Columnist Michael Barone may well be wrong about his analogy between the mistakes of European leaders in 1914 and the current situation. However, to refute the argument of a recent historian by referring to arguments from the 1920s, as was done in a recent letter, is hardly persuasive.
The notion that France was thirsting for revenge has been thoroughly debunked by French historians.
The idea of an alliance with Russia had been pursued by Napoleon III long before there was a Germany.
That the Europeans were armed to the teeth, so war was therefore inevitable, is not supported by an examination of their defense expenditures. On the contrary, their socialist-dominated parliaments systematically deprived their armies of the manpower and the weaponry their generals claimed they needed.
In the reasonably free societies of turn-of-the-century Europe, it is easy to find someone saying anything that you want. Some people said a future war would be short, others said it would be impossible because workers would not fight workers, others asserted that we were so advanced that war was obsolete. These remarks demonstrate intellectual freedom, but they hardly reveal either policies or popular moods.
Similarly, the remarks about the so-called ‘von Schlieffen plan’ stem from the Model T era. The key documents, which totally contradict the notion, didn’t appear until the 1950s, even in German; they were then, rather comically, mistranslated into English, with key passages completely garbled.
What we do know is that the elected leaders of the major powers were basically career politicians with extremely parochial interests whose only demonstrable abilities were manipulating the political system and blaming others for their failure.
As one of France’s leading generals jibed sarcastically at the president of that country, ‘You of all people know that France is neither led nor governed.’
As someone who has written extensively on both world wars, I think ‘sleepwalking’ (a term first used by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch in 1932) is far too charitable a characterization, but that is another story.