Wednesday, April 3, 2013

the first world war will not take place

For students of international affairs, the outbreak and prosecution of the first world war is the premier test case for all kinds of theories -- about alliances, balances of power, crisis management, military technology and strategy, and so forth.

As one of those students, I was entranced by Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which taught the important lesson of maintaining civilian political control in crises and avoiding rigid war plans -- a lesson which may even have helped the Kennedy Administration avoid accidental nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

I also learned the beauty of solid diplomatic history, starting with Sidney Fay's The Origins of the World War, written in 1928. I learned about military strategy by studying the Schlieffen plan -- and then enjoyed the revisionist histories debunking the rigidity of that plan.

Last year, I was thrilled to read Sean McMeekin's revisionist history of Russian political-military strategy leading up to the 1914 war, based on Russian archives never before available to or used by other historians.

Now I've had a chance to read McMeekin's detailed study, July 1914: Countdown to War. His work is so persuasive, I've changed my mind about war guilt, which the Versailles Treaty attributed solely to Germany.

McMeekin spreads the blame around, noting various sins of commission or omission by all of the major figures in the sad drama. Austria-Hungary wanted a war with Serbia, but not Russia. Germany erred by giving Austria-Hungary a blank check of support. France and Britain each could have taken steps away from the brink. But McMeekin says that the crucial decision, knowingly, for a European war and not just another Balkan conflict, was made by Russian on July 29, 1914, when Russia began mobilization secretly,with the full expectation that war with Germany therefore became inevitable. [He also notes that Tuchman placed a key Russian-French consultation two days later than the facts now show.]

McMeekin also mentions counter-factuals. Absent the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- he himself would likely have blocked war with Serbia [as he had done 25 times in 1913!]; France would have remained caught up in a political scandal [the Caillaux affair] that threatened the pro-Russian Poincare; Britain would have remained consumed with the Irish problem and the mutiny in its own army over Irish home rule; Russia might still have gone to war -- but with Turkey,to prevent German domination of the Turkish military.

My subject line echoes another fine piece of literature I encountered in my studies of  World War I -- Jean Giraudoux's 1935 play, "The Trojan War Will Not Take Place," which used an ancient setting to criticize the failed diplomacy of 1914.  The war that did take place was a world-historical catastrophe, worthy studying in all its dimensions. I'm pleased to have come across an analysis that corrects some of the mistaken views many of us have previously held.

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