Understanding the national paranoia that led to the First World War

“There are so many questions and as many answers again.”

New Statesman
Across enemy lines, human helping hands: British soldiers offer water to German prisoners on the Western Front. Image: Getty
100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won
Saul David
Hodder & Stoughton, 536pp, £20
 
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Max Hastings
William Collins, 628pp, £30
 
The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War
Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books, 656pp, £25
 
In Joseph Roth’s wonderful 1932 novel The Radetzky March, an elegiac epitaph for the Habsburg empire, the father-in-law of an army officer, killed in a pointless duel a few years before the outbreak of the Great War, reflects that the Austrian army is a cretinous institution. “There’s talk about war all the time,” he complains to himself, “but I bet it won’t happen . . . These are enlightened times, progressive times.” When the war arrives, however, the young Lieutenant Trotta, the melancholic anti-hero of the novel, tells himself that the conflict is inevitable: “It was the war he had been preparing himself for, since he was seven years old. It was his war. The war of the grandsons.”
 
Obviously, Roth knew what had happened and that the Great War (because there was as yet no Second World War) had doomed the Habsburgs to extinction. But his novel exactly captured the dangerous paradox of Austria’s fin de siècle: on the one hand a culturally rich society at the forefront of much that was progressive, from aviation to medical research to music, and on the other a profound realisation that the ramshackle empire, with its deep class and ethnic divisions and its Ruritanian values, was destined to collapse, probably sooner than later, and, with it, all that the old Habsburg elite had stood for. It was a dangerous mix, because it created among the ruling class a growing hubris, a desire to defend what they believed was valuable about the civilisation they represented with a flamboyant, defiant gesture, and damn the rest.
 
The outcome of this wilful pursuit of an ending, glorious or otherwise, predictable or unpredictable, was the war the Austrian empire declared on Serbia on 28 July 1914, almost oblivious to (though not ignorant of) the likely consequences for the rest of Europe. Four years later, after centuries of existence, the Habsburg empire disappeared for ever. The war with Serbia swiftly turned into a war of almost the whole of Europe and the Middle East, exporting Austria’s fin-de-siècle crisis with devastating effects. It is now almost exactly a century ago that Europe borrowed the Austro-Serb confrontation as a proxy for its own fears, ambitions and insecurities. A week after the start of the Habsburg war on Serbia, Britain declared war on Germany and turned what might have been a short autumn campaign on European battlefields into a worldwide conflict.
 
Europe and the world have lived with the legacy of that war ever since. The centenary will be commemorated widely, though more likely in the victor states rather than the vanquished. It seems perhaps a fitting time to take stock of all the many explanations for the outbreak of war that have flourished ever since and to try to understand how Europe, for all its vaunted claims to represent the pinnacle of human achievement, could nevertheless lock itself into a blood-soaked contest that none of the protagonists could find a way of ending, short of absolute victory. The further the events recede, the harder it becomes to conceive of how at all the states of Europe could embrace and sustain a war on such a terrible scale.
 
The books under review are just three of many about the First World War that are being published as the centenary approaches. In The War That Ended Peace Margaret MacMillan paints an elaborate and elegant portrait of the decade or so before 1914 to try to show not that war was inevitable, but that the peace was increasingly hard to keep. Max Hastings’s vigorous narrative account confines itself to the war months of 1914 to show why the hopes that it would all be over by Christmas proved entirely false. Saul David, eschewing the almost insurmountable problems of writing a single-volume history of an event of this sort, has chosen 100 particular days from the four years and three months of conflict as vignettes, with the intention of showing the main points of the war experience and indicating something of the reasons for its course and outcome. All three books are splendidly well written – fluent, engaging, well paced and, despite the grim subject matter, often entertaining. What they are all light on is explanation.
 
The centenary is a point at which the 95 years of historiography of the outbreak and course of the war deserves close interrogation. With the long passage of European peace since 1945, the so-called Second Thirty Years War from 1914 to 1945 has come to seem an awful historical anomaly, for which larger explanations are necessary. This is not only because of the way war blighted Europe’s history but because of the urgent need to understand the pressures and processes that made world war possible, as one contribution to ensuring that the accident of all-out war does not blight the 21st century. There is much loose talk now of the possibility of another major war as the many instabilities in the global order promote frequent crises; and, indeed, loose talk about future war is exactly what MacMillan finds throughout the decade before 1914. Over and over again, monarchs, generals and politicians reflected that European or world war was just around the corner. Although she places greatest responsibility on Germany and Austria for starting the actual fighting, it is tempting to believe that the thought was, in this case, father to the deed.
 
