The steady stream of books about the First World War has become a torrent as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities next year. One of the more notable contributions to this effusion of Great War historiography is Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. The road to war was not only unusually rapid, it was also unusually complex. MacMillan insists that in order to solve the “puzzle” of the First World War (“How could Europe have done this to itself and to the world?”), the historian must take the long view and examine “societies and institutions” as well as the machinations of high diplomacy.
I spoke to MacMillan on the phone from Oxford, where she is warden of St Antony’s College.
JD: I’m very interested by a claim you make at the end of the book where you seem to refrain from assigning culpability for the war. You write that the “most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace”. There’s a distinction between understanding and judgement implied here isn’t there?
MM: Yes. I think what we should do as historians is understand. And we can have our own views about how things turned out, but I think in making judgements we’re getting into tricky territory. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m weaselling out! But I also think that with something as complex as the First World War, to try to assign culpability is to assume that there is one explanation for it. And I think it’s a congruence of events; it’s sequence, it’s timing. Clearly there are key decisions, but they need to be taken together. I’d assign more responsibility, rather than blame, in the end to German policy and to the policy of Austria-Hungary.
Although you resist assigning culpability, the book does begin with an account of the sacking of Louvain, including the destruction of the university library, by the Germans.
What I was trying to look was what Europe did to itself, so I was trying to find something that was a symbol of European culture. And since most of the war was fought on Belgian and French soil, there were going to be more examples there. But certainly there were things that the Allies did. Though, in retrospect, it perhaps wasn’t the best example. I was trying to find something that showed the destruction.
You made a subtle distinction just now between responsibility and blame. That relates, it seems to me, to one of the principal claims you make in the book—that there was nothing inevitable about war in 1914.
That’s the other danger with the First World War—as political scientists say, it’s over-determined. You can find so many reasons why it was likely to break out. But you can then find as many reasons for why there was a long period of peace. If we assume the war was inevitable, then I think we don’t fully get the feeling of the period—we don’t explore the possibilities. And there were choices. The choices narrowed, but there were always choices. If you look at the very last moments of the crisis [of 1914], there are key choices there. There are moments when Russian can decide not to mobilise. Another key choice is Austria-Hungary’s decision to destroy Serbia, come what may. And Germany’s choice to back Austria-Hungary. They didn’t have to do it. The comparison I keep making is with Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was under terrific pressure to do something about the Soviets and he didn’t. There’s very little in history that’s inevitable.
Though one of the differences between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the run-up to the First World War is that there were two antagonists and here there are multiple antagonists—which accounts for the complexity you’re talking about.
I think so. And I also think sequencing is important. I was trying to understand what was in the minds of those trying to take these really terrifying decisions in the summer of 1914. What happened previously was in their minds—the fact that Russia had been obliged to back down over the Bosnian crisis was something they [the Russians] hadn’t forgotten. From the German point of view, the Russians are all bluster and if you’re tough enough with them, they’ll back down. You can’t ever recreate the way people take decisions, but I was trying as best I could to recreate the range of possibilities they’d have been considering.
The First World War occupies a special place in the modern imagination, of course—partly because of the sheer scale of the slaughter. But for you it seems that this is also because of the peculiar “puzzle”, to use your word, that the war poses for the historian.
Right. It’s so different from the Second World War, where there really is a consensus. We might disagree on the value of appeasement, say, but when we get down to it, it’s pretty clear: the revisionist nations like Germany, Hungary, Italy and Japan were prepared to go to war to change the status quo. It’s much clearer what happened in the Second World War. But with the First World War it’s not clear. And it’s not clear what the major powers thought they were going to get out of it. They only drew up their war aims after the war had been going on for a few months. The Germans’ “September Programme” came two months after the war had started. Part of the danger in the thinking before the First World War was that there’d be a quick military victory and then they’d sit down and hammer out a peace. And you’d have lots of leisure to sort out what you wanted. But of course it didn’t work out like that. So I don’t see any sign of a consensus emerging among historians.
You do mention the thesis of the German historian Fritz Fischer about German culpability, but you don’t endorse it unambiguously do you?
No. He was writing at a particular time and I think what he did was very brave. But having read his books again, I think that he allowed the hunt for German guilt to guide him in the selection of documents. He and his followers were so fixated on looking for German guilt that they failed to take into account some of the other possibilities. After all, Germany was not operating in a vacuum. It was having to deal with other nations which were also making decisions.
So the implication of what you just said is that in formulating that thesis, Fischer had an eye on what came after the First World War. But you would agree, I assume, that the First World War is the catastrophe from which all the other cataclysms of the 20th century followed.
Yes, though, ever the cautious historian, I’d say it made possible all the other cataclysms. There’s an interesting reassessment of the 1920s under way. There was an assumption made that the First World War and the failed peace led directly to 1939. And historians hadn’t paid enough attention to the 1920s. But scholars like Zara Steiner have done some interesting work in showing that there was a recovery, that Germany was refitting itself into the international order, even Russia was becoming less of a revolutionary power, Italy was co-operating with the other powers (it wasn’t yet throwing itself into the arms of Germany) and Japan was still an international participant. There’s an argument that had it not been for the Great Depression we might not have got the lurch to extremism that we got in the 1930s.
