A Strange Road to Hell

Technology, culture and the march to World War One

Margaret MacMillan’s book on the causes of World War One appropriately begins with the Paris Exposition of 1900, that triumphant display of western civilization in all its glory. Pavilion after pavilion lavishly displayed the technological achievements, imperial conquests and cultural magnificence of the European and American worlds. Canadian furs, Russian matrioshka dolls, the Palace of Electricity—all were designed to overwhelm viewers with the impression of the wealth and power of the modern West. Lest any visitor fail to understand the message of the exposition, a charming fountain in the Château d’Eau allegorically told the tale of “Humanity led by Progress advancing towards the Future and overthrowing the rather odd couple of Routine and Hatred.”

Looking back at the exposition from the perspective of 1918, or even from our present day, MacMillan argues, “such boasting and such complacency seem pitiful to us.” Indeed, perhaps not just pitiful, but monstrously arrogant. In reading about the years leading up to 1914, the word “hubris” repeatedly comes to mind, as do the general outlines of Greek tragedy. So confident were so many Europeans that they had achieved the historical heights of progress and prosperity in 1914 that the barbarism and degradation of the Great War caught them unawares.

MacMillan’s book is beautifully written, over 600 pages tell the stories of the (mostly) men who were instrumental in moving the world to war. MacMillan’s approach to her subject is refreshingly traditional: her sketches of the biographies and personalities of the main actors in this tragedy are so evocative that they bring the entire pre-1914 era to life. Readers come to know Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm intimately: his bluster, arrogance and impetuousness as well as his insecurity on the European scene. His advisors did their best to keep him silent, fearing his outbursts might cause international scandal. He came to stand for Germany—a country resentful of the colonial imperialism of Britain and France and eager to demonstrate its newly acquired industrial and military might on the world stage. But how would Germany’s history had gone if Wilhelm had not careened from one international crisis to the next, engaging in a costly and damaging naval race with Britain, arranging an impromptu visit to Tangier to challenge the French presence in Morocco in 1905, and publishing an interview in the Daily Telegraph in which he declared the British “mad, mad, mad as March hares”? Similarly, Nicholas II of Russia emerges from the book as a man singularly ill suited to the era in which he ruled: insecure, of limited imagination and thoroughly unprepared to govern any nation, let alone one that was modernizing as rapidly as Russia. He clung with almost childish insistence to his prerogatives as autocrat, and insisted that Russia’s salvation lay in uncompromising reaction; at the same time he distrusted all but his closest inner circle, and often undermined his ministers. How would events in Russia have turned out if Nicholas had not been immersed in his outdated world view, supported by his devoted and fiercely reactionary wife, Alexandra, and the spiritual charlatan Grigorii Rasputin? And how astonishing is it that Alexandra kept a portrait of Marie Antoinette in her rooms?

MacMillan’s eye for interesting details does not merely rest on the monarchs. It is hard to forget the two tragedies of Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916, suffered during each of the two Morocco crises: his wife is killed in an accident during the first in 1906, and his brother dies after being attacked by a lion during the second in 1911. MacMillan’s account of the 1898 standoff between British and French imperial troops in the “mud-brick village” of Fashoda on the Nile River is positively humorous. As newspapers at home rage about “perfidious” Britain or “treacherous” France and their imperial ambitions in Africa, British soldiers in Fashoda are admiring French vegetable gardens, and French soldiers are tasting (and vehemently disliking) whiskey and soda.

By the end of the book, a picture of incredible complexity emerges, in which chance events, passing emotions and imperfect calculations are so closely interwoven with larger issues—the social instability of industrialization and the rise of the working classes, the rapid evolution of the technology of weaponry, the great game of imperial conquest and international alliances—that it seems positively futile to find a single thread of causality that would explain the advent of war.

