The War that Ended Peace
“One night as the two men sat in a café in Paris, Jaurès described what a future war would be like: “the cannon-fire and the bombs; entire nations decimated; millions of soldiers strewn in mud and blood; millions of corpses …” During a battle on the Western Front some years later, a friend asked Gérard why he was staring into space. “I feel as though all this is familiar to me,” Gérard replied. “Jaurès prophesied this hell, this total annihilation.
What is war? Oxford calls it “ a situation in which two or more countries or groups of people fight against each other over a period of time.” This sounds like a bunch of kids had a schoolyard fight, then the bell went off and they headed back to class, and all was well. In truth, war is pointless bloodshed that could turn oceans into an accusing shade of scarlett.
(Source: Trench Warfare in WW1 )
The Great War, later called the First World War, was the first “industrialized” total war. The assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria on 28 July, 1914, was the first in a chain of events known as the July Crisis, which escalated into the War.
Over 6o million forces were mobilized across the Allied and Central Powers, and by the end of it, over 30 million were the reported casualties. Keep in mind, these numbers do not include the loss of civilian life.
Four empires came down like cardhouses, fascism became a little more popular, colonial powers were threatened, and the brewings of the Second World War had already begun by the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The effects of the war aren’t as contentious as its causes. Why did Europe fail to maintain peace in 1914, after 85 years of no great conflict? Who or what started it? Was it inevitable?
Margaret McMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is her attempt to search history for some of these answers.
The premise of the book is that no war is inevitable. When one works back while studying history, there is a tendency to summarize events to the point of making them simplistic and one-dimensioned. In truth, there are muti-faceted elements of accidents and choices. Everytime, you will find that peace was a choice that was oft ignored.
Europe had several choices. The young blooded men did not have to shoot the archduke in the name of their motherland. Austria-Hungary’s response did not have to be to wage war on Serbia. Germany did not have to issue the infamous “blank check” to back Austria-Hungary, and Russia did not have to mobilize forces against them to support Serbia. In the last days of the Crisis, Germany did not have to invade Luxembourg and serve an ultimatum to Belgium, declaring war against France. A few different choices in the July Crisis, and four years of massacre could have been averted.
The war was not incited by one power or one alliance alone- it was a failure of imagination in all the leaders that led nations into war, and for many like Russia and Austria-Hungary, it was paired with poor leadership. They claimed that war was inevitable, and that claim comes from the lack of courage to step back.
To many, it was a matter of pride and honor- stepping back would indicate weakness, instability. Great nations feel the need to re-assert their “greatness”, else their credibility and prestige could be questioned. Russia felt that if they didn’t support Serbia, they would lose credibility as a great power—the same for Germany and Austria-Hungary among others. An almost perverse sense of social darwinism prevailed in those times, too. There was belief that war was a way to weed out weakness. The nations who could fight to survive, deserve to survive; the ones that could not should be assimilated into a strong nation.
The fear of the unknown as Europe went through significant social changes was also a contributing factor. Europe was on the course of incredible progress, prosperity and industrialization. Technology, life expectancy, literacy- they were all seeing rapid improvements. The flipside of change is that it comes with discomfort, more so when the change is fast. The aristocracy was worried about the growing working class and large socialist movements, as the disparity between the rich and the poor became starker. The future did not look pleasing, particularly to the upper class, and they leaned towards the misguided idea that war was a solution for divisions in society, to preserve the social hierarchy they grew up with. The aristocracy wanted war; the middle class did not, but they took peace for granted. They assumed that peace came with the natural order of things. Unfortunately, public opinion was not strong enough to sway the decisions of the aristocracy.
The book is a beautiful narration of the days leading up to war, of all the factors that contributed, all the moves and decisions that were wrong. She makes it clear that this was not the consequence of any one nation’s wrongs- she acknowledges how British, French, Russian as well as German actions aggravated the problem. She dismisses the notion that this was a German preemptive strike. She did not pinpoint the cause of war, but I don’t think she set out to do that. To me, she set out to remind us that peace is always, always an option- and with all the conflict in the world today, it would do us well to keep that in mind. There is no nation’s “pride”, no “survival of the fittest”, that is worth the lives of innocents.
The word I attach most to “war” is “loss”. It’s not just the loss of life. It’s the loss of what made you live. The loss of smiles that will never be adorned by the wrinkles of a long life. The loss of love that never got to say a last goodbye. The loss of hope in the ruins of a broken home. What is war, you ask? It is the loss of peace.