Anyone under the illusion that the outbreak of World War I was the result only or even mainly of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia will be disabused of that conception after reading this thorough account by Oxford University scholar Margaret Macmillan. In fact, after reading this book, one can only wonder how in the world war was averted until 1914.
Macmillan provides a detailed introduction to all the major players in European international affairs at the turn of the 20th century. She also reviews the alliances, competitions, hostilities, jealousies, and the sociological currents feeding the inchoate war machine: in particular, inflated senses of honor, nationalism, imperialism, and what one might call a racist interpretation of Darwinism.
At this time, the major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) were competing for hegemony in several dimensions:
First, they wanted to be seen as strong and powerful military states.
Second, they wanted as big a share of the colonial pie as they could grab. Colonies could be exploited for natural resources, laborers, soldiers, and the psychological benefit of the impression of world dominance. Britain and, to a lesser extent France, had stolen a march on the others by gobbling up large tracts of Africa, India, and China. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was correctly viewed as on the verge of dissolution, which would soon open up great opportunities for colonizing oil rich areas of the Middle East. Germany in particular was trying to make up for lost time. Each of the powers feared that if it didn’t leap into the fray first, it would lose out, and a hated rival would steal “its place in the sun.”
Third, each, albeit in varying degrees, had a sense of racial and/or ethnic superiority, which contributed to their determination to dominate lesser groups.
Fourth, the very powerful memes of nationalism, radicalism, and anti-Semitism all were roiling around in the air and causing destabilization.
An important factor adding to instability was the fact that no one Power was in position to dominate the others. Accordingly, all the Powers sought to ally themselves with any other strong Powers whose interests did not conflict too seriously with their own. By 1910, Europe had divided into two rather hostile (but not yet warring) camps: (1) the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (rather reluctantly) Italy; and (2) the Entente—France and Russia and (maybe) England.
Members of both the Alliance and the Entente perceived their own agreements to be primarily defensive in nature. But MacMillan points out that those same arrangements seemed to outsiders to be offensive in purpose. As a result, every continental Power perceived itself to be surrounded by hostile forces, and endeavored to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable outbreak of war.
In addition, advances in technology, particularly railroads, made it possible to mobilize a country’s army in a much shorter time than in previous years. This situation created pressure on the others to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you could be caught at a great disadvantage, if an enemy Power was ready to deploy before you were.
Thus, Europe was a powder keg, with players just waiting for an excuse to light the fuse. The Balkans, being the most volatile area at the time, was merely the most likely source of the much-anticipated spark. [Ironically, Europe had weathered at least three very close calls (the Moroccan Crisis and two Balkan Wars) between 1908 and 1913 that had nearly resulted in war but were smoothed out in the end. But the pressure was building, and no leader took the necessary steps to defuse the new crisis adequately.] After the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia that could never be accepted, and the game was on.
Discussion: This is a detailed history of the period immediately preceding World War I, rather than a history of the war itself. To that end, MacMillan tells you everything you always wanted to know about the situation in Europe at that time. While she spreads plenty of blame all around, she is probably in the camp assigning the most blame for the war to Germany, with its possibly insane kaiser and its power-hungry and ideologically extremist ministers.
One criticism is that the author could have forgone the minutiae about the predilections of various ministers and their wives for fishing or gardening and the like. In their place, she would have served readers better by adding background on the popular writers of the time, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose influential book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) argued that Germany, constituted primarily of the (allegedly) superior Aryan race, needed to come out triumphant in the never-ending struggle among ‘the chaos of races.” [Chamberlain was British, but later became a German citizen.] The anonymous and infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, and positing a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, was also widely translated and disseminated. Many of the racist tracts at the turn of the century, such as The Social Role of the Aryan by the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1899) explicitly cited Darwin to provide a scientific imprimatur to the advocacy of racial eugenics. These ideas caught fire among the political and intellectual elite in Europe at the century’s end, and indeed, were still fueling social policy before and during World War II. Some background on these writings would have provided a much-needed explanation for the currents of thought that roiled these turbulent times, and would have helped displace another commonly held misconception that it was mainly the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I that resulted in World War II.
Evaluation: This book is an excellent addition to any World War I library. MacMillan provides a fascinating backstory to many of the events leading up to the war. While some may take issue with her emphases, this book is definitely worth consideration.
We listened to an audio version of this book. The narrator, actor Richard Burnip, is quite competent and has a delightful British accent. Our only complaint is that each disc ended and then started over with nary a breath in between.
Published unabridged on 25 compact discs by Audible Ltd. Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013