World War One: A Choice or an Accident?

The causes of the First World War have been debated many times. They remain one of the most commented upon discussions in our history. The reason why is obvious. The Great War was such a cataclysmic event – both to those who lived through it and to succeeding generations then unborn – that it represents a genuine and profound landmark in human history and human morality. To many historians 1914 is one of the great bookmarks of the human story. It represents the end of what Eric Hobsbawm termed ‘the long nineteenth century’; it set the world on the road to the horrors of the twentieth. It also marked the beginning, or perhaps the catalyst, of tremendous change.

By war’s end many of Europe’s most powerful monarchies had fallen, never to rise again; nations which once stood at the forefront of the world order had dissolved into fits of internecine squabbling and bloodshed; the first fully-fledged communist regime had seized power in St. Petersburg, and had already begun its drawn out and ultimately successful bid to replace the old Russian order – and to re-conquer those former territories of the Russian Empire which had for the moment achieved independence; the United States, once a less than prosperous outpost of British and European expansionism, had ascended to the very summit of world power, exhibiting increasing dominance in geopolitical and economic spheres.

The war also heralded great social change. Its four years contained the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and the promise by David Lloyd George of ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’ included the precursors of female suffrage and the effective abolition of much of the pre-war class divides which to some extend defined and shaped Britain at the turn of the century and before. The endless summer of the Edwardian Era drew to a definite close in July 1914.

Let it not be forgotten (and how could it be forgotten?) that the war itself bore witness to human suffering on a scale almost unprecedented. The total British and Empire death toll was higher in the First World War than in the Second; France had lost one million men in battle before the end of 1915; and fighting men were driven to barbarism – Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War gives one of the best and most thoughtful expositions of the terrible wartime practice of killing enemy prisoners, often for little more than transient, sadistic pleasure.

When there is tragedy, suffering and cruelty – and millions of tales of each populate the landscape when considering the First World War – there is a desire to understand. What motivated the participants to do what they did – both in the course of the war itself and in its origins? Many explanations have been offered in one of the most tangled questions (in one of the largest libraries) of historiography we have.

Some place responsibility on the nature of the pre-war alliance systems, which divided Europe into ‘two armed camps’. Others blame the militarism which in their view increasingly dominated European public life, serving to push the continent towards war without conscious design. Fritz Fischer argued that Germany had wanted war; he suggested that the German state had provoked conflict through the deliberate disruption of the diplomatic status quo, examples of which include the Moroccan Crises, support of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia, the German programme of naval building, and the ‘blank cheque’ offered to Austria-Hungary after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Christopher Clark characterised this school of thought as detailing a narrative of ‘Five German Provocations’ and dismissed it in a Gresham College lecture I attended last year. Recent work on the question of responsibility blames the French, Russians, Serbians, and so on.

Attractive though this debate is, in its wake a far more essential, even elemental, question remains unanswered. Was the war itself an active choice, or did it simply arrive – as if propelled by historical forces outside individual control – at the allotted time? It should go without saying that this is the essential question of the period. Not only does it allow for a far more conclusive survey of causes and their antecedents; it also provides a true and valuable insight into the deepest and most sincere moral convictions of policymakers active in the period preceding the outbreak of war. Did they desire conflict; was it forced upon them; or did they simply sit passively, watching with mournful melancholia as the world entered a new and unprecedented period of conflict?

It seems right to assess those indicators which suggest that the war was not deliberate, pre-meditated; this, after all, is perhaps the position one might like to be correct. It presupposes that the statesmen of Europe did not – at least knowingly – plunge the world into what Lloyd George would later call ‘the abyss’. One of the most convincing is the idea that the times themselves made conflict either an inevitability or more at any rate likely, thus diminishing the role of individual human agency in the terrible events which came to pass.

The years preceding the First World War live under a black cloud. Their histories, intrinsically linked to war that was to follow, are interpreted retrospectively in ways which would doubtless surprise those who were alive at the time. Historians sometimes assume their conclusions with excessive alacrity, and this is a case which serves to confirm the trend. Latter day scholars can see schism, dissention, tension and the preludes to coming crisis in that which was viewed very differently at the time. In fact, many European diplomats saw the first two decades of the 20th century in very different terms; some even wrote sunny dispatches on the matter, stating that they saw nothing but calm waters and clear skies ahead for the continent; and this attitude was widespread, touching on and influencing many corners of life. There was progress, hope. The 19th century, after all, had been largely peaceful and in that century Europe underwent social, industrial, and economic change on a scale without parallel.

Whole classes were lifted out of poverty; diseases were cured; exhibitions – each more gaudy and optimistic than the last – were mounted; the very frontiers of life – be they geographical, scientific, economic, colonial – were expanding or being shattered in front of the eyes of Europeans. It was an optimism built for many upon rationality; it seemed frankly insane that Europe might go to war. After all, the markets, by now an essential part of the wealth of nations, would crash. The sinews of war – money – would simply run out. The world would grind to a halt – but war would be averted. This optimism might seem utopian and unrealistic to many living today, but it was a legitimate perspective, and one which was built upon a seemingly serious reading of the trajectory of humankind.

