Once upon a time historians believed, with Ranke, that if they accumulated enough facts they would find the answers and produce a true, immutable version of past events. Now we are less confident. Knowledge breeds doubt, not certainty, and the more we know, the more uncertain we become. Thirty-five years ago, when I was first set to lecture on the origins of what was then called The Great War, I spoke with cheerful confidence. There were many books to read, many sources to study. Once this had been done, it seemed easy to come up with firm explanations. The explanations changed with the years. During the war itself, the explanation was the wickedness of the opposing side. After the war, it shifted to the wickedness of all, or nearly all, the statesmen concerned. The system of “international anarchy” was supposed to be at fault, though no one explained how a system which had produced an unprecedented period of peace then produced the bitterest of wars. By the 1930s we had taken up with “economic imperialism,” a version which we derived, unconsciously or otherwise, from a rather inferior tract by Lenin.

The Second World War switched some historians back to blaming the Germans for the First. Others, putting all the blame for the second war on Hitler, concluded that the previous generation of Germans, lacking a Hitler, were no worse than other people. Still, the second war confirmed our belief in confident explanations one way or the other. It had, or seemed to have, a simple explanation: a desire to destroy Hitler and the Nazi system. By the end of the war, the Allied statesmen proudly gave the impression that they had wanted it all along—a version perhaps true of Churchill, certainly untrue of both Stalin and Roosevelt, the great evaders. I half-expected that the coming of the cold war would produce a new edition of the explanation that the first war was the fault of the Russians, and so it did to some extent. Usually however the mud thrown at Hitler has stuck also to Imperial Germany. Mr. Terraine, for instance, dismisses the cause of the Great War in a couple of pages. It was the German state and people “striving toward world supremacy through their traditional instruments—the armed forces.” Professor Lafore picks on Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow—“almost certainly duplicitous beyond the common requirements of diplomacy or even expediency,” though Jagow was a routine diplomatist, while Bethmann deserved more than most statesmen the title of an honest man. But most historians know so little about Bethmann Hollweg that they even spell his name with a hyphen.

Professor Lafore does not of course limit himself to condemning two German statesmen. Apart from anything else, this is not a thesis on which to base a whole book. Professor Lafore indeed ranges far book, as many have done before him, to Bismarck’s system of alliances and even to the unification of Germany and Italy. He recognizes that these things have little relevancy to the outbreak of the First World War. Historians can sometimes explain, or at any rate discuss the immediate causes of some great event. Beyond that they can do little more than arrive at the platitude that every generation is, to some extent, responsible for what happened afterwards. In this way, we can finally reach the preposterous conclusion that the ancient Romans were responsible for the First World War, when they failed to civilize the Germans. This is sometimes called learning from history.

The case for Bismarck’s responsibility is well known. In 1879 he made a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary and so tied Germany to her fate. Thirty-five years later Austria-Hungary was menaced by nationalist agitations, and Germany launched the war in order to save her. This explanation does not carry us very far. Historians, being precise, orderly men, overrate the importance of formal alliances. They tend to think that alliances create the circumstances, whereas usually circumstances create the alliances. This was certainly Bismarck’s view. He said that every alliance or formal promise had attached to it an unwritten clause, rebus sic stantibus—so long as things stay the same. Sometimes he and his successors attached importance to the Austrian alliance. Sometimes they disregarded it. The same was true of the other alliances, of the Franco-Russian alliance for instance. There were times when it counted and times when it did not. The two partners were no more certain of each other with a written alliance than Great Britain and France were without one. In 1914 German statesmen egged Austria-Hungary on because the circumstances seemed to demand this, not because of what Bismarck had done thirty-five years before.

Austria-Hungary’s nationalist troubles can also be run too hard. They were no worse than they had been for years past. Indeed they were rather less. The impulse behind the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was a desire to show that Austria-Hungary was still a Great Power—“national honor” as it was called—and Germany shared this desire. Professor Lafore labors over the details of Serbian complicity in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but these, too, have little relevance. The conspiracy was a move in internal Serbian politics, so far as it had any sense at all, and it became significant only because Austria-Hungary wanted an opportunity to display her strength. Professor Lafore does well when he points to one misconception shared by nearly all European statesmen. They therefore imagined that the risks of action were small. Equally they imagined that the risks of inaction were great. They had all been brought up, as we still are, to believe in “the deterrent.” Firm resolve, a readiness to threaten war, would avert war itself. Some Power would always give way. This usually happened, indeed happened so often that the wisdom of the method seemed sure. In 1914 all the Powers, for different reasons, expected the yielding to come from the other side.


