2018 marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. As fighting rages in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and as international leaders brag about who has the biggest nuclear button, it looks like the world is set against marking the centenary with a period of global peace. Perhaps war and conflict are just part of human nature? Or is that a dangerous way to think about the world?
One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the legacy of the Great War. We’ll be looking at the origins and impact of the First World War, and what lessons can be drawn one hundred years later.
Let’s start by looking at what our readers think about the origins of WWI. We had a comment from Zogu, who gives the classic argument that the First World War was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Is he right? Or was that merely an excuse for a conflict that was largely inevitable, given the rise of Germany and Europe’s confusing web of diplomatic alliances?
Could WWI have been avoided if the Archduke had not been assassinated? And if the First World War had been avoided, might the peace have held over the long-term? Without Versailles, could Hitler and the Second World War have been avoided? Would the Russian Revolution never have happened? And the Cold War with it? Or are we being silly? If war hadn’t broken out in the summer of 1914, would the Great Powers have been at each others’ throats within a couple of years anyway?
Obviously, it’s all wild speculation. But we can at least, more modestly, ask what might have happened if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had lived. To that end, we spoke to Professor Margaret MacMillan, celebrated historian and author of the books Peacemakers: the Paris Conference of 1919 and The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War. What would she say?
Well, that’s a very good question. I don’t like to think that things are inevitable. I mean, you could have said during the Cold War that it was inevitable the Soviet Union and the United States would fight each other, yet they didn’t.
I think it is quite possible that the First World War needn’t have happened, and sometimes great catastrophes happen because of accidents. I think the decision by the Archduke to go to Sarajevo was one of those fateful decisions. His decision to stay in Sarajevo after the first assassination attempt and then go to the hospital to see the man who had been wounded in the first assassination attempt, his chauffeur taking the wrong turning and his car getting stalled, those were accidents.
I think if the Archduke had not been killed, things might have turned out very differently. Ironically, he was one of the key voices in Austria who had always opposed war on Serbia up until this point. So, with his death, that restraining voice was removed and the Austrian hawks had the excuse which they’d been looking for to try and destroy Serbia.
So, yes, I think it’s an interesting question. I don’t think the First World War was inevitable. I think it is always possible to avoid war, and we should always think in that way. If we think things are inevitable, then we just throw our hands up and don’t do anything. So, yes, I think accident played a very large part in the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
For another perspective, we put the same question to Professor Norman Davies, an equally renowned historian and author of the magisterial Europe: A History. How would he respond?
Careful historians don’t like the word ‘inevitable’. If the Archduke had not been assassinated as he was, history would have been different. Nonetheless, a major conflict between the Great Powers was quite likely by 1914 because of the military buildup, and also because of the diplomatic structures of the time, pitting the Central Powers against France and Russia, and then Great Britain. So, if it wasn’t one spark, it may well have been another. But history is about what happened, not about what didn’t happen.
What should we think of the First World War? We had a comment from Aubrey, who thinks the First World War was a tragic mistake and that we should learn from history to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. Is that the right way to characterise it?
One hundred years after its end, how should we regard World War I? Was it a necessary war fought bravely? Or was it an avoidable catastrophe caused by incompetent leaders? Should we subscribe to the “Blackadder” reading of WWI as a shameful page in the history of all sides?
What would Professor Norman Davies say?
The First World War was certainly a catastrophe. It killed tens of millions of young people, and a lot of civilians. But that, of course, was not foreseen at the beginning. Was it necessary? You have to ask: Was it necessary for whom? I tend to think it was necessary for Germany, which was threatened on the one hand by Russia, the largest of the combatant powers, which was in an alliance with France. I tend to think it wasn’t necessary for Britain, which joined the war voluntarily. Britain, then the greatest imperial power in the world, had imperial interests it wanted to defend, but I think that looking back it was a huge miscalculation. Whatever the aims were at the beginning of the war, they were soon lost in the gigantic struggle which went on for four years…
Was the First World War inevitable? Could the World Wars have been avoided? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!