Lessons from WWI that can help us end our Long War

Summary:  WWI ended a century ago, but we have learned too little from it. Here James Bowman shatters the usual trite ideas about its beginning. Change the the names and details, much of it applies to the War on Terror (WOT). Seeing these dynamics in a different content than our makes them easier to see. Of course, the leaders and people of WWI were smarter than us. However misguided they might have been, at least they knew why they were fighting. The WOT has few rational goals other than kill “bad guys.” See my notes at the end.

“I came to see World War I …as the great seminal catastrophe of this century – the event which more than any others, excepting only, perhaps the invention of nuclear weaponry and the population-environment crisis, lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization.”
The Decline of Bismark’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 by George Kennan (1979).

For Honor

The Forgotten Honor of World War I

By James Bowman at The New Atlantis, 15 October 2014.
Posted with his generous permission.

If the men of Europe who went to war in 1914 were permitted to return to the land of the living for long enough to read the literature of the Great War, what do you suppose they would make of our scholarly obsession, a hundred years later, with the question of the war’s beginning? They might well wonder if we still get the joke of the fake headline that is said to have circulated after the war: “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive: War Fought By Mistake.” Our being po-faced about this is not only because we believe it to be in poor taste to laugh about so many deaths. The point of our digging around in the details of the diplomatic chain reaction that started “the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen” – the words are those of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey – or at least “the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century” (George F. Kennan) is that we feel the pressure of the imperative to believe the war was, indeed, fought by mistake. A mistake that, just because it was a mistake, could have been avoided.

The War That Ended Peace
Available at Amazon.

Explicitly or implicitly, that seems to be the view of almost every author in the small library of books that have come out in the last year or so about the causes and origins of the war – some including a perfunctory history of the war itself and some concluding in August 1914, at the end of what a century later appears to be the most interesting thing about the war: its beginning. Margaret MacMillan, whose history of the period in The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is one of the most exhaustive, can speak for the others in the final words of her epilogue when she notes that, “if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

It is not clear to me that she is right about either of these two things. First, no one could have foreseen the full extent of the horror that was to befall, but lots of people, including many of those who made the crucial decisions to go to war, had a fairly good idea that, as The Times of London editorialized at its outset, “Europe is to be the scene of the most terrible war that she has witnessed since the fall of the Roman Empire.” And if Sir Edward Grey mistakenly believed that Britain’s navy would prevent her from suffering as much as other countries would, he was very far from lacking the imagination to see substantially what lay ahead. His more famous saying was that “the lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes.”

The pathos there derives precisely from the fact that he had taken a rough measure of the destruction that was to come – and that he thought he and his country had to go to war anyway.

And second, for Professor MacMillan to say that a greater determination on the part of the world’s statesmen to keep the peace could not but have resulted in a better choice for all the belligerents in 1914 is at one level a mere tautology. If the choice had been made for peace, there would have been no war, and if there had been no war, there would have been none of the destruction of the war there was, because they made the opposite choice. Hurrah!

But of course we do not really know what consequences would have followed a refusal to fight. That is what makes Professor MacMillan’s assumption and that of the others who stress the mistake it was for anybody to fight, irrespective of whether he was aggressor or defender, into a profession of belief. If there are always choices, then there can never be an argument from necessity. Again, this is at one level a banality: there are always choices, right enough, but only so long as you have no prejudice against surrender. In practical terms, as Orwell said, the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. In fact, it is pretty much the only way – apart from winning it.

But let us assume that Professor MacMillan is saying something rather more interesting than this. Perhaps she means that it is an article of faith with her – and with many others of like mind with her – that determined negotiators for the morally superior side in a conflict (tacitly assumed to be the British in this case) can always find

that diplomatic will-o’-the-wisp, “a negotiated solution,” no matter what the warlike determination or the bad faith of the other side might be. This idea is now such a truism that she feels no need to argue for it or even to spell it out. It is the origin of the curious notion that emerged a decade or so ago, during America’s war in Iraq, of “wars of choice” – an immense concession at the outset, though few saw it as such at the time, to the anti-war party. By acknowledging that one is fighting a war of choice, one has already admitted that it is an unnecessary war – and that the death and suffering the war causes, as wars inevitably do, are also unnecessary. If there are always choices, who but a monster or a sociopath would not choose peace?


