H-Diplo Article Review 1054- "Emotions and the British Government’s Decision for War in 1914"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1054

22 July 2021

John W. Young.  “Emotions and the British Government’s Decision for War in 1914.”  Diplomacy & Statecraft 29:4 (December 2018):  543-564.  DOI:  10.1080/09592296.2018.1528778.

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Michael S. Neiberg, U.S. Army War College

Modern scholars may be rediscovering the role of emotions in decision making during international crises, but they cannot say that the ancients did not warn them.  In one of his most famous passages Thucydides wrote that “fear, honor, and interest” combined to cause the Peloponnesian War.[1] The first two are indisputably emotional; political scientists of the constructivist tradition and most historians argue that states also define their interests, at least in part, through the emotions of their leaders, most notably fear.  The security dilemma posits that what matters in a great power rivalry is not so much how the balance of power actually changes but how each side perceives that balance to be changing.[2] Athenian and Spartan leaders like Pericles and Sthenelaïdas read the evolution of the changing geostrategic environment in the Greek world as much through emotional lenses as through rational calculation.[3]

The central problem with the study of emotions is epistemological.  How can we know what emotions people were feeling if they themselves either did not think to write those feelings down or perhaps did not themselves know?  How do we account for the importance of emotions in people who lived in places and times when the expression of certain emotions often appeared to contemporaries as acts of weakness?  Can we trust the observations of those who tried to read the emotions of key actors much as one tries to read the Mona Lisa’s smile?

John Young deals with this epistemological problem by peppering his article with many conditional phrases and words like ‘possible,’ ‘presumably,’ and ‘probably.’ Scholars may not be able to ever do much more, as he himself recognizes.  “Evidence is thin,” he admits, on the role of emotions in nineteen of the key decision makers he focused on and utterly absent in several others (560).  Still, Young’s attempt to bring in the emotional element adds a new dimension to our understanding of 1914; we should not dismiss it despite the evidentiary problems involved.

Young uses emotions to make three critical contributions to the analysis of the July Crisis of 1914.  First, he argues that we ought not to treat emotions as a separable, less important variable.  Instead, we should see the emotional as interacting with the political.  British Foreign Minister Edward Grey, he argues, interpreted the problem of the German violation of Belgian neutrality through both an emotional and a practical lens.  German behavior struck him, and others in the British elite, as a betrayal of international norms.  Emotions, in Young’s formulation, did not distort the rational-actor behavior of Grey and his colleagues. Rather, emotions became inexorably intertwined with rational action.  To try to separate the irrational element of emotions from the rational interests of the state, he contends, is to make a fundamental error.

Young’s use of Carroll Izard’s distinction between “basic emotions” and “emotion schemas,” calls to mind Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between “fast” and “slow” thinking.[4] Basic emotions are the former.  They represent immediate responses like fear and anger.  “Slow” emotional schemas involve the subsequent interaction of emotion with logic.  As Young argues, we err when we see emotion and logic as separate processes.  Instead, logic builds upon the initial emotional response.  Those who could engage this process with seeming equanimity, like British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith with his ‘sangfroid’ and French General Joseph Joffre with his legendary imperturbability, won plaudits from their peers (549).  How much their emotions were roiling under the calm surface we will never know, although Asquith’s letters to socialiteVenetia Stanley suggest that he was more under the sway of his emotions than those around him may have realized.

Second, Young rightly understands emotions to contain a strong element of gendered construction.  Showing too much emotion in 1914 made men seem unduly feminine, and therefore weak; French ambassador Jules Cambon’s emotional appeals and tears disinclined some British diplomats to pay him much heed.  Here Young’s argument owes a debt of gratitude to the late Sonya Rose, who argued that British masculinity in the Second World War era was constructed not primarily in opposition to British femininity but to the hyper-masculinity of the German military.  The ‘stiff upper lip’ and stereotypically phlegmatic British military culture stood in opposition to the overly excitable and excessively martial masculinity on display in Germany.[5]

The interplay of gender and emotion leads to the third important argument of this article, the ways in which decision makers exploited constructions of emotions to compel desired behavior from others.  Appealing to another’s honor or intimating cowardice could motivate a person to downplay or ignore rationality.  Leo Tolstoy understood this role for emotions quite clearly.  In the first paragraph of War and Peace Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a lady of the court, shames Prince Vassily Kuragin through a “violent outburst,” pressuring him to go to war against the “Antichrist” Napoleon.  If he does not, she promises, “I do not know you in the future, you are no longer my friend.”[6] Similarly, as Young notes, scholars like Avner Offer and Ute Frevert have argued that malleable, hard-to-define concepts like honor played critical roles in 1914 (552).[7]

Herein lies another problem in studying emotions.  A concept like honor or an appeal to loyalty can take on many meanings, as Young readily acknowledges.  It therefore becomes difficult for historians to assign causation to emotionality.  Was the concept of honor a factor in pushing statesmen to war in 1914, as Offner and Frevert argued, or was it a fungible concept that could provide cover for the pursuit of strategic aims that men like Grey and Asquith understood but could not easily articulate to a wider British public?  Did Cambon’s statement that “I do not even know whether this evening the word ‘honour’ will not have to be struck out of the British vocabulary” really matter to British leaders, or did the British act as they did primarily because they knew the threat that Germany’s invasion of Belgium posed to their existential interests (552)?

