The war that ended peace

Margaret MacMillan upends notion of inevitability of First World War
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1969, the historian A.J.P. Taylor famously dubbed the First World War a “war by timetable.” War was not, in Taylor’s reading, a product of deliberate choice, but rather the consequence of an unyielding pre-war structure. States drew up rigid battlefield plans and railway timetables—and then, in 1914, became slaves to them. “The nations,” British prime minister David Lloyd George would recall, “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay.”

Not so, argues historian Margaret MacMillan (incidentally, she is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter) in her new book, The War That Ended Peace.

MacMillan’s book, released this month, rides the crest of a wave that will soon be a flood of Great War histories. Next year marks the centenary of the war’s outbreak and publishers have taken ample note. MacMillan—who won a Governor General’s Award and Samuel Johnson Prize for Paris 1919 and is the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University—tackles well-trod historical ground. But it is her commitment to storytelling and her insistence that “there are always choices” that provides a welcome break from the passive voice of so many First World War tomes: in which war “breaks out,” alliances “form,” and battles are inexorably “waged.”

The book’s subtitle is “The Road to 1914”—for this is a story about the lead-up to war rather than war itself. Indeed, MacMillan takes exception to the popular view that the war was inevitable.

“The problem with the First World War is that it has so many possible causes—it’s what the political scientists call ‘over-determined.’ We have come to think, ‘Well, there were so many reasons why it might have happened, thus it was bound to happen.’ That is a leap that is not logically sustainable,” MacMillan says.

Throughout, MacMillan points out lessons that 1914 might offer. With an eye on both the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s young assassins and the al-Qaeda militants of today, MacMillan writes of “an unsettling parallel with our own times . . . a considerable anxiety about terrorists who were implacable enemies of Western society yet who lived anonymously in its midst.” Fear of homegrown terrorism “encouraged more conservative elements to lash out and behave in stupid ways”—often by suspending civil liberties. She also focuses on how weak leadership contributed to the outbreak of war: “Some of them were afraid of appearing weak. None of the leaders had the courage to say, ‘No, I’m not doing it,’ when under pressure from their militaries.”

As we prepare for what will surely be four years of intense commemorating, The War That Ended Peace reminds us that the First World War was not Europe’s inevitable tragedy, but rather its seminal failure.

Exclusive excerpt

The 28th of June, 1914, was a Sunday and the weather was warm and sunny. Holidaymakers thronged Europe’s amusements, its parks, and its beaches. [Raymond] Poincaré, the French president, was with his wife at the Longchamp races, just outside Paris. The crowds, he later wrote in his diary, were happy and carefree. The course, with its expanse of green lawns, looked beautiful and there were many elegant women to admire. For many Europeans the summer vacation had already started. Europe’s cabinets, its foreign ministries and its military headquarters were half-empty, their members scattered. [Leopold von] Berchtold, the chancellor of Austria-Hungary, was duck hunting in Moravia; Kaiser Wilhelm was racing in his yacht Meteor at the annual summer regatta in the Baltic; and [Helmuth von] Moltke, the chief of his general staff, was at a spa. The crisis about to come was made worse because so many of the key figures were hard to reach or simply did not take it sufficiently seriously until it was too late.

As Poincaré was enjoying the day with his guests from the diplomatic corps in the special presidential box, he was handed a telegram from the French news agency Havas. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife, Sophie, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Austria-Hungary’s recently acquired province of Bosnia. Poincaré immediately told the Austrian ambassador, who went white and left at once for his embassy. While the races went on below, the news spread among Poincaré’s guests. Most thought it would make little difference to Europe but the Romanian ambassador was deeply pessimistic. Austria-Hungary, he thought, would now have the excuse it wanted to wage a war on Serbia.

In the five weeks that followed, Europe went from peace to a full-scale war involving all the great powers except, at first, Italy and the Ottoman Empire. The public, which had played its part over the decades in pushing its leaders toward war or peace, now waited on the sidelines as a handful of men in each of Europe’s main capitals juggled with fateful decisions. Products of their backgrounds and times, with deeply engrained beliefs in prestige and honour (and such terms were going to be used frequently in those hectic days), they based their decisions on assumptions they did not always articulate, even to themselves. They also were at the mercy of their own memories of past triumphs and defeats, and of their hopes and fears for the future.

As the news of the assassinations spread quickly across Europe, it was greeted with the same mixture of indifference and apprehension as in Poincaré’s box. In Vienna, where the archduke had not been much loved, the rides and entertainments in the popular Prater park remained open. Among the upper classes, though, there was despair about the future of a monarchy that repeatedly lost its heirs and renewed animus against the Serbians who, it was widely assumed, were responsible. In the German university town of Freiburg, most citizens, according to their diaries, were thinking about their own concerns, whether the state of the summer harvest or their holidays. Perhaps because he was an historian, the eminent scholar Friedrich Meinecke had a different reaction: “Immediately it became black in front of my eyes. This means war, I told myself.” When the news arrived in Kiel the authorities sent a launch out to find the kaiser’s yacht. Wilhelm, who had counted Franz Ferdinand as a friend, was shocked. “Would it be better to abandon the race?” he asked. He decided to travel back to Berlin at once to take charge and let it be known that he intended to work for peace, though during the next few days he still managed to find the time for intense discussions over the interior decoration of his new yacht. In Kiel itself flags were immediately lowered to half-mast and the remaining social events were cancelled. A British fleet, which had been paying a courtesy call, sailed away on June 30. The Germans sent the signal “Pleasant journey” and the British replied, “Friends in past and friends forever.” Just over a month later they would be at war.

