Inevitability and the Great War

National Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans of San Diego, CaliforniaThe War That Ended Peace, despite its author’s caveat that the Great War was not inevitable, left me with the feeling that it was.  Ms. MacMillan’s detailed description of the decision makers and the context in which they made their decisions makes it difficult to imagine what could have happened to influence them to make different decisions more conducive to the maintenance of peace.  Most of them may not have wanted the war, but they expected one and were willing to have one.

Nail Ferguson’s The Pity of War makes an interesting counterpoint.  He tries harder than MacMillan to show that the Great War was not inevitable, but he covers much of the same ground showing the gestation of the War.  This undercuts his suggestions that if only people had hewed to the truth rather than their myths, the War could have been avoided.  However, the truth is that they clung to their myths.

Both of these books, along with Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, confuse the distinction between how and why.  The title Sleepwalkers must have been chosen by Clark’s publisher, not by him.  Like the other two, Clark’s book makes it perfectly clear that the decision makers as well the public were wide awake.  “How” goes to causal chains and their interplay.  “Why” goes to fate.  The Great War is best understood as tragedy.  By the same token, assigning fault to any of the players in the play is an unprofitable exercise.

Stan Prowse

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Stan Prowse


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