If there is a consensus among historians about any seminal event in human affairs, it’s that the First World War had to happen. Not necessarily in 1914 because an Austrian archduke was assassinated, but around then and for some excuse. Too many people with the power to make war happen thought it was the answer to their nation’s problems, and far too few had any idea what it would unleash: the deaths of nine million soldiers and the utter ruin of the old order. That presents journalist Beatty’s counter-argument with an uphill battle from the start; that he succeeds in making an intriguing (if ultimately unsuccessful) case is an achievement in itself.
As many paths led away from war as to it in 1914, Beatty argues. In France on March 16, the wife of the finance minister fired four shots that may have been as significant as the bullets that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Henrietta Caillaux, convinced the editor of Le Figaro was about to ruin her husband’s career, killed him. Joseph Caillaux, France’s leading supporter of reconciliation with Germany, would have otherwise almost certainly have been prime minister during the decisive days between Franz Ferdinand’s June 28 death and the guns of August.
Yet to point out might-have-beens that could have negated actual events is not to overturn the view that something would have eventually lit the fuse of war. At least, that is, for as long as the war party in Germany, the Great War’s driving force, remained ascendant. But that’s an assumption Beatty challenges. Like Britain, on the brink of civil war over Irish Home Rule, Germany was riven by internal tension: if war was staved off for even a few years, change—peaceful or otherwise—was coming. Beatty doesn’t muster a very strong argument for that idea, and, in fact, gives the impression his heart isn’t really in it. What he really wants to proclaim is that peace is always a work in progress, and we should never give up on it.