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French President Raymond Poincaré (front left) and England's King George V (right) in December 1914. Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images

A once and future folly

The First World War started 100 years ago. A spate of new history books pin the cause on national pride.

By Patricia Clarke

One hundred years ago, a war began that eventually consumed Europe and much of the world. Before it ended, 17 million were dead (including 60,000 Canadians), parts of Europe lay in ruins and four great empires had collapsed.

The immediate trigger was a terrorist attack in a place few could pronounce or find on a map. Behind it was a power struggle that had been building through more than a decade between a rising challenger, Germany, and Europe’s other powers, which feared their dominance was slipping away — a confrontation with unsettling similarities to China and the West in 2014.

In this centenary year, a spate of new books and events commemorate that war. You can leaf through 500 pages and over seven pounds of pictures in The Great War from the Imperial War Museums. Or speculate with Richard Ned Lebow in Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! about what might have happened if the Austro-Hungarian royal had not been assassinated at Sarajevo. The Harper government plans “awareness activities” to “promote a sense of national pride.” No one’s telling how much promoting pride will cost, but it’s unlikely to be less than the $30 million spent to promote pride about the War of 1812.

Back in 1914, unfortunately, pride was part of the problem, as one learns from the two best books for understanding what led up to the catastrophe, The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian and a professor of international history at Oxford University, and The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, a history professor at Cambridge. Clark is good on the decades of rivalries in the Balkans in which only Austria-Hungary had a direct interest yet all the great powers became enmeshed. MacMillan spices deeply researched history with human anecdotes, such as the 61-year-old British prime minister distracted from the war clouds by his pursuit of a 26-year-old woman, a friend of his daughter’s. Another great read is Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars; it includes stories of the thousands of war resisters on all sides who, unlike political leaders, “recognized the war for the catastrophe it was.”

Will you know when you have finished any or all of these books who started the war or why? No. There was bungled diplomacy, paranoia, an arms race, personal enmities, incompetent leaders and a definition of national honour that made it better to jump off a cliff than back down and lose face. But no smoking gun.

By 1914, after more than a decade of wars and near-wars in the violent and unstable Balkans, the possibility of a general European war had been frequently discussed and even hoped for by some. The balance of power that had kept Europe peaceful since 1870 shifted as Germany united and grew strong. The assassination at Sarajevo might have been just one more crisis. Why not this time? One could blame the recklessness of Serbia in supporting terrorists, Austria-Hungary’s vengeance on Serbia, Germany’s blank cheque to support Austria-Hungary, France’s thirst for revenge on Germany after their 1870 war, Russia’s backing of fellow-Slav Serbia, and Britain’s not recognizing Germany’s legitimate demands for a greater place in Europe, and waffling until the last moment about whether it would intervene.

The crucial decision, according to historian Sean McMeekin in July 1914, was Russia’s. On the night of July 29, 1914, the tsar signed an order for general mobilization. This, the Russians and their French allies knew, meant war. Once one country mobilized — a process that took weeks — the rest had to follow for fear of being caught unready. Germany mobilized last and reluctantly, after the kaiser’s wife scolded him, “Be a man!”

As much as the arms race and the entangling alliances, it was that national pride — the fear of seeming weak — that dragged Europe into war, according to both MacMillan and Clark. A small number of men from similar backgrounds, for whom defending their nation’s honour was justification for combat, made the decisions that led to war, or failed to prevent it. Thus British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s statement: Britain must maintain “her place and prestige among the great powers.” To surrender it for peace “would be a humiliation intolerable for a great nation like ours.” By going to war, a foreign service officer urged his reluctant superiors in Vienna, Austria-Hungary “would again believe in itself.” Sound familiar?

As MacMillan writes, “Demonstrating that you are a great power and avoiding humiliation are powerful forces in international relations, whether for the United States or Russia or China today, and for the European powers a century ago.”

Today, Russia, feeling encircled by NATO and seeking to regain the respect its empire once commanded, challenges the West with claims to “protect” ethnic Russians in its neighbourhood, just as it “protected” fellow Slavs in Serbia by attacking Austria-Hungary. The U.S. president, his enemies say, isn’t “man” enough to meet the bully’s challenge.

China, meanwhile, like Germany, demands to be recognized as a great power and plays chicken with its neighbours over pin-prick islands in the East and South China seas. The United States is bound in a security treaty to Japan yet commercially tied to China. Would its prestige, its fear of losing face, support a war over another place we can’t pronounce? And Canada? Do we know exactly what our mutual defence treaties with the United States commit us to?

“If we want to point fingers,” MacMillan writes, “we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.” It depends on what makes us proud.

Patricia Clarke is a writer and editor in Toronto.

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