Reflections on the Causes of the First World War
A Look Back at the Buildup to the Great War
Experts discuss the events that led up to the First World War.
ANDELMAN: Well, welcome, everybody, to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, "A Look Back at the Build-up to the Great War," with Margaret MacMillan and Robert K. Massie. I'm David Andelman. I'm the editor of World Policy Journal, and I'd also like to welcome CFR national members participating in this meeting through the live stream.
You know, I was saying at lunch that I have a little surprise for our two guests here, because I checked 100 years ago today just out of curiosity, November 4, 1913. The United States was preparing to muster 500,000 troops and gear up for was against a major power. President Wilson had just given an ultimatum to that nation's head of state, but we didn't go to war, at least not then. That major power was on this side of the Atlantic. It was Mexico. And the menace posed by its president, General Victoriano Huerta, was the great menace of that moment.
So I found this on the front page -- where else -- of the New York Times. And the next 17 pages of that day's paper, there was not a single mention of Europe, whether there was any menace from Europe, whereas our two featured authors today have so masterfully chronicled, a quarter-century apart, but nevertheless very currently. The seeds of a real world war were already germinating.
The Second Balkan War had just concluded, just to set the stage a bit, and now Europe was building toward a far broader and more deadly confrontation. So to examine all these roots, it's my great pleasure to welcome Margaret, as master a chronicler of the lead-up to that conflict in her new, "The War That Ended the Peace," as she was describing the words of denouement in Paris 1919 (inaudible) very close to my own heart.
And on the far side, Robert, whose "Dreadnought" -- I want to actually lift it, but that's the book.
It's masterful, I must say. And it, of course, showed how the Great War truly paved the way towards understanding the great currents that were already building in Europe.
And, of course, it's been a great passion of mine, especially -- much of my life, in fact, since college -- especially my last book, "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." And that's coming out, in fact, in a new edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of the actual start of the war next summer.
Speaking of which, there are many ways of approaching history's great turning points, but fundamentally they come down to personalities and historical imperatives. So, Margaret, in your new book, I want to quote something on how you start off, and I'll quote a few words from you. "A few generals, crowned heads, diplomats or politicians had the power and authority to say either yes or on to mobilizing the armies, to compromise, to carrying out the plans already drawn up by their militaries."
So the big question was, was it, in fact, uncontrollable forces that were inevitably moving the world towards war? Or was it, in the end, quite fallible individuals?
MACMILLAN: Well, I don't think there were forces moving the world inevitably towards war. I'm very reluctant always in history to talk about inevitability, because it means we throw up our hands and say, "There's nothing we can do," and I think there are some choices. And I think what you had in your -- before 1914 was certainly forces pushing towards war. You had heightened nationalism, imperial rivalries, an arms race, and so on.
But you also had at the same time -- and I think these should never be overlooked -- very strong forces for peace. You had a lot of people in Europe who thought we are so progressive, so advanced that we won't ever have a war again. You had a big middle-class peace movement. You had the very large second international at the world- class and socialist movements, which had said repeatedly that they wouldn't take part in a capitalist war.
And so it seems to me that Europe was poised uneasily between these different sorts of forces, but I wouldn't myself use the word "inevitable."
ANDELMAN: Robert, you're known as the consummate biographer, as we can tell from -- not only from "Dreadnought," but from so many of your works before and since. But in "Dreadnought," your point of departure seemed to be naval strength. We usually think of the Great War as really the last great bastion of trench warfare, ground warfare, yet you two quickly shift to the likes of Victoria and Bertie, Vickie and Willie, the crowned heads of Europe.
So which was it? Was it the dreadnoughts or was it the people who were, in fact, pretty dreadful?
MASSIE: The dreadnoughts were created by the people. Wilhelm II was Victoria's eldest grandchild. He spent his summers in England. He desired to be -- he was half-English, and he desired to be accepted by his English family and by the British people as that. And his mother was Victoria's oldest child, et cetera, et cetera.
He was also the heir to the German throne. And he was subject to the imperial aptitudes and swagger and so forth of Bismarck's Germany. Germany became in that generation, from the time that Wilhelm's grandfather became emperor, after the collapse of France, became the greatest industrial and military power on the continent, with the great army. But I wholly agree -- she said it better than I could have -- that all these factors -- industrial, military and so forth -- were at the disposition of -- not playthings, but the apparatus which individuals were operating. And therefore, it was very important who these individuals were, what their antecedents had been, dynastically, genealogically, politically.
Wilhelm was the emperor of Germany. He was a physically afflicted and psychologically, I think, afflicted man. He was -- he had great power for -- I won't call it evil, but for destruction. And he was constantly shifting back and forth between a sort of pallid desire to do good, to be recognized in Europe as a factor for good, but...
ANDELMAN: But -- sorry.
MACMILLAN: ... I'm launched from what she said. I would say, the dreadnought race was because Wilhelm wanted a great navy, a high seas fleet. Britain and France had already gobbled up all the colonies, but no one knew quite what the German navy was for. Certainly, the British didn't. They asked themselves, he's got the most powerful army in Europe. Why does he need a great navy? Who is it supposed to be building against?
ANDELMAN: Well, see, that raises a very interesting point, Margaret, because it seems to me that one of the -- the seminal events of the lead-up to the war and the war itself was really the end of a host of empires that were led by these great leaders. And it's really a conflict that brought probably more empires to an end in one fell swoop than any other conflict probably in history. You're the historian, of course, more than I, but you would be able to better say that than I.
But did these empires -- by 1913, had these empires and the people who ran them simply become untenable and this was one of the motive forces that got us into this conflict?
MACMILLAN: I don't think they'd become untenable. I mean, they still thought they were tenable. And the nationalist movements, which were going to tear them apart to pieces, of course, were very much speeded up by the First World War, and when people in Africa and Asia saw what the Europeans could do, they no longer believed in the myth that these people were somehow better suited to rule them than they were themselves.
But I think what had happened by 1913 is so much of the world had been divided up and there wasn't much left -- well, there was. There was China, but I think there was a general feeling that if we try and do that, we might really end in a war, and there was the Ottoman Empire. And the powers were circling around both China and the Ottoman Empire.
But I think what was more important was this idea that you couldn't be -- and this goes back to what Robert Massie was saying -- you couldn't be a great power without having an empire. And we don't think like that. And, I mean, I think that fashions in international relations as much as there are in any other aspect of human activity. And there was this belief, partly because Britain was the dominant power until 1914, that the empire was what made it dominant, that you couldn't be a great power, and that meant having a navy.
And I would blame, also -- I mean, certainly Wilhelm, I think, plays a huge part in this -- but you have to put not blame exactly, but the influence of Captain Alfred Mahan, the American naval thinker, is huge here, because he popularized and expressed the idea that great powers have empires. They, therefore, have navies. You can't be a great power without having a navy to protect your trade and protect your empire.
And I think Wilhelm was -- I mean, Wilhelm read that book, "The Influence of Seapower upon History," and said, you know, I'm entranced, I've never read anything so wonderful. He ordered that copies be put in the cabin of every German ship. And I think -- and I can't remember, I read somewhere that he said that sermons should be given in German churches about Mahan's idea, which make for very odd sermons. And it is true...
ANDELMAN: I didn't know that.
MACMILLAN: Well, Wilhelm's ideas were always -- he always went overboard on things. I mean, that...
ANDELMAN: That's a very narrow slice, isn't it, of time? Because nowadays, of course, navies are -- they're important, but they're certainly not by any means seminal, since the arrival of airplanes (inaudible) and so on.
ANDELMAN: So that, really, there's a very narrow slice of time that this sort of a thing would become so critical and that there were individuals who headed up governments and so on and who would be willing to bow down in the face of that, right?
MACMILLAN: Well, and the trouble with Wilhelm was both his personality, this very erratic person who had this love-hate relationship with Britain. I mean, he wanted to emulate them, but he also feared them. It was very complicated.
The trouble with Wilhelm was that he was in charge of a very powerful nation, and it wouldn't have mattered if he'd been the British king, because the British king had no power under the British constitution, wouldn't matter if -- wouldn't have mattered if he'd been king of Albania, and it would have mattered for the Albanians, but not for the rest of Europe.
But he was in charge of this very powerful country at the heart of Europe. I mean, with German reunification, you suddenly had this huge power and getting more powerful, because its industry, its economy were booming, and it had this very powerful army. And so when Wilhelm took Germany in a certain direction, he could take. I mean, he had a great deal of power under the German constitution. And I think that's what made him so dangerous.
ANDELMAN: And it's interesting, because, you know, this sort of imperial presidency just doesn't really seem to work very much anymore. I mean, look at -- I mean, Winston Churchill -- well, you know very well -- was able to dictate so many different things during the Second World War, and even to some degree the admiral during the First World War. Nowadays, Cameron can't even get parliament to bow to his least will.
The imperial presidency seems to be changing in some ways, or the imperial leader. Do you have that sense?
MASSIE: I -- well, certainly, Barack Obama is an example of a president who's struggling to enact his legislation and has struggled with decisions. I have always -- though I'm a lifelong Democrat -- and I remember Adlai Stevenson, the first candidate I voted for. But I've come to believe that in that period of the '50s, I'm in retrospect glad that Dwight Eisenhower was the president. He had the experience, maybe not the articulation, but the experience and the presence and the reputation to stand up to Khrushchev, and he had military superiority.
But I think that -- well, personality matters. I'm getting back to that. I think that the build-up of the German navy, which the Kaiser hankered after for the reasons that Margaret had eloquently expressed, was not intended as a real challenge to Britain. It was intended as an add-on to military power. "We're going to be a great world power."
And the British, who depended only -- the British army was expert, but tiny, relatively. They only had their navy. It gave them -- it provided them with a Pax Britannica. They policed the seas for, among others, German commercial trade. But any evidence of another power, a continental power, building the ability, creating the ability to invade -- just cross the channel, and bring their army into Britain, was unthinkable. And that's why the Britain -- the Liberal government came in, in 1906. They had all kinds of social plans, education, old age, and so forth. They spent every pound on battleships.
ANDELMAN: You know, Margaret, every historian sees major events like this through their own prism. AJP Taylor saw the approximate cause of the war as railway timetables, dealing with troop movements. So the question is -- and Robert sees a lot of the prism is the dreadnought -- what is your prism for this period, this crucial period leading up to World War I?
MACMILLAN: Probably a very refracted prism, more like a kaleidoscope. I mean, I have trouble in picking on one main cause of the war, and I don't think there is one. I think it's a congruence of causes, and it's also timing. I think things happen -- in particular sequence, it makes a difference. And what you had by 1914 were certainly pressures building up that were tending towards war.
You also had, I think, a growing acceptance of the possibility of war, which is very dangerous. I mean, what struck me more and more, whenever there was a crisis, people didn't say, "If there's a war," they said, "When there's a war." And there were sort of real expectations that there would be at some point a general European war, even some people thinking it might be relief.
You know, one of the images that was often used at the time was of a thunderstorm. You know, it's very oppressive, very heavy. It would actually be a relief to get it over with, and then we'll all feel better, and we'll have a quick, short war and have peace. So I think that was happening.
What you also had, I think, was a very dangerous sense by 1914 that we can get through these crises, because there had been a series of crisis, which if you look at them were getting closer and closer together, and the two Moroccan crises, the crisis over Bosnia, and then a series of crises in the Balkans between 1911 and right up until 1914, and there was this dangerous sense of complacency that we've got through all these, we'll get through them again.
