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The 1914 Analogy

July 2024
6min read

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.

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.

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