The Great War: Mystery or Error?

The Great War: Mystery or Error?

Mini Teaser: While interesting, recent attempts to make sense of World War I ultimately fail to account for the true cause of both the war and its protraction: German militarism.

by Author(s): Michael Howard

It is almost a century since the countdown to the First World War began, ominously enough, with a series of linked crises in the Balkans. Ten years hence publishers will start planning their first centennial histories. But apart from a gap in the 1940s and 1950s when the Second World War took priority, the flow of studies has barely ceased since 1918. Understandably: For Europeans, the war was uniquely horrifying both in its course and its consequences. In spite of the global title later bestowed on it, this was essentially a European war, and for two generations of Europeans it was simply the "Great War", tout court. Like earlier European wars it involved battles on and beyond the seas, but it was fought out on European territory and--apart from the brief but substantial American intervention in its final weeks--by European armies.

Above all it was for European peoples that the consequences were most devastating. Some thirteen million people died, nine million of them young men, most of them in conditions of almost unimaginable horror; the British in the mud of the Somme and Passchendaele, the French and Germans pounding each other to smithereens at Verdun, the Austrians and Hungarians freezing to death in the Carpathians, the Russians driven forward like cattle on the plains of Poland, the Italians slaughtered in their vain and repeated attacks on the rocky slopes of the Carso.

And for what? The victorious Allies exhausted themselves to no evident benefit, their sacrifices heartrendingly commemorated by monuments in every village throughout their lands. The empires that had kept Eastern and Central Europe in some kind of equilibrium for the previous two centuries--Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman--disintegrated, leaving in their place nationalist and aggressive successor states whose quarrels still provide the seedbeds of further wars. The liberal capitalism of the Enlightenment, which in 1914 seemed to be inexorably expanding its benefits throughout the world, collapsed, and with it all the moral certainties it had seemed to embody. Peoples turned in despair to the comforting promises held out by communism and fascism. What had all those people died for? What had been the point?

Two leading British historians who have recently published major works on the First World War have recoiled, baffled by the question. Sir John Keegan, the doyen of military historians, can only conclude that the war was "a mystery." For Niall Ferguson, the most promising of a younger generation of historians, it was simply "the greatest error in modern history." Such judgments are hardly adequate. The war may have been tragic and disastrous, but there was nothing mysterious or inexplicable about it. It was certainly the result of cumulative "errors", that is, of bad judgments, but there were too many of them--the German decision to support the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, the premature Russian order for general mobilization, above all the Schlieffen Plan, which extended the war willy-nilly to France and, through the invasion of Belgium, to Britain and the British Empire--to be considered a single "error." But for Ferguson the greatest "error" of all was the British decision to intervene in the war, rather than stand back and allow the Germans to win and establish a benevolent hegemony over Europe. It was this decision, he believes, that transformed a European war, which might well have been over within a year, into a prolonged confrontation that weakened where it did not destroy the whole fabric of European society.

Ferguson's revisionist judgment is provocative and interesting, and will be dealt with in a moment. It is certainly a refreshing variant on an otherwise sterile debate. In that debate there is, on the one hand, the traditional liberal thesis, popular between the wars both in Britain and the United States, and the German "war guilt" thesis, established by the victorious Allies at Versailles and revised by Fritz Fischer a generation later. The first maintained that the war was a ghastly "accident" resulting from the nature of capitalism, the prevalence of militarism, the "arms race", or the inflexibility of mobilization timetables (Barbara Tuchman's interpretation in The Guns of August, which, however mistaken, was to be of considerable value during the Cuban Missile Crisis). The second, however justifiable, was to have the disastrous consequence of outraging the entire German people and mobilizing them behind a revanchist policy in the interwar years.

Neither of these theses is to be completely discounted, though historians, not least German historians, now give greater weight to the latter than to the former. But there is also a greater tendency to emphasize the European mentalité before 1914; a sense that a war was coming and that it would be no bad thing if it did. The roots of this sentiment can be traced to the general sense of insecurity resulting from the headlong social and economic transformation of Europe during the previous fifty years, from an agrarian economy that had changed little over five hundred years to one urbanized, industrial and global. This involved the growth of cities and a popular press, and the development of a hectic nationalism cultivated, at least in part, to combat the threat of socialist internationalism among the newly enfranchised working classes. War, when it came, was welcomed almost as a relief from tensions both internal and international. The relief was so ecstatic that not only did the English poet Rupert Brooke thank God for matching him with His hour, but the German minister for war, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously declared that, "Even if everything now goes smash, it will have been worth it." Certainly dread of hostile public reaction did not inhibit governmental decisions for war, as it did so disastrously in Britain and France in 1938 and 1939.

It may now appear "mysterious" that anyone should have welcomed war in 1914, but it would not have seemed so to anyone living before the twentieth century. Wars had always been taken very much for granted. In any event very few people--the professionals--had any idea what the war would be like. They had studied the American Civil War and, even more important, the Russo-Japanese War. They knew all about the defensive power provided by new weapons, even if they did not yet know how to overcome it. Most of them knew of Ivan Bloch's remarkable study, La Guerre future, even if they had not read it, but they did not need Bloch to tell them that no economy could stand a prolonged war involving, as General von Schlieffen himself warned in 1909, "millions of marks and millions of men." They knew, therefore, that the war would have to be short, because nobody (except the British, with their fortunate experience of maritime warfare) believed that it would be possible to win a long one.

The only way to keep a war short was to win it quickly; and that could be done only by taking the offensive, which all European armies planned to do. For the Germans it was particularly necessary to get their attack in first if they were not to be squeezed between the greater manpower of the French and the Russians and subjected to blockade by the Royal Navy. If the Schlieffen Plan had worked, and the Germans had successfully defeated first the French and then the Russian armies in the fine style of Frederick the Great, they would have won. But it did not work. Nor did the offensive plans of the French, the Russians or the Austrians. By the end of 1914 the war for which everyone had been preparing for the previous ten years was over, and nobody had won it.

The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to make peace. The original protagonists in the war, Russia and the Dual Monarchy, whose losses were already crippling, would have been only too glad to do so, but the blood of their allies was up. The British had barely begun to fight; the French had lost a fifth of their territory and were determined to regain it. As for the Germans, despite their inability to win quickly, their armies had been everywhere spectacularly victorious and were deep inside the territory of their enemies. There could be no question of accepting even the minimum terms that the Allies were likely to offer: a complete withdrawal of German forces from all occupied territories, especially Belgium, with an indemnity for the damage they had done, and the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France.

On the contrary: the Germans had already formulated their peace terms in Bethmann-Hollweg's "September Program", and these were not to vary until the very end of the war. They differed little from those that Hitler was to impose on Europe in 1940. In the west a protectorate would be imposed over Belgium; the French coast would be occupied to the mouth of the Somme, and the occupation of Lorraine would be extended to the adjacent ore fields around Briey. In the east, Poland and the territories reaching northeast to the Gulf of Riga would be occupied and "Germanized"; while Mitteleuropa--that is, effectively, the lands of Germany's Austrian ally--would become a domain of German economic hegemony. Finally, Germany's African colonies would be consolidated at the expense of Belgium and Portugal to give it a real "place in the sun." It was the refusal of the British even to consider such an outcome that Niall Ferguson regards as the greatest "error" of the war.

Essay Types: Essay