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

Once the war began, party differences were dissolved, as they were throughout Europe, in a common patriotism that embraced all classes. But after a year of apparently uninterrupted victories, it was hard to believe that German territory was any longer under threat. In the east the Russians had been driven out of Poland and Courland (Lithuania), back to their ethnic frontiers. In the west German armies were deep inside France, and their defensive lines had barely been dented. Civilians were already seriously short of food and clothing. So why no peace? The next year, 1916, was to see the terrible losses of Verdun and the Somme, and ever increasing hardship at home. The High Command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff took control of the Home Front, and imposed ever tighter controls over civilian consumption. The question was now more insistently being asked--why no peace?

It was largely the fear that the German people would not stand another year of war that precipitated, at the end of 1916, the fatal decision for unrestricted submarine warfare. But peace would have been available if their government had wanted it. The Allied terms were still not harsh--German withdrawal to her pre-war frontiers in the west; the abandonment of Alsace-Lorraine; indemnity for Belgium; the creation of an independent Poland; self-determination for the subject nationalities of the Habsburg Empire--even these might have been negotiable. But the German government would not budge from the demands of the September Program. The huge sacrifices of blood and treasure already made by the German people, they claimed, demanded the establishment of a Germany so strong, and with frontiers so inviolable, that she would never again be under threat from her enemies.

Eventually, in July 1917, a majority of the Reichstag passed a resolution demanding peace without annexations or indemnities. This only stiffened the resolve of the High Command, which organized a popular party of the Right, the Fatherland Party, to support their annexationist war aims. With the United States now committed to the war, the German leadership was fighting for objectives that could be obtained only by total victory, which, as was increasingly clear, they had no hope of achieving. But for the High Command the war was no longer simply against the Allies: it was against the Reichsfeinde, the internal enemies of the Reich, the socialists and the liberals. A victory by these elements would mean the end of all of the leadership's aspirations to Weltmacht, the end of its warrior culture, the end of everything that, in its eyes, Germany stood for in the world. For Ludendorff and those around him, the pre-war slogan, Weltmacht oder Niedergang, "World Power or Downfall", was no more than a statement of fact: there was no middle way. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a year later Ludendorff's strategy did result in Niedergang, it was the Reichsfeinde who bore the blame and had to make the peace. It does not demand much effort of imagination to visualize what their fate would have been if that strategy had produced victory.

So if we are to count the cost of the Allied victory we also have to consider the possible consequences of defeat; the cost not only for Europe and indeed the world as a whole, but for Germany itself. The victories of 1866 and 1870 had not only united Germany, but militarized its culture. What would have been the effect of victory in 1918? How different would such a Germany have been from that which emerged twenty years later? And what likelihood is there that such a Germany could have long remained at peace with the British Empire? Those of the generation that won the war, at least in Britain, may have emerged weary and disillusioned, but they had no doubt that the war had to be fought, and that the victory was worthwhile. It is not for us to say that they were wrong.

Essay Types: Essay