by Kung Fu Zu 9/11/14
StubbornThings recently published a piece titled “The First World War’s Relevance to Our Times”. The piece starts out well enough, reminding readers of the fact that the year 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “Great War” as it came to be called. The author correctly states that WWI was,
“…probably the most cataclysmic event in world history, one that overturned a century of extraordinary human progress and set the political, economic, cultural and social tone for the remainder of the century.”
Sadly, he then goes on to torture historical fact in order to draw questionable conclusions about the war. He does this in service of his agenda, which, as I see it, is to garner support for a military attack against present day Iran. Let me at once say that I hold no brief for Iran. I believe it is a dangerous country run by religious fanatics. But if one wishes to build a case for action against Iran, one would be better served by recounting solid facts than developing a polemic on basis of claims which can be easily refuted.
In order to develop his case, Mr. Davis develops a central theme. This is that WWI was a war about two radically opposing world views, one being “militant absolutism” represented primarily by Germany, and the other view as represented by the Allies as “Fighting for Democracy”. He implies the war was inevitable because these views had to clash. The author sets up this thesis by posing a rhetorical question,
“What if the war, much like the much more decisively ended conflict which followed it, was really about the defense of a way of life and the shape of human progress?”
He expands on this theme throughout the article, and comes to the following conclusion;
“Seen in this light, the First World War was a desperate conflict between two diametrically opposed concepts of world advancement. The struggle between these competing ideas and ideals would consume the world for the first half of the 20th Century and then continue into the second on to the Cold War, the war with Communism.”
The problem with the author’s theme and conclusion is that the facts simply make a mockery of such a claim.
WWI did not start out as anything like a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil as Mr. Davis suggests. It was not a battle of democratic states versus totalitarian or autocratic states. One only need consider the main combatants on each side. At the start of the war the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires were the “Central Powers”. France, the United Kingdom and Tsarist Russia made up the “Allied Powers”. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history understands that Tsarist Russia was the most autocratic and repressive regime in Europe at the time. Thus to claim, or even imply, that the cause of the war was to “Make the World Safe for Democracy”, a phrase which was coined long after the war started, is factually incorrect. And one doesn’t have to take my word for it.
“The paradox was that the cause of Serbian nationalism was supported by the illiberal dynastic government of Russia, whose aim was to preserve the independent Slav states as an obstruction to Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. This paradox prevented, from the start, any clear ideological alignment of the powers. The condition of alliances in 1914 placed the western parliamentary democracies of France and Great Britain in the same camp as autocratic Russia; just as it made ill-assorted allies of the German national Reich with its ultramodern economy and efficient military organization , and ramshackle, multi-national, antiquated Austria-Hungary; and before long Turkey of the Young Turks. None of the powers in 1914 was more than a semi-democratic state, in that none rested on truly universal suffrage. But since the presence or absence of democratic institutions was not one of the differentials between the belligerents, democratic ideals were not a war aim in 1914. The only war aims were self-defense and victory.” (P 549, Europe Since Napoleon)
And what was the position of that great bastion of liberal democracy Japan ruled by an oligarchic group of industrialists, militarists and imperialists?
“In August 1914 Japan also declared war on Germany and overran the German Pacific islands and territorial concessions in China.” (P 550, Europe Since Napoleon)
Thus the central claim of Mr. Davis’ piece is completely debunked. The reader may be thinking that like the proverbial swallow, one quote (actually two) does not a convincing conclusion make. If necessary, I can supply numerous such quotations from various reputable historians. It is only for the sake of brevity that I do not recount them here.
Having deflated the claim on which Mr. Davis builds his polemic, I think it worthwhile to investigate the rest of his article in order to determine if it holds other ideas which might merit serious consideration.
Mr. Davis writes, “The undisputed historical trigger for the First World War was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.” Yet, Mr. Davis has nothing more to say about this crime. Furthermore, he soon forgets about Austria completely; the first combatant to declare war, and Germany’s ally until the end.
This is odd considering he notes it was the assassination of an Austrian archduke, which was the historical trigger of the war. Should we not then, attempt to learn a little more about the details of this tragic act? The following quotes will help us understand the context in which the assassination took place.
