Margaret MacMillan is a historian and professor at Oxford University, and a leading expert on the causes and outcomes of the First World War. Her new book is The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. The Globe spoke to her by phone in Oxford.
The War That Ended Peace is one of five books nominated this year for the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, which will be awarded April 2. The Globe and Mail will feature interviews with each nominated author during the week of March 17. Read an interview with Paul Wells on figuring out what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is thinking or Charles Montgomery on how to make cities that make people happy.
You make repeated and pointed analogies in your book between the period leading up to the First World War and today. What are the main similarities?
Living through times of rapid change can be exhilarating but it also can be very difficult. And not everybody wins when you have rapid globalization, which is what you had before 1914 and what you’re having today. The world since the 1990s has been knitted together in increasingly tight ways. That causes strains, and you get a lot of social change. You had a growing gap before 1914; you have a growing gap today between rich and poor, and the middle class is getting squeezed. Plus the fear of terrorism, the fear that society was going to the dogs. Perhaps every society has that, but I think sometimes more often than others.
You write that in Britain before 1914 “moral crusades to reinforce the family and its values picked up momentum” and ask parenthetically, “does that sound familiar?” Are you seeing that in Canada too?
Certainly with the people who came over from the Reform Party, there are some who take a highly moralized view of life and worry about present society and where is the family going and where are young people going; who are opposed to same-sex marriage because they see it as weakening the institution of marriage. You don’t get this in every society but there were worries before 1914 that values were changing, the young weren’t prepared to stand up for their countries, they didn’t have a sense of duty. It seems to me we’re getting it quite a bit now.
The Harper government has been pushing an idealized view of military sacrifice and duty, which was another common feature of Europe before 1914.
We are, but what I do think is different today is that society just isn’t responding in the same way. That may be because so few people today actually have experience of military service, whereas in Europe except for Britain all the armies were conscript armies, so an awful lot of people went through. It seems to have had in some countries the effect of making them more pro-military than less, funnily enough.
Turning to Crimea and Russia, you write about Russia’s longing for acceptance by Europe at the turn of the last century. Do you see that still happening with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Absolutely. What you’ve got with Putin is a sense that Russia is a great country that is not living up to its own greatness. He lived through a time when Russia was deeply humiliated and made to feel powerless, and I think a great deal of his career since has been to say, ‘Look, we’re not powerless.’ That’s one of the reasons why Sochi was so important – the sense that ‘we’ve been pushed around and they don’t take us seriously.’
Your book tallies all the bad decisions made by politicians and monarchs that led to war in 1914. Is that still going on?
I still think you can get bad decisions. Look at the series of decisions to invade and occupy Iraq. You’re also getting nations confronting each other in worrying ways. China and Japan – you have to hope that they remain sensible but if they’re going to start moving military stuff in and declaring no-fly zones, that’s upping the ante always. The more you up the stakes, the more mistakes matter.
Do you not see any developments in modern diplomacy that keep countries away from the precipice?
We have better international institutions and more of them. And we do have the capacity now to talk quickly to each other. But what we don’t have are the experienced diplomats who used to really know a country. There’s been a tendency in most countries to downplay the role of the diplomatic corps and to say, ‘do we really need diplomats?’ You’ve got it in the Harper government: ‘Do we really need all these people? They just hang out and go to cocktail parties.’
By the same token, diplomats did not prevent the First World War.
No, they didn’t. But they did actually deal with quite a few crises before World War One. You could argue that they had shown their value. I think good diplomatic services are very very useful. It’s also worrying to me what’s happening to newspapers. The media generally are closing down their overseas bureaux because they’re too expensive. What that means is we’re getting huge amounts of information but we’re not really getting the analysis and expertise that we all need.
We mistake being able to get lots of information from everywhere very quickly with actually getting knowledge.