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The Origins of World War I: Choice or Fate?

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1914: The Year The World Ended

by Paul Ham

 

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

by Margaret MacMillan

 

What caused Europe to go to war in 1914? The question still haunts those who care to consider how Europe descended into the madness of First World War, even after 100 years. It frustrates the ability of historians to come up with any definitive list of causes—there is a plethora of reasonable theories but their very number limit their explanatory utility—there are perhaps too many causes. The question is not merely of interest to academics, however, as it has a strange currency in our reality, given that China’s rise and America’s economic stagnation seem to parallel the drama of Germany’s rise and Britain’s stagnation at the beginning of the 20th century. A Canadian newspaper, for example, asks: “Is China making the same mistakes as Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany?” These parallels prompt MacMillan to suggest that the past can teach us something even now.

CaptureThe question is, what can the history of 1914 teach us?  If we posit the madness of the Kaiser, with his delusions of Weltpolitik and the subsequent naval arms race, as the cause of war, what does that really mean for us today? Are we to understand that leaders of nations who seem to threaten world peace should be removed by the world community? Are nations that seek nothing more than their own security be denied the ability to do so? And who exactly would be making those decisions? The same kinds of questions and concerns  arise readily upon reflection about any other potential causes of 1914. What some historians seem to agree on, however, is the notion that actors had choices, that war was, therefore, avoidable. Ham and MacMillan explicitly state this idea in their books. The war, both argue, did not just happen, for example, as a result of large scale, impersonal forces. But how much choice did the decisions makers really have?

The argument that Europe’s leaders chose to go to war, that they could have chosen something else, is highly questionable, though eminently tempting—we want, as human beings, to believe in the notion of free will. Such a stance also allows us to cast blame, which satisfies moral indignation but does nothing to advance our understanding of the complexity of reality. Thus MacMillan tells us that other choiceCapture2s were possible, that the war could have been avoided; Ham blames a few old aristocrats and the media who chose war. Further, he states that the war was meticulously planned, rehearsed and therefore reflected an intent. And if these old men chose to plan a war, they were presumable free to say no to war in 1914. I find this idea of choice and blame-casting simplistic and untenable.

It is also an idea informed by an absence of strategic thinking, or the consideration of the bounty of insights into state behavior offered for the taking by international relations theory, on the part of the historian. Acknowledging the unique reality of international relations is crucial in such histories as those of 1914. Leaders of nations operate not in an environment known to most ordinary people but in a self-help world that defines the relations between sovereign states, a world in which preparing for war is the only way to deter others from attacking you. This, of course, leads to the security dilemma: as nations make moves to secure their own interests, others respond in similar manner, making the entire system more dangerous and everyone less safe. Knowing this reality, one can certainly appreciate better the reality that choices were far more constrained than would otherwise appear to be the case. But neither Ham nor MacMillan make any effort to borrow international relations theories or strategic thought.

Taking any major turning point, for example, such as the naval arms race, what other reasonable choices were there for the chief actors of the drama? One must also remember here, and this insight comes from interpretative theories of international relations, that we are dealing with interpreted reality when we are talking about the reality that decision makers live in. The question, then, becomes what other possible course was there for someone who saw the world as the Kaiser did?

Neither Ham nor MacMillan present any counterfactual arguments to back up their claims that other choices were available. But such counterfactuals would be essential to support their vision of history. We can, to be sure, make choices and we do so every day, but our ability to chose what’s for lunch is not proof that the Kaiser or the Tsar of Russia were free to make political decisions other than had they made. Major choices are never simple. Big decisions are always fraught with uncertainty. Neither author, for example, covers intelligence, but what did Germans, British and Russians know about one another’s plans? Probably less than we’d think. Connecting the dots is an precious art. That means they were likely operating in the dark, forced to guess the intent and consequences of actions. In such a circumstance, actors are rational if they act to protect their interests. If Germany felt threatened by possible future Russian and French alliance or latter by the Triple Entnente, what reasonable choice could there have been other than to seek to increase its own security? We may say today that the Kaiser should have chosen peace, but what would that mean in his reality, a reality constructed by the narratives that were available and seemed reasonable then? Surrender or something like it would have been an impossible course of action, no matter how much such choices seem reasonable to us now.

About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • bliffle

    Good review. Thanks.

    This is especially timely since so many of the factors that preceded WW1 are present in the modern world, with the same anxieties and ambitions reflected around the world, whether, vis a vis, North Korea, Syria, Israel, etc., even the USA.

    One thing that we have learned is that the same puny, frightened, limited, human brains will operate and determine the results. We will not be saved by more powerful weapons, once thought to be a deterrent to war.