22 January 2007
The First World War: The Just War?

This is the text of the talk I gave to Christian Michel’s 6/20 Club on Saturday which Brian Micklethwait has been kind enough to mention.


This talk comes out of a conversation that Christian and I had shortly before Christmas.  He wanted me to do a talk and I suggested the First World War.  He asked me which particular aspect and I said that while I could talk about the origins my real expertise was how it was fought.  He suggested that perhaps I could combine the two which I thought would be difficult.  The argument was solved when he casually remarked that as he understood it the Germans didn’t want war in 1914.  My howls of protest down the phone convinced both of us that perhaps the origins talk was the one to go with.

To say the First World War was a huge event in world history is to imbue the word “huge” with a scale it does not entirely deserve.  10 million lost their lives.  2 empires disappeared.  4 emperors lost their thrones. A whole host of new states were created. The war also saw the creation of the first communist state.  To Britons, who suffered far less than most, it created a collective nightmare image of mud, wire, machine guns, cemetries and poppies that persists to this day.

It is a depressing war.  All wars are depressing but most wars have moments of dash and heroism.  The Second World War had its Battle of Britain with its brave young Spitfire pilots.  The Napoleonic Wars had their thin red lines.  But the First World War has nothing to compare.  It’s colour is brown.  There was almost no opportunity for the individual to excel or make a difference.

Mind you, relieving war of its heroic side is probably no bad thing.

Perhaps the most depressing part to it was that it didn’t really solve anything.  With the exception of the Soviet Union it marked (until the founding of the EU) the end of multi-national super-states.  But otherwise it didn’t solve the question of what boundaries industrial states should occupy and how they should be governed.  In that respect it was only the first in a succession of conflicts that didn’t properly end until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So.  What was it about?

Standard Version

The standard version - the one I was taught in school - goes something like this: Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated, by assassins who were probably under the control of rogue elements of the Serbian government but no one is quite sure.  Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia (for reasons unclear - though probably to do with Serbia being an ally) mobilised her armed forces. 

At this point the Schlieffen Plan enters the fray.  Russia and France were allies.  Thus, if Russia attacked Austria, Germany would be obliged to attack Russia and France to attack Germany.  So, Germany would be facing a war on two fronts which had long been the ultimate nightmare.  So, Germany needed to knock one of her enemies out of the war as quickly as possible.  Russia was too vast to be defeated quickly, so it had to be France.  The plan was to go on the defensive in the south while sending the bulk of her Western forces through Belgium, then south through Northern France to attack the French army from two sides.  If everything went to plan, France would be defeated in 6 weeks.  The plan hinged on the assumption that the Russians would be slow to mobilize in the event of war.  This would allow Germany the time to send the bulk of her forces westwards, to defeat France and be able to send those forces back East to fend off the now-mobilised Russian forces.

But what the plan did not allow for was for the Russians to have mobilised before they went to war.  So, for Germany, Russian mobilisation meant war.

War with Russia meant war with France.  War with France meant the invasion of neutral Belgium and the invasion of neutral Belgium meant war with Britain.

There is usually some mention of railway timetables, the idea being that they made the Schlieffen Plan rigid to the point that there was no flexibility.  Germany could not simply have a war on one front.  War with Russia meant war with France.

Variations on the standard version will also tend to mention the tensions of the time: Germany’s industrialisation but lack of empire, the naval arms race and Alsace-Lorraine.

The overwhelming impression given is that it was an accident.  I have never quite bought that.  I find it difficult to believe that such a huge event could be brought about by accident.  Not impossible, mind.  The death of Princess Diana was clearly a huge event in all sorts of people’s minds and that was an accident.  So, not impossible but unlikely.

The Kaiser did it

So, what theories are there out there?  One, I know well, not least because I have blogged about it, was that the Kaiser did it.

When he stepped down as Chancellor in 1890, Bismark left Germany a golden legacy.  It was united and industrialising.  It had friendly relations with Britain because he had kept Germany out of the hunt for empire.  And it had made deals with Russia and Austria to keep the peace in Eastern Europe.

The deal in question was a couple of (I believe) secret treaties which said that if Austria attacked Russia, Germany would side with Russia.  If Russia attacked Austria, Germany would side with Austria.  Seeing as Germany was by far the strongest of the three powers it made no sense for either Austria or Russia to go to war.  So, they didn’t.

The only real worry for Germany was France who wanted to regain Alsace and the parts of Lorraine she had lost in 1870.  But France was the weaker power and lacked allies so there was precious little she could do about it.

