Among his many popular, controversial and and voluminous texts on European history, British historian A. J. P.  Taylor produced one slender book, a pamphlet almost, with an enormous subject: How Wars Begin. What began as a series of lectures on BBC radio in 1977 were, as he says, cleaned up for syntax and published.

Books How Wars BeginIt turns out that, despite the implication of the title, this is not a Grand Unified Theory of how wars begin. Rather, it is quick ticking off of events prior to each of 8 European wars which led to the actual armed conflict, not all of them the standard list.  An initial, additional point is that the actual act of war, the signing of a declaration, often has little to do with its deeper causes. To show this he offers an interesting, if casual, summary not of all wars but of those in Europe beginning with the Napoleonic and ending with the Cold war, including interesting excursions into the Crimean War, Italian independence and other lesser known events.  As in much of his writing — most (in)famously in  The Origins of the Second World War– he wants to dislodge received wisdom by proposing new readings of history.  A theme he returns to repeatedly is that aggression is less planned than is claimed. “Wars,” he says, ” in fact have sprung more from apprehension than from a lust for war or for conquest .”

The clearest exposition of this is his claim that none of the belligerents in World War I wanted the war, that it “…came about mainly because of railway timetables.”  A summary of the argument is included in this book and given more context and detail in his 1966 War By Timetable.  Essentially it is that fear in one country of mobilization in another led to mobilization plans of its own which triggered or added urgency to those of the other, all of which involved the transportation of tens of thousands over networks of rail lines, the complexity and timing of which was so tightly interwoven that any change, once the initial order was given, would create chaos — therefore weakness, therefore defeat.  Once “roll ’em” was given, the end was war.

In How Wars Begin he looks at commonly agreed beginnings of the various wars and points to alternative precursors, some of them both idiosyncratic, and incomplete.  Thus, it wasn’t the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that started the Pacific war, but the American embargo of oil to Japan that “forced” them to do it.  He doesn’t track back further to what “forced the embargo,” or “forced the Japanese invasion of China.”   Napoleon, he says,  was “provoked” into war with England because it wouldn’t leave Malta as agreed in the Treaty of Amiens.  Though mentioned, Taylor does not consider it a “provocation” that, as the British claimed, Napoleon had not abandoned territories in Europe.

Whether Taylor actually thinks that the beginning of these wars is one provocation prior to the agreed on one, or leaves it at that out of his own urge to provoke isn’t clear.  Following his idea further it would seem that every country (or kingdom, or tribe) could cite an endless chain of events, claimed to be defensive and necessary which are seen as provocative and unnecessary by their counterparts.  The trail of grievance is endless. The reasons for apprehension –is that activity over there defensive or offensive?–  is that, in principle, no answer can be determined.   As every football fan knows “the best defense is a good offense.” And it is this which we fear, or claim to fear in order to cover the creation of our own.

The real task of the historian, for the past, and statesmen, for the future, is to judge which such claims and fears are grounded in reality and which are smoke-screens or shell-games meant to deceive as to intentions, capabilities and ambitions. To do this one has to look not just to the How but the Why, and this enters into the barely visible hallways of the human mind where such mental-emotional forces as pride, suspicion, retribution, contempt, greed, hubris, imagined weakness, imagined victory, all operate; a task not congenial to a historian looking for facts and events.

Indeed, as Taylor himself says, a cause of Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia was ‘exasperation” at Slavic nationalist propaganda.  As he also says, “impatience and misjudgment” turn effective deterrence into it opposite. He is very fond of the word “provoked,”  a mental state we are all familiar with.

Napoleon was left more and more as the dominant factor in Europe simply because he had to defeat the other countries which were conspiring against him. It would be foolish to suggest that Napoleon was a man of peace or of kindly, gentle nature. Nevertheless in 1805, in 1808 and, should one say in 1812, he was provoked into war.

Provoked into war?  Indeed!

That is the problem of course. How has human-kind accepted the idea that a provocation is enough to send 10 million to die?

Throughout, Taylor’s well known (provocateur’s) wit is on display:

The British are entitled always to mistrust other people but others are not entitled to mistrust the British. That is why England is known or was known abroad as ‘Perfide Albion’, because the British have two standards, one for themselves and one for other people.

He is British so he’s entitled to aim at his own, though of course the world has shown that one standard for me and another for thee is true of most nations, indeed most people.

What we want is an answer not so much to How? as to Why?, as here:

Paradoxically many of the European wars were started by a threatened Power which had nothing to gain by war and much to lose. Thus Austria started the Austro-French war of 1859 by her declaration of war on Sardinia. She started the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 by promoting the condemnation of Prussia at the Federal Diet. She started the first world war by her declaration of war on Serbia. Yet in each case she was almost bound to be the loser. Apprehension was reinforced by exasperation-with Austria the harassment of nationalist propaganda. Similarly France in 1870 was exasperated by Bismarck’s successes and started the war by her declaration of war on Prussia.

Why would this be? Inability to think past the excitement and promise of war, despite all the evidence, might be one reason.  Trusting in luck, fate, God, another. Assuming that another, bigger, and friendlier entity will intervene. Hoping to set off a chain of events from which victory will appear. Believing, as the French did in WW I, in some special elán that will overcome calculations of armor, mobility and disposable bodies.

Perhaps he is right, technically, that many of these wars came about through a “muddle” rather than sheer aggression but it should be clear by now that enormity, complexity and the “competition of suspicion” will result in predictably terrible carnage following such muddles.  It should also be clear that “provocation” in some personal or diplomatic sense is never a justification for armed retribution.

Grow this understanding and perhaps we slow the occurrence of  wars by “accident, ” wars to answer provocations, leaving those fueled by greed and savagery yet to be solved, lessening over time towards some imagined, distant, diminishing point.