The impending centenary of World War I is, in Europe at least, already unleashing an impassioned debate about the causes and consequences of this unprecedented man-made cataclysm. The rising tide of academic relativism has tended to encourage the view that everybody was to blame, and hence nobody in particular. This line goes down well with those who were blamed at the time. Hence the Germans have lauded the Australian historian Christopher Clark, who teaches at Cambridge, for his book The Sleepwalkers, which diffuses responsibility for the outbreak of war fairly evenly among the statesmen of the Great Powers. The Harvard-based Scottish historian Niall Ferguson goes further: He blames the British for getting involved at all. With Britain as a neutral bystander, Germany and its Austro-Hungarian ally would have quickly triumphed over France and Russia, he argues, and there would have been no need for American intervention. Europe would have evolved into a German-dominated trading bloc, not unlike today’s European Union, but without Communism, Nazism, or World War II. It has been left mainly to historians of an older generation, such as Sir Michael Howard, to fight a rearguard action on behalf of Britain’s decision to resist German aggression in 1914.
The latest historian to throw his hat into the ring is a young Irishman, William Mulligan, with The Great War for Peace. His title recalls the name by which this vast conflict was known by the British, and it’s also a reminder of the slogan by which they justified it: It was “the war to end all wars.” Mulligan’s thesis is that the Great War was not merely the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, as George Kennan called it, but also the furnace in which the modern conception of peace, underpinned by institutions to enforce human rights and international law, was forged. For Mulligan, it was essentially a war of ideas: “People were fighting for the power to define the new European order.”
To understand why Mulligan espouses the apparent paradox that the Great War was given meaning by its humanitarian purposes, it is perhaps worth mentioning Ireland’s unique role in war and peace. On the eve of Continental hostilities, the long-brewing struggle for Irish “home rule” was on the point of flaring up into a sectarian and ethnic civil war. Although German militarism united most Irish, Protestants and Catholics alike, in support of the Allied cause, the more extreme partisans of an independent, united, and republican Ireland did not balk at collaboration with the enemy, and in 1916 mounted the failed putsch in Dublin known as the Easter Rising. Its brutal suppression by the British led directly to a protracted and bloody series of internecine conflicts that resulted in the secession of the mainly Catholic “Irish Free State,” while the mainly Protestant “Northern Ireland” remained part of the United Kingdom. The Irish and British are still living with the legacy of this bitter divorce.
Mulligan is too discreet to tell us what this Irish subtext means for him personally, but its influence can certainly be detected throughout his book. For Ireland, World War I was the catalyst for the culmination of a much longer national narrative, in which freedom could be purchased only at the price of war. Much of Mulligan’s book is devoted to the crisis of imperialism precipitated by the Great War: Although many tens of thousands of Irishmen died fighting for king and country in that war, in hindsight their sacrifice has paled in importance compared with the smaller number killed giving birth to the Irish Republic.
None of this is to detract from Mulligan’s achievement. Indeed, coming from one of the many peoples to have achieved nationhood in the aftermath of the Great War, he is bound to place his faith not in the secretive Great Power diplomacy that failed either to prevent war in 1914 or to end it by negotiation, but in the multilateralist approach to international relations that found its most important expression in the League of Nations and its successor, the U.N. Mulligan’s upbeat, optimistic assessment of the war’s long-term impact is refreshing and contrasts with the usual tendency to dwell on the carnage of trench warfare. His scholarship is broader and, in a cultural sense, deeper than that of the rest of the current crop of World War I books. Indeed, The Great War for Peace may well be the most impressive and original of them all.