Young’s article does not address this question given that it does not want us to have to choose.  He wants us to understand emotions and interests as linked, not as separate.  This argument is perhaps more insightful than novel, as Thucydides and Tolstoy remind us.  Still, Young makes a compelling case for scholars to take emotions more seriously.  Herein, we find an historiographic problem to match the epistemological one.  Military historians have long recognized the centrality of emotions, even if they have not always privileged emotion in their analyses and even if some of their conclusions now seem passé.  To stay with the First World War case, historians once argued that Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf’s love for his mistress led him to make riskier decisions than he might otherwise have done and that President Woodrow Wilson’s despair over the death of his first wife rendered the United States less relevant in 1914 than it otherwise might have been.[8] As Dennis Showalter wrote about the East Prussian campaign of that year, even generals wet their pants.[9]

Social historians have looked at the history of emotions, but they tend not to focus on the role of emotions in individual decision making as much as how emotions and definitions of emotions change as societies modernize.[10] For military historians studying a shorter time span like the summer of 1914, this method of studying emotions has little utility and therefore has not had much influence.  Nor have recent scholars placed much importance on Conrad’s desire to marry his mistress or Wilson’s anguish over his first wife’s death, largely because the field of military history has moved away from an exclusive reliance on the actions of senior leaders.[11]

It seems almost axiomatic to conclude, as Young does, that “the fact is that powerful feelings – like anger, fear, hope, resentment – also shape [leaders’] choices.” The challenge lies in finding academically and epistemologically rigorous methods to analyze those feelings and assign causal weight to them.  Tolstoy again reminds us of this problem when he has young Prince Andrey Bolkonsky stare at General Bagration and think “Was that man thinking and feeling anything, and what was he thinking and feeling at that moment?”[12] Andrey’s problem is ours as well.  The task is a daunting one, but Young is persuasive in reminding us that we should take it on if we are to understand senior leader decision making in the past and in the present.


Michael S. Neiberg is Professor of History and Chair of War Studies at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  His published work specializes on the First and Second World Wars in global context.  The Wall Street Journal named his Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Harvard University Press, 2010) one of the five best books ever written about that war.  In October 2016 Oxford University Press published his Path to War, a history of American responses to the Great War in Europe, 1914-1917 and in July 2017 Oxford published his Concise History of the Treaty of Versailles.  In 2017 he was awarded the Médaille d’Or du Rayonnement Culturel from La Renaissance Française, an organization founded by French President Raymond Poincaré in 1915 to keep French culture alive during the First World War.


[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert Strassler (New York: Free Press, 1998), 43.

[2] Shiping Tang, “The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis,” Security Studies 18:3 (October 2009): 587-623.

[3] In the middle of a different world war, Lucien Febvre called for an emphasis on the study of emotions in his “La sensibilité et l'histoire: Comment reconstituer la vie affective d'autrefois?,” Annales d’Histoire Sociale 3:2 (January-June,1941), 5-20.

[4] Carroll Izard, “Emotion Theory and Research,” Annual Review of Psychology (60), 2009), 5-8 and Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013).

[5] Sonya Rose, Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[6] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Constance Garnett (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 1.

[7] Ute Frevert, “History of Emotions,” German History 28/1 (March, 2010), 67-80; Avner Offer “Going to War in 1914: A Matter of Honor?” Politics and Society 23/2 (June 1995), 213-241.

[8] The anecdote remains powerful.  See, for a recent example, Wolfram Dornik, et.  al. Des Kaisers Fakle: Wirken und Nach-Wirken von Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (Innsbruck: Studienverlag GmbH, 2013).  Conrad did marry Gina Reininghaus in 1915.

[9] Dennis Showalter, “Even Generals Wet Their Pants: The First Three Weeks in East Prussia, August 1914,” War and Society (September 1984), 60-86.

[10] See, for example, the volumes in the University of Illinois Press series on the history of emotions edited by Peter N. Stearns and Susan Matt, especially their co-edited volume Doing Emotions History (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014).

[11] For example, Alexander Watson does not mention the Conrad-Gina anecdote in his extremely detailed Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

[12] Tolstoy, War and Peace, 195.

Keywords: Emotions, war, 1914