⚡ Understand that factors that led Europe from peace to WW1 and, ultimately, to WW2 and beyond.

The cover of The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillanThe War that Ended Peace | Book by Margaret MacMillan

Until recently, I knew very little about World War 1. I understood the outcome and (to some extent) its connection to WW2, but I really didn’t know the details.

Part of this was probably because WW2 steals the limelight — it was a ‘modern’ war, with tanks, planes and other modern technology. It had lots of memorable turning points, characters who stuck in the mind and a clear connection to the present day. WW1, in contrast, was a war of attrition — fighting in trenches in an endless state of stalemate. Although it did have characters (including some, like Winston Churchill, who would be involved again in WW2), they don’t seem to stick in the mind as readily as those from WW2.

But the reality (as I’ve discovered from this book and another book by the same author), is that the events of WW1 and its aftermath really set the ball rolling for many of the key events of the 20th century. Moving further into the past might seem like a strange way to understand the present, but it’s actually really powerful. Although you can understand the basics of present events in isolation, tracing their roots allows you to see how seemingly disconnected present-day events actually share the same source. In many cases, this source is WW1.

Like Margaret MacMillan’s other WW1-focused book, Paris 1919, The War that Ended Peace does a brilliant job of analysing cause and effect whilst also presenting the personalities of those involved, creating an engaging narrative. It describes the state of affairs in the years preceding the war, showing how tension slowly built between the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy). It looks at how those in charge were either unwilling or incapable of stopping the slide towards war, whilst highlighting certain unfortunate circumstances that made more war likely. The same themes (Britain and Germany’s naval race, Austria and Russia’s rivalry in the Balkans, etc.) are returned to multiple times, showing their interconnectedness and solidifying your understanding.

Although the subject is incredibly complex, the key ideas are presented clearly. After reading you’ll understand Europe better (including the continent’s geography) and you’ll see the root of many of the 20th century’s big events.