Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. The conflict had remade Europe, destroying empires, setting the stage for Fascism and Communism, the tragedy of World War Two and the Holocaust and the decades of the Cold War. How could Europe descend from unprecedented time of peace, prosperity — an age of unprecedented scientific and technological gains — to abject savagery that decapitated four empires of Russia, Germany, Austia-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and left millions dead?
In The War That Ended Peace, Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan traces the causes of the First World War through a synthesis of the various forces that lead to the First World War. Yet MacMillan is largely unconvincing in some key arguments about the war’s origins and offers no new reinterpretation of events the lead up to the war.
She writes that the Great War was not inevitable but provides no credible counterfactual argument as to how the war could have been avoided. This is probably because no such argument can be made — history shows that the decision made were the only decisions that were ever possible to make, given the people and the circumstances involved. Hindsight creates only the illusion of choice and is the result of a history which does not capture the reality of the times.
When proposing that other choices could have been made, one must address the reality that decision makers make choices based not on some ideal perception of reality, and are not driven by the notion of some absolute best, but decide the course of action based on their interpretation of the situation. It is an error to suggest therefore that other choices could have been made because such choices would require decision makers to have somehow developed an entirely different interpretative framework that would then allow them to see the situation in a very different light, and therefore make choices they would not have otherwise made. What possible motivation would there have been at the time for such a radical reassessment of perception?
Given the fact that no one at the time was familiar with the concept of outside the box thinking, it is highly improbable that esteemed men of the time would entertain the notion of thinking in radically different ways as a sane course of action. Certain assumptions and ideas were taken as self evident to all rational men and questioning them would be preposterous, even if to us today such questioning would seem to have been the only way to avoid the terrible things to come. If there is a lesson here for today it is this: decision makers will never decide against their perceived immediate and short term interests in order to head off what is just a hypothetical future threat.
This is not just an issue of uncertainty but one of strategic interaction: actors are likely to manufacture threats in order to bring about change that benefits them and their interests. This explains why climate change policies face opposition — developed nations in imposing environmental rules on the rest of the world set themselves up in a situation of a permanent advantage versus the rest of the world, for the costs of pollution control technologies will slow down the development of potential economic and political competitors.
MacMillan also ignores the geopolitical issues, a significant omission in a work that strives to be a comprehensive synthesis in the service of the question how Europe could have chosen war.
The geopolitical cause of the Great War was the unification of Germany in 1871. From that moment, German power grew as a result of the continent’s largest population and economic market being in Germany. Britain, pursuing a balance of power policy toward the continent, with the goal of assuring that no continental power could rise to dominate the rest, had no choice by to try and do something to weaken Germany. That something turned out to be an alliance with Russia and France. The naval arms race, in this context, was merely a convenient excuse.
But Britain’s geopolitical situation at the dawn of the 20th century was more complex, for the Empire was a global entity and the changing balance of power in Europe presented only one challenge to Britain’s global hegemony. The growing power of the United States was another factor, in the light of which Germany’s naval buildup took on another dimension: if Britain felt certain that by mid twentieth century it would be contesting the United States over global hegemony on the high seas, then German hegemony of Europe and the wealth that would obtain, would seal Britain’s fate as the loser in that struggle. With a German Europe to contend with, especially a Germany navy so close to the British homeland, Britain would be tied up in Europe, freeing America to spread influence through British colonies as indigenous independence movements opened the door to such influence.
Without this geopolitical context, the naval arms race as a cause of the British, Russian, French alliance becomes unconvincing. In and of itself, it meant nothing. It could only be interpreted as a threat if Britain saw larger dangers on the horizon. From a strict numerical point of view, from example, in 1914 Britain had 49 battleships to Germany’s 29. German navy, untested and inexperienced, however, was never a threat to the world’s most powerful navy, as merely having new ships does not translate into the ability to use them effectively in combat. Surely, the British must have known this. And as early as 1890 the British were panicked about their ability to maintain their naval superiority. Yet at the time, Germany had no navy. Why the panic?
There were certainly other, less threatening, ways of addressing the German naval threat, if that was truly a British worry. Britain, for example, could have built submarines rather than Dreadnaughts. This key fact isn’t mentioned by MacMillan, but it is a fundamental one. The reason why Britain chose dreadnaughts and not submarines had everything to do with Britain’s ultimate geopolitical motives. Submarines were a new technology, unproven and not very awe inspiring as tools of empire. In choosing to build Dreadnaughts, Britain was signaling that the game was not about security, which submarines would provide, but about imperial power and the preservation thereof.