What can 1914 teach us about 2014?

Oped published in Haaretz, 6 July 2014: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.603438

With the centenary of the outbreak of World War One fast approaching, books analyzing the causes of that conflict are finding a niche on the new arrivals shelves of bookstores. Special attention is paid to the shift in relative power between states – some rising, others declining – which is seen as a fundamental cause of World War One.

No historic parallel is ever exact, but the world order of 1914 is one that is very recognizable to us today – much more so than say 1939, or the Cold War era. Comparisons are invariably made between 1914 and 2014, with the looming question that follows – could today’s relative peace be threatened by a similar cataclysm in global affairs?

There is Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War; Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914; and finally Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

I’ve read Clark’s book and reviews of the others, and my sense is that Clark’s is the more controversial and thought-provoking thesis. It certainly goes against the grain of conventional wisdom about the outbreak of World War One – at least the grain that sees World War One as almost inevitable (with the assassination at Sarajevo merely the incidental spark – The Guns of August view), and German militarism and aggression its prime cause (the so-called ‘Fischer thesis’).

Clark’s account refutes any simple chain of causality or binary attribution of blame. Clark is an Australian historian, at the University of Cambridge, and his research and scholarship for this book is clearly ground-breaking.

Here are eight lessons and observations I took from Clark’s account which challenged my prevailing views and assumptions about the outbreak of World War One. Some of them have obvious implications for us in today’s world;  others less so.

1. Untangling and predicting cause and effect in a dynamic, multipolar system is exceptionally difficult. The power structure of the crisis that lead to WW1 was exceptionally complicated. It involved five major powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia) and their relationships with one another, plus a host of other background actors (Serbia, the Ottoman Empire). The outbreak of World War One was effectively the product of upwards of ten separate bilateral relationships (Britain-France, France-Russia, Russia-Germany, Germany-Austria, etc), operating both in parallel and in sequence.

2. A minor act can spark a global conflagration. What started the war was an act of terrorism by a non-state actor operating extra-territorially. A squad of suicide bombers and assassins from a shadowy, state-sponsored terrorist organisation (the Black Hand) infiltrated across state lines to murder Archduke Ferdinand in furtherance of their political ambitions. What could be more profoundly modern and plausible in today’s world?

3. Context and circumstance matters. Serbia and the Balkans were at the heart of the war’s cause, and not a mere pretext or sideshow. Great power politics and ambitions certainly played their part, and major powers exploited Balkan politics for their own ends. But it was a Balkan crisis first and foremost – and it could have been managed as such, if major powers had not chosen the path of inflexibility and escalation, and had not elected to build a Balkan ‘trigger’ into their alliance relationships.

4. The First World War was a war of choice, not one of necessity. Far from being inevitable, the outbreak of a global conflict was improbable – at least until it actually happened. The consequences of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have been managed and contained regionally. A reasonable, internationally-mediated response to Ferdinand’s assassination, and one that gave Vienna some dignity and honour, may have averted the war. Or a war between Austria and Serbia could have been contained to just that. There might have been a Third Balkan War – but need not have been a First World War.

5. Declining powers need to be handled with care, not just rising powers. The Dual Monarchy was effectively written off by Europe’s other powers. Austro-Hungarian security needs and imperatives were given short shrift, and there was little sympathy for the notion that Austria-Hungary should have the same right to defend its near neighbourhood interests as the other major European powers. Linked to this, there was little sympathy in some capitals for just how grave a provocation was the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne by a state-sponsored terrorist group from a neighbouring country with irredentist ambitions. For Austria, the Sarajevo murders were not a pretext, but a transformative event.

6. The logic of preventive war can be falsely compelling. If the balance of power is moving against you, better to check your enemy today rather than let them grow in strength. Germany thought it better to confront Russia sooner rather than later, before its strength grew further. Russia thought to fight early too, before Ottoman acquisition of dreadnought battleships in the Black Sea threatened its access to the Mediterranean.

7. The ‘tail’ of military planning should not be allowed to wag the ‘dog’ of strategy. In the days leading-up to the outbreak of World War One, military planning and needs often forced the hands of politicians and strategists, shutting off their options and limiting the scope for compromise. Preparations for war quickly made war almost inevitable. The timetables and dictates of Russian mobilisation schedules and the German war-fighting plan (the Schlieffen Plan) meant that once initial steps were taken, de-escalation or localisation became nigh impossible.

8. War has unintended and unpredictable consequences. World War One destroyed the international system and gave us the nation-states model of today. The Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were destroyed; Britain’s decline as a world power began; and new states were brought into being. There were very few beneficiaries. In the direct words of Clark, none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed. But there was little evidence that the protagonists properly assessed the stakes and risks in advance. It is in this sense that the major players were ‘sleepwalkers’ – watchful but unseeing of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

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