Margaret MacMillan's book "The War that Ended Peace" came out late last year, just in time to let readers embark into the 100th anniversary of the First World War. One of its goal is to better understand the political and social context of the years leading to the war, describing each event in details.
"The War that Ended Peace" does a good job of taking the reader through the various movements, ideological ideas, political bias, unbalanced decision systems, individual expectations and fears of the key actors. Each and every nation, politician, officer or public opinion is analysed, allowing to better understand their motivations and their grasp of the situation.
The massive changes brought by democracy, capitalism, and industrialization upon the centre of the world, acutely felt by its conservative elite, are first described before addressing the various crisis that led to the conflict. The pre-war world appears as unstable and buoyant as the post-war years: a revolution in Russia, social confrontations with the rise of political movements fighting for a better redistribution of resources, political scandals and instability, regular international crisis…
The opinion on a European war was divided between those who saw it as a mean to unite countries broken apart by the speed of changes, a way to reinvigorate 'decadent' societies and people captured by material wealth, or to be avoided at all costs, since it would only fracture once and for all the arrangements that had prevailed for centuries. T
he fights of a minority of activists preaching peace out of political or humanist ideals, or prescience of the awesome power of modern weapons, are also detailed, although, while their actions did gather substantial support, international coordination seemed rather difficult and in any case they were not able to press on their agenda to political leaders who had a much darker vision of the situation.
And of course the role of the military is a recurrent issue throughout the book, not so much about the infamous plans themselves, but the thinkers, officers and lobbyists that eventually came to make their vision of diplomacy prevail over peaceful means. Taken together, these various angles offer a counterbalanced view to the simple explanation of a war that was inevitable.
What is striking is how much the world back then looked like today's. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, a supranational court established in 1899 provided means for the states to settle their international conflicts. Globalization was in full swing, cross border trade and loans were taken for granted (France had invested 1/3 of its foreign lending in Russia), international tourism and travel was common for people rich enough to afford it.
Yet a deep social unease was felt throughout the continent. Like today, the perception that something was wrong with political and economic arrangements was fuelling unrest throughout countries, dividing people between workers and well-off people. The leaders of Europe were all too aware about the rising tensions and tried to manage their growling populaces while clinging to their privileges.
In the midst of all the books and theories written about the Great War, there is also an uneasy feeling that no one can pinpoint exactly to the spark that triggered the fire that engulfed Europe into suicide. All the elements are laid out in front of us in an open mine of preserved paper: letters, diplomatic cables, notes, private diaries, paper articles, orders, military plan -and after the war, the self-justifying books. Still, the sheer number of books written about the war only remind us of our incapacity to fully understand such a dramatic event.
We can blame the individuals or the systems that fanned the flames of war, the economics or the politics, the socialists or the capitalists, the but it always comes down to a single fact: whatever the reasons one believes in, Europe slipped from uneasy peace to raging war.
Of course the war was the culmination of years of increased resentments, poor leadership, uncontrolled fears, unspoken assumptions, complacency and wild dreams. But it wasn't inevitable: the second half of the 20th century shows us that in the midst of the Cold War, a confrontation with the future of humanity at stake, leaders avoided (narrowly) total destruction.
The Great War, with its million of wasted lives, mindless destruction and unspeakable horrors is here to remind us how fragile our understanding of the world really is and how easily man can turn into his own worst nightmare.
Living through the changes that we are now experiencing, we can only remind ourselves that dedication, engagement and courage are the only tools left to humans when things are about to go wrong.
Written by Carlito, with help from Lu Do
About Carlito Riego
"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi