The Nineteenth Century was the century of European hegemony. Europe and it's colonies dominated the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The old powers of Islam and China were diminished and crumbling. Europe itself had mostly been at peace for nearly 100 years, with only localized wars. The First World War was not only an immense catastrophe in itself, but a crucial trigger of the further cataclysms that followed: the Communist Revolution and the Second World War. At the end of the war, three empires had been swept away and all of Europe was devastated in ways from which it would never recover. Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 traces the origins of that war in the circumstances, power politics and human folly that led to it.
What if is the question that marks the beginning of practically every intellectual inquiry, and history is a wonderful source of such. There can hardly be any doubt that the war itself was a colossal blunder. Naturally, fixing the blame has been the passion and pastime of historians and random nutjobs. Based on the book, I would have to say that there is more than enough to go around. The Serbian provocateurs, the Austrian warmongers who sent Serbia an ultimatum carefully crafted to be unacceptable, the Russian emperor who decided Serbia had to be supported no matter what, the German emperor who wrote Austria-Hungary the so-called "blank check" of unlimited support and more.
Weak leadership was a major factor. Ultimate authority in three of the most crucial players rested in three hereditary rulers, none of whom could be considered competent. The Austro-Hungarian emperor was 83 years old and ill, and his heir had just been assassinated. The German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II was appropriately described by his grandmother (Queen Victoria) as a conceited fool. The Russian Czar was a man of simple tastes, devoted to his family and his religion, but also a simpleton. Leadership was also problematic in the democracies. Poincare, the president (a cousin of the great mathematician) was weak. The Finance Minister, and former Prime Minister, who was a strong voice for moderation, had just been forced to resign because his wife, deeply offended by some scandal mongering by the editor of Figaro, had walked into his office and gunned him down with a revolver. (Excuse me for a minute while I imagine a meeting between Hillary and Rupert Murdoch).
One of the many strengths of Macmillan's book is that she has an eye both for the broad geopolitical picture and the telling personal detail. Her cast of characters includes hundreds of the famous and obscure who played in important roles, but the main characters are the political and social changes roiling Europe and the world: industrial capitalism moving to center stage and displacing the old agrarian aristocracy, the associated labor unions and the spread of democratic ideals, the crumbling of the Ottoman empire and the scramble to scarf up the pieces, the rise of nationalism and the tensions it induced in the multi-ethnic states and empires.
The transformative role of technology was also a huge factor. Rail systems had now become a crucial factor so that Germany's high technology made it the continental superpower, but a superpower that felt encircled by potential enemies and threatened by a rapidly industrializing Russia. The German Admiral von Tirpitz persuaded the Kaiser that Germany needed a fleet to rival that of Britain, and this building program drove an ever deepening wedge between Germany and its former ally.
With 784 pages, it's not exactly light reading for an evening, but it is engrossing. I was particularly interested in the many parallels that can be constructed to our own times. I will mention a couple. It's really hazardous to put too much trust in the hands of military professionals. They train for war and are anxious to puts their theories into practice. Second, and associated, putting a fool in charge is a sure recipe for disaster. One with particular piquancy for our times is the following statement of Bismark: Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death. (George W Bush - 0 for 3 in leadership.)
In the end, rulers and Prime Ministers became the prisoners of their military. Even as the German Prime Minister urged Austria, the top German general, Moltke, was whipping Austria on. Not only that, but the rigidity of mobilization plans, especially those of Germany, made war all but inevitable once set in motion. Wiser and stronger leaders could have checked these tides, but such were not the leaders Germany, Austria, and Russia had.
Some of my other comments on the book can be found here.