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The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan- Book Review

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The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is a new book by the noted historian Margaret MacMillan that explores the origins of World War I as well as the social, political, and economic milieu in Europe before the war. Additionally, concepts such as the role of technology and philosophical ideas in contributing to the war are also considered in this book. Thus, MacMillan’s work is an interesting and articulate analysis on the causes of the First World War, or the Great War as it was referred to at the time. An analysis of the book reveals lessons about the origin of the Great War while also shedding light on present day issues and the nature of war and military technology.

Why War?  

Margaret MacMillan’s book is a book about war. While it is specifically about why the Great War occurred, it is also a larger study about why wars and major events occur. MacMillan takes the view that “very little in history is inevitable.”[1] This important statement applies to both those who would argue that war was (or is) impossible because the structure of the system, or because certain values, technologies, or economic interconnectivity have made it unthinkable as well as to those who argue that war in certain cases is inevitable. Certainly, many historians have argued that the Great War was inevitable for a variety of reasons, many of which focus on the role of Germany. MacMillan argues that while certain forces did make war more likely, ultimately the decision to go to war, like any war, was the result of a complex series of decisions and factors.[2] It would be a mistake to seek the consolation of a simple answer for the cause of the Great War, as many historians and political scientists have done so in an attempt to create a tight thesis for the causes of the war have done. A simple argument, such as blaming Germany, provided politicians and historians with a convenient way of downplaying the role of their own countries in creating the tensions that led to the Great War. Ultimately, MacMillan argues that the Great War arose through the complex interplay of many factors which, while heightening tensions, did not lead inevitably to war, which ultimately was the result of a series of bad choices in 1914.

MacMillan demonstrates how the policies of all the major European powers:  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the French Republic, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire all heightened tensions with each other and lead to war, instead of the war being the fault of Germany as many historians have alleged. If anything, Germany felt isolated and surrounded by hostile powers- France to the west and Russia to the east with a potential blockade by the British.[3] France’s obsession over the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine and its hatred towards Germany pushed it almost automatically towards making alliances against Germany that would undoubtedly heighten Germany’s sense of siege.[4] Austria-Hungary’s policies were recklessly expansive for an empire that seemed to have already reached its limits. As things stood, it had difficulty containing the nationalist sentiments within its own borders, without trying to acquire yet more ethnic minorities, such as those who would join the empire through the annexation of Bosnia in the Balkans. Russian policy lacked consistency, wavering between allying with and allying against Germany- a country which did not threaten its interests- while swinging between competing against Great Britain in Asia or Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. This is not to say that Germany was only the victim. In many ways, such as its incompetent foreign policy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, its construction of a large navy, its insistence on a plan that was wedded to a bureaucratic momentum that necessitated a two front war against Russia and France, and its unqualified support for Austria-Hungary, Germany also pursued a series of strategies that caused discomfort in other countries. Ultimately, the various great powers in Europe swung from tension to tension until they ended up at a point when tensions could no longer be contained. These international tensions combined with various currents of thought, such as Social Darwinism, and beliefs of technological superiority, made war more likely.

Despite this, some liberals, socialists, and businessmen thought that war was unlikely for technological and economic reasons or because civilization had progressed beyond the savagery that characterized previous eras. This theme is an important and interesting part of MacMillan’s analysis.

Is War Ever Impossible?

One of the greatest works written on the general causes of war is the book War in Human Civilization by Dr. Azar Gat. Gat’s work, which is based on empirical research in the social sciences, including the fields of economics, psychology, anthropology, and archaeology shows that warfare of some sort or the other, whether tribal skirmishes or massive interstate conflict, is a near constant of the human experience, one that is unlikely to change. Gat argues that, contrary to some recent speculation about human nature being a blank slate, humans do have some general tendencies that are reflected in all societies, though culture also plays a role.[5] Consequently, it is a constant fact that societies will almost always face conflict with each other, because it is in human nature to 1) be tribal in some sense, 2) compete with other tribes whether for prestige or resources.[6] Modern conflicts are just an extrapolation of these basic conditions onto states and the international system. Conflict and competition are resolved through peaceful means or violent means depending on which is more beneficial to a society at a given moment.

