Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The War that Ended Peace – a Historian’s Vantage Point

With a full house at Knox Presbyterian Church, CBC’s Laurence Wall introduced to the Writers Festival stage Canada’s renowned historian, Margaret MacMillan. Born in Toronto and schooled at such formidable institutions as the University of Toronto and Oxford University, MacMillan brings a sizable resume to the table. In 2002, she was named Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and more recently, the Warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford. The War that Ended Peace is not her first acclaimed novel; it follows in the footsteps of her previous bestsellers Nixon in China and Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World .


The War that Ended Peace explores the reasons for the grand calamity that comprised the first World War. According to MacMillan, historians have reached no consensus as to why this war occurred in the first place, and particularly, on whom to lay blame. To make relevant its lessons for today’s world, MacMillan examines what the Great War of nearly a century ago means at present: if Europe could so casually slip into a war of such magnitude without premeditation, could we do the same today?


To set the stage, a recap of European history. It was 1914. The preceding century had seen a time of [relative] peace and stability in the region, as well as the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Industry led to a burgeoning middle class, a population the ruling classes feared, if for sheer force of their numbers. The elites sniffed a revolutionary current—the potential for the proletariat’s revolt. To stymie revolt and maintain power, they entered war with the notion that “a good war will brace us up, overcome divisions, and unite society.” Also at play was the rise of Social Darwinism and its influence in terms of ideology: “the fittest/strongest nations will survive at war,” and “war is the highest form of human activity.” Rather naively, there existed in Europe a strong sense that the war would not last long. MacMillan chalks this up to a human tendency to dismiss contradictory evidence. The populace reviewed the prior century’s skirmishes—such as decisive Napoleonic battles and the Franco-Prussian War, where attacks led quickly to surrender—and expected World War I to bring the same. There was also a general failure to take into account what the change in war weapons ushered in by the Industrial Revolution would bring. More accurate and longer-reaching munitions meant offensive strategy became difficult, and the presence of mustard gas and tanks changed the face of warfare as Europe knew it.


Three of the war’s major players, England, Germany, and Russia, were governed by three cousins with chips on their shoulders: King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicolas II. England’s and France’s colonial conquests had inspired jealousy on the part of Germany, who wanted a piece of the world’s “pie.” Germany’s Kaiser was eccentric, always knew best, interfered with everything, talked incessantly, and generally overcompensated for a physical deformity suffered in childbirth. Tsar Nicolas, on the other hand, was small in stature, raised by an authoritarian father who disregarded his son’s ability, thus relegating him to a life of impotency. When his father passed away, Nicolas was left steering the ship with little to no experience at the helm. In his weakness, Nicolas was rigid. MacMillan colourfully characterizes the two men as incompetent heads of state, well suited to be “postmasters in small towns,” but nothing more.


When all is said and done, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy are pitted against France, Russia, and England. Though MacMillan says historians have enough facts to paint a clear picture of the war, they will always disagree on why it actually occurred. The takeaway from the Great War, according to the author, is the need for the world’s established powers to work hard at helping emerging powers enter the world stage. She likens modern China to 1914 Germany, and the United States to then-England, and stresses the importance of good relations to avoid a casual step off a precipice into grand-scale war.


In conclusion, it would take years to examine all of the causes and factors associated with Europe’s slip into war—much more time than we were afforded that evening! That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful glimpse into the Europe of 100 years ago, along with the pleasure of joining the scores of history lovers seated alongside me to glean even a fraction of Margaret MacMillan’s years of study and expertise.