Review: The Long European Peace

Gordon Martel’s prologue to The Month That Changed The World – July 1914 seeks to provide a counterargument to the popular understanding that the First World War was, by 1914, ‘waiting to happen’ or in some sense inevitable. Martel is at pains to establish that Europe in 1914 was remarkably stable and peaceful and that those who held the reins of military and foreign policy, for the great powers at least, were by and large inclined toward peace. In particular, Martel casts the various military preparations of the great powers as defensive measures: Nicholas II’s massive expansion of the Russian army and navy was designed, he suggests, only to maintain the balance of power by dissuading Germany from interference with Russian interests; Wilhelm II’s construction of a high seas naval fleet in 1898 was intended to bring Britain onside rather than start a costly competition; Poincaré’s increases in the size of the French army were to maintain balance and reassure Russia that their alliance was strong. The alliances of the great powers, also, Martel sees as purely defensive in nature and as guarantors of peace and stability in Europe: not only did they act as brakes on the other side (wary of engaging a vast and powerful alliance on the battlefield) but also as restraints on the powers within the alliances themselves (conscious that if they made an aggressive act, the alliance would be void).

Further, Martel highlights a generally peaceful attitude prevailing in Europe before 1914—the existence of large, influential peace societies and antiwar movements in the middle and working classes; the lack of a religious or ideological divide to fight over; the interconnectedness and interdependence of the European economy; the demonstrated capacity of the European powers to defuse tensions in international crises like the ones in Morocco, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Libya and the Balkans. Not only, in Martel’s schema, were the great and the good (and the great unwashed, in their peace societies) disinterested in war, they were evidently capable of avoiding it.

Martel’s description of Europe is important to the historiography of the First World War because it presents an image leagues apart from the popular conception of a continent careening down a dark path toward cataclysm. It suggests that Europe, despite the oft-blamed unification of Germany in 1871, was peaceful and prosperous, desirous and capable of maintaining peace, and balanced by a stable geopolitical system. However, Martel’s argument is not wholly convincing.

A great part of The Long European Peace is concerned with demonstrating that each of the men responsible (in whole or in large part) for the military and foreign policies of the great powers was “essentially a man of peace”. Although this is illuminating, it smacks somewhat of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘great man theory’. For instance, Martel casts Franz Joseph I as totally committed to the maintenance peace, but notes in passing that those around him regarded the Austro-Hungarian emperor as “rather dull and not particularly bright… None of his secretaries, advisers, or ministers ever recorded a witty remark or spirited argument.” Certainly, then, Franz Joseph may have loved peace, but aside from being a ‘great man’ with the final word in the declaration of war, Martel leaves us to wonder just how capable, or indeed how inclined the emperor was to make decisions alone and overrule his advisers. Martel characterises all the leaders of the European powers as similarly peace-loving, but makes little mention of the fact that although they often, technically, had the final word, few if any of them were constitutionally secure enough to make and enforce momentous policy decisions alone.

As well as his survey of Europe’s decision makers  Martel’s suggestion that there was “nothing left to fight about” (which he backs up by noting that the recreation of a Polish state was no longer a question of practical politics), entirely glosses over the persistent tensions in southeastern Europe. “If the frontiers of Europe were fixed,” he asks—ignoring, for instance, the conflagrations over former Ottoman territory of 1911–1913—“what was there for the Great Powers to fight over?” If we discount the things they were fighting over, what indeed?

Martel paints the defused (or what he evidently considers to have been defused) crises of the decade before 1914 as evidence of stability and successful peace-keeping by the great powers, without a moment’s acknowledgement that the crises could just as reasonably be read as evidence of an international system under terrible, and growing, strain. Europe in the decade leading up to 1914 was not static, as Martel seems to imply; the centuries-old Ottoman Empire—just one example—was foundering, spawning terrible conflicts in its wake, but Martel spares it barely a line.

The Long European Peace is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the First World War as an exercise in stripping away our established historiography and looking at the period in a new way, but it is ultimately unconvincing. Of course, this is only the prologue to Martel’s book—no doubt there is more to his argument than what he sketches in the first twenty-or-so pages. Nevertheless, The Long European Peace in isolation suffers terribly from cherrypicking and selective attention. A good prologue to a book, we might decide with hindsight, but seriously flawed as an independent piece of history.