THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The secret battle to end the Great War, 1916-1917
352pp. Public Affairs. $18.99.
Many and various are the books on the origins of the First World War. The number of books that explain why it dragged on for four-and-a-quarter bloody years is much smaller. Why did it prove impossible to achieve a negotiated peace in 1916? That is the central question posed by Philip Zelikow in his enthralling book.
The Road Less Traveled is not a fashionable work. It is a masterpiece of diplomatic history, a sub-field now largely extinct at American universities. It is also a page-turning narrative, based on meticulous archival scholarship, yet a pleasure to read, the characters deftly drawn, the locations vividly realized, from Woodrow Wilson's professorial White House study, with its bookshelves and leather armchairs, to the German military headquarters at Pless (now Pszczyna) in Silesia--a place of "heavy luxury but ... no comfort or convenience", in the words of "Daisy" Cornwallis-West, the Englishwoman who had married the Prince of Pless in 1891.
The lives of a staggering number of young men hung in the balance in 1916. Had Wilson succeeded in initiating a peace conference in, say, November 1916--had there been an armistice the following month--the death toll of the war would have been vastly reduced. The British War Office's postwar statistics state that just under a quarter of a million British servicemen were killed in 1917 and 1918, and 1.1 million wounded. The equivalent figures for the German army were 275,000 and 1.8 million. A great many young lives--just under half of all British war deaths were of boys and men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four--would have been saved, to say nothing of mutilations avoided, if only there had been a negotiated peace. Our age, which (as the case of Afghanistan illustrates) has found relatively small wars even harder to end, would do well to think more deeply about 1916.
Imagine, too, what horrors might have been averted if the war had ended two years earlier. Would not the tsarist regime in Russia have avoided complete collapse, depriving Lenin and his vicious cronies of the opportunity to found their Bolshevik tyranny? Would not a shorter war have meant fewer Italian and German fascists in the 1920s?
It used to be argued, especially by German historians influenced by Fritz Fischer's Krieg der Illusionen (1969), that all attempts to halt the war had foundered on the intransigence of the leaders of imperial Germany. I recall coming across many files about a possible Verstandigungsfrieden (negotiated peace) as a graduate student working in the Hamburg archives. I paid too little attention to them, not realizing then that a historian should be as interested in what did not happen as in what did. Zelikow's principal contribution is to turn the old argument on its head, showing that, of all the combatants, it was the Germans who were the most seriously interested in the idea of a peace brokered by the...