A World on The Edge: Echoes of 1914 in 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

President Barack Obama visits the WWI Flanders Field Cemetery in Waregem on March 26, 2014. The cemetery is the final resting place for 368 Americans, most of whom were killed during World War I. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

During his visit to The Hague on Tuesday, President Barack Obama promised to use the U.S. military to protect NATO nations against outside threats. 

"That’s what NATO is all about," he explained. "When it comes to a potential military response, that is defined by NATO membership."

President Obama likely meant to reassure NATO members in close proximity to Russia, who have warily watched Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but as President Obama stated, "History has a funny way of moving in twists and turns, and not just in a straight line."

History also tends to repeat itself, as Margaret MacMillan knows well. MacMillan is an international professor of history at Oxford University and the author of "The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914." She reflects on the fateful summer of 1914 when World War I began—a period when European tensions regarding territory and ethnicity engulfed the continent.

"I think we get used to peace and we like to think it's a normal state of affairs," says Professor MacMillan. "In Europe before 1914, they had an extraordinarily long period of peace, punctuated of course with short wars. They got used to the sense that peace was normal and they could get through the crises. Perhaps we've had something of the same since the end of the Cold War. Goodness knows there's been conflicts, but they haven't spilled over into much larger ones."

Professor MacMillan says there's always been a tension between forces pushing for stability and opposing forces that may disrupt international stability. Nowadays, however, MacMillan says signs that stability may be rattled are much more apparent than in days past. 

"I think we recognize, perhaps more clearly than we might have done in the 1990s, just how much people can be moved by passion—whether it's national passion, nationalism or religiously inspired fervor," she says. "We're not always rational human beings, and we take very seriously the ways in which we identify ourselves."

MacMillan speculates that this type of intense national passion might be a result of globalization—as the world becomes more integrated, she says people tend to cling to their national and local identities as a way to stand out. In addition to national identity pushing forward disruption, MacMillan says there is another factor that can play a role: Pure accident.

"I think we should never underestimate the sheer role of accident," she says. "In the last months of the crisis before Europe went to war, there was a series of very human mistakes—miscalculations, failures to understand what the other side might do. I think they could've avoided the accident, I don't think it had to happen. I think we have to hope today that we will have leaders who are wise enough, who are sensible enough not to move precipitously, who are prepared to try and understand the other side and prepared always to talk to the other side. I think we shouldn't be too pessimistic—we have a lot of goodwill in the world, a lot of sense that people want peace to continue. But I think we should really be careful because we should recognize that accidents do happen."

MacMillan says that President Obama is reminiscent of Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the years before World War II. She says that Chamberlain was "unfairly attacked as an appeaser," and nowadays, President Obama is focusing on bringing different countries from the West together to act with a unified response.

"But it's not easy—until there is a very clear and pressing threat, we tend to always think of our own national interests," she says. "What Obama is doing, I think quite rightly, is signaling that there really is a concern about the way in which Russia is behaving, but (Obama's) trying to keep the door open to more negotiations and trying, I hope, to show the Russians that they really have to be careful not to go too far."

Though President Obama is trying to temper the Russians through a unified response, Professor MacMillan says that the next steps are in the hands of President Putin, someone she describes as a "change agent" and "a passionate nationalist."

"He's someone who's been deeply humiliated, like many Russians have been, about what happened to the Soviet Union after the beginning of 1990s—the way it fell to pieces, the way Russia was left as a much smaller country with huge economic problems and much diminished influence internationally," says MacMillan.

While President Obama might resemble Neville Chamberlin, when comparing 2014 to days past MacMillan says there is no clear parallel to Putin—but he does resemble Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm, says MacMillan, felt that Germany was not getting the international recognition it deserved, something that President Putin currently feels about Russia.

"You saw it in his speech last week," says the professor. "'We've had enough of being pushed around. We've had enough of being told what to do.' I think this is something we all have to understand in the West—this is a very deeply motivated man who wants to restore what he sees as Russian grandeur and greatness."

MacMillan says that much of President Obama's first term was focused on Asia—something that she views as a mistake. In terms of alliances, trade, security and common interests, the professor says that Europe is hugely important and perhaps should have been paid more attention to in recent years, despite the high international bets hedged in places like China. 

