Far from shocking the rulers of Europe, the war that erupted in August 1914 was widely anticipated, rigorously rehearsed, immensely resourced and meticulously planned. By 1913, the leaders, if not the led, were anticipating and planning a major continental war. On either side of the continent, armies of millions of conscripts and reservists bristled for action; massive arsenals were being developed in secret, in an arms race that knew no limits.
In 1913, in Britain, people are experimenting with, or scorning, a new dance called ‘the tango’. Nationalism is in full-throated roar.
In Germany, they are fascinated by the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter to the Duke of Brunswick.
In Russia, the stockmarket is booming. The aristocracy has never known better times, while the poor barely make enough to live.
In France, the Belle Époque is over...
Yet a catastrophe is about to engulf the continent, which will kill or wound some 37 million people, and change the course of history.
In this controversial essay, Paul Ham argues that the First World War was not a historical mistake, a conflict into which the Great Powers stumbled or sleepwalked by accident. Nor was it a just war, in which Germany had to be crushed. Instead the politicians and generals of the day willed the war, and prepared for it – but eventually found themselves caught up in an inferno they claimed was beyond their control.
Germany's fatal weakness:
From the end of the 19th century to the outbreak of hostilities, Germany brooded on the fact of being the fastest-growing industrial power in Europe with the weakest claim to an empire. Her burgeoning power at home stood in stark contrast to her impotence abroad, creating a dangerously unstable diplomatic psychology. Germany demanded a seat at the high table, based on her rising industrial strength in Europe, but lacked the imperial prestige to propel and consolidate it. In 1913 it was this very weakness that made the country so volatile.
The quality of leadership:
The main political actors so often placed their faith in incendiary communiqués, plain untruths and blinkered or prejudiced arguments... Or they obfuscated and dithered, faded from view at crucial times or paid less attention than such complex events demanded of them. In July 1914, the leaders of the French and German Governments would be holidaying on the eve of hostilities. Sheer laziness, unintelligence and inability to concentrate were commonplace. Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, seemed to find the whole process a tedious distraction from his beloved horses. Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, rarely missed a chance to flee the tension of London and resume trout fishing or bird watching. Austrian chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf’s passionate love affair with a married Italian woman obviously impaired his judgement.
An 'inevitable' war?
European leaders later claimed that the war was ‘inevitable’, ‘ordained by God or Darwin’ and ‘unavoidable’ – as if the tragedy unfolded before their eyes like some terrible accident, which they were helpless to avert. They dared to blame the war on superstitious, invisible forces that were beyond their powers to control. They spoke of the war as divinely inspired, or the result of some Olympian intervention in the affairs of mortals... People seem to forget that governments of men, not prophets or gods, inflicted the Great War on the world. And those governments made little concerted effort to prevent it... They were all, more or less, responsible. They were not somnambulant pawns under the spell of some malign Zeus.