Historical Revisionism

Revisionism on the causes of WWI seems to ebb and flow like a 20-year clock.  It was Germany's fault, no it wasn't, yes it was.  Etc.  Here is the latest iteration.

I have read quite a bit on the topic of late.  It was horribly complex, but here are a few thoughts.

  • At some level, it was everyone's fault, at least as measured by the enthusiasm that greeted the war in nearly every country.  It was the last war begun by folks who thought it would be incredibly romantic and glorious.
  • Austria simply has to bear a lot of the blame.  No doubt a crisis in the Balkans could have been started by Russia or Serbia, and in an alternative universe where the Archduke was not assassinated, they might well have.  But the fact is that Austria made this one happen.  They crafted a set of demands on Serbia that were supposed to be unreasonable.  They were meant to be a Casus Belli.  Austria had determined it was going to war with Serbia.
  • Much is made of the German blank check to Austria, but the key fact for me were the actions of Germany several weeks later.  In response to a building crisis in the Balkans to their southeast, the Germans entered the war attacking to the northwest, into Belgium and France.  With conflict inevitable in the Balkans, the Germans (with a helping hand from the Russians) helped turn a limited conflict into a World War.

The Germans were also responsible through bad decisions in bringing the US into the war, via a u-boat campaign that failed to achieve its goals (starve the Brits) but managed to bring US troops to Europe at almost the exact moment when British and French troops might have collapsed.  Incredibly, the Germans made the exact same mistake in WWII, declaring war on the US so they could initiate a u-boat campaign against US shipping, when Congress might well have been happy to keep America's war limited to Japan.



  1. slocum:

    "At some level, it was everyone's fault, at least as measured by the enthusiasm that greeted the war in nearly every country."

    The Dance of the Furies suggests the opposite -- namely, that ordinary people weren't expecting or desiring war (not even during the time between the assassination and the outbreak of hostilities). But once the war had started, it was very hard NOT to rally around and support one's country. The French and Belgians who'd been invaded certainly had little choice and as for the German people, it didn't take much propaganda portraying Germany as a victim to get them on board.

    Herman Goering was a crazy, genocidal Nazi, but it's hard to improve on his explanation of the phenomenon:

    "Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

    "There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."


  2. kidmugsy:

    "Herman Goering was a crazy, genocidal Nazi": genocidal, all right, and therefore "mad" in the colloquial sense but, I'd guess, not remotely mad in the medical sense.

  3. ErikTheRed:

    Yup. One thing I've learned through a bit of travel is that it's always important to not confuse the people of a country with their so-called government.

  4. STW:

    Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" does a marvelous job of setting the stage for WWI. She doesn't just examine the year or two before the war but starts before the turn of the 20th century to examine the forces involved.

  5. MingoV:

    "The Germans were also responsible through bad decisions in bringing the
    US into the war, via a u-boat campaign that failed to achieve its goals..."

    Wilson had changed his mind and wanted to enter the war. He deliberately chartered passenger liners to ship weapons to England. When a U-boat sunk the Lusitania, that became the pretext to entering the war. (Note: Some historians believe that the British leaked information on the ship's route to the Germans. Both theories can be true.)

  6. Roy:

    "When a U-boat sunk the Lusitania, that became the pretext to entering the war."

    The only problem with that theory is that the Lusitania was sunk just off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915. The US didn't declare war until April 6, 1917 - almost two full years after the sinking.

    After the sinking of the Lusitania, there was a such a hue & cry about it in the US that Germany severely cut back on its submarine campaign in order to mollify the US. Two years on and the US continued to trade with Britain and violating the blockade, so in early 1917, Germany again declared unrestricted submarine warfare in the blockade zone. It was this, combined with the Zimmerman note, which tipped the scales and caused congress to declare war.

  7. jdgalt:

    The blame for WW1 is indeed very arguable. The blame for the Versailles Treaty -- which ensured that WW2-in-Europe would take place -- is not. The Germans imposed those same demands on France first, in 1871.

    As for US entry into WW2-in-Europe -- the US (or at least FDR) effectively decided we would enter WW2-in-the-Pacific in 1936, by cutting off oil exports to Japan in response to the Rape of Nanking. Thus as soon as Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, US entry into WW2-in-Europe was ensured. Admiral Yamamoto understood us enough to make that prediction, so his superiors should have as well.

