The causes of the first world war
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The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, by Margaret MacMillan, Profile Books, RRP£25, 704 pages
July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin, Icon Books, RRP£25/Basic Books, RRP$29.99, 560 pages
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings, William Collins, RRP£30, 628 pages
One hundred years on, it is mostly historians rather than politicians who wrestle with the question of which countries were responsible for the outbreak of the first world war. Yet nothing demonstrates the enduring sensitivities surrounding the Great War and its causes more than the delicate discussions taking place among European governments over how to commemorate next year’s 100th anniversary and a rolling series of centennials up to 2018.
Furthermore, public interest in the war remains strong, as reflected in the mass of academic and popular history books that publishers were putting on the market year after year even before the anniversary. The reason is not hard to find: the war, in the words of Richard J Evans, an eminent British historian, was “the 20th century’s seminal catastrophe”.
On the war’s causes the outstanding recent study is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012), whose carefully textured arguments and deep understanding of the sometimes neglected Balkan context set the bar high for everyone else. The three books reviewed here are stimulating and enjoyable, but they are of varying quality. Sean McMeekin’s is controversial, arguing that Russia and France were more bent than Germany on war in July 1914. Max Hastings’s book is less good on the causes than on the course of the war between August and December, on which he writes fluently. Only Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace matches Clark’s work – which by no means implies that she fully subscribes to his explanation of why the war broke out.
Until the 1960s there was a sort of consensus on what had caused the war. One year after the Allies insisted on the “war guilt” clause of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which placed all the blame on Germany and its associates, David Lloyd George, the British premier, observed that Europe had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into war. Politicians in Weimar Germany, anxious to evade reparations payments premised on the “war guilt” clause, clutched eagerly at the implication behind Lloyd George’s remark that German behaviour before 1914, and immediately after the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, was not blameworthy. Historians of later decades pointed the finger at pre-1914 military planners, especially in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. As AJP Taylor memorably put it, the generals launched a “war by timetable” because their mobilisation plans, once set in motion, allowed no room for diplomacy to stop the slide into disaster.
Everything was turned upside down in 1961 when Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published Griff nach der Weltmacht, known in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This book showed that, one month after the war’s outbreak, the German government had drawn up a plan for large-scale territorial annexations and economic hegemony in Europe. Fischer earned the opprobrium of many of his peers by blaming the war squarely on a German bid for world power. FL Carsten, a fellow historian, commented drily: “We had really fixed it all so well, and then this stupid ass must come along and spoil it.”
Some of Fischer’s followers refined his argument by contending that Germany’s leaders had provoked a war in an effort to prevent internal political and social tensions from destroying their regime. MacMillan and Hastings mention this line of inquiry and should perhaps have devoted more space to it. “A key factor in Berlin’s original decision to fight had been a desire to crush the perceived domestic socialist menace, by achieving a conspicuous triumph over Germany’s foreign foes,” Hastings writes.
As Hastings, MacMillan and McMeekin point out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme. Instead it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain. Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the prewar years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist. Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans. All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.
MacMillan places less emphasis than Clark on the Serbian role in destabilising Austria-Hungary. Still, she reminds us: “It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914 that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it from going to war.” A year before his murder the archduke, heir to the Habsburg throne, criticised in no uncertain terms Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s military commander, commenting that he stood for “a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what”.
MacMillan, warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford university, is the author of Peacemakers (2002), a prizewinning history of the 1919 Paris peace conference, and of Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao (2006), an engaging work on the US president’s visit to China in 1972. As in those books, the Canadian historian laces The War That Ended Peace with deft character sketches and uses sources incisively. For instance, the erratic Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote in 1905 to Bernhard von Bülow, his chancellor: “First cow the Socialists, behead them and make them harmless, with a bloodbath if necessary, and then make war abroad. But not before and not both together.” More harmlessly, the kaiser left King Ferdinand of Bulgaria “white-hot with hatred” after smacking him on the bottom in public.
MacMillan escorts the reader skilfully through the military, diplomatic and political crises that framed the road to war from 1870 to 1914. Europe’s state system suffered from the problem that Prussia, having defeated France in 1870, united Germany and annexed Alsace-Lorraine, had guaranteed the lasting enmity of Paris. Otto von Bismarck avoided trouble for 20 years by aligning Germany with the conservative monarchies of Russia and Austria-Hungary, but his successors were more careless in their diplomacy. In particular, they allowed Germany’s Reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse in 1890, a step that opened the door to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894, heightening German fears of encirclement.
Then the kaiser and Alfred von Tirpitz, his grand admiral, started a naval arms race with Britain in 1898, failing to see that this was the worst possible way to persuade London to cede Germany the “place in the sun” for which its leaders clamoured. It is curious to recall, as do MacMillan and Hastings, that Tirpitz appreciated Britain enough to send his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a renowned English private school, and that Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor from 1909 to 1917, sent his son to Oxford university. The children of today’s Chinese and Russian leaders likewise receive the most privileged US and British educations.
Events in the decade before 1914 pushed Europe closer to war. After Britain and France settled their colonial disputes in the Entente Cordiale, Germany tried to exploit the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06 to drive a wedge between them. Rivalry between Vienna and St Petersburg intensified thanks to diplomatic duplicity and incompetence on both sides over Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Arguably, the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 and two Balkan wars in 1912-13 inured politicians, generals and the European public to the idea that war was becoming inevitable.
Yet why did Europe’s leaders, having prevented earlier crises from triggering a general war, fail to do so in 1914? McMeekin, a US historian based at Koç university in Istanbul, contended in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) that Russia bore far more responsibility than once thought because it aimed to break up the Ottoman Empire, conquer the Turkish straits and seize Constantinople. July 1914 plays down this argument. At times it adopts the more established view that a decisive moment came on July 5-6, when Germany gave Austria-Hungary its infamous “blank cheque”. This allowed Vienna to intimidate Serbia with an ultimatum in the knowledge that, if war came, Germany would fight at Austria’s side. “Austria’s diplomatic isolation and military weakness meant that German backing was indispensable. The Germans gave it unambiguously,” McMeekin writes.
Quite so, most scholars would say. Moreover, Germany’s Schlieffen Plan dictated that, in the event of a Russian mobilisation, the kaiser’s armies should attack France via Belgium. The violation of Belgian neutrality, acknowledged by Bethmann Hollweg as a breach of international law, was what brought Britain into the war.
On these matters July 1914 has little to say. Its main weakness, though, is that it tries to build a case that Russia’s military preparations in the July crisis were possibly more important than the actions of Berlin and Vienna in causing the war. “In 1914 France and Russia were far more eager to fight than was Germany . . . So far from ‘willing the war’, the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks,” McMeekin writes. It is a questionable conclusion to an otherwise well-written book.
Hastings, a prominent British military author and journalist, who writes for the FT as a contributing editor, has produced a punchy, entertaining book that is strong on the failings of each nation’s military leaders in 1914. Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, was “boundlessly foolish, childishly sullen”, Hastings writes. And of Helmuth von Moltke, Germany’s commander: “No man had done more to precipitate the calamity of European war; yet, having got his way, Moltke proved incapable of effectively conducting his nation’s armies.” The book gains balance from chapters, such as “Mudlife”, that paint vivid accounts of the horror and tedium that confronted ordinary soldiers.
Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65m men fought and about 8.5m were killed, have been avoided? By July 1914 most of Europe’s political and military leaders felt the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. Yet as MacMillan concludes, those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. “There are always choices,” she writes.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
Letter in response to this article:
Past a certain point conflict becomes unstoppable / From Prof Dennis JD Sandole