The pendulum between peace and war among the major European states has swung slowly during the last four centuries. The two centuries of almost consistent warfare among these nationsfrom the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 until the fall of Napoleon in 1815was replaced by a relatively peaceful century, stretching until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Most striking, from 1871 to 1914, there was peace among all the great powers, the longest stretch without fighting among the larger European countries in three hundred years. That tranquillity was replaced by the bloodbath of World War I, which drew in every major and most minor European nations. Then came two decades of uneasy international peace, a period Sheehan calls the “Twenty-Year Truce,” marked by internal social and political revolutions. The truce was broken in 1939, and the resulting conflict almost destroyed Europe. The peace established in 1945, however, has held, resulting in the longest recorded period of noncombat among the major European powers.
This study, by a senior scholar of German history, provides the historical background, context, and explanation for these two generations of peaceful coexistence. Sheehan also looks at the challenges that Europe must overcome if the transformation that occurred after World War II will continue into the twenty-first century. This is not an interpretation based on the uncovering of new documentary evidence. Instead, Sheehan has reexamined, synthesized, and reinterpreted previous research. The result is a fresh and insightful examination of the history of modern Europe.
Europe at the turn of the twentieth century was a world, as Sheehan puts it, “living in peace, preparing for war.” It was a time of relative civil and international tranquillity, but it was also a time of widespread militarism. According to Sheehan, nations at the turn of the twentieth century believed their essential responsibility was national defense. The major powers of Europe were what he called war states, with large citizen armies. The public face of the nationwhether it was Germany, Austria-Hungary, or even Francewas the soldier. Because of the great expense of maintaining large armies in time of peace, an expense that included both the direct costs of equipping and otherwise paying for the armies and the indirect expense of the drain a large standing army made on the manpower available for the civilian economy, the nations utilized a system of mass reserves. (The exception to this rule was the United Kingdom.) Conscripts were initially brought into the military system for a relatively short period of time for training, and then they returned to the civilian workforce, ready to be called back to military service should the need arise. Communications and transportation technology and elaborate and sophisticated planning were additional essential elements in the evolution of the large citizen armies. Large reserve forces needed to be recalled from civilian life, equipped, and deployed swiftly. The result was a similar political and social system throughout Europe. Sheehan emphasizes that this was a period that actually encouraged a sense of optimism in the future. War was accepted as a possibility that hung over everyone’s head, but internal violence was limited, and standards of living for many Europeans rose during the century.
At the same time that Europe was involved in a massive military buildup and in perfecting a system of deploying mass armies, nations and individuals were also trying to develop ways of restraining the destruction of war. Ironically, alongside the growing militarism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a growing and strong pacifist strain. Writers such as the Polish industrial warfare expert Ivan Bloch and the British journalist Normal Angell warned of the destructive nature of modern warfare. Their argument for turning away from war was not, unlike the Quakers, for example, based on any moral objection to war. Instead, they argued that modern war was so horrible that it would destroy social and economic stability. There were also some stirrings among governments. In...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)