Margaret MacMillan on the road to the First World War

The bestselling historian charts the lead-up to 1914
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Margaret MacMillan is a historian best known for her international bestseller Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which won the 2002 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2003 Governor General’s Award. She is also the much-beloved warden at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (where this interviewer studied).

MacMillan’s new book, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, charts the “years and circumstances leading up to” the First World War—which, MacMillan argues, could have been avoided up to the last moment. Her book will be released on Oct. 29, nine months before the Great War’s centenary.

Q: June 1914: Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb ultranationalists in Sarajevo. Soon after, the continent is at war. In high school, we’re taught that this was “the spark,” without which war might never have broken out. Is that accurate?

A: It was the spark that set off the First World War, but there were so many other things that could have done it. Europe was in a state of tension.

Q: You write that the assassins were inspired by Nietzsche. What did Nietzsche teach them?

A: Well, the thing about Nietzsche is that you can find almost anything in him. Over the years, Nietzsche has inspired everyone from vegetarians to Adolf Hitler?.?.?.?who was actually also a vegetarian. I think the message they got from Nietzsche was the need to destroy the old, in order to create a new civilization. It was the value of the single act, of destruction.

Q: In the late 19th century, European nations became increasingly anxious about terrorists who might be living in their midst. What did they see as the threat?

A: In some ways, a very interesting parallel is with al-Qaeda and the Islamist movements of today. The fear was that these people were working from within and that they were in touch with each other: “We don’t know where they are! And they might look like our own!” This encouraged more conservative elements to crack down on what they saw as dangerous. When you can’t see the enemy—when you think the enemy might be all around you—you are inclined to lash out and behave in stupid ways. The whole temptation was to suspect civil liberties, so there are parallels to today.

Q: Was this Fifth Column rhetoric the fabrication of conservative elements? Or was terrorism a real problem of the time?

A: Both, I think. ‘Fifth Column,’ the phrase, didn’t come into existence until the Spanish Civil War. However, there was a very genuine fear of terrorism, because terrorists had, in fact, carried out a number of acts. Large numbers of people in Russia, governors of provinces, for example, were assassinated—along with military leaders and one of the tsars. The king of Italy and the king of Spain, too. Terrorists threw bombs on the floor of the Paris Stock Exchange and into cafés. There was reason to fear terrorist activities. Again, probably like today, society overreacted.

Q: In your book, you place particular emphasis on weak leadership as a contributor to the outbreak of war. Kaiser Wilhelm was emotionally fragile—and possibly even brain-damaged. Tsar Nicholas did not feel up to the task at hand. How did their weaknesses hasten war?

A: In two ways. Some of them were afraid of appearing weak. For instance, [Helmuth] von Moltke, chief of the German general staff, was widely regarded—and, I think, regarded himself—as a lesser version of his more famous uncle, who had been the chief of the general staff when Germany was united in 1870-71. The nephew always felt that he had to live up to this. Possibly because he was unsure of his abilities, he was more rigid than he needed to be. If you are really a strong leader, you can admit that you’re wrong and you can back down, but weak leaders are afraid of that. Kaiser Wilhelm, on the eve of war in 1914, said repeatedly, “I shall not back down this time.”

The second thing is that none of the leaders had the courage to say, “No, I’m not going to do it”—when, say, they were under pressure from their own militaries. The comparison I increasingly draw is with JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. The military was really putting pressure on him to take the Russian submarines out in Cuba: Blitz Cuba, invade Cuba, the whole business. And he didn’t do it. What’s really interesting is he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book on the outbreak of the First World War, and was aware of how giving way to pressures can lead you into a catastrophic situation.

Q: On the topic of individual influence, I have to ask: How important was Rasputin in Russia?

A: Rasputin, “the holy man.” is such a figure. Holy man he was not, but that’s what he was described as—with the beard and the staring eyes and the hypnotic powers, the outrageous appetite for women and drink. He acquired huge influence over the tsar of Russia through the tsar’s wife, because he seemed to have the ability to calm their son, who suffered from hemophilia. His influence was bad in that he was corrupt and, in exchange for bribes, would use his influence to get incompetents appointed to government. He has some very bad press in Russia to this day.

