We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The origins of the First World War

Patrick Crozier has some interesting thoughts on ‘the war to end all wars’. A blogopotamus of a post in fact!

Who am I to start writing about the origins of the First World War? Many others, far more qualified than me have speculated at great length on the subject. Entire British Library bookcases groan under the weight of tomes dedicated to the minute analysis of the Austrian Ultimatum and the Naval Arms Race. And here am I either adding to or (more likely) replicating that effort.

The First World War was, to me at least, the great disaster of the 20th Century. Millions died. Millions more experienced the horror of the trenches: the cold, the mud, the shelling, the stench, the lice, the exhaustion, the ever present fear, the death. It gave birth to Total War, to conscription and to rationing. It laid the foundations for a massive expansion of the state, the Second World War, brought forth the horrors of communism and, in turn, the Cold War. The chain of events ends in the European Union – that instrument of European economic and political suicide. If only it had not happened. If only it could have been prevented.

Of course, the mere fact that the war was a dreadful thing need not mean that its cause was similarly great. One thinks of President Kennedy and his assassin. But, if lessons are to be learnt then one needs to know what started it.

The reason I am writing this is because I have long been unhappy with traditional, textbook explanations for the outbreak of World War I; the sort of thing you get taught at school (see here for an example). Such explanations tend to harp on about Great Power rivalries or the Alliance system. Some add in the growth of industry, nationalism, socialism and democracy. But I am afraid blaming it all on Great Powers and Alliances simply will not do. There were plenty of Great Power rivalries and alliances in the century before 1914 and yet these never managed to plunge Europe into a general war. From the late 1940s to 1989 in the Cold War two super powers and their allies stared at each others daggers drawn without either side ever pushing the button. No. Something funny was going on in the years immediately prior to 1914 and I think I know what it was.

I think what happened was that between 1888 and 1914 the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II managed to throw away every diplomatic, strategic and military advantage he had. He antagonised Britain and Russia so much that they were practically forced to fight him. The Versailles Treaty was right: the Germans were to blame.

Consider Germany’s position in, say, 1887. It is newly united. It is rapidly industrialising. Its army is the best in Europe. It has no navy to speak of but why should it? It has no overseas empire to protect and the British navy is perfectly capable of protecting its trade routes. It has one real enemy: France, which is desperate to recover Alsace and Lorraine, lost in the war of 1870.

France may want Alsace and Lorraine back but there is precious little she can do about it. She is not powerful enough on her own and she has no allies. She has no allies because the Germans have got there first. Bismarck has been assiduous in courting both the Russians and the Austrians. Although German relationships with these two powers have not always been entirely smooth it has served to prevent a war between them. If Austria goes to war with Russia, Germany sides with Russia. If Russia attacks Austria then vice versa. Thus, peace is maintained and everyone’s happy. Except France.

There is only one other power in Europe: Britain. But Britain is enjoying a period of “splendid isolation”. She has her empire, her trade and her navy to defend them. She has no territorial ambitions or interests (Gibraltar excepted) on continental Europe. She has no alliances and does not wish them.

So, in 1887, Germany can look forward to an age of peace and prosperity. And then, in 1888, Kaiser Friedrich III dies to be succeeded by his son, Willhelm II. More or less his first act is sack Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, the man who almost single-handedly, unified Germany and granted her this Golden Vista.

His second act? To scrap the military alliance with Russia. The story is that in 1891 the Russians show up in Berlin expecting the extension of the alliance to be a mere formality only to be told by the Germans that, actually, you know, we have just done a deal with the Austrians and because we have done a deal with them we cannot now do a deal with you. Cue alarm bells going off in St Petersburg and the rubbing of hands in the Quai d’Orsay.

The French are quick to capitalize on this blunder. By 1894 they have concluded an alliance with the Russians. The Russians order from them huge quantities of firearms.

This in turn sets alarm bells ringing in the German High Command. There is a real possibilty of a war on two fronts – the ultimate nightmare. Alfred von Schlieffen is tasked with coming up with a strategy to deal with it. He decides that Germany’s best bet is to concentrate on knocking out France before the Russians have time to mobilise. That way he can deploy light forces in the East while the main weight of his army is used to destroy the French. The Western strategy envisages the bulk of the German army making a lightening strike through Belgium, across Northern France, to the West of Paris before attacking the French Army in the rear. The Western Front should all be over in six weeks.

Only one problem: the Schlieffen Plan is stupid. It is utterly reliant on wishful thinking. It assumes that attacking neutral Belgium will not bring the British into the war and if it does her intervention will be inconsequential. It assumes that Belgian resistance will be light. It assumes that the Russians really will be that slow to mobilise. It assumes that the men on the right most flank can actually march that far that fast for six weeks continuously. It assumes that the French will not work out what is going on and counter it or, alternatively, that the French thrust into Alsace and Lorraine will not work. It assumes that the capture of Paris marks the end of French resistance. Frankly, it is nuts. Worse still, it boxes Germany into a military and strategic corner. The Schlieffen Plan is the only plan. It assumes that war against Russia means war against France. There is no Plan B and there is no follow up if things go wrong. It is highly dependent on railway timetables which further reduces flexibilty. Surely Schlieffen must have known this? The more I think about it the more I think it was a cry for help. It is a stark admission of German weakness – weakness brought about by the arrogant buffoonery of the Kaiser.

The loss of Russia as an ally might have made sense had Germany’s other allies been any good. But Austria was a dying empire, riven by nationalistic divisions. Some Germans likened the alliance with Austria to being “shackled to a corpse”. The later deal with Turkey, the sick man of Europe, was, if anything, even worse.

While the German army was seeking to sort out the mess caused by making an enemy out of Russia, the Kaiser was busy making new enemies. He had already taken a few pot shots at Britain. He had expressed support for the Boers in South Africa. He had talked of Britain’s “contemptible little army”. He had talked of Germany’s ambitions for “a place in the Sun” and he was not talking about timeshares in Marbella.

All this Britain could take. It was only words. Then came the deeds. Germany started building a navy.

Bismarck had had no time for the creation of an overseas empire. He saw Germany as a continental and industrial power. So when the Kaiser put that policy into reverse, Germany found there was not much left to conquer. She ended up with Tanganyika, South West Africa and a few others. It did not look good on a map. It was not befitting of a Great Power like Germany.

It would have looked better had Germany had no empire at all. She could have made the same sort of excuses the British make about being useless at winter sports: “It’s all about geography Old Boy, not our scene, we’ll stick to what we know.”

It is difficult to know precisely what the Kaiser’s plans were but he started to build a navy. The British reponded. They started building the Dreadnought class of battleship. It was faster, better armed and better armoured than anything else on the seas. It rendered all other battleships obsolete. It was like calling someone’s bluff in a game of poker. But the Germans were not bluffing and started building dreadnoughts of their own. The British started to get distinctly worried. They started having conversations with the French and later the Russians. Although the original Entente Cordiale of 1904 was a fairly loose thing by the 1910s it was starting to bear the hallmarks of an alliance.

I have heard it said, though I have no source on this, that Germany’s military situation was also starting to deteriorate. Despite all its internal problems and its military incompetence, aided by its growing industrialisation, year after year, Russia’s military potential was growing. Germany’s advantage was being wiped out. If she had not made war in 1914 in a few years she would not have been able to make war at all.

So, the scene was set for the outbreak of war. For 26 years the Kaiser had been assembling his and Germany’s own funeral pyre. All it needed was a spark.

As an addendum, there are a couple of other observations I would make. The first, is that it is not the preservation of the balance of power that prevents wars – it is the preservation of the imbalance of power. States go to war when they think they have a chance of success, not when defeat is certain.

The second, is the Germans seem to have been incapable of removing bad leaders. The English, on the other hand, are quite good at this – even the supposedly absolute ones. Think of Charles I, James II, Henry VI, George III respectively beheaded, removed, sidelined and suspended. I do not know if the Germans have got any better at it over the years.

68 comments to The origins of the First World War

  • Mark Ellott

    It would have all happened anyway. Communism would have gripped the world regardless of the great war – the trigger just happened then. The Russian revolution was bubbling away and waiting to happen – just like the war itself.

    It has been said that it was in none of the great European powers’ interest to go to war in 1914 yet they did just that – why? Because they were ready to and all they needed was a trigger. It was a catharsus and if it wasn’t Sarejevo, something, somewhere would have set things in motion.

    The alliance system made it more likely to explode into world war rather than a minor balkan conflict. Possibly, Germany could have been more explcit with their “blank cheque” to Austria – but why, then did they already have a plan (significantly flawed) to invade France through Belgium if they never planned to use it?