So in the summer of 1914, at first, people really didn't take it seriously. The British, in any case, were preoccupied with the possibility of civil war over Ireland. And so if you look at British newspapers for most of July 1914, the headlines are about Ireland. They're not about what's happening in the Balkans or what Austria- Hungary is doing.
And so I think you get a combination, enough people in positions of authority prepared to accept that war could be used as an instrument of policy and could be used without terrible expense, even though they should have known better, I think, and also an expectation that, on the other hand, it's another crisis, we'll probably get through it again.
So I think you didn't get them. And I would say this is true of the British, particularly in Sir Edward Grey, who didn't get people taking the crisis seriously enough until it was almost too late.
ANDELMAN: You know, I'm fascinated also by tinderboxes. And I spent three years living in Belgrade, so the Balkans are my -- one of my prisms, my tinderboxes. My wife and I just traveled through Albania earlier this year. So -- and I'm fascinated as to the role you think that that tinderbox and that tipping point played in all of this. It seems to be that -- have been very crucial to the priorities of so many of the powers involved in this.
Could this war have occurred -- I mean, it might eventually have occurred -- but could it have occurred without some of the -- a lot of the tensions in the Balkans leading up to all of this?
MACMILLAN: I think it could have occurred, because you had great power rivalries. I mean, Britain and France nearly went to war in 1898 over Fashoda. Britain and Russia went -- came close to war in 1906-1907. So I think there were other causes.
But the Balkans were particularly dangerous, because of where they were. I mean, they were where a number of interests met. I mean, rather like the Middle East today or perhaps the South China Seas today, not just local interests -- I mean, in the Balkans, you had a series of very active, competing local nationalisms, and these were becoming more vociferous, rather than less.
But what you also had were great power interests. And so you had the Russians with -- I think it was sort of sentimental stuff, mostly the Pan-Slav stuff, but there was a...
ANDELMAN: And a warm water port.
MACMILLAN: And a warm water port was much more important. And the straits going through from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean were hugely important for Russia, something like -- I forget. Over half its grain exports went out that way, great deal of industrial machinery was coming in. It was vital. That was a vital sort of little passageway for the Russians.
And then you had Austria-Hungary seeing Serbia as an existential threat which had to be destroyed before it helped to destroy Austria- Hungary. And you had Germany interest in the Balkans, and you had Italy, and so you had a sort of combination of very dangerous local rivalries with outside powers being dragged in.
ANDELMAN: Robert, I'd be interested, because you have a perspective -- a little bit longer perspective in terms of research over the last quarter century. Do you have any sense that anything we've learned since then, through the archives -- and, Margaret, since you've very recently been in the archives, you could probably respond to this, as well -- whether our thinking about this era has changed in any way since you first wrote "Dreadnought" nearly a quarter-century ago. I mean, it's still very relevant, but...
MASSIE: Well, David, I've got five or six books to read that I know of, beginning with Margaret's, to learn what later, fresher research has taught us. I've never felt -- I've never been asked to this kind of a conference or panel on this subject, so I've not thought about it much. I've been going back to Russia.
But I will be very interested to read what you and Max Hastings and the fellow who thinks the Russians started the war...
MACMILLAN: Robert Meakin (ph).
MASSIE: Yeah. And others. I mean, the war -- the war began 10 months ago. We've got five books now. Probably that's enough, but...
I don't think publishers or authors -- I don't know -- would agree with me, so we can read -- and I am going to look -- beginning with your book -- to see what you say I need to think -- re-think. I would just say that -- talking about the Balkans, I've always thought that the Hapsburg government in Vienna was very worried about the Serbian influence, sort of magnetic pull on the Serbs -- on the Slavs within the empire. And they had been looking for an excuse to do something about it, if necessarily militarily, and increasingly militarily. And the pretext was perfect. The Black Hand, or a young man in the -- under that influence, assassinated the heir to the throne. And everybody in Europe -- nobody approved of a regicide or -- I don't know what you'd call an heir -- an heiricide...
... but then when Serbia gave its ultimatum to -- Austria gave its ultimatum to Serbia, and it said, along with a lot of other things, the final thing the Serbs couldn't accept was that Austrians must be a part of the judicial or panel, which was going to interrogate and trace back the connections that this assassination had to Serbia and so forth.
And the Kaiser was aware, and the German general's staff was aware, that Austria was Germany's only ally in Europe, that Austria was crumbling in its adhesion to the imperial administration in Vienna, and they really needed to do something. And they decided we're going to make this ultimatum, as they did. And they bombarded Belgrade. They occupied it and so forth. The emperors tried various ways to stop the progression to war, Willy-Nicky letters, and so forth.
I have always seen that not as just a pretext, but I think what Margaret was saying, a culmination of this very dangerous Balkans situation, and then everybody knows the German general's staff had planned for a war against France, when and if it happened, as a part of a war against Russia. They were going to strike France down first, six weeks to Paris, and it didn't turn out that way.
ANDELMAN: You know, before we turn to our members, and since the Council is known for -- I'm sorry. Did you want to...
MACMILLAN: No, I'm just agreeing with him.
ANDELMAN: Oh, good, excellent. We like agreement, and disagreement. But before we turn to our members, since the Council is known for its great thinking about today's world, as well, I'd like to reflect on some lessons we might draw on.
And, Margaret, I want to read another passage from your marvelous book. "Our world is facing similar challenges, some revolutionary and ideological, such as the rise of militant religions or social protest movements, others coming from the streets between rising and declining nations, such as China and the United States." I'll leave open the question of which is which.
Then, you continue, "During previous crises, Europe's leaders and large parts of their people had supported them, had chosen to work matters out, and to preserve the peace. This clearly failed."
So what lessons can we draw from this kind of a dynamic today, if there is any?
MACMILLAN: Well, not very helpful ones, perhaps, but I think certain precepts. I don't think history ever offers us very clear lessons, but I think there is always, I think, this dangerous moment in international relations where you have nations such as Germany, which are rising in power and as yet uncertain of how to express that power, and they're often not very tactful. You know, they're often sort of wanting their place in the sun.
And you have nations which have been the hegemonic powers which perhaps don't always do enough to accommodate these rising powers. So I think it needs tact and management on both sides, and I think -- I hope that's something that the leaders of countries, such as China and the United States -- I mean, I'm not saying the United States is a declining power, but it's no longer as powerful relative to other powers as it once was.
ANDELMAN: But why do you think that wasn't present back then? Why didn't that work? I mean, you had so many interrelationships, familial relationships, Victoria and all of her offspring and progenitors. I mean, why didn't it work then?
MACMILLAN: Well, I don't think the family relationships helped at all.
I mean, we -- well, I mean, we all know how bitter family fights can be or civil wars can be.
ANDELMAN: Yes, right.
MACMILLAN: And in the end, the rulers of these countries -- I mean, Nicholas II, Wilhelm II, and George V were all cousins. But in the end, they identified completely with their countries. I mean, they felt -- you know, particularly in the case of Wilhelm and Nicholas II, that God had put them there, and George V, as much as we know, felt very much the same.
You know, so they identified themselves deeply with their countries. But I think what you had was nationalist forces pushing, and you have a -- it's unfortunately one of the lessons -- what's the word I want to -- you know, we all think that widespread democracy is a good thing and public opinion is a good thing, but public opinion can sometimes make relations between countries more difficult, rather than less.
And I think if you think of China and Japan today, public opinion doesn't play a helpful part. And you had a very sort of intense nationalist opinion in Europe before the First World War, spread of mass media, which put pressures on governments, even when governments would have preferred to be accommodating.
But I think another possible lesson -- I mean, apart from the need to adjust changing patterns in the world -- is that great powers can sometimes get drawn into things by their lesser allies and sometimes don't have as much control as they would like to.
ANDELMAN: Which were the lesser allies in -- that drew... MACMILLAN: Well, Serbia, for example, which was being protected by Russia, which gave Serbia sort of recklessness. And I think the Serbs behaved in a reckless way, because they thought Russia, our big brother, is there. And Austria-Hungary, which was the lesser ally of Germany, behaved, again, in a reckless way. And the Germans used to worry about it. They used to say, we hope we can control Austria- Hungary.
But I think we've seen in the present age that great powers can't always control their smaller allies. In fact, sometimes it's very difficult...
ANDELMAN: Russia and Syria.
MACMILLAN: Russia and Syria, the United States and Israel. You know, there are times when the great -- oh, United States and Pakistan.
MACMILLAN: China, North Korea. You know, because the prestige of the greater power is tied up with its protection for the lesser power, which in a funny way gives the lesser power a freer hand to behave as it wishes.
ANDELMAN: Well, that's a very good segue into our next segment. At this time, I'd like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder, this meeting is on-the-record.
Wait for the microphones. Speak directly into it. Please stand. State your name and affiliation. You all know the drill. And limit yourself to one question. Keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak. So we'll start here and work back.
QUESTION: Ralph Buultjens, New York University. Professor MacMillan, some years ago, David Fromkin wrote a book on the same subject called, "Europe's Last Summer." The focus of the book was to say that Moltke the Younger was the archvillian of the whole situation and, if not for him, there would not have been a war, and that the Kaiser was much less bellicose in the end than Moltke. Do you agree with that?
ANDELMAN: And, Margaret, careful, because David's sitting right there.
MACMILLAN: I know.
And it's a wonderful book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. You know, it's hard to sort it out, because in the end, I think von Moltke, the chief of the German general's staff, would have done what the Kaiser told him. And the Kaiser had the constitutional authority to make war or not to make war. And von Moltke was rather like the Kaiser. I mean, they both talked in a belligerent way, but they both often pulled back. And von Moltke knew that he was not the man his uncle had been. His uncle had been the architect of Germany's victories in the -- really, the unification of Germany.
And I think if the Kaiser had been very firmly on the side of peace, von Moltke would have had no choice but to agree. But in the end, the Kaiser gave way. And I think he was affected by the knowledge that a number of his army officers -- and he adored his army. It was always "my army." A number of his officers were calling him William the Timid, because he'd backed out on previous occasions, and he said -- there was a very revealing conversation he has with one of the von Krupps, who was a close friend, in the summer of 1914, and he said three times, "I am not backing down this time."
And I think there was a dangerous sort of pressure on him to show that he really could be a bold and decisive leader. But I wouldn't -- I mean, von Moltke was prepared to go to war, although he was actually very pessimistic about Germany's chances, but I think in the end it was the Kaiser who made the decision. I mean, we will go on debating it forever, though, I think.
QUESTION: Did the Kaiser want the maneuver stopped at the end?
MACMILLAN: The Kaiser -- the question was, did the Kaiser want the maneuver stopped at the end? I mean, the German mobilization plan was for a war on two fronts. And they had at one point had a separate plan for waging a war only against Russia in support of Austria- Hungary, and they'd basically stopped updating that plan by 1913, which meant they didn't effectively have a plan.
Their mobilization plan, therefore, was a two-front war. And it was a beautiful plan. I mean, piles of documents this high. I mean, they knew where every train was at every moment, when people were getting off to have a cup of tea, or whatever, a cup of coffee. It was extraordinary.
But I think the real fault -- I would blame the civilians who failed to acquaint themselves with that plan and allowed the military to go on making plans when they should have known better. They should have looked at the plans.
In the final crisis, the Kaiser said to von Moltke, can we just mobilize against Russia? And von Moltke said, it can't be done. In fact, I think it could have been done, and the head of the railway section later on, who was really responsible for moving all these millions of troops and their equipment about, head of the railway section later on said it could have been done, and I tend to believe him. But the Kaiser didn't have the nerve to stand up to his generals and to their expertise.
ANDELMAN: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Steven Blank (ph). Two words I think most often associated with the war would be war and inevitability. And, of course, they're connected. So a counterfactual question. Would it have been possible at any moment up to the actual beginning of the war for it not to have happened?
MACMILLAN: Well, I mean, Robert will have his own view on this. I think so. You know, you could certainly see the steps. When Austria decides to issue its ultimatum to Serbia and destroy Serbia, that's one step. The Germans give a blank check to Austria-Hungary to back them; that's a second step. But it's still not inevitable, even -- I would argue, Russian mobilization, which triggered German mobilization, it would have been possible to stop.
I think, you know, they'd done this before. And in a way, I think it was sort of brinksmanship that this time just went over the brink. In previous crises, they had used mobilization as a way of putting pressure on the other side, so they could have stood down again.
I think probably the final -- once the Germans went over the frontiers into Belgium, Luxembourg and France, then I think it was too late. And that was, I think, really one of the great flaws in retrospect of the Schlieffen Plan, the plan -- the short-term -- short name for the German plan, was that it was sort of seamless. So you called up the soldiers. You got them onto their trains. You got them moving. And they just moved, flowed seamlessly across the borders and into the attack.
And so what the German plans didn't have built in were proper stopping points. They could have -- I mean, I think once they were on foreign soil and once the fighting had started, it was impossible to stop, but they could have stopped, I think, any point up, really, until the 2nd of August.
ANDELMAN: Excuse me. Do you think that the British really expected those troops to move across the border into Belgium at that point?
MACMILLAN: I think once the Germans started rolling, they feared it, and they gave Germany an ultimatum with only -- very short ultimatum and said if we don't hear by 11 p.m. on August the 4th that you have stopped -- and they also wanted the Germans to promise that they wouldn't then switch all their troops from the west to the east against Russia, where fighting had already started. I think that at that point it was impossible to stop.
And the Germans said -- at least the German military said they weren't afraid of the British army. You know, they called it a contemptible little army and said, we'll, you know, deal with it one hand tied behind our backs.
ANDELMAN: Yes, Jeff?
QUESTION: Jeff Lawrenty (ph). The one empire whose aftershocks are still being felt with new tremors every day is the Ottomans. And I wonder if you could explore for us a bit what it was that led the Ottomans to decide to enter the war shortly after in 1914. What was their stake? You had on the central powers side several countries that had been their adversaries before. They themselves had been nibbled away at bit by bit. What did they hope to gain? And what were the consequences within Ottoman politics and thereafter of the reverses that they were taking, even before the complete unraveling? MACMILLAN: Well, you've asked me a question that I can't entirely answer. David Fromkin is the one who could really answer this. I think the Ottomans made a calculation that the central powers were in a stronger position and would win. And they had very close relations with Germany. There'd been a German military mission under General Liman von Sanders to train the Ottoman forces, and the Germans had lent a great deal of money, and, of course, were in the process of constructing the Berlin to Baghdad railway.
And the Germans were seen as generally more friendly and less of a menace than Russia, for example, where there were huge conflicts. I mean, there were conflicts all the way along the common border in the Caucasus, but, also, of course, conflict in the Black Sea. And the Ottomans were very well aware of the Russian goal. I mean, the Russians had been talking for quite a while -- and it was pretty much common knowledge -- that if they possibly could, they would seize the straits and that would, of course, have been a terrible blow for the Ottoman Empire.
So I think the Ottomans calculated that their best bet was, as the conflict broke out, to join the central powers. But it was -- I mean, for the Ottomans, it was a terrible burden. I mean, what's always amazing to me is that they managed to stay in the war as long as they did. But it in the end, of course, weakened them beyond the point of all hope, and it brought -- I mean, in the end, it brought the disintegration of the empire.
But I think it was very much a calculation, perhaps the wrong calculation, but at the time -- you know, initially it seemed like they were going to do OK.
QUESTION: Steven Isenberg, Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York. This is a question for the warden. Margaret, now that you've written this book, does it make you think anything different about the conduct of the war itself? And if you were asked to do another edition of "Paris 1919," would you say new things?
MACMILLAN: Well, I don't know if I'd do another edition of "Paris 1919," but the two questions about the First World War I find increasingly interesting. It's one of the things I just referred to. I mean, we tend to focus on the horrors of the war and the tremendous strain that the war put on European societies and on the people who fought in the war and had to support the war, but it seems to me, one of the extraordinary things is just how long they kept going.
And even Russia, which was seen as the weakest of the great powers, held -- held together until 1917 and was capable of maintaining troops in the field. So it seems to me that that's a question we haven't yet fully explored.
And the second thing which strikes me more and more is, why on Earth couldn't they stop it once it had started? You know, why by 1915, when it had become clear that you had this dreadful stalemate on the western front, why was there no hope of peace? And what was it that kept them going on and on and on when it became clear that the war was consuming them all? And I think both of those would make subjects for really interesting books, not by me, maybe, but...
QUESTION: Robert Knapp (ph). My question regards causology. In 1967, Fritz Fischer brought out the war aims of Germany, where he used the archives to posit that the Kaiser (inaudible) Moltke, et cetera, had really taken advantage of a small crisis and snowballed it. He did not have access to many of the files in East Germany at the time. And my question to you is, having access to it now, do you agree that Germany was the major cause of the war?
MACMILLAN: Well, Robert, do you want to give that one a try?
MASSIE: Well, I don't have access to it, because I haven't -- I wrote my book 22 years ago. And I don't have the strength to do all the work that Margaret's going to do in the future to clarify all these items.