Funny enough, he was, in fact, a voice for peace. He didn’t believe that Russia should go to war and had, on previous occasions, advised the tsar not to. Dreadful though he was, in a way, it was a pity that he wasn’t there during the crisis of 1914. But, as luck would have it (and luck matters a lot in history), he was lying thousands of miles away in Siberia—very ill because someone had tried to assassinate him.

Q: It’s popular to say that because of the geopolitical context at the end of the 19th century—maybe after the unification of Germany and Italy—a 20th-century war became inevitable.

A: Well, if we say it was inevitable, then we sort of give up, don’t we? I think it’s a very dangerous thing to say. The problem with the First World War is that it has so many possible causes; it’s what the political scientists call “over-determined.” We have come to think: Well, there were so many reasons why it might have happened, thus it was bound to happen. That seems to be a leap that is not logically sustainable. I’d like to think there are always alternatives.

Q: You write that public opinion was “a new and unpredictable force in foreign affairs” at the time of the First World War. In what way was public opinion new?

A: From the end of the Napoleonic wars, which ended in the Congress of Vienna in 1815, to 1914, “the public”—those who had a voice, who engaged in public debates, who took account of public affairs—was growing. You got a marked growth of literacy, transformation of communications, urbanization, mass newspaper and telegraphs?.?.?.?People were much more aware of what was going on in the world. You also got the spread of democracy or, at least, the extension of the franchise. Germany, for instance, had universal suffrage by the time of the First World War. So far, more people were now potentially engaged in the fate of their nation.

That put pressure on the statesmen. They complained about it. They now had to worry about the public opinion. And public opinion is not always a force for peace.

Q: There was talk after the First World War of bringing the German Kaiser to trial, but the effort was sort of botched. Would that would have made a difference, going forward to the Second World War?

A: Trying the Kaiser? I don’t think that would have removed the sense that Germans had of being unfairly blamed for the First World War. Most Germans never accepted that Germany had been defeated. There are two reasons for that. One is that most of the fighting was not done on German soil—and so the catastrophic effects of war and Germany’s eventual surrender were not really brought home.

Second, German High Command very energetically and skillfully fostered the myth that Germany had never been defeated on the battlefield—that, instead, it had been stabbed in the back at home by all these disgusting elements: Socialists, Liberals, Jews?.?.?.What you got was a deeply rooted belief that Germany hadn’t lost the war. Therefore, it was illegitimate that Germany should be treated as a loser.

Q: Another new characteristic of foreign affairs at the time was the existence of a strong-armed United States. How did the First World War solidify America’s influence?

A: The First World War was very important in the rise of the United States. Now, this was a rise that was probably going to happen anyway because of the economic resources, huge landmass and growing population of the United States. But at the time, the U.S. was only in the process of translating its very considerable economic power into military power. In 1900, it had a smaller army than Italy’s! By 1914, the United States was beginning to spend its money on the military—though not without a lot of opposition. You got the United States increasingly wanting to take a role on the world stage. The First World War vastly increased the military strength of the United States. It left the U.S., by 1918, as a major world player.

Q: To fast forward, your book comes out on the eve of the anniversary of the Great War. Do you expect that commemoration will be politically sensitive in the losing countries?

A: What I have heard so far is that Germans don’t want to do very much by the way of commemoration. Given the current political situation in Europe, they don’t want to be seen as somehow beating their chest and saying, “Oh, what a glorious past we had.” They would rather mute it. There is going to be a joint British and German commemoration at the site of the Battle of Mons, which I think is a good thing. As far as I know, the Russians are not planning very much.

But I think commemoration is going to be tricky in a number of countries on the winning side, as well. In Britain, Australia and Canada, I think there is already a certain amount of discussion about the right way to commemorate.

Each country will have its own important anniversary. For the British, one of the tricky things is going to be commemorating the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It was such a ghastly battle and such a wasteful battle. For Canada, it’s Vimy Ridge in 1917. Maybe by 2018, we will be so tired of it that we won’t do very much.