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“Once again, Margaret MacMillan proves herself not just a masterly historian but a brilliant storyteller. She brings to life the personalities whose decisions, rivalries, ambitions, and fantasies led Europe to ‘lay waste to itself’ and triggered decades of global conflict. Hers is a cautionary tale of follies a century in the past that seem all too familiar today.”

Strobe Talbott, president, Brookings Institution

The Great War’s Ominous Echoes

The New York Times

Oxford, England — Earlier this year, I was on holiday in Corsica and wandered into the church of a tiny hamlet in the hills where I found a memorial to the dead from World War I. Out of a population that can have been no more than 150, eight young men, bearing among them only three last names, had died in that conflict. Such lists can be found all over Europe, in great cities and in small villages. Similar memorials are spread around the globe, for the Great War, as it was known before 1940, also drew soldiers from Asia, Africa and North America.


World War I still haunts us, partly because of the sheer scale of the carnage — 10 million combatants killed and many more wounded. Countless civilians lost their lives, too, whether through military action, starvation or disease. Whole empires were destroyed and societies brutalized.

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But there’s another reason the war continues to haunt us: we still cannot agree on why it happened. Was it caused by the overweening ambitions of some of the men in power at the time? Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers, for example, wanted a greater Germany with a global reach, so they challenged the naval supremacy of Britain. Or does the explanation lie in competing ideologies? National rivalries? Or in the sheer and seemingly unstoppable momentum of militarism? As an arms race accelerated, generals and admirals made plans that became ever more aggressive as well as rigid. Did that make an explosion inevitable?


Or would it never have happened had a random event in an Austro-Hungarian backwater not lit the fuse? In the second year of the conflagration that engulfed most of Europe, a bitter joke made the rounds: “Have you seen today’s headline? ‘Archduke Found Alive: War a Mistake.”’ That is the most dispiriting explanation of all — that the war was simply a blunder that could have been avoided.


The search for explanations began almost as soon as the guns opened fire in the summer of 1914 and has never stopped. The approaching centenary should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident. History, in the saying attributed to Mark Twain, never repeats itself but it rhymes. We have good reason to glance over our shoulders even as we look ahead. If we cannot determine how one of the most momentous conflicts in history happened, how can we hope to avoid another such catastrophe in the future?


Though the era just before World War I, with its gas lighting and its horse-drawn carriages, seems very far-off, it is similar to ours — often unsettlingly so — in many ways. Globalization — which we tend to think of as a modern phenomenon, created by the spread of international businesses and investment, the growth of the Internet, and the widespread migration of peoples — was also characteristic of that era. Even remote parts of the world were being linked by new means of transportation, from railways to steamships, and communication, including the telephone, telegraph and wireless.


The decades leading up to 1914 were, as now, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale. New fields of commerce and manufacture were opening up, such as the rapidly expanding chemical and electrical industries. Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity; radical new ideas like psychoanalysis were finding a following; and the roots of the predatory ideologies of fascism and Soviet Communism were taking hold.


Globalization can have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in small like-minded groups. Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary Socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order. The young Serbs who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo were inspired by Nietzsche and Bakunin, just as their Russian and French counterparts were.


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Articles

Life

A Picture Before Dying: Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Sarajevo, 1914

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914, is widely seen as the central, precipitating event of the First World War: the spark that lit the conflagration.

View full article here.

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Chatham House: International Affairs

1914 and 2014: should we be worried?

The outbreak of the First World War remains a great historical puzzle and a source of concern, for if we do not understand how it came about we run the risk of stumbling into a similar catastrophe.

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The Guardian

First World War: 100 years on

The first world war centenary should be about shared understanding, not political point-scoring

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Financial Times

The 1914 Christmas armistice: a triumph for common humanity

We will be home by Christmas, the men had said, as they marched off to war in the summer of 1914.

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The Independent

The Big Questions: Is immigration a threat? Is it wrong to make children kiss their grandparents?

Is Michael Gove right that our under-standing of the First World War has been hijacked by the left-wing pacifist agenda of Blackadder?

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The Wall Street Journal | June 20, 2014

World War I: The War That Changed Everything

World War I began 100 years ago this month, and in many ways, writes historian Margaret MacMillan, it remains the defining conflict of the modern era.

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The Globe and Mail | June 27, 2014

The Archduke’s assassination came close to being just another killing

On a summer day 100 years ago today, two men crossed paths in Sarajevo. One was stout, middle-aged and powerful; the other undernourished, barely out of his teens and a non-entity

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The Globe and Mail | June 27, 2014

Margaret MacMillan in Sarajevo, 100 years later

In Sarajevo, they have been getting ready for the centennial commemoration of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

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The Globe and Mail | June 24, 2016

Britons will enjoy their victory today. But tomorrow, the hangover will be fierce

As I watched UKIP leader Nigel Farage chortling in triumph, I was reminded of what the British humorist Peter Cook once said: that Britain was in danger of sinking giggling into the sea. In an act of unparalleled frivolity, a majority of the British public have just taken a giant step closer to that fate. They will enjoy their victory today, but they are going to wake up tomorrow with a massive hangover.

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The Financial Times | July 08, 2016

Britain and Europe: The Ties that Bind

Is the English Channel a roadway or a barrier? Does it allow ideas, people and goods to flow back and forth within the same civilisation? Or is it rather the moat of an island fortress, a useful defence against enemies, unwanted visitors and unfair economic competition?

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1914: Day by Day

BBC Radio | 9th July

Margaret Macmillan chronicles the events leading up to the First World War. Each episode draws together newspaper accounts, diplomatic correspondence and private journals from the same day exactly one hundred years ago, giving a picture of the world in 1914 as it was experienced at the time.

BBC Radio

This link will take you to BBC Radio

The series tracks the development of the European crisis day by day, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through to the first week of the conflict. As well as the war, it gives an insight into the wider context of the world in 1914 including the threat of civil war in Ireland, the sensational trial of Madame Caillaux in France and the suffragettes' increasingly violent campaign for votes for women.

The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War

Picture from the Brooking Institute Essay

The Brookings Institute


This is the original essay that the New York Times article was based on (see above). The Brookings Institute essay examines the subject in greater depth and is accompanied by some wonderful illustrations.


View full article here.

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