    The complete shag-up of Versailles could have been avoided of course and maybe with it WWII, but that would be judging the protagonists of 1919 with modern eyes…

    I’m inclined to think the textbook explanation maybe over simplifies things and we are too fond of trying to analyse with modern viewpoints and judging accordingly. We tend to view honour somewhat differently these days…

  • Crosbie

    What would have happened had Britain never intervened? Perhaps the Kasier calculated that a defence of Belgium was not in Britain’s interest. Come to that, why was defending Belgium in Britain’s interest?

  • Fascinating post, Patrick. I certainly do think your explanation is closer to the truth than the popular “arms race” theory that I was taught at school. It is also quite striking how many of the seminal moments of the last 90 years can all be traced back to the Great War – and nearly all of it bad, as you note.

    It is also, I think, very true all you say about Bismarck. Probably based largely on his spiked helmet, he is most often now portrayed as a warmongering tyrant. But his ultimate aim was always peaceful: a united Germany with the strength to be at peace and succeed. It is very sensible therefore to trace the outbreak of World War I to the removal of Bismarck. It’s a shame he seems to be too nationalistic for modern German sensibilities, because he was certainly one of the great statesmen of European history, and far more a Churchill than a Hitler.

  • Don Eyres

    Terra, Sol:
    Take a look at Donald Kagan’s “On the Origins of War” and the section on World War One. You and he are in perfect agreement. The bad news is, he got there first. The good news is, he’s a Harvard professor.. so congratulations, you’re in good company!

  • TomD

    Throughly enjoyable post…..

    The history of WWI isn’t taught in the US on other than a superficial level. This short post taught me more that I knew previously of the basic causes.

  • Jacob

    “The reason I am writing this is because I have long been unhappy with traditional, textbook explanations for the outbreak of World War I”

    I have been unhappy too.

    There is no explanation for the outbreak of WW1. None at all. Not if you assume people are more or less rational or reasonable, or not mentally insane , and act in their best interest, and therefore – there must be a rationally discernible cause. There isn’t.

    Did the Kaiser want a war ? Did he have ambitions for conquering France or Russia or portions of them ? No. He just wanted to help Austria. He did not think he was starting a big war, and just before it started, tried to back out and prevent it. Did Russia want to start a war and take some Austrian provinces ? No. She just started the chain of mobilizations that led to the war, with no real intention of starting a war. Did Austria want a war ? No. Sure, she was outraged by Serbian complicity in the murder, and she wanted to punish Serbia, but she knew very well that a big war will not benefit her in her decrepit state.
    What about France ? Sure, France wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, but she did not start the war. Neither did England.
    So, despite the learned explanations, the fact is nobody wanted the war, but it started anyway.

    It is not only the start of the war that defies explanation, it is also it’s course. During four long years, millions and millions of soldiers were slaughtered in terribly useless battles time and again, and nobody made the slightest attempt to stop the madness. It didn’t even occur, to no one of the combatants to seek a negotiated way out. And this, considering that no party had any big territorial or other ambitions to begin with, that it sought to acheive through the war.

    WW2 is easier to understand, Hitler was raving mad, that’s obvious. Nothing of the kind can be said of any of the WW1 leaders. They weren’t particularly mad or stupid – just a normal bunch, though of course, not very bright, but that’s the norm.

  • Don Eyres

    I (respectfully) disagree with your conclusions.

    >>It would have all happened anyway.

    Why? Europe had gone 99 years without a catastrophic war. It had also survived a number of other crises during the preceeding 30 years.

    >>Communism would have gripped the world regardless of the great war – the trigger just happened then.

    Why? Radical Marxists (as opposed to Socialists) were no more than a lunatic fringe throughout Europe. If anything, anarchists were a stronger force.

    >>The Russian revolution was bubbling away and waiting to happen – just like the war itself.

    *A* Russian Revolution was universally held, by Russians, to be inevitable. But you forget that the first revolution in 1917 was more or less a democratic one. The second (“October”) revolution was able to take place only because of the strains put on the Kerensky government by the war.

    >>It has been said that it was in none of the great European powers’ interest to go to war in 1914 yet they did just that – why?
    Perhaps it was wrongly suggested. In fact, all of the major governments ended up with highly compelling reasons to go to war. One may justly argue that those governments set themselves up, made earlier decisions that left them cornered as events developed. (I do think that Germany had the weakest case.)

    * Austria had the heir to its throne assassinated by a group that, by all appearances, was sponsored by a country (Serbia) which was trying to expand via panSlavism into Austrian territory.

    * Germany (unwisely) gave commitments to Austria; had they not honored them, they would have been isolated. Besides which, the Russians were mobilizing not just against Austria, but against Germany as well.

    * Russia had been humiliated by Germany in 1909 and could not afford it again, if it was to be taken as a leader in Eastern Europe. The same goes for their sponsorship of Serbia: the Serbians actually gave in to almost every Austrian demand, but were invaded anyway.

    * France had an alliance with Russia. Their influence would be nil if they cut and run. Furthermore the German ultimatum for control of French forts as a guarantee of peaceful intentions were a demand that no power would have accepted then or now.

    * Great Britain had a treaty obligation to Belgium (see France above). Furthermore, British policy for the past 600-700 years had been to ensure that the Low countries did not come under hostile control. Finally (and perhaps unwisely, but it was done) the British and French had tacit agreements which the French especially had acted upon, and were the British to back out, it would have been considered a rank betrayal.

    >>The alliance system made it more likely to explode into world war rather than a minor balkan conflict.

    That I can agree with, but it didn’t make it predestined.

    >>Possibly, Germany could have been more explcit with their “blank cheque” to Austria – but why, then did they already have a plan (significantly flawed) to invade France through Belgium if they never planned to use it?

    Huh? Any and every competent military will have plans of action for conflict in different areas, even if they never “plan to use them”. Are you familiar with the British plans for invading the US in the 1920s, by way of Canada? They exist(ed), even though (even then) they were considered a very remote contingency.

  • I think the idea that the war “just happened” as some sort of accident is not generally accepted by anybody who studies the matter. The modern consensus seems to be: Germany started it. The question remaining is, was Germany rational or even sane to do so? I was taught by Professor Mearsheimer at University of Chicago. We spent half a quarter on the origins of WWI. He is a systemic determist and would argue that the “international system” pushed Germany into war. I don’t believe it. The Fritz Fischer school argued that Germany got into the war out of greed. land-lust, and false optimism about their military prospects. This is in part true. But this post captures the essence of the matter. Germany had terrible political and military leadership in the years before WWI. No democratic check, no opposition parties, no one minding the store. They got lucky with Bismarck, sort of, but got unlucky with the Kaiser. He was an idiot. Hence all that followed. What a pathetic tale.

  • “Communism would have gripped the world regardless of the great war – the trigger just happened then. The Russian revolution was bubbling away and waiting to happen – just like the war itself.”

    That seems to be the received wisdom at the moment, but I’ve never heard a convincing argument to support it. From what I’ve read, the success of Bolshevism was anything but inevitable. It depended on Lenin. The Germans knew this; that’s why they put him on a train to St. Petersburg.

  • Sage

    I liked your post. But as a fairly assiduous student of the matter, I am stunned that anybody can think to have solved this puzzle without even including in their explanation a detailed descrtiption of Austria-Hungary, the Dual Monarchy, and the dissolution of the Hapsburgs’ empire.

    You do not even deign to so much as mention the Balkans–which is what the war was, in every meaningful sense, begun over (it certainly morphed into much more). The declaration of war, on a formal diplomatic and military level, was centrally about Russia and Austria, and their filling the void left in the Balkans by the steady degradation of the Sick Man’s foothold in Europe. It was that collision course which led to the seemingly inexorable chain reaction you describe. You also make no mention of the Bosnian Crisis in 1908 or any of the Balkan Wars, much less the 1878 Congress of Berlin which established the balance in southeastern Europe in the first place. You need to check into Serbian nationalism. Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinand, the Black Hand–these things merit a place in any discussion of August 1914.

    I’m not trying to be a know-it-all jerk, here. The bottom line, though, is that Germany’s pretext for war involved events left totally unadressed by your analysis. Honesty, my view isn’t that far from yours, in that I believe it was the Austrians who actually started the war (ultimatum, anyone?), but it was the Germans that made it a WORLD war. The causes were so varied, complex, and in some ways indecipherable that no one concise explanation will do. You’ve stumbled onto part of the picture, but only a very small part. I’m with Don on this one.

  • The real tragedy of the First World war lay in its unexpected scale. Most Europeans had been conditioned to think of war in Napoleonic terms, or perhaps as a slightly larger version of the Franco-Prussian conflict. The boys would be “home before the leaves fall”. In Britain, Field Marshal Kitchener was one of the few who understood that war would be protracted and massive.

