The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

“Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the war that ended peaceAs a Brit, studying the First World War at school in the seventies, memories of the Second World War were still fresh enough amongst parents and teachers that there was never really a question that the Germans were the ‘bad guys’ in both wars while we (the Brits, primarily, though a little bit of credit was occasionally given to the Allies) were the knights in shining armour. Enough time has passed since both wars now for a more rational view to be taken and this book by Margaret MacMillan is a well balanced, thoughtful and detailed account of the decades leading up to 1914.

MacMillan begins by giving an overview of the involved nations as they were at the turn of the century – their political structure, alliances and enmities, their culture and economic status. She then takes us in considerable depth through the twenty years or so preceding the war, concentrating on each nation in turn, and going further back into history when required. She introduces us to the main players: political, military and leading thinkers. She explains how and why the two main alliances developed that divided Europe and shows the fears of each nation feeling threatened or surrounded by potential enemies. And she shows how this led to an arms race, which each nation initially thought would act as a deterrence to war. Throughout she draws parallels to more recent history and current events, sometimes with frightening clarity.

Family at war - Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II (Photos : Getty Images)
Family at war – Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II
(Photos : Getty Images)

In the mid-section, MacMillan discusses public opinion and cultural shifts, highlighting the parallel and divisive growth of militarism and pacifism and how the heads of government had to try to reconcile these factions. She indicates that, although the peace movement was international, that at times of threat, the membership tended to split on national lines – an indication that the movement would falter in the event of war, as indeed it did.

Next MacMillan explains the development of military planning and how these plans gradually became fixed, allowing little room for movement when war began. She explains that the Schlieffen Plan assumed war on two fronts and that, when it came to it, the military insisted that it wasn’t possible to change the plan at the last moment to limit the war to the Eastern front, with all the implications that had for ensuring that France and therefore Britain would become involved. MacMillan also shows how the plans of each nation assumed an offensive, rather than defensive, strategy, taking little account of how modern weaponry would change the nature of warfare. Thus, when the war did come, the leaders still expected it to be short and decisive rather than the long drawn out trench warfare it became.

Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen Plan

In the final section, MacMillan walks us through the various crises in the Balkans and elsewhere in the years leading up to the war. She makes the point that not only did these crises tend to firm up the two alliances but also the fact that each was finally resolved without a full-scale war led to a level of complacency that ultimately no country would take the final plunge. And in the penultimate chapter, she takes us on a detailed journey from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand up to the outbreak of war, showing how each government gradually concluded it was left with no alternatives but to fight. In a short final chapter, she rather movingly summarises the massive losses endured by each nation over the next four years, and gives a brief picture of the changed Europe that emerged.

Overall, I found this a very readable account. MacMillan has a clear and accessible writing style, and juggles the huge cast of characters well. I found I was rarely flicking backwards and forwards to remind myself of previous chapters – for me, always the sign of a well-written factual book. As with any history, there were parts that I found more or less interesting. I found the character studies of the various leaders very enlightening, while I was less interested in the various military plans (though accepting completely MacMillan’s argument of their importance to the eventual inevitability of war). I got bogged down in the Balkans (always a problem for me in European history) but in the end MacMillan achieved the well-nigh impossible task of enabling me to grasp who was on whose side and why. This is a thorough, detailed and by no means short account of the period, but at no point did I feel that it dragged or lost focus.

Lions led by donkeys
Lions led by donkeys

One of the problems with the way I was taught about WW1 was that we tended to talk about the nations rather than the people – ‘Germany did this’, ‘France said that’, ‘America’s position was’. MacMillan’s approach gives much more insight, allowing us to get to know the political and military leaders as people and showing the lack of unanimity in most of the governments. This humanised the history for me and gradually changed my opinion from believing that WW1 was a war that should never have been fought to feeling that, factoring in the always-uncertain vagaries of human nature, it could never have been avoided. This isn’t MacMillan’s position – she states clearly her belief that there are always choices and that the leaders could have chosen differently, and of course that’s true. However, it seemed that by 1914 most of them felt so threatened and boxed in that it would have taken extraordinary courage and perception for them to act differently than they did, and inaction may have meant their country’s downfall anyway. A sobering account of how prestige, honour and national interest led to a devastating war that no-one wanted but that no-one could prevent. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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26 thoughts on “The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

  1. Excellent review. This sounds like my sort of book – the TBR pile is now threatening to complain to the council about overcrowding – perhaps Ginge and I should move out to give it more room!