The act that was going to send Europe on the final leg of its journey toward the Great War was the work of fanatical Slav nationalists, the Young Bosnians, and their shadowy backers in Serbia. The assassins themselves and their immediate circle were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the dual monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as al-Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse. They hated Austria-Hungary in part because they blamed it for corrupting its South Slav subjects. Few of the Young Bosnians had regular jobs. Rather they depended on handouts from their families, with whom they had usually quarrelled. They shared their few possessions, slept on each other’s floors, and spent hours over a single cup of coffee in cheap cafés arguing about life and politics. They were idealistic, and passionately committed to liberating Bosnia from foreign rule and to building a new and fairer world. Strongly influenced by the great Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, the Young Bosnians believed they could only achieve their goals through violence and, if necessary, the sacrifice of their own lives.

The leader of the assassination plot was a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, the slight, introverted and sensitive son of a hard-working farmer. Princip, who had longings to be a poet, had gone from one school to another without conspicuous success. “Wherever I went, people took me for a weakling,” he told the police after he was arrested on June 28, “and I pretended that I was a weak person, even though I was not.” In 1911 he was drawn into the subterranean world of revolutionary politics. He and several of his friends who were to become his co-conspirators dedicated themselves to acts of terror against important targets, whether the old Emperor himself, or someone close to him. In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the victories of Serbia and the great increase in its territories inspired them afresh to think that the final triumph of the South Slavs was not far off.

Within Serbia itself there was considerable support for the Young Bosnians and their activities. For a decade or more, parts of the Serbian government had encouraged the activities of quasi-military and conspiratorial organizations on the soil of Serbia’s enemies, whether the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. The army provided money and weapons for armed Serbian bands in Macedonia and smuggled weapons into Bosnia much as Iran does today with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Serbians also had their own secret societies. In 1903 a group made up largely of officers assassinated the unpopular King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife and put King Peter on the throne. Over the next years, the new king found it expedient to tolerate the activities of the conspirators who remained highly influential within Serbia and who promoted Serbian nationalism abroad. The key figure among them was the charming, ruthless, sinister and immensely strong Dragutin Dimitrijevic, nicknamed Apis, after the Egyptian god who is always portrayed as a bull. Apis was prepared to sacrifice his own life and those of his family and friends in the cause of a Greater Serbia. In 1911 he and some of his fellow conspirators founded the Black Hand, dedicated to bringing all Serbs together by fair means and foul. The prime minister, Pašic, who hoped to avoid conflict with Serbia’s neighbors, knew of its existence and tried to bring it under control by pensioning off, for example, some of the more dangerous among the nationalistic army officers. In the early summer of 1914 his confrontation with Apis reached an acute stage. On June 2 he resigned, but returned to office on June 11 and on June 24, as the archduke was preparing to travel to Bosnia, he announced that parliament was dissolved and that fresh elections would be held later that summer. King Peter also stepped down and made his son Alexander regent. As the Bosnian conspirators were putting the final touches to their plans to assassinate the archduke on June 28, Pašic, who had no wish to provoke Austria-Hungary, was fighting for his political life and not yet capable of rooting out the Black Hand and bringing Apis down.

The news of Franz Ferdinand’s impending trip had been widely publicized earlier that spring and the conspirators, several of whom were at that point in Belgrade, decided to assassinate him. A sympathetic major in the Serbian army provided them with six bombs and four revolvers from the army’s arsenal and, at the end of May, Princip and two others, along with their weapons and capsules of cyanide with which to commit suicide after they had done their deed, were smuggled across the border from Serbia into Bosnia with the connivance of sympathetic Serbian officials. Pašic got wind of what was up but was either unable or unwilling to do anything. In any case it was probably too late; the conspirators had arrived safely in Sarajevo and linked up with local terrorists. In the next few weeks some were to have second thoughts and argue for postponing the attempt but not, apparently, Princip. “I was not in agreement with the postponement of the assassination,” he told the judge at his trial, “because a certain morbid yearning for it had been awakened in me.”

Their job was going to be made easier by incompetence and arrogance on the part of the Austrian-Hungarians. There had been rumours for years of plots against Austria-Hungary from South Slav nationalists as well as actual attempts on the lives of high-ranking officials, even on the Emperor himself. The authorities in Vienna and in the trouble spots of Bosnia and Croatia kept close watch on nationalist students, societies and newspapers. Yet a visit by the Habsburg heir to Bosnia, when memories of its annexation only six years before still rankled with Serbs, was bound to inflame nationalist sentiments. And he was coming, moreover, to watch manoeuvres by forces of the dual monarchy that might well be used against Serbia and Montenegro one day. The timing of the visit made matters still worse for it coincided with the Serbs’ greatest national festival, the annual feast for their patron saint St. Vitus, when they also commemorated their greatest national defeat at the hands of the Ottomans on June 28, 1389, at the Battle of Kosovo. In spite of the tensions surrounding the event, security for the visit was lackadaisical at best. General Potiorek, the reactionary and stubborn governor of Bosnia, ignored the warnings that came in from several quarters that the archduke was putting himself in harm’s way and refused to use the army to guard the streets of Sarajevo. He hoped to show off his own achievements in pacifying and ruling Bosnia and also to advance himself with Franz Ferdinand by receiving Sophie with full imperial honors, something she was always denied elsewhere in the dual monarchy. The special committee set up to look after arrangements for the visit spent most of its time and energy worrying about such matters as what kind of wine the archduke should have or whether he liked music played during meals.

On the evening of June 23, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie boarded a train in Vienna for Trieste. He apparently remarked to the wife of an aide before he left: “This thing isn’t especially secret and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few Serbian bullets waiting for me!”