The War That Changed The World

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The year 1914 was one of the most fateful years in human history. As the painful half-century which it inaugurated nears completion we can see that in that year there came one of those profound turning points that occur no more than once or twice in a millennium. Probably it will be a long time before we fully understand what 1914 got us into, but we can at least begin to see what it wrenched us out of.

World society then was essentially a European society, which believed that it had above all other things the quality of permanence. Whatever happened, it was going to stay fixed.

What 1914 demonstrated was that European society was actually as unstable as a bag of cordite. It was at the mercy of a jar or spark, and in the month of August, 1914, it went up in a prodigious explosion. It had grown too rigid to adjust itself to the pressures that were building up within itself.

Few things can be more instructive than a detailed examination of the way in which the explosion took place, and a genuinely excellent study is now at hand in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August . Mrs. Tuchman indicates that the month of August not only brought the war on but determined the form that it was going to take. When the month began, the world was at peace; when it ended, the world had not merely gone to war but had gotten itself into a war that was going to last far beyond anything which the men who started the war had thought possible. The war would destroy the very things it was supposed to protect.

The men of 1914, in short, were doing a great deal more than they realized or intended, and there is a touch of inevitability about the way the war began. Everything that was done was done in the light of things done earlier. No man had real freedom of action. When the movement into war got fairly under way it could not be stopped, and the record of the tragically futile attempts to stop it constitutes, in Mrs. Tuchman’s fine phrase, “the eternal epitaph of man’s surrender to events.”

One illustration will make the point. At the last minute, while the ponderous machinery of mobilization was already in gear, the Kaiser wanted to cancel the projected invasion of France and confine the struggle to a one-front war. To his top military man, General von Moltke, he proposed: “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!”

Von Moltke was simply stunned, and his reply dashed the Kaiser’s hopes—which, as a matter of fact, probably were illusive anyway. “Your Majesty, it cannot be done,” he said. “The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete”—and then, as Mrs. Tuchman remarks, he added the phrase that becomes inevitable when military plans dictate policy: “Once settled, it cannot be altered.”

Once the business began, it had to keep going. And in this account of the way war came to a Europe whose leaders did try—ineffectively and too late—to head it off, there is a haunting similarity to the way the Civil War came to the United States in 1861. Men had ceased to be free agents; once a certain indefinable point was passed, there was a dreadful irresistible quality about the move toward disaster. Mrs. Tuchman’s comment on the remorseless sequence of events is strangely like Abraham Lincoln’s confession that he could not claim to have controlled events but that events rather had controlled him.

One of the fatalities that shaped things in August, 1914, was the fact that nobody believed that the war could last very long. Whatever happened, it would soon be over: nations might get defeated, but they would not get bled to the point of exhaustion. “The economic impossibility of a long war,” Mrs. Tuchman points out, “was everybody’s orthodoxy.” War would dislocate Europe’s economy so completely that it could not possibly last more than three or four months. The professional soldiers planned for a short war, and when it came they embraced it.

They were, of course, as wrong as men could be. They had devised total war, and they were unable to understand what total war really meant. When one German official tried to show General von Moltke what an extended war would do to the German economy, von Moltke answered irritably: “Don’t bother me with economics—I am busy conducting a war.” That the world simply could not afford a long war was as true as gospel, but the world went ahead and had a long war anyway. The people who had made it could not see that the one great rule about modern war is that it had better be brief.

In its essence the German war plan was an enormous gamble in which everything rode on one cast of the dice, the general idea being: Ignore all of the little things that may go wrong and strike for final victory with one irresistible blow. Then the gamblers’ nerves began to fail, and when the little things went wrong, the German commanders tried to hedge their bet; hedging, they weakened the blow just enough so that it was not quite irresistible, and instead of getting a quick victory they got a ruinous stalemate. The French, in their turn, aimed at a quick victory by striking the German left with an irresistible offensive of their own; they succeeded only in wrecking a large part of their army and insuring that the war would be fought on French soil at a crippling cost to the French nation.