From Austerlitz To Moscow


As for the on-switch, no one even seriously considered looking for it until it was too late. The prevailing attitude was that war had become virtually impossible. After all, there had been over four decades of peace on the European continent before 1914. During that period, a nation’s ability to convert its population into an army in a matter of weeks appeared to guarantee national security against any conceivable threat. To deter war or to have one’s way in a commercial dispute became a routine matter of threatening to mobilize the nation’s entire population if one’s terms were not met by midnight the following Thursday.

Such was the practice of diplomacy when the Austrians menaced Serbia, Russia’s Balkan ally, in the hot summer of 1914. While Europe’s statesmen wrestled with each other, the meat grinder’s on-button lay unnoticed in the dust beneath their shuffling feet. Then the Russians overstepped the previous bounds of empty threat; they began to mobilize their Grande Armée. The deadly machinery cranked into action.

Within a day or two of the Czar’s mobilization order to his nation, the leaders of Europe realized that they had spent the nineteenth century concocting a mutual suicide pact. It was impossible to permit a neighbor to mobilize his population without counteraction. Within a matter of weeks, his mass citizen army could brush aside the normal garrison forces of any European state and sweep from border to border virtually unopposed. The new weapon placed a premium on being the first nation to pull the trigger. Furthermore, once the trigger was pulled, there was no turning back. With demobilization out of the question, and with the national economy paralyzed by mass dislocation of workers and farmers, the only recourse was to place the nation on a full wartime footing and start the troops in motion. Trapped by the unseen logic of their own designs, Europe’s hapless leaders fed their populations into the mindless slaughter of World War I. Four years later there were 20,000,000 dead, and the western front lay only tens of kilometers from its 1914 position.

As soon as arrangements for the next war had been completed at Versailles, the world’s nations retreated in horror from the nightmare created by Napoleon’s new weapon. Alas! reality is impervious to popular emotion, and when Hitler organized the rebuilding of German military power in the 1930’s, he rediscovered the reality of total mobilization: if you can achieve it before your neighbors do, the victory will be yours. But total mobilization no longer meant the hasty outfitting of millions of farmers in snappy uniforms. It takes years to build the modern equivalent of the Grande Armée. It takes years to develop the machinery of modern war and build industries to produce it in quantity. It takes years of indoctrination and training-from Hitler Youth to SS military camps-before the human forces have the necessary skill and resolve. Hitler got a head start in men and machinery that dropped almost the whole of Europe into his lap. Temporarily.

When the meat grinder had consumed another 50,000,000 lives, the continent paused once again in its unswerving march toward Armageddon. No Versailles would be needed this time; the elements of the third round had fallen into place quite naturally. The balance of Europe and the stability of the entire world were swept away by World War II. This time both victor and vanquished in Europe were exhausted to the point of bankruptcy; the political economy of the world was disrupted; colonial empires that circled the globe would have to be rapidly dismantled; and the dike between Eastern and Western Europe had been permanently destroyed. The shape of things to come would be decided in the traditional way by placing national power on the scales of violence to see who would dictate their economic and political terms to whom.


The thing we overlook too frequently these days is that the world in 1945 had arrived at a pattern of behavior-of mass military vistas for national ambition, and mass military obligations for national def ense-that promised a ghastly future for us all. Safety could only be bought at the cost of mass strength, and that meant universal military training to maintain a huge army, rigid indoctrination of youth, mobilization of the minds and hearts of the total population into beliefs and attitudes conducive to strength—in fact, all of the inventions and discoveries that had shaped our circumstances since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Any backsliding, any pause for political discussion, any depolarization of the ideological uniformity now required for national defense could bring swift defeat at the hands of whichever neighbor managed to maintain a more primitive and effective human monolith-as Germany demonstrated against France in 1940.

The situation was even worse than that. It was virtually impossible to calculate the outcome of a war involving one nation’s 200 divisions outfitted in such and such a manner pitted against another nation’s 170 divisions outfitted in some other complicated way. And what about the morale factor? Has Nation X done a better job on its youth than Nation Y? Did they gain in ferocity over their neighbors when they sent their storm troopers to smash the windows of all shops owned by ——? It’s pretty difficult to say. Anyway, the proof of the pudding is in the eating-let the armies march! Uncertainty of outcome is a crucial ingredient among the causes of war. And don’t forget that other spur to action: it pays to move first.