Indeed, not only does MacMillan avoid the perennial question of who is to blame for World War One, but she writes her book in such a way as to make the question seem pointless and previous arguments simplistic. She does so not by an explicit, point-by-point engagement with the historiography of the origins of World War One, but simply through the overwhelming collection of multivalent evidence. The second half of the 20th century saw a number of scholarly arguments for pinning blame on one participant or another in the run-up to the war. Fritz Fischer opened up the controversy in 1961, by publishing a book that pointed firmly to Germany’s aggressive war aims. Since then, various scholars have challenged that view by looking at the role of other European countries and their motivations: Austria-Hungary and its desire to control the Balkans, France and its desire to mount a quick, offensive war against Germany. Some of the most recent books, such as Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War argue for a reassessment of the aggressive nature of the Serbian state, and for Russia’s desire to partition the Ottoman Empire and control access to the Mediterranean. Other scholars have tried to emphasize the effects of impersonal forces: international alliances, imperial rivalries, entrenched military strategies.

MacMillan does not diminish the culpability of Germany, showing repeatedly how that country tried to bully itself out of what it saw as a weak and encircled position: behind in the race for international imperial prestige, trapped between the allied states of Russia and France. Germany was determined to support Austria-Hungary to show that it would not be dominated by the machinations of England and France. And yet there is something pathetic about the German kaiser’s claim in July of 1914, after making his “blank cheque” promise of support for Austria in the event of a war against Serbia, that “This time I shall not give in,” referring to his perception that, in previous international crises, Germany had been forced to back down on humiliating terms. MacMillan does not let Russia off the hook—she argues for the importance of nationalist Panslavism in Russia’s attitude toward the Balkans, and points out that war was popular, even among the Russian autocracy’s fiercest liberal critics. But she also notes that Russia was reluctant to fully mobilize its troops against Germany right up until the last weeks of peace. MacMillan shows that Serbian nationalists may have been staggeringly reckless, and that the Serbian assassins of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, were “fanatical.” However, she is also unsparing toward Conrad von Hӧtzendorf, chief of the general staff of Austria- Hungary, who had been wanting a decisive and humiliating defeat of Serbia since 1908, and whose only response to the assassination was “War. War. War.”

The British and French were not immune to warlike stances—witness H.H. Asquith, British prime minister, stating that a European crisis would “take attention away from Ulster, which is a good thing.” And Raymond Poincaré, the president of France, made a trip to Russia in July after the assassination, a trip that MacMillan believes was primarily taken to encourage Russia to fight Germany.

The proximate causes of the war, it seems, were multiple crises, Morocco (1905 and 1911), Bosnia (1908) and the Balkan wars (1912, 1913), in which European states had to engage in complex negotiations to avoid full-scale war. In each crisis, European countries came to the brink of war, and then stopped short. Did these successes lull Europeans into complacency, into believing that the assassination in Sarajevo was but another crisis that would somehow be resolved through international diplomacy? Yes and no. MacMillan deftly shows that, on the one hand, previous tensions led diplomats and sovereigns to engage in the wishful thinking that in July 1914, yet again, some country would back down and allow peace to continue. On the other hand, the incomplete resolution of each of these conflicts created resentments that made peace difficult to keep in 1914: Russians were still angry over the concessions they made when Bosnia was annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908; the Germans still seethed over the creation of a French protectorate in Morocco in 1911. There was determination on all sides not to give in the next time. As the German foreign secretary wrote in 1912, during the first Balkan War, “one always attempts to trump the other with bluffs. War could only happen if one were so unfathomably foolish to bluff so badly as to be unable to go back down on it.” Foolishness, indeed, triumphed in 1914.

The desire to assign blame is a natural one, because the results of World War One were so staggering. Nine million dead, 20 million wounded, revolution in Russia, disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 20th century was announced, and its horrors had begun. But the key question for MacMillan seems not to be who caused it, but how could it happen. In her words, “how could Europe have done this to itself and to the world?” How could this be the end to the story told by that lovely fountain at the Paris Exposition: of Humanity progressing into a future of prosperity and peace?