The explanations for the outbreak of war have gone through many phases since the 1920s. First, there was the general argument that secret diplomacy and the arms race were to blame, making statesmen on all sides powerless in the face of great historical forces to stop the slide into the abyss. Then, with the coming of a second world war, there was a widespread belief that German malignancy – a combination of fantasies of world power and a brutal disregard for how it was achieved – was the principal explanation, a view controversially endorsed by German scholarship with the publication in 1961 of Fritz Fischer’s bombshell Griff nach der Weltmacht (“grasp for world power”). Finally came the search for other culprits, including Britain (which should, it can be claimed, have stayed out of the war), or Russia (pre-Stalinist imperial fantasies), or the Habsburg empire (victim of the insoluble paradoxes of its construction).
 
All three authors are aware of these shifting trends, but they either sidestep them, as Hastings does by claiming that there can be no “definitive explanation”, or as MacMillan does by despairing: “There are so many questions and as many answers again.” It may well be so, but in these books of more than 600 pages apiece, some attempt to explain what can now be said about the outbreak of war and its prolongation beyond Christmas 1914 that has not already been said might make the centenary worth recalling. Granted, there are great difficulties in finding a historical explanation that can do justice to the reality. Over the course of time, explanations have diverged between careful study of what the small cohort of kings, emperors, generals, diplomats and politicians (and it is a small cohort) was saying, thinking and doing, and systemic explanations that focus on the distorting effects of global imperialism, the dangerous consequences of the arms race, or the poor state of intelligence (in its strategic sense) and communication. Neither is entirely satisfactory, first because the cohort of individuals was part of the system itself; second because systemic explanations are notoriously hard to pin down when trying to explain specific events.
 
MacMillan has chosen instead to narrate the many diplomatic and military crises that at regular intervals punctuated the years between the Boer war, which ended in 1902, and the Balkan wars, which ended in 1913, on the implicit assumption that one thing leads to another. Indeed, taking these together with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-12 (which left Kaiser Wilhelm II deploring an act that could be “the beginning of a world war with all its terrors”) and the almost wars over Morocco in 1905-1906 and 1911, there is a good case for arguing, as historians are now doing, that the world had already entered a period of bloody confrontation in a “long war” whose roots lie well before 1914 and whose violence dragged on into the early 1920s. The impression left by MacMillan’s vivid reconstruction of these events is that there already existed a “war before the war”, which makes it easier to understand how statesmen could see armed conflict as a way to resolve issues, because it was all around them. Indeed, for the British, the Boer war was a taste of what was to come (the Boer republics were the British empire’s Serbia), with problems of large-scale mobilisation, building an efficient war economy and combat with modern weapons.
 
There is a danger here of confusing cause with effect. The long series of crises did represent an increasingly unstable world order as established centres of power collapsed – the Chinese and Ottoman empires in particular – and the imperatives of European colonialism and economic competition destroyed one local political structure after another in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Economic progress in Europe and the United States did encourage growing competition, as well as widespread fears that markets or resources might be endangered or denied by the global expansion of imperialism, formal and informal. These rivalries, which had generally been resolved without war for much of the 19th century, were sharpened by the shifting social balance in Europe and the rise of mass politics. The elite, in order to avoid revolution, found themselves having to manage not only an educated and richer middle class (by making liberal political concessions), but an increasingly educated, politically frustrated and relatively poor working class in the cities and the countryside. This meant that the old systems (including the parliamentary states, Britain and France) had to find ways of adjusting to a rapidly changing social reality. This could be done by emphasising national identity – essential in the German and Italian case, as new nations; manipulating the media when possible; and pursuing imperial and trade policies that protected national interests above all.
 