It was not until industrialization made war an expensive endeavor vis-à-vis other methods of resolving competition that the incidence of war declined. This view was expressed by Norman Angell, an Englishman, in his 1909 work The Great Illusion.[7] Angell argued that war no longer paid because the winning power would gain nothing by it in the modern era.[8] The past rationale of war, which often involved carting off the spoils, would not make sense in the modern era, as there would be no benefit in destroying one’s trading partners.[9] A similar argument about the inefficiency of modern warfare is made in Steven Pinker’s book on the history of violence. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker makes the argument that proportionately, conflict has become less violent in the past two centuries than ever before and only seemed to be more violent because of technological advances. As a result of changes in the economic and technological capabilities of humanity, countries began to resolve competition more through diplomacy than ever before, leaving many 19th century Europeans very hopeful of a peaceful future.[10] Gat notes this, but argues that nonetheless, countries will still engage in war if they feel resources and prestige are at stake and the costs are not too high since the urge to resolve conflict decisively through violence is a primeval urge that is never too far from the surface of any society. As Angell himself noted, “a majority of Europeans still believed…that war was sometimes necessary.”[11] Thus despite the compelling rationale for peace, Europeans still perceived that war might sometimes be desirable. This goes to show that societies will always attempt to make war an option for themselves. This also explains the Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs) in the 20th century, utilized by states or other interests in order to cancel out the advantages of previous military developments and make military victory an option again.  In other words, the point was to develop the capacity to make war pay again. Thus, RMA I was developed in part to overcome the military strategies and technologies that predominated in European armies at the start of the Great War. The United States used RMA IV technology to help it overcome the mostly RMA I conventional army of Iraq. It is likely that if RMA III (nuclear weapons) are ever countered by a future RMA, war between nuclear armed powers will become much more of a possibility.

It is important to consider these views because MacMillan shows in her book that despite the view of many contemporary 19th century Europeans, war was in fact a possibility, one not to be discounted merely because of economic integration, family ties, or technological advances. It is important to learn from these views, because in today’s world, a common argument is the similar view that weapons of mass destruction and globalization all but make war impossible. The lead up to the Great War, a time when many people also thought that war was not a possibility, is an enlightening period to study because it demonstrates that the possibility for war should never be discounted despite conditions to the contrary. The impossibility of war was exactly what some contemporary Europeans of the belle époque (the period between 1871 and 1914) believed that the economic and technological improvements of their times would in fact make war impossible. Certainly, the long period of peace and progress in Europe that ensued after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 made such a view seem credible.[12] One such individual who believed that war was impossible was Ivan Bloch. A major Russian banker and railroad financier, Bloch spent a significant portion of his life and wealth spreading his views that future warfare was futile. Bloch argued that contrary to the prevailing cult of the offensive that permeated European militaries at the time, “modern industrial societies could put vast armies into the field and equip them with deadly weapons, which swung the advantage to the defensive.”[13] These weapons included “more accurate and rapidly firing guns” which made it “almost impossible for armies to attack well-defended positions.”[14] These well-defended positions would be strengthened by modern defensive technologies such as reinforced steel and barbed wire.[15] While men were at war, wartime production at home would fall, due to the shortage of labor, Bloch argued, failing to anticipate the fact that women would soon begin fill in for men.

