Award-winning academic MacMillan (International History/Oxford Univ.; Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, 2009, etc.) takes on the origins of World War I.
Rather than allocating blame for the war or asking why it came about, the author asks instead, “[W]hy did the long peace not continue?...One way of getting at an answer is to see how Europe's options had narrowed down in the decades before 1914." She begins with the confident Europe celebrated in the Paris Exposition of 1900 and shows how national rivalries gradually eroded the comity of nations to the point where a brilliant civilization chose to tear itself to pieces. Inflexible military planning; “defensive” pacts that appeared offensive to rivals; national fears, honor and prestige; the characters and capabilities of national leaders; consideration of war as a means of suppressing internal divisions; and, finally, "mistakes, muddle or simply poor timing" all played a part in steering Europe from considering a general war unthinkable to considering it inevitable. Not everyone agreed; MacMillan turns periodically, if too briefly, to the peace movements led by Alfred Nobel, Bertha von Suttner and the Socialist International, but in the end, nationalism overwhelmed these altruistic impulses. There is much emphasis on the great men of the time, the bombastic and erratic kaiser and other leaders of the great powers, whose well-described personalities, prejudices and temperaments affected events in a way that is difficult to imagine today. Exhaustive in its coverage of diplomatic maneuvering and the internal political considerations of the various nations, the book includes comprehensive discussions of such motivating issues as Germany's fear of being surrounded, Austria-Hungary's fear of falling apart and Russia's humiliation after losing a war with Japan.
The author’s presentation is so thorough that it is often easy to lose sight of her theme. While MacMillan’s prose is mostly lively, it lacks a narrative flair that could help carry readers through this monumental work.