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The history of international relations in the late 19th and early 20th twentieth century’s has been inextricably bound with the origins of the First World War. The sheer scale of the war has led generations of academics to endow it with a sense of inevitability. However, we should pause briefly and consider some of the following observations and questions. If the international system was so militarized, why did a general European war not break out much earlier? After all, the 44 years of great power peace between 1871 and 1914 was the longest period of great power peace in Europe until the end of the Cold War. Why were so many crises, recited by generations of students as signs of weakness in the international system, resolved without recourse to war? Historians have, until very recently, largely ignored an alternative question: ‘Why was peace maintained for over four decades?’ Only by answering this question can we fully appreciate why war broke out in 1914. We should no longer view those like Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist, who saw the world before 1914 as a ‘golden age of security’, as complacent or naïve. Asking why great power peace was maintained for over four decades enables us to re-assess what might be called the ‘old reliable’ of the origins of the First World War – the alliances and diplomacy, imperial expansion, public opinion, the role of the military, and the international economy.
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