    Each nation evaluated it’s cassus belli in gross misunderestimation of the price they would have to pay to obtain satisfaction. Had the events of August 1914 culminated in a war lasting 6 months and costing 100,000 lives it would all have made perfect sense.

    It is precisely this absence of substance which made the Great War so tragic. Those who marched into the American Civil War, or the Second World War, knew or came to discover, the necessity of their sacrifice. The saddest thing about Wilfred Owen’s famous “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori” is that he would not have uttered it during the Blitz.

  • Crony Capitalist

    Much of the innocence and naivete wretchard refers to is explored in The Great War and Modern Memory. A great book.

  • Doug Collins

    One factor that no one has mentioned yet was the popular mood in most of the European countries. It had not been important in the years prior to WW1, but with increasing literacy and better communications, all the populations were becoming more aware of what was going on and more politicised. Even the absolutist governments were not so absolute that they could ignore the popular mood. Napoleon III embarked on the Franco-Prussian war, 40 years earlier, at least in part to placate popular opinion. There is also a famous photo of an enthusiastic mob in the Odeonpaltz in Austria, cheering the start of the war in 1914, with a young flushed Adolph Hitler in an inset magnified area in one corner. They had their counterparts in most countries at that time.

    The effect of the Pax Brittainia had been to shield the masses from the harsh realities of war. It may be significant that the only major country to stay out of the war for the first few years was the US, where a large part of the population still had fresh memories of the carnage of 1861-65.

  • Will Allen

    Common, everyday, greed often gets a bad rap, and it is certainly the case when it is cited as a cause of WWI. If only the Germans had simply been greedy; as noted above, Bismarck understood that the best way to satisfy German greed was for Germany to be a continental industrial power. Unfortunately, far more stupid people weren’t just greedy, but also prideful and extremely desirous of prestige. As always, stupidity and pride proved toxic. Stupid greedy people merely go broke, which is no tragedy as long as they can be replaced with intelligent greedy people. God save us from people who seek prestige, however.

  • Brian

    The reason Britain guaranteed Belgium was to make sure that the Channel ports were not under the command of any one European power.

  • Dale Amon

    One of the most amazing bits of history I never knew before (which I learned from that recent 8,10,12? week series on WWI) was that the Kaiser despised America… and he had an invasion plan for that too. They were looking at bringing that large Navy right up to Boston and New York and sending troops ashore in a surprise attack.

    He finally managed to goad America into WWI a decade or two later when it slipped out he was offering Mexico the entire Southwest of the USA if they would invade…

    The Mexicans were not stupid and did not take up the offer. But it definitely lit a flamethrower under american arses.

    I’d always wondered why the US got involved later, not at the time of the Lusitania as one might have thought. Well, that’s why. It really *was* a matter of direct threats against the continental US.

  • Doug Collins

    In reference to the German threats against America:
    I think it was at Edward VII’s funeral in 1909, that the Kaiser remarked to Theodore Roosevelt, that the US had better tread softly with regard to Germany as there were ten million Germans living in the US.

    Roosevelt’s reply: “We have twenty million lamp posts, if necessary”.

    The Germans were among the first of a number going down to Osama bin Laden, who have underestimated American resolve, even when it was explained to them.

  • Excellent post there by Patrick; well done.

  • Ken

    “and he had an invasion plan for that too. They were looking at bringing that large Navy right up to Boston and New York and sending troops ashore in a surprise attack. ”

    Yeah, well everyone has invasion plans for everyplace they can find on a map. What came of their plan in 1917, when they had a better reason than ever for using it?

    And what were these troops going to do after they got ashore and started getting massacred? Where were their supplies and reinforcements going to come from? Even in 1944, no one attempted a large-scale amphibious invasion without a friendly base nearby. Hell, even today, we don’t do major invasions without a friendly base nearby… remember how long it took us to build up in Kuwait?

    “He finally managed to goad America into WWI a decade or two later when it slipped out he was offering Mexico the entire Southwest of the USA if they would invade… ”

    It was supposed to be a secret. I’m amazed that the German diplomat fessed up… the American people were convinced it was a hoax, and probably would have persisted in that belief indefinitely. Anyone trying to offer evidence otherwise would have been accused of playing along with the hoax to try to trick us into the war, and we’d have probably stayed out for the duration.

    I wonder what happened to him afterwards.

    (tinfoil hat)Or maybe it was a hoax, and the German diplomat was actually a British agent… (/tinfoil hat) 🙂

  • Ken

    Sorry, closing italic tag…

  • David

    Schlieffen’s plan was not a “cry for help” but a product of a seriously dysfunctional military high command. Gordon Craig’s “Politics of the Prussian Army” is one of the best accounts of the problems within the Prussian/German officer corps.

    The problems stemmed from the relationship between the Prussian officer corps, society and king during the late 1600s. The officer corps had its roots in the Junker aristocracy. The Junkers, although mostly impoverished, had a considerable amount of pride and arrogance. They also found that the military was one of the few avenues to gain a measure of financial independence and influence. Because of this, the Prussian officer corps developed a special relationship with the King in Prussia which exempted officers from most laws and taxes.

    For the next two centuries, the Prussian military, adhered to this theme and managed to maintain its independence from wider Prussian society and government. Within their isolation, they developed a fantastic military proficiency at the tactical and operational level. However, their voluntary seperation from politics made them weak at the strategic and political levels of war.

    This led to Schlieffen, a fantastic technician who considered concepts such as Belgium neutrality to be triffles. He also failed to understand that a nation may find itself in a wide variety of political situations which could demand nuanced military responses. This led to an inflexible plan which pretty much had “invade France” as the initial move for anything. I suspect if Schlieffen had developed a plan for fighting China, it would have begun with “invade France.”

    The German military, despite its sterling reputation, also suffered from serious lapses at the upper operational levels of war. The crap logistical planning in the Schlieffen plan as well as its poor execution attest to this. If you have ever looked at the German drive on Leningrad or Rommel’s operations in North Africa, you will know what I’m talking about. Great tactics and lower level operations, utter blunders at stringing together rational theater level operations to achieve a coherent strategy – and it wasn’t all Hitler’s fault.

    Any way, back to Schlieffen. He suffered from these defects – isolation from international and national German politics, poor logistical planning and a rigid (and incoherent) strategic vision. Combine that with poor German diplomacy and you have half of a powder keg waiting to ignite.

  • Don Eyres

    >> It was supposed to be a secret. I’m amazed that the German diplomat fessed up.

    It WAS a secret, and no German fessed up. The Zimmermann telegram was sent via telegraph from Berlin to the German Ambassador in Mexico. The telegraph wires crossed British territory at one point and the message was intercepted. Although the telegram was in code, the British were no slouches at cracking codes (a lesson the Germans never really learned). When the Brits decoded this one, they immediately publicized it.

  • HTY

    For a topic so huge, this is a post that is remarkable for conciseness while at the same time identifying virtually all the causes of WWI. A most excellent effort. I salute you.

    I have a few small points to make:

    a) If you’re really interested in the causes of WWI, try out Henry Kissinger’s “Diplomacy” and Robert Massie’s “Dreadnought.” Both of them supply valuable perspectives and facts, many of which buttress your arguments.

    b) As far as I can discern, the Kaiser built a navy out of sheer vanity. One thing I come across over and over again is his envy of the British navy. (As for the British army, let’s face it. Those who deride it included Bismarck, who once said that if a British army sets foot in Germany, he’ll have the police arrest them.)

    The Kaiser never intended to actually use his navy in war. One of the reasons why the High Seas Fleet, aside from Jutland, never engaged the Home Fleet in a major engagement is because the Kaiser was very protective of his fleet. This is consistent with the idea that vanity was the motivation for a navy.

    Another point: The Kaiser was remarkably risk averse. He talked tough, but at actual crises he tends to recoil faster than his generals.

    c) I think it boils down to the fact that Germans, with the exception of Bismarck, were remarkably incompetent in foreign policy. (Chancellor Schroeder has apprently joined the lengthy list.) One thing you left out of your post was how much Bismarck courted the British for an alliance and the various approaches made by Joe Chamberlain to Berlin for an alliance. Unfortunately, Bismarck’s proposals were rejected by the British and by the time Chamberlain proposed an entente, Bismarck was forced out of office.

    Try to imagine, the most powerful navy allied with the second most powerful navy and the most powerful army….

    d) Something else about the general German incompetence in foreign policy. Bismarck skillfully maneuvered the Austrians (1866) and the French (1870) in his wars so that each country stood alone when they fought. Both were swiftly defeated. Bismarck spent the 20 years after the Franco-Prussian War to isolate France. The Kaiser foolishly tossed aside the Russians and rejected British proposals for entente. It’s hard to imagine Bismarck making mistakes of such magnitude.

