An Improbable War:

The outbreak of World War I and European Political culture before 1914

Edited by Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson

Berghahn Books 2007

This is a collection of essays by eminent historians and stems from a symposium held at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2004. The basic premise of the articles is that WWI should not have happened – so what went wrong? Holger Afflerbach is Professor of Modern European History at Leeds University, and David Stevenson is the Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

It is worth noting at the start that the consensus seems to be that the best account of the political crisis in July and August 1914 that lead to outbreak of WWI is the book, in three volumes, by Luigi Albertini, a conclusion which I would agree with. The current work is not concerned with the July crisis, as such. Rather, it looks at the historical, political and cultural factors at play in the relevant countries which lead to the crisis and to WWI.

The book starts with an introduction from former US President Jimmy Carter. You may wonder what his connection with WWI is. In fact, his father served in Meuse-Argonne in WWI. Jimmy Carter was in the US Navy and was the first member of his family even to finish high school. He served in WWII and Korea.

His introduction refers to the excessively–binding treaty system of the day being a factor in the genesis of WWI. He refers to the fact that there were no wars in Europe for forty-three years before WWI. In the US, WWI is much less in the consciousness today than are more recent conflicts, yet the US lost more soldiers in WWI than in Korea and Vietnam combined. Four empires disappeared as a result of WWI, and it was in some ways the beginning of the end for others.

Apparently, President Kennedy told his advisers to read “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, so that they would be better informed about the history of WWI and be able to avoid the same mistakes. This book is often criticised by modern historians but it easily still outsells many more recent works.

President Carter sees the League of Nations as a positive development of WWI, and eventually we had the United Nations, after WWII, as an attempt to avoid wars.

On political leaders, Carter contends that certain leaders of the WWI era saw war as a way to exert their political influence and perhaps territorial expansion. They thought they could go to war with impunity and win without the danger of loss.

His hope for the book is that one can learn some lessons on how to avoid a future catastrophe.

In the book itself, the question is whether WWI was a logical response to the political conditions in Europe in 1914, or rather a reaction against, and a break with, them. So, the issue is the degree of probability and inevitability in the outbreak of the conflict.

One aspect is whether WWI was caused by a series of serious professional mistakes by a comparatively small group of diplomats, politicians and military leaders, or is it an automatic outcome of the mind-set of the European generation of 1914? It was a common suggestion of many writers in the 1990s that European societies and their governments, in the summer of 1914, were filled with suicidal enthusiasm for the incipient conflict. However, much new research in recent years has successfully challenged that view. The current view suggests that public opinion in the belligerent countries was highly differentiated by region and by social class.

The book seeks to provoke a corresponding reappraisal of how the European political culture before 1914 dealt with the question of war and peace. First, the book seeks to cover not only the culture of individual states but also pan-European themes such as the rules of diplomacy, honour, gender, religion, and the arts.

So, in the first chapter Paul Schroeder contends that WWI was ultimately the outcome of changes in the unwritten rules, or norms, of the international system. The ever increasing brutality of these rules placed enormous pressure on some members of the international community, robbed them of breathing space, and ultimately forced them into suicidal action. According to Schroeder, Austro-Hungary may have become a perpetrator, but it was also a victim. In effect, he suggests that war was essentially unavoidable by 1914.  

Next, Matthias Schultz looks at European congressional diplomacy between 1815 and 1914. He contends that even at the end of this period, adequate peacekeeping mechanisms existed, and that the Austro Serbian crisis could have been resolved by a conference or by a multilateral peacekeeping effort, instead of a forceful and unilateral Austrian action with German support. As the international system lost ethical foundation, war became more probable. Schultz characterises the Hapsburg monarchy, from a statistical analysis of the incidence of crises, as the leading fomenter of instability in Europe. He therefore disagrees with Schroeder who sees Austro Hungary as a great victim of the international system.

Samuel Williamson also looks at the situation in Vienna. He analyses the decision making process of Austro Hungary during 1914. His chapter shows that the Hapsburg political elite had not resolved the question of war against Serbia even before the Sarajevo assassinations, and that they had other political priorities. Thus, the Sarajevo assassinations became the decisive moment, in that without the murder of France Ferdinand and his wife, there would have been no decision by the Austrian government for war with Serbia. The author contends that German pressure was not decisive, and that the Hapsburg leaders made their own decisions.

