia's domestic politics were even worse: "Between 1905 and 1909 nearly 1,500 provincial governors and officials were assassinated." (177)

Austria-Hungary lacked such military or diplomatic defeats, and was nowhere near as politically violent, but its nationalist stirrings and lack of a succession pipeline would prove fatal during the war. MacMillan presents a thoughtful mini-biography of Franz Josef von Habsburg, the last great Austrian emperor (219-223), capped by her poetic summary of his life view: "Franz Joseph soldiered on, working methodically through his piles of papers as though, through sheer hard work and attention to detail, he could stave off chaos and hold his empire together." (223) As voting rights expanded and nationalist groups formed in what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and (an expanded) Romania, the image of an emperor holding up his empire became less realistic. When Franz Josef died in 1916, an astonishing sixty-eight years into his reign, his most likely successors had all predeceased him.

Some of the landmark plans of the early 20th century were made by men who would not survive to see the outbreak of war. Alois von Aehrenthal, Austria-Hungary's foreign minister during the annexation of Bosnia in 1908, died in 1912. One of his more infamous legacies was a charged meeting at Buchlau castle, now in the Czech Republic, with Alexander Izvolsky, the Russian foreign minister. As has always been common in diplomatic meetings, each man walked away from the castle with a vastly different story to tell his respective emperor. (423) The Schlieffen plan's creator, Alfred von Schlieffen, died in 1913, although the German army insisted on relying on that plan to the exclusion of ever discussing its implications with civilian leaders: "Germany's war plan, the most controversial to this day, was locked in an iron safe to which the chief of staff held the key, and only a small circle knew its strategic goals." (336) Joseph Chamberlain, who held almost every major British political position except Prime Minister, died a month before the war began. Jean Jaures, the French socialist leader, was assassinated on July 30, 1914, less than a week before German troops set foot in his home country. (618) Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination takes up most of a chapter, was known before the war for being perhaps the one man who could have brokered long-term peace with Austria-Hungary's South Slav populations. Franz Ferdinand's train ride from Vienna to Trieste was so spooky, leading up to the inexplicably disregarded reports of terrorist activity in Sarajevo, that his death almost seemed foreordained. (550)

MacMillan's discussions of the declarations of war is the book's highlight. In those crucial weeks from the June 28 assassination until August Madness, the Great Powers were locked in tension. The Russian general mobilization order came after Nicholas II seriously considered a mobilization on only the Austrian border, which could have contained the war but would have opened the long German-Russian border to a German preemptive attack. Ironically, Sergei Sazonov was able to convince the Tsar that a general war might be the only way to save his throne.^^ After Nicholas II authorized Sazonov to enact the order, Sazonov phoned General Nicholas Yanushkevich; Sazonov then said, dramatically, "Smash your phone." (603) Germany declared war on Russia in response to this order. Friedrich von Pourtales, the German ambassador to Russia, pled with Sazonov to stop the Russian mobilization, but Sazonov refused, leading Pourtales to hand him Germany's declaration of war: "In that case, sir, I am instructed by my Government to hand you this note." (616) Finally, the United Kingdom's declaration of war on Germany in response to Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality shattered Karl von Lichnowsky, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom, who tirelessly worked to keep those two countries at peace. (624)

My only qualm with The War That Ended Peace is the use of modern political terms to refer to now-antiquated events and precepts, including erroneous comparisons to modern times. This is repeated, and I have to assume deliberate. To call certain factions "conservative" or "liberal" in now-defunct countries with political systems that make no sense to a 21st-century North American is heavily misleading. While the Conservative and Liberal parties in the United Kingdom can rightly be referred to by their party names, and the Social Democratic Party in Germany was quite obviously socialist, going much further falls into the dreaded trap of tunnel-visioning history. People in the Russian Empire or the Ottoman Empire saw their worlds so drastically differently from modern English-language readers, few words can describe peoples' political predilections in all those places.

MacMillan's epilogue is a blisteringly fast twelve-page outtake on World War I. After everything from Queen Victoria's jubilee to the tales of "Foxy" Ferdinand of Bulgaria, the war finally arrives just in time for the end. After the war, Harry Kessler, a German diplomat, revisits a house of his that he had not visited since 1913. Kessler's diary entry on the experience is among the most nostalgic passages I have ever read. (640)

Finally, as exciting as the diplomatic intrigue leading up to World War I was, there is so much more to commemorate. That is why this review is being posted on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day or Veterans Day). Last year, I visited the World War I monuments in Prospect Cemetery in Toronto, and then visited the Toronto Archives collection of newspapers from the date of the armistice in 1918 in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The more we read, the less we forget.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10

*In the interest of theming my experiences, as I often do in regard to this blog, I am listening to Franz Ferdinand (2004) while writing this review.

**The Fashoda Crisis happened sixteen years before World War I. A good comparison is considering the armistice in 1918 in assessing motives for the extremely ill-fated German-Polish non-aggression pact of 1934.

^MacMillan spends far more time with the Anglo-German naval race than I have here. The topic demands its own book, and is already the subject of many.

^^For all the book, and many other sources, mentions the eerily accurate predictions regarding World War I, this has to be the worst World War I prediction I have ever seen.

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