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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Beginning of WWI Explained

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 - Margaret MacMillan
This book describes the complex mosaic of history, politics, personalities, relationships, institutions, and ideas that developed and interacted with each other through the 19th century and into the 20th century that then lead to a set of circumstances in Europe that caused the nation’s leaders to see no alternative to war. Thus World War began 100 years ago in 1914.

The book contains parallel histories of the various European countries and tries to provide an understanding of those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace. Their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases are all explored. The book describes the world they lived in and its assumptions including what people of the time had learned from previous crises.

Ironically, the long stretch of 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars to WWI of relative peace (Franco-Prussian War, Austro-Prussian War, 1st and 2nd Balkan Wars were all over within a couple months) and the fact the previous conflicts had been resolved through negotiations led to a complacent assumption that the next conflict would be solved without war. Hidden under this complacency were dissatisfactions regarding the compromises that had come from the negotiations that had settled previous crises.

"What was dangerous for the future was that each of Austria-Hungary and Russia was left thinking that threats might work again. Or, and this was equally dangerous, they decided that next time they would not back down." (p.499)

Thus when the assassination in Sarajevo occurred and Austria made impossible demands of Serbia in retaliation, nobody was inclined to back down. The multiple alliances that had developed over the years complicated matters.

"By 1914 the alliances, rather than acting as brakes on their members, were too often pushing the accelerators. (p. 531)"

The following are some of my observations about the history described by this book:

Kaiser Wilhelm II was not a pleasant person to be around. He was loud, impulsive and had a juvenile sense of humor. He selected his advisers and top government positions, and I believe they reflected his personality. I believe this partly explains why German foreign policies tended to be aggressive and confrontational.

All the European countries at the time seemed to think that the rest of the world was made for them to colonize. Since Germany was late to form as a united country they felt like they hadn't gotten their share. This also contributed to German aggressiveness in foreign affairs.

It is no coincidence that the war began in the same year that work on widening the Kiel Canal was finished. The widening of the canal allowed the passage of Dreadnought-sized battleships to travel from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea without having to go around Denmark. Prior to completion of the project Germany had the mind set that they weren't ready for war. Thus the completion in 1914 may have contributed to Germany giving Austria-Hungary the green light in their confrontation with Serbia. In earlier confrontations (i.e. First and Second Balkan Wars) Germany had encouraged Austria-Hungary to compromise.

Early in the mobilization Kaiser Wilhelm asked if Germany could mobilize for war against Russia only and not toward France. He was told by General Moltke that the Schlieffen Plan called for mobilization against both Russia and France and it couldn't be changed. He said mobilization against only Russia would cause widespread chaos. He was probably correct.

All the military schools prior to the war seemed to have stressed the doctrine of the offensive in the execution of war. It's ironic that the early 20th century is the one time in history when defensive weapons were relative superior to the offensive tools of war. Machine guns and repeating rifles were effective when used in defense of fixed positions whereas offensive weapons such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and attack airplanes were in their infancy. Industrialization had developed the railroads which enabled quick mobilization soldiers. But once they were near the front they needed to use their legs. The result was a defensive war where the trenches hardly moved during its four year duration.

This book does a good job of describing a time in history which is not widely understood today. This year we're observing the centennial of the war's beginning, so it deserves to be understood a little better. The following is what the book has to say about the cause of the war.

"The Great War was not produced by a single cause but by a combination and, in the end, human decisions."

In other words, it's complicated. This is a long book (32 hours in audio format) and once again shows that the more one learns about history the less clear cut become the reasons for directions taken.