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'The War That Ended Peace' brilliantly explores the road to World War I
War that Ended Peace
"The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914" is by Margaret MacMillan. - photo by Random House

"THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE: The Road to 1914," by Margaret MacMillan, Random House, $35, 784 pages (nf)

One hundred years ago this summer Europe descended into madness as the vast machinery of industrialized warfare was let loose. In many ways, World War I set the stage for the 20th century and now, a century later, people still wonder at just how such a catastrophe happened. Margaret MacMillan's new book, “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” does much to answer that question.

The author of such works of diplomatic history as “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World,” and “Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed the World,” now turns to the years leading up to the Great War and offers a penetrating, engaging account of Europe's failed diplomacy during the period.

MacMillan's work examines the great figures of the day — Czar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Winston Churchill, Edward Grey, Emperor Franz Joseph, Raymond Poincaré and more. The portraits she provides of these figures illuminate their passions and prejudices, but most of all their motivations for either promoting or reluctantly accepting the coming conflict.

The stage for these diplomats and statesmen are the various circumstances and crises that defined Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: economic, military, political and geographic rivalries, and events like the Balkan wars, the annexation crisis, and the final straw — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Throughout these problems, MacMillan presents these statesmen working in their nation's interest, but who, over time, saw less and less value in maintaining the peace. Indeed some figures, like Austria-Hungary's army chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, actively agitated for war.

The author also expertly compares the pre-1914 world with the current international situation. For instance, MacMillan notes, China's expanding economy and military ambition greatly resemble imperial Germany's, and America's actions to maintain superiority often mirror those of George V's England. This is disturbing as MacMillan also notes that England and Germany went to war despite being each others largest trading partners, flying in the face of conventional logic that nations that trade heavily don't go to war.

Occasionally, however, MacMillan's comparisons do fall short as it appears she attempts to make political points. For instance, she compares modern American Republican attitudes toward illegal immigrants with pre-1914 Austria's racist, social Darwinist thinking toward the Serbs. Such comparisons are really a stretch and mar an otherwise sound work of historical analysis.

MacMillan's readers have come to expect wonderful historical illumination married to engaging and readable prose. “The War That Ended Peace” is no exception. Readers will walk away with a greater appreciation for the tragedy that was World War I and a greater insight into its origins. As MacMillan herself details, whatever the circumstances and crises, ultimately the war was the failure of human decision making.

"The War That Ended Peace" does contain some brief, mild profanity but no described sexuality or violence.

Cody K. Carlson blogs at Email: