BY BILL NASSON
Writing in The Guardian in January 2013, the eminent British journalist Simon Jenkins declared that he needed to “apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, often at their own expense”. Then, with the war’s centenary activities already swamping European – and especially British – television viewers and history bestseller readers, Jenkins was already fed up. Not only, he moaned, were there “war horses everywhere”, there were still “four years of it to come”. As he concluded, ‘the essence of the outbreak of the Great War is that it was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two… to revel in these squalid miscalculations is gratuitous.”
Returning to this theme in an August 2014 issue of The Guardian, Jenkins again threw up his hands in despair at Britain’s commemoration of the First World War, a literary and visual festival which, in his view, had come to resemble “an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie”. He may well have a point, at least when it comes to endless, vicarious immersion in the gore and the grime of the nightmare world of the trenches.
Still, as even an irritated Jenkins has conceded, the centenary of the global catastrophe of 1914 — 1918 has been marked not only by questionable indulgence. On the upper slopes of a huge centennial literary mountain are new books which tackle what remains one of the war’s more enduring puzzles. They are mostly rather fat, like Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. At a whopping 699 pages, it certainly does go on a bit. And the concern of these volumes is not with the conduct and the experience of the war, nor with its consequences. Instead, what they pick away at is perhaps the most baffling question of all — the causes of that terrible conflagration. Why? Whose fault was it ? How was it that an increasingly educated, prosperous, and advanced Europe could unleash such an unimaginably destructive conflict ? It left millions dead, some of its grandest empires on their knees, countries bankrupted, and parts of the continent either ungovernable or scarcely worth the bother of governing.
Europe’s march towards a world war in 1914 is, of course, a well-ploughed field of historical questioning and debate. For, while there is broad agreement about the consequences of the conflict, its causes have always been a proverbial bone of contention. As we are reminded by Macmillan’s elegant and absorbing account, at the end of the hostilities the victorious Allied states put all the blame on Germany at Versailles. In more recent years, some scholars have blamed France and Britain for an encirclement or a squeezing of Germany. In central Europe a restless and dynamic German nation found itself hemmed in by European rivals who were blocking its ambitions for greater world power. By 1914, Berlin had had enough of being painted into a corner and tried to gain the upper hand, embarking on a war of conquest which aimed at surrounding Germany with Germany.
Today, the consensus over the causes of the war seems to be that there is no real consensus, aside from acceptance of one or other degree of particular German responsibility. Accordingly, even though The War That Ended Peace does not blame Germany alone for what happened, its author suggests that although the ridiculous Kaiser and his scheming generals clearly had more power than anyone else to have prevented disaster in July 1914, they chose to release the dogs of war. In leading us to an understanding of how that fateful choice was made, the twenty chapters of Macmillan’s hefty, sprawling book make up three big themes. Roughly the first third of this volume plots what its author calls “the great diplomatic realignment of Europe”, as the Entente Cordiale of Britain, France and Russia squared up against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and a puny and unreliable Italy.
The second chunk explores an ambitiously wide political and social environment, one of rampant and increasingly poisonous nationalisms, blind patriotism, and popular beliefs in life as a lethally competitive jungle in which only the fittest would survive. One such belief was that war was not only inevitable but also necessary. For it would purify countries, arrest their slide into moral degeneration, and would renew their national virility. The final third of this gripping story charts the immediate pre-1914 crises of imperialist Europe, like the Franco-German tussle over Morocco and, above all, over the volatile and vicious circumstances of the Balkan countries.
At the heart of a scholarly book bulging with detail, and composed in a reflective and elegant style, are human weaknesses, stupidities, wilfulness and self-delusions. For Professor Macmillan, the signs of these were all around, and they matter greatly when it comes to pointing fingers at those who, despite always having a choice between peace and war, chose war without seeing what it could mean. Thus, Tsar Nicholas II was too weak-willed to stand up to Russia’s generals, who despised him and got their way regardless. The absurd Kaiser Wilhelm was an infantile and “puerile” figure, whose idea of a joke was to smack the bum of the king of Bulgaria in public or to pull the ears and pat the bald heads of other foreign statesmen. General Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the famous clockwork Schlieffen Plan which was supposed to produce German victory in double-quick time, had both age and injury against him. Already 75 in the decade before the war, he was kicked by a friend’s horse and was laid up for months, dreaming of a retirement that was slow in coming. With men such as these lies a colossal failure of imagination, an inability to sense the disaster to which their actions were leading.
Richly detailed and insightful, The War That Ended Peace is history on an epic scale. Digesting it all may require the stamina for a lot of chewing. Arguably, too, anyone with an interest in the First World War may find themselves marching across some fairly familiar ground. That notwithstanding, the story of what led to this fundamental tragedy of the 20th century has perhaps never been told before in so sensible, so meticulous, and so enthralling a manner.