What I’m reading: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, Random House (2014)

My reading list is a year behind in marking the centennial the First World War’s onset, which occasioned an outpouring of new and reissued histories. (Now many of those books are available in paperback, so a year behind isn’t so bad.) I had read MacMillan’s impressive Paris 1919. My appreciation for that book led me to grab The War That Ended Peace of a bookshelf lined with World War I-themed competitors.

Paris 1919 tells the story of the peace conference that had such a dramatic impact on questions of nationalism, territory, reparations, and international organization that continue to haunt us today. The lessons of 1919 felt current without having to be explicitly stated, in that they contextualized later and contemporary developments. It brought its major figures to life, with vivid portraits of Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, George Clemenceau, and others. The book admirably showed how factors from different “levels of analysis” affected decision-makers, and how those mixed with personal conflicts, boredom, and exhaustion.

Like Paris 1919, The War That Ended Peace is not a book about World War I. The war itself appears occurs in a dozen pages in the epilogue after 600 pages of preamble. The book tries to explain what led Europe to the disastrous war after a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity on the continent (though not for many in Europe’s colonies). It effectively counters explanations of inevitability or sole guilt. It largely debunks common myths that no one understood that the next major-power war would be more destructive and industrialized than previous ones. Though many policymakers thought the next war would be ended with quick offensives, MacMillan shows that a number of influential figures—observing the Crimean and American Civil Wars—counseled otherwise. The book is, above all, a recollection of hundreds of choices and an assessment on their impact on the coming of war. The war was not, she argues, inevitable. People’s choices mattered.

MacMillan’s new book is admirable in many regards and worth buying and reading, but it falls short of its predecessor. It will doubtlessly be a reference for those writing about the war in history and IR, but the book is less satisfying for outsiders who are looking for a better grasp on the pivotal period. The Oxford historian’s research is tremendous in its depth, but the sheer quantity of it overwhelms analysis. Much of that research could have informed the book without being included in the text. I enjoyed much of the detailed, but longed for more synthesis. I finished the book feeling that I had been re-introduced to a deluge of personalities, events, meetings, and competing explanations, but I still lacked a clear indication of what was truly important.

Much of the book is dedicated to crises—in the Balkans, in Morocco, in the Ottoman Empire, in the press, inside the many governments and interwoven dynasties. MacMillan’s point is, in part, that the constant crises had a cumulative effect and numbed leaders to the possibility that the next crisis could lead to a devastating war. The book recounts a roller coaster of improving and declining relations between each of the major countries. This roller coaster is often focused on events that seem a bit superficial or are not adequately contextualized: spats between nobles followed by visits where those same nobles have pleasant conversations. Sympathies, both public and elite, seem to surge one moment and collapse the next.

Perhaps, but in the book these episodes often overwhelm more serious issues like rising power, naval races, and even the broader worldviews of leaders (though all of these are also addressed). Crises that are largely ephemeral are given near-equal treatment to those that endure. Some chapters feel like horse-race presidential coverage applied to diplomatic history: Who’s up and who’s down? All of the countries involved had diverse interests, which conflicted in some spheres while coinciding in others. How they prioritized among these interests is crucial in understanding why they chose the allies they did, but this evaluation is sometimes missing.

Even of the major figures, none seems to fascinate the author as her Paris 1919 characters did—which is especially strange considering many are the same people. There is much attention given to the young Kaiser, but usually Wilhelm just seems petty. The Tsar Nicholas is feeble and distracted, even as MacMillan emphasizes his nearly unchallenged authority. The portrait seems somewhat disconnected from Russian decisiveness to back Serbia against Austria-Hungary at the fateful hour. Franz Josef just seems old. The French political scene was fragmented, and the personalities there also seem fragmentary. In Great Britain, not even the young Winston Churchill emerges as particularly interesting. Alongside these figures, there is a tremendous cast of characters that fade in and out of the story, but it is not always clear who really mattered. (Oddly, the book’s linearity and overwhelming detail at times reminded me of Struggle for the Mastery of Europe, which nearly requires a cheat sheet to read.)

Strangely, given MacMillan’s stature and ability to connect with a non-academic audience, the book suffers from poor editing. In some portions, there is a great deal of repetition. Whereas the lessons of 1919 emerged rather organically from the text, The War That Ended Peace includes awkward references to later events and present problems that take the reader rudely out of the early 1900s for a dozen words at a time. At best, these references distract; at worst, they offer hasty and questionable analogies. They will also have the unfortunate effect of making the book feel dated well before its time.

MacMillan’s explanation of why Europe’s relative peace can be (perhaps a bit unfairly) reduced to the following: Historical contingency matters…but so do major trends. I appreciate complexity, multiple causation, and the role of accident, but MacMillan’s explanation does not offer much of an explanation at all. The historian can recognize that there are multiple causes while still giving analytical priority to a few of them.

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