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EXCERPT: The War That Ended Peace

03/14/2014 05:50 EDT | Updated 05/18/2014 05:59 EDT

The Huffington Post Canada is delighted to once again be partnering with the Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In the weeks leading up to the April 2 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Margaret MacMillan:

One hundred years after the event there is still no agreement on how or why the war started. Explanations range from national rivalries to arms races, focus on policies such as alliances and arms races, or seek to assign responsibility to particular powers or individuals. We can agree though that the war was a catastrophe for Europe for it ended a century of peace and prosperity and ushered in the 20th century with all its horrors.

The outbreak of war in 1914 was a shock but it did not come out of a clear blue sky. The clouds had been gathering in the previous two decades and many Europeans were uneasily aware of that fact. Images of thunderstorms about to break, dams about to overflow, avalanches about to hurtle down, these were quite common in the literature of the time. On the other hand, they had, many of them, a confidence that they could deal with the threats of conflict and build better and stronger international institutions to settle disputes peaceably and make war obsolete. Perhaps the last golden years of pre-war Europe is more a construct of later generations but even at the time the literature also had images of the rays of sunlight spreading across the world and humanity marching towards a more prosperous and happy future.

Very little in history is inevitable. Europe did not have to go to war in 1914; a general war could have been avoided up to the last moment on August 4 when the British finally decided to come in. Looking back we can of course see the forces that were making war more likely: the rivalries over colonies, economic competition, ethnic nationalisms which were tearing apart the failing empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, or the growth of a nationalist public opinion which put new pressures on leaders to stand up for their nation's perceived rights and interests.

We can see, as Europeans did at the time, the strains in the international order. The German question for example. The creation of Germany in 1871 had suddenly presented Europe with a new great power at its heart. Would Germany be the fulcrum around which the rest of Europe would turn or the threat around which it would unite? How were the rising powers outside Europe--Japan and the United States--to be fitted in to a world system dominated by Europe? Social Darwinism, that bastard child of evolutionary thinking, and its cousin militarism, fostered the belief that competition among nations was part of nature's rule and that in the end the fittest would survive. And that probably meant through war. The late 19th century's admiration of the military as the noblest part of the nation and the spread of military values into civilian societies fed the assumptions that war was a necessary part of the great struggle for survival, that it might indeed be good for societies, tuning them up so to speak.

Science and technology which had brought so much benefit to humankind in the 19th century also brought new and more dreadful weapons. National rivalries fuelled an arms race which in turn deepened insecurities and so added yet more impetus to the race. Nations looked for allies to make up for their own weaknesses and their decisions helped to bring Europe closer to war. France, which was losing the demographic race with Germany, made an alliance with Russia in part for its huge reserves of manpower. In return Russia got French capital and French technology. The Franco-Russian alliance though made Germany feel encircled; it tied itself closer to Austria-Hungary and in so doing took on its rivalries with Russia in the Balkans. The naval race which Germany intended as a means of forcing Britain to be friendly instead persuaded the latter not only to outbuild Germany but to abandon its preferred aloofness from Europe and draw closer to France and Russia.

The military plans that came along with the arms race and the alliances have often been blamed for creating a doomsday machine that once started could not be stopped. In the late 19th century every European power except Britain had conscript armies, with a small proportion of their trained men actually in uniform and a far larger number back in civilian society as reserves. When war threatened huge armies could be called into being in days. Mass mobilization relied on detailed planning so that every man reached his right unit with the right equipment, so that units were brought together in the correct configurations and moved, usually by rail, to their designated posts. The timetables were works of art but too often they were inflexible, not allowing, as in the case of Germany in 1914, partial mobilization on just one front--and so Germany went to war against both Russia and France rather than Russia alone. And there was a danger in not mobilizing soon enough. If the enemy was on your frontiers while your men were still struggling to get to their units and on their trains, you might have lost the war already. Rigid timetables and plans threatened to take the final decisions out of the hands of the civilian leaders.

Plans are at one end of a spectrum of explanations for the Great War; at the other are the nebulous but nevertheless compelling considerations of honour and prestige. Wilhelm II of Germany modelled himself on his great ancestor Frederick the Great, yet he had been mocked as Guillaume le Timide for backing down in the second of the two crises over Morocco. Did he want to face that again? What was true of individuals was also true of nations. After the humiliation of defeat by Japan in 1904-5, Russia had a pressing need to reassert itself as a great power.

Fear played a large role too in the attitudes of the powers to each other and in the acceptance by their leaders and publics of war as a tool of policy. Austria-Hungary feared that it was going to disappear as a power unless it did something about South Slav nationalism within its own borders and that meant doing something about the magnet of a South Slav and independent Serbia. France feared its German neighbour which was stronger economically and militarily. Germany looked apprehensively eastwards. Russia was developing fast and rearming; if Germany did not fight Russia soon it might never be able to. Britain had much to gain from a continuation of the peace but it feared, as it had always done, a single power dominating the Continent. Each power feared others but also its own people. Socialist ideas had spread through Europe and unions and socialist parties were challenging the power of the old ruling classes. Was this a harbinger of violent revolution, as many thought? Ethnic nationalism as well was a disruptive force, for Austria-Hungary but also in Russia and in Britain where the Irish question was more of a concern to the government in the first months of 1914 than foreign affairs. Could war be a way of bridging divisions at home, uniting the public in a great wave of patriotism? Finally, and this is true of our own times as well, we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddle, or simply poor timing.