The 1914 Analogy

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Of the two great wars of our century, we naturally remember the more recent one most vividly, and, in moments of crisis, we look to it for lessons in fighting—or avoiding—another war. From time to time, most often when the Soviet Union makes one obnoxious move or another into someone else’s country, we are reminded of the “Lesson of Munich,” when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is said to have met Hitler’s aggression with “appeasement” and so to have helped to bring on the Second World War. But now, some scholars are arguing that taking a hard line is not so likely to check aggression as it is to make the world repeat the tragedy of the First Great War.

The causes of World War I, as Woodrow Wilson said at the time, ran “deep into all the obscure soils of history.” That great and terrible war— which cost the lives of 8,000,000 soldiers and 13,000,000 civilians, which left 21,000,000 soldiers wounded, mutilated, or spitting blood from gas attacks, which finished the destruction of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish empires and began the bankrupting of the British Empire that the Second World War completed, and did all this for no discernible advantage to any of the participants—was the culmination of forces both enormous and trivial.

Nineteenth-century Europe, fueled by industrial revolution and the riches of imperialism, had grown extraordinarily prosperous. The population of Europe had doubled; trade expanded; technology was an unmixed blessing; national economies expanded and expanded again. New nations emerged—Bismarck’s Germany and Garibaldi’s Italy among them—and even newer ones struggled to emerge. National pride was at a fever pitch.

Unfortunately, all this high-spirited prosperity was based on an economy that, like a bicycle, had to keep going to keep from falling. For raw materials, and especially for food, Europe was dependent upon outsiders. When the United States increasingly came to need its own wheat to feed its own growing population, prices rose in Europe; and an anxiety spread across the Continent about the cost of food in much the way that, in the 1970’s, anxiety arose over the disruption of increasing oil prices.

This general sense of unease occurred amidst a tangled and touchy political rivalry that dated back some decades, too. Germany was the most powerful state in Europe—made so by Bismarck, partly at the expense of France. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Germany had taken Alsace-Lorraine from France, and France would never forget it. Fearing this bitterness of the French, Bismarck secured his position by entering into a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and the newly united Italy.

At the same time, the British felt that the Anglo-German rivalry was the international rivalry, and the British tended to see every mishap that occurred to them as German-inspired. The Germans, for their part, saw British plots everywhere; and, in general, the British and the Germans behaved rather like the Americans and the Russians have during the past forty years.

The expansion of German trade, and Germany’s success in maritime trade, seemed ominous to the British. And the Germans, feeling hemmed in by British superiority on the seas, labored to build up their fleet. Without seapower, declared Admiral Tirpitz, “Germany’s position in the world is like a mollusc without a shell.” The British, alarmed by Germany’s challenge, built a fleet of “Dreadnought” battleships, thinking the Germans would be so overawed that they would give up their ambitions. But the Germans proceeded to build their own dreadnoughts. The German fleet, said Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, ought to be destroyed. The Germans, said Kaiser Wilhelm II, had become ringed with bayonets. Strategists came to talk not of mutual deterrence but of the ability to knock out another nation decisively—what is called in the 1980’s, a pre-emptive first-strike capability. The cost of armaments, in the five decades before 1914, quintupled.

It was argued—indeed, in such books as Sir Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion it was proven—that a complex and interdependent world could not afford war, that even the victors would lose. But too few people hated war in 1914. Their experience of it—fought by professional soldiers in the Crimea from 1854 to 1856, and in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and in other recent wars—had been that quick, decisive wars were advantageous to the victors.

At the same time, potent motivations existed for war in 1914. Politicians faced with angry or disorderly citizens often like to deflect their anger outward, toward an external enemy. For Germany, whose economy faced disarray because of the rising cost of food and raw materials, an external enemy was a godsend. For Russia, whose czarist dictatorship was threatened by social upheavals, an external enemy was a godsend just as it was for Austria-Hungary, whose fragile collection of Hungarians, Poles, Slavs, Rumanians, and others were stirring against the central government.

Russia, troubled at home and by its relations with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, entered an alliance with France. Britain, troubled by its rivalry with Germany, entered with Russia and France into the Triple Entente. And so anxiety fed upon itself, nurturing the arms race and an ever more tangled set of alliances and counteralliances that would, should war come, drag nations willy-nilly into the conflagration.