In a chapter entitled “What Were They Thinking,” MacMillan attempts to explain the radical break between pre-war optimism and wartime brutality and atrocity. She finds it partly in a host of ideologies, such as social Darwinism, nationalism and militarism that emerged to contend with the dislocations of the late 19th century. Aristocratic, financial and intellectual elites began to wonder about the stability and survival of the new mass industrial societies, where the working class was growing in power, the struggle for women’s rights was gaining pace and the virility of society was in question. There is no doubt that ordinary people had become more prominent in society and politics, overturning the hierarchies still prevalent at the advent of the 20th century. Who were these new people, what could they portend for the future of Europe?

The questions were modern, and so were the answers. In keeping with the optimism of the Paris exposition, it was widely believed that science provided one of the keys to understanding the future and how to grapple with it. The ideology of social Darwinism is a perfect case in point—it was a thoroughly modern, purportedly “scientific” way of understanding and controlling the world’s masses. It depicted human evolution as similar to that of other living organisms: struggle proved strength, and those that survived deserved to do so. Charles Darwin himself had suggested the implications of his evolutionary theory for humankind: modern people, he feared, allow “the weak members of civilised societies [to] propagate their kind,” which led to “the degeneration of a domestic race.” After all, “excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” Anxiety over the degeneration of the human race through improper breeding became a popular concern.

Social Darwinism and similar modern ideologies were not opposed to the values of the Paris Exposition—they were embedded in the exposition itself, and in the image of modernity that it celebrated. This is evident in the exhibitions at the exposition that MacMillan hints at, but does not fully explore: the notorious “human zoos” populated by “natives” from, for example, French colonial conquests in Africa and Indochina. In this manner, conquered peoples were placed alongside diesel engines and telescopes as objects— things that testified to the superiority of the West. Technology, progress and dehumanization thus seemed to go together.

Indeed, it is not hard to see that the distance from believing that human beings should be bred like cattle to believing that they could be slaughtered like cattle was not great. On the one hand, to some, war furthered the aim of human evolution—it was, as the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute claimed in 1898,  the method by which “degenerate, weak or otherwise harmful states are eliminated.” On the other hand, even for those with more pragmatic military aims, technology meant the acceptance of slaughter. The cult of the offensive, promoted by European military strategists at the turn of the century, depended on soldiers who would bravely face a hail of bullets and stoically endure mass casualties—they would be prepared, in other words, to “attack and to die.”

Even among the European socialists, whom MacMillan places on the peace side of the equation, there were many who wanted war. Not just, as she writes, because they were increasingly infected by the nationalist virus. Karl Liebknecht, a German Social Democrat, may have been vehemently against Germany’s entry into World War One in 1914, but he preached “civil war” instead. Vladimir Lenin, who agreed with Liebknecht, summarized their position thus: soldiers were “to turn their guns against their own government.” Mass violence, after all, was part of the Marxist doctrine, as Karl Marx himself explained: “the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed, for the interests of the species in the human kingdom.”

Barbarism, thus, had not been overcome in the last decades before the Great War. It had merely been buried in the comforting rhetoric of progress and prosperity. It was hubris to believe that societies that had spent decades, even centuries, dehumanizing people around the globe would never dehumanize their fellow Europeans next door. It was hubris to believe that the great advances in technology had no dark side, to see only the electric light and the telescope, and not the machine gun and the tank. And there were so many who casually engaged in the rhetoric of extermination, whether of races or of classes, perhaps unaware of what such slaughter would really entail.

Some did foresee the brutality of 1914. Ivan Bloch, Russian industrialist, predicted the defensive powers of trenches and barbed wire, and the massive casualties produced by modern artillery. Oddly, he was optimistic—precisely these factors made modern war impossible, because it was clear that “war means suicide.” His warnings were ignored. As MacMillan poignantly concludes, “there are always choices,” and Europe, sadly, chose war.