By Mustela nivalis
Niall Fergusson in an interview originally aired in 2000 explains what went wrong (see video). Amongst other things he says: Belgian neutrality was a pretext of the British government. Nobody in Europe in any decision making capacity was under any illusions what a war would mean. Lord Grey, the British foreign minister, even warned the Russian government beforehand that a war would lead to a “new 1848″ in Europe, i.e. social upheaval endangering the existing order. An economist called Jean de Bloch had warned in 1898 that future wars would be utterly destructive. Millions would have to be mobilized and the defensive position was far superior to the offensive. In Europe this would lead to a stalemate and any war would be decided by economic attrition.
Fergusson here repeats his assertion that had Germany won (i.e. had Britain kept out of it), we would have had a continental free trade area under German leadership 80 years before it actually happened (minus Russian Revolution, Nazism, WW2 and the Cold War).
Fergusson is probably right when he says that it was the soldiers’ personal revenge motive that kept WW1 going despite all the mass killings and horrors. But that’s only part of it. Unfortunately, he does not mention another decisive factor: the decoupling of money from gold in all the participating countries (except, I think, for the US, which came late to the party), allowing governments to ramp up war debts like never before. Previously, wars stopped when one or both sides ran out of money (because it was backed by some real value). This time, it stopped only when people in the Axis countries were dying in the streets of starvation.