Obligations of Honor.

Those who, during the centenary observations, have written about the “lessons” of the First World War appear not to have noticed that thinking about war in this essentially pacifistic way is itself the principal legacy of the war and of its literary-historical aftermath. Partly, this is because, in retrospect, so much of what led up to war in August 1914 looks like a mistake, beginning with a wrong turn by the Archduke’s chauffeur down a side-street in Sarajevo in a car with no reverse gear. This is what brought Franz Ferdinand and his wife face to face with their assassin, Gavrilo Princip, after he had decided to give up the attempt and retire to a coffee shop.

It’s not just a mistake, it’s what the media would call an ironic twist.

Those, like Professor MacMillan, who stress the blindness of the principals to the forces they were unleashing in starting the war are at the same time insisting on the idea of mistakenness. They stress the contemporary testimony not of the clear-sighted, assuming there were any, but of those who imagined the war would be over in a matter of weeks.

The Sleepwalkers
Available at Amazon.

Adam Hochschild, writing in The New York Times, generalizes from this mistake and attributes it to the relatively easy imperial wars which were all that belligerents on both sides had any real experience of. Hence, too, the title of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, another of the recent books devoted to a minute examination of the question of “How Europe Went to War in 1914.” What the late John Keegan wrote many years ago, that “the First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict,” can now, it seems, be taken for granted. Daniel Hannan, writing for The Daily Telegraph, stresses the literally tragic nature of the mistake, as if it had been written to conform to Aristotle’s idea of tragedy.

Yet surely it is not an irrelevant consideration that this settled history, as we might call it, is all retrospective, and not at all how people saw things at the time. Indeed, it is striking how few of today’s histories of the period even make reference to, let alone attempt to explain, the reasons offered by the people who went to war in 1914 themselves for why they did what they did.

Prominent among those reasons was honor, something with which we are now so unfamiliar that we feel safe in assuming it was no reason at all. It is now largely forgotten that Sir Edward Grey, in his speech to Parliament announcing the British decision to go to war, stressed both the honorable reasons for fighting and those for not fighting.

“I can say this with the most absolute confidence – no government and no country has less desire to be involved in war over a dispute with Austria than the country of France. They are involved in it because of their obligation of honor under a definite alliance with Russia. Well, it is only fair to say to the House that that obligation of honor cannot apply in the same way to us. We are not parties to the Franco-Russian alliance. We do not even know the terms of the alliance.”

He acknowledged there was no treaty obligation to go to war just because France was at war, but he gave long consideration to the national interest involved if Germany should make a naval attack on the undefended northern and western coasts of France (the French fleet being all in the Mediterranean by prior agreement with Britain) and the unwisdom of trusting to the German undertaking not to make such an attack. But his main attention was given to Britain’s treaty obligation (incurred by the Treaty of London, also known as the Quintuple Treaty of 1839) to Belgium to maintain its neutrality. He did so, however, in terms that amount to (as I see it) a restatement of the reasons for Britain’s incurring that obligation in the first place.

“If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself – consequences which I do not anticipate, because I am sure that France has the power to defend herself with all the energy and ability and patriotism which she has shown so often – still, if that were to happen, and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone’s words come true, that just opposite to us there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandizement of any power?

“It may be said, I suppose, that we might stand aside, husband our strength, and that, whatever happened in the course of this war, at the end of it intervene with effect to put things right, and to adjust them to our own point of view. If, in a crisis like this, we run away from those obligations of honor and interest as regards the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in face of the respect that we should have lost. And do not believe, whether a great power stands outside this war or not, it is going to be in a position at the end of it to exert its superior strength.”

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Because Grey put it in this way – that is, in terms of a permanent British interest in preventing a single powerful hegemon from dominating the Continent – Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, started the fashion of assuming that the real reason Britain had gone to war was naked self-interest rather than “obligations of honor.” As Bethmann-Hollweg said in an interview later in the war.