The lives of Europeans were improving. There was a sense that war was not something Europeans did anymore. Globalisation (though it is a later term) had not only enriched many individuals and raised standards of living in general; it had brought the world closer together. Many thought (and who can blame them?) that this newfound wealth and security would serve as a fundamental deterrent against risking all that the world had gained from an extraordinary century of economic advancement.

In 1913, it must not be forgotten, each of Britain and Germany was the other’s largest trading partner; why would they risk the future of shared prosperity by engaging in large-scale hostilities? And in any case, the two nations had come to remarkably equitable settlements over Heligoland and Zanzibar, for example. But there was also anti-German sentiment prevalent in Britain at the time, exhibited especially virulently in the contemporary pamphlet Made in Germany, which told British men that German industry was something to fear. The operas to which their wives listened, the essential components of British manufacturing, even the toy soldiers with which their children played – all were made in Germany. The Germans, of course, had a similar impulse in reverse; popular xenophobia, often spurred on by the nationalistic tabloid press, remained a powerful public force.

Public opinion, too, became a greater factor in decision-making. This also coincided with greater literacy, higher rates of suffrage, and so on – and all of this could be interpreted positively; after all, it was the groundwork laid by these reforms which served to prepare the way for much of what we now expect from our own democracies. But the largely novel political literacy and involvement of the lower orders could also prove a damaging force. It was a desire to placate the people which pushed national governments of the time to pursue such attention-grabbing policies as winning colonies and building up armed forces; and this cannot be entirely disentangled from nationalism and the pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism which enjoyed a none-too-brief vogue in that age. (War was seen by many as the only true test of a race; and since humanity would be better served, many thought, by the expansion of the strong races and the extirpation of the weak, why delay the inevitable, righteous clash?)

Europe was also beset by fears. There was a genuine and not unreasonable fear of terrorism, which had claimed the lives of many members of Europe’s swollen royal houses in the immediate past and was about to do so again; fear of progressing too fast; fear of the large working classes which were beginning to emerge at the time – this fear was especially prevalent among the ruling classes, many of whom were profoundly pessimistic about both their own survival and the fate of their countries; fear of change; and fear that European society was degenerating and that the people were not tough enough to cope.

Another important aspect of pre-war Europe was the extent to which the holding of political power was due to nothing more than an accident of birth. Constitutional monarchs had to do what they were told, but in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, there were no such constraints on monarchical power. The accession of Wilhelm II, who hated his parents, hated liberalism, and wanted a navy, is one such example. While his childishness and impudence has been to some extent exaggerated by caricaturists and popular perceptions, there is no doubt that his eccentric and odd behaviours – which included buttonholing fellow monarchs with disturbing frequency, giving outlandish interviews to the foreign press, writing furious and poorly-punctuated marginalia on state documents, and making histrionic statements of his nation’s strength and his own genius to anyone who would listen – would not have been tolerated for long in an elected ruler. Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was left alone, as the embodiment of an already-crumbling polyglot empire, with his generals; many of them wanted war – and some advocated in favour of military measures with tremendous frequency. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, a particularly aggressive general, was at one point dismissed for his ceaseless sabre-rattling, only to return before long – and he was more than ready upon his return to take an essential role in the July Crisis which led to the outbreak of World War One.

There were peace movements, too, of course, like the ill-fated Second International; but they could not compete for power with autocrats and always lacked global influence. Jean Jaurès, a French socialist leader who was assassinated in 1914, was one of those who believed that a general strike could avert war; if the workers on each side simply downed tools and refused to continue, thus bringing the war economy to a juddering halt, there could be no conflict – or so went the theory. There was also a move towards increasing international arbitration, which was seen as a diplomatic alternative to war. All of these moves suggest that, far from wishing for a war, or actively advocating for one, many in Europe did all they could to avert the possibility of bloodshed on a grand scale ever again disfiguring the continent and the world; with such sentiments so widespread, one could argue, the eventual war could not be seen to have popular support, which diminishes the extent to which it might be called a choice – after all, whose choice was it to make?

This, however, is ultimately unsatisfactory. The actions of a small core of activists and anti-war advocates do not an accidental war make. It is simply incorrect to suggest that the disagreement of certain sections of society justifies the contention that the war as a whole was not a choice but an accident, a horrendous happening whose occurrence cannot be blamed – or even seen to be caused – by anyone or anything.

There is a tendency to look back into the mists of history and to suggest that events were simply inevitable, either through interpersonal forces or through reasons which minimise or mitigate human agency. That is simply untrue. Despite the discomfort it may cause, historians and others must acknowledge there is always a choice of some kind. Europe’s leaders saw the choice before them, however obliquely – and they chose war.


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  1. Pingback: Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order | James Snell

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