The 1914 Analogy

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Nor were the political leaders who were trying to shape these great historical forces invariably wise and fine men. Wilhelm II, who inherited Bismarck’s expansionist policies—which Bismarck had pursued with astuteness and a sense of proportion—pursued expansion without tact or finesse. The Kaiser spoke, as Hanson Baldwin has written, “with violent bombast, arrogance, vanity, and pride. Unstable, unpredictable, here was a ruler who could slap the Czar of Bulgaria on his behind ‘in the presence of the entire court.’” He could name all the kings of Assyria without hesitation and in the proper order, but he could not be counted on for a modicum of prudence. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Baldwin wrote, “who slept on an iron cot, bathed in cold water, rose to work at 4:30” was “a man with no vision and little emotion.” Nicholas II of Russia had a “weak, shy, irresolute nature.” Raymond Poincaré, President of the French Republic, “hid an inner uncertainty with an outward rigidity.” And Lord Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, “liked nature better than human beings.”

In the British Foreign Office, as the historian Miles Kahler has written, Eyre Crowe, the undersecretary for foreign affairs, argued that German actions displayed “direct and unmistakable hostility to England” and “a disregard of the elementary rules of straightforward and honorable dealing.” Every German gain, Crowe maintained, was a British loss. Sanderson, another Foreign Service officer, was more phlegmatic. The British Empire, said Sanderson, “must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.” German behavior could best be understood as coming from an arriviste mentality; the Germans needed to be reassured—and even, to some extent, accommodated, since “a great and growing nation cannot be repressed.”

All such considered discourse was rudely set aside, however, as 1914 approached. Crisis tumbled atop crisis—in Morocco in 1905, where French and German colonial wishes clashed; in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. In the Balkans, the Serbs tried to make a new nation, as the Germans and the Italians had done not long before. The Serbs, with the backing of the Russians, thought they would combine with Montenegro and Albania; and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Serbia emerged stronger than ever. “The first round is won,” the Serbian Prime Minister said. “We must now prepare for the second, against Austria.”

Then, as now, terrorists were not in short supply; and when a terrorist named Gavrilo Princip, a half-mad young man, shot the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew of the Emperor Franz Joseph, and his wife, diplomats all over Europe immediately drew their conclusions from the fact that Princip was connected with the Young Bosnia group, which was connected to the Black Hand, which was run by a colonel from the Serbian general staff who happened to be the head of the Serbian military secret service, and Serbia was considered by Germany and Austria to be nothing but a client state, or proxy, for Russia. With that, the elements of war came together with a fury.

The elements have an uncomfortable familiarity: the booming economy threatened by sharp price increases for basic commodities; the reborn pride in nationalism; the sets of interlocking alliances; the buildup in arms; the strategy of the pre-emptive strike; the growing sense that a quick war would be “winnable”; the apparent inability of global economic interdependence to discredit the presumed gains of war; the uncertain quality of the world’s leaders; the feeling that all international events are somehow related to a single great rivalry between two great powers; the suspicions of plots and counterplots; the spread of terrorism; the sense that all small nations are merely the clients or proxies of some large nation; the inability, in fact, of the large nations to control very reliably the behavior of their clients and proxies; the ability of the clients and proxies to lead their protectors into unwanted conflicts; the internal upheavals that might be repressed by uniting a country to fight an external foe; the urge to satisfy strident nationalist appeals to “do something” to rescue national pride; the belief that any event in the world, no matter how remote, is somehow tied to a nation’s essential interests; the lack of understanding that the survival of an opponent may be more beneficial than his destruction; the belief that accommodation is “appeasement.”

Still, this essential difference separates past from present; the major powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, the European countries, China, and Japan—don’t want a major war. Having seen two world wars destroy half-a-dozen nineteenth-century empires, the major powers no longer see a war among themselves as a solution to their problems; indeed, they see it as an act of suicide. Although they may provoke one another, and need to suffer provocation as well, although they may be directly or indirectly involved from time to time in coups and riots and wars and bombings and hostage takings in the Third World, none of the major powers appears foolish enough to forget that in the essential need to avoid a global war, they are all allies.