By Nelson Wyatt
It was the dawn of a new century. The world was grappling with
the rapid advance of technology, increasing effects of globalization and the rise of radical ideologies.
It sounds like the modern era. It was actually a century ago.
The remarkable similarities to the present day stand out in “The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914,” the new book by acclaimed Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan.
While the First World War, which marks its 100th anniversary next year, has receded in the collective memory, MacMillan says its effects are still being felt today.
“It cast a very long shadow over our world — even, interestingly enough, physically,” she says.
“There’s still bombs and unexploded shells being turned up every spring in the fields of the north of France and Belgium,” the author says.
“But I think it’s also affected the shape of Europe, the shape of the world. It led to all sorts of changes in politics after the First World War. I think it had a lot to do with the rise of communism and fascism. It left a real mark on our history.”
MacMillan’s latest effort provides a bookend chronicle to an era she first examined in “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.” That bestseller looked at peace talks after the 1918 armistice that ended the four years of devastating conflict that, in many cases, redrew the map of the planet.
She chuckles over the phone from her office in England, where she is the warden of Oxford University’s St. Anthony’s College, that while she has written about the beginning and the end of the Great War, she has yet to do the middle — the war itself.
The premise of MacMillan’s new book is straightforward: why did one of the worst conflicts in human history happen, especially when it was avoidable?
MacMillan sifted through the political disputes and social changes to skilfully lay out a disturbing map of the road to war.
She says she found the similarities to modern times “absolutely fascinating.”
“It was a time of great globalization, which is what we’ve been
experiencing since the end of the Cold War; (of) considerable strain because of that globalization; the rise of radical ideologies; shifts in power — it’s not exactly the same but … there are some really interesting parallels (with today).”
Among them, she adds in her book, are the similarities between today’s terrorists and the young Bosnian Slav nationalists who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose slaying lit the fuse that led to the outbreak of war.
“It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al-Qaida a century later,” she wrote, saying the Bosnians were fiercely puritanical and blamed Austria-Hungary for corrupting its South Slav subjects.
Security concerns led to a clampdown on civil liberties.
Fear of homegrown terrorists prompted empires such as the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary, for example, to suppress revolutionaries and most political activities among their South Slav or Albanian subjects, a difficult task since many of the terrorists were supported from outside.
This all occurred in a period of extraordinary progress. Advances in education, science and industry resulted in a more interconnected world — with quicker electric trains and faster communication via the telegraph at first and then with radio.
“Peoples were linked to each other and to the world through speedier communications, trade, investment, migration, and the spread of official and unofficial empires,” MacMillan wrote in her book, describing a world not unlike the present day with its Internet, freer trade and increased mobility between countries.
The period before the First World War, as well as the war years, was also instrumental in shaping the country that Canadians live in now, she said in the interview.
While most Canadians still considered themselves subjects of the British empire before the war and headed to the battlefield unquestioningly, that traditional attachment would change as blood was spilled.
The war accelerated Britain’s transformation from an empire into the Commonwealth, as its members insisted on more independence because of their sacrifices.
Canada, which emerged from the First World War with a greater standing internationally, independently signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which formally ended the war.
Because of wartime promises by Britain to review constitutional arrangements with the dominions, Canada also eventually gained control over its foreign affairs.
Additionally, the Canadian government injected itself more deeply into citizens’ lives with policies that would later be the basis for the social welfare system.
But cracks along class and linguistic lines were also felt when it was suggested the poor were suffering more from the war than the rich, and English-French tensions flared with the conscription crisis prompting riots in Quebec and a spike in francophone nationalism.
“The war itself is so interesting because it’s a time when Canada begins to separate itself from Britain and begins to see itself much more distinctly. In a way, I think very importantly, it’s sort of like adolescents growing up and beginning to realize that their parents don’t always know best.
“You get the Canadians who become increasingly critical of the British direction of the war, increasingly willing to take their own positions, so it’s a very important moment in Canadian history.”
Far from being a dry recitation of facts, MacMillan’s book takes the readers into the palaces, drawing rooms and roiling streets of the period, breathing life into a fascinating array of historical figures that most people today see only as stern faces staring out from old photos.
While she writes in her book that the commonly held view at the time was that the First World War was inevitable, MacMillan says it isn’t as simple as that.
“I’ve come to believe there really are choices,” she says when it’s suggested that the drum-beating for the First World War almost appears similar to recent suggestions the United States was preparing to attack Iran.
“There were so many possible reasons,” MacMillan said of the First World War. “It was very complicated. Within every country, you had a balance of forces. … You’ve got a lot of domestic pressures and backs-and-forths, as well, that makes the story so interesting.”
There were “layers of resentments, suspicions and memories which shaped the relations among the great powers,” she adds in her book.
MacMillan points to the fallout, for example, of France’s decision to strike a defensive alliance with Russia as one aspect, as well as Germany’s decision to start a naval race with Britain in the late 1890s to bolster its fleet. Weak leadership as militarism increased was another factor.
While there has been some improvement, MacMillan said in the interview the world has still not completely heeded the lessons of that tumultuous period.
“We still haven’t really learned how to deal with some of the passions that sweep through human history,” she said, which she acknowledged is no easy task.
“We’re not terribly successful at the moment with dealing with some of the radical — whether they’re religious or political — emotions. We’re still not very good at settling international disputes although I think we’re better than perhaps we were. We don’t always subject our own rulers to enough scrutiny.
“I think that’s important as well.”