Book Review: The war that ended Peace


A review of the latest work of the Canadian Professor of International History at Oxford: The war that ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan, Profile Books, 2013.

The Prime Minister wants us to commemorate not the end of World War I which was thought victorious, but the beginning which remains contentious. As a way into understanding the controversies surrounding how ‘the war to end all wars’ began in 1914 the Governor of the BBC has recommended the latest work of the Canadian Professor of International History at Oxford: The War that ended Peace (Profile Books 2013).

Professor MacMillan introduces the war as a result of Social Darwinism, ‘that bastard child of evolutionary thinking and its cousin militarism (which) fostered the belief that the fittest would survive’. Social Darwinism ranked human societies ‘as if they were species and promoted a faith not merely in evolution and progress but in the inevitability of struggle’ as in Teutonic-Slav rivalry or Anglo-Saxon superiority.

Contrary, however, to other commentators she does not believe the war was the inevitable consequence of a decade or more of bluff and counterbluff. It was the result of actions – and lack of action – by leaders who could have and should have done better. One of the attractions of this study is that the author makes comparisons with contemporary political decisions – or indecision – which have led to the wars of our own time.

Not everyone knows that Queen Victoria died in the arms of the Kaiser. Well, he was her eldest grandson and less inhibited than his uncle the new King Edward. Her first language was German. When the Kaiser corresponded with his cousin the Tsar, which he did regularly, he did so in English. How did he then manage to go to war against both England (sic) and Russia?

We are familiar with the picture book version of events. The heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was assassinated by a Serb terrorist on 28 June 1914. Although Sarajevo was in Bosnia the 83 year old Emperor declared war on Serbia. Russia had a treaty to defend Serbia and Germany had one to support Austria. But how did France in the west and Britain on an island get involved in this spat?

France saw the possibility to avenge the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. Britain only joined the fray on 3rd August when German troops entered ostensibly neutral Belgium on their way to Northern France. A week previously Lloyd George had said he knew of no Cabinet Minister who would be in favour of war.

This then was no chain reaction. Each move was carefully calculated. Each needed the help of bankers and industrialists. Wars are seldom paid for in advance. They are financed by loans which often take generations to repay. More than $10bn came from the USA. The industrialists told the politicians they could provide armaments for, at the most, four months. The one cost nobody considered was human life.

Leaders reckoned their ultimate strength not in cash or arms but in hundreds of thousands of expendable young men (and horses, equally rated – cf War Horse). Surprisingly, peasants and workers flocked to their respective flags. Not only on ‘Red Clydeside’ but in all European countries revolutions had been attempted and class warfare fostered. Socialism was already international. However people referred to each other as huns and frogs, jocks and paddies, mohammedans and heathens and learned songs about John Bull and Uncle Sam. MacMillan quotes the Marquess of Salisbury, as Prime Minister, saying it was like having a large lunatic asylum at his back. Life in the trenches may have been horrific but what does that tell us about toil in the farms and factories that had been so enthusiastically abandoned? Suddenly every man could become a boy scout. Over 500,000 (half a million!) went from Scotland, with a casualty rate second only to Serbia which started it.

In the end nobody was blamed for starting it. The Kaiser lived out the rest of his life drinking English tea in Holland. The King of England gave up his German surname. Austria was ‘balkanised’ with consequences still with us. The German people were expected to pay for the war, paving the way for an Austrian veteran to lead them to seek revenge on those they identified as the money lenders.
The war turned out to be the survival of the unfittest. The most common word used by historians to describe 1914 is stupidity. No one has ever tried to justify the ‘mutual butchery’ anticipated by Hindenberg. On the eve of war Churchill wrote: Everything tends to catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Pope Benedict XV thought it was suicide.

MacMillan compares World War I to the Olympics which were revived shortly before it. The ambition of the politicians was ‘stronger, faster, higher’ – battleships, railways, machine guns. The military, she claims, can never back down because that would be to suggest their fundamental intentions were wrong. Under the guise of deterrence the Ministry of Defence is always ready to become the Department for War. Yet WWI proved attack is not the best form of defence.

We are left with the question what to do about the monuments in every town and village ‘to God, King/Kaiser/Tsar/Emperor/Sultan and
Country’. God too was a victim of the carnage. Nor did the divine right of rulers survive. That leaves only country. But the truth is that in each country the ruling classes were more afraid of their own populations than they were of each other. WWI was the sacrifice they chose to make to prolong the status quo. There was no surrender, only an armistice (cessation of arms) before the Bolshevik virus spread.

In this highly recommended book Professor MacMillan offers a reflection on a country invented during World War I: Iraq. As a result of our leaders’ decision to invade it there are scenes there today that resemble trench warfare with daily death rates which should horrify us. Amazingly, 100 years on Britain is still run by Old Etonians. In WWI Eton sacrificed proportionately more than any town or village. Whether it was for the same reason that those who had left school at 14 for a 55 hour working week went to the trenches remains disputed. MacMillan allows us somewhat to penetrate the fog of this particular war.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.