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Origins of WAR

Canadian historian carefully lays out the reasons for European catastrophe

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In 1870, the European nations, empowered by their advanced technology, scientific enquiry and modern social organization, dominated much of the world.

Fifty years later, the same nations lay in ruin and disorder, millions of their young men now dead, their peoples hungry and cold, their futures desperately darkened. The Great War of 1914-1918 had reaped its tragic and grisly harvest.

It is the burden of Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan's lengthy new book to explain the origins of the European catastrophe. As one would expect from the accomplished author of Peacemaking: Paris 1919, the coverage is astonishing, the style elegant, the interpretations carefully argued.

In a sequence of chapters akin to an elite military drill, MacMillan explores the fundamental, often unspoken, diplomatic and military assumptions that strengthened the drive toward war. Most European foreign ministers embraced definitions of honour and interest that intensified their anxieties about the motives of their rivals.

And most European generals believed deeply in the offensive, planning for a quick, decisive strategic stroke at the outset of war. Critics were ignored when they contended Europe's marvellous new guns, cannons and high explosives would confer devastating advantages on a resolute defence.

MacMillan deftly depicts the major precursors of war in some necessary "chaps and maps" passages: the Fashoda dispute, two Moroccan crises and two Balkan wars.

Manoeuvres of alliance and abandonment conditioned the crisis actions of the great powers. The naval race for new heavy ships between Britain and Germany is vividly illuminated.

Sparkling portraits follow of the two leading naval strategists, Britain's mercurial Jacky Fisher and Germany's calmly calculating Alfred Von Tirpitz. Everyone, of course, was persuaded that he was acting "defensively."

In the final few weeks before war, Germany gave its "blank cheque" of support to Austria. France stuck honourably with her debtor ally, Russia, itself trying to protect the "south Slavs" of Serbia from punitive Austria.

Most fatefully, Britain fulfilled the implied promise of the Entente Cordiale with France, and refused to accept the ugly dishonour of abandoning "little Belgium" to the German onslaught.

While cataloguing seemingly inescapable forces at play in the cockpit of national rivalries, MacMillan insists on the possibility of human volition and choice making a difference amid the reigning pressures.

Hers is a learned insistence deserving careful assessment. But the actions of blustery emperors and cold-eyed strategists, moved by antique prejudices and bellicose doctrines, defy her conjectural alternatives.

Dodging the din of historians' disputes, MacMillan settles for a familiar order of blame: Germany, Austria, Russia, France and Britain. Not for her is Niall Ferguson's nose-thumbing provocation in The Pity of War that Britain could have chosen to stay out of it, tolerating what might have been at worst a bossy German customs union on the continent.

It was "the cult of the offensive," mandating rapid mobilization, that primed the powder keg. Statesmen could not plead for more time when their general staffs warned of disaster if troops were not soon on their trains headed for the borders of the enemy.

Peace had its earnest advocates, but The Hague conferences called to seek arms reductions were dismissed brusquely as a fool's errand. And the industrial workers, lead by charismatic Social Democrats, ultimately responded to the blare of bugles calling them to the battlefronts.

Indeed, what else might have been expected from cultures prizing Darwinian notions of struggle, manliness and contempt for "decadence?" French studies seriously claimed that proof of German homosexuality was found in their love for Wagner's music. War could revive traditional gallantry submerged in the easeful prosperity of modern life.

Noble status was sought when it was not inherited. Asked why she had not married an ambitious Russian foreign minister who had ardently pursued her, an aristocratic widow replied, "I have regretted it every day, but congratulated myself every night."

In these doomed societies, those below the noble estate-owners were summoned in their millions to die for the honour and safety of the nation, sent to the killing trenches by those wearing "the fool's cap unawares."

Garin Burbank, now retired, taught history in the University of Winnipeg for 39 years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 A1

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