Sunday, 24 August 2014

Sunday August 24th, 2014 "The war that ended peace: The road to 1914"

Margaret MacMillan (2013) The war that ended peace: The road to 1914, Allen Lane  

Thunder Bay Public Library is leading a partnership project to commemorate World War I and its impact on Thunder Bay. The project partners include the Military Museum, City Archives, Sports Hall of Fame, Aviation Heritage Centre and Lakehead University. Over the next five years we will work together to remember the many different impacts of World War I on Thunder Bay communities. This is also a People’s Project and we encourage local citizens to get involved through our events, displays and publications and by contributing your family histories, photographs, letters, diaries and other memorabilia. Every family has a World War I story; we want to hear yours.

In The War That Ended Peace Margaret MacMillan explores the people and events which led to World War I. Europe had enjoyed a century of almost unbroken peace and in 1900 it was strong, united and confidently striding towards a prosperous future. So what went wrong? In the background and beneath the surface there were a number of simmering tensions. Many of the people in positions of power were either too weak or too strong. Family rivalries among crowned heads of state became influenced by the rush to build empires and feelings of ethnic superiority. Nationalism was on the rise and countries organised themselves into competing power blocs. It was a recipe for disaster. While no single reason for war can be identified, MacLean makes it clear that this toxic brew of shifting alliances had one inevitable outcome – war on a scale that the world had never witnessed before.  

One of MacLean’s themes is that it was the ego of men – from generals and MPs, to civil servants and financiers – that lay at the root of the problem. The front jacket features Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s mercurial leader, and a young Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who went on to plan the disastrous Dardenelles campaign.  The back jacket captures Archduke Ferdinand of Prussia and his wife, Sophie, minutes before their assassination. Just weeks later, the whole of Europe was thrown into chaos and war. The other key players include Emperor Franz Joseph, who struggled to keep his Austria-Hungarian empire together; Tsar Nicholas II, who was swept away by a Revolution that was triggered by the War; and King Edward VII, who entered into a confrontational arms race with Germany. There are few innocents in this story.

Not everyone subscribes to the ‘Great Man’ view of history but few can deny that it was the ‘great and the good’ who pushed Europe into war in 1914. MacLean reminds us that the voices for peace and calm were ignored. Alfred Noble and Bertha von Suttner, for example, gave loud and frequent warnings about the impending doom. MacLean uses the analogy of a country walk by the Great Powers. This gentle stroll began on a sunlit plain but reached forks at which decisions had to be made; to go this way or that; to choose peace or war. MacLean tries to explain why they chose war, even though it was ultimately in nobody’s interest to do so. Ultimately she focuses on Austro-Hungary’s determination to destroy Serbia, Germany’s support for this reckless act and Russia’s eagerness to mobilise. Once the trains started to roll it became impossible to stop them. France and Britain didn’t want war but did little to stop it. Canada played no direct role but became a staunch ally when war was declared.

As we look back at the events of 1914-18 with the hindsight of history we learn that Europe reached a point where peace failed and war triumphed. The lessons for today are obvious.

John Pateman

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