I have to have a chapter on World War I in a history of the twentieth century--even an economic history of the twentieth century.
But is this the chapter I want to have? Sometimes I think definitely yes, sometimes I think definitely not. I am having the hardest time settling on what this chapter should be--much harder than I am having with any of the other chapters...
Advice and suggestions generally wanted...
Slouching Towards Utopia?: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century
Chapter 15: The Knot of War, 1914-1920
J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics, U.C. Berkeley Research Associate, NBER
July 8, 2010
From Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional” (1897):
God of our fathers, known of old—/ Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold/ Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget!...
Far-called, our navies melt away;/ On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!...
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose/ Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boasting as the Gentiles use/ Or lesser breeds without the law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/ Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust/ In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,/ And guarding, calls not Thee to guard—
For frantic boast and foolish word, / Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
From Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1918):
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstacy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime....
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin...
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.
With some notable exceptions, most economic histories pass quickly over the great wars of the twentieth century—if they do not exclude them from their narrative scope in the first place. They fast-forward through these mass orgies of death and destruction. The issues involved in mobilizing resources for war and then demobilizing them after war are interesting, but are hard to relate to debates and ideas about how the “normal” economy functions in peacetime.
But wars play too big a part in the twentieth century for this to be a satisfying way of proceeding. And large pieces of the political history surrounding this century’s world wars are very important background without which understanding the economic and political dynamics of the interwar period is next to impossible.
15.1: The Pointlessness of It All
15.1.1: Reasons for Militarism
Recall our two smart people who said interesting things before World War I about militarism, arms races, and empire.
Both Hobson and Schumpeter saw imperialism as a con game. Empire might be worthwhile for those at the sharp edge—the Cecil Rhodeses and the Lord Lugards—and certainly for the settlers who colonize and rule or exterminate or displace the previous inhabitants. And it was a horrible thing for those whose encounter with the industrial revolution took the form of the maxim gun and of having your hand cut off because your village had failed to deliver its rubber quota. The alternative—a world in which merchants show up at your borders eager to buy what you can make and sell you the technology-intensive and -embodying products of the industrial civilization of the North Atlantic—would have been on balance more pleasant.
But what was the effect of empire, of militarism, of the pre-World War I arms race on the people of the North Atlantic core? Hobson sees it as destructive but functional. Hobson is a proto-Keynesian, believing that the major economic problem is the business cycle that causes mass unemployment, and that the business cycle is made much worse by the maldistribution of income. The rich save a lot. Often the investment spending to soak it up is not there. The only potential balance wheels are military spending and exports. Hence empire, militarism, and arms races are a way of boosting exports via captive markets and soaking up savings so that the rich can continue to collect their wealth without triggering enough business cycle instability to bring the system down. Hobson thus believed—absent the triumph of social democracy to produce a more equal distribution of income and so a flow of aggregate demand less vulnerable to crises of confidence—that as market capitalism advances, the need for imperialism, militarism, and arms races would become greater.
Thus, Hobson thought, there would be no point at all to world war—an arms race and an empire were perfectly functional ways to keep the system running for the benefit of the rich, and there would be no point to actually using the weapons, especially not in Europe. But he feared that there might be.
Joseph Schumpeter was more optimistic. He believed that he was seeing the last gasp of militarism, empire, and arms races. He saw imperialism as the last gasp of military status aristocracy that had all but completely lost their social role as governors, judges, functionaries, protectors, and the strong right arms of conquering barbarian kings that they claimed their ancestors had been in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were over. Indeed, the Middle Ages were over. Feudalism was gone. But as long as they could serve the state and the king in the diplomatic corps and the military, and either spread the flag far abroad to claim dominion over palm and pine or prepare to defend the homeland should a Napoleon come to power again, they would have something to do. And what they did would help hold society together: Sir whatsit and Lord whoever and Colonel whichway essentially functioned as the equivalent of today's professional athletes in making people proud of their team: imperialism as spectator sport.
Schumpeter hated this. And he thought that it was on the way out. He certainly did not expect to see a world war.
15.1.2: Norman Angell and the Futility of Great-Power Conflict
Perhaps the saddest book on my bookshelf is Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, written on the very eve of World War I.
