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Rethinking the First World War: MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace

Posted by Chris Pedersen
20 February 2015 - 4:17pm

As many countries around the world mark the centenary of the First World War, we (especially history teachers teaching the 20th century) might see the topic as all too familiar.  However, reading Margaret MacMillan’s (2013) The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 might change that. Through her book, what we may have known about this global conflict becomes defamiliarized. It is also a great, and timely, read.

MacMillan’s book analyzes the years leading up to 1914 and the outbreak of the global conflict, including the conditions and human actions that led Europe from peace to war. It is an historical narrative that paints a portrait of Europe at the time.

Crucially, this is not a book that argues there was a well-defined path inevitably leading to war in 1914. In fact, MacMillan’s unfamiliar thinking is evident right from the opening pages.  On the page following the dedication a quote from Albert Camus’s (2001) The Plague can be found. It says that, “there have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise” (p. 30). This demonstrates MacMillan’s (2013) decision to stray from familiar, solid ground. Instead of asking what led to war in 1914 she asks instead: why did the great peace that existed in Europe between 1870 and 1914 not persist?  

The following excerpt from MacMillan’s (2013) book highlights her inquiry wonderfully:

Why did the long peace [between 1870 and 1914] not continue? Why did the forces pushing towards peace—and they were strong ones—not prevail? They had done so before, after all. Why did the system fail this time? One way of getting at an answer is to see how Europe’s options had narrowed down in the decades before 1914… I find the more interesting question to be how Europe reached the point in the summer of 1914 where war became more likely than peace. What did the decision-makers think they were doing? Why didn’t they pull back this time as they had done before? Why, in other words, did the peace fail? (p. xxxv)

It is important to remember that any study of the past must be careful not to assume that events were inevitable (MacMillan, 2013; Seixas & Morton, 2013). Poet Antonio Machado reminds us that, “there is no path, the path is made by walking." The men making the decisions at the beginning of the 20th century had no well-laid path before them. War was not inevitable. The path they were on could have led to peace. Instead it led to war.

Woven throughout The War That Ended Peace is MacMillan’s argument that despite the world being dramatically different from 1914, continuities exist between the world of 1914 and the 21st century. She states that the modern “world is facing similar challenges, some revolutionary and ideological such as the rise of militant religions or social protest movements, others are from the stress between rising and declining nations such as China and the United States” (p. xxvi). Historians search for continuities as much as change over time (Seixas & Morton, 2013). MacMillan’s book is a great example of this.

Much like the historical actors had to do in 1914, MacMillan (2013) argues that people in the present “need to think carefully about how wars can happen and about how we can maintain the peace” (p. xxvi).

MacMillan’s account of the years leading up to the First World War takes a familiar subject for historians and studies it from a different perspective. This type of book offers educators a great resource for looking at all the historical thinking concepts—not just continuity and change—developed by Seixas and Morton (2013).

If we are too be historically conscious in the 21st century then that requires understanding the continuities and changes that have occurred over time. MacMillan reminds us that history is not static nor were the events of the past guaranteed to occur.

The War That Ended Peace reminds us that the questions we ask can give us new perspectives upon which to study the past.


Works cited:

MacMillan, Margaret. The War That Ended Peace. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2013.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Robin Buss. London: Allen Lane, 2001.

Seixas, Peter, and Tom Morton. The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013.


Photo Credit: Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele. Library and Archives Canada.