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The Reasons Why

The Origins of the First World War

by James Joll
Longman, 228 pp., $14.95 (paper)

It is over seventy years since Gavrilo Princip’s shots plunged Europe into the “Great War,” and only a dwindling number of people alive today can be old enough to have been called to the colors, or to have joined the mass demonstrations which took place in the capitals of Europe in the late summer of 1914. Yet our fascination with those events seems as strong as ever—far stronger, for example, than our interest in the outbreak of the Second World War—and manifests itself in a ceaseless flow of films, novels, television documentaries, and books beyond all counting. No doubt this is so partly because the 1914–1918 war has been regarded as a watershed in world history, leading to the collapse of old empires, the decline of a Eurocentric global order, the creation of the Soviet Union, and the shattering of so many traditional political and social assumptions, all of which have cast shadows across the remainder of this century.

Perhaps, too, the pre–First World War atmosphere has a particular fascination in the troubled international circumstances of our own times. Arms races, a mutual jockeying for advantage between rival military blocs, Manichaean utterances about the world being divided between the forces of good and those of evil, and nervousness about the way in which local crises can have larger consequences (Nicaragua and Afghanistan, instead of Morocco and the Balkans?)—all these have made many observers, like Helmut Schmidt, the late Geoffrey Barraclough, and George Kennan, deeply uneasy at what has been termed “the 1914 analogy.”1

But if we are to derive lessons from the fateful decisions of 1914 (an exercise which many professional historians would regard as spurious), we first need to understand what caused the politicians, generals, and others of that time to act in the way they did. Herein, alas, lies the greatest problem: for despite all of the books on the causes of the First World War, and despite all of the revelations from military archives, the records of international bankers, and the private diaries of ministers and diplomats, we are as far away as ever from any commonly held explanation of the conflict. Was it the inevitable consequence of capitalism, as Marxists then and later charged? Was it caused by entrenched, reactionary elites seeking to divert internal challenges to their rule? Was it the consequence of inflexible military-operations plans, a “war by timetable,” as A.J.P. Taylor once explained it?2 Was it the result of imperial rivalries—or of changes in the European balance of power? Did not the real cause lie in men’s minds: in their rising nationalist passions, their rejection of the stuffy liberal-bourgeois codes of peace, free trade, and compromise, their Social Darwinist Weltanschauung and belief in the value of struggle and conflict? Or was it simply a dreadful accident, a unique concatenation of misperceptions, untoward events, and mistaken decisions, leading to results that no one intended?

If it was the latter, then of course no lessons can be drawn, and purposeful human causality must be discounted. This may be why so few people are satisfied with the “accident” theory. On the other hand, if we are to argue for one cause of the war as being primary, which is it to be when each interpretation has its advocates and critics, its evidence and counterevidence? If a multicausal interpretation seems to make more sense, the methodological pitfalls are even greater: how did the many different elements interact with one another, and in what order? As James Joll disarmingly notes in his introduction, “Ideally, no doubt, an account of the causes of the First World War would lead to a moment of profound Hegelian insight in which everything in the world would be related to everything else and all the connections and patterns would become clear.” Just how the first—or the final—paragraph of such a “Hegelian” vision would read is far beyond this reviewer’s imagination.

Fortunately for us, Joll has more modest aims in The Origins of the First World War. His twofold purpose is to produce a brief, readable synthesis of the mass of recent literature; and,in the light of such newer evidence, to analyze the major reasons that historians have given to explain the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. Intended (one assumes) chiefly for college students, this book will also serve for that larger general readership interested in having a balanced, up-to-date study of this important subject. Since Joll has written articles and reviews on the origins of the First World War for the past twenty years or more, we have here the prospect of an authoritative work.

It should be emphasized from the beginning, therefore, that this is not a book for those who like history to be melodramatic or sensational: there are no conspiracy theories, no grand, overarching hypotheses about the nature of Western capitalism or a German “grasp for world power”; there is no impressionistic, colorful portrayal of people such as Kaiser Wilhelm II or Sir Edward Grey; and no retreat into psychohistory. Instead, Joll gives a careful, dispassionate analysis of both facts and interpretations, and while he is not afraid to offer his own opinions, he is content to remain in the background for much of the time. If one word could sum up the character of his book, it might be “judiciousness.”

The Origins of the First World War begins with a clear and concise account of “The July crisis, 1914,” setting the scene for those who may not know the sequence of events. Since this narrative reveals statesmen and diplomats made all too suddenly aware of external pressures and events outside their control, the author moves on to the world of the “old diplomacy,” of the system of alliances which, directly or indirectly, bound each of the great powers into commitments restricting their freedom of action in a crisis. Russia could not abandon Serbia; Germany was committed to upholding the Austro-Hungarian empire against both its external and internal foes; France had to stand by Russia; Britain had obligations to Belgium and, less clearly but no less importantly, to France.

What took the decision makers of 1914 by surprise was not these dominoes of diplomatic obligations: Britain apart, the position of all of the other powers was known in advance. The alarming, bewildering aspect to many statesmen was the intrusion of the military factor, that is, the insistence by general staffs that certain things had to occur at once, that certain courses of action were impossible, and so on. The officials in Vienna had to hurry the pace of the war, so that the Austro-Hungarian army could crush the Serbs in the south before turning to meet the Russians on the Galician front. Russia must mobilize along its entire western border, the czar’s government was advised, and could not do so on the Austrian frontier alone. The German army had to strike westward, and through Belgium, just as soon as Russia mobilized—or so Kaiser Wilhelm and his chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg were informed; no other choice was open.

