Editor's Note: Please also see Michael Peck's recent article How Germany Could Have Won World War I .
The centenary of the beginning of World War I has revealed a deep divide between perceptions of the war held by the general public and historians, at least in the English-speaking world. Pundits and commentators and politicians routinely opine that World War I was a needless and unavoidable catastrophe, variously attributed to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, runaway arms races, imperialism in general, or “sleepwalking” politicians who stumbled blindly into catastrophe. The general impression among the broader public is that nobody in particular was to blame for the greatest conflagration in world history before the Second World War. Literary and cinematic masterpieces like Remargue’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Kubrick’s Path’s of Glory have reinforced the perception that the conflict proved the absurdity of war. The lesson is that war is like catastrophic climate change—a destructive force that must be avoided and for which everyone is partly to blame.
In the Anglophone world, this popular interpretation of World War I has deep roots in strains of isolationism, the international peace campaigns of the early twentieth century, and, not least, Woodrow Wilson’s call for a “peace without victory.” In the European Union, treating World War I as the product of abstract forces like arms races or nationalism is doubtlessly useful in minimizing national animosities.
But unlike the chattering classes, most historians, ever since Fritz Fischer published Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961), have tended to agree that the major cause of World War I was Imperial Germany’s determination to become a “world power” or superpower by crippling Russia and France in what it hoped would be a brief and decisive war, like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Following the Archduke’s assassination, Berlin deliberately used the crisis in relations between its satellite Austria-Hungary and Russia’s satellite Serbia as an excuse for a general war that would establish German hegemony from Belgium to Baghdad. World War I started in 1914 for the same reason that World War II started in 1939—a government in Berlin wanted a war, though not the war it ultimately got.
The secret “September program” of the German government in 1914 envisioned lopping off territory from France and turning Germany’s neighbors into “vassal states” (a term used in the document for Belgium). The 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, negotiated between Germany and the Soviet government that it had helped to install in Moscow, removed Russia from the war, gave Germany the Baltic states and part of Belarus and made an independent Ukraine a German satellite. Put the September program and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk together, and you have a striking vision of a German continental empire as expansive as the one imagined by Hitler—although, unlike Hitler’s genocidal German settler empire, the Kaiser’s empire would have been a more traditional empire of German-dominated vassal states.
Defenders of the “everyone was at fault” interpretation of World War I point out that Germany’s enemies had expansive war aims, too, and that Britain and France carved up the Ottoman empire following the war. But this misses the point. The alliance of Russia, France and Britain was defensive, provoked by Germany’s bellicose drive to become a global rather than merely regional power. There had been numerous Balkan wars in the preceding decades and the conflict between Austria and Serbia could have been confined to the Balkans, if Berlin had chosen that option. Instead, Germany’s rulers used Sarajevo as an excuse to do what it wanted to do anyway: convert itself into a “world power” by dominating Europe through war.
The British historian Niall Ferguson once suggested that if Britain and the U.S. had stayed out of World War I, a Mitteleuropa established by the Kaiserreich might have evolved into something like today’s European Union. Nonsense. Within Imperial Germany, victory would have strengthened the authoritarian militarists and weakened the forces of liberalism and democracy. The political culture would have been not that of today’s bourgeois Germany but that of a Latin American banana republic or today’s Thailand or Egypt, illiberal regimes in which generals and colonels pull the strings.
A German victory in World War I would have created a European superpower which, if less maniacal and murderous than Hitler’s aborted superstate, would have been much more formidable than the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia was a backward nation that controlled the poorest half of Europe during the Cold War. If it had prevailed in World War I, Imperial Germany would have been the most advanced nation of Europe, dominating the richest region in the world.
Would this new superpower, created in a bloody war of aggression by Berlin, have been a status quo power? It seems more likely that the German imperial elite, emboldened by success, would have charged recklessly on to wage cold war against the British empire and against the U.S. in the western hemisphere. In any hypothetical German-American Cold War, Imperial Germany might have mobilized superior scientific and technological resources, including areas like chemistry and rocket science in which it led the world. And unlike the Hitler regime, a triumphant Kaiserreich probably would not have allowed distinctions between “Jewish science” and “Aryan science” to get in the way of developing atomic weapons.