This is a rather tame conclusion. We would like to think that human affairs are conducted with more purpose, if not with more wisdom. Deliberate aggression makes sense in a way that miscalculations do not. It is possible to argue, as Fritz Fischer has done, that Germany had more dynamic ambitions than the other Powers. But there was little ground for supposing that these could not be attained without war, and in any case they look more dynamic only if we confine our studies to the German records. All the Powers were on the make more or less. In a crisis the statesmen acted by rote. On 4 August 1914, George V said to the American Ambassador: “My God, Mr. Page, what else could we do?” There is always something else which statesmen can do, if they have the sense to see it. Being ourselves incurably moral, we go back into history and condemn statesmen for being immoral. The real condemnation is when they make mistakes. Nearly all studies of the origins of the First World War ride off on this easy excuse—what else could they do? This is a confession of failure, an admission that the great figures in public affairs were no good.

We tend to overlook their failures largely because events in late July 1914 happened so fast. Usually it takes quite a long time for statesmen to muddle themselves into war. The crisis of late July 1914 was a helter-skelter of events which shot the European nations over the brink in a few days. Still, haste was not the only cause of the First World War. Other states came into the war later quite deliberately. The entry of the United States is especially remarkable. Here was a Great Power remote from European affairs. President Wilson was a man of high ideals and much wisdom. There was almost every reason for staying out of the war and very few reasons for going in. Yet, from the first, there was a strange inevitable feeling that the United States would be drawn in sooner or later. Professor D.M. Smith handles the problem with judicious detachment. He would like to make American policy rational. There was an economic case for war, immoral maybe but ostensibly rational. American industry boomed with the flood of European orders, and this gave the United States an increasing stake in Allied victory. There was a political case for war, far-fetched but just plausible. A victorious Germany would trespass into South America. President Roosevelt was to raise the same spook in the Second World War. There was an idealistic case for war, to which Wilson finally succumbed. The United States had to champion freedom and democracy. Yet Wilson, in his calmer moments, did not think that there was much to choose between the two sides. Professor Smith recognizes that all these explanations are inadequate. He finds the cause of war in national honor. American honor was offended by the activities of the U-boats and still more offended by not being in the war. In the end, Wilson himself felt the call of honor. He, too, was reduced to asking: what else could I do?

The same theme runs through most treatments of the war itself, and never more so than in Mr. Terraine’s pictorial history. Having produced a similar book myself two years ago. I can judge Mr. Terraine’s book from experience, though, I hope, not with jealousy. His book is physically larger than mine (also heavier). Hence his pictures often come out clearer and more effectively. On the other hand, no maps except on the end-papers. Some of the pictures are the same in both books. That is inevitable. The stock of really good photographs is limited. Moreover, unless you are careful, you find yourself writing in terms of the photographs available. Mr. Terraine probably wanted to do this in any case. His version of the war agrees with that provided by the cameramen. Scenes of desolation; lots of men marching; guns firing; a war of the masses. Mr. Terraine writes of the war as a tragedy, meaning that millions of men were being killed for no particular purpose. He does a neat cover-up job for the men at the top, particularly for the generals. He obscures the line between those who commanded and those who obeyed. All, it seems, were doing their duty to the best of their ability. The poor Tommies, doughboys, and poilus were doing their duty in the mud of the trenches. The poor generals were doing their duty in their comfortable headquarters, dutifully downing their three square meals and lapping up the champagne. In fact, almost the only man in the whole war who did not do his duty was Lloyd George. He actually tried to get rid of the most incompetent generals instead of commiserating with them. Of course war consists largely of fighting, and Mr. Terraine describes the fighting well. But war also consists of policy and direction, and here, I think, he is less effective.


It is impossible, in the last resort, to write history without taking an attitude towards the men at the top. If you treat them naturally with respect, then you are back at “what else could they do?” when they run into difficulties. Yet it is perfectly obvious what else they could have done. They could have confessed their failures and given up. They were kept going by vanity, the absurd belief that they were better than others. National honor is the same belief on a larger scale. What else can we do? And so a statesman goes lurching down the road of war, sending millions of men to death in the trenches or bombing the peasants of Vietnam.

This Issue

August 5, 1965