The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World War

Margaret MacMillan


A fine and detailed history of the period.

The First World War remains an enigma: how did the sustained period of peace that preceded it suddenly end so catastrophically? How did a relatively small triggering event become so magnified so quickly?

MacMillan explores the background of the politics and personalities with great care and thoroughness. She highlights several factors that are under-stressed in other histories, notably the broader impact of the Anglo-German naval race (by spoiling otheriwse improving relations between the countries) and the damaging impact of the Dreyfus Affair on the French army (by making a military career less attractive to ambitious individuals). She provides much deeper explorations of several events that are often mentioned only in passing, for example the Algeciras conference. She also spends great care on the different views of the same events as seen from opposite sides, and on the way that actions that one side saw as purely defensive appeared anything but from the standpoint of other countries.

But what really stands out is the fatalistic acceptance that many Europeans – both leaders and ordinary people – had for the concept of an impending war. That seems at odds with the prevailing peacefulness between the Great Powers, and certainly seems strange from a standpoint of modern public opinion: how could people accept the end of peace so easily, especially for a conflict that would be fought close to home for almost all of them? While it's possible to argue that people hadn't appreciated the impact that machine guns and barbed wire had on military dynamics (despite the evidence of American Civil War), that seems too technical an explanation for such a concerted act of folly.

One stylistic touch that I didn't like is the rather trite use of modern analogies. Comparing German statesmen appearing in military uniform with the behaviours of modern dictators doesn't seem to me to add much to the text, or to the understanding of the motivations involved. But that's a minor quibble about what is certainly a fine discussion of events that still fascinate more than a century later.

Finished on Wed, 09 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.