  • Jacob

    “They got lucky with Bismarck, sort of, but got unlucky with the Kaiser. He was an idiot. Hence all that followed. What a pathetic tale. ”

    Undoubtly true.
    Nor was the Kaiser the only idiot. So were his ministers and generals. Idiots driven by prestige. And the same goes for Austria and Russia (at least).
    As for the British and the French – the motives for entering the war make sense – they were attacked, but the military conduct of the war was quite idiotic too.

    So we know now why WW1 started: because a bunch of utter idiots got hold of power in all major European countries (Wilson in the US was no small idiot, either).
    The question still remains – how could that happen ? No answer.

  • Andy Wood

    One of the most interesting blogs I’ve read for a long time.

    I’ve just got one comment to make in reply to Jacob’s remark:

    So we know now why WW1 started: because a bunch of utter idiots got hold of power in all major European countries (Wilson in the US was no small idiot, either). The question still remains – how could that happen ? No answer.

    By coincidence, the other day I read a couple of essays by Bryan Caplan: here and here.

    I don’t believe the phenomenon is particularly mysterious. Nor do I believe that those in power were necessarily idiots. I think the problem could more adequately be explained by rational ignorance.

    Other than the rewards of aesthetic pleasure, there is little incentive for an individual to keep himself well informed about matters over which he has negligible influence. Thus the great mass of people will be unable to distinguish between a good policy and a bad policy. However, their views are still important – most obviously in a democracy because the public chooses its leaders, but even most dictators have to remain popular to keep hold of power.

    I suggest, therefore, that the politicians pursued the policies they did, not because they were idiots, but because the policies were popular. Unfortunately World War I predates scientific opinion polling, but as evidence I recall seeing footage of celebrations on the streets of many European capitals when the war broke out. It may be worth researching the coverage of election debates prior to the war for further evidence.

    Another example I can think of is the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s. Baldwin and Chamberlain are very often condemned for appeasing Hitler, but it’s often overlooked that most of the important politicians supported appeasement, for the simple reason that pacifism was popular. Churchill was widely condemned as a warmonger and candidates who advocated re-armament tended to lose elections.

    The fault lies not in our leaders, but in ourselves. Most of us are simply unware of what’s going on, or what to do about it.

  • George Atkisson

    Thoroughly enjoyed this thread.

    As much as I enjoyed it, I have to sigh over the utter impossiblity of having a discussion of this quality with 95% of the current graduates of American High Schools.

    I majored in European History in college, and when I try to discuss homework or background issues with my kids (ages 15 and 17), the reaction is “What? No one ever mentioned that! How do you know so much about it?”

    When “socialization’, “peer interaction”, and political correctness are top priority, actual learning comes in a distant second. At this point I guide their research to contemporary sources and references at least 20 years old. Talk about some eye-opening discussions!

  • Marty Busse

    It is important to rember that there was no second Russian revolution. The so-called “October Revolution” was actually a military coup d’etat by elements within the military that had been taken over by the Bolsheviks. The way the phrase “October Revolution” has managed to stay in use is one of the triumphs of Bolshevik propaganda.

    Woodrow Wilson is my candidate for worst US President ever. In addition to casting the US into the role of international busybody (which US leaders keep returning to), he was involved in a massive repression of internal dissent during wartime (widely regarded as the worst ever..yes, even when measured against Executive Order 9066), used a policy of naked force in dealing with Central America and the Caribbean, started the segregation of federal employees and was responsible for many of the laws which began the creep towards socialism in the US.

    The world is still recovering form the Wilson administration.

  • “It is important to rember that there was no second Russian revolution. The so-called “October Revolution” was actually a military coup d’etat by elements within the military that had been taken over by the Bolsheviks. The way the phrase “October Revolution” has managed to stay in use is one of the triumphs of Bolshevik propaganda.”

    Quite so. For the gory details see ‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes.

  • Another thing is that many of the reasons traditionally given for the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war don’t really make much sense. Some of WW1 historiography assumes they were somehow tricked into it. Were they bollocks, they went into it out of lust for territory. Ironically, if they had been content to sit the war out the Ottoman Empire would probably have survived for a while longer.

    See ‘Empires of the Sand’ by Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Iagree with the congratulators and self-congratulators here: a fascinating and highly educational thread.

    In particular I like it when people include worthwhile book titles in the comments. I may have missed one or two, but I have already counted: Kagan, The Origins of War; Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory; Figes, A People’s Tragedy; Karsh and Karsh, Empires of the Sand. It only needs a tiny proportion of readers to follow up such recommendations for the blogosphere (and internet) as a whole to have a huge intellectual impact.

    This to me is one of the most helpful things blogs can do. They can be a front end, so to speak, for deeper study, and provide that vital first, general discussion of the topic that tells you where you might start digging deeper. In this respect (and echoing the comment of George Atkisson) such postings and comment threads can almost amount to a substitute for real face-to-face education.

    Forgive the absence of links, but Google is a wonderful thing. I quickly found the name Fussell, for example, which happened to be absent (from his book The Great War and Modern Memory).

    In that spirit, may I add another book recommendation to this pile? Yes I may.

    Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War. What is so helpful about Blainey is that he makes use of all the wars he can find, of which there have been plenty. It’s odd, if you think about it, to discuss the causes of WW1 while only talking about WW1 (which is not what has happened here I hasten to add), especially when you consider that there are so many other wars to think, to illuminate the start of any particular war. (Kagan also does this kind of comparison, for example.)

    Blainey emphasises especially the “clash of military optimisms” aspect of how wars start. Both sides think they’ll do well, and have no idea how badly they might do – again, something mentioned here. He itemises all the reasons why such clashes of optimism can occur, one of which, by the way, is prolonged peace. (Nothing like a recent fight to establish agreement about relative strength!) So peaces causes war and war causes peace. I know, grim news, but no-one ever said that the truth is always nice.

    Where Blainey is weaker is in explaining why the contending parties in wars came to think of themselves as contending parties in the first place. After all, as I jokingly said to Patrick over the phone in connection with all this, if Patrick and I were to have a fist fight in my living room, say at one of my Friday soirees, it wouldn’t count as much of an explanation of such an unfortunate happening merely to say that both of us thought we would win.

  • Nancy

    George – You would also have found it impossible to have a “discussion of this quality” with high school students of 20 years ago, or 20 years hence. (or computer nerds in general, for that matter). I defy you to go into the street of any city anywhere in the world, pull 30 people at random, put them in a room and engage them in an interesting (to you) conversation about World War I. Unless you got very lucky, you would always be the most knowledgeable person there.

    That’s what is great about blogging in general, and this site in particular. There are many truly bright, well-read people who post here. Occasionally, you get a super thread like this one. The varied takes on a set of events reinforces how subjective the study of history is, but they are all informed and thoughtful opinions, and expand my understanding immensely in a concise and enjoyable way. I have neither the time nor the inclination in the forseeable future to plow through any of the books suggested above, so for me this is particularly useful. I learn something new everytime I check in.

  • “…the Kaiser built a navy out of sheer vanity.”

    While I called the Kaiser an “idiot”, this may be going a little too far. I am halfway through Dominic Lieven’s excellent book Empire, and he has a good discussion of the mindset of the political leadership of the major countries circa 1900. The idea in the air at that point was that European countries needed to have overseas empires as the 20th century began, otherwise the continental-scale powers (Russia, US) and the then-preeminent “blue water” empire, England (everybody called it England in those days) would rule the world. (A contemporary book on this topic, which well-captures the mindset of the Germans is J. A. Cramb Germany and England (1914)) We now see the grabbing of overseas colonies as a losing game, as a net loser financially and politically and militarily. But we need to stand in the shoes of leaders circa 1900 who don’t know how the 20th C. would go, and understand that they really believed that they needed to acquire foreign territory, resources and populations to prosper and even to survive in the 20th C. We also need to understand that they were unashamedly “Eurocentric” and forthrightly racist and believed they had the means and the right to conquer and rule the entire world. The Germans in particular thought the recently concluded “scramble for Africa” was just the first round in a worldwide carve-up. Lieven quotes one German commentator in 1897: “In the last century we were too late to partake of the general partition. But a second partition is forthcoming. We need only consider the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the isolation of China, the unstable condition of so many South American states, to see what rich opportunities await us .. In order not to miss these opportunities this time we require a fleet.”

    So, more than “sheer vanity” was at work. Incorrect, but then widely accepted, models of the economic and political situation underlay the bad decisions.

    Here’s an extra credit question: How many of our fundamental assumptions about world politics and the world economy and the future of the world will look obvioiusly wrong or foolish to our successors in 2103?