One reason for this originality is that Mulligan has given equal attention to both sides, and to small states as well as great empires. He shows how both antagonists saw the war as a civilizing mission, but the Central Powers interpreted the language of humanity and law differently than did the Allies, who consistently depicted them as barbarians. In October 1914, 93 German intellectuals published an “Appeal to the Civilized World,” in which they defended the atrocities their troops had committed against civilians by claiming that the Belgians had engaged in partisan warfare. The “Appeal” also accused the British and French of hypocrisy: “Those who are allied to the Russians and Serbians and who offer the world the shameful show of inciting the Mongolians and Negroes against the white race have the least justification to portray themselves as defenders of European civilization.” Such attitudes were not surprising in the empire that had systematically exterminated the rebellious native population of its Namibian colony just a few years before. But the German professors saw no contradiction between outrage at the deployment of African or Indian colonial troops and Berlin’s plot to unleash a global jihad against the British in the Islamic world.
Mulligan really excels with his account of peace efforts in wartime, both by the belligerents and by neutrals such as the Vatican. By 1916, the high command on both sides had settled for a war of attrition, but politicians and diplomats continued to push for compromise. The Turkish massacre of the Armenians had alerted some, at least, to the danger that the radicalization of war was likely to lead to what would later be defined as “genocide.” Mulligan charts the evolution of the idea of a new world order in which the ambitions of rogue states would be checked by strict adherence to international law, enforced by the liberal democracies. Such ideas have come to be most closely associated with Woodrow Wilson, but in fact they were widely shared on both sides of the conflict.
Wilson emerges as the most revolutionary figure in Mulligan’s story, far more so even than Lenin. Whereas the Bolsheviks repudiated “bourgeois” notions of law, liberty, or democracy, and reined in their internationalist pretensions after their failure to export revolution to the West, the role of the United States in ending the war invested the president who had promised peace with a unique prestige. Although disillusionment set in even before the Treaty of Versailles was rejected by the U.S. Senate, Wilson’s vision of a “Covenant of fraternity” has endured. Even critics of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations used Wilsonian language to condemn them. As Mulligan observes: “Wilson had synthesized ideas that were already prominent in different war cultures, embodied those ideas, and associated them with American power.”
It was, however, at least five years before the aftershocks of the Great War began to subside. Peace between the Great Powers was preserved, though not between some of the new states that emerged from the collapse of the old empires. Democracy survived, though not everywhere; Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy were notable exceptions. Mulligan identifies the “spirit of Locarno,” which emerged after the treaty of that name in 1925, as a crucial turning point in the stabilization of Europe. As one of its signatories, the German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann, said afterward, Locarno signified “that the states of Europe at last realize that they cannot go on making war upon each other without being involved in common ruin.”
Stresemann was of course exceptional among German statesmen, in that he meant what he said about renouncing military force and joining the League of Nations, no less than in his invocation of “that great civilized land of Europe, whose peoples have suffered so bitterly in the years that lie behind.” Yes, Stresemann was exceptional, but he was not unique. Mulligan quotes the mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, as assuring his Lyons counterpart Edouard Herriot in 1928 that while he and others had at first been skeptical of the new idea of peace, “we have let ourselves be convinced.” Looking back 20 years later, after a second world war, Adenauer lamented the “shattering decline” of Europe. As Mulligan concedes, the international order agreed to at Locarno lasted little more than a decade, a much shorter span than the peace that followed World War II.
Yet Mulligan makes a valuable case for seeing the more expansive, even exalted conception of peace that emerged from World War I — embracing everything from free trade to minority rights — as a lasting achievement, even if Hitler made it his mission to crush the spirit of Locarno while adopting the mantle of the “Peace Chancellor.” “Hitler’s deceptive peace talk was itself a legacy of the war to end all wars,” Mulligan points out. Today we can again observe the perversion of pacific language by the despots of Russia, Iran, and other aggressor states. But propaganda does not invalidate principle. Though the United States may be temporarily yielding to the temptation to withdraw from its role as guarantor of global peace, Europe needs the Atlantic alliance as much as ever. The West still has no choice but to defend liberty and democracy, even though this may require the use of force. It should not have taken two world wars to teach us that lesson; we certainly cannot afford a third.
– Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, a London-based political and cultural monthly magazine.