Germany -- the war wouldn't have happened without Germany. It would have happened in some form without, I think, all of the other continental powers. The Germans ignored the treaty in -- I think it was 1838 or '39, which created Belgium, which Prussia, the antecedent of the German Empire, signed, also, I think, Austria, France and Britain. And the British -- behind that for Britain was the two determinants of British policy were the Royal Navy must always be superior to any other power or group of powers. That's all we've got. And there must be no continental launching pad adjacent to the British Isles which could be used as a stepping stone or a launching pad for an invasion by a continental army, which is, ipso facto, going to be larger.
I think that the British stuck to those rules sequentially. When they saw the Germans building a great navy, they built. And there was a froideur, a chill in British -- various British officials, including Churchill, tried to draw it down, taper it off, slow it -- stop building so many. Why do we need these? If you'll stop, we'll stop. The Kaiser basically said, nobody tells Germany what to do. The British built their navy; we're going to build ours, basically.
And as far as the Belgian invasion, incursion -- it became an invasion once Belgium decided to resist -- Britain did that for two reasons. They explained it or excused it, if you will, on this treaty. But they didn't want anybody that close. You know, Napoleon had stood and looked across the channel. Goering and Hitler did. And this was -- in absentia, actually not -- but the Kaiser.
And so they felt that they had to fight to preserve their -- the security of the home islands. I don't know whether that answers your question, but I think that Britain could have stayed out and perhaps would have, despite its understanding -- it wasn't a treaty, but its understanding with France -- if the Germans hadn't invaded Belgium. I don't know that. And that's another thing... ANDELMAN: But, you know, that raises an interesting point...
MASSIE: ... somebody needs to do a search on.
ANDELMAN: ... from what you said, Margaret, as to the -- why they didn't stop in 1914, '15. Part of it may have been that the French, for instance, recognized the consequences if Germany were to -- they've already seen Germany defeat them once (inaudible) standing on the -- when he was a young man, standing, watching Prussian troops marching through Paris. They couldn't have tolerated that, right, for the people?
MACMILLAN: Yeah. And I think -- and the trouble was that, when one side felt like stopping, the other didn't. You know, they scented victory. And I think what also happened is once you get those hideous losses -- and some of the worst losses were taken in those opening battles in 1914 -- it's very difficult then to say to your people, "This was actually a mistake, and we're going to stop now, and everything's going to -- the borders are all going to remain the same." I mean, we all know what happens once the killing starts, once the blood is shed. It becomes very difficult.
MASSIE: David, I want to ask one question. I want to butt in, because it's -- Margaret, was there, were there any peace-feelers during the war from either side?
MACMILLAN: There were. What Lansdowne (ph), who had been foreign secretary, wrote a peace letter, and then there was the saying through the pope -- was it Sixtus? I always -- I get my...
MACMILLAN: Benedict, thank you very much. I'm a Protestant, so I don't follow these things as closely as I should.
So you do -- there were peace-feelers. And I think there were some, I think, through Sweden, but how serious they were is difficult. But there was certainly -- there was a growing feeling that there should be peace in the different countries. And you got the socialists, who had voted enthusiastically for war credits, now pulling back. And so I think there were -- but how serious those peace-feelers were, I don't know.
ANDELMAN: Let's go for the back of the room, right there. Don't want to ignore the back of the room.
QUESTION: Hi, Michael Kavoukjian from White & Case. This is really a parlor game question, which I'm sure you've been asked for. If the Schlieffen Plan had, indeed, worked and the Germans did take Paris in six weeks, how do you think the rest of the 20th century would have played out? And would we have all been better off?
MACMILLAN: Yeah. What-ifs, what-ifs. There's actually an interesting new book that says there was no Schlieffen Plan at all, but I tend to think that's overstating it a bit. I think the best criticism of the sort of whole Schlieffen Plan notion that you could knock France out very quickly came from a German general who was not an admirer of General von Schlieffen, who said, you can't roll up a great power and carry it away like a cat in a bag.
And I think the French would have fought on. They still had -- their army, I think, would have remained largely intact. And I think it's not -- you know, it's more than likely that the Germans would have found that they were dealing with the sort of low-grade war that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had to deal with. So I'm not sure the victory would have necessarily settled things quickly.
And I think the Russians might have fought on. I mean, the Russians suffered a huge loss at the Battle of Tannenberg in the late summer of 1914. But there was still a huge amount of Russian force, and Russia, of course, always had its great asset of land and its capacity to retreat into its interior.
So it is possible. It is possible that -- just to go back to your original assumption that France might have sued for peace, it would have been, I think, a very unhappy continent of Europe, if Germany had won. If it had managed to persuade the French to sue for peace, it probably would have taken a big chunk of the Belgian and French coasts, which would have brought it that much closer to Britain, and you would have had a triumphal Germany within which I think the more reactionary elements and nationalistic elements would have been strengthened. And they're already there in German society, but there was -- again, as in Europe -- there was sort of an interplay among forces. There were pacifists, moderate, socialist, liberal forces in Germany. I think they would have been squashed by German victory.
And the reactionary circles around the Kaiser, who had often talked about cracking down, dissolving the Reichstag, getting rid of the constitution, dissolving the big unions and the Socialist Party I think would have had the upper hand. So I think Europe would have been dominated by a rather unpleasant Germany, which I suspect would have become more authoritarian, rather than less as the years went by.
And sooner or later, I think the British would have had to do something, because from the British point of view, a continent dominated by one power is always a very bad thing.
ANDELMAN: And you might have had two generations of Resistance in the Maquis.
MACMILLAN: Yes, yes. No, indeed.
QUESTION: Margaret MacMillan made, I thought, a very sound point... ANDELMAN: Could you identify yourself, please?
