Books interview: Margaret MacMillan on the First World War

Margaret MacMillan's new book explores the tensions that led to the outbreak of the First World War. She talks to Matt Elton about the world of 1914 and whether conflict could have been averted

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination prompted the outbreak of the First World War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

In the context of the alliances that shaped the path to the First World War, what do you think led Britain to alter its stance on Europe?

The British had a policy for most of the 19th century – and in earlier centuries as well – not of isolation, but of remaining aloof from Europe. Their main interest was their empire, which was the world’s biggest, and their trade – they were the world’s largest trading nation until 1914, although that was being challenged. What the British really wanted was peace and quiet on the continent, and a balance of power: they didn’t want any single power dominating the continent, because that could make it difficult to access markets and could be a threat to British interests. And so, from the British point of view, as long as things on the continent remained fairly stable and in equilibrium, they felt they didn’t need to intervene.

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