What if?

4 August 1914. Britain declares war on Germany, joining the Entente Powers Russia and France a couple of days after war had already been declared between them and the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In August this year nations around the world will commemorate the beginning of the First World War (WWI) – ‘the Great War’. Already this week the BBC begins a four year, 2,500 hour broadcasting extravaganza about the war. No doubt there will be commentary, analysis, blame perhaps, but most of all (I hope), reflection on the folly of society and the politicians (and at the time of WWI, the heads of state including monarchs) who danced diplomatically around each other and into war.

I’ve just finished reading Sean McMeekin’s analysis*, published last year, of the lead up to the war from the initial incident – the ‘spark that set Europe aflame’ only a month later: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife of a morgantic marriage, Sophie) on the morning of Sunday 28 June in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Until now I have paid scant attention to the Great War in my historical reading . For one thing, neither of my grandfathers fought in the war, although other relatives did. By 1914, my Jackson grandfather was almost 41 and profoundly deaf. My maternal grandfather Healy, born in 1876, was 38 years old and a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police in London. So although my curiosity was never roused about what my forebears did during that war, it has always been a mystery to me how an incident in the Balkans led to the conflagration that consumer Europe, and spread beyond that continent to Africa and beyond.

While Archduke Franz was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but an unpopular one – his children had been barred from the succession because of his marriage to a commoner, and a former lady-in-waiting at that. His assassination at the hands of Serb nationalists focused the attention of Austria-Hungary once again on the Balkans, the scene of several wars in the preceding decade. One thing led to another, mobilization by Russia in support of Serbia, led to counter mobilization by Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as France fulfilling its treaty support to Russia. Britain finally entered the fray on 4 August after Germany had invaded Belgium (which the Belgians resisted), fulfilling its guarantee of Belgian neutrality under a treaty of 1839.

Using cabinet records, telegrams and the like, McMeekin’s chronological analysis of the unfolding crisis and war certainly brought to my mind a number of images: misunderstanding, lack of understanding, failure to understand, mendacity, and disingenuousness, as well incuriosity and incompetence among politicians and diplomats serving in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St Petersburg. It’s not my intention here to provide my analysis or interpretation of events, not to describe them in any detail. That information can be found from many different sources, and undoubtedly the approaching centenary of the outbreak of hostilities will  surely bring with it a new crop of books to explain the whole affair. Furthermore, once hostilities broke out, and the war dragged on for four years, a number of myths grew (and have been sustained) about the nature of the conflict, and the (in)competence of the commanders directing the war from the British side. I found this brief debunking of myths by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow rather intriguing.

However, it’s the final chapter of McMeekin’s book, Epilogue: the Question of Responsibility, that I found most interesting really. And it’s the counterfactual, ‘what if’ analysis, that ties things together. It seems that a European war was just waiting to happen. Was it inevitable; could it have been localized to the Balkans? Could Turkey have been prevented from joining the Central Powers? What would have been the stance of the British government had it not been so focused at that time with the Irish question? If there had been fewer warmongers and more astute diplomats, would war have been averted? Who knows? These are good points to raise, and help focus attention on key issues or stages in the crisis leading up to the outbreak of hostilities 100 years ago. McMeekin does not absolve from blame any of the major protagonists for starting the war. His conclusions however are not what you might think or what you have been led to believe over the past century.

Counterfactual analysis is not an unknown as far as I’m concerned – but in a totally different context.  During the last decade I spent at IRRI with responsibility for program planning, donor support and fund raising, my office managed the development and submission for funding of research for development proposals. Part of that development process was ex ante impact assessment. My dear Australian friend Debbie Templeton, who worked at IRRI from 2005 to 2008 as an Impact Assessment Specialist before returning to ACIAR in Canberra, taught me a lot about counterfactuals. In evaluating the potential of a new technology to bring about a positive outcome she emphasized to me the need to assess what would/might happen in its absence, what could be the impact of adoption, how it could accelerate the achievement of a desired status, etc. It’s the ‘what if’ approach all over again but from a different perspective.

* July 1914: Countdown to War (2103) Icon Books, London: ISBN 978-184831-593-8

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