Norman Angell thought that there would be no more big wars. Why not? Because, Angell argued, there were only two reasons who one people should wish to rule over another: to teach them the word of God, and to collect taxes from them. The age of religious wars was over, Angell thought—living a Christian (or a Muslim, or a Jewish, or a Buddhist) life was a more effective and humane way of proselytizing than conversion-by-the sword. And as far as extracting resources from others, conquest was expensive and destructive and maintaining alien rule more so in the long run: it was much better and cheaper, Norman Angell thought, to offer the carrot of trade than to fight.
Moreover, Angell thought, all of the sober statesmen of Europe realized this. When push came to shove, he thought, they would all shy from the jump. “What would we gain if we won?” they would think, “and how much would it cost?” The arithmetic was obvious.
For Angell the fact that national military power was not a road to prosperity was obvious:
if conquest and extension of territory is the main road of moral and material progress... then... the position of the Russian should be more desirable than that of the Hollander.... The Austrian should be better off than the Switzer.... If a nation's wealth is really subject to military confiscation, and needs the defence of military power, then the wealth of those small states should be insecure indeed—and Belgian national stocks stand 20 points higher than the German. If nations are rival units, then we should benefit by the disappearance of our rivals—and if they disappeared, something like a third of our [British] population would starve to death...
The only people who claimed that national power was a road to prosperity no longer believed it themselves. He wrote of:
the sophistries and illusions by which the war system is still defended..... If the growing power of Russia compelled us to fight a great war in alliance with the Turk to check her "advance on India," why are we now co-operating with Russia to build railroads to India?... It is not we who are the "theorists," if by "theorists" is meant the constructors of elaborate and deceptive theorems in this matter. It is our opponents, the military mystics....
And he looked forward to a future in which every politician agreed that we should study war no more:
If the public as a whole had to follow all the intricacies of those marvelous diplomatic combinations... public opinion would go on being as ignorant and mistaken as it had been hitherto. But sound opinion and instincts in that field depend upon nothing of the sort, but upon the emergence of a few quite simple facts, which are indisputable and self-evident.... Fifteen or twenty years ago it was the ineradicable belief of fifty or sixty million Americans, good, honest, sincere, and astute folk, that it was their bounden duty, their manifest interest, to fight—and in the words of one of their Senators, annihilate—Great Britain... at the time of the Venezuelan crisis: the United States... laid it down... that her existence was imperiled if Great Britain should extend by so much as a mile a vague frontier running through a South American swamp thousands of miles away. And for that cause these decent and honourable people were prepared to take all the risks that would be involved to Anglo-Saxon civilisation by a war between England and America...
That would come on the day when public opinion had been educated so that everyone knew what the thoughtful had long known:
The revision of these fundamental conceptions will... be the work of individual men. States do not think. It is the men who form the states who think.... Unless the individual man sees his responsibility for determining what is right and knowing how and why it is right, there will be no progress; there cannot even be a beginning...
Norman Angell’s argument about the futility and cost of destructive industrial war was completely correct. The conclusions about Europe’s future history he drew from his argument were completely wrong. And he should have known that they were wrong, for the Britain in which he lived had just fought the Boer War.
15.2: The Meaning of the Boer War
After the end in 1815 of the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain retained as a strategic asset the former Dutch colony at the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. The British navy saw control of the Cape of Good Hope as an important safeguard for communications with British-ruled India. And so after 1815 British colonists began to arrive in the Cape Colony.
The response of the Dutch-descended Boers of the Cape to this growing influx of foreigners who could talk to the rulers sent out from London was to leave: to move north across the Orange River outside of the British Empire in 1835, to found the Orange Free State. Once in South Africa, the British Empire continued to expand: their annexation of the neighboring Natal triggered another exodus of Boers to the Transvaal north of the Vaal River. But the expansion was slow—and costly: the Zulu kingdom founded by Shaka even annihilated a British column and mauled a second at the battles of Rourke's Drift and Islandhwana, doing even better against the advance of European settlers and their armies than the Sioux at the Little Bighorn. London shied away in the 1870s from an attempt to annex the Transvaal when it contemplated the difficulties of maintaining effective rule over a hostile population of European-descended and European-armed farmers.
But the calculus changed when gold was discovered in large quantity in the Transvaal in 1886.
Railroads were built to transport gold to the coast, powerful pneumatic tools were installed to crush gold-bearing rock, a complicated high-technology advanced chemicals industry was built to extract gold from the rock, for although the South African gold deposits of the Witwatersrand were vast indeed, they were too low-quality for mining to be possible without the most advanced chemistry of the late nineteenth century. Gold made the interior of South Africa important to Europeans, the swallowing-up of the rest of Africa by European colonial powers made British geopoliticians anxious to cement control over the Cape.