And then William tore up the agreement (I believe it was known as the Re-insurance Treaty) with Russia.  Russia now lacked an ally and was soon making alliances with the French.  Why William did this is not clear.  But what is clear is that it created a huge headache for the German Army.  Its doctrine had always been to avoid a war on two fronts and now this was precisely the scenario it had to deal with.  So, it came up with the Schlieffen Plan - the idea being to defeat France in 6 weeks and then be able to concentrate all its forces on Russia.  Only one problem - it was barking mad.  It had no slack.  It was entirely dependent on nothing going wrong: Britain not intervening, Russia mobilising slowly, Belgium being a pushover, soldiers being able to stay on the march for over a month and at the end of it: France losing.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  Just to make matters even worse, Germany built itself a Navy.  A German Navy can only used against the British Navy.  But Britain wasn’t even an enemy at the time.  It was a hostile act towards a power that wasn’t hostile.  The only argument for it that makes sense - or rather makes sense in the fantasy world of the German court - is that they were running out of aristocrats.  Running out of aristocrats meant that if they wanted to expand the army they would have to allow all sorts of hoi polloi into the ranks of the officer corps.  This they did not want to do.  So rather than do that they restricted the size of the army and put the money into the navy instead.

This expansion was wrapped around Tirpitz’s doctrine, the Risk Theory.  The idea was that if Germany had a large navy, although it couldn’t defeat the Royal Navy it could weaken it to the extent that it would be vulnerable to the navies of France, Russia and, possibly, the United States.  So, the British would avoid conflict.

This, again, was barking mad because it made no allowance for what Britain ended up doing.  What the British actually did was to cut a deal with the French in the form of the Entente Cordiale.

Having done that in 1905, a year later, in 1906, the British upped the stakes by launching the Dreadnought Class of battleships.  These rendered all other battleships obsolete.  Had Germany been sensible it would have folded at this point.  Instead it started to build dreadnoughts of its own.

It’s a neat theory that the Kaiser did it.  But it’s wrong.  At key moments the Kaiser was placed in a very weak position.  He did not want to see the end of the treaty with Russia but his Chancellor, von Caprivi, threatened to resign.  It came in the very week that William had sacked Bismarck.  To lose one chancellor might be regarded as misfortune would look like carelessness.  At the height of the July crisis in 1914 he tried to prevent war with France but was told by von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, that war plans were so reliant on complex railway timetables that they could not possibly be changed.  This, incidentally, was a lie.

David Fromkin

David Fromkin in his book “Europe’s Last Summer” makes a number of points and suggestions.

He points out that alliances rather than encouraging war tended to act as a brake.  France did not want to go to war over Serbia.  Russia did not want to go to war over Alsace-Lorraine.

In a similar vein, Germany did not want to go to war over Serbia.  I can’t remember the exact numbers but between 1908 and 1913, the Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf had proposed war with Serbia over 20 times.  Each time he was turned down.  Part of the reason he kept on being rebuffed must have been Germany’s reluctance to get involved in a Balkans dispute.

In a similar vein he makes much the same point about monarchies.  Nicholas II may not have cared much for his cousin William II but war would have made all sorts of things inconvenient.

But the main thrust of Fromkin’s argument is that August 1914 was the tale of two wars.  Austria wanted to crush Serbia.  Germany wanted to crush France and Russia.  The sooner the better.  Germany wanted war in 1914 because her already desperate strategic situation was getting worse by the day.  Russia was industrialising.  That was threatening to shatter both parts of the already fragile Schlieffen Plan.  It would shatter the first part (defeating France) by allowing Russia to mobilise faster.  It would shatter the second by holding out the prospect of a one on one defeat.  For the German High Command it was now or never.  That was why the Chief of Staff, von Moltke went to the Kaiser and told him bluntly that rigid railway timetables meant that war with Russia meant war with France.

It was a lie.  We know this because the then Director of Transportation went on to write a whole book debunking it.  But it was a lie that worked and one that managed to overcome the Kaiser’s usual (when it came to the crunch) pacifism.

Perhaps Fromkin’s best evidence is the paper trail - or rather lack of it.  Von Moltke destroyed most of his papers.  By and large people do not destroy documents unless they have something to hide.

Fromkin’s is an explanation I like.  It suggests method in their madness.  It suggests that the war was no accident.  But what it doesn’t do is to explain how the system of alliances that were essential to creating those conditions came about.  It explains how leaders reacted to the situation that they found themselves in but not how they got into that situation in the first place.

States do not go about randomly making alliances.  They do so for reasons.


So, let’s have a look at some of these alliances to see what clues they yield.

The Anglo-French Entente isn’t really an alliance at all and for about a day in August 1914 this created all sorts of ructions when France found itself at war while Britain hummed and hawed.  It’s creation was a direct response to the creation of the German High Seas Fleet.  Britain saw in this a threat to trade and a threat to empire. 

So, why does Germany have a navy?  As Winston Churchill remarked: “For Britain a navy was a necessity, for Germany it was something in the way of luxury.”  I’ve already mentioned the meritocratic/aristocratic conflict in Germany as one of the drivers.  And I’ve also mentioned Tirpitz’s Risk Theory.  Another argument that occasionally gets raised is that it had something to do with the idea of getting an empire but it is difficult to see how.  The scramble for Africa is pretty much over.  All that’s left is scraps.  The only real means of gaining an empire is to seize somebody else’s.  But to even think about that would be to undermine the Risk Strategy - which aims to keep Britain at bay and relies on the presence of a French navy.