John Rohl provides a powerful analysis of Wilhelm II and his political line, personal goals and responsibility during the July crisis. He believes that the German leaders deliberately started the war and traces the roots of the conflict to the German political system and the personality of the German ruler, whom he indicts for his duplicity and recklessness.

Jost Dulffer discusses the two Hague peace conferences and their attempts to limit the level of armaments and to outlaw the use of certain weapons. Alternatives to the existing European balance of power system, with its adjustment mechanisms of arms build ups and deterrence, had no chance of making headway in an era when every state was keen on keeping control over its own sovereignty, including the right to configure its armed forces in the light of its own strategic planning and perceived security needs. There was a third peace conference envisaged for 1915. Had not war intervened, the momentum in favour of arms control and international arbitration might have developed further.

Michael Epkenhans analyses the Anglo German naval race, showing how Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial German Naval Office, overcame all internal resistance to his fleet building programme. Unquestionably, the naval rivalry poisoned Anglo German relations. However, by 1914 the most acute phase of the naval race was over and the British had won it, not least because Tirpitz and the German Navy had run out of money. Although the naval rivalry contributed to the deterioration of the international situation, and especially to Germany’s place within it, it did not in itself trigger the outbreak of the war.

Similarly, in his discussion of the land armaments race David Stevenson confronts directly the question of whether or not the world war was improbable. He argues that land armaments competition indeed destabilised European international relations, but that the leaders of the powers could have found peaceful solutions to their security predicaments. Earlier arms races had ended without hostilities and the pre-1914 race, although a critical danger to European peace, might have evolved into a non-violent confrontation or “cold war”.

The essay by Gunther Kronenbitter investigates the war planning of Helmut von Moltke the younger and Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, the German and Austrian general staff chiefs. Both men agreed that the impact of a large scale continental war would have devastating repercussions on European civilisation for decades. They also recognised the unpredictability of the outcome of such a conflict. Yet precisely because they were trapped by their understanding of national and personal duty, they prepared for a war which they thought would inevitably be a disaster for Europe and for their countries. Whilst neither chief had the authority to initiate a war, their narrow understanding of military security subjected European peace to an enormous structural burden. In other words, although developments in armaments policy and in strategic planning did serve to endanger peace, they did not so destabilise the international order as to make war unavoidable.

Holger Afflerbach addresses the central themes of the volume by analysing the expectations about war current among the European governments of 1914. His basic contention is that, if contemporaries had really believed war to be unavoidable, then everyone would have expected that after Sarajevo events would lead quickly to the outbreak of hostilities. But in fact the opposite was true. The elites of the era did not believe that a Great War was probable and they were completely surprised by its outbreak. The notion that nobody would risk such a devastating catastrophe was all the more widely accepted because of the highly developed system of deterrence of the day. Afflerbach therefore denies that European societies of the day expected a cataclysm, contrary to the thoughts of earlier historians. He also discusses the various military leaders who dreamed of a great European war out of self-indulgent motives, but he suggests that even they believed that such a war was both improbable and liable to be immensely destructive. However, the danger in this situation was that some statesmen were so confident that a Great War was impossible that they planned their actions without the necessary caution. The war was therefore improbable because it went against the tides of that time. The actual outbreak of war was even a consequence of the misplaced confidence that peace was secure.

Friedrich Kiessling pursues a similar line of argument in his analysis of policymakers conduct during the diplomatic crises of the years leading up to 1914. He insists that in trying to explain the war’s origins it is a mistake to focus only on those factors which seemingly lead to an escalation of international tensions. He looks instead at efforts to achieve detente and de- escalation in political conflict. Paradoxically, this policy of seeking détente may have been too successful, leading to miscalculations by some of Europe's leading statesmen in the July crisis. Because compromise had been achieved in previous crises and war had repeatedly been averted, the assumption may have been that in 1914, too, conflict could be avoided. The mind-set of “improbable war”, or of dangerous faith in détente, made key decision makers perilously insouciant. For both Afflerbach and Kiesssling, the outbreak of war in Europe was a consequence of carelessness caused by overconfidence, comparable to the complacency of the crew of the Titanic who failed to reduce their speed at the moment of danger.