    As to the possibility of a German naval and amphibious attack on the USA, the book to read is Holger Herwig’s book The Politics of Frustration: The United States in German Naval Planning. Herwig shows that the Germans never got beyond the stage of writing a few speculative memoranda about what to do about the USA in the event of war. The most developed plan, I seem to recall, involved a close blockade of the northeastern harbors, after seizing Long Island and Nantucket as bases. Even the Kaiser’s men understood that the interior of North America was simply beyond their grasp. (The British were much more sensible. They realized by 1904 that any war against the United States in North America was completely impossible, and stopped even preparing contingency plans. The still-classic treatment of this is Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (1967))

    The Nazis, oddly, were more rational than the Tirpitz-era German naval planners. Gerhard Weinberg in his monumental book A World At Arms shows that the Nazi-era leadership knew that attacking the US would require a mammoth effort, and that it could not be undertaken until all of Europe was in their hands, and that it would require the construction of a massive ocean-going navy and inter-continental jet bombers. This planning only went as far as blue prints for the enormous battleships and aircraft carriers which were to convoy the invasion army across the Atlantic sometime after 1950.

    (This scenario would make a fabulous science-fiction novel or movie, btw.)

    Finally, I agree that this has been an excellent group of comments and I greatly appreciate the references to books, some of which were new to me, so I have offered a few suggestions of my own.

  • HTY

    Lexington Green is right to stress the prominence of empire in the consideration of the great powers. But the question before us is whether the Kaiser seriously believed in an overseas empire. I haven’t found much evidence for that. I’m aware that there were elements in German society that desired an overseas empire. But I have not found much evidence that the sentiment is shared by the Kaiser.

    Returning to Bismarck, he was aware of the logic of a valuable overseas empire, which is why he never pursued one. (He got places like Namibia, which were utterly worthless, more to satisfy domestic elements than as a first step to empire.) A valuable overseas empire requires a powerful fleet to protect it, which will put Germany on a collision course with Britain, which he sought to avoid.

    The Kaiser was a fan of Mahan, but I don’t get the impression that he’s a devotee to his ideas. Rather, I get the sense that his references to Mahan’s theories was for the purpose of promoting a navy, rather than a true devotion to a valuable overseas empire.

  • Sage

    I’m not a military historian, but I think HYT is right about Mahan’s “navalist” influence in Germany (not just on Wilhelm II–there was the Navy League, and so on). The popular delusion of the time was Tirpitz’s “risk theory,” which assumed that even if Germany could never catch up to the British in naval arms, she could at least build up a large enough fleet to keep the Royal Navy pinned in at home, leaving its empire unprotected and preventing a crippling blockade. It didn’t work out that way, and ironically it was the reintroduction of unrestircted submarine warfare that brough the U.S. into the war, and brought on German defeat.

    I agree with those complimenting this thread. Good posts lead to good threads, of course. And Samizdata has among the best-informed comments sections anywhere. That’s why I post so seldom, in a way, since people always seem to know a lot more than I do on any given subject. Good stuff.

    I just think it’s a bit unfortunate that WWI and its causes are really a huge blind spot for most Americans. Most people can tell you the basics of WWII, but WWI is just this vague conflict from another era, seemingly unconnected to the contemporary world. Of course, it changed the world far more than World War II did, and the fashion now is to look at WWII as a continuation of the same war, the real end of the 19th century.

    I’ll go one more and say that WWI was the final death knell of the Enlightenment, something modernists and anti-modernists can both probably agree on.

  • Rod T

    The best discussion thread I’ve seen on any posting.

    George Kennan has a thorough, if dry, treatment of the Franco-Russian rapprochement in his book The Fateful Alliance, which was the key change in international relations between 1815 and 1914.

    I disagree with the assumption that von Scheifflen and the General Staff were idiots – or that they ignored strategic-political planning. The Germans had made the French into their mortal enemies; the German Empire had been cemented together by the blood of France in 1870. It would have been illogical of them to assume that in event of conflict in the south or east that the French would NOT have tried to take advantage of the situation militarily.

    The south was secured by the alliance with Austria-Hungary, in the east was Russia which in terms of prewar planning was the strongest power in Europe – based strictly on her reserves of manpower. In the west – France and then Britain. France was a weaker power than Germany and had had to increase conscription from a two year term to a three year term to make up for her manpower deficit. The British army was in in Bismark’s (?) estimation perfectly suited for it’s job – to fight indigenous people all over the globe- not in Europe.

    With this as the German strategic problem, the sensible strategy was to crush France first, before the British could intervene and then deal with the Russians. Belgium was seen as (rightly) easier to march through than the French forts on the German border.

    Whether the plan would have worked before von Moltke modified so that the right hand thrust passed east instead of west of Paris can only be debated – and perhaps war gamed if anyone is so inclined. 1814/15 and 1940 both showed that if Paris falls, so does France.

    In regard to the knowledge of high schoolers about this period – I do remember from far to many years ago, that the question on the test was: “What was Bismark’s greatest fear?” The teacher allowed two ‘correct’ answers – either a two front war or no jelly in his doughnuts. 😉

  • lucklucky

    Schlieffen’s Plan never were used? this author Terence Zuber argues that is a historian construction.

    Here is an interisting text with many information.


    For me the 1st WW was “natural” since all alliances were made that a light fire somewhere could light a big one.
    More strange the 2nd WW since German army wasnt better than French one and laughable inferior when it attacked Poland. In that we can call incompetence from allies politicians loudly!! 2nd WWar was truly an evitable war.

  • “Returning to Bismarck, he was aware of the logic of a valuable overseas empire, which is why he never pursued one.”

    This opens the door for me to quote Bismarck on this topic — something I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet: “On my map Africa is located in Europe. Here is Russia, here is France, and we are situated in the center; that is my map of Africa.” Bismarck saw sooner than anybody, when everyone else in Europe was running after the colonial “bubble”, he wanted to sit it out. Quite a guy.

    Why do the Germans produce so much brilliance, so much stupidity, but so little common sense? Bismarck had it.

    As to whether Schliefen and the General Staff were idiots, I don’t tend to think so either. The soldiers were put in an untenable position by the political and diplomatic failures of their employer, the Kaiser. With both France and Russia hostile, they faced a two-front war, they were stuck with it, and they had to figure out the best way to deal with it. Trying to crush France first seemed sensible given the constraints. The real problem is that no plan could save them from a rotten position ab initio which was the result of failures they did not control. The soldiers had to produce a blitzkrieg without the technical means to do so. They came awfully close in 1914.

    As to whether the Kaiser was colonial-minded, I don’t know. The creation of a terribly expensive, provocative and otherwise useless fleet is hard to explain otherwise. But maybe he didn’t even know why he wanted a navy. He wasn’t very smart.

    Again, the institutional weakness in Germany was that there were no democratic processes in place to challenge the political and military leadership, and force daylight into the decision-making. So, rotten thinking didn’t get exposed until the train cars full of shot-up and limbless soldiers began to roll back from the front to Germany.

    We should never underestimate the far greater war-planning and war-fighting power of democracies, where armament purchases and military planning has to be publicly justified from time to time. It is a source of strength which is too-little appreciated.

  • Jacob

    “Bismarck … Quite a guy.”

    I’ll add here a thought which is maybe a little heretic: it was rather this genial Bismarck who was the root cause for the two catastrophic World Wars.
    He was a genius, no doubt, but maybe an evil genius. He had many impressive acomplishments, but surely we, as libertarians, must be sceptical of them.
    He created a powerful, bureaucratic, centrally managed state where none existed before. We as libertarians hate the all powerful centralized state for good reasons. Power should stay as close as possible to the people, and a federal system of governing is better. Germany before Bismarck, with many scattered statelets and principalities loosely associated was a better state model that Bismarck’s centralized state. Bismarck created a colosus – a united German state, efficient, centralized, bureaucratic and militaristic. There is little doubt that this is the true root cause of the two World Wars, which were clearly started both by this German power hungry, prestige hungry, powerful, big state. Bismatck was smart enough to keep his wars short and successful, and to avoid too grand military ambitions, but, by developing the military power as an efficient tool of policy, he laid the foundations for it’s future missuse by lesser leaders.
    Besides, Bismarck invented two of the ideas we libertarians hate most: the welfare state (social security) and general, universal, government forced and managed education.
    Bismarck’s genius is sung by people who like all those things, especially powerful governments. We should not join this choir.

    Going back to the causes of WW1 – here is the true cause – Bismarck. There can be little doubt that without the unification of Germany there would have been no WW1 and 2.

  • R C Dean

    Re the Schlieffen plan: I wouldn’t be too hard on it. It came within a whisker of working in 1914, and in its essentials it did work in 1940. The French army was crumbling, and little stood in the way of the Germans early in WWI – only an extraordinary effort by the French stabilized the front.