  8. rst1317:

    I agree. My sense of Wilson was that he wanted his League of Nations and was willing to go to long lengths to get it. He seems to have seen entering WWI as a means of

  9. CTD:

    This is the subject of Dan Carlin's most recent Hardcore History podcast "Countdown to Armageddon." He compares the social, political, military and demographic situation in Europe in August 1914 to a "doomsday machine," that, once started up, simply couldn't be turned off. Scarily, the reasons for this were entirely rational for each player, but disastrous for the world as a whole.

    He begins by making the case that Gavrilo Princip was the most important person to live in the last century.

    And I largely agree. Austria wanted (not without good cause, mind you) a regional war with Serbia, a third Balkan War. It was Germany that was largely responsible for turning that regional conflict in to a general war (again, not without reason, from its perspective).


  10. Elam Bend:

    Why wouldn't we cut off oil to a country that had just spend the last 20 years invading its neighbors and topping it off with such a gross mass murder as the one in Nanking. It was probably an action that should have been taken sooner. Either way, war was likely to come to the US. Even if the Japanese didn't bomb Pearl, they conquest of the Philippines (a part of the US) was always in the plans.

  11. JohnM:

    the key fact for me were the actions of Germany several weeks later.
    In response to a building crisis in the Balkans to their southeast, the
    Germans entered the war attacking to the northwest, into Belgium and
    France. With conflict inevitable in the Balkans, the Germans (with a
    helping hand from the Russians) helped turn a limited conflict into a
    World War.

    Except the Russians were closely tied to the Serbs and were expected to intervene if Austria attacked Serbia. Germany was allied to Austria and were expected to support the Austrians. France was allied to Russia and was obliged to intervene if Russia were attacked.

    Russia had a big army but a slow mobilisation. France and Germany had faster mobilisations. The German assumption was that an attack on Serbia would inevitably lead to a Europe wide war and so sought to beat the French before the Russians could fully mobilise. Attacking via Belgium was a tactical decision, the sense of which was made clear in 1940. However it should be added to your list for the reason that Britain declared war, not because France was attacked but because Belgium was. Given that the British Army (albeit tiny) made the critical difference between French collapse and survival in 1914, it proved a strategic mistake.

  12. Dale:

    I wonder where we would be now if the US had not entered
    WW1. What if we HAD stayed out of it?

  13. markm:

    There was a fundamental problem that could not be resolved peacefully: tiny Serbia actually was a threat to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wasn't a threat because the Serbs wanted to bring down the Empire, but simply because Serbia existed as an independent nation of one tribe. It was an example to all the other tribes held within the Empire that independence was possible, and the Empire was too decayed to continue forcibly resisting this fragmentation for long. So in truth, sooner or later either Austria would destroy Serbia or Serbia would contribute to the destruction of Austria. But this in itself only ensured war between Austria and Serbia's backer, Russia, which was another decaying Empire. What turned it into a world war was the willingness - and ofteh the eagerness - of other nations to join in. And while the French clamor for revenge for 1870 was pretty unseemly, it was Germany that made the first un-forced move.

    One of the points Barbara Tuchman made is that national leaders made war inevitable simply by mobilizing their armies in case some other country made war. Napoleon's mass armies were now the armies of every nation, and communication, command, and control had not kept up with the increased size of the armies. So it took France or Germany six weeks to call up the reserves, hand out the weapons, etc., and get their forces to the borders. They had to start this process merely on the possibility that war would come - but when it was completed and millions of armed men were staring at each other across a flimsy fence, it was much easier to order them to attack than to call them back.

    Some other points: In every nation where popular opinion made a difference, it was either for war, or for war unless the other side made major concessions. And both popular opinion and the decisions of leaders and experts were based on misinformation, misunderstanding, failures of imagination, and flat-out bullshit. In each nation, a very secret committee of military officers had spent many years polishing war plans, and in less than three months every one of those plans failed. (Except perhaps for Japan's plan to nab German-held islands in the Pacific while the German and British fleets were busy with each other.) The French initially put half their army on the border from Verdun to Switzerland, where nothing much happened during the whole war. They were forced to put the other half of their army in what they _knew_ was the wrong place - along the Belgian border instead of in Belgium - because the Belgians' insisted on maintaining their neutrality until the last possible moment, in the hopes that the Germans would change their mind, even after the German refusal to guarantee that neutrality brought the British into alliance with the French. The Belgians "plan B" was that their "impregnable" border forts would stall the Germans so there was time for help to arrive; new 16" German mortars explosively disassembled these forts in 24 hours. The Germans saw the Russian army as huge, slow, poorly led, and poorly trained, so they planned to overrun France in 8 weeks, leaving a few weeks to ship the troops east before the Russians could mobilize and pour over the borders. The Russian army actually was poorly led for the most part, but they'd conceived a clever plan to mobilize a force that was smaller than the Germans feared but large enough in just 6 weeks - and so at the crisis point of the Schlieffen Plan, they learned that Russian troops had overrun the Austrian border, defeated the German holding force in East Prussia, and were camping on the Kaiser's own ancestral estates, and had to divert troops to the east.

