John Lukacs saw it as the great chasm dividing two centuries. George F. Kennan called it “the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century.”
The adjective in the title of The Lost History of 1914 refers to the five ways in which the Great War might not have happened—five lost paths leading to peace. Though some critics have described the book as counterfactual, in fact it is more an extended essay on contingency and chance. Jack Beatty denies that World War I was inevitable. The peoples of Europe were not clamoring for war. The alliance system, on which the war has often been blamed, was willed into being, and later scrupulously and suicidally honored, because in every European capital tiny coteries of men regarded foreign war either as the solution to some internal problem or as a necessary demonstration of national resolve. True, most of them did not foresee the slaughterhouse and stalemate that followed, but when these disasters ensued they refused to negotiate or settle for anything less than total victory, and for the same prideful reasons they had started the war: to avoid being perceived as weak or allowing a rival power some tangible gain.
Beatty exonerates Germany from the persistent canard that her aggressive militarism was the chief cause of the conflict:
On the eve of the war, France and Russia invested 10 percent of net national income in defense and fielded armies of 2.5 million, compared to 7 percent and 1.2 million for Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. Yet the map of Europe reveals that France and Russia were not surrounded by Germany.
He then places an unflattering mirror in front of his American readers:
[O]n a comparative scale of militarization, defined as the degree of a state’s organization for war, the United States—which “by some calculations spends more on defense than all other nations of the world together”—without a great rival power and with oceans between it and any future invader, today ranks as far more militarized than Imperial Germany, ringed by a hostile alliance, rivers, not oceans, away.
Can there be any doubt that future historians will ask, What were they thinking?
Beatty agrees with George Kennan’s judgment that the Franco-Russian military alliance of 1892 was a provocation and threat to Germany, but he also faults Germany for a provocation of her own: the 1897 decision to construct a huge battle fleet to challenge Britain’s supremacy at sea. August Bebel, a Social Democrat, warned the government in 1900 that this decision (in Beatty’s paraphrase) “would provoke a naval arms race with England, drive England to join France and Russia in an anti-German alliance, and drain resources from the army.” These battleships and battlecruisers may have cost Germany an early victory over France. In September 1914, during the German retreat from the Marne (east of Paris), General Von Falkenhayn chastised Admiral Tirpitz: “If we did not have the Navy, we would have had two more army corps and would not have lost the Marne battle!”
In Russia, Prime Minister Peter Stolypin repeatedly warned that foreign war would bring internal revolution (as it had in 1905). He was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist in 1911, but his sage successor Vladimir Kokovtsov continued his policy until he was removed by Czar Nicholas II in late 1913. Nicholas then gave way to his other ministers who advised that Russia should stand by Serbia even if that meant war with Germany and Austria. Russia’s new urban middle class was likewise all for war, as was its jingoistic press. All were blind to the prerevolutionary signs and signals.
Only the extreme right saw and warned of the danger. Peter Durnovo, whom Beatty describes as “a reactionary statesman,” sent an urgent memorandum to the czar in February 1914, warning him that war would make “social revolution in its most extreme form . . . inevitable.” He advised abrogating the French alliance. Two months later, a conservative paper, after watching violent strikes convulse the cities, concluded—prophetically, as it turned out—“We live on a volcano.”
In England, the lost path leading to a European peace might have been through civil war. The Liberals, who were then in power, had decided to grant home rule to Ireland on the good liberal principle of national self-determination. Yet, in typical liberal fashion, they were simultaneously denying self-determination to the Irish Protestants of Ulster (originally Scotch and English settlers) who did not wish to be ruled by Irish Catholics. The Ulsterman armed and prepared to resist Dublin; the Catholics armed and prepared to invade Ulster; and the Liberals prepared to shell Belfast. Of course, had London sent the army into Ireland, it could not have sent it to France. Beatty (who is of Irish descent) believes that England and Europe would have been better off had the English been bogged down in an Irish civil war instead of crossing the Channel to fight “the Hun.”
Beatty calls the assassination of Franz Ferdinand an “all-but-unique precipitant” for general war. Not only did it give the Austro-Hungarians cause for doing what they wanted to do anyway, but it removed a future ruler who might have sought accommodation with Russia and reorganized the empire along federal lines (giving the Slovaks, Croats, and Serbs self-rule and equal political standing), thus creating, in his own words, “a Hapsburg federal Empire.”
Beatty is convinced that peace would have followed, had Joseph Caillaux become premier of France instead of the revanchist, Germanophobic Raymond Poincaré. Premier Caillaux would have made Jean Jaurès his foreign minister, and Jaurès, a Socialist, would have abrogated France’s military pact with Russia. As in Austria, assassination blocked the better road. Caillaux’s wife, Henriette, shot and killed Gaston Calmette, the bellicose editor of Le Figaro, who was planning on exposing her husband’s serial infidelities.
I fault Beatty for one omission: his failure to follow the train of causation to where I believe it belongs—namely, the British ruling class. Had not England backed France, France would not have backed Russia; had not France backed Russia, Russia would not have backed Serbia; and had not Russia backed Serbia, Austria would have fought a little Balkan war, without German participation or a general European cataclysm. If only England had minded her own business, instead of intervening on the Continent to frustrate German hegemony, she might not have lost both her industry and her empire.
Tocqueville noticed that the historians and philosophers (e.g., Hegel) of the new democratic age had a penchant for inventing “general theories” to explain the course of events. “Not content to show how events have occurred, they pride themselves on proving that they could not have happened differently.” This approach to history appealed both to “mediocre public men” and to “mediocre historians.” The first were absolved of all responsibility for their misgovernment; the second were freed “from the most difficult part of their task,” which is research, while gaining an undeserved “reputation for profundity.”
Tocqueville feared that such fatalistic teachings would enervate the mind and character of nations. By “tak[ing] away from the people the faculty of modifying their own lot and mak[ing] them depend either on an inflexible providence or on a kind of blind fatality,” they would render them passive and their leaders rigid:
If this doctrine of fatality . . . passes from authors to readers, infects the whole mass of the community, and takes possession of the public mind, it will soon paralyze the activities of modern society and bring Christians down to the level of Turks.
Beatty’s book reminds us that leaders, however chosen, should never be trusted to care for the people or look out for the people’s interests, and that they, and not some malevolent foreign power, are usually a people’s worst enemy.
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