Bloch also argued that a general war would lead to revolution and destroy all political institutions.[16] This argument proved to be partially correct. Certainly, based on Bloch’s experiences with the shaky Russian political system, this was a fair prediction to make, which turned out to be true. However, in more stable countries with strong institutions and democratic processes, such as the United States and Great Britain, revolution was never a serious possibility. More mildly autocratic countries or unstable democracies could have gone either way. Both France (1917) and Germany (1918) experienced mutinies during the war, though only the German one was successful in ending the war. Nonetheless, despite the fact that this argument was acknowledged by some statesmen, many officials, such as the Tsar and Russian ministers concluded that rather than overthrowing the system, war provided the chance to fully unite the people behind the system.[17]

Ivan Bloch’s argument that the wars of his future would turn into long, bloody stalemates turned out to be true in the case of the Great War, though his argument that “there will be no war in the future,” did not come to pass because he failed to take into account the fact that countries would adapt their strategies and technologies to counter the negative effects of the industrial warfare that characterized the first few years of the Great War.[18] The result was the first RMA of the 20th century. The strength of Bloch’s argument lay in demonstrating the disastrous effects of technology on the near future but its weakness lay in not realizing that in all cases, countries changed their tactics in order to outwit their enemies and that a stalemate situation in war might not lead to the conclusion that war was impossible but to the conclusion that a nation must innovate to break the stalemate. Nations that overemphasized certain ideas such as the cult of the offensive such as France saw their limitations in the Great War but then alternatively overemphasized defensive strategies as a result, which failed as a strategy to protect the country in the Second World War.

Lessons not learned

Thus MacMillan demonstrates that war was never impossible and that there were strong strategic imperatives for major European powers to at least consider war, despite the obvious negative possibilities of industrial warfare. In addition to these basic strategic arguments, MacMillan lays out certain other arguments pertaining to technology for explaining the Great War, which will be considered shortly. Additionally, MacMillan also makes the interesting and convincing argument that the Great War was the result of lessons not learned. One such lesson not learned was to the lesson of learning from previous crises. When one considers the number of times Europe almost went to war in a variety of different alliance configurations, it seems as though the outbreak of conflict in 1914 just happened to be the one time that European leaders were finally unable to manage a conflict and prevent the outbreak of a general war. Taken from this view, the Great War can be seen as the result of chance. On the other hand, given the large number of such chances- near misses of war- it also seems probable that eventually one conflict would not be diffused in time. War could have broken out any number of times. For example, in 1878, war could have broken out between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the division of the Balkans after a Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire.[19] War could have broken out in either 1906 or 1911 over Morocco.[20] The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 could have turned into general wars.[21] In all these cases, European powers become too complacent, believing that they could always diplomatically work their way out of a great war without setting up mechanisms for doing so or diffusing the underlying tensions that led to all these crises.

In the realm of wars of different combinations of alliances, had a war broken out merely a few years before 1914, it could have been possible that Britain and Russia would have found themselves on different sides instead of the same side. Both countries had long been at odds in Asia, engaged in a “Great Game” over the control of Central Asia and rivals in Persia (Iran).[22] Furthermore, Britain took the side of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, just a mere couple of years before the entente of 1907 was concluded between Russia and Britain.[23] Britain’s alliance with France was by no means completely solid in the period between 1904 and 1914, as suspicions remained between the two countries over issues such as their colonial rivalry, which brought them dangerously close to war in 1898 over Fashoda in southern Sudan.[24] Even afterwards, many in Britain were wary over being dragged into a general conflict by France and the French were uncertain over British commitment to their alliance as the result of lackluster support over the Moroccan Crisis of 1911.[25] The alliance between France and Russia was firmer but resented by many in Russia who felt that Russia’s natural ally was Germany since they had no geopolitical rivalry and shared a commitment to the same political system.[26] Russia and Germany came close to allying on several occasions.[27]

