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Mythbusters #6: The Great War and the Inevitability of Conflicts


This August we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, back then simply known as the Great War. The latter is undoubtedly the more appropriate name: it was a ‘World War’ by courtesy only[1]. Through the end of the year, there will be events all over Europe commemorating events of special significance, especially in the West: the fall of Antwerp, the miracle on the Marne, the first battle of Ypres. The summer and fall months were the “romantic period” when the war was still one of maneuver and both generals and nations could hope for a military solution by turning the enemy’s flank somewhere. By December, the Western Front had settled down into the deadly meat grinder of trench warfare which would remain almost unaltered for four more terrible years.

It was a war that defied adjectives. No nation began it with more than a few months stock of munitions and both expenditure estimates and production plans fell laughably short of actual requirements. During the fighting in Poland in October 1914, Russian factories were producing 30,000 artillery shells per month while the Russian army was using up that many shells per day[2]. No nation had a realistic plan for winning it either: the vaunted Schlieffen Plan was a generation old and had been designed to defeat anew the army of Napoleon III, while France’s infamous Plan XVII hardly deserved the name as it relied exclusively on ‘ataque a la outrance’ and the élan of the virile French fighting man to overthrow ‘le Bosche méprisable’. At the outset of war, Britain’s entire Army amounted to little more than one wing of one of France’s five armies until 1916, though the BEF fought bravely and effectively.

Was the Great War inevitable? More ink has been spilt on this question than blood on the fields of Flanders; no definitive answer is possible, but the responses break down into two broad camps. The determinist camp believe that essentially impersonal forces[3] leading to the rise of an economically and militarily dominant Germany gave the nations of Europe a stark choice between submission to Teutonic hegemony or conflict. The individualist camp does not reject all of the arguments of the determinist camp, but argue that it was the individual decisions, misperceptions and errors of leaders like Wilhelm II, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Bethman-Hollweg,  Nicolas II, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, and many others who turned a potentiality into a probability and then into a certainty.

The topic is appropriate not only because of the anniversary, but also because I am writing from Moscow: and if there is another war in Europe, it will start over “some damnable business in the Former Soviet Republics which is not worth the life of a single American grenadier.”[4] Today’s world has many parallels with both the First and Second World Wars: Vladimir Putin’s new Russia resembles National Socialist GroßDeutschland far more than it does Wilhelm II’s Kaiserreich, but America’s growing competition with China tracks the Anglo-German Naval Race of the 1900’s with eerie and disconcerting closeness.


Against Predestination

My own view is that wars are never pre-ordained, but that impersonal forces play a larger role than individualists give them credit for. Statesmen are not truly autonomous actors; they are shaped by the societies, the currents of thought, and the rivalries around them. They make their decisions based on this context, which is largely determined by impersonal factors. Their decisions then have a tendency to reinforce those same impersonal forces in a positive feedback loop which becomes increasingly difficult to break.

Thus it is perfectly true that Kaiser Wilhelm could have sacked Admiral von Tirpitz and drastically cut down German naval armaments at any time, thus greatly easing tensions with Great Britain and making her entry into the Great War far less likely. Or his grandfather might have listened to Bismarck when he was still only the King of Prussia and refused to annex Alsace and Lorraine, thus seeding French revanchism and the desire for vengeance. Both of these actions were plausible at one point in time, but once they took root, they became self-perpetuating. Germany was not about to hold plebiscites in the conquered provinces and allow popular self-determination to decide which nation they would belong to; and it could not stop building battleships precisely because it was locked in a naval arms race, which is circular logic: without German battleships, there would have been no naval rivalry and very probably no British intervention in the First World War[5].


But Germany did take Alsace and Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War; and they did begin to build up their navy on a scale that could only be a direct challenge to Britain’s national security. These decisions made sense at the time: the Alsatians mostly spoke German, and the architects of the new Reich were keen on including all non-Austrian Germans in it. Germany had also acquired some colonies in Africa and the Pacific, with British support: these required a navy to defend[6]. More importantly, German industry had expanded enormously and overseas trade was an increasingly important and lucrative part of it. Without a navy to defend it, Germany’s trade would depend on the good will of the British, something which was intolerable to Teutonic pride after 1900.