    The successful blitzkreig of France in WWII was, on the map, a reasonably close “do-over” of Schlieffen. The major difference was that the blitzkreig had more mechanized troops, and so was able to sustain momentum long enough to carry the Germans into Paris.

  • “Germany before Bismarck, with many scattered statelets and principalities loosely associated was a better state model that Bismarck’s centralized state.”

    Maybe, but it was not less likely to lead to wars. Weakness invites attack, pre-Bismarck Germany was weak. That’s why all those statelets were gobbled up by the biggest fish. Prussia, which was also the most military-minded.

    Creating a strong and unified Germany, Bismarck’s doing, did not make war inevitable. What made war inevitable, or at least very likely, was botching its foreign policy so all its advantages were thrown away, and provoking its neighbors to the point that a preventive war looked like a good plan.

    This divergence between Jacob and me points up a commonly occurring difference between conservatives and libertarians — those who see a powerful state, especially one with a strong military, as bad per se, and those who see it as an unfortunate necessity in a dangerous world.

  • Ken

    “It WAS a secret, and no German fessed up. The Zimmermann telegram was sent via telegraph from Berlin to the German Ambassador in Mexico. The telegraph wires crossed British territory at one point and the message was intercepted. Although the telegram was in code, the British were no slouches at cracking codes (a lesson the Germans never really learned). When the Brits decoded this one, they immediately publicized it.”

    Zimmerman did indeed publicly admit the telegram’s authenticity, on March 3, 1917.

    Before that, many Americans were not yet willing to accept its authenticity.

    If he’d kept his trap shut, I’d bet he’d have gotten away with it,and the Americans would not have believed in the authenticity of the telegram with sufficient unanimity to provide sufficient support for joining the war.

  • veryretired

    An excellent discussion. Two quick points I would like to make.

    First, the world was under the control of several Empires by the turn of 1900, the Americas somewhat excepted, who had been busy constructing their possessions for a couple of centuries. The explorations of the 15th to 19th centuries were mostly a government run enterprise to find new and unprotected areas to take under their wings and use for whatever purposes seemed most profitable.

    There is some cogency to the idea that the explosion that was WW1, and the subsequent collapse of some of the Empires involved, was very much a function of their increasingly abrasive expansionist policies rubbing up against one another. They expected the war to involve a few big battles, and then they would sit down and trade a few provinces around to settle up until the next time.

    It was the “new” potentialities of industry, trains, armaments, and mass armies that submerged the antagonists in a massive struggle beyond anything they could have imagined.

    Secondly, the comment earlier about the calamity that was the 20th Century marking the “end of the Enlightenment” was backwards. The 19th Century was a continuous and furious reaction to the idea of individual rights and self government.

    The eruption of the great empires (WW1), and then the secondary blast of the powerful states that succeeded them (WW2), all based on collectivist ideology and authoritarian systems, was, in fact, the implosion of those incredibly erroneous visions of society.

    Look at the world around you. Representative government, individual worth, and basic civil liberties are evoked in nearly all areas of the Western world, regardless of the level of achievement of those ideas. It is the current conflict between that view of man and the closed, mystical, and authoritarian model of the Islamic fascists that occupies us.

    Hostility toward the concept of individual rights is relentless and unceasing. It is the only theory of man that can defeat despotism, and the despots know it all too well.

  • Jacob

    “Maybe, but it was not less likely to lead to wars. Weakness invites attack, pre-Bismarck Germany was weak. ”
    Sure, but small states have small wars, like the Balkan states that failed to unite. On the other hand, Germany, after uniting and being strong, had a real catastrophic war. Which is better – being divided and weak and victim of small wars, or being strong and big and cause of a big one ? The answer is clear, albeit in hindsight.

    “Creating a strong and unified Germany, Bismarck’s doing, did not make war inevitable.”

    No. It made war possible. Murphy’s law took over from there and made the war happen.
    Again, looking in hindsight we can safely assume that had the Germans failed to produce this Bismarck genius, and failed to unite they would have probably been spared these wars.
    Was German unification inevitable ? I don’t know. That’s too much to speculate about. But in hindsight we can say it wasn’t good for them.
    No, I don’t have great sympathy for Bismarck, though I recognize his capabilities.

    About the Schliefen plan:
    “As to whether Schliefen and the General Staff were idiots, I don’t tend to think so either”

    Turns out the Schliefen plan wasn’t the one and only possible plan, and Schliefen himself tried out in war games other plans too, and generally favored letting the French come out of their forts and attack first, and then only mount his counter attack. This was a wise strategy since the machine gun gave tremendous advantage to defenders over attackers.
    In the 1914 War Germany did not have conquest ambitions. What made her go to war was the fear of being annihilated. So her strategical aims were defensive. Launching the offensive against France was a tremendous gamble, and tremendous blunder. It would have served her interests much better to stay put and defend, and she could have succeded in it. She could even have avoided the war altogether if she hadn’t rushed to the attack trough Belgium, or, she could have ended the war after a few skirmishes, for example – after defeating the two Russian armies as she did in 1914 on the Prussian front. It was the attack in France that turned the war into the prolonged catastrophe it became.
    So, yes, the German generals of 1914 were idiots. The Schliefen attack was unnecessary, and catastrophic, and contrary to Germany’s strategic aims, and unsafe, militarily. And the Kaiser, seems to have been less of a fool than his generals, he tried to stop them sensing he had blundered, and being cautious by natutre, but he was a weakling too, and failed to impose his will on them.

  • Jacob

    “It was the “new” potentialities of industry, trains, armaments, and mass armies that submerged the antagonists in a massive struggle beyond anything they could have imagined.”

    Guns don’t kill people, trains and armaments don’t make war. People make war.

    “beyond anything they could have imagined ” ???
    Why ? Didn’t they study the Napoleonic wars, or the American Civil war ? So why was it difficult to imagine ??

  • Jacob:

    You wrote: “Which is better – being divided and weak and victim of small wars, or being strong and big and cause of a big one ? The answer is clear, albeit in hindsight.”

    It’s not clear in advance because it depends on whether you win the big one. German defeat, even starting from the catastrophic position the Kaiser’s stupidity had put them in by 1914, was not inevitable.

    “Creating a strong and unified Germany … made war possible.” No a weak, divided Germany would have either become united, or been conquered by somebody. War is always “possible”, especially for the weak. Better to be part of a strong country, and take your chances that either other large countries will be deterred, or that you will prevail if you are attacked. Ask the Poles if being a weak country in continental Europe is a good deal or makes “war” less possible — only if you count being partitioned without a war because you are too weak to fight as “not war”.

    I still don’t agree the German generals pre-1914 were “idiots”. The 1914 attack almost worked. You assert that standing on the defensive in 1914 would have allowed them to win. I see no basis for thinking this. It would have guaranteed a long war, which the Germans correctly believed they’d lose, as they in fact did. As to the machine guns and the strength of the defensive, the lessons of the
    Russo-Japanese war were understood to be that a an attack can succeed if you are willing to lose lots of soldiers. The Germans accepted that bargain during the attack phase in 1914. Once the mobile phase ended, it was the Germans who took advantage of the defensive power of contemporary weapons. Again, I see no idiocy here, I see calculated risks and a high degree of professional competence. We can stand here 100 years later and second-guess them, but I don’t think it is fair or accurate to say that the pre-War German senior officers were idiots. You also assert “[i]n the 1914 War Germany did not have conquest ambitions.” I don’t think this is correct, but I’d need to dig back into the books.

    Anyway, we look at the historical record, see some facts differently and reach very different conclusions. We understand each others positions, and still disagree. It happens.

  • A well put together piece Mr. (or Ms.) Guest Writer, but I think you’re wrong. WWI was not about Germany at all. WWI was an almost inevitable outgrowth of the growing tendencies toward nationalism, industrialization, mass-rule, and empire in the West at the time, and the consequent strains in international relations caused by such. The lens of history often distorts the arms races and conflicts in the lead up to WWI as a Britain vs. Germany thing, but it was not that. It was an everybody vs. everybody thing, Britain vs. America vs. France vs. Russia vs. Germany vs. Japan. Indeed, in the early years of the 20th century a major war between the US and Britain looked to be among the most likely. It was really only a matter of time before someone screwed up, acted the ass, and tossed a match into the powder keg. Yes, it ended up being Germany but it just as well could have been France, Russia, Britain, the US, or even Japan a few years or decades later. Indeed, the end of WWI failed to put a cap on the causative factors for the war and only a few decades later the same sort of world-wide industrialized war bloomed again, though with different sources of ignition.

