In This Review

14-18: Understanding the Great War
14-18: Understanding the Great War
By Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, translated by Ca
Hill and Wang, 2002, 272 pp.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
By Margaret Macmillan
Random House, 2002, 560 pp.

The role of World War I in shaping the twentieth century is becoming ever more obvious. It triggered the collapse of the three major empires of eastern Europe and central Asia: Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. It gave rise to the Russian Revolution and to the Soviet Union; it prompted the first major U.S. incursion into world affairs; and it both failed to resolve the problems of the Balkans and generated new ones in the Middle East. These perspectives on World War I have become even more immediate since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is small wonder, then, that in a 1998 opinion poll, French students ranked the war as the second most important event of the last century, trailing behind only its successor. In fact, the agenda in 1914 was so important that much of it is still on the table.

As commonplace as that realization may now be, however, it has not prompted a scholarly reassessment of the war itself. Its connotations of waste, futility, and military incompetence have remained remarkably persistent and indeed were restated in the two main British-authored works published to mark the 80th anniversary of 1918: John Keegan's World War I and Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War. For these authors, as for many of the conflict's participants, the war was a behemoth, possessed of a life and dynamic of its own and creating unintended consequences independent of the designs of either statesmen or generals. The war, or so the story goes, proved Clausewitz's much-abused aphorism spectacularly wrong: it was not a political instrument, but an end in itself.


It is high time to lay this phantom to rest. As Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker emphasize in 14-18, historians brought up in the shadow of the war -- Marc Bloch, Pierre Chaunu, and Raoul Girardet -- were in no doubt as to its definitive meaning. The invasion of 1914 propelled France, as the war did other belligerents, into existential crisis. Its citizens saw the war as one in defense not only of the nation but also of the civilization that France embodied. And in Paris 1919 Margaret MacMillan argues -- both robustly and rightly -- that Woodrow Wilson brought to the peace settlement an ambition and a vision that were consonant with the war's scale and significance. But the war's meaning languished in the 1930s and died in 1939 as World War II proved that its predecessor had not, after all, been the war to end all wars. The opportunity to recover World War I's sense of purpose first arose (but was not taken) in 1964, when the historian Fritz Fischer argued that Germany had both sought the war and fought it to dominate Europe and carve out empires on the continent and farther afield. He detected a continuity in German history that linked the Kaiserreich to Hitler's Third Reich. Fischer may now stand corrected -- most historians today believe that Germany did not deliberately plan to go to war -- but it is extraordinary that so few historians at the time used the notion of German aggression to validate the fighting on the western front.

In contrast, both 14-18 and Paris 1919, each of them extraordinarily lucid on complex themes, provide the ammunition with which to make another, more sophisticated attempt to recover the war's significance. Both books are determined to avoid determinism: the knowledge of World War II must not be allowed to shape the search for guilty parties in World War I. Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker's 14-18 is divided into three sections, titled "Violence," "Crusade," and "Mourning." The first is concerned with the suffering and loss both at the front and -- just as important -- in the rear; the second examines the ideological underpinnings of the conflict, from defensive patriotism to religious faith; and the third looks at grief and bereavement, whether expressed collectively or personally. Whereas 14-18 is a slim, distilled work, MacMillan's Paris 1919 is more weighty -- a sustained study of six months' hectic negotiating as the allies tried to reach consensus among themselves on the demands that they would make of the defeated Central Powers. The fact that the peace settlement could not deliver on the more utopian strains in its agenda was not itself, MacMillan argues, the cause for its ultimate failure. Nor would she agree with the authors of 14-18, who believe that the undoing of the peace conference lay in the contradiction implicit in the participants' use of World War I to justify the proceedings while endeavoring to make war impossible in the future. Rather, MacMillan is much more indulgent of the statesmen of 1919. She believes that the failure of Versailles was due less to the bickering, vengefulness, and far-flung sentiments prevalent in 1919 than to the irresolution of the negotiators' successors and their unwillingness to enforce the settlement's terms.

Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker are directors of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, and their book offers a splendidly readable synoptic introduction to the comparative and interdisciplinary work of that research center. The translation is smooth and, by and large, free of technical misunderstandings. Since the historial's focus is on mentalities, not international relations, its directors might be expected to join in the vale of tears that characterizes so much writing on the war. In fact, their approach in 14-18 is much more hard-headed.

For one thing, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker warn against an overreliance on the memoirs of soldiers who were not trained historians. Given that ten million servicemen died in the war, many of these witnesses must themselves have been killers. And yet surprisingly few describe the business of killing, and even fewer of their relatives and descendants have commemorated them in those terms. Instead, they have become victims. As the authors point out, the attempts to procure posthumous pardons for those executed for military offenses show how contemporary notions of political correctness can be used to distort the past. That there were miscarriages of justice, especially by today's standards, is very probable. Yet it is at least as likely that many of those sentenced were recidivists who were threatening the good order and discipline of their armies in a time of national crisis. As an example of this modern-day trend of exculpation, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker cite the absurd mayor of Craonne, France, who, on welcoming Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to the Chemin des Dames on November 5, 1998, announced that the Nivelle offensive of April 1917 -- the trigger for mutinies in the French army -- was "the first crime against humanity." This same sort of reverse and perverse logic traces the roots of the Holocaust to Verdun.

The authors of 14-18 do not dispute the brutalizing effects of war in general and of World War I in particular. But unlike the mayor of Craonne, they make connections that work forward, not backward. In the first part of the book, they discuss the failure of international law or any other agency to protect nonbelligerents: prisoners of war, civilians living under German occupation, those deported as forced laborers, and children, who had been instructed in the rightness of their own nations and the wrongs inflicted on them. These are, to borrow from the title of another book on this theme by Becker, World War I's "forgotten" victims. Their postwar neglect was what enabled the persecution and extermination of those who found themselves in the same position in World War II.


Although 14-18 strives for breadth, a weakness of the book lies in the influence of its national origins, which are ultimately revealed in its attempts at continuity. The significance of World War I for France has to be set against its defeat, disgrace, and division in World War II. In light of this humiliation, no other major participant in World War I has more reason than France to privilege the damage and death of the first war over the second -- unless, like Turkey, it managed to stay aloof from World War II entirely. Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker tilt the scales of impact toward World War I by arguing that, with the exception of Russia, each nation's losses per day were greater in 1914-18 than in 1939-45. But what distinguished both world wars from earlier conflicts was less the number of losses per day than the fact that losses occurred every day -- and night -- of the year. In previous wars, battles were defined events that took place on single days, with climatic and logistic considerations preventing active hostilities for much of the year. In the two world wars, however, fighting was continuous; it was never really all quiet on the western front. Thus the length of the war mattered, and for several belligerents, if not for France, World War II was longer.

This concentration on France produces some skewed judgments and generalizations that do not weaken the book in overall terms but do vitiate its comparative dimension. The authors explain the Ottomans' massacre of the Armenians in 1915 as a response to the Allied landings at Gallipoli. But they overlook the fact that the Russian advance across the Caucasus into eastern Anatolia was what made the Armenians seem an immediate threat. Switching to the western front, they write that raids by small groups were abandoned quite quickly; in fact, British commander-in-chief Douglas Haig deliberately adopted a raiding policy in 1916 to harass the enemy, establish dominance over "no man's land," gather intelligence, "blood" inexperienced troop formations by exposing them to combat, and disrupt the tendency of trench warfare to lapse into "live and let live." And the third section of the book stumbles over its focus on France and the United Kingdom despite its raft of insights. For example, the unity of time for the yearly commemoration of World War I -- established by the authors as November 11 -- in fact represents an Anglo-French bias and does not work for many other states that were liberated or found their identities on different days. Above all, it does not work for Germany, which had to accommodate the revolution of November 9, 1918, and then Kristallnacht on that same day 20 years later.

In addition, the fact that Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker describe World War I as a "total" war because of the violence it visited on civilians creates two problems. The first is the lack of precise evidence; the second is a muddled concept of "total war" itself. In regard to the first, 14-18 implicitly poses but never answers a key question: How many civilians were actually killed in World War I? Recent scholarship has provided some answers for Belgium as well as for France, but Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker fall back on a report written by Rodolphe Archibald Reiss of the University of Lausanne in 1915 about the Austrian atrocities in Serbia. Furthermore, there are no reliable figures for East Prussia and Russia, let alone the Ottoman Empire. Even the impact of the allied blockade on civilian mortality rates among the Central Powers is in dispute.

