Friday, December 15, 2017


The following book review has recently been published on the online portion of the British periodical, the Journal of Intelligence History. A hard copy will appear in the Spring issue of the journal in 2018.
The failure to prevent World War I: the unexpected Armageddon, Hall Gardner, Surrey, England, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, January 28 2015, 294 pp., $119.00 (hardback), 978-1-4724-3056-4
Hall Gardner’s book on the origins of the First World War is in many ways quite unique. As a political scientist, Gardner explores territory which in terms of a book length treatment, has been much more the terrain of historians than political scientists. And in terms of his thesis, Gardner is also treading on new territory in arguing that ‘the French reaction to the Prussian/ German seizure of Alsace-Lorraine (…) played a crucial role in Anglo-French-Russian-GermanAustrian-Italian diplomatic relations up until the outbreak of the war’. As per Gardner it was the Alsace–Lorraine factor which explains ‘how a “local” conflict in the Balkans between Serbia and Austria resulted in a global war’. Beginning in the prewar diplomacy leading up to the Franco-Prussian war, Gardner endeavors to show how the inability of both monarchical (1871–1877) and republican (1877–1914) French elites to accept the fact of the loss of Alsace–Lorraine, lead France to first to try to subvert the Bismarckian diplomatic ring of encirclement around it, and then with the fall of Bismarck from power in 1890, to gradually construct an anti-German diplomatic ring which by 1907 consisted of France, Russia and the United Kingdom. In Gardner’s telling, the primary goal of France’s ‘encirclement’ policy was per contra to historians like John Keiger, far from being a search for ‘security’ vis-à-vis Germany, was indeed nothing less than that ‘a French strategy of “encirclement” could press Berlin to return Alsace-Lorraine by diplomatic means’. Failing which, Paris was not above even ‘subtle threats of war’, in order to obtain its goal. Breaking with most political science and international relations treatments of pre-1914 diplomacy, Gardner in his relatively quick recounting of European diplomatic history in this period, puts paid (correctly to my mind) to the concept of the ‘Balance of Power’, arguing that ‘neo-realist concepts of “holding the balance of power” and of “balance of power and threat” are largely illusory’. According to our author, one of the great missed opportunities of prewar diplomacy was the failure of London, Paris and Berlin to ‘forge an Anglo-GermanFrench concert in the effort to forge a “United States of Europe”’. Unfortunately, as per Gardner it was a combination of French fixation on regaining Alsace–Lorraine coupled with German refusal to discuss some compromise formula over the two and London’s unwillingness (until it was too late) to forgo its policy of ‘splendid isolation’ which torpedoed the concept. Concerning the July 1914 crisis, Gardner supports the revisionist school of Christopher Clark et. al. in positing that the resulting war was as much caused by the Franco-Russian belligerence as Austro-German aggressiveness. Arguing that while it was Berlin that initiated the two-front war in order to pre-empt the Russo-French parallel military mobilizations … it is also clear that both France and Russia knew that they were playing with fire by supporting pan-Serb and pan-Slav ambitions and by seeking to ‘encircle’ the Austro-Hungarian and Imperial German empires with Great Britain’s backing. Gardner however goes the revisionist school one better by arguing that there was ‘significant circumstantial evidence of Russian if not French involvement’ in the Sarajevo assassination on the 28th of June of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
What is one to make of this unusual attempt by a political scientist to bravely cross the divide which separates his tribe from that of historians and in particular diplomatic historians (full disclosure: I admit to being one of the latter)? In a nutshell, one’s overall assessment is one of disappointment as the author’s stated thesis has both merit and has strangely enough never been truly explored: viz. why France post-1871 failed to reach some sort of type of rapprochement with Imperial Germany and accept the reality of the Treaty of Frankfurt? Just as Austria–Hungary learn to accept the geopolitical consequences of the Treaty of Prague in 1866 after the battle of Königgrätz? Therein lies an important book waiting to be written. In Gardner’s case, the various sins that historians normally accuse political scientists are unfortunately readily apparent: an indulgence in vapor-like political scientist verbiage which one can hardly make either heads or tails of. With an almost complete reliance upon secondary sources, the vast majority of these are in English (notwithstanding the French focus of the book), with at best a mere cursory look at the printed primary source materials and of course almost nothing by way of anything resembling archival research. Additionally, the book is littered with extraneous quotes from figures whose relation to the narrative are at best peripheral: Marx, Engels, D.E. B. Dubois, Bertrand Russell, Victor Hugo and none other than Nietzsche. The end resulting being for most readers is an unnecessary source of distraction and confusion. The structure of the book is also found wanting, as his quick recapping of European diplomatic history from 1870 to 1914 (in under 250 pages no less) fails to convey anything which has not been already recounted in such standard (and superior) treatments as found in say A. J. P. Taylor or William Langer and fails to tell the reader why exactly Delcassé and his successors were so successful in building a ‘ring of encirclement’ around Germany. Was French diplomacy and French diplomats of such superior quality that its practitioners able to run rings around its German counterparts? Or did the erratic nature of German foreign policy in the post-Bismarckian era make things easier for Delcassé and his company? The reader is not given any indication by the author his answer to this query. Similarly, given the nominal French focus of the book, there is a distinct lack of in-depth exploration of French policy in question. One would have greatly appreciated a greater exploration of the internal dynamics of French diplomacy and policy. Finally, Gardner’s idea that there was ‘significant circumstantial evidence’ of Franco-Russian involvement in the Sarajevo murders is completely without any plausible evidence of an empirical nature and best not even discussed in a serious book. Perhaps however the most serious issue that I personally have with Gardner’s book is the sheer number of errata which litter the text, indeed almost fatally so. Among some of the choicer examples: (i) the ‘Humiliation of Olmütz’ did not cause Berlin to seek ‘revenge against France’ (40); (ii) Lexa von Aerenthal was not ‘Foreign Minister’ in the 1870s (60); (iii) Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was not the ‘nephew’ of King of Prussia (42); (iv) the Gladstone Cabinet did not resign in 1886 due to the Russian threat to Afghanistan (72); (v) Bernard von Bülow was not the ‘head of the [German] Foreign Ministry under Caprivi’ (83); (vi) Joseph Chamberlain was not Colonial Secretary in 1894 (89); (vii) Lord Salisbury was not in office in 1894 (105); (viii) Marshall von Biberstein was not an Ambassador in 1896 (109); (ix) the ‘Sir Francis Hertie’ issuing threats against Germany in 1897 must surely be Francis Bertie without yet his knighthood (123); (x) Harold Nicolson, unlike his father never became a ‘British Ambassador’ (140). The errors are so voluminous that one strongly hesitates in recommending such a book to either university or graduate students (for whom the book appears to be aimed at) or the lay educated public. Which is in some sense a real shame as there is indeed
something to be said about trying to cross the divide which separates the historian from the political scientist. Something which diplomatic historians such as Paul Schroeder have shown in the past can in fact be done. Unfortunately, this book most definitely will not serve such a purpose.
Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho Royal Historical Society, London, England © 2017 Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho


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