Problems of national identity, imperial conflict, economic competition and social transformation lie at the heart of any explanation for why European statesmen and generals found themselves making every issue into a crisis in the decade or so before 1914 (think of the Dreyfus affair in France, which was blown out of all proportion by the rampant fear that German spies did exist). These systemic problems contributed to a peculiar mentalité in the European world before 1914, not shared by everyone – well over half of Europe’s population was still illiterate, inhabiting isolated, impoverished and poorly informed villages – but shared by enough. It was a mental world shaped by the growth of cities, fear of social disorder and social Darwinist belief in the survival of the fittest and the inevitability of struggle, but also shaped still by old notions of honour, obedience, religious observance and service. This strange amalgam of ancien régime values and modernist hopes and fears was at its most striking in the Habsburg empire. “This age doesn’t want us any more,” complains one of Roth’s aristocratic characters. “Electricity and nitroglycerine will be the end of us.” The paradoxes of modernity were at their most acute here and the danger to the rest represented by the irresolvable tensions of the empire must lie at the centre of any explanation for the conflict that broke out in 1914.
 
Nevertheless, war was not inevitable, as the detailed reconstruction of the final weeks of peace, carried out with scrupulous attention to the diplomatic detail by both MacMillan and Hastings, makes clear. There were, MacMillan insists, choices that might have preserved the peace. German generals might have been less nervous about being caught napping; the Serbs might have given in to Austrian demands in the ultimatum (as they almost did); Nicholas II might have insisted that Russian mobilisation be restricted and then ended, to avoid a worse crisis. Above all there was the possibility that Britain might not have entered the fray, though the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was determined not to dishonour the recent entente with France by standing aside if the French were threatened by a German assault. Hastings has one central argument to explain the outbreak and early course of the war, and that is the indispensable need for Britain to fight to preserve European “freedom, justice and democracy” against German brutalism. Although he condemns what he sees as a long tradition of British “gesture strategy” (a judgement that might well apply in the present Syrian crisis), he deplores those historians who have echoed the poets of the Great War in seeing the conflict as futile.
 
For the same reason, Hastings is clear that there was no short cut to victory once war had broken out. His account of the early battles – the Marne, Mons, Tannenberg and a deftly observed Serb victory over the Austrians at Arandjelovac in December 1914 – highlights the failure of the military to understand fully the implications of the new weapons of defence and the moral stamina of the regular troops. However good the German army was, it was simply not big enough to impose the rapid victory essential to the Central Powers. His military accounts are vigorous and readable, making good use of the worm’s-eye view in diaries and letters home, but in some cases – Tannenberg, for one – the reader will find a more comprehensible explanation for the conduct and outcome of the battle in one of Saul David’s 100 Days than in Catastrophe.
 
There is a large question here about why the war did not end by some kind of mutual consent once it became clear that a swift victory was impossible and the human and economic cost so high. Hastings says it was driven on for four years by German desire for victory at all costs and justified Allied fear that a German-dominated Europe would be an awful thing. Perhaps, yet there is no way of knowing, and every danger that the fears and ambitions of the Second World War are projected back on to the First. Britain was little more democratic than Germany in 1914, though parliamentary sovereignty had gone further, and the sense of British justice or British freedom extended to mainland Britain but not to the Irish or the Indians. It is pos sible to exaggerate the virtue of the values Britain and France were seeking to defend, and to exaggerate the dangers to Europe’s future if Germany and Austria had won.
 
In the final analysis, Germany is the preferred culprit in both Hastings’s and MacMillan’s accounts, with Austria, too, taking what Hastings calls the greatest “moral opprobrium”. This is an argument with a long and honourable pedigree stretching back at the latest to A J P Taylor’s Course of German History, written in the aftermath of the Second World War, and recently reinvigorated by Norman Stone. But there lies a danger here that the commemoration of the outbreak of war will be used as the occasion once again to raise the bogey of a German threat to Europe. Fear of Germany’s alleged domination of the European Union and dark mutterings about the hidden dangers of German chauvinism are still alive and well in Britain. If there is one lesson to be learned from the crop of new books on the outbreak of war it is the danger of suspicion and the importance of trust in European affairs. It is to be hoped that the commemoration of 1914 will be used as an opportunity to strengthen the bonds that have produced a nominally united Europe, not to reassert the national paranoia which permitted that war to happen.
 
Richard Overy’s “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945” is newly published by Allen Lane (£30)