    If the British had any plans aside from landing a small but very good army at the left flank of the French, they didn't survive the first days of combat. Pretty soon Lord Kitchener's only plan was to get his troops back to the Channel where the Royal Navy could rescue them, but the German troops at the far end of that vast wheeling motion across Belgium and northern France were advancing faster than the Brits knew how to run. So over a period of a few days, each British regiment suddenly turned and mauled a German division, just to teach them not to follow so damned close. And then, with the Germans behind schedule and having to pull troops out for the Eastern front, the French pulled off an "inconceivable" maneuver: they pulled troops from the inactive front on their right and transferred them to the left, some even to the left of the Brits. Every road north was full of supply wagons for the forces in combat, and every road crossing would turn into a traffic jam when troops crossed it going west, so the no sane military planner would have signed off on that move. But it worked because the supplies didn't have to come all the way to the troops in combat, they were falling back and coming to the supplies. Put all together, this stalled the German advance long enough for the Allied troops to dig a connected system of trenches - and that's where the lines froze for 4 hellish years.

    As for the Russian plan, it worked great for a few weeks, but then old von Hindenburg trapped, encircled, and eliminated three Russian corps. At Russian headquarters, it appeared that the core of Samsonov's army just disappeared. The Russians went on the defensive and dug in - it wasn't too bad considering that they were still in enemy territory, but the lines were too long, and their ability to support huge armies too limited, so the Germans kept pushing them back until the Tsar's government collapsed.

  14. DebatingWombat:

    I think that when the German Empire is lambasted for "attacking to the northwest, into Belgium and France", the fact that Russia had already mobilised (incl. on its border with Germany) needs to be taken into account. The most damning thing for the German Empire was arguably its dogmatic adherence to the Schlieffen Plan which guaranteed a major European war, rather than being able to mount a "graduated response" - and a similar argument could be made for Russia's failure to plan for a mobilisation against either the German Empire or Austria-Hungary alone.

    If the German political goal was to have Austria-Hungary "teach Serbia a lesson" and thus to contain the conflict, the Schlieffen Plan was completely unsuitable. It, and the High Command's strict and dogmatic adherence to it, guaranteed that any conflict involving Russia would lead to a first strike against France, and thus in a self-fulfilling prophesy present the German Empire with exactly that 2-front war that the Schlieffen Plan was the solution to.

    However, in addition to Russia's mobilisation against both Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, the Franco-Russian Alliance (to the extent that Imperial Germany was aware of or had guessed its contents) may also bear some responsibility, as it obliged France to go to war with the German Empire to support Russia, even if the latter in its support of Serbia could be considered an aggressor against Austria-Hungary. This would also guarantee a 2-front war and to a certain extent justify the Schlieffen Plan gamble (if, that is, the Germans knew this).

    Ironically, the Imperial German Army seems to have forgotten several precepts of their "patron saint", Clausewits:
    "War is merely the continuation of politics/policy by other means" (i.e. war is POLITICAL)
    "[...]war is only a branch of political activity; that it is in no sense autonomous."
    "Sometimes the political and military objective is the same - for example, the conquest of a province. In other cases the political object will not provide a suitable military objective. In that event, another military objective must be adopted that will serve the political purpose and symbolise it tin the peace negotiations. [...] Generally speaking, a military objective that matches the political object in scale will, if the latter is reduced, be reduced in proportion; this will be all the more so as the political object increases its predominance." (Clausewitz, "On War", p. 21, Howard & Paret translation 1976, from the 2007 ed. annotated by Heuser).

    In some sense the Imperial German High Command's adherence to the Schlieffen Plan contrasts with the (fortunate) US recognition in the early Cold War, that it needed to be able to respond with something less than a full nuclear WW3 to (perceived) "lesser threats" from the USSR. Imagine if the US' only response to such (perceived) threats from the USSR (e.g. Berlin 1948, Korea 1950, Cuba 1962, Vietnam 1965) had been an immediate first strike with nuclear weapons on the USSR...