A second lesson not learned that led to the Great War was the fact that European countries did not learn from previous examples of industrial warfare: the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War as well as various other wars such as the Boer War and Russo-Turkish War. European observes unfortunately dismissed the lessons of all three wars for a variety of reasons. The American Civil War featured long, bloody campaigns not too different from those that would characterize the Great War. However, European military strategists did not believe that there much to learn from the Americans, for both technical and nationalist reasons- Americans didn’t know how to do things right like the more “advanced” European nations. While the Civil War dragged on for four years, previous European wars of the 19th century were generally short: the Austro-Prussian War lasted seven weeks for example.[28] The Prussian strategy of swift mobilization and transport via railroad seemed more indicative of the future of war than the Civil War, which was mostly fought in the non-industrial agrarian South, whose terrain did not reflect the densely packed industrial populations of Europe. Other wars such as the Boer War were interpreted as being “aberrations” due to different terrain.[29]  One gets the impression that military planners preferred to focus on optimistic scenarios to the exclusion of more drawn out wars. After all, modern warfare did not accord with classical European military thinking they prized heroic qualities in a warrior, such as Alexander the Great, whose valor allow him to defeat larger armies.[30] Military commanders were loath to embrace the new reality that “three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes.”[31] Additionally, embracing a new method of fighting was difficult from a bureaucratic point of view as “changing such things as tactics, drills, or training methods is time-consuming and unsettling.”[32] MacMillan also notes that the militaries of Europe were trained to solve problems so being able to think through and figure out a strategy for victory was considered a given. Provided the right strategy was hit upon, a strategist could overcome the problems of modern warfare.[33]

Although the classical view was driven by wishful thinking and nostalgia, there was also a sound empirical basis to it that at least made it plausible. The idea of offensive war was based on the belief that militaries that boldly took the offensive had an advantage by maintaining momentum and as a result, would defeat more immobile, static armies. A swift offensive victory was desirable because it would quickly end a war on favorable terms for the victor. In terms of planning and execution, military staffs also believed that there would be more ideas for offensive rather than defensive strategies as “it is psychologically easier to think in terms of action.”[34] Another motivation was the dream of acquiring territory, whether to deny the enemy resources or for the sake of conquest. Many segments among the French population and government were obsessed with the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which was to be reconquered.[35] The recent empirical cases for planners that seemed to justify this continued focus on offensive warfare included the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, in which the Prussians and Japanese both successfully went on the offensive and won in a short period of time. Indeed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, European observes admired the manner in which the Japanese initiated the war and took the offensive.[36] On the other hand, European observes tended to overlook any lessons about the nature of industrial warfare partly due to racial theories about Eastern nations, whether the “oriental” Japanese or the Asiatic Russians. Thus evidence for the nature of industrial warfare from the long siege of Port Arthur (1904-1905) was glossed over as was evidence from the Franco-Prussian War which demonstrated the limits of the offensive when “48,000 Germans held a line of some thirty-five kilometers against 131,000 French [who were attacking].”[37] Thus, European military planners vastly underestimated the changes new technology wrought on the conduct of warfare as their thought tended towards older paradigms.

New Weapons

As previously noted, the growth and development of industrial technologies changed the nature of warfare faster than military thought could catch up. MacMillan argues that the failure of militaries to understand the impact of new technologies was related to their failure to prevent the Great War as they were either unaware of or dismissive of the deadly changes the new weapons had on the nature of warfare. It would take the example of the Great War for militaries to fully note and begin to counter the new technologies that the 19th century made possible. For example, “soldiers in Napoleon’s time had muskets, which, with good training, they could reload- standing up- and fire three times a minute, and which were only accurate up to forty-five meters.”[38] Only 55 years later, by 1870, soldiers had rifles which were accurate up to almost half a kilometer that could be loaded five to six times per minute lying down.[39] By 1900, rifles were accurate and lethal over a range of up to a kilometer.[40] Improvements in artillery were especially devastating as technology improved from a cannon being fired across a battlefield (a range of half a kilometer) in the Napoleonic wars to a range of seven to ten kilometers in 1900.[41] Attackers in such a situation would have “had to survive several kilometers of shell fire then several hundred meters of intense rifle and machine-gun fire on their way towards the enemy.”[42] This made traditional, heroic battlefield initiatives almost impossible. Given the swift changes, it is easy to understand that military strategists had difficulty comprehending or accepting the impact of technology on modern warfare, especially as such technology overturned hundreds of years of strategic thinking. Ivan Bloch noted that the military was a closed circle, resistant to change and proud of their accumulated traditions.[43]

