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By John H. Maurer, Professor of Strategy, Naval War College
Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor

At a recent lecture at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Professor John Maurer of the Naval War College spoke eloquently about Winston Churchill, Germany, and the outbreak of the First World War. The First World War was a great tragedy, Maurer said, in which Europe began the process (completed in the Second World War) of destroying itself as the center of Western Civilization.

Maurer points to Thucydides’ trinity as the fundamental causes of the Great War: honor, fear, and interest. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, and the British government responded to the geopolitical challenge of Germany. The German naval buildup was a direct threat to British interests in maintaining its leading position in the world.

Maurer notes that in the years prior to the outbreak of war, Churchill and Britain downplayed the German challenge and wanted to focus on domestic problems such as labor unrest, social reform, and Irish nationalism. But it was impossible for the world’s superpower to ignore international developments. By 1911, Churchill’s view of the German threat changed, and as the crisis deepened over the next few years he prudently took steps to ready the British fleet for war.

As the German naval buildup continued, Churchill proposed “naval holidays”—an early effort at arms control. Germany was not interested in arms control; instead it wanted its “place in the sun.”

Professor Maurer describes the troubles in the Balkans, the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife by Serbian terrorists, and the subsequent mobilization of the great powers that resulted in war. But Maurer notes that, as Churchill wrote in The World Crisis, war was not inevitable; it was not caused by impersonal forces. The tragedy of the Great War was made by men.

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