“One needs only to read [Sir Edward’s] speech through carefully to learn the reason of England’s intervention in the war. Amid all his beautiful phrases about England’s honor and England’s obligations we find it over and over again expressed that England’s interests – its own interests – called for participation in war, for it was not in England’s interests that a victorious, and therefore stronger, Germany should emerge from the war.”

That was why, explained Bethmann-Hollweg, he had said at his last meeting with Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin on the day war was declared, that he could not believe Britain would go to war over “a scrap of paper” – that is, the Quintuple Treaty. Others argued that the treaty had been superseded by one concluded by Prime Minister Gladstone with the belligerents in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to preserve Belgian neutrality, and pointed to Grey’s quotation from Gladstone. That treaty had had an expiration date attached to it – after which Grey, though not his critics, seems to have assumed that the treaty of 1839 was back in force. It could be argued, however, that an obligation of honor by its very nature depends on something more than a “scrap of paper,” and that only a public renunciation of the treaty and its obligation to defend Belgian neutrality in advance of the German invasion could have voided that obligation.

There was also, of course, a radical asymmetry between the British interest in standing in the way of a Continental hegemon and the German interest in becoming one, the former being by its nature defensive and the latter aggressive. This consideration also drops out of many of the recent histories of the war’s outbreak, perhaps because of a perceived need in the scholarly community to avoid making moral judgments that might be seen as stigmatizing whole nations, even long after the leaders who made the fateful decisions to go to war and the soldiers who enthusiastically followed them into battle were dead.

The German historian Fritz Fischer, who served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, concluded decades ago that the blame for the First World War fell squarely on Germany. But that kind of finger-pointing is now out of fashion among historians. Their progressive and pacifist assumptions make them focus instead on the British, who could have prevented the whole thing – or at least prevented it from becoming the catastrophe it was – by declining to respond to the German provocation.

To such a way of thinking, honor must be given no consideration at all, even though it was the primary consideration of Sir Edward and those of all parties in the House of Commons who responded so enthusiastically to his reasoning. Later he made a further statement to the House, updating his earlier one by quoting the Belgian reply to German demands for the right of free passage for her armies over Belgian territory lest she be treated as an enemy.

“The Belgians have answered that an attack on their neutrality would be a flagrant violation of the rights of nations, and that to accept the German proposal would be to sacrifice the honor of a nation. Conscious of its duty, Belgium is finally resolved to repel aggression by all possible means.”

Thus British honor, incurred by treaty, is seen as also existing within the penumbra, as we might say, of a corresponding Belgian honor that was not seen as a matter of treaties but as an inevitable concomitant of nationhood. “The honor of a nation” appears in this context to mean the same thing as the nation’s right to defend itself and its integrity from foreign aggression.

Tombstone of National Honor

Particular Honor vs. Abstract Right.

America’s eventual entry into the war in 1917 was exactly comparable to that of Britain at the outset, since, unlike France or Belgium, it was her honor alone rather than her territory that was most immediately at stake.

But in his speech to Congress on April 2 of that year, President Woodrow Wilson chose not to follow Sir Edward Grey’s example. He never mentioned honor, though he alluded to it when he said that “there is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated.” Of course, that was exactly the choice Wilson had made hitherto, including the period of “armed neutrality” between the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping in January and the April declaration of war, but armed neutrality had not worked. Now that, as he acknowledged, war had been forced upon him and his country, he chose to justify it not in terms of national honor but of universal principles of justice and humanity which Germany was said to have violated.

President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson.

This was naturally a way of looking at the matter that was more congenial to Wilson’s progressive views. He also took up a now-more-familiar progressive attitude in the following remarkable statement:

“We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and tools.

“Self-governed nations do not fill their neighbor states with spies or set the course of intrigue to bring about some critical posture of affairs which will give them an opportunity to strike and make conquest. Such designs can be successfully worked out only under cover and where no one has the right to ask questions.

