William Mulligan

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2013/2014
discipline History
Lecturer in Modern History at University College Dublin

Research project

The wars that never happened. European great power politics, 1871-1914


Historians often characterise international politics between the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1 and the First World War as anarchic, amoral Realpolitik, shaped by narrow calculations of military strength, imperial aggression, and secret alliances. Political scientists mine the period for insights into various brands of realist theory.

Yet this characterisation hardly does justice to the historical complexity and the longest period of peace between the European great powers (43 years) until the end of the Cold War.

This new project seeks to answer one part of the puzzle - why did European statesmen consistently reject war as an instrument of policy, even when the odds favoured a positive outcome? Was the system as anarchic as many believe or were there norms and other restraints that led statesmen to sustain peace? Has the historical analysis of late nineteenth century international history been written through the prism of the events of 1914, leading historians to concentrate on answering the (enormously important) question of why war occurred but ignoring the equally significant question of why and how peace had been preserved for so long?

Drawing on archival research, historiographical debates, and international relations theory, this project will develop its analysis in two general ways. First it will start from a set of analyses of specific crises and moments when statesmen discussed whether to go to war or maintain peace. The history of these crises (including the War in Sight crisis in 1875, German generals’ calls for preventive war against Russia in 1887, the First Moroccan crisis of 1905/6, British considerations to ‘Copenhagen’ or sink the German fleet, and Austrian generals’ demands for preventive wars against Italy and Serbia) are generally well-known; the specific purpose of this analysis is to show why decision-makers chose peace, rather than war, and how the crisis was resolved or de-escalated, to use Jost Dülffer’s phrase.

The second part of the project will discuss the wider intellectual hinterland to these decisions. It will show how the arguments against preventive war included the material risks of war, the fears of sparking a general European war, anxiety about alienating domestic public support without justifiable, concerns about undermining or destroying the legitimacy of the international system, and the moral and legal restraints on the use of military force. This will enable me to offer new insights and characterisations of the international system between the 1870s and 1914, to ask what norms of international behaviour existed and how they developed, and to what extent these norms were internalised by decision-makers or enforced by external factors (such as public opinion, for example).



William Mulligan is lecturer in modern history at University College Dublin and currently the Director of Research in the School of History, the coordinator of the MA programme in the History of International Relations, and the University liaison officer for the new MA programme in European History. He was the Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the School of History for three years between 2008 and 2011. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Cambridge.

Selected publications


The origins of the First World War, CUP, Cambridge, 2010.


The primacy of foreign policy in British history, 1660-2000. How strategic concerns shaped modern Britain, with B. Simms (eds), Palgrave, Basingstoke 2010.


‘Britain, the “German revolution”, and the fall of France, 1870/1', Historical Research, vol. 84, no. 224, 2011, pp. 310-327.


The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660-2000: How Strategic Concerns Shaped Modern Britain, with B. Simms (eds), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2010.


'Gladstone and the Primacy of Foreign Policy', in W. Mulligan & B. Simms (eds), The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660-2000: How Strategic Concerns Shaped Modern Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2010, pp. 181-196.


‘The fugitive slave circulars, 1875-6’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 37, no. 2, 2009, pp. 183-206.


'Weimar and the wars of Liberation: German and French officers and the politics of history', European History Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 266-293.


The creation of the modern German army. General Walther Reinhardt and the Weimar Republic, 1914-1930, Berghahn, New York/Oxford, 2005.


junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
Social Sciences
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline History
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline Cultural Studies
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline Social Anthropology