  2. FictionFan – I do always appreciate a book that gives a balanced account of major events. At the time they happen, there’s so much propaganda that it’s hard to tell exactly what really happened. I’m glad this achieves that goal of balance. And I do like to read history, especially of an era like the pre-World War I era. So much was going on at the time, and it’s so interesting to try to tease it all out.


    • Yes, it made me wonder how much time has to pass before a really unbiased history can be written (which I think this one is). Frightening to think that next year is the centenary of the start of WW1.


  3. I think it’s safe to say FEF loved this one. An excellent review. The professor particularly loved the second to last sentence. Brilliantly put.

    I’m extremely interested in both world wars, and I would have really enjoyed hearing about all the battle plans, for sure.

    The only vexing point–that I can see–is the title. Don’t most wars end peace?


    • Thank you, C-W-W – and yes, I did love this one. I always love history when it’s readable and balanced, and I think this one was. And there’s lots about battle plans…have I not persuaded you to add this to your TBR? 😉

      I think her point about the title was that people had become complacent and thought that a general war in Europe had become unthinkable – much like we feel today. I felt she was warning that peace is never a certainty, however unlikely war might seem.


      • I think the professor always enjoys history books himself. I fear that nearly every book that FEF reviews (save the ones the professor is wise about) interests the professor. I’ve yet to see, though, if that’s because FEF writes awesome reviews or because FEF reads awesome books.

        That makes sense to the professor. (But I don’t feel like that, you know. 😉 )


        • There’s only one way to find out! Though since we all know how badly The Hound affected you, perhaps my reviews should be seen as a warning rather than an enticement. 😉

          However, I still haven’t given up hope that the Professor will read King Solomon’s Mines one day – though I would like advance warning of the rip appearing…

          I’m not sure whether I feel like that or not – it all depends which country we’re planning to bomb this week…


          • Not at all, dear lady! In fact, the professor really enjoyed the Hound. You see, anything could be ripped. I think I got some details wrong in that rip anyway. Pure dadblamery, I assure you.

            Not at all again. I think FEF has great literary tastes. The professor should definitely read more.

            That’s on my list. 🙂 But I think I’d rather rip the movie. Ever read Quo Vadis?


            (And, take credit for it. The professor would because he professorish.)


            • The Professor wrong? No, I find that impossible to believe… 😉

              Well, look on the bright side – at least I’m not trying to force another Austen on you. Always more fun to read books you enjoy than books you hate, I find!

              Good! And since the list isn’t very long that must mean you’ll be reading it soon… 😉

              No, never read Quo Vadis – I thought you thought it was highly rippable?


            • I fear he’s quite wrong quite often, but I like your vote of confidence!

              Well, Miss Tiffany is, dadblameit! That’s the only way she’ll read another Twain. The world is failing, I think.

              Maybe, yes, maybe. The professor is more busy than just ordinary professors, I fear.

              It is. The professor actually wants to see the movie.


            • Amazing! No time to read books you might enjoy, but plenty of time to read another book you’ll hate! Well, I shall leave you and Miss T to get on with your book-hating, but please leave me out of it this time – I’ve had enough Austen-hate to last more than a lifetime…


    • Thanks! Yes, I suppose having limited time at school, they do it as a shortcut but it makes history seem more like one of these boardgames about war rather than something about real human beings.


  4. Thanks, o historical one. I got a great flavour of that book – I particularly like her (and your) pointing out how we objectivise (and i suspect therefore dismiss, make wrong, don’t humanise or take seriously) when we do ‘a job lot’ on The Germans etc

    PS Doesn’t EVERYONE get bogged down in the Balkans – or is that a cue for an arcane Monty Python sketch? GREAT review


    • Thank you, m’dear! How is it though, that my tomes about war and serial killers are less gruesome than your books about placentas and meat?

      Yes, I think historians are getting much better at seeing past the nation state to the people in general. It makes history much more complicated and messy, but gives a more human face to it, and for me at least makes the incomprehensible more comprehensible…even those troublesome Balkans…


  5. Bismarck said that he expected a European war to arise from “something stupid in the Balkans” – and he died in 1898! (Why I remember that date I don’t know, considering how many others I have forgotten).


    • My heart still sinks every time another skirmish blows up there – I don’t think the borders have remained the same for more than a couple of years at any point during the last zillion years. It’d be nice to believe we’d all manage to stay out of it in future though, but don’t our leaders just love to drop those peace-making bombs over everybody…


  6. This is a book I would enjoy. It’s amazing when you look back on it and see how the world was heading right for it. Like watching a car crash, but you can’t stop it.


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