QUESTION: Sorry, Frank Wisner, Patton Boggs. Margaret MacMillan made an extraordinarily sound point in underscoring how commonplace the prospect of war became as you got close to 1914. Mr. Massie, I remember reading the same in your great book, how ordinary the thought of war became to European statesmen and officials.
But a half-generation earlier, in the time of Bismarck, of Salisbury (ph), of Disraeli, Europeans got their heads together and stayed out of war, put the preservation of balance and peace at a much higher level. What happened to European statesmanship in that half- generation that made war so much more likely in 1914?
MACMILLAN: Well, that's a very good question. I think partly you always have to remember what people who are making the decisions are themselves remembering and what they have experienced. And what you had in the generation of Disraeli -- and even Gladstone -- was people who remembered the Napoleonic Wars and what those had done to Europe and how those had convulsed Europe and how they had really damaged European society. And so I think there was a willingness to invest a lot in peace and stability after 1815. By the time you reached the second half of the century, those memories have gone.
I mean, it seems to me a bit like the generation who come out of the Second World War and want to try to build a new world order which will prevent such things from happening again, and then, of course, that generation moves from the scene and the younger generation don't have the same visceral reactions because they simply haven't experienced it.
So I think the passage of time, I think, made a difference. I think you also get -- and this -- you know, sometimes it's just coincidence. Sometimes you get a good crop of statesmen; sometimes you don't.
And you had -- I mean, you had -- you had Disraeli, you had Melbourne, you had, of course, Bismarck, who was an extraordinary statesman. And my great criticism of Bismarck is he was a genius who left a system behind that only he could operate. And that's, I think, what made Europe and, indeed, Germany so problematic after his removal from office.
But I think there simply wasn't the same willingness and the same appreciation of what war could mean. And, of course, you also got -- and this is deeply human characteristic, that even as the evidence mounts up, we can discount it or ignore it if it doesn't suit our preconceptions, and there was plenty of evidence mounting up that any future war, certainly by 1900, that involved the great powers was likely to be enormously costly and likely to be a stalemate, with neither side strong enough to overcome the other side, because of the growing power of the defenses.
And the generals and those who thought about such things just tended to ignore the evidence or dismiss it or say, no -- people said look at the American civil war. Those attacking took terrible losses, and European generals said, oh, but those are the Americans, they're not proper soldiers, it was a civil war, you know, we fight proper wars, we can still do the attack. I mean, you got this time and time again. And so I think there was a genuine unwillingness.
You also got another phenomenon, which I think you often get, and that is you got a younger generation by 1900 in Germany, for example, who said, we're so tired of hearing from our fathers about how they fought in the glorious war of unification, we would like our own adventure, we would like our own excitement.
And so you do -- and you get the same thing in France and also in Britain and the younger generation saying, you know, we've missed out on all these glorious wars. I mean, it's very easy to see war as glorious when you haven't actually experienced it.
ANDELMAN: You do get the sense in your book that this was seen as a glorious conflict, something you had to participate in, and the people rushing to the front and so on initially.
MACMILLAN: Yes. Yeah, I mean, the initial reaction -- I mean, not everyone greeted it with excitement. I mean, there was a lot of dismay when the war finally broke out. But I think for a lot of the young, there was a sense that we now have a chance to prove ourselves in ways which we haven't had up until now.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thank you. I'm Allison Silver. I'm the executive editor of opinion at Reuters. And I have a question. You both have been talking about how there was this idea of a happy little war, that they hadn't experienced war in this kind of way before, and also you were also talking about the allies, about the lesser allies having some sort of control.
And I was wondering if there's any comparison to be made with the neocons, who helped sort of create a drumbeat for war in going to Iraq.
MACMILLAN: Well, I should let the American answer this one.
ANDELMAN: No, no...
QUESTION: Actually, I think you would have a lot to say about it, too.
MACMILLAN: OK. You want to go first? Or I don't mind. MASSIE: You know my opinion. I've already said I'm a lifelong middle-of-the-road Democrat. That said, that's all I'm going to say.
ANDELMAN: And now across the Atlantic?
MACMILLAN: Well, I do think those who haven't actually fought in a war can idealize it and talk about -- I mean, I think what's -- you know, because we've now got -- even in political leaders, we've got generations who haven't themselves fought in war. I mean, we had -- up until Kennedy and Nixon, or even George Bush Senior, people who had experienced war firsthand. And I think they have a very different attitude towards war, and so do the generals, actually. The generals are often much less gung-ho on war than the civilians are, because generals know just what it's going to cost and what it means and how difficult it is to do.
And I do think you got among the neocons a certain -- but you get it -- you enjoy it elsewhere. I mean, you get it among the -- in the Canadian government at the moment a lot of talk about war and being tough. And I just think you should be careful with such talk, especially if you're not the people who are going to have to pay the price for it.
ANDELMAN: But who were the neocons of that time?
MACMILLAN: Well, of the 1900s?
MACMILLAN: Well, some of the generals, some of the statesmen, some of the -- some of the...
ANDELMAN: On both sides.
MACMILLAN: On both sides. And some of the British imperialists who talked a lot about how we need to fight. So, yes, I mean, we shouldn't look back at that world and say they were all lovely pacifists.
MASSIE: But one footnote. The Kaiser's father, Frederick, Friedrich, was not like his son. He married an English woman. He was a liberal. If he hadn't died of cancer after, what, 99 days or 90 days, and handed the -- fate handed the throne to this tormented child, tormented young man who needed to prove his manhood, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, I think given the German constitution, the power of the Kaiser, which we've all cited as being a major factor, Frederick could have won.
MACMILLAN: He could have changed Germany. It's one of the big what-ifs, I think. I mean, he had plans to make Germany much more a constitutional form of government, modeled on the English form, much more control over the government. I mean, I think he -- he wanted to strengthen civil society in Germany. He wanted Germany to live peaceably with its neighbors. No, I think it's one of the tragedies, really. I think he would have made a difference. His son despised him and really wanted to do everything in the opposite direction.