“Cunningly contrived plans of deception or aggression, carried, it may be, from generation to generation, can be worked out and kept from the light only within the privacy of courts or behind the carefully guarded confidences of a narrow and privileged class. They are happily impossible where public opinion commands and insists upon full information concerning all the nation’s affairs.”

Here we may see the origin of the progressive faith, more recently displayed at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that, wars being the product of undemocratic polities, fighting for democracy is permissible where fighting for mere honor would presumably not be, if anyone were so ill-advised as ever again to bring it up as a reason for fighting.

The question of the war’s inevitability or mistakenness had a particular resonance to Americans because they had managed to keep out of it for so long in spite of the many provocations against American honor in the sinking of American shipping and the consequent loss of American lives. Wilson held out as long as he did partly because he clung to his cherished dream of America as an “honest broker,” settling the quarrels of the less-enlightened European belligerents. But that dream also depended on the assumption that only universal principles could apply to matters of war and peace, just as he saw them as applying to American governance, and that the argument from honor was therefore no argument at all.

He should have foreseen that the argument from universal principles inevitably tended to pacifism. If a life was a life, whether Allied or German — and surely this was the point of his contention that “we have no quarrel with the German people” – then every life lost in the quest for abstract right and justice further raised the already importunate considerations of proportionality. How can it ever be right to cause so much suffering to so many, whatever lofty principle may be at stake?

Nowadays, historians like Michael Kazin, arguing in The New Republic (here and here), find it easy to assume that the moral motivation is no more real than the honorable one but merely a pretext for the hope of some national advantage to be gained by fighting – a hope so far from being realized in the case of the First World War that it had the unintended consequence of causing the much more destructive Second. The implication is that that was really the war it was not right for America (or anyone else) to get involved in.

But one could also see the moral justification for war as a pretext designed to give a greater respectability, especially among Wilson’s fellow progressives, to the honorable one. Honor, in other words, seems to have been as likely the motivation for America’s going to war as for Britain’s – or Germany’s for that matter. But the fact that all were fighting for honor does not mean that they were fighting for nothing, or even the same thing, since honor is by its nature socially contingent and stubbornly resists any attempt to press it into service for universal purposes.

It may have been, for some of those who appealed to it, a foolish reason for embarking on a course that led to so much sacrifice, but that is not what our new historians seem to be saying. Rather, there appears to be a general assumption that honor is not a bad reason for fighting but no reason at all, something that must either disguise the “real,” which is to say the presumably discreditable reason, or to be discrediting itself. To say that it was a war for honor is for these historians the same as saying it was a war for nothing. We all now believe with Falstaff that honor is just “a word.”

How else to explain the fact that we now appear incapable of imagining the state of mind of those who made the decision for war in 1914 when they made it? Here, for example, is Ben Macintyre writing recently in The Times of London.

“Amid the continuing debate over the moral and political reasons for going to war in 1914 there is a danger of overlooking a vital and poignant point about the Great War – the vast majority of soldiers who fought in that war never questioned it and were not even invited to think about the justification for fighting, or lack of it. Indeed, the First World War was the last major conflict in which British soldiers fought without any real understanding of the political issues at stake.”

Mr Macintyre takes it for granted that an understanding of the political issues in terms of national honor, as the men of 1914 did, is somehow not “real” because reasoning from honor amounts to no reason at all. That is the necessary first step, a step we all now find easy to make, in concluding that the war was a mistake – something now, also, so commonly taken for granted that no one thought it worthy of comment when Jean-David Levitte, French ambassador to the United States, said in 2004, “the First World War was stupid. It was a war for nothing.”

Of course, that is not what the people who actually fought it and made the sacrifices it involved thought, but this is supposed not to matter. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that they were wrong. But we look at the matter in this way because the whole outlook of our political culture on matters of war and peace depends on that belief – the belief, that is, that war is always avoidable, that “there are always choices.”

That belief, unless it is simply meaningless, is a statement of utopian faith made as a corollary of the belief that World War I was a mistake. Not a mistake for Germany and Austria, which it obviously was, but equally a mistake for all who fought in the war, aggressors and defenders alike. This is now probably the belief of most scholars, historians, and intellectuals, perhaps even of most military men, and it is so because of our retrospective reasoning about that war, our routine assumption of our own superior wisdom to that of the people who fought and suffered.