The book adopts two perspectives at once, taking both the long and short view. The rush to war was unusually quick, yet you say that the fundamental causes for it are to be found in societies and institutions. Was maintaining that dual perspective a difficult trick to pull off?
Yes, very. I was talking about this to Max Hastings recently. He said he felt the same: you feel like you’re working on several levels at once and trying not to make it confusing. It’s important to understand what the mental framework of people at the time was. They thought in certain ways—some things were important to them, others less important. That’s why I became so interested in things like nationalism and Social Darwinism. Even notions of honour—that’s the language they use. And this isn’t just window-dressing. It’s something people feel deeply. For instance, one of the leading Austro-Hungarian figures—it might have been the chief of staff— says, “We may be defeated but it will have been worth it.” There’s a sense that they feel they can’t do otherwise for reasons of honour. This is where I part company with some political scientists who say that all you need to look at are interests, rational choices. But I think that’s too simple, because what we think are our interests varies from time to time. What we’re prepared to die for, to go to war for, may change.
Your chapters on Britain deal with the slow erosion of British hegemony and the emergence of contending powers such as Germany and the US, as well as the newly-emboldened France and Russia. How important was what today we might call “multipolarity” to the drift to the war?
I think it was important. But I don’t think British hegemony was ever as great as, say, American hegemony was after the end of the Cold War. It was an unstable international situation. There was real fear among some of the Great Powers that they would lose their allies. And the danger with that is that even if your allies are doing something dumb you’re going to support them. And they may be emboldened to do something reckless or dumb because they know they’ve got your support. You see the same problem today: the United States has great difficulty managing its alliance relationships with Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, even though those countries are weaker than the US. And China has trouble managing its relationship with North Korea. If you cut your weaker partner loose it leaves you looking weak. So you tend you to get caught up in their conflicts in a way that you might not have wanted to.
One of the distinctive things about the book is the emphasis you place on agency. Let’s talk about some of the individuals involved—Kaiser Wilhelm for instance …
As in life, he dominates anything he’s in. He’s such a flamboyant character and so contradictory. But there’s an endearing side to him as well. You feel with him, rather as I felt when I wrote about Richard Nixon, that all the bluster hides someone who’s rather uncertain and afraid he’s going to be laughed at. He’s a very complicated character. It wouldn’t have mattered so much if he’d been king of England. He might have embarrassed his cabinet ministers from time to time but they would have been making the decisions. But in Germany he had an awful lot of power and there was no strong cabinet government. The Chancellor as appointed and dismissed by him. Though he sometimes backed down in the face of opposition from his ministers, he didn’t always. And he was able to encourage things such as the naval race because of his power, and he interfered with foreign policy. The irony is—and Christopher Clark makes this point in his book The Sleepwalkers—that he was actually for peace. The problem was that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut or resist posturing. He behaved in ways that made people think Germany was more warlike than it was. He made people suspicious of Germany and of German intentions.
On the British side, I wanted to ask you about the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. He doesn’t emerge from the story particularly well does he?
I find him a cold and rather elusive fish! He struck me very much as an English public schoolboy type—rather priggish and convinced that he was doing the right thing, while other people, especially foreigners, were devious and untrustworthy. And he failed to recognise that he himself wasn’t always above board. He didn’t tell the Cabinet about the military talks with France, for instance, and he kept on saying they were nothing much, just mere technicalities. If you talk to people for 12 years and you’re making pretty detailed plans, you’re leading the French to expect that you will intervene if they’re attacked. He kept on saying that we’d promised nothing on paper, that we’d kept a free hand. I don’t think he was entirely truthful about that. And he really shows he’s lacking in the final crisis. He doesn’t get a sense until much too late how serious it is. And then he floats these various proposals at the conference of ambassadors. At that point, he should have gone to the Cabinet and said, “Look, we’re in a real crisis here and we need to tell the world what we intend to do.” The Cabinet might have split—and I think that’s what Grey and Asquith were afraid of—but my sense is that he could have a got a grip on it a lot earlier.
He remained unrepentant after the war didn’t he?
He did. Most of them remained unrepentant. I’ve looked at a lot of the memoirs and they’re all trying to justify themselves. Partly because the war was so ghastly. Grey’s memoirs give a very particular view and he argues throughout that he never committed Britain to anything. But I think he did. The French kept on saying, “He hasn’t said so clearly, but we know he’ll support his.” I find him unsympathetic, but perhaps I’m being unfair to him.
I don’t think you are! Your book belongs to a torrent of books about the First World War that have started to appear as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of war. Do you have any sense that this is going to help to shift our understanding of the war in any way?
I hope it will but it remains to be seen what the commemorations will be like. There are all sorts of things planned—the BBC is doing lots, the Imperial War Museum. What I wish wasn’t going to happen, but which I suspect will happen, is that these will be national commemorations. And I would like to think we’re far enough away from the war that we can see it internationally.
Margaret MacMillan’s “The War That Ended Peace” is published by Profile (£25)