“It was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, which consolidated the elements of hostility and set in motion the complicated succession of events which culminated in the outbreak of World War I. This terrorist act, by which the heir to the Austrian throne was struck down, was the work of Bosnian agents of a Serbian nationalist society, “Union of Death” (the Black Hand), a society to which many Serb officials belonged and of whose plot the Serbian Government was cognizant some weeks before its execution. The Black Hand Society had been founded in 1911, one of several Serbian organizations created to bring about the union of all Serbs under a new “Greater Serbia.” To the realization of this end the polyglot Hapsburg empire was a major stumbling block.” (Pages 720-721, Pageant of Europe)
“Since the aim of fervent Serbian patriots was a southern Slav state completely outside the Dual Monarchy, they regarded with great animosity any plan for prolonging German rule over Slavs. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 the Austrian government was confronted with even more positive nationalist agitation for a “greater Serbia”, to include all Slavs south of the Danube and so involving disruption of the Habsburg Empire. That Russian Pan-Slav ambitions lay behind this agitation they had no doubts. …Vienna regarded the murders as Serbian provocation of war.” (P 543, Europe Since Napoleon)
“When the Empire of Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia and when Russia mobilized on Serbia’s side, the nineteenth-century Eastern question reached its culmination. In the views of the men in power at Vienna, it was a war to end Serbian threats to the integrity of the Habsburg Empire and to resist Russian Pan-Slav ambitions in the Balkans and eastern Europe. In was, in this sense, regarded as a war of defence, an ordeal necessary for the survival of a dynastic state.” (P 549, Europe Since Napoleon)
The reader will note the complexity of the situation which existed in South Eastern Europe at the time. I used several quotes in order to make clear that the assassination of the archduke was a political act, which the perpetrators must have known would lead to war given the history of the region. Germany had nothing to do with this event.
Yet Mr. Davis neglects to mention of any of this and immediately points an accusatory finger at Germany. Then based on a German Admiral’s “formerly unknown diary entry” regarding an informal meeting which included the Kaiser and High Command, he claims Germany had been “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war … eighteen months,” prior to the Archduke’s assassination. He also eludes to a document drafted in the German Chancellor’s office listing detailed and “self-aggrandizing” war aims. One must point out this document was drafted in September 1918, i.e. after the war began, so it should not be surprising that it listed war aims. Apparently, for Mr. Davis, such documents constitute some type of smoking gun testifying to German war guilt. Frankly, to act shocked that Germany, or any other country had various war plans, lists of demands or other developed strategies borders on the laughable. Does anyone believe that the U.S.A. doesn’t have countless contingency plans based on various scenarios in the international arena, and that some of these might sound aggressive? To any thinking individual, it should not be surprising that a country at war would draw up a list of demands should it win or be sued for peace?
On basis of such flimsy evidence, Mr. Davis again uses a rhetorical device to further his case by writing, “If the Great War was then a German War”. There is no doubt that the Great War was a German war in that Germany was a participant, but on that basis, it was equally a French, British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Japanese, Italian and American war, not to mention some of the minor participants.
This is not to say Germany was not on the make for some sort of gain or did not have secret plans or hopes. But in this, Germany was little different from others.
