Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College, discusses her new book ‘The War That Ended Peace’ with DPhil student Katharine Brooks. The book is a re-examination of the causes of World War One and seeks to answer the question of why the long peace preceding 1914 failed to hold. Katharine asks what Professor Macmillan felt she has been able to add to our understandings of World War One, what parallels can be drawn from 1914 to 2014 and why academia still fails to come to an agreement on the causes of this most important of world events.
much as I enjoyed this interview (and your book), I find your comments on the role played by honour somewhat unconvincing for 2 reasons:
1. As Vernon Bogdanor has argued (I think), Britain could not have abandoned Belgium and France to be overrun by Germany for obvious strategic reasons which have nothing to do with honour, even if Grey cited it and actually believed in it. A German commitment not to go to war with Britain would have carried little credibility, especially after it had totally ignored its guarantee of Belgium sovereignty.
2. In your comparison with today’s USA, you conflate honour with credibility. When a US president says his country must react or lose credibility, I take it to mean something very practical – that a failure to react will embolden other bullies to take advantage of American quiescence. That seems to me a very different thing indeed from the abstract concept of honour which underlay continental duelling culture pre-1914, which was not about deterrence at all, otherwise fighting with “ruffians” would not have been proscribed, but encouraged. In extremis, the duellist effectively commits suicide – hardly very effective deterrence! Credibility is about cold calculation and is rational, honour is idealistic, unthinking, and replaces calculation with the code of honour.