Margaret MacMillan‘s most recent book, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (London: Profile Books 2013) has been released in paperback (Penguin Random House). The review below is from the 699 page hardcover. MacMillan, a Canadian with maternal UK family connections, started her academic career in 1975 at the Department of History at Ryerson University in Toronto (until 2002), then was Provost of Trinity College and professor of History at the University of Toronto. In 2007 she became the fifth Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. Her previous book about WWI, Paris 1919, won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, and the Governor-General’s prize for nonfiction in 2003, among others. She will be giving the CBC Massey Lectures in 2015. The War That Ended Peace is reviewed by Mr Proudfoot, who reviewed the Buchan biography for CWA.
The Short Twentieth Century, and How it Began
by D S Proudfoot
The popular imagination in Britain at the turn of the century — the turn of the 19th to the 20th that is — was gripped in horrid fascination by the spectre of a German invasion. After its reunification in 1871, Germany was seen as the rising world power, challenging Britain for supremacy. A new fictional genre emerged: invasion literature. The first novels of espionage cast Germany as a looming threat, and sinister German agents (not all of them be-monocled) were the Bond villains of the day. Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, Saki’s When William Came, and most memorably John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, all posited dastardly German plots to infiltrate and overrun England. Popular newspapers spread rumours of 50,000 German spies, disguised as waiters, poised to strike.
In August 1914, Britain had been at peace since Waterloo, leaving aside imperial adventures and the occasional side-show such as Crimea. In fact, Europe as a whole had enjoyed a century of relative peace, compared at least with the titanic struggles of the early modern period and with the nightmare which was to follow. For many in that beautiful, carefree summer, war seemed unthinkable. The counter-narrative to panic over apprehensions of German aggression was encapsulated by Saki as a foil: “war between two such civilised and enlightened nations is an impossibility” (When William Came).
Margaret MacMillan explains in The War that Ended Peace how that impossibility came to be real. Despite a widespread faith in ineluctable progress, and the belief in some quarters that war was obsolete, contemporary culture glorified war. Mutual admiration in Germany and Britain gave way to mutual suspicion, fanned by British fears of the dreadnought gap and Germany’s fears of encirclement. Britain forsook its policy of “splendid isolation” (a term coined by a Canadian finance minister) and allowed itself to be drawn in to the alliance system, on the side of France and Russia. MacMillan does not shrink from drawing parallels between the events of 1914 and today. Nor does she dismiss the importance of personality — the flawed character of Kaiser Wilhelm — or of pure chance: the death by heart-attack of the overweight Russian Ambassador in Belgrade, which removed the one man who might have persuaded Serbia to accept Vienna’s terms.
When war came it represented the triumph of planning over policy, and unleashed the hell in which millions were killed and the world was changed irrevocably. It meant a coming of age for Canada and the other dominions. Nearly a tenth of Canada’s population enlisted and one percent of it died. The maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn by the victors, in a diplomatic process described by MacMillan in her earlier work, Paris 1919. We are still living with the consequences of that peace deal. The twentieth century was a short one.
MacMillan is the descendant of a British Prime Minister: not Harold Macmillan as one might guess, but David Lloyd George, who took over from Asquith in 1916, and saw through the end of the war and Treaty of Versailles. She was born in 1943, just over a year before the death of the statesman, and never knew him. But, as he was her great grandfather on her mother’s side, can we say that it is reasonably likely that Lloyd George knew her father? Click here for a rendition of the marching song, Lloyd George Knew My Father (or as some would have it, mother).
- The Riddle of the Sands reviewed by Graeme Shimmin
- When William Came reviewed by Simon David Thomas
- The Thirty-Nine Steps reviewed by Kate Mcdonald
- Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World excerpt
- Paul Delaney, D.H. Lawrence’s Nightmare
- Recruitment Posters and other online information about the First World War at the Canadian War Museum website