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  • The Inevitability of the First World War December 26, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    And so it begins… 2 August 1914 German troops begin to pour into Belgium and Luxembourg. French troops prepare their border defences. Serbian irregulars are marching towards battle. Austria-Hungary is preparing itself for the inevitable Russian attack. Britain is wringing its hands and calling up its naval reserves. The most horrific war in human experience had broken out and no one can stop it. But could they have stopped it in the weeks before? Historians have asked this question ever since 1914. Literally hundreds of books have been written arguing this or that about the triggers for the First World War: far more than about the Second World War, where the cause was straightforward and wore a Bavarian moustache. Europe blundered into war in 1914 and that lack of straightforward decision-making left a vacuum in terms of explanation. Margaret MacMillan, in a recent book, The War That Ended Peace returns, with great force, to