Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace (2013)

     Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace (2013) Wow! A massive book, yet it reads easily, and at the end I felt I had both a good overview of how the First World War happened, and why. Individual choices and decisions, or refusal to make decisions, were a major factor in triggering the slide into war. And it was slide: a few key decisions changed circumstances so that it became nearly impossible to stop.
     My take-aways:
     The Tsar, Wilhelm II, and Franz-Josef were unfit to govern. They were weak men, who because of the autocratic, absolutist governance perforce had to rely on their advisers. None of them had much of sense of how the world works. All three allowed petulance and vanity to interfere with their appointments of those advisers and their acceptance of the advice. The governance of their states meant that they had the final word, which guaranteed that rivalries between advisers could and did result in a choice of extremes. Hence the impossible ultimatum sent to Serbia, which essentially demanded that a sovereign state give up its independence and become a mere province of another state.
     Worse, these men’s sense of their own life’s purpose appears to have amounted to little more than to maintain their roles, roles that were defined in terms of their socio-political status and the honour and glory of their realms. They were playing a game of status as boys do, as street gangs do, with their desperate focus on reputation. Reputation is what you think other people think of you, so it’s always more or less of a delusion. To someone who values reputation over-much, appearance is more important than reality.  One consequence is that these men tended to see compromise as a diminution of their cred. Diplomacy became more and more a game of bluff and counterbluff.
     The British were no better. George V was a constitutional monarch, so he could not decide. But all that meant was that the decisions devolved on the members of the Cabinet, which in practice meant that the strongest personalities carried the day. These men also saw their role as maintaining the status of Great Britain, of upholding the glory and honour of the Empire. They shied away from direct involvement in Europe, and so did not urge the kind of conference that might have let everyone come out of the mess with their “honour” more or less intact.
     Another factor was mutual suspicion. It seems crazy, but the rulers and governors of the European powers thought in terms of stealing each others resources. That’s not the language they used of course, but theft is what demands for “compensation”, threats of acquiring chunks of border lands, and the deal-making around “spheres of influence” and colonies amounted to. The sense of entitlement behind this attitude is gobsmackingly awful. The arms race of the time reflected this suspicion: if you couldn’t defend yourself, you might lose land, people, resources, colonies.
     Public opinion, which had been mobilised to support government aims in the 1800s (most notably in the Franco-Prussian war), became ever more important. Notions of national prestige mattered even more to ordinary folk than to their masters, who were members of a highly intermarried, culturally integrated, and international class. Governments discovered that once they had used national prestige as a means of unifying their realms, they could not turn it off.
      If a general conclusion is possible, it comes to this: Human beings are rarely capable of transcending their times. All the players made the same assumptions about politics and power, about international relations, about status, rank, and entitlement. Their language shows that few of the players ever questioned or analysed those assumptions; most were not even aware of them. Personal ambitions and vanities floated on these implicit ideas like froth on the sea. Very few had sufficient imagination to grasp what a catastrophe a modern war would be, and they were minor figures with little influence, precisely because they had the sense and sensibility to reflect on the consequences of their actions. Most of the planners simply took for granted that war was a natural condition of humankind (some preachers even thought of it as imposed by God), and therefore that their work of planning for it and using it to back up diplomacy was merely their duty. Then as now, lack of imagination was a recommendation for promotion.
      A very good book. Highly recommended. ****

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