Personalities exacerbated these underlying forces: Wilhelm II wanted to be a ruler on the scale of his ancestor Der Große Freidrich and colonial expansion, however useless, was one way to achieve this. Thus Wilhelm’s constant meddling and sabre-rattling in areas utterly distant to Germany’s vital interests – during the Boer War, in Morocco – constantly raised hackles and the view of the Reich as a dangerous and destabilizing force. The Kaiser also – paradoxically – admired the British Navy and loved ships; he could never be brought to understand why the British didn’t reciprocate with an equal love for “his navy”. At the same time, Admiral von Tirpitz was the most dominating personality in the upper echelons of German politics since Bismarck and until the emergence of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. He easily overpowered the bureaucrats and “mere politicians” that opposed the enormous expenditures required to build the fleet, and found a willing ear and supporter in the Kaiser.

Thus Germany’s creation through war, demographic displacement of France as Europe’s most populous nation, and her economic rise to challenge traditional British industrial supremacy all contributed to Europe’s disquiet. The Kaiser exacerbated all these factors: turning Britain from a friend to an enemy by building a fleet far larger than needed, spurning Russia diplomatically in 1890, continuously irritating France with threats of war, and ignoring the growing demands for social reform coming from his own people. His personal and leadership failures were crucial to turning Germany into “the most dangerous state in Europe”. Which begs the question: what if Wilhelm had not been Kaiser?

The Great “What If” of German History

Wilhelm ascended to the Imperial throne on the 15th of June, 1888 and ruled until his abdication on the 9th of November 1918. He was 29 years old at the time of his coronation and had very little practical experience in governance until he was actually Kaiser. The reason for this was that his father, Frederick III, was not expected to die so young. Frederick was only 56 when he died of complications arising from cancer of the larynx, and his father had lived to the ripe old age of 90! In fact, Frederick was Emperor for only 99 days and the promise of his ambitious legislative and constitutional agenda was the great “what if” of modern German history.

Frederick grew up during the revolutionary 1840’s, the “age of liberalism” in Germany which culminated in the “springtime of the people” in 1848. The Crown Prince remained politically a liberal his entire life, an ideology which was reinforced by his marriage to the Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. Victoria was also a classical British liberal and had a powerful personality of her own; so much so, that conservative Germans came to dislike her intensely and even Bismarck referred to the heir apparent as “the English Emperor”.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Crown Prince fulfilled his military obligation and regretfully took up the sword against France. He commanded the III Army and proved militarily successful at the battles of Wissembourg, Wörth and Sedan, so unlike his son, he had nothing more to prove in that sense. More importantly, he won the praise of friend and foe alike for his concern over wounded soldiers of both sides, and for the suffering of French civilians as the Germans swept through their country. He came away from the war with a reaffirmed conviction that it was a horrid affair: “I do not like war, gentlemen. If I should reign, I would never make it.”[7] While even the most pacific-minded ruler is sometimes obliged to unsheathe the sword – think of Lincoln – there is no doubt that as Kaiser, Frederick would not have pursued a deliberately bellicose policy. Indeed, no one would have been more suited to reconcile France with Germany than Frederick.

Frederick’s brief reign was far too short for any lasting effect to take on German society or government. He left behind documents demonstrating his intention to transform the German Reich into a liberal, constitutional monarchy on the British model, with strict limitations on the powers of Kaiser and Chancellor and a greater role for the Reichstag. With him also died the hopes of German liberals and socialists, who would surely have benefited from a Kaiser who was determined to fulfil the “will of the people”.


What if Frederick had reigned for 15 years, until 1903? It is likely that the history of the world would have been radically altered. A more liberal Germany, focused internally on social welfare and development, would not have been able to push massive armament bills through a rubberstamp Reichstag, as Wilhelm and his ministers could. Frederick’s aversion to war, his desire to fund social improvement and his limited military budget would have ruled out a destabilizing naval program. Coupled with his wife’s influence and familial ties to the United Kingdom, it is difficult to imagine a British alliance with France. Nor would Frederick have continuously offended and threatened France over pointless colonial squabbles. There might never have been an Entente Cordial.

That doesn’t mean that the war in Europe would have been avoided. The proximate causes still existed: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the increasing weakness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the great Balkans rivalry between Austria and Russia, as well as with the various minor Balkan states. Austria went to war with Serbia as much to keep their empire together through military victory (the old “bang the drum” tactic) as to punish Serb involvement in Bosnian instability and the murder of the Archduke. Even if a more liberal Germany might not have given Conrad the famous “blank check” to deal with Serbia as he wished, it is entirely possible that the Austrians might have declared war anyway.Germany might then have felt obligated to fight against Russia to prevent an Austrian collapse. But it remains an open question whether such a conflict might have been confined to the Central Powers and Russia, a war which the Russians would have lost relatively quickly[8].

