Friday, April 04, 2014

[Books] Book Look:The War That Ended the Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Something you don't know about me: I have for many years had a passing interest in World War I. Not the war itself but the run up to it; the state of Europe in the early part of the 20th century and the events and conflicts the led to the war. Winston Churchill, who had fought in the Boer War, was Lord of the Admiralty at the outset of WW1, and led and inspired England in WW2, called the weeks leading up to the outset of WW1 hostilities the most dramatic moments in his experience. That's saying something.

Coming up on the 100th anniversary of its outset a spate of WW1 books were released this year, with probably more to come. The one I chose to read, The War That Ended the Peace, was well received, but I cannot give it a recommendation. It is unquestionably comprehensive and well-researched, and Macmillan writes fine, clear sentences. However, the content is overly dense and the focus is uneven. Paragraphs will often mix documented facts, general presumptions, anecdote, rumor, and editorial comments from varying years and circumstances, leading to the impression of cherry picking to validate a foregone conclusion. It is virtually impossible not to see the bias, and it's not just in the choice of adjectives or point-of-view. She has an entire chapter entitled "What were they thinking?" Also, rather annoyingly, she peppers the book with comparisons to current events. Whether as an earnest attempt to makes us see our current world more clearly, or as an act of marketing to help short-attention span readers relate, it's out of place. Also, although British, she seems to have a particular bone to pick with the U.S. Republican Party.

I should point out that bias in such a work is unavoidable. No non-trivial communication is bias-free and the start of WW1 is one of the most complicated moments of human history. But Macmillan's forthright projection that she views most of the main players as behaving foolishly, even drawing comparisons to those she believes are modern day fools, smacks of a soft arrogance. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the thing is that your final payoff for all this are conclusions that fall in lockstep with conventional wisdom. Again, there's nothing wrong with that it's just that as a reward for the time and effort of reading it's a bit of a letdown.

Here begins a minor historical rant.

One of the favorite games historians plays with WW1 is assigning culpability. For example, in the end we get the sense that Macmillan places the prime culpability mostly on Germany, or some combination of Austro-Hungarian intransigence and Germany's blank check, while acknowledging that the cumulative political effect of numerous individual developments over the preceding years contributed to the dangerous atmosphere. (From the meat of Macmillan's text she seems to fall into this camp, although in the epilogue she suggests that is is too complicated to sort out and really everyone is at fault for lack of effort or creativity in diplomacy. Weak tea.)

Minor variations on this is what I would call the conventional wisdom. People often stretch this by assigning smatterings of responsibility to the Russians for not having better control of Serbia or the England for being distracted and waffling, and so forth. Whatever the variation, I have a problem with conventional wisdom. All of these theories depend on the supposition that if the ultimate crisis wasn't triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand something else would have done so, therefore we can place blame based on who is responsible for Europe being in the state it was in at the time of the assassination. But as I see it, that is by no means a foregone conclusion.

There had been several crises leading up to the assassination and each crisis was averted through diplomacy. There were dissatisfied parties in each case, but none of them lead to war. This was referred to as the Concert of Europe and was, in fact, so successful, that until the final hours there was a prevailing expectation that it would prevail again. To her credit Macmillan is quite good at highlighting this sort of bipolar mindset in Europe wherein everyone believed war was inevitable as was actively preparing for it, but also had faith in the powers to sort it out in their usual messy but effective way. So the fact that the Concert of Europe failed in this crisis, does not lead me to believe that it was doomed to fail at some point. It seems to me just as likely to not fail given its history. Put another way, no political system is so impervious to events that there isn't some crisis that would flip the switch on it. That, to me, lays the culpability at the feet to the assassins explicitly. That would be the trigger man Princip and his Black Hand partners, their boss Ilic, and their patron Apis and his cronies.

If you really wanted to look for root causes I would explore how all those men got into the positions they were in (both politically and psychological) rather than blame the machinations of the European powers, which were the result of incalculable complexities generated by flawed and irrational human beings. You may as well blame it on the rain.

Here endeth the minor historical rant.

Should you read The War That Ended the Peace? I'm going to offer a qualified no. If you already have a background in the era and events, it will add little to what you know. If you don't it would serve as a comprehensive overview and a basis for further investigation if you find yourself interested, however, there are likely better, easier places to start.

Let me just lob a couple of WW1 book titles if you're interested in pursuing this further. The best retelling of the events leading up to the War that I have read is Europe's Last Summer, by David Fromkin. It dodges much of the criticism I had of the Macmillan book; it's taut and focused and the approach is sufficiently detached to not further muddy the already opaque waters. Though still in the camp of conventional wisdom, Fromkin settles very firmly of the German General Staff for culpability. I gave it a brief review a while back. Dreadnought, by Robert Massie, is a view of this time through the lens of the naval competition between England and Germany. Although limited in scope with respect to the War it was an excellent story. Lastly, probably one of my top ten non-fiction favorites, The Great War in Africa, by Byron Farwell. It is not about the run up to war, but about its execution in far off lands. Just from the tone of it, I would guess it doesn't sit well with formal historians, but who cares when the stories are so damn good.