“Nobody denies that the German feeling of not being ‘satisfied’ existed even before 1914, that it was strong and helped to create the atmosphere, the expectation of war and the preparedness for it. But it is not possible therefore to jump to conclusions as to the real cause of the war. If it were, the same yardstick could be applied to others who also had aims, less extreme aims perhaps but more precise aims, less circumscribed by geography and history and so had greater weight. France had designs on Alsace-Lorraine, and Russia on Constantinople, which it was in fact promised in the secret treaties of 1916. If war aims are proof of guilt then all were guilty to a greater or lesser degree and it only remains to ask in whose favour the difference of degree operated. While the Russians knew what they wanted the Germans did not; at one time they wanted only a little, at another a great deal; they set their sights high in one place and low in another, and vice versa, and for four years they argued passionately about their war aims. In what other country was there a ‘war aims discussion’ of the kind that went on in Germany?” (P 493, The History of Germany 1789 to Present)
And as to the insinuation that only Germany was “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war”, one historian notes the war,
“was fought in Europe to a point of exhaustion or collapse, and with unprecedented destruction, because the two sides were so evenly matched and had for so long prepared for battle.” (P 547, Europe Since Napoleon)
Another historian writes,
“All the capital accumulated by the richest continent in a hundred peaceful years of unparalleled industrial progress, all the knowledge, all the assembled strength and courage and exuberance were now devoted to one purpose. All countries believed that they were the victims of attack, but all attacked. All general staffs-German, French, Austrian and Russian had long prepared and nurtured grand offensive plans which they now put into action.” (P 501, The History of Germany)
So in fact all main parties had been “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war”.
Regarding the great importance which Mr. Davis apparently lends the German Admiral’s “formerly unknown diary entry”, note what an eminent historian has to say (referring to an even bigger question) about the reliance on such a secret document when looking for simple “silver bullet” answers to historical questions,
“Anyone who expects something of that kind merely shows that he ridiculously overestimates the significance of a single document, of a word spoken or written at some time of other, compared with the mass of clearly available evidence as to cause and effect, either because he has learnt no historical method or-which is probably more often the case-because he uses his intelligence to serve his own doubtful purpose.” (Preface, The History of Germany)
Returning to Mr. Davis’s central theme, he writes,
“The First World War……should today be recalled for what it was-a necessary war, fought justly over values as much as over territory…”.
Necessary? There is no doubt that all of Europe had been on tender hooks for sometime regarding the possibility of war. But the idea that the war was necessary, as it was fought over “values as much as over territory” is revisionist at best. One historian notes,
“The ‘Great War’, as it quickly came to be called, got so utterly out of hand as an instrument of policy that it demanded unlimited liability. Its original objectives were soon overlaid with many others which had scarcely been considered when it began. Even the avowed aims of belligerents changed as its course was prolonged, and its outcome was quite different from either the original or the subsequent aims of either the war aims originally involved, the peace aims that came to be involved before it ended, and the consequences that are now known to have flowed from it. Its greatest novelty, historically, was a remarkable disparity between the ends sought, the price paid, and the results obtained. (P 548, Europe Since Napoleon)
“Britain declared war because it was her traditional policy and interest to prevent the whole of western Europe from falling under the domination of a single power, because since 1900 she had abandoned isolation, and made an entente with France and Russia in order to preserve some balance of power in Europe; because since 1912 the defence of her coasts and seaways depended on the close naval cooperation with France. These considerations would have brought Britain into a general European war in 1914 even had Belgium not been invaded. “ (P 552, Europe Since Napoleon)
The interlocking system of treaties which was in effect at the time must be seen as a major reason for the outbreak of the war and its rapid spread. These treaties were not drafted because of ideologies. One such proof of this is the fact that, due to rivalries between France and Britain and more importantly between Russian and Britain, Britain approached Germany between 1898 and 1901 regarding cooperation and possibly and alliance.
How important were these treaties in fanning the flames of war?
“The system of alliances which developed after the Franco-Prussian War divided Europe into two hostile groups of powers. Their hostility was intensified by nationalist ambitions, economic rivalry, armament races, and jingoist propaganda. (P 720, Pageant of Europe)
“The incident that, in 1914, precipitated the long-dreaded war between the European powers originated in the Balkans. A dispute between Austria and Serbia drew in Germany, as the ally of Austria, and Russia, as the protector of the Serbs. France was bound to Russia by treaty, and Britain chose to stand by France and Russian under the terms of the Entente. Thus the system of alliances that was supposed to prevent war, but made it, when it came, an all but universal tragedy that drew in nearly all the world’s nations.” (P 774, “A Survey of European Civilization”)
“As Germany’s industrial and military strength was far superior to Russia’s, and as a German victory over Russia would completely destroy the balance of power and make Germany master of Europe, Russia and France inevitably stuck together.” (P 439, The History of Germany)
Clearly, ideology had little or nothing to do with it. Those old bugaboos, nationalism and geopolitics would appear to be rather more important.
Mr. Davis paints a black and white picture regarding war guilt. In his view, Germany is not only responsible for the war, but wanted a war. Let us look at the actual facts of the matter and outline the events as they unfolded.
After the assassination of the Archduke, the Austrian government communicated with the German government. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph sent a letter (which was actually written by the Austrian Foreign Minister) to the Germany Kaiser saying,
“The perpetration of the assassination of my poor nephew is the direct result of the agitations carried on by the Russian and Serbian Panslavists, the sole object of which is the weakening of the Triple Alliance and the destruction of my realm. According to all the evidence so far brought to light, the Serajevo affair was not merely the bloody deed of a single individual, but the result of a well-organized conspiracy, the threads of which can be traced to Belgrade; and even though it will probably prove impossible to get evidence of the complicity of the Serbian Government, there can be no doubt that its policy, directed toward the unification of all the southern-Slav countries under the Serbian flag, is responsible for such crimes and that the continuation of such a state of affairs constitutes an enduring peril for my house and my possessions….The efforts of my government must in the future be directed toward the isolation and diminution of Serbia…” (Page 721-722, Pageant of Europe)
How did the German Kaiser react?
“To this letter, the German Emperor and his Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, thinking the Austro-Serb quarrel was a local matter which Austria could handle adequately, replied (July 5) that “The Emperor Franz Joseph may…rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.” (P 722, Pageant of Europe)
“After this assurance, which Berchtold interpreted as a “blank check” despite the danger of Russian intervention on Serbia’s behalf-an intervention which threatened to bring into play the Triple Entente and plunge all Europe into war-Austria determined to send an ultimatum to Serbia. Berchtold proposed that specific demands should be leveled at Serbia, that the demands should be such that it “would be wholly impossible for the Serbs to accept,” that the time allowed for reply should be “as brief as possible, say forty-eight hours,” and that, by these means, Austria would avoid odium of an attack on Serbia and Serbia “would be put in the wrong”. The ultimatum, carefully timed to await the departure from Russia of the French President Poincare’, who had been conferring in St. Petersburg, was sent at 6 p.m. on July 23.” (P 722, Pageant of Europe)
Then to the surprise of Austria and relief of Germany,
“The Serbian reply was unexpectedly conciliatory, and went so far towards meeting Austria’s demands that even the Kaiser, suddenly filled with misgivings, hailed it with relief because “with it every ground for war disappears’”. (P 544, Europe Since Napoleon)
Sadly, Vienna rejected Serbia’s reply and the opportunity to stop the fatal progress of events was lost. Austria declared war against Serbia on 28 July. A small war between Austria and Serbia was what Austria wanted and in itself would not have been catastrophic. Regrettably for the rest of the world,
“After July 28, the Serbian issue was completely overshadowed by German alarm over the progress of Russian mobilization, officially decreed July 29. Mobilization made hostilities all but inevitable, and Kaiser Wilhelm telegraphed Nicholas II urging him to withdraw his order. The harassed tsar thereupon “suspended” the order for mobilization against Germany, but his advisers persuaded him to renew it the following day (July 30). The Kaiser proposed to delay German mobilization while his appeal was considered. On July 31, he offered the Russians twelve hours in which to countermand their continued mobilization, and then, on August 1, announced that a state of war existed between Germany and Russia. From France, where mobilization had been going quietly forward since July 30, the German government demanded a statement of policy, and as no clear answer was obtainable (France had already promised Russia to fulfill her obligations as an ally), Germany declared war against France also (August 3).“ (P 775, A Survey of European Civilization)
Modern readers might wonder why Germany would be so alarmed at Russia’s mobilization and ask how this could impel Germany to war.
