Having read Margaret Macmillan's "Paris 1919," which focused on the political settlements that accompanied the end of World War I, I was looking forward to her take on how the war started. I was not disappointed. Her take is especially interesting because rather than honing in on how the war started, she is more interested in how the the great European peace ended. She starts her history in 1890 when a general war was far from inevitable. However with each passing year, seemingly independent decisions narrow the options of the key political decision makers that a general war becomes practically inevitable. In her view, it is not only the broad historical forces at play, but the personalities of the political leadership that puts Europe on the road to war.
To me her story is one of great diplomatic success on the part of France, Britain and Russia and monumental diplomatic failure on the part of Germany, in particular the very erratic Kaiser Wilhelm. Look at the scene in 1890, Bismarck has France isolated, has an alliance with Russia and Austria and Germany is friendly with Britain. By 1914 France is allied with Russia and Britain. How did this happen?
First Wilhelm fires Bismarck and doesn't renew the Reinsurance Traty with Russia. France jumps in and allies itself with Russia, militarily and financially. Then France settles up colonial issues with Britain and romances her into the Entente Cordial. France is no longer isolated and Germany fears the dreaded two front war which gives birth to the offense of the Schliefen Plan. Britain's diplomacy is stunning. Ending its policy of "Splendid Isolation" it settles up with U.S. over a border dispute in Venezuela, makes a deal with Japanese in the Pacific, reaches an interim settlement with Russia over Persia and gets close to France. As a result it has a free hand in Europe without having to worry about diverting forces to protect its over-stretched empire.
How did this diplomatic revolution happen. Simply put Kaiser Wilhelm does everthing he can do to antagonize Britain. First by acting as bully in Morocco and then by starting a naval arms race with Germany. Instead of building fast cruisers and submarines, Germany builds dreadnought battleships which goes to the center of gravity of British naval power. Britain was forced to respond.
In a very important chapter of what might have been were it not for Wilhelm, Britain and Germany could have been allies.This is not far fetched.. Both countries were allied in the Seven Years and Napoleonic Wars and it would make sense for the strongest land power to get together with the strongest naval power. They have no colonial conflicts and conducted the largest bilatteral trade relationship in the world. It could have happened and if it did, no World War I.
As with all World War I histories Macmillan covers the two Moroccan crises and the three Balkan crises leading up to the Sarajevo assasination. She asserts, rightly, that the successful ending of those crises made the political leadership too complacent about the severity of the crisis caused by assasination of Archduke Ferdinand. To be sure it was summer and all of Europe's political leadership were either vacationing or away from their respective capitals, but still this was an act of what we would call today, state sponsored terrorism. What is missing in Macmillan's account is the role of the "Balkan incption scenario" highlighted by Christopher Clark's "Sleepwalkers...."
Macmillan does an excellent job in portrayiing the social millieu of Europe of the early 1900s. This was a time of rapid economic growth accompanied by the rise of socialist parties, women's sufferage, militarism and most of all nationalism creating a host of tensions. For some war was viewed as the great unifier. The role of honor becomes very important to all of the statesmen involved as the countdown to war begins in late june 1914. When honor is involved a negotiated settlement becomes difficult. It hard to compromise honor without losing face.
Macmillan has written a magisterial and very readable work of history. My one quibble is that she makes more than a few snarky comments about analogies for today. For example she writes that the German Right's fear of Russian cultural penetration of Germany is analagous to today's Republican Right's fear of Mexico. I beg to differ. Mexico is not a geopolitical rival of the U.S.; the Russia of 1914 was certainly one that Germany rightfully feared.
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