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Reviews by Amb. (Ret.) Anthony C. E. Quainton

[On this 100th anniversary of the beginning of  “the war to end all wars”, we will feature books that touch on that subject in this and future issues.   We begin with Ambassador Quainton’s essay based on two of the many fine books now available on that war.  –Ed.]



The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan, Random House: New York, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1400068555, 784 pp., $22.14 (Amazon hardcover), $15.71 (paperback), $11.84 (Kindle).
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, Harper Perennial: New York, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0061146657, 736 pp. $18.96 (Amazon hardcover), $15.21 (paperback).

As we begin four long years of commemoration of the horrific slaughter of World War I and the transformation of the European political order that resulted, it is appropriate to step back and assess how it was that Europe after a century of peace stumbled into global catastrophe.   Why was it that diplomacy failed to stave off disaster? Two recent books explore that question in meticulous and fascinating detail: the first by Canadian historian and Warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, Margaret MacMillan and the second by British historian and Fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, Christopher Clark.  Both are monumental works exploring the decade of crises that led up to the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914.  Both examine the fascinating personalities who played a role, rulers, ministers and diplomats all of whom collectively contributed to the mosaic of decisions that led to war. The authors tell with compelling detail the complex and convoluted story of crises, conferences, and mini-wars that preceded the Great War. They make the history of this period come alive, providing background to what a century later seems the incalculable folly which began in August of 1914: a war which destroyed the Concert of Europe created a century before and which led to the destruction of four empires and the grave weakening of a fifth.

Both books raise, but do not specifically answer, the question of why diplomacy failed to avert catastrophe. European diplomacy in the late 19th and early 20th century was in the hands of extremely capable and experienced men.  And their names figure prominently in the story which MacMillan and Clark tell.  They had access to the highest levels of the governments to which they were accredited. All were ardent in their desire to avoid war and to find peaceful outcomes to the various challenges that they faced. In the various mini-crises of the decade before the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914 they had had many successes. A European-wide war was averted again and again.

It is one of the truisms of modern diplomacy that the “last three feet” are what count. These Ambassadors all had personal and intimate access to kings, emperors, foreign ministers and other key decision-makers.  They were men of great culture and sophistication from the upper classes of their societies and they used their access with energy, at times with desperation, until the outbreak of war in the first days of August made their efforts futile.  However, their access to power, linguistic fluency, and deep understanding of the culture and history of the countries in which they served were not enough.  Their reporting was read at the highest levels of their own governments.   Ambassadors in Moscow, London, Berlin, Paris and Vienna were highly visible players who commanded great respect. Alexander Izvolsky  in Paris, the Cambons , Paul and Jules, in London and Berlin, Maurice Paleologue in St. Petersburg, Viscount Bertie in Paris and Nikolai Hartwig in Belgrade were all major players both as reporters in which their governments had confidence and as trusted interlocutors with their host governments . Their roles loom large in the stories that these books tell.

These books also make much of another level of personal relationship:  that between and among the kings and emperors. Nicky, Willi and Georgie were in constant touch.  They went to naval regattas at Cowes, attended each other’s family weddings, took cruises together in the Baltic.  They spoke impeccable English (and French) and had genuine affection for each other.  But this affection was never enough to overcome their own obsessions with maintaining themselves in power or portraying themselves as authentic representatives of the national aspirations of their peoples.

What went wrong?  The frenetic diplomacy of the final years and months before the war makes clear the obstacles which diplomats faced.   In the first place, however much they might have wished, they could not change history.  Each of the European powers that went to war in 1914 carried heavy historical baggage.  The French could not forget their defeat in 1871 and the loss of parts of Alsace and Lorraine, nor could the Germans forget their victory.  The Russians remembered bitterly their defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905.  The Austrians, after several hundred years of confrontation with the Turks in Balkans, came to see themselves as the defenders of European Catholic civilization against heathen Turks and heretical Slavs.  And as war approached publics were mobilized around memories of past glory or past defeat and the need to rectify past and present injustices.

In fact, prestige and glory and the preservation of positions of power became critical ingredients in the calculations of the European monarchs in the decade before the war.  The fear of seeming weak and allowing another neighboring power to take advantage of that weakness was a constant concern.   As both authors make clear, each one of the major powers felt that time was not on their side, that another power could achieve supremacy and hence come to dominate the European continent, something which the Concert of Europe had tried to prevent over the previous century. In addition countries such as Austria and Russia feared the breakup of their multi-national empires in the face of nationalist claims from smaller powers or ethnic groups. War, they believed, would cement loyalty to the Emperor and weaken fissiparous tendencies.