This, too, is a necessary assumption of progressivism, which by definition can allow no moral advantage to those at a lower stage of political development. But we may remind ourselves that some of those in the benighted past also considered themselves to be progressive and utopian and are among those who now appear to have been so grievously mistaken. Is it possible that future generations may come to see us in the same way?


Editor’s afterword about the Bowman’s insights

I believe the search for a smoking gun to WWI’s beginnings is a fool’s errand. Major disasters seldom have one cause. They usually result from too many things going wrong simultaneously. The Titanic was not unsinkable, but it took a large number of bad breaks and mistakes to sink it along with so many of her passengers and crew. The same was true for WWI, and for our equally mad wars after 9/11. Bowman’s reminder of how WWI started echos the mistakes we made after 9/22.

The more interesting question is why WWI ran so long. When the war did not end by Christmas and the blood flooded across France, why did both sides not reconsider the war? As in “what are we trying to accomplish?” The failure of the Schlieffen Plan should have made Germany reconsider and the Allies open negotiations. As for our “WOT” – why has 13 years of mind-blowing expenditures and wasted lives (including 53,000 wounded in action through August 2018) not prompted a debate about the war. Just as in WWI, what are we trying to accomplish?

Bowman raises a far deeper and more important question: do we even understand honor? Are we a people without honor? If so, what does that mean? These are questions for another day.

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

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Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book.

Honor: A History.

By James Bowman (2006).

I strongly recommend reading this book about a lost but vital element from our culture. A sense of honor was a strength of the West from its earliest days. Now we have lost it. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

14 thoughts on “Lessons from WWI that can help us end our Long War”

  1. AJP Taylor “The Course of German History” contains the answer. A reading of it will also make clear why the question of the origin of WWI is important. Its because we are repeating something which happened in the 19c. In the 19c, it happened with Prussia and Greater Germany as a whole. The structures which could have controlled Prussia came to be dominated by it once it was inside them.

    In the same way, the EU, which was intended to control Germany has ended up dominated by it.

    The same forces which made the Germany of Bismark after 1870 authoritarian, unaccountable, unreformable and democratic in appearance only, have operated to fashion an EU dominated by Germany which is similarly unreformable, authoritarian and undemocratic.

    WWI arose from the nature of German culture, politics and society. The same forces are operating today, German culture has not changed, and they are leadiing to the Italian disaster for the same reasons. This is why its so important to understand the origins of WWI, which is to say, understanding the course of Germany History.

    Agreed 100% with Larry’s point about the prosecution of the war. Why on earth they did not come to their senses and make peace when they saw what they had got into?

    Was there an alternative for the British? Yes. One was to land the BEF in Belgium, behind the advancing line, with the restricted aim of preserving Belgian independence. As Liddell Hart points out, that would probably have led to a radical change of plans by Berlin. This would have been taking the same approach as Britain had in 1870. It would have been sensible and honorable and in keeping with the British historical approach.

    You could say that a similar approach to the EU today might be appropriate, given the history…. Keep a wary distance….

  2. My two cents.

    1) Great Britain fought mainly to preserve Belgian neutrality, because it was a vital interest that no great power could occupy the Channel coast and checkmate or invade her. For the same reason, Britain desperately fought Napoleon till the end. It’s the corollary of the British longstanding policy of balance of power in Europe , too, and sir Edward Grey says it clearly enough in his speech.

    2) In France, the struggle between war and peace parties was very harsh. The best opportunity for the peace party was: finding a colonial compromise with Germany. The war party won when the best representative of the peace party, Caillaux, head of most powerful French party, the Radical one, was politically destroyed by his opponents: Galston Calmette, director of “Le Figaro”, great newspaper of the war party, after a terrible, outrageous campaign against Caillaux, threatens to publish private, scandalous letters between Caillaux and his wife Henriette, written when Caillaux was married to another woman and Henriette to another man, and they were lovers. Henriette goes in Calmette’s office, and shoots six bullets into him. Caillaux is politically destroyed, the war party wins the day.

    3) Germany was a newcomer, and wanted to settle her position among the great European powers, especially in the colonies. She did NOT want a general war. The cryptic attitude of Sir Edward Grey, intentional or not never will be known, lured Germany into general war (if Sir Edward Grey had been very clear about Britain’s position, Germany’s peace party, which were strong because its head was the Kaiser, could have prevented Austria from falling in the allliances trap)

    4) In the “what if” category, I think it more interesting to wonder:

    a) what would have happened if in 1916, after the great mutinies in all the standing armies, the peace proposals by Emperor Charles of Austria had found more support? (They found some, but not enough)

    b) what would have happened if, after Germany’s defeat, the French armies had taken the offensive and had entered German soil, occupying Berlin, like general René del Castelnau and others wanted to do? Think that it would have been possible to undo German political unity, giving back the old German States to the old German dinasties. German political unity is, still today, the main political European problem, because a politically united Germany is too strong not to become hegemon, and too weak and culturally inept to take the lead of European unification.

  3. Peter Chrzanowski

    “It’s the corollary of the British longstanding policy of balance of power in Europe” Yes, but, one might question whether a balance of power in Europe was possible after the creation of Germany in 1871. After all, even after two catastrophic military defeats in the world wars, Germany continues to be the dominant power in Europe.

    As well as the larger question of whether, even by the standards of 1914, a nation might feel compelled to fight for its honor even if it knew that the odds of prevailing were near zero.

    “She [Germany] did NOT want a general war.” Probably not, yet this must be balanced against the “if it is to come then better now than later” view, common among Germany’s general officers, who expected Russia to become more powerful in the near future as Russia industrialized. A more powerful Russia, it was feared, might make German defeat certain in any future two-front war.

    In hindsight, Russia’s potential military opponents appear to have greatly over-estimated Russian military capability on the eve of WWI, but, that perception existed and would have inclined Germany toward war on the principle of “better now than later.”

    “The more interesting question is why WWI ran so long. When the war did not end by Christmas and the blood flooded across France, why did both sides not reconsider the war?”

    The usual explanation is what economists call the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”: having lost so much blood and treasure in the conflict already, leaders would have had difficulty saying “We’re so sorry we threw away all those lives for nothing, but, we’re going to stop this by restoring the status ante.” It would have been far easier to just keep fighting for the possibility that those lives might buy victory.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “The usual explanation is what economists call the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”:”

      That is often said. It makes no sense. It gives a gloss of rationality to irrational thinking. Destroying yourself because you have already spent a little money and blood? By Christmas the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the trenches were in place, and it was obvious that Germany had no chance of winning. They were in good shape to discuss terms. Britain’s goals were met: Germany would not dominate the continent. They were in good shape to discuss terms.

      There were no goals on the table that had reasonable chances of being realized.

      “It would have been far easier to just keep fighting for the possibility that those lives might buy victory.”

      That’s quite false, in many ways.

  4. Basically I’m with you FM that attempting to find a true root cause of WWI is a fool’s errand.

    On the flip side though (because I DO love a good history discussion), I will point out that the Prussian success in unifying Germany (1846-1876) and turning it from a backwater where other countries went to fight their wars into a modern industrial state (1880-1914) that was more than capable of defending itself and possessed a powerful university that chugged out useful inventions (especially tools of war) with impressive frequency was a major factor.

    It upset the ancient balance of European political equations and probably unintentionally made some sort of conflict inevitable. Bismarck probably should have settled all the questions while he was in charge of German foreign policy but I can thoroughly understand both why he thought he had more time and didn’t want to tackle too many big projects at the same time.

    As far too many people have already said, after that everything seems to come together by accident (incredibly powerful defensive weapons without corresponding increase in offensive weapons, less than innovative political leadership in all the wrong spots, etc., accidents of timing that would not be believed in a bad romance novel, etc…) to make sure that the war was as bad as possible for all involved.

    Last May I ran across a blog post by some idiot who argued that WWI, the Vietnam War, and the current War on Terrorism are all related under the heading of “Tests of Honor.” He argued that we passed the test of honor in WWI but failed in the Vietnam War and are failing in the War on Terrorism. I argued that if your political leadership does the dumbest thing possible in the current circumstances, the country as a whole, and perhaps the world around the country will suffer. It was a long a wearisome argument because he was wrapped up in the sacred honor of doing your duty to your leaders without thought for whether or not the leaders are doing the best possible job of leading the country. “We can’t know what our leaders know so all we can do is to follow or exceed their orders” was the general line of his reasoning.

    Oddly, I won the argument when I finally realized that in a democracy, the soldiers and the voters are the same people and the voters are the people to whom the leaders should be held accountable. I will say that the person (who’s name eludes me) acknowledged that I was right and he was wrong when I pointed that out. He then deleted the blog completely. I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment, though, like WWI, I’m only glad that it’s over.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Bismarck probably should have settled all the questions while he was in charge of German foreign policy but I can thoroughly understand both why he thought he had more time and didn’t want to tackle too many big projects at the same time.”

      I’m pretty sure that Bismarck thought he had built a stable system for european geopolitics. IMO, he had done so. But no system can survive when operated by fools. And Wilhelm II was a major fool, who dismantled much of what Bismarck had built.

  5. The Man Who Laughs

    I think World War I is probably now like the Civil War and the Revolution in that it has become so distant in time that the modern progressive mind can no longer wrap itself around the motivations of the men who fought it. There’s so much worth discussing in this excellent piece that I’m going to have leave out 90% of what I’d like to say. But here goes…

    One word you hear a lot now in place of honor is credibility. In modern terms, Britain was worried about it credibility as a Great Power if it let Belgium and France go under. The Royal Navy might be able to hold the Germans off if push came to shove, but if the Germans had no respect for British credibility, it might just decide to try conclusions at some point. I think the last time Americans heard a lot of talk about honor in war was when Nixon called for peace with honor in Vietnam. (Which meant, I guess, losing the war without looking like we lost it) Of course, in World War I, Grey could speak of honor because he was planning to be honest about his reasons for going to war, and to fight honorably.

    Another thing that makes it hard for us to understand the motives of the soldiers and statesmen if that era is that because we’ve become so used to going to war for frivolous reasons, we find it hard to understand in which men took decisions of war and peace with deadly seriousness. Larry, if you out a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what the hell we’re supposed to be accomplishing in Syria. Grey is actually more understandable in his reasoning about war and peace than Bush The Lesser or Obama.

    I don’t think, with all due respect, that you take the sunk cost argument as seriously as you should. We may have to agree to disagree on that one. As fir Germany’s prospects after the Marne, they were actually pretty good, and absent American intervention, they would most certainly have won. What that victory would have been worth at the eventual price is hard to say, but the eventual terms they imposed on France would have been at least as harsh as those imposed on Russia.

  6. Without America’s entry, it has been theorized that the warring parties would have come to a stalemate and probable armistice. WWI was the precursor of all that followed. Read Robert Gerworth’s “The Vanquished” with its detailing of the aftermath of revolutions and civil wars.For instance: Russia lost more men in the civil war than in the preceding WWI. We entered the war to bail out British interests.

    Hitler arose because in 1931 Germany had unemployment of about 33%. This was because of banks withdrawing funds and credit after American banks called in their loans to the victors after the 1929 market crash. And this was engineered via induced inflation and deflation by the Federal Reserve.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      “And this was engineered via induced inflation and deflation by the Federal Reserve.”

      I’m always amazed by the far-Right’s crazy conspiracies about the Fed, and their assumption that it has god-like powers.

  7. I think that the “true cause”of WWI has been: 60 millions of Germans in a politically unified Germany in the center of Europe, set between a hammer and a hard rock (two fronts insoluble problem) + Alsace-Lorraine annexation of 1871. The reason why it was a terrible slaughter, French Revolution (citizens armies) + Industrial Revolution.
    Why didn’t they stop the war in 1916? Maybe, because: a) politically untenable (“all for nothing?”) b) political power of the military: when you are in for an operation, even if it does not work well, it’s very dangerous to backpedal c) psychological exhaustion and radicalization. Long familiarity with horror, heaviest losses since centuries, outrageous mass propaganda, seriously dulls hearts and minds.

    1. Robert,

      Why didn’t they stop the war in 1916?

      Because German or rather Prussian culture and world view.

      It would have taken the French, British and the Germans to reach an armistice then. At that stage the Bavarians were still writing to Berlin demanding that after victory they be allocated Holland, so as to have a coastline. For the Germans at this point anything but enemy surrender was out of the question.

      What people don’t understand and are unwilling to accept is that Germany was, most probably still is, toxic. Yes, music. But still toxic. I know this will prompt furious denial by people who have never lived there, don’t speak the language, don’t read the press. And I know that mention of Taylor’s book will provoke cries of indignation.

      But that is the fact of it.

      Read Taylor, its right and its prescient. Don’t read Goldhagen, instead read Browning, Ordinary Men. Yes, ordinary conscipted Germans following the front line armies on the invasion of Russia really did take pictures of themselves with the mounds of the dead they had killed, and they really did send them back to their places of work to be posted on the bulletin boards.

      And learn the language and go live and work there for a couple of years. Then you may understand.

  8. @ henrik

    Thank you for your reply. I would not use the word “toxic” for Germany and Germans (by the way, I speak the language and I’ve lived there). I do not think that there are “toxic” people, or, better: I think that every people can be very toxic, in the appropriate context. In my youth, I’ve seen a civil war in a country which was called “the Switzerland of the Middle East” (and it really was a prosperous, civilized, cultured country). Well: with my eyes I’ve seen good housewives eagerly helping in crucifying people, extermination of children, women, old men, and so on. The barbarians where the same civilized people as before.
    I’d say something else about Germany. A politically unified and powerful Germany IS the unsolvable European problem, because
    a) Germany’s geopolitical central position, which obligates her, as soon as she becomes a serious political power, to expand herself, but where? East or West? Or both? That’s a terribly difficult riddle for the German ruling classes. Bismarck solved it saying “Never against Russia” (the “spirit of Tauroggen”). But Bismarck expanded Germany towards West, and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine was THE seed of WWI
    b) Germans are the most introverted people on earth, and politics, you do it with other people, in a lot of ways, making them friends, killing them, but with others. When someone else makes politics for Germans, Germans can give the wonderful gifts of their introversion to the world: music, philosophy, poetry, etc. When they have to make politics, great politics, they are a scourge, for the world and for themselves.

  9. I’m always slightly surprised that Woodrow Wilson is still regarded generally as a great president. Leaving aside the non war stuff, I tend to think entering the war should go down as probably the worst presidential decision of the century. (Coupled with getting rolled by the French and British post war which set up much of the mess of the rest of the century)

    Also when did the idea that if it hadn’t been Ferdinand, some Archduke or other would have gotten killed to start the war? (Bad joke, but yeah, barring major structural changes war was highly likely if not inevitable is the idea I’m familiar with)

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Murr,

      “I’m always slightly surprised that Woodrow Wilson is still regarded generally as a great president.”

      I too wonder about that. My guess: the liberal historians of the post-WWII era saw him as a kindred spirit, and so rated him highly. He set back race relations several generations, trashed civil liberties (the awful Espionage Act of 1917), started the great anti-commie hysteria with the Palmer Raids, etc.

      “I tend to think entering the war should go down as probably the worst presidential decision of the century”

      I agree.

      “getting rolled by the French and British post war which set up much of the mess of the rest of the century”

      That’s unfair. We never had much influence on the Peace, esp given the lack of agreement among US leaders – and the determination of the other allies to screw up the peace.

      “some Archduke or other would have gotten killed to start the war?”

      We can’t say for sure, of course. But WWI was preceded by two decades of growing geopolitical instability. It seems likely that eventually one of these crises would have sparked a war.

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