Going back to Germany’s class conflict - this is still big.  Germany is in the bizarre situation of having the institutions of a democracy but not the reality.  If I recall correctly, the Reichstag was elected on a broader franchise than that in Britain but it had a lot less power.  Germany’s aristocrats, who dominated the army, were desperate to cling on to power and the idea that you could send the best of the lower orders off to sea must have had quite an appeal.

France was simply happy to have an ally in its attempts to regain Alsace-Lorraine.  At this point it is worth thinking about the basis of France’s claim.  It was partly historical: Alsace-Lorraine had been part of France so should it again.  And partly democratic: Most people in Alsace-Lorraine are French, therefore its should be part of France.  This is not quite as clear cut as it is sometimes presented.  To the best of my knowledge there was no great re-unification movement in Alsace-Lorraine.  At the end of the war Alsace-Lorraine declared independence before the movement was crushed by France.  German immigrants were expelled.

I can even add some personal observations to this.  While waiting for my cousin’s wedding ceremony to start at Colmar Town Hall I looked at the (I assume) World War Two War Memorial.  I counted 36 names.  More than 30 of them were German.  Of course, a German name does not imply a German speaker does not imply a would-be German but it doesn’t contradict it either.

Of the France-Russia alliance little has to be said beyond what has already been said.  It owes its origin to Alsace-Lorraine and Russia’s nervousness over the end of the Re-Insurance Treaty.

That in itself was caused by Germany’s decision to back Austria over Russia.  Why they decided to do this beats me.  Although Austrians might speak German most of the empire’s subjects did not.  And while Russia seemed to be a coming power, Austria was anything but.  “We have shackled ourselves to a corpse” was a frequent German comment.

Could ethnic or racial tensions be at the root of all this?  I have this vague idea that nationalism (which was in the air at the time) arose through industrialisation and the spread (and perversion) of Darwin’s ideas.  But if so, you’d be looking for growing German suspicion/hostility towards Russians and other Slavs.  While anti-semitism was growing (on both sides of the border) and hatred of Slavs was a big deal for the Nazis, I can’t find much evidence of it before 1914.  That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there - just that I can’t find it.

The German hostility and suspicion towards Russia is central to the outbreak of the First World War and yet it is difficult to see where it was coming from.  It’s not as if the two had a territorial dispute to keep them at one another’s throats.

It’s a puzzle.

How to govern industrialised societies

There is another way to think about it and that is in the context of the 20th Century.  The idea is that the conflicts of the 20th Century were attempts to answer the question: how should industrialised societies be governed?  At the beginning of the 20th Century the options were: liberal democracy, imperialism, nationalism and socialism.  The First World War saw imperialism drop out of the running, the Second World War, nationalism, and the Cold War, socialism.  It left liberal democracy, albeit in a heavily-modified form.

It’s a neat theory and it fits the facts of the 20th Century, but does it fit the facts of 1914?  While Britain and France might fit the bill of liberal democracies, their empires certainly don’t.  And France’s claim to Alsace-Lorraine is dubious.  Indeed, if lack of empire were the yardstick, then Germany was about the least imperial power in Europe.  But it isn’t.  The yardstick is how institutions are elected and what powers they have.  In that context, Britain and France undoubtedly come out on top.

But that doesn’t quite get them off the hook.  Although they were the better powers, they still have to have acted correctly.  Liberal democracies should not involve themselves in aggressive wars.  But while Britain and France were clearly preparing for war there is very little evidence to suggest that they were seeking to provoke one.

Liberal democracy is not perfect.  I decry its injustices on an almost daily basis.  But it’s a lot less imperfect than the alternatives and it holds the best chance of something better emerging in the future.

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  1. Professor Fischer argued that the war started because, as you said, Germany wanted to knock out Russia before its successful industrialisation went any further.  The big question, according to Nial Ferguson, is why Britain joined in to defend Belgium and France. His account was that the bulk of the Liberal cabinet was against it but that Asquith and Lloyd George persuaded them into it for the glorious cause of dishing the Tories.

    Posted by dearieme on 27 January 2007 at 12:25am

  2. Thomas Sabo CharmsThe woman was lightly injured in the attack and took herself to the Soroka Medical Center, the military said, where doctors delivered her baby. Thomas Sabo SchmuckAn Israeli moratorium on building new settlements in the West Bank expired Sunday—a milestone met by cheers from supporters of settlements and concern from diplomats involved in the initial rounds of face-to-face talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Thomas Sabo ArmbänderPalestinian officials have said that if building resumes on territory they consider part of a future Palestinian state, they will walk away from the latest negotiations aimed at resolving their decades-old conflict with Israel. Thomas Sabo Ketten

    Posted by liking on 10 November 2010 at 12:35pm

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