ANDELMAN: The incomparable Rita Hauser?
MACMILLAN: It's on his way.
QUESTION: Thank you. Rita Hauser, I want to ask my friend Margaret a way out question. Given the fact that the rising power, the true rising power was the United States and it was visible even at that time, could've the United States or any other outside party played a role in stopping this war, had they wished to do so, had they had the disposition?
MACMILLAN: I think the United States was a rising power, just to go back to the first part, but so was Germany. And I think what's interesting in the relationship between Britain and the United States is it was managed very well. I mean, the two -- they scared each other, because they nearly came to war over Venezuela, and they backed out, and they came to an understanding. And I think it's a very successful example of how changes in the balance in international relations can be managed.
I don't think the United States could have stopped the war. To begin with, I think the United States quite rightly felt it was not its war, it had no interest in it. The Atlantic was dividing it from Europe. If the Europeans wanted to go crazy, let them, and the United States from its perspective had very little at stake.
Now, you could disagree with that, but I think is how people saw it at the time. And the United States was a rising power, but not yet the power it was going to become. It was in the process of translating its very considerable and growing economic power into military power. It was beginning to build a big navy, but that was still pretty new. And its army was really very small, and the American army at this stage I think was smaller than the army of Italy, which was a much smaller power.
And so I think the United States didn't have the capacity at this stage to intervene, and it certainly didn't have the will. I mean, the reaction of -- as far as we can tell from American public opinion -- it was long before opinion polls -- was, you know, they've gone crazy over there, we don't want to get involved. And, of course, American opinion was very divided about which side to back. I mean, all the Irish living in the United States weren't going to back Britain, or most of them weren't. And, of course, you had a huge German population. What's been estimated, a quarter of all Americans were of German descent in this period. And so it wasn't at all clear- cut which side, if it had to choose, the U.S. would come down on.
ANDELMAN: Quite a lot of Poles and Czechs, as well.
MACMILLAN: Quite a lot of Poles and Czechs, whose loyalties were divided.
ANDELMAN: But, also, remember, in November 1913, the United States was mobilizing against...
MACMILLAN: Against Mexico.
ANDELMAN: ... an enemy on this side of the Atlantic, Mexico, and they had plans to raise an army of 500,000 Americans from an army smaller than they had of Italy, so they were distracted, I think.
MACMILLAN: And, of course, they had to worry about the great military power to the north, my own country.
MASSIE: Let me add something. Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term on the theme, "He kept us out of war." It was the -- it was the American entry into the war which made Germany quit. After Jutland, when the dreadnoughts deadlocked, the Germans never came out again.
The German Admiralstab, the naval staff, begged the Kaiser, and he agreed, to let them put everything they had into submarines. They started torpedoing. They started unrestricted U-boat warfare. They were torpedoing everybody, Americans, no matter who, who came within a very large blockade area.
Wilson reluctantly, during the fall of 1916, after his election and the winter, trying to decide what to do, he gave the German ambassador, not a real ultimatum, he said, if you don't stop doing this, torpedoing American ships, something is going to happen.
And finally, they kept torpedoing. Americans were drowning, et cetera, et cetera. And Wilson took it to Congress, and they voted overwhelmingly for war. The Kaiser had actually said to the naval staff, to his naval staff, won't this produce, precipitate an American response? The chief of the navy said, I promise your majesty, not one single American soldier will set foot on the continent of Europe.
In November 1914, there were 2 million in France, only 600,000 of them were in the -- at the front, and 2 million more in the United States training, and Ludendorff took a look -- everybody had been blooded. They were dying in the hundreds of thousands. And he said, we've got to quit.
ANDELMAN: We have time for one more very quick question. Let's see, right there.
QUESTION: Conrad Harper. The question for you is, have we entered the age only of opinion with respect to how this war began? And I ask the question in light of von Ranke's great observation that history is to be found in the archives. Is every archive now available? Can you actually determine what the real facts are, based upon the available information? Or shall we always be disputing these issues?
MACMILLAN: Well, I don't think there's much to be discovered in the archives. There may -- somethings we know have been destroyed. A lot of the German high-command archives were destroyed in the Second World War. The Russians took some back to Moscow and have I think pretty much released everything they've had. The Serbian archives haven't been thoroughly explored yet, but I doubt if they'll add much to our general understanding. I mean, I think it's fairly clear that elements within the Serbian government knew what was going on.
Otherwise, I think there aren't any great undiscovered caches of documents, but I don't think we're going to come to any agreement, because our viewpoints will keep changing and because it is such a complex event. The Second World War is so much clearer. I mean, it's quite clear that the certain powers wanted or prepared to risk war and others didn't want war. And I think you can see very, very clearly how that unfolded.
But the First World War, I think, is such a complex collection of events. And what historians have been doing, I think, and they'll keep on doing is deepening the context, so we know much more now about European society at the time, and there have been some very interesting studies done of things like education. What were people learning in their schools? Because what the older generation wants its schoolchildren to learn says something about how they think about themselves and their place in the world.
We know more now and when men were thinking. There's been quite a lot of interesting work done on notions of honor and masculinity and dueling. So I think we'll keep on perhaps shifting or gathering more information, but I suspect, you know, our descendants will be sitting here 100 years from now looking at the new batch of books on the outbreak of the First World War, and I think we'll be as far from agreement as ever.
ANDELMAN: Well, I can't think of a better way to end this that we provide.
I want to thank, again, our remarkable authors, Margaret MacMillan, and her novel is "The War That Ended the Peace," available for purchase outside, Robert Massie, and his latest work, "Catherine the Great." I'm David Andelman. Thank you.
MACMILLAN: Thank you so much.