  • I’m not entirely satisfied with my comment so I’ll take another crack at it. Basically what it comes down to is this, the Western world grew too big for its britches. The political forces which caused WWI were nothing especially new, mostly the same old crap that had always gone on throughout history, especially European history. At the time the only real, serious democracy in the world was America, everyone else was either playing at it with almost no experience (as France was, for example) or a monarchy. But in a time when the power and direction of a country was necessarily dominated by the masses, due to industrialization, that made for a very bad setup. Thus we had an orgy of bizarre, hybrid ways of centralizing power via the masses with propaganda and such-like. But whipping the masses into nationalism can put a nation on a runaway course toward conflict, and I believe that’s one of the main causes of WWI. Add to that the typical buffoonery of pre-modern national leadership and you get disaster. None of the great powers at the time had any real notion what the war would be like, perhaps America had some notion due to the Civil War, but everyone else expected it to be the same kind of war as the old wars. Or, if anything, shorter and less bloodier. But, of course, they were all horribly wrong and the world paid the price for their stupidity and ignorance. The major cause of WWI was simply that the world had so little experience with industrial wars and took war far too lightly because they did not yet know that the stakes had changed. The immediate causes of the war (Serbia, yadda yadda yadda) were not sufficient to bring about pan-European or world-wide warfare, but nobody really had a good understanding that with railroads, automobiles, factories, and conscription you can go from start of hostilities to knee deep in dead soldiers in the blink of an eye. Of course, nobody had a really good idea at the time that that was even a bad thing.

  • Cobden Bright

    Lexington wrote – “Creating a strong and unified Germany, Bismarck’s doing, did not make war inevitable.”

    Not by itself, no. But when combined with the unaccountability of Germany’s foreign policy arm of government, I think war was a long-run inevitability. As soon as the foreign policy decision making process is controlled by a certain type of foolish person, which is a 100% likelihood over time, strategic blundering eventually leading to precipitation of a loseable war is very likely.

    History seems to bear this out – there are few countries with unaccountable foreign policy which armed aggressively and then did not eventually come to ruin through warfare. Democratic states have been remarkably successful in avoiding ruinous wars precisely because of their superior transparency and accountability in foreign policy.

    As a second point, I don’t see why libertarianism is not compatible with a strong military (conquered states do not usually enjoy much liberty, after all), or why anyone would think that states are any good at providing defence, seeing as they are so manifestly bad at providing goods of all other kinds, including domestic law and order. A claim that the state is better must at least be backed up by credible evidence, and not just assumed as axiomatic.

  • Cobden Bright

    Robin Goodfellow –

    I think the key factor you miss is that if it had been, say, UK and USA going to war, the war would be over within months if not weeks, due to public outcry and political pressures from within both the government and opposition to negotiate with the other side for peace. It was mainly the rigid authoritarian nature of most of the WWI protagonist societies that allowed it to drag on and consume an entire generation of men, and I think that is also what pushed it over the brink somewhat earlier than might otherwise have been the case.

    There are few example of a serious war between democracies. It’s not impossible, but it’s much less likely than if one or more of the players has an autocratic state. The natural tendency to conflict resolution by discussion rather than force, and the tendency of more open societies to trade during times of peace, thus developing mutual self-interests, is a powerful bulwark against the likelihood of war. To assume a serious likelihood of a US vs UK conflict would be to ignore the huge political pressure the business communities in both countries (who have huge influence over the political process) would have brought to bear against it, due to its disastrous effects on profits.

    WWII provided further evidence to support this theory – the massive authoritarian power of the state in closed collectivist societies like Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent Russia all contributed enormously to the war starting and then lasting as long as it did.

  • M. Simon

    The Schleiffen Plan was actually quite good. The Germans did not execute properly. Had the French left advanced further into Germany as the plan had envisioned the French could not have recovered. The German mistake was strengthening their right in opposition to the plan. They needed a weak right to entice the French forward.

    Other than that I think your analysis is spot on.

  • Alan Peakall

    Even prior to reading this thread, it had occurred to me that being asked for a judgement on Bismark is a good litmus test to distinguish a Conservative from a Libertarian. Thanks to Peter and Jacob for providing supporting evidence.

  • M. Simon


    WWI was the final death knell of the Enlightenment

    I think it would be more correct to say WWI was the final death knell of the Enlightenment in Europe.

    In tthe current war America is still motivated by Enlightenment values. The Bush Democracy speech is instructive in that regard.

  • carl


    The problem with the idea that the Kaiser’s navy was built to secure an overseas empire is that it was the wrong kind of navy for the job. Had the Germans concentrated on building long range cruisers and gun boat flotillas the British probably would have ignored them. Instead they focused their efforts on building a battleship fleet. Given the limited range of turn of the century battleships and Germany’s lack of readily available overseas coaling stations, the High Seas Fleet could serve only one possible purpose, ie to engage the Royal Navy in the North Sea.

    The British (naturally) found this prospect most alarming.

  • Jacob

    Robin Goodfellow,
    “WWI was an almost inevitable outgrowth of the growing tendencies toward nationalism, industrialization, mass-rule, and empire in the West at the time, and the consequent strains in international relations caused by such.”…

    That’s the conventional explanation, but it sounds tortured and unconvincing. You can go on and ask: why exactly were those tendencies and strains growing ?

    Wars in the past had well defined, declared and discernible causes. Usually it was the quest for empire. This historical cause is also dragged into WW1, but artificially. The fact is that none of the powers entered into WW1 with the explicit intention of aquiring teritorries and enlarging the empire. War in the past were fought over a specific piece of land – a colony, a province, a duchy – this certainly wasn’t the case in WW1. Wars in the past were caused by disputes over the ascendancy to some throne – again not the case in WW1. Wars in the past were caused by religion – absolutely not the case here. Wars were fought over the control over some goods, or some routes to those goods. Does no apply here.
    So, lacking specific, rational, well defined reasons historians make up some cocktail of untangible reasons: the web of alliances, the nationalist friction, the industrialized means of war, keg of powder, mass demagogy, etc.
    Nice speculations, but nothing tangible here. These are rationalizations after the fact, not hard facts. No rational, convincing explanation. You can explain anything by pseudo-psychological factors, feelings, tendencies and so on. But that’s a different kind of explanation than the ones discernible in past wars.
    So there you are – no satisfactory explanation for WW1.

  • So Germany set the stage for a pointless war by a foolhardy leader who unnecessarily upset the long standing and delicate alliances and foreign policy which lead his country to be pre-eminent?

    Who says history doesn’t have lessons for today?

  • R. C. Dean

    The explorations of the 15th to 19th centuries were mostly a government run enterprise to find new and unprotected areas to take under their wings and use for whatever purposes seemed most profitable.

    At least with respect to the British Empire, I don’t think this is quite true. The story of the British Empire is mostly various British governments being hauled, grumbling and complaining, into claiming and defending various outposts pioneered by private commercial interests. By and large, the traders went first, and when they got into trouble, the navy and the army came after.

  • Sean

    I look forward to your book. Your premise is right on the mark – Germany was to blame for the European wars of the past century. Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it – their sick philosophies have so infected the modern world that even greater disasters beckon us all…

  • What have I started?

    For starters a discussion that ranges well beyond the boundaries of my existing knowledge and analysis. Who would have thought that the Schlieffen Plan would have turned out to have been a myth? It’s going to take me years to get over that.

    Consequently, I have nothing to add to this excellent discussion for now.

    I would like to say a little thank you to Scott Wickstein. Over on Sasha’s Blog about a month ago he wrote a comment to the effect that it was all the Kaiser’s fault. This post owes its origins to my attempt to prove him wrong.

  • Wasn’t my best ever posting; don’t drink and blog, kiddies. If I ever get time, maybe in the Christmas period, I might be able to drag myself away from cricket match, bottle and table, and write a definitive “Why Kaiser Billy was a complete tosser and its all his fault” kind of essay.

    Although I promised Michael Jennings an essay on the Battle of Kursk in that time as well. I will see how I go.

    For more on the Schlieffen Plan, Sir John Keegan’s “The First World War” provides an admirable examination of the plan, and why it miscarried. (Keegan’s short answer: logisitics).

    Top notch thread folks.

  • ricky

    The precipitating event–assasination of the arch -duke was an error ,caused by irrational hatred of the Hapsburgs.After the war one of the leaders of the Black Hand said if we had known a war would result ,we never would have went ahead with the plan.The assasins actually killed a man who had a lot of sympathy for the people of SE europe.The hapsburg court and the a-h officer corps ,who cared little for the arch-duke(due to his marrying below his station) then used his death as an excuse to punish the expansionist serbs.If the a-d had lived to ascend the throne I think SE europe would be a more stable region than it is today

  • ryan

    Germany was bent on warfare all along and I agree with the works of Franz Fischer. Germany was a war moungering country that saw a gain from war which it often recieved. It did not need an excuse to go into war, it always was not matter what the circumstances.

