Book Review: The Shadow of the Past: Reputation and Military Alliances before the First World War


by Gregory D. Miller

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 234. Tables, diagr., appends., notes, index. $45.00. ISBN: 0801450314

The Shadow of the Past takesa look at how perceptions of reputation and reliability influenced decision-making by the great powers in their interactions in the decade or so prior to the outbreak of the Great War. 

After a survey of the couse of European diplomacy and treaty making in the decades prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the analysis by Prof. Miller (Oklahoma) makes clear that decisions in 1914 were often made not on the basis of obligation – as detailed in the texts of alliances found in the appendices -- but on how political leaders believed their actions would reflect upon their reputations and those of their nations.  In 1914, for example, Germany chose to support Austria against Russia under circumstances that did not require intervention according to the Triple Alliance, while Italy adhered to the letter of the treaty, and was criticized by both Germany and Austria for being unreliable.  By addressing a problem of alliance politics that stretches back in time at least as early as the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, this work has great value for the present, given recent complex alliances and coalitions where issues of “letter of the law” can conflict with often dubious arguments about “honor”, “reputation”, and “reliability”.

A volume in the series “Cornell Studies in Security Affairs”, The Shadow of the Past is an important read for anyone interested in the origins of the Great War or in the general problem of how wars begin.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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