The War that Ended Peace - Reading updates

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 - Margaret MacMillan

I meant to read this book in 2014, but may have gotten side-tracked with other books about WWI in that year...


I'll keep a running post for reading updates for this book as it will encompass too much information to deal with in one post and I would like to keep notes while reading - and I would like to keep the notes in one place.


Reading updates:


Chapters 10 through 16 - ...


I haven't made notes on these chapters individually. They all describe further events in international politics that are fuelled by imperialism, nationalism, and the general ineptitude of various people in positions where diplomacy and circumspection are requirements which they all seem to be lacking and try to make up for with arrogance, nationalism, and ambition to put themselves on the map.

Aehrenthal recognised that there were risks in stirring up the Balkans. The international scene, he told Austria-Hungary’s Common Ministerial Council in the autumn of 1907, was generally good but there were trouble spots, such as the Balkans themselves or Morocco, and there were turbulent forces at large in the world. ‘The stage is set, the actors are ready, only the costumes are lacking for the play to begin. The second decade of the 20th century may well witness very grave events. In view of the combustible material about, they may come sooner.’32 In 1908 Aehrenthal came close to setting that material alight but luck was with him and the world for the time being.

Alois von Aehrenthal was Austria-Hungary's Foreign Minister, and it is actions and statements like the above that show how unsuitable he was for that positions. Many of his international counterparts seem to have been no better. 


Seriously, these people were bat-shit crazy and it is scary and depressing to read, even more so when one considers how many "politicians" today lack the very qualities - knowledge, tact, circumspection, diplomacy, long-term planning - caused the infernal events of WWI and its consequences.


Previous updates are below the page break.


Chapter 9 - What were they thinking?


The best chapter of the book so far. MacMillan explains and describes different popular ideas and social trends of the time - rise of the working class, the rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism, the fear of dwindling military power caused by a falling birthrate (leading to fewer men who could be recruited), the decline of morals, the "rise" of homosexuality (again apparently endangering masculine values and the birthrate...), the rise of women's movements, the prevalence of scepticism of science, the misuse of "science", the rise of racism, eugenics, ... and so on. 


For all the wrong reasons, this section made me laugh:

"In both countries [Germany and France] highly unflattering and alarming stereotypes developed of the other, thanks in part to a variety of publications from school textbooks to popular novels. Interestingly, in both countries Germany was usually portrayed as a man in uniform (although for the French the image was a semi-comic, semi-alarming one of a brutal soldier with outsize moustaches) while France was a woman (in German depictions either helpless or over-sexed or both).

n France, perhaps as a mark of the Entente Cordiale, what had been le vice anglais now became le vice allemand; French academic studies purported to show that German men were more likely to be homosexual than the French. Almost all homosexuals, one such study offered as proof, loved Wagner."

I loved this chapter. It was complex, but MacMillan managed to explore the different fears and ideas in some depth. 


Chapters 6, 7 & 8 - Various Liaisons Dangereuses:


My enthusiasm for reading this book had been dampened by these three chapters. We get more - yes even more - background to the characters of WII, Bismarck, von Buelow, Victoria, Edward, Nicholas, etc., etc., and of course the background to how different alliances were made or not made and the why's and wherefore's of it all.


It is a bit repetitive and not very memorable. It also really does not help that MacMillan still jumps back and forth in time. I had to draw a timeline for myself to keep events in order.


Chapters 4 & 5 - "Weltpolitik" & "Dreadnaught":


We get more about W.II who is obsessed with the military and lacks any circumspection or sense diplomacy - never good sign in neither a military nor any other kind of leader - and who doesn't seek any council, from anyone, ever. 

However, we also get to know that his ambition is neither to start a war nor to conquer anyone, other than to establish a few colonies somewhere ... which causes much eye-rolling, because he is actually blind to how someone could mistake expanding an army and naval force as a threat.


Such an idiot. 


We also get the inevitable arms race between Britain and Germany. 

Tirpitz made three crucial assumptions: that the British would not notice that Germany was developing a big navy; that Britain would not and could not respond by outbuilding Germany (among other things, Tirpitz assumed that the British could not afford a big increase in their naval budget); and that, while being pressured into making friends with Germany, Britain would not decide to look for friends elsewhere. He was wrong about all three.

