Book Review: The Great War for Peace
By William Mulligan
Yale University Press, 2014
One of the most reliable and most invigorating outcomes of an anniversary-fueled book-wave like the one currently sweeping through US and UK publishing in response to the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I is a matter of simple demographics: if you have fifty new books looking at an old and well-studied subject, at least one or two of those books will be iconoclastic – and iconoclasm is the lifeblood of historiography.
Probably the foremost example of this in the current WWI season is new from Yale University Press: Irish historian William Mulligan’s The Great War for Peace, which takes a proposition absurd on its face – that the First World War actually had a net benefit for the cause and very conception of peace in the modern world – and argues it with such muscular tenacity that even the most skeptical reader will find himself questioning old assumptions.
Mulligan’s central claim is that the best-known trappings of the tenuous peace that ended the war – the Treaty of Versailles, the Locarno treaties, the League of Nations – weren’t entirely the emblems of petty, vindictive failure two generations of historians have taken them to be, but rather signposts on a new and uncharted road to a wider definition of peace itself:
Peace as a political process rather than simply ending a state of war was not, of course, an invention of the First World War. At Vienna, and arguably before that in Munster and Osnabruck in 1648 and Utrecht in 1713, European states established institutions, conventions, and norms that provided a process for the maintenance of peace and the adjustment of future conflicts of interest. What had changed was the increasingly expansive conception of peace, the prescriptions in treaties, the unspoken diplomatic assumptions, and the dense network of international and domestic institutions designed to sustain peace.
Mulligan does his best to make the case that the overblown, apocalyptic rhetoric WWI inspired from the first in all its participants went a long way toward re-setting the zeitgeist to think of ‘peace’ as encompassing not just border ceasefires but a wider set of claims involving international law, constitutional reform, and even minority rights.
It’s an optimistic, essentially humanist claim about the cataclysm that gave shape to the 20th century, and like all such claims, it looks temptingly naïve. Even Mulligan’s own ancillary conclusions – almost all of which are grippingly good – tend to undercut the premise he’s trying to push, as in the all-important case of postwar Germany:
There is a strong case that Germany emerged more secure from the war. The largest economy in Europe, with small states on its eastern and southern flanks, and a weakened France to its west, Germany had the potential to re-emerge as the dominant European power.
He readily admits that such a view wasn’t widespread at the time of the war’s end, but whether the point is right or wrong, it’s certainly true that Germany emerged angrier from the war, in large part due directly to the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty and the accords it spawned stand revealed in the light of a century’s hindsight as very much more international business as usual; it looks no different – certainly no clearer or broader or better – than a thousand other such treaties imposed by the victors on the vanquished throughout human history. Surely there’s an argument to be made that its rhetoric was inflated only in proportion to the carnage it was attempting to redress?
By July of 1918 Germany had endured one million casualties (and half a million more would be claimed by the Spanish Flu in just that month alone), and yet in less than a generation, the country was making war on the same old unenlightened world it had attacked in 1914. If Mulligan wants to see something redemptive in such a pattern, he’s certainly not alone. In 1917, Walter Lippmann tried just as hard to see an epic sea-change taking place:
The world is not only at war … but in revolution as well. That revolution goes deeper than any man had dared to guess. The overturn in Russia, the intervention of America, the stirring of China, stupendous as they are, may be merely the prelude to events more drastic still.
More drastic things were indeed coming – more drastic by several orders of magnitude. But they weren’t different things in their conception, and a glance at today’s headlines bitterly demonstrates that the broader ideas of peace Mulligan imagines have never had any purchase on the general run of humanity. His book is a valiant thing – by far the most fruitfully provocative study of World War I yet published in this busy anniversary – but the picture it paints of a perfectible mankind is all the more heartbreaking for being the age-old humanist dream instead of anybody’s reality.