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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The origins of the First World War - the how rather than why

Coincidentally, the historian who has written the new, detailed study of the origins of the First World War which I mentioned yesterday (Christopher Clark) has just reviewed a couple of other books on the same subject. It starts the same way as the book itself (which kept me captivated for five full days).  Its appeal lies, for me, in showing how a few players seem to have tipped the balance in the declaration of war - particularly Poincare. In the opening pages we learn of the scale and significance of French loans to Serbia in the period preceding and during the 2 Balkan wars; and, later, how Poincare buttered up the Russians and helped push them to full and final mobilisation. 
The book suggests (rightly or not I can't say) that the Balkans itself has tended to be relegated in most serious accounts of the causes of the war and his book certainly puts it back in central place. It also has an interesting section emphasising that his account is more concerned with the "how" of events, rather than the "why"......      
The debate over the origins of the First World War is older than the war itself. Even before the first shots were fired, Europe’s statesmen constructed narratives depicting themselves as innocents and their opponents as predators and breachers of the peace. Since then, the debate has spawned a historical literature of unrivalled size, sophistication and moral intensity. In 1991, a survey by the American historian John Langdon counted 25,000 relevant books and articles in English alone.
The debate is still going strong today, for several reasons. First, the war unleashed the demons of political disorder, extremism and cruelty that disfigured the 20th century. It destroyed four multiethnic empires (the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman). It killed at least ten million young men and wounded at least twenty million more. It disorganised the international system in immensely destructive ways. Without this conflict it is difficult to imagine the October Revolution of 1917, the rise of Stalinism, the ascendancy of Italian Fascism, the Nazi seizure of power or the Holocaust. It was, as the historian Fritz Stern put it, ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. It is hard to imagine a worse initial condition for the modern era of which we are the inheritors.
A second reason is the exceptionally intricate character of the crisis that brought war to Europe in 1914. The Cuban Missile Crisis was complex enough, yet it involved just two principal protagonists plus a range of proxies and subordinate players. By contrast, the story of how the First World War came about must make sense of the multilateral interactions among five autonomous players of equal importance – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and Britain – or six if we add Italy, plus various other strategically significant autonomous sovereign actors, such as the Ottoman Empire and the states of the Balkan peninsula, a region of high political tension and instability in the years before the outbreak of war.
To make matters worse, the executives of these states were anything but unified. There was uncertainty (and has been ever since among historians) about where exactly the power to shape policy was located within the respective governments. The chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitations of the European system during the years leading up to the war. It also helps explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most opaque political crisis of modern times. There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that can’t be supported by selecting among the available sources. Some accounts have focused on the culpability of one bad-apple state (Germany has been most popular, but none of the great powers has escaped the ascription of chief responsibility); others have shared the blame around or have looked for faults in ‘the system’. There has always been enough complexity to keep the argument going.
The debate is old, but the issues it raises are still fresh. One might even say that the political crisis of July 1914 seems less remote – less illegible – now than it did thirty or forty years ago……………. What must strike any 21st-century reader who follows the course of the crisis is its raw modernity. It began with a cavalcade of automobiles and a squad of suicide bombers: the young men who gathered in Sarajevo with bombs on 28 June 1914 had been told by their handlers to take their own lives after carrying out their mission, and received phials of potassium cyanide to do it with. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge: extra-territorial, secretive, scattered in cells across political borders, its links to any sovereign government were oblique.
Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has given way to a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.
It is less clear now that we should dismiss the assassination at Sarajevo as a mishap incapable of carrying real causal weight. The attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 is an example of the way in which a single symbolic event – however deeply it may be enmeshed in larger historical processes – can change politics irrevocably, rendering old options obsolete and endowing new ones with an unforeseen urgency. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s reminded us of the potentially lethal nature of Balkan nationalism. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe in 1914. This doesn’t mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present. Rather, it means acknowledging those features of the past where our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.
The impact of these changes can be discerned in recent writing on the origins of the war. There has been a globalisation of the field of vision. The prewar polarisation of Europe into opposed alliance blocs now looks less like a purely continental European story and more like the European consequence of world-historical realignments driven by conflicts along a range of imperial peripheries in China, Africa and Central Asia. Rather than searching for the antecedents of the actual war that broke out in 1914, recent studies have tended to stress the open-endedness of international relations in a world in which nearly all the key players had more than one potential enemy. The European alliances, it has been argued, didn’t necessarily make war more likely: they could have the opposite effect if one ally refused to back the adventurism of another, as happened on several occasions in the decade before the war. Anglo-German naval rivalry may not have predestined an armed conflict between Britain and Germany: a number of recent monographs have shown how decisively Britain saw off the German naval challenge and have questioned how much impact the matter had on British geopolitical thinking. Periods of détente before 1914 were not deceptive moments of respite from mutual hostility but represented a genuine potentiality of the international system. On the eve of the July Crisis, as a recent article by T.G. Otte has shown, the British Foreign Office was on the verge of dropping the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and seeking a rapprochement with Germany. Far from being inevitable, in other words, this war may actually have been improbable. On this reading, it was not the consequence of long-run historical ‘forces’, but of short-term realignments and shocks to the international system.
The Financial Times has another excellent review of some books on the causes of the First World War - as does the excellent Dublin Review of Books

The painting is a Popescu - but a Constantin Isache (1888-1967) not Stefan (1872-1948)

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