Another technological change was the railroad. This, however, was considered advantageous by military planners, and unlike advances in weaponry which could have dissuaded many from war, advances in railways often made militaries more confident of their ability to wage war. The Industrial Revolution allowed larger armies and trains were the means by which there giant armies were to be delivered to the front on time.[44] This essentially meant that whichever nation was able to effectively utilize and construct railroads would have a decisive advantage in war, as was demonstrated in the Franco-Prussian War. It was for this reason that French finance in Russia directed the construction of railroads towards the German border so as to make Russia’s mobilization on its western frontier with Germany more effective and swift.[45] Germany, of course was considered the exemplar of the use of railroads for warfare, and because of its confidence in its administrative capabilities, it was confident of itself in war. Germany’s railway efficiency was demonstrated in 1914, when it was able to transport fifty-four cars long trains over a bridge at Cologne every ten minutes.[46] It was impossible to provision a large modern army without the quantity of supplies that only a modern rail system could transport; thus, it was necessary to have an effective railroad system. Russia’s ineffective Trans-Siberian railway helped it lose the Russo-Japanese War.[47] Thus, despite the potential for disaster, the potential for railways serving as a means of bringing ever larger armies to the fronts was a temptation that made warfare more likely because every army hoped to outmaneuver its rival.


An important lesson from MacMillan’s book is that greatest economic interconnectivity or technological developments do not necessarily prevent war. Military planners might not understand the full consequences of these changes until it is too late or may believe that they can overcome these developments through the adoption of new strategies, technologies, and economic systems.

Ultimately, the major lesson and analytical take away from MacMillan’s work is that in the end, war is not inevitable but it is also not inevitable that there be peace. To think war impossible is no more of a certainty than to think it to be the only choice. As MacMillan writes at the end of her book, “there are always choices.”[48] The specific series of events that led to the outbreak of the Great War after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 are the results of those choices. However, before 1914 the factors that made war more likely were also the result of choices as were the choices of how to interpret understand the lessons of previous wars and new technologies. Thus, it is important to realize that the previous lessons of war, its administration, weaponry, and strategy all have to be studied to as to make informed decisions about engaging in future wars. It may never be possible to totally abolish war, but lessons should be learned from past wars so that future wars are only entered into rarely, and with the utmost thought and preparation, and an emphasis on minimizing damages, so that an entire generation does not so casually stumble into another great war with tens of millions of casualties.


[1] MacMillan, Margaret, (The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House, 2013), xxix.

[2] Ibid.

[3] MacMillan, 59.

[4] MacMillan, 149.

[5] Gat, Azar, (War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-10.

[6] Gat, 11-56.

[7] MacMillan, 292.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] MacMillan, 288.

[11] MacMillan, 293.

[12] MacMillan, 288.

[13] MacMillan, 290.

[14] MacMillan, 291.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] MacMillan, 368.

[18] MacMillan, 290.

[19] MacMillan, 408.

[20] MacMillan, 378-403 and 439-465.

[21] MacMillan, 466-500.

[22] MacMillan, 197.

[23] MacMillan, 175.

[24] MacMillan, 146.

[25] MacMillan, 457.

[26] MacMillan, 200.

[27] MacMillan, 205.

[28] MacMillan, 7.

[29] MacMillan, 329.

[30] MacMillan, 326.

[31] Ibid.

[32] MacMillan, 329.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] MacMillan, 372-375.

[36] MacMillan, 328.

[37] Ibid.

[38] MacMillan, 326.

[39] MacMillan, 327.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] MacMillan, 319.

[45] MacMillan, 157-158.

[46] MacMillan, 320.

[47] Ibid.

[48] MacMillan, 645.


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Written by Akhipill

February 26, 2014 at 10:39 PM

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