Back to the Future

This is only one example of the interplay between the tidal forces of human history and the impact that “Great Individuals” can have. Many others could be mentioned. What does this imply for our own turbulent times? Much has been made of the rise of China and its challenge to American supremacy in the world. More than any other potential conflict, it is this “hyperpower” conflict that most often described as “inevitable”. Proponents of this viewpoint will state that no hegemon has ever relinquished power without violence. The British Empire had to defeat her maritime rivals in France, Spain and Holland before establishing the Pax Britannica; and the rise of Imperial Germany was only halted by two world wars that so exhausted victors and vanquished alike, it permitted the rise of the United States and Soviet Russia to global dominance. Therefore, the argument goes, the rise of China will inevitably lead to war with America to determine if the XXIst Century is that of the Pax Americana or Sinica.

This argument is seriously flawed, however. The Anglo-German rivalry was as much about rival personalities as it was about rival economies or demographics and that there was nothing inevitable about it. In fact, the spectacular growth of German industry and power was matched by the equally spectacular growth of American industry and power in parallel. The British were faced with two equally serious challenges to their global hegemony from both rising powers. In fact, there were many good reasons why the British might have chosen to ally with Germany and face down the United States rather than vice versa: both European states were constitutional monarchies (though Germany’s was far more autocratic); Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s grandson and the House of Windsor was actually the House of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha until the First World War; Great Britain had already fought two wars against the United States and friction between the two countries almost flared into conflict in the 1837 Caroline Affair, the 1839 Aroostook War, the 1847 dispute over the Oregon Territory and the near recognition of the Confederate States of America by Britain during the Civil War.

It wasn’t until around 1895 that the British made the conscious decision to no longer view the United States as an imperial rival. The Royal Navy was locked into an increasingly expensive naval arms race not only with Germany and America, but with France, Russia and Japan as well. At last, the British realized that they could not maintain their “two power standard” of maintaining a navy larger than the next two rivals combined. Starting in 1901, Britain negotiated and signed the Entente Cordiale with France, signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and ceased considering the US Navy as a rival: all of the Royal Navy’s attention was to be focused on Germany.

Britain chose to turn the Anglo-American rivalry into a friendship that eventually became the “special relationship” and the cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It was made easier of course by our shared heritage and history, language and culture: though those had not stopped us from killing each other previously.

The most important precedent is the most immediate one however: the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR never turned hot. Despite numerous proxy wars – some of which were very large – the two main alliance blocs each stayed on their own side of the Iron Curtain. The presence of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons undoubtedly played a part; but at the very end, the Russians chose to let their satellites go and even to the break-up of the Soviet Union, a historic decision very much attributable to the individual interventions of Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze.

The US and China are both major trading partners and increasingly distrustful rivals; but I don’t believe that either China’s rise or a conflict with the United States are inevitable. War will come if leaders follow events rather than shaping them; then we may become locked into the same descending spiral that lead to the guns of August 100 years ago. There are signs enough that this is the way we are headed, but it’s not yet too late to change course.


Sources and Notes:


[1] With the exception of Japan’s opportunistic participation as a British ally to seize German Tsingtao in China, and some minor naval (Coromandel, Falklands) and colonial actions (Cameroon, German East and Southwest Africa), the entire war was fought in an area known to the Romans since antiquity.

[2] Max Hastings, “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War,” Knopf, 24 September 2013

[3] Demographics, geography, economic development, imperialism and competition for markets, social-labor trends…

[4] A quote from Otto von Bismarck: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” He went on to say that it “would not be worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”

[5] The argument that Great Britain went to war to defend Belgium is strictly true, but can only be explained in the context of the rivalry with Germany. If Germany had been exclusively a land power, and Anglo-German relations remained good, I sincerely doubt that any British politician would have come out for war on the side of France.

[6] Another case of circular logic: the colonies in Cameroon,Namibia, Tsingtao and Samoa were only of use as coaling stations for ships of the German navy. Their existence was then used as a justification for building up said navy to defend them.

[7]The Illustrated London News

[8] For more on this “what if” Great War, see my supplementary article: “Gaming the Great War: Alternate Scenarios”

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