All this did not mean that railway timetables alone caused the war, Joll explains, or that every military plan was equally irresponsible and out of civilian control. In his view it was the German and Austrian plans that “involved the highest danger of general war,” and it was in the three Eastern monarchies that civilians had the least influence. Nevertheless, the feverish increases in arms on land and at sea, the existence of prearranged strategic plans and mobilization schedules (even if tentative, like the British General Staff’s preparations to send an expeditionary force across the Channel), and the prevailing atmosphere of militarism and patriotism, restricted most governments’ freedom of action. Given the strategists’ assurances that the conflict would be short, sharp, and victorious, the cards were heavily stacked well before the first troops were ordered across the borders.

But why run the risk of war in the first place? Surely there were some deeper political calculations in the minds of the ruling elites of old Europe? This has been the view of many historians, notably Arno J. Mayer, who has argued that the decisions for war can be seen as a logical step for governing classes under severe pressure from various internal opponents (the labor movement, national minorities, suffragettes, “moderate” reformers, and the rest). But the trouble with that appealing interpretation, as Joll shows, is that there is too much contradictory evidence for it to have general validity. Conservative Junkers and fanatical Pan-Germans may have urged that a nice, successful war would arouse German patriotism and confound the Social Democrats, but Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was less sure. Conrad von Hötzendorf may have wanted to smash and conquer the Serbs, but many Austrian and (especially) Hungarian politicians were appalled at the idea of having yet more “south Slavs” within the empire. A grand duke or two may have thought a war with the Teutonic powers would solve some of Russia’s domestic problems, but those who recalled the disasters of 1905 were less certain. Internal crises over taxation in France and the Ulster question in Britain made politicians there feel less rather than more capable of action abroad when pondering the implications of the Sarajevo assassination. The sighs of relief issuing from the corridors of power in August 1914, when it became clear that the call to arms had not produced domestic protests, is a fair indication of how they had really felt in the preceding month.

It is similarly difficult, Joll shows, to draw sweeping conclusions about the role of economic factors in the origins of the war. To be sure, “merchants of death” like Krupp and Creusot and Vickers had profited from their nations’ armaments orders, but they also profited from foreign arms orders, which could be cut off in a general European war. And for every economic lobby pressing for higher tariffs against foreign rivals, there were others anxious to preserve international trade on which they at least depended so much: Britain, for example, was Germany’s best customer in 1914. As for the much-maligned bankers, most of them were petrified at the idea of a European conflagration, which would ruin credit and disrupt their cosmopolitan world. The aged Lord Rothschild’s desperate attempts (in vain) to stop the London Times‘s agitation for firm British intervention on behalf of France offers an ironic commentary on the alleged power of high finance to decide the fate of nations in 1914.

If historians, as J.H. Hexter once claimed, can usually be divided into “lumpers” and “splitters,” then Joll is certainly a member of the latter camp in dealing with so many of the proposed interpretations of the origins of the war. He soberly dissects and dismisses sweeping hypotheses: he writes, for example, “Considerations of domestic policy obviously played their part, but it was an ambiguous one and differed much between one country and another.” This is undoubtedly correct, but it is not the sort of language to cause excitement among historians. Yet if Joll is cautious in dealing with prewar strategy, economics, and domestic politics, he is at his best, assured and original, in handling what he calls “The mood of 1914,” that is, the emotions of nationalism, escapism, and struggle that permeated both people and their leaders in those years. This chapter echoes Joll’s brilliant 1968 inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics, “1914: The Unspoken Assumptions,” but it takes the analysis deeper, showing the reader how widespread was the “willingness to risk or to accept war as a solution to a whole range of problems, political, social, international….” It is not by looking at one fear or calculation in the minds of Europe’s leaders that we will get an explanation for why the Sarajevo crisis escalated so swiftly and widely; but by understanding all the antagonisms, phobias, and ambitions, we will see how plausible a general conflict was once this tinderbox of mentalités had been ignited by Princip’s gun. In this view, the war plans, the strategic fears, the alliance obligations, the domestic calculations, far from being independent factors, can be seen as reflections of something more basically wrong in pre-1914 Europe. This may not be that “profound Hegelian insight in which everything…would be related to everything else,” but it is a clever intellectual historian’s way of tying the disparate threads together.

Further than this Joll will not go. He has given us, in what is the best single-volume synthesis of the subject, both a survey of the forces at work in pre-1914 Europe, and a commentary upon the different ways in which historians have explained the outbreak of war. We are free, if we wish, to adopt any one of the single-cause theories discussed in this book—but with the knowledge now of the defects in each. What is much more likely is that we will finish Joll’s book much more aware of the complexities of this subject, of the newer controversies and the latest research on each aspect of the story. As for students, although a great many of them may buy Joll’s book, it will not provide them with an easy one-sentence answer to the question “What caused the Great War?” But after reading it, they should have a better sense of the intricate web of history and of the dangers of producing simple answers to complex issues—whether in 1914 or in 1985.

  1. 1

    See Miles Kahler, “Rumors of War: The 1914 Analogy,” Foreign Affairs (December, 1979), pp. 374–396. Barraclough’s views are in his From Agadir to Armageddon: Anatomy of a Crisis (Holmes and Meier, 1982), Kennan’s in his The Fateful Alliance (Pantheon, 1984).

  2. 2

    A.J.P. Taylor, War by Timetable: How the First World War Began (London: Macdonald, 1969).

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