Friday, November 21, 2014

Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace

I read Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace (2013) and I was disappointed. As far as I can tell, it does not add to our understanding of why World War I started. Instead, it advances the vague argument that no one thought it would happen, then it happened because people did stuff.

It's a long book, so is filled with anecdotes--to be fair, many of them interesting--about how people didn't think war would happen even though we all know now it was about to erupt. But what annoyed me again and again were the brief and entirely superficial comparisons to the current day. They are so superficial that I assume some editor forced them in.

So when there is discussion of new powers, then she adds a single sentence to say she hopes the U.S. and China will handle things well, or with communication she mentions trying to deal with social media. Or she compares Nicholas II to Saddam Hussein because they both like uniforms (p. 275).

Meanwhile, the Tsar does stuff, the British do stuff, the Kaiser does stuff, etc. Which stuff was more important? We aren't told. Whose decisions were most critical? We aren't told. Which country did the most decisive stuff? We aren't told.

The book ends with "There are so many questions and as many answers again" (p. 645). That's true only if you don't engage the existing literature and think about which answers make more sense than others.


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