Roger Chickering analyses the popular mood in the summer of 1914, focusing his attention on the middle-sized German city of Freiburg.  It is a combined general survey of the public opinion literature, with an interesting case study. He adds:

"the dramatic scenes of the summer of 1914 ought to be understood in the light of their own political and cultural dynamics. They should not be taken as evidence that an inveterate German war enthusiasm made war probable or inevitable.”

Consequently, his contribution weakens the hypothesis that WWI was unavoidable.

The next chapter, by Joshua Sanborn, deals with developments in Russia, again with reference to the question of whether the political culture in this country made the Great War probable or not. His complex arguments show how difficult it is to find clear and simple trends in pre-war societies. He discusses the evidence for growing popular patriotism and militarism in pre-1914 Russia, as in other European countries. Examples include the celebration of the Franco-Russian alliance, government-led centenary commemorations of the victory of 1812, the abolition of schoolteachers’ exemption from conscription, changes to the school curriculum, and the creation of new patriotic societies. On the other hand, he also demonstrates the reservations felt about these developments on the part of pacifists and of authoritarian conservatives, including the Tsar. Yet, he concludes that a particular form of patriotism, that is a deep concern for Russia's status as a great power, was decisive in hardening policy in the July crisis and impelled decision-makers to opt for a war that no-one regarded with enthusiasm and was widely considered to be highly inopportune.

There are chapters on the roles of culture, religion and gender in international relations before 1914, as well as to the topic of internationalism as an influence on the question of European peace. In particular, Ute Frevert in her essay states that gender-related understanding of honour in European societies had a distinctive influence on the events of summer 1914. In short, she refers to manly posturing which made attempts to peacefully solve the crisis extremely difficult.

The last three chapters describe the view from afar. Ottoman Turkish politics and their view on Europe are analysed in a chapter by Mustafa Aksakal. He draws on newspapers and other publications to demonstrate that the Ottoman leaders felt they were victims of the international system. They actually hoped for a war in order to be saved from their difficulties. From their perspective, a local war was not only probable but also desirable. The Young Turks dreamed of a war of liberation and independence and they were eager to secure German help for it. The ultimate goal was to stabilize the Turkish international position and to halt its secular decline. However, it is likely that the government in Constantinople neither envisaged nor predicted a general European war, although when this event occurred it was perceived as a great opportunity. 

Fred Dickinson analyses reaction in Japan to the war in Europe. His essay shows the surprise felt in Japan when WWI broke out. Once war had broken out, Japanese newspapers and political commentators looked for explanations and found them in the materialistic European culture, in the instability of the balance of power, and finally by conceiving of the war as a racial struggle. In addition to the general explanations, Japanese commentators tended to see Germany as being primarily responsible for the catastrophe. The author also identifies a Japanese culture of profiting from turbulence in Europe in order to make opportunistic gains in East Asia.

The final chapter by Fraser Harbutt examines the perspective of the United States. Americans were generally shocked and surprised by the outbreak of the conflict. It seemed to be an act of European suicide which they had not previously considered to be possible or probable. Developments during the first few months of the war had already made it likely that American neutrality would be pro-Allied and that the US would eventually intervene against Germany. The views from afar demonstrate again that many contemporary observers from inside and outside Europe did not foresee the conflict and that they considered it as a highly improbable event.

All the authors acknowledge that the international system before 1914 was endangered by several developments, prominent among which were armaments competition in the single-minded military understanding of national security. So, was the war unavoidable? Well the authors are rather divided on that. However, WWI did mark an abrupt departure from previous trends in European political culture, not their continuation or automatic outcome. The consensus is that WWI was not inevitable. In the words of a pre-1914 French school book "war is not probable, but it is possible." 

Overall, this is an excellent and wide ranging analysis of the factors behind the defective decisions made by many governments in the July crisis. It is to be highly recommended.