“The theory which equates mobilization with war may seem strange to us today when the great powers are permanently mobilized. In 1914 this was not, however, a specifically German view; Russian and French strategists had also secretly accepted it. But they were not anxious to have it publicly sanctioned because the Russian mobilization needed time and should take place undisturbed. It was the object of German strategy to prevent the enemy from enjoying this period of “war in peacetime”; so Germany, and Germany alone, thought that it must translate the equation of mobilization with war into reality as quickly as possible. For the others whose strategy was not based on speed the situation was different. They saw in Germany’s hasty declaration of war on Russia an attack, if a preventive one. Bethmann Hollweg with his question “should we have waited until the others attacked?” himself admitted the preventive nature of Germany’s action.” (P 490, The History of Germany)
The reader must recall early twentieth century conditions and geopolitics when considering this question. Germany faced a two front war with France on the one side and Russia on the other. We must not forget there was no Polish state in 1914. Germany and Russia had a long contiguous border. It was this fear of a two front war combined with a faulty war plan which pushed Germany to invade Belgium, its worst blunder of the war.
“Germany’s cynical decision to violate a solemn international obligation was defended on diverse grounds: that it would have been militarily disastrous to await a French attack, that it was a strategic necessity, that amends would be made to Belgium afterwards. It was in truth, a strategic necessity only in the sense that the Schlieffen Plan, officially adopted in 1912, upon which the German generals relied for achieving a swift knockout blow against France, involved swinging the German armies through Belgium territory; and it was a necessity because no other German plan had been prepared which seemed equally capable of giving this result. But its adoption meant that from the first Germany forfeited any convincing moral case for her policy, whereas the western powers were given a morally irrefutable case for taking a firm stand against German aggression.” (P 552, Europe Since Napoleon)
Clearly, Germany’s invasion of Belgium was a strategic blunder, not because it changed the state of affairs between Germany, France and Russia. But because it forced Britain to immediately declare war against Germany. This had serious repercussions as regards both “boots on the ground” and the control of the seas. Additionally, the ties of kinship which existed between Great Britain and the USA must be considered as powerful motivating factors for America’s entry into the war in 1917.
Mr. Davis makes much of Germany’s historic guilt in the case of WWI. But a closer study will show that other actors, i.e. Austria and Serbia, are equally if not more guilty. Neither France nor Russia displayed great moral fortitude. In fact, Belgium and Great Britain are the two countries which, after a century, still shine out as the least guilty countries in the tragedy. And neither went to war for ideological reasons. Given the perspective of one hundred years, a contemporary student of WWI should be able to view events through a less distorted lens than the one Mr. Davis has used.
From the contents of his piece, I believe Mr. Davis has missed the greatest lesson to be learned from WWI and how this might be relevant to our times. The lesson is not that the world stood by fecklessly as a dangerous tyrannical country armed itself to the teeth. That is the lesson to be drawn from the 1930’s.
The major lesson to be learned from WWI is that nations can never completely control events once war has broken out. Its corollary is that outcomes are unpredictable; therefore great caution should be exercised before instigating action which might lead to war.
If proof of this is needed, one must only note that by the end of WWI four empires, the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Germany and Ottoman, had been destroyed. Three royal houses the Romanovs, Hohenzollern and Habsburgs no longer sat on their thrones. More importantly, it is almost certain neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia would have been birthed but for WWI. Unintended consequences indeed!
In closing, the reader may ask why the lengthy response to an article regarding something which happened 100 years ago? The answer is as simple as it is important. History gives us hints as to how the future may unfold and guidelines as to how we might need to act in the face of certain situations. Therefore, if someone claims to use history in order to further a political goal, the minimum readers should expect from that writer is that he get the broad outlines of history correct.
To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Davis is certainly entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to his facts. And since most people cannot be expected to know the details regarding the build up and outbreak of WWI, I felt it necessary to set facts straight. I believe I have largely accomplished my goal with this piece.
Walter K. Ferguson and Geoffrey Bruun, “A Survey of European Civilization”, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 1969
Golo Mann “The History of Germany Since 1789”, English translation, Pelikan Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England 1974
R.P. Stearns, “Pageant of Europe, Sources and Selections from the Renaissance to the Present Day” Revised Edition, Harcourt, Brace & World Inc, New York, 1961
David Thomas “Europe Since Napoleon”, Revised edition, Pelikan Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1966