Miners and speculators flooded from Europe into the interior. Johannesburg grew in a few years to a city of 100,000—the largest city in Africa south of the Sahara. The Boer farmers watched nervously as the numbers of the "uitlanders" grew. The denied immigrants the vote. They taxed the gold industry. They gave a monopoly over dynamite sales to Alfred Nobel's company. Their President Paul Krueger sought a railway line to the sea independent of British control. Cape Colony boss Cecil Rhodes sought to overthrow the Boer government by coup d'etat—the 1895 Jameson Raid. After the raid's failure the Boers began buying and stockpiling rifles, as Britain reinforced its troops in the Cape Colony and Natal.
British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain—father of 1930s appeasement Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—preached the annexation of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and in 1899 sent a demand: equal rights for British citizens in the Transvaal, or else. What, after all, did the mightiest empire the world had ever seen have to fear from two small republics of unindustrialized farmers? Transvaal president Krueger sent back an ultimatum: Britain needed to begin withdrawing troops from the Cape and Natal or else the Boers would attack.
Thus the Boers struck first in self-defense in October 1899, besieging British garrisons in towns named Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley, and defeating British relief columns in battles at places named Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, Magersfontein, Stormberg, and the Tugela River: 20% of Sir William Gatacre’s 3,000 troops captured at Stormberg as British troops fled after being sent up a near-cliff against entrenched Boers with rifles; 10% of Lord Methuen's 14,000 killed or wounded at Magersfontein as they assaulted the Boer trench line; and Buller's 21,000 suffering 1200 killed and wounded to the Boers’ 50 in a failed attempt to cross the Tugela River. Any cost-benefit analysis done at this point would have led to an obvious conclusion: back down. Protest that the war was a mistake, and have some chair-polishing leading to British promises to respect the independence and autonomy of the Boer Republics and Boer promises to respect the rights and liberties of British-flag immigrants.
That is not what happened.
The Boer Afrikaans-speaking population of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State was 200,000.
The British sent 500,000 soldiers to South Africa starting in February 1900—the same proportional manpower commitment as four million would be for the U.S today. The British sent a competent general—Field Marshal Lord Roberts. They outnumbered even the total mobilization of Boer military manpower by fifteen to one. The Orange Free State capital Bloemfontein fell on March 13, Johannesburg on May 31, and Transvaal capital Pretoria on June 5.
The reaction at home in Britain to victories was as if the country had won the World Cup in soccer: half a million British soldiers could defeat armies one-fifteenth their size!
But the war was not over. The Boers were beaten, but they would not surrender. Defeated in open battle, the Boers turned to guerrilla warfare. The dispersed Boers waged a guerrilla insurgency against the British for a year and a half—and at one point captured the British second-in-command Lord Methuen, as well as capturing the young Winston Churchill
What does an invading military superpower do when its troops are faced with a guerrilla insurgency in a land where they do not speak the language?
The British invented the concentration camp.
Mao Zedong was to remark that a successful guerrilla army is like a school of fish: they must learn to swim in the sea of the people. The British at the turn of the century knew how to fight such a guerrilla army: dry up the sea in which they swim by concentrating the population into camps where they can be monitored and watched. Are guerrillas active in an area? Round up everyone—everyone—and stick them behind barbed wire, don't feed them too well, and don't spend too much time worrying about sanitation. Build small forts and construct wire fences to reduce the guerrillas’ mobility.
It is effective—even though the “concentrated” civilian population dies of disease at a relatively rapid rate, and even though it impoverishes the country.
Roughly 30,000 Boers, most of them children under 16, died in the concentration camps.
Nearly 100,000 people died in the Boer War: in addition to the 30,000 Boer civilians, perhaps 8,000 British battle deaths, 14,000 British soldiers dead of disease, 10,000 Boer soldiers, and perhaps 30,000 Africans—nobody counted them. Britain mobilized 2.5% of its adult male population for the war. One in ten of those died.
The story of the Boer War tells us that at the start of the twentieth century wars cannot be analyzed as the pursuit of economic growth by other means. The fact that the people—the literate, urbanized people—were a nation and that the nation was at war had deep psychological consequences. At its most cynical, it leads politicians to think that their domestic political dilemmas could be resolved if only they could focus the people’s attention on a foreign enemy. We see this even today. Francis Fukuyama, for example, claims that the American Republican Party’s functionaries at the Weekly Standard made “actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when politics focused on domestic issues. Matthew Yglesias noted that “the obvious candidates were either China or something relating to Islamic fundamentalism and, as Fukuyama notes, what they came up with was China. Then 9/11 changed things...”
We saw it at the very start of the early modern period. Here we have William Shakespeare’s version of England’s King Henry IV Lancaster speaking to his son Prince Hal, the future King Henry V Lancaster:
[A]all my friends, which thou must make thy friends... by whose fell working[s] I was first advanced, and by whose power I well might lodge a fear to be again displaced.... [R]est and lying still might make them look too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry, be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of the former days...
The Princeton historian Arno Mayer is the most eloquent of those who attributed the colossal misjudgments and underlying bloodthirstyness of those who started World War I to the combination of this possibility of busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels and the political dilemmas created by the persistence of the Old Regimes in Europe. Europe in 1914 was a Europe of national populations, of industrialists and socialists, of factory workers and technicians. But Europe’s governments in 1914—especially the defense and foreign affairs ministries—were populated by Schumpeter’s aristocrats, ex-aristocrats, and would-be aristocrats who had no social function in the absence of war, and who could look forward only to continued erosion of their influence and status, erosion of their relative wealth, and erosion of their self-respect in the absence of war. As Joseph Schumpeter had noted, emerging industrialists and entrepreneurs bargained their political support for economic benefits, and those to whom they bargained their political support were the aristocrats and the ex-aristocrats who staffed the government and the army. In Germany this political alliance is often seen as marked by the 1879 “marriage of iron and rye”: the imposition of tariffs on imports of British steel (to protect the positions of German manufacturers) and on imports of American grain (to protect the positions of German landlords). Urban merchants, wage earners, and consumers were implicitly taxed to benefit the dual elite of the post-1870 German Empire.
And there was a third current of thought: call it social-Darwinism. It claimed to be a social philosophy that proclaimed to be the result of applying the laws of natural science to the problems of social development. On the one hand, social Darwinism believed in the survival of the fittest: thus those who have deserve to have. On the other hand, social Darwinism believed that the fittest emerged as a result of struggle: hence competition—and after competition, domination—not cooperation, was the key form of social life. And soon one of the principal forms of competition focused on by social Darwinists was that of competition between nations: were the Germans, the French, the Anglo-Saxons, or the Russians to become the superpower of the twentieth century that would leave its imprint on all future civilizations?
The growing belief that nature rewarded struggle—and that struggle was or could become bloody—was reinforced by the turning away from the values of the Enlightenment and of the Christian tradition that is usually given the name of Nietzscheism: the name of the game was “creative domination, exploitation, and subjugation,” and any hint that things might be different—that one might be in a win-win situation, a positive-sum game of some sort—was rejected as an obvious and offensive ideological attack by those who were too weak to meet the strong in open and fair contest (and who were probably Jewish as well).
As Arno Mayer puts it:
The upper reaches of [European] society and polity ceased to deplore war… In an… atmosphere heavy with social Darwinist and Nietzschean influences, war was clebrated as a new cure-all. The violence and blood of battle promised to reinvigorate the individual, re-energize the nation, resanitize the race, revitalize society, and regenerate moral life…. [W]ar was a fiery ordeal that tested physical prowess, spiritual soundness, social solidarity, and national efficiency. The idea of defeat became well-nigh unthinkable as victory was expected to provide irrefutable proof of personal, social, and political fitness. So the political and military elites of Europe rolled the dice in 1914... they believed that the risk was worth the potential gain, with the gain coming from the strengthening of power and influence that would come from victory and resulting international political domination. And—surprising as it may seem—the people responded: they truly saw the world as made up of nations in conflict, so that they should be willing to risk death to recover Alsace for the French Republic...
Thus we have atavistic aristocrats seeking a role and nationalist social Darwinists and cynical politicians seeking a short victorious war to giddy busy minds with foreign quarrels.
15.3: The Setting of World War I
The story of the Boer War tells us that all rational cost-benefit calculation went out the window throughout the governing apparatus of the British Empire as soon as Boers were shooting at British soldiers in places with names like Mafeking and Spion Kop. But Britain was not sporting for a European war with anybody—there were no demands made on Germany or Austria like those made by Joseph Chamberlain on the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The politicians and journalists of the French Third Republic, however, were spoiling for a war. The newly-formed German Empire had ripped the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France as part of the treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. (The justiﬁcation was that these provinces had been previously ripped away from Germany by French aggression-but their incorporation into France had taken place more than two centuries before, Alsace in the ﬁrst half and Lorraine in the second half of the seventeenth century.) And for more than forty years the French army and French politicians had been getting ready for a rematch. From the perspective of France's politicians and generals, a war with Germany was to be welcomed-as long as France's allies were securely on board as well. A war would restore French predominance in Europe and dominance over Germany, and repay their enemies across the Rhine for the insult of 1870.
But why would France have any allies against Germany? Why wasn’t Germany Britain’s potential ally against France in 1914? Britain had been at war with France for more than half of the millennium before 1914, after all.
British geopoliticians feared Germany because Germany had built a modern navy strong enough to challenge and—possibly, if they were lucky—beat the British navy. Such a naval defeat would leave food-importing Britain helpless, with no choice but to surrender. France had not built such a navy.
Why had the Germans built such a navy?
Because the admirals convinced the German Emperor—the “Kaiser,” i.e. “Caesar”—Wilhelm II that the British would never respect Germany unless it did have a fleet strong enough to challenge the British navy. His British cousins, they told him, only respect those who are strong. If we are strong enough to harm them they will respect you and us. If we are not, they will not.
It is not clear that the British respected pre-World War I Germany; it is clear that they feared it, and armed against it. As Winston Churchill said, when the magnitude of the German naval construction program became clear, “the politicians proposed [to build] four [new battleships every year], the admirals demanded six, and we compromised on eight.”
It is worth stepping back, and noting that all of these politicians and military ofﬁcers were at best badly mistaken, and at worst criminally insane. Nearly ten million people would die in World War I. All of the continental European emperors whose ministers made war would lose their thrones as a direct result of the war, the British monarch alone surviving (the kings of Italy and Belgium also survived: their countries joined the winning Anglo-French side).
The not-so-old Czar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg and his ministers thought that it was important to demonstrate that did not demonstrate that Czarist Russia was the great power in the Balkans, and that slavic-speaking small nations could count on it to protect them from Viennese hegemony. But World War I did not show anybody that Czarist Russia was the great power in the Balkans, and that slavic-speaking small nations could count on it to protect them from Viennese hegemony. Instead he lost his throne, his life, and his country. Russia lost a generation of young men dead or mutilated, and lost its chance to have a less-than-totally-unhappy twentieth century.
The not-so-old German Emperor Wilhelm II in Berlin and his ministers thought that a short, sharp victorious war—first defeat France, then occupy Paris, then accept the French surrender, then move the army east to Russia and force Russia to make peace as well—would secure for Germany a dominant “place in the sun” among the great powers of Europe. World War I did not secure for Germany a dominant “place in the sun” among the great powers of Europe. Wilhelm lost his throne. His country lost its political and military autonomy, a generation of young men, and took the first steps along the road to Hitler's Third Reich, a regime that will blacken the name of Germany for millennia.
The old Emperor Franz Josef in Vienna would die while World War I was still going on; but his Habsburg dynasty would lose its throne, and his empire would be chopped up and handed out to no fewer than seven nation-states (today between thirteen and fifteen, depending on whether you count Bosnia-Herzegovina as one or three).
The French would lose a generation of young men dead or mutilated. And it would take more than thirty more years before French politicians would realize that trying to contain Germany by using your army simply did not work, and that perhaps a better way to try to contain German power would be to integrate it economically into a wider Europe.
The British would lose a generation of young men. And the post-World War I British Empire would be much weaker, and eventually ﬁnd itself in a worse strategic position, than even a pre-World War I Britain facing a German-dominated Europe would have possessed.
And so the trigger would be pulled. The war would be fought by the mass-conscripted 18-21 year old boys of Europe, augmented by reserves who had received their military training in the previous decades. The mass armies marched off to war enthusiastically, singing, taking the causes of the emperors and the generals for their own, on all sides expecting a short victorious war. After all, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, and the Balkan Wars of the early twentieth century had all been very short. Few looked at the slaughter of the American Civil War of 1861-65, or at the bloody trench warfare of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, or even at the Boer War, and thought about what they might mean.
Some were more realistic and looked forward to war with more fear. Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who committed the British Empire to the war, is reputed to have looked out his window one evening at dusk in the last days before the shooting, and said: “The lights are going out all over Europe. I do not think we shall see them lit again in our lifetime…” Which raises the question of why—if that was truly his judgment—he did not do more to stop it.
15.4: The Approach of World War I
The rulers of Austria-Hungary had for a long time been worried about Serbian nationalism, or rather the extension of Serbian nationalism northward as ideologues argued that Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenes, and others were really one nation—“Yugoslavs”—and that only alien rule by Turks from Istanbul and Germans from Vienna had prevented the previous emergence of a glorious south-slav nation.
From today’s perspective it is easy to be very, very cynical: less than 80 years separate the time when Serbs and Croats were blood-brothers (so much so that the Serbs would risk bloody war with Europe's great powers to rescue the Croats from oppressive foreign despotism) and our time, when Serbs and Croats cannot live in the same village or province without the political leaders of at least one side calling for (and getting) the extermination and exile of the other. To fight one set of wars at the start of the twentieth century to unify Serbs and Croats and to fight another set of wars at the end to dissolve the union and “ethnically cleanse” the region seems among the sickest of the jokes that History plays on human populations.
From our perspective a semi-democratic, constitutional monarchy like that of the Habsburg-ruled Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruling over various nationalities, a monarchy that respected (most) local customs, kept the peace, and allowed freedom of commerce, belief, and speech (within limits), seems much more than halfway up the list of desirable regimes. Would one prefer Marshall Tito? Or Milosevic? Or Karadic? Certainly not.
In the summer of 1914, a Bosnian terrorist seeking Bosnian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and union with Serbia assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The terrorists had received some assistance from the secret police of the Kingdom of Serbia—although almost surely not with the active knowledge of the King of Serbia: no ruler, monarchical or otherwise, has an interest in the declaration of an open hunting season against heads of state and their near relatives. The political objective of the assassination was to break off from Austria-Hungary her south-slav provinces so they could be combined into a Greater Serbia or a Yugoslavia. The assassins' motives are consistent with the movement that later became known as Young Bosnia.
For the old emperor Franz Josef in Vienna and his advisors, the outrageous murder of his nephew—with help from at least some within the Serbian government—seemed to call for action to chase and punish the guilty, humble and shame Serbia, and make it plain that Austria was the great power in the Balkans. Thereafter Serbian foreign policy had better trim its sails to the Austrian wind. To establish this seemed worth a small risk of a large war. Austria demanded... Serbia essentially said "yes". Austria announced that wasn't good enough and that it was going to attack Serbia. Russia mobilized.
For the not-so-old emperor in St. Petersburg, Czar Nicholas II, and his advisors, possible involvement of Serbian government ofﬁcials and agencies in the assassination of his distant cousin Franz Ferdinand was beside the point. Russia, not Austria, was to be the dominant great power in the Balkans. Russia was to be the protector of Slavic-speaking states that had previously been part of Turkey's decaying Ottoman Empire. Russia needed to make it plain that it would fulﬁll its promises to protect other Slav-speaking states—and especially to protect them against the imperialism of German-speaking Berlin and Vienna. To establish this seemed worth a small risk of a large war.
For the not-so-old German Emperor, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his advisors, the decision to back Austria to the hilt in whatever action it chose to take in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand-up to and including war-was nearly automatic. For the German government by and large viewed a large war not as a risk but as an opportunity. The rulers of Germany felt that their country deserved a larger place in international affairs: more influence, more respect, and more colonies. They looked back at a nineteenth century in which the standing and power of the core of the turn of the century German Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, had been radically enhanced by short victorious wars provoked and managed by the so-called Iron Chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, a German politician whose best-remembered sentence is that: “It is not by speeches and debates that the great issues of the day will be decided, but by Blood and Iron.”
Bismarck’s shoes were hard to ﬁll. His legend was hard to live up to. But attempting to live up to it seemed to involve an eagerness to court and welcome the risks of war. No one remembered that Bismarck had sought war against isolated powers without allies—Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870—and only when he had stacked the deck to make rapid victory all but certain. And no one remembered that Bismarck had never had any desire to escalate political conflict in the Balkans. Perhaps his second-best-remembered sentence is that: “There is nothing at stake [in the Balkans] that is worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”
So with the Archduke dead, with Austria having rejected the Serbian response to their ultimatum, mobilizing, and on the point of attacking Serbia, with Russia mobilizing...
At that point Germany attacked Belgium...
It was that stupid.
Why did Germany attack Belgium?
The explanation was that Germany had only one war plan. France and Russia were allied—a war with one was a war with another. Germany was going to war with Russia. It would have to fight France too. Its war plan was to fight France first while Russia was still mobilizing. And its war plan was to begin the war not by attacking the French fortification line on the Franco-German border but by outflanking the French army by marching—hopefully unopposed—through neutral Belgium, apologizing while doing so. Hence the first shots in what was a dispute between Austria and Serbia were fired on the German-Belgian border. The laughter of the guns began as Germany’s heavy artillery began destroying Belgian forts and killing Belgian soldiers and civilians.
That attacking Belgium might well push Britain into the war against Germany, immediately cut Germany off from all outside resources, and add an extra great power to its enemies was not thought to be important. Britain could only bring its power to bear if the war was long. And one way or another it would be a short war.
But it was not a short war.
The German decision to turn an Austro-Serbian or an Austro-Russian dispute into a world war was amazingly stupid—propelled by the belief that it would solve domestic problems by busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that it would improve the breed and demonstrate the fitness of the German race, and that it was what the Junker warrior aristocrats were born to do. But even those would probably not have tipped the scales had it not been for two other factors: the eastern civilizing mission of the German nation and the professional attitudinal habits of the Prussian army.
On the eastern civilizing mission of Germany, consider the German Social Democratic Party. Founded in 1875, and promptly outlawed by Bismarck. By 1914 it had a million dues-paying members, was the largest political party of the world, and held 34% of the seats in the German Reichstag. It had been founded to bring about the overthrow of capitalism and a just socialist society—whether that would be created by revolution, evolve naturally as the contradictions of capitalism manifested themselves, or evolve and then have to be defended in the streets against a reactionary coup was not clear to anybody—to advance the international brotherhood of workers, and to oppose militarism in all of its forms. So what was the SPD supposed to do when the Emperor Wilhelm II’s ministers asked for money to fight World War I.
The SPD’s caucus met on August 3, 1914. Hugo Hasse was appalled by what he heard: “You want to approve war credits for the Germany of the Hohenzollern [Emperor] and the Prussian [landlord-aristocrat-officer-bureaucrat] Junkers?” “No,” said SPD leader Friedrich Ebert. He went on:
[N]ot for that Germany, but for the Germany of productive labor, the Germany of the social and cultural ascent of the masses. It is a matter of saving that Germany! We cannot abandon the fatherland in its moment of need. It is a matter of protecting women and children...
What were they protecting women and children from? The Czarist tyranny that would follow a Russian victory and conquest.
SPD Reichstag Deputy Karl Liebknecht voted with his party on August 4, 1914. But by December 2 he had moved into opposition to the war—the first deputy to do so:
[T]his war which nobody desired... is an Imperialist war... for capitalist domination of the world markets and... important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism... a preventative war by the German and Austrian war parties working in the shadows of semi-absolutism and secret diplomacy... a Bonapartist attempt to demoralise and destroy the growing Labor movement.
The German slogan ‘against Czarism’ like the English or French slogan ‘against militarism’ brings forth the most noble instincts, revolutionary traditions, and hopes for the purpose of hatred between peoples.... Germany... does not possess any of the qualities necessary to play the role of a liberator [from Czarism].... This war is not a defensive war... it [is] impossible for us to trust a capitalist Government declaring that [the war] is for the defense of the country.... We must demand a peace which will humiliate no one as soon as possible... Simultaneous and continuous demands for peace in all belligerent countries can stop the bloody massacre before complete exhaustion....
[I am for] our brothers on the field of battle... those wounded and [the] sick.... [I am] against the war, against those responsible for it, against those who are directing it; against the capitalistic ends for which it is being pursued, against the violation of the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg, against military dictatorship, and against the complete neglect of social and political duties of which the Government and the dominant class are guilty today...
On the Prussian way of war, consider an army and an officer corps taught that ever since the days of the seventeenth-century Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I Hohenzollern that the best way to fight was to attack—ferociously, cleverly, ruthlessly, and unexpectedly from a surprise direction—no matter what. Robert Citino argues that the foundation-story was the June 28, 1675 Battle of Fehrbellin. Friedrich Wilhelm and his Field Marshall George von Derfflinger abandoned their supply wagons and marched their army 160 miles as the crow flies in two weeks over seventeenth-century roads—twice as fast as seventeenth-century armies typically moved. The 69-year old Field Marshall, riding alone, induced his Swedish enemies to open the gate of Rathenow after first having a fifth column inside the town hold a banquet to get all the Swedish officers as drunk as possible. Cut in two, the Swedish army retreated to regroup—and found itself trapped and forced to fight because Friedrich Wilhelm had destroyed the bridge over the Rhin River at Fehrbellin. The demoralized Swedes, fighting an enemy that wasn’t supposed to be there in a place where they were not supposed to have to stop, were beaten before the first cannon fired.
An army trained in that tradition will respond to Russian mobilization during an Austro-Serbian dispute by attacking Belgium— ferociously, cleverly, ruthlessly, and unexpectedly from a surprise direction. Supply wagons and logistics? Leave them behind to be somebody else’s problem because you can always fix your logistical problems after your victory. Industrial mobilization? Ignore it, because if you have to fight a long war you have probably already lost. Strategy—what is this “strategy”? Grand strategy—how to avoid making more enemies and maximize your numbers of friends? Again, that only counts in a long war, which is one that you have lost. Tactics and operations are all.
And, indeed, since Fehrbellin, the odds are that first a Prussian and then a German army would be a fearsome and terrifying foe, greatly outpunching its weight on the tactical and operational level—but, as far as logistics, industrial mobilization, strategy, and grand strategy are concerned, a group that could be out-thought and out-fought by a committee of six-year-old children.
And so the war came.
World War I would have been bad but not a disaster—check that: World War I would have been a disaster but not an utterly intolerable catastrophic disaster—if it had been a short war.
But it was not a short war. It was a long one. British assistance to France kept it from being overrun in the fall of 1914. German assistance on the eastern front kept Austria from being overrun in the fall of 1914. And then they all dug trenches. It became a total war, a resource mobilization-based war of attrition that dragged on for more than four years.
15.5: World War I Itself
Read somebody else to learn what happened during the war. I don't have the heart to write it down.
Mobilizing economic resources for total war turned out to be suprisingly difﬁcult. Military plans had all been based on the assumption of a short war: one in which decisive victory would be won or lost in a matter of months, in a single battle or two. And at ﬁrst it did seem as though victory would be quick, and would go to Germany and its allies, the so-called central powers. The ﬁrst-mobilized vanguard of the Russian army was decimated in the forests of eastern Germany. The ﬁrst battles between the French and the Germans saw the French take much heavier casualties, and retreat almost to Paris before the Germans outran their supply lines.
Thereafter the front line settled down into a ﬁxed line of trenches in which soldiers hid from flying death. And offensives degenerated into episode of machine-gun target practice in which the attackers always took far heavier casualties, and invariably gained little ground of no strategic value.
As the war settled into stalemate, generals called for greater and greater commitments of resources to the front: if battles could not be won by strategy, perhaps they could be won by the sheer weight of men, metal, and explosives committed to the front. The share of each belligerent’s resources devoted to the war effort rose.
In Britain—which attained the highest degree of mobilization—the government was sucking up more than one-third of national product (plus the time of conscripted soldiers) for the war effort by 1916. Production became much more that dictated by the representatives of industry's largest customer, the military, than by market forces. The example of the German war economy made some, like Vladimir Lenin, believe that a “command economy” was possible: that you could run a socialist economy not through the market but by using the government as a command-and-control bureaucracy.
In the end, the weight of men and metal arranged against Germany and its allies did tell. France, Belgium, Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, (from 1915), Romania, and the United States (from 1917) against the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires and Bulgaria Russia withdrew from the war after the seizure of power by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks in the October Revolution in 1917—which took place in November—after the fall of the Czar and the proclamation of a Russian Republic in March 1917. Final victory was achieved at the end of 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire's army collapsed and with the German army in France facing defeat by attrition and the German population at home on the edge of starvation by blockade, Germany sought an armistice.
10 million dead; 10 million maimed; 10 million lightly injured—out of major belligerent populations of some 100 million adult men.
July 8, 2010: 7589 words