France is likewise instrumental in generating confusion around the notion of "total war." During World War I, it alone used the phrase "total war" as part of the Jacobin and revolutionary rhetoric employed by the Georges Clemenceau government in 1917-18. Still, the context was one of economic mobilization and political authority, and it was within this framework that the expression acquired currency after the war. Thus understood, the war's purpose was totalitarian, and it was directed internally, not externally. What Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker understand by "total war," however, is a different, later concept, derived from World War II for precisely the reason they identify -- that the nonbelligerent victims of 1914-18 were forgotten.

The authors also attribute the concept of "total war" to Clausewitz, but his conception of "absolute war," which is presumably what they are referring to, had nothing explicit to say about the treatment of nonbelligerents. Clausewitz's own experience of war against revolutionary France showed that politics enabled the state to maximize its use of force rather than limit it, not least in what had become by 1812-13 a war for national survival. In other words, pace Keegan and others, "total war" and the use of war for political objectives do not need to be mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be convergent. The central section of 14-18 makes this point clear. One cannot begin to understand the meaning of World War I without grasping that there were big ideas at its heart, open-ended concepts such as international law, national self-identity, religion, militarism, and civilization. The implication of Audoin-Rouzeau's and Becker's argument on this point is that Fischer's work was a red herring because it was tied up with the baggage of imperialism, territorial acquisition, and aggression. In fact, for the major powers that entered in 1914, the internal dynamic of the war was defensive and was powered less by definable objectives such as frontiers and more by fundamental beliefs.


World War I lost its meaning, therefore, not only because of the massive casualties its conduct incurred but also, and more directly, because its peace settlement apparently failed to deliver on the expectations with which it was encumbered. As MacMillan points out, in 1919 Paris became the focus for a whole range of aspirations that went beyond the diplomatic and territorial -- from female suffrage to socialism, from civil rights to racial equality. When Wilson set sail for Europe on December 4, 1918, he was not just bringing the wisdom and idealism of the new world to redress the balance of the old. He was carrying the hopes and aspirations of Europeans themselves, as their enthusiastic welcome when he reached the other shore made abundantly clear. The ambitiousness of the Paris peace conference thus fully reflected the scale of the conflict that had preceded it.

MacMillan observes that the only precedent that the diplomats of 1919 could refer to was the 1815 Congress of Vienna. But there were two cardinal differences. The first was wrought by democracy: whereas in Vienna the peacemakers aspired to restore rather than innovate, in Paris they sought to create nothing less than a new, liberal international order. Second, the very connotations of the word "international" had changed; what had in 1815 implied "European" now meant "global." To address these challenges Wilson had two ideas, both of them admirable but neither well defined. First, he championed national self-determination. Yet given that the United States was itself made up of immigrant communities, his presumption against multiethnic empires was both arrogant and naive. Insofar as he recognized that there would be problems for and from the minorities marooned in the "wrong" nation-states -- MacMillan reckons 30 million in Europe alone when the peacemakers had finished -- he relied on his other overarching concept, the League of Nations, to sort things out.

The Paris peace conference was a lengthy and complex process, running on for six months. The details were thrashed out by regional committees, but the "big four" -- Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, and Wilson himself -- made the key decisions. In reality, however, few issues were truly self-contained. In April 1919, Italy walked out of the conference in protest over the claims of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia's precursor) to territory that Rome had been promised by the allies four years earlier. Then Japan was outraged by the refusal of the United Kingdom, backed by the United States, to accept its proposed clause on racial equality. But neither the British nor the American position on race was as influenced by a dread of the "yellow peril" as the rantings of Australia's prime minister (whom Wilson loathed) suggested. Instead, MacMillan implies, their attitudes were determined by their racist perceptions of the black populations of Africa and America itself. The episode showed the limits to Wilsonian democracy as well as the penalties incumbent in trying to regulate the affairs of the entire world.

In Japan the allies confronted a second partner that might have followed Italy out of the conference. Averting another embarrassing walkout, pragmatism made a casualty of the principle of national self-determination. Japan was thus bought off with the concession of Shantung in China. And when Gabriele d'Annunzio seized Fiume for Italy, the allies did not respond. Both Japan and Italy ended up signing the Treaty of Versailles, but, as these early events foreshadowed, in due course both would also play key roles in undermining the League of Nations.

The elements of the peace conference were therefore interrelated. This story has the potential to get lost in detail and confusion. MacMillan's principal achievement in Paris 1919 therefore is to make a comprehensible and riveting discussion out of intractable material. Her characterization of the leading personalities is superb and frequently backed up by telling quotations, and she provides clarity by examining the role of each nation separately. The abandonment of chronology, however, does render the horse-trading less evident, and lost is any comprehensive overview of the diplomatic process itself. This is a book shaped not by an overarching idea about international relations but rather by the histories of individual regions.