While W.II found himself and architect for his navy in Tirpitz, German politicians and the Reichstag actually disagreed with the planned expansion of the navy.

The ‘damned Reichstag’ was indeed a problem. It was not showing much enthusiasm for a much bigger navy. The socialists, whose number was growing, liberals and moderates of various stripes, and even some conservatives, were not ready to approve the necessary funding, especially when Wilhelm and his Naval Cabinet could not enunciate a clear case for why such an expense was needed. In 1895 when the Kaiser asked for thirty-six cruisers, the Reichstag gave him four; in 1896 it rejected all his demands. At the beginning of 1897, the Reichstag again challenged the Kaiser’s naval estimates.

At the same time, however, we get the emergence of public opinion and its fledgling influence on political decisions - fledgeling in that popular opinion was easily manipulated by the now flourishing news media in both Germany and the UK, and "fledgling" in that research into public opinion is still virtually non-existent.


So, we get hate-mongers on both sides (notably the Daily Mail does not seem to have changed much in the last 100 years - it is still a hate rag), but while MacMillan describes a rise in German nationalism and arrogance, which only subsequently developed into an anti-British sentiment, the development in Britain is described as being geared towards a distinct sense of anti-German attitude at an earlier time. At least this is how it seemed to come across in MacMillan's book.


What I am still missing is how and at which point W.II's obsession with the expansion of the German Empire through trade and the establishment of new overseas colonies gets the support of the Reichstag and how the expansion of the navy was sanctioned/financed by the Reichstag - the inability to raise the required funds is cited as one of the issues that von Buelow (W.II's Chancellor) finally resigned over. Or did I miss this?


I am also noting a missed opportunity here to give the book a bit more depth: MacMillan is still producing a narrative of fact where it would have been good to see a few more statistics - especially around newspaper circulation and readership demographics - but maybe statistics were not available as, yet? Availability of sources is not discussed.


Chapters 2 & 3 - "Great Britain and Splendid Isolation" & "Woe to the Country that has a Child for a King! - Wilhelm II and Germany":


We get an introduction to the biography of British PM Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, and Wilhelm II, but interestingly to me we also get some background to Bernhard von Buelow, the German diplomat who would succeed Bismarck after his falling out with Wilhelm.


The description of W. II does indeed portray him as somewhat juvenile in both thoughts and deeds, apparently always seeking to defy someone. Anyone.

"In 1890 the Chancellor lost control of the Reichstag and did his best to stir up a political crisis so that he would have an excuse to destroy it and tear up the constitution. Wilhelm I might have gone along with such a plan but his grandson was not prepared to do so. The new Kaiser was increasingly alarmed by Bismarck’s intransigence and was not in any case prepared to submit to his guidance (or to that of any one else for that matter)."

MacMillan also portrays him as incompetent and impetuous and paranoid - who was not easily managed and could not be controlled by the Reichstag, because the Reichstag was not empowered to do so.

W.II's rhetoric - not all of which he may have meant on a political level - allowed for individuals to attain commissions in government that opposed the political views of the Reichstag, but the only power the Reichstag had was to cut W.II's budget to build more naval vessels.


Von Buelow was one such person with an agenda of his own. It makes one wish it had been a different member of the von Buelow family.


Chapter 1 - Europe in 1900:


Good points so far: 


MacMillan tries to set the scene by introducing the reader to Europe and the world of the early 1900 by giving an overview of different aspects of life: politics, economics, art, social issues, interaction between different nations - not just the European nations that would be immediately connected with the First World War, but also relationships with Asia, America, Africa, and between the different colonies. 

I am missing an overview of the relations to the different parts of the Ottoman empire and Russia but as far as providing an introduction is concerned this is a good overview, including some statistics (unusually for me, but I hope there are more of them).


All in all, so far a much more levelled, engaging, and multi-faceted approach to the subject than The Guns of August.


Questions and Issues:


It may be because this was an introductory chapter, but the tone of the chapter was quite general. I hope this develops in depth and complexity as the book goes on.