Fear was a constant factor in the calculations of the politicians, and fear was something that diplomats could no more overcome any more than they could change the calculus of power relationships.  Both books talk of the growing naval race between Britain and Germany, and the construction of capital ships (dreadnaughts) and their ability to dominate not only the international sea lanes (a British preoccupation), but also the Baltic and the Mediterranean Seas (Italian, Russian, and Austrian concerns).  Naval power became a symbol of imperial power and commercial strength. Even in America Teddy Roosevelt had sent the Great White fleet around the world a decade before the outbreak of the Great War. This was the first period of true globalization and it was a vital concern of all the European powers to preserve their global reach, to defend their colonies, and to ensure access to critical markets. Several of the crises which intruded into the tranquility of pre-war Europe related to colonial ambitions of the French in Morocco in 1906, the Italians in Libya in 1911, and the Austrians in the Balkans in 1913/14. In the multi-polar world of the pre-War period calculations of relative strength became of vital importance to each European government.

As we have so often seen in recent American history, the diplomats were not the only, nor in some respects, the most important players on the foreign policy stage.  The military establishments became increasingly influential, particularly in Germany and Austria under the influence of Bulow and Conrad.   Diplomats could not match either the tactical or strategic arguments of the generals, nor their rationalizations for mobilizations and counter mobilizations. The reports of military attaches in all of the capitals often had as much weight as that of the ambassadors.  For the attaches’ business then, as now, was to report on the strength of foreign militaries and on their strategic objectives and tactical plans.   Politicians in making the decisions that led to war often regarded these reports as of much greater importance that the often optimistic assurances about the desire for peace which Ambassadors received from their interlocutors in the courts and foreign ministries to which they were accredited.  Diplomats could not produce national victories.  Soldiers could, however, prevent national defeats.  The militarization of foreign policy is not a function of the post-Cold War period, but a reality that MacMillan and Clark make abundantly clear was critical in the run-up to the Great War.  Diplomats, of course, had also to contend with competition from intelligence services who not only succeeded in breaking the codes of adversaries, but developed human source inside governments.  These reports were often of doubtful reliability, but their credibility was enhanced by the very fact that they came from clandestine sources.

Finally diplomats could not control public opinion, nor did they see it as their job to engage in what we now call public diplomacy.  They could report on public attitudes, including the seemingly growing strength of the peace movement. Socialists such as Jean Jaures in France, assassinated only days before the outbreak of hostilities, d could command large crowds calling for peace. In addition in many countries, but particularly in Britain there was a peace party within the government itself which opposed the rush to war.  The rulers themselves were often ambiguous and reluctant to commit their people to war. Diplomats reported on these developments faithfully although perhaps over-estimating the likelihood that the peace party would prevail.   In the end, arguments in favor of strong and forceful action overwhelmed the arguments of the peace advocates and persuaded them that peace should not be bought at any price and that war was the least bad of options.

Diplomats, then as now, lacked a crystal ball.  Few could foresee the carnage that would ensue from a decision to go to war.  All accepted the assumptions of their governments that an outcome would be determined with relative swiftness.  While not all leaders or all diplomats thought the troops would be home by Christmas, none foresaw the endless bloodletting of the trenches or the possibility that the United States would be the decisive force in ending the war.

Professor MacMillan describes the peace and disarmament movements in some detail and both authors describe how the crowds of citizens in the streets demanding peace in 1913 become the same ultra-patriotic crowds vowing eternal loyalty to their king, Kaiser or emperor in 1914. It was not only in Germany, where Gott mit Uns was a popular slogan, that governments and rulers asserted divine sanction for their cause.   Diplomats could report on these emotional transformations but they could not change or influence them.  Their mandate was to work with and through the centers of power in an effort to influence them, but in the end those centers succumbed to the pressures of history, the fears of defeat, the appeals to religion and morality and the emotions of patriotism. The Europeans were not sleepwalkers as the title of Professor Clark’s book suggests, blindly walking into an unknown future, but rather men following dreams of national glory, power, and salvation, dreams which they had no way of knowing would become nightmares within a few short months. Diplomats are not by training or avocation adept at interpreting dreams, and so, as these two deeply researched and eloquently written books make clear, diplomacy never really had a chance of saving Europe from the catastrophe into which it blindly marched in 1914. End.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Ambassador (ret.) Anthony C. E. Quainton is currently Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University. Before assuming this position he was president and CEO of the National Policy Association, a Washington research and policy group committed to the promotion of business-labor dialogue. He served for 38 years in the U.S. Foreign Service with posts on every continent. He was Ambassador in Peru, Nicaragua, Kuwait and the Central African Republic. He held senior positions in the Department of State including Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Deputy Inspector General, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, and Director General of the Foreign Service. He was educated at Princeton and Oxford Universities.

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