A major strength of MacMillan's book lies in two key points and their implications for assessing the peacemakers' achievements. First, a great deal was settled on the ground and not at the table, especially in central and eastern Europe. The "big four" accepted new states such as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes; Czechoslovakia; and Poland as faits accomplis because by mid-1919, and certainly later, they lacked the military muscle to resist. Second, the lack of an outright victory on the battlefield -- there was no Waterloo in this war -- meant that the peace settlement had to impose one. Thus the allies at Versailles tried to perform two functions at once: to conclude the war and to create a new world order. The result was a compromise.

MacMillan follows recent scholarship in arguing that the deal was not doomed to fail just by virtue of being a compromise. There was no inevitable route from 1918 to 1939. To be sure, Versailles showed that war was an effective agent of political change: the new states created were evidence of that. In fact, as Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker argue, the peace settlement set out to delegitimize both war and Germany but ended up relegitimizing both. As MacMillan makes clear, however, it was Germany's exploitation of the war-guilt clause that ultimately deprived the treaty of legitimacy. The clause was included not as an end in itself but as a legal justification for reparations. The victory of Weimar Germany's foreign policy was both to wrench war guilt from its specific context and to evade the burden of reparations.

In this interpretation MacMillan is surely right: the other defeated nations also had to accept the charge of war guilt but, unlike Germany, did not let that become a bone of contention. Still, MacMillan does not lay the entire burden for the failure of Versailles on German manipulation. The British negotiators wobbled, and they did so in 1919, at the peace conference itself. MacMillan follows the current trend in damning John Maynard Keynes, whose work, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published just before Christmas 1919, was an instant bestseller. Its fluent and pithy prose, the credentials of its author as a member of the British negotiating team, and its implicit pacifism were the public front for Keynes' private uncertainties about the direction of his own life. Nonetheless, Keynes got in first and, as is common for writers in this position, established the orthodoxy that MacMillan and other scholars have had to challenge. Furthermore, Keynes was by no means an isolated figure on the British team in 1919. MacMillan quotes the words of the group's most influential member, Jan Christian Smuts, uttered at the meeting of the British delegation held on June 1, 1919, as the Allies awaited the German response to their terms: the treaty "would produce

political and economic chaos in Europe for a generation." Already the British were blaming the French, not the Germans. Yet, even the French were not all persuaded of the rightness of Clemenceau's official position. MacMillan does not seem to have read a book that has recently been republished in France as a companion to Keynes' diatribe: Les Consequences Politiques de la Paix by Jacques Bainville of the right-wing political group Action Francaise. Bainville was as persuaded of the long-term political problems that would be born of the Versailles settlement as Keynes was of the economic.


MacMillan's story covers only six months of one year, but the efforts of the 1919 peacemakers, as well as the consequences of the war itself, effectively bring current predicaments into focus. Wilson's determination to create a liberal world order is still the central driving force behind American foreign policy. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty and so played its part in undermining the central pillar of Wilson's dream, the League of Nations. Many would argue of that organization, as they would of the United Nations, that its weakness was not conceptual but practical, that it needed teeth to be effective. To that extent there is no middle way between unilateralism and multilateralism. Although successful multilateral initiatives did not come to fruition for decades, it seems that Wilson colonized Europe sufficiently to make its modern inhabitants instinctive multilateralists, just as they are instinctive liberals.

That the peacemakers did not deliver the full package in 1919 should not surprise us, and our continuing failure to fulfill the same objectives should certainly temper our criticism of what they did achieve. Moreover, a consideration of the relationship between means and ends in World War I should remind the United States why its European partners remain cautious about using war to further big ideas. Whereas France deployed "total war" in defense of its central values, the United States managed to escape that syllogism in both world wars. It fought to further big ideas and, in doing so, confronted its enemies with the consequences of "total war," but it has never faced such consequences on its own domestic front. No war, at least none since 1865, has pushed the nation to the brink of existential crisis. For Europeans, if not for Americans, the terrorist attacks of September 11 have not altered that imbalance. Instead they appear to have made the United States readier than its allies to consider the use of military force and thereby exposed the fault lines between the lingering unilateralist tendencies of the former and the basic multilateral progression of the latter.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Hew Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, Oxford University, and author of The First World War: To Arms.
  • More By Hew Strachan