"We tended to assume that Russia would just be content to just chug along as it was, sort of on the edge of Europe and not really all that important," she says. "I think that was a mistake. I think we failed to recognize the depth of the sense of humiliation in Russia, and it may be too late to do much about it now. I think what is important now is to have a strong and robust response to what is going on in Russia and make it clear to Putin that if he tries to move into Eastern Ukraine, that Russia will suffer consequences."


Margaret MacMillan

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [8]

Althea Fusco from White Plains

I am having my students listen to this wonderful interview when we begin to explore the causes and effects of WWI in my Social Studies HS classes. This interview was well done and make many connects that my students need to know. Thanks so much.

Mar. 29 2014 11:53 AM

I can not imagine Obama being happy with comparison to Neville Chamberlain. Although at this point looks like he has won the award for most incompetent foreign policy by US President ever.

Mar. 26 2014 03:13 PM
Larry Fisher from Backin Brooklyn, N.Y.

If history repeats itself, it is because man is still an idiot.

When discussion of a world war begins, someone is manipulating the situation for self interest.

If the world will repeat itself and head into war, it will be because there are some people who want war. The world is so different than a hundred years ago, that if any kind of world war would start now, it should be seen as an old blueprint read by strategists who will gain power and wealth by manipulation and not by some random chance of fate. "History repeats itself," should become obsolete as man's intelligence and knowledge increases.

We are on the brink of a new world: technology and science will continue to stretch man further into unknown fears and potentials. With that fear, comes a drive by some to go backwards: to DE-evolve.
With the potential of technology and science, we can treat our diseases:both psychological and physical.

Wait to you see what the genetic biologists are going to do in the next ten years. Five Years! Two Years!!
We must continue to move forwards and not be scared.

So, one question is, "Who gains by having a war?" Oh and, "How do we clearly expose those who are willing to live in a boring cliche world of "History repeats itself."

Mar. 26 2014 02:58 PM
Stan Brown from Macon, Georgia

Nice to hear President Obama reference Moina Michaels. She was from Georgia, and we have a memorial highway dedicated to her down here. She's known as the "Poppy Lady"--evidently, she came up with the idea of the American Legion Auxiliary selling poppies around Nov. 11 each year.

Mar. 26 2014 02:22 PM
ML from Miami FL

Professor MacMillan seems to [almost] excuse Putin's behavior by calling him a passionate nationalist. But Putin has condensed all political power into his own position and most economic power into the hands of oligarchs who he maintains a certain amount of control over. That isn't nationalism unless she's referring to a nation called Putin. Russia seems to have this theory that stepping on the necks of other nations is the best way to become a powerful nation. A "passionate nationalist" would spend all this time and energy inward to motivate Russians to innovate and create and build and become the example of a great nation. I think there are ways to stop Putin without making Russians look bad and without starting WW3.

Anyways, everyone knows in a WW3 the Chinese will be the bad guys. Right?

Mar. 26 2014 12:56 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

Excellent interview! I listen more and more to The Takeaway, because the show seems to be finding the serious scholars and thinkers, the people who really do have things to say that one needs to hear.

Concerning the era before 1914, she paints a picture of apparent satisfied stability, with the underlying reality unstable, with many irreconcilable stresses and strains, ready to fracture in any of several possible ways.

Feels very similar indeed to our era. Very similar indeed.

I tend to focus more on the economic and financial aspects, although surely these interact with political and military aspects. Concerning the former, there is I believe at present a cross-collateralization of debt without precedent in human history, backstopped supposedly by the good faith and credit of the US treasury and other national treasuries, which means us, the great mass of unwashed peasants.

Clearly this is a fantasy, maintained only by the so far grudgingly shared willingness to believe in it. I think some day somebody will short-pay their VISA bill by $5.00, and quite literally within hours all governments, all banks, all super-corporations and so forth will be bankrupt and thrashing around in their death throes.

A sudden shattering several levels of magnitude beyond that of 1914. I'd love to get Professor MacMillan's views on this somewhat apocalyptic viewpoint.

Mar. 26 2014 12:31 PM
M from Queens

One of the most substantive and informative interviews I've heard.

Mar. 26 2014 10:01 AM
Ed from Larchmont

In 1917 Mary appeared to the three children at Fatima, one thing she said was 'The war will end soon ... War is a punishment for sin'. Now that we're turning to sin again large-scale, in particular in our attacks on life, war is predictable. It also explains the appearance of the Islamicists who want to do in the West.

Mar. 26 2014 09:19 AM

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