  • dietler boy

    I believe that the real problem for germany was the allied wild card the americans, had we not acted to break the blockade around them england would have been completly starved out, and do to the fall of russia the german army could have with the new concentration of men could have easily taken france. even though the kaiser ditched russia and his allies were morons its irrelevant they would have won. they would have prevented a second world war and there by the domination of western europe of communism. saving us time men and money.

  • Kate

    Do you know anything about Plan 17 and Plan R ? I’m doing an Essay on it for school, and don’t know anything about it as GOOGLE doesn’t come up with anything.

  • soni

    so was germany solely responsible for the outbreak of first world war???

  • Ivy

    Actually, the Schlieffen plan was distorted by the Kaiser. The original plan was what you have said. The Kaiser, being stupid tweaked it. He strengthened the left flank intead of right.

  • sydney

    do you have any info on the islation vs. intervention issue during WW1?? ia have to debate how isolation should have been a better route. Thanx

  • Kris

    Umm… Germany was not the only country to blame. Yes they had their fair share of blame but all countries wanted war just as badly as Germany (with the exception of Britain). France wanted a war against Germany and wanted Russia in as well. The Russians were hurt for many reasons and knew very well Germany would support Austria so wanted France in it. Austria-Hungary wanted to take Serbia, beat Russia and have Germany help them. Their were many reasons it started. I also got taught at school about imperialism, nationalism, and militarism were very key to the war. Don’t blame just Germany, for if you do your just brain-washed by stupidity. All countries were responsible for war. (Oh and if you say just Germany started the war then your as good as stating your pro-nazi because That was what Hitlers used, revenge got him power)

  • That is the question, isn’t it? Would another First Lord of the Admiralty have been as ruthless as Churchill? His policies were continued by his successors, but would they have been initiated by them? Once the die had been cast, it would have been very difficult to have retreated. The damage had already been done. Another German leader could have been as ruthless as Hitler, but would he have been? Lenin and Trotsky might have been as bad as Stalin, but is it likely they would have been?

    Might-have-beens are interesting, but they are not reality. The reality is that Winston Churchill initiated the policies that were critical to initiating the series of events that led to the totalitarian disasters of the twentieth century, and he should be held to account for this fact.

    Jerry Kraus

    — David Pyne wrote:

    > Jerry,
    > I agree that Churchill iniitated the only Allied war
    > crime of WWI—the illegal starvation blockade of
    > Britain to which Germany’s unrestricted submarine
    > warfare campaign was only a counter. Churchill was a
    > total warrior for sure and by 1939 if not 1935 or
    > perhaps as early as WWI a consummate Germanophobe
    > consumed by his blind hatred of Germany and its
    > status
    > as the strongest power in Europe. I am not convinced
    > though that Churchill won the war for the Allies. I
    > think that is being too generous. I think there is a
    > decent chance that another First Lord of the
    > Admiralty
    > might have also utilized the illegal starvation
    > blockade of Germany, which in the end was Britain
    > best
    > if not their only hope of winning World War I.
    > David
    > — jerry kraus wrote:
    > > David,
    > >
    > > The letter of mine below was actually a response
    > to
    > > David Heal, on the WWI site, not to you. I just
    > > thought it might be of interest to the members of
    > > the
    > > WWII group, as well. I don’t feel that you have
    > > been
    > > distorting my views at all.
    > >
    > > I think that the role of Winston Churchill in the
    > > twentieth century may be even more pivotal than is
    > > generally imagined, but in a very negative sense.
    > > Whatever his motives in WWI, I think he may have
    > > changed the whole tone of European relations from
    > > highly civilized to totally barbaric. It was his
    > > actions as First Lord of the Admiralty that turned
    > > the
    > > conflict from an essentially military one, to one
    > > that
    > > involved the potential starvation of all civilians
    > > on
    > > both sides. He seems to have had rather a taste
    > for
    > > total war and the annihilation of civilians. You
    > > left
    > > out his involvement in the extermination camps in
    > > Africa to deal with the Mau-Mau rebellion. Not
    > > surprising you’ld miss that. The British Foreign
    > > Office has tried to destroy most of the relevant
    > > documents.
    > >
    > > Britain was far more vulnerable, as a small,
    > > over-populated island, than was Germany to a
    > > potential
    > > blockade. Without Churchill’s maneuverings, I
    > don’t
    > > see how they could have survived a year. Peace in
    > > 1915 would have meant relatively little
    > > vindictiveness, as compared with peace three years
    > > later.
    > > A moderate peace accord, rather than a Versailles
    > > Treaty. Therefore, no reason for another War.
    > The
    > > Bolsheviks would never have come to power without
    > > the
    > > German assistance they received in 1916 and 1917,
    > > and
    > > the damages of a long war in Russia. Therefore,
    > no
    > > Communist Empire there, or probably, anywhere
    > else.
    > > And Hitler himself was supported along the way by
    > > Stalin’s instructions to the German Communist
    > Party.
    > > Stalin saw him as less of a threat than a strong,
    > > democratic and capitalist Germany. No Bolsheviks,
    > > no
    > > Hitler. And without the Bolsheviks in Russia,
    > would
    > > even Mussolini have received the support he needed
    > > to
    > > achieve power, as an alternative to Communism in
    > > Italy? Would fascism even have developed, except
    > as
    > > an antidote to Communism in Russia?
    > >
    > >
    > > I believe that Winston Churchill may have got the
    > > whole totalitarin ball rolling in Europe by his
    > > willingness to stop at nothing to win.
    > >
    > > Jerry Kraus
    > > jkraus_1999@yahoo.com
    > >
    > > — David Pyne wrote:
    > >
    > > > Jerry,
    > > >
    > > > I do not fault Churchill for creating this class
    > > of
    > > > armed merchant ships. I do join you in
    > attributing
    > > > his
    > > > actions here in forcing the Germans to adopt a
    > > > policy
    > > > of unrestricted submarine warfare which got the
    > US
    > > > into the war against Germany. Churchill has
    > > > committed
    > > > many quite severe war crimes over the course of
    > > his
    > > > career such as the terror bombings which killed
    > a
    > > > million innocent Germans, the starvation
    > blockade
    > > of
    > > > Germany which killed a million German,
    > > > Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish
    > civilians,
    > > > Operation Keelhaul which killed 2-6 million
    > > > anti-Communist freedom fighters, his plan to
    > drop
    > > > anthrax on Germany killing millions of Germans
    > and
    > > > his
    > > > support for the even more genocidal Morgenthau
    > > plan
    > > > which called for the starvation of all but 20
    > > > million
    > > > of Germany’s 75 million Germans.
    > > >
    > > > I do not, however, consider the Q ships to rate
    > > the
    > > > title of war crimes as the people who died as a
    > > > result
    > > > of his amoral actions were not enemy nationals,
    > > but
    > > > allied ones, even though you are absolutely
    > > correct
    > > > that it was a violation of the Geneva Convention
    > > and
    > > > thus international law. I think we agree on most
    > > > everything else about the mistakes we have made
    > in
    > > > WWI
    > > > and WW2. Lastly, I am most definitely not
    > > distorting
    > > > your points in order to score my own. I am
    > simply
    > > > telling you what you have written that I agree
    > > with
    > > > and what I disagree with. Churchill was
    > certainly
    > > > ruthless and completely amoral, not to mention a
    > > war
    > > > criminal who ought to have been convicted and
    > > > punished
    > > > for his crimes (along with several other Allied
    > > > leaders including FDR and Truman and very
    > possibly
    > > > Air
    > > > Marshal Harris, General Hap Arnold, General
    > Curtis
    > > > LeMay, General Eisenhower and others who might
    > > claim
    > > > that they were just following orders) as he is
    > in
    > > my
    > > > book. On that there can be no doubt.
    > > >
    > > > Britain was not the aggressor power in WWI. No
    > one
    > > > country was too blame for that war. If there was
    > a
    > > > power to blame, I would blame Tsarist Russia for
    > > > refusing to avert a general war by demobilizing
    > at
    > > > the
    > > > Kaiser’s urgent request. While Germany and the
    > > > Soviet
    > > > Union were the aggressors in WW2, it was Britain
    > > and
    > > > France that “started” the World War in the sense
    > > > that
    > > > had they not declared war on Germany in 1939,
    > > there
    > > > would have been peace in Europe until Hitler was
    > > > ready
    > > > to invade the USSR which was to follow his
    > > > occupation
    > > > of Poland. Sadly, the American people fell for
    > > > Wilson’s and Creel’s lying war propaganda in
    > World
    > > > War
    === message truncated ===