On April 20 2013 I attended an event titled The Road to War, held as part of Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival. Two authors, Christopher Clark and Charles Emerson, talked about their latest books, each of which take a global approach to the events of 1913-14.
1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emerson has a self-explanatory title. It is a book about the world in 1913, and is a global portrait, looking at 23 cities from all continents.
In 1913 there was great confidence in many countries and cities, including Glasgow, which was the second city of the largest empire in an imperial world.
It was a modern world to a surprising extent. The first aerial bombing campaign, by the Italians in Libya, had taken place two years earlier, albeit using very primitive techniques. Other features of the world of 1913 included Cubism, psychoanalysis, Grand Prix motor racing, the start of production of the Model T Ford, the building of skyscrapers and the start of the switch from coal to oil.
Emerson used accounts of travel, diaries and journals in his research. There was a great movement of people around the world in 1913; Canada had more immigrants that year than in any other.
His book is not about the causes of the war,and he has tried avoid hindsight in writing about a point in time when war was not expected; the world had survived previous war scares. Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, which was widely read, argued that war was by then so expensive that nobody sensible would want one.
Empires were then the key to how the world worked. Europeans assumed that they were culturally and racially superior.
The book is intended to be a panorama that adds up to a true picture of the world in 1913.
In contrast, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is a history of the causes of WWI. He agrees that the world was not necessarily heading for war. In July 1914 most statesmen thought that war was not imminent and that the threat of it had diminished over the previous 18 months.
He described the war as being the ‘original catatrophe’ of modernity. It is hard to see the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, or the rise of Fascism and Nazism and the Holocaust without WWI, making it as big a disaster as you can get.
Even before the war had started, people were trying to apportion blame, pointing fingers at others who had allegedly forced war on them.
Aspects of the causes of the war are very modern. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, like President Kennedy, was killed in a car. The assassins were armed with guns and bombs and carried cyanide pills so that they could kill themselves rather than be captured, giving them similarities with modern suicide bombers. 9/11 was a single terrorist act with great symbolism. Franz Ferdinand was killed on 28 June, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an event with great symbolism to the Serbs.
However, there were several great powers in 1914; today, despite its perceived decline, the USA remains by far the most powerful country in the world.
Some aspects of the story, especially the Balkan setting, were airbrushed out of history after 1945. They have to be considered, and it is now easier to do so.
Clark has tried to change the question from why? to how? The two cannot be disentangled but how? leads in a different direction. Why? goes back to 1870, arguing that a series of scares move war from possible to probable to inevitable.
This, he argues, is not the way that history happens. The war resulted from decisions made by statesmen who had choices, as do their counterparts today.
He has tried to avoid a blame-centred approach. The question of blame no longer matters politically, but can lead to an insistence that one side is right and one is wrong in all wars. The war was not a consequence of a system, but of peope taking decisions.
In answer to a question, Clark said that some people wanted war, especially generals. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the Austrio-Hungarian General Staff, repeatedly recommended war, but was ignored as his advice was always for war. Helmuth von Moltke, his German counterpart, thought that it was better for Germany to have a war now rather than later. In France, General Noël de Castelnau and War Minister Alexandre Millerand urged the Russians to make war. The key question is how the views of these men became that of the polticial elite in 1914.
Clark was also asked whether or not a more specific guarantee by Britain to come to the aid of France and Russia would have prevented war. He pointed out that whichever side won a war in which Britain remained neutral would have been hostile to it afterwards. It is unknown whether or not a proper alliance would have deterred Germany, but it would have goaded on France and Russia.
The Triple Entente started with British fears over a Russian threat to the British Empire. This led to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and then the Entente with France during the Russo-Japanese War. Russia was weakened by its defeat and signed a Convention with Britain in 1907. It dealt with Persia, Afghanistan and other imperial issues, not Germany.
Clark concluded by saying that history should remind us not to fall prey to the doctrine of inevitability; there are always choices. The war that ensued was not the one that people thought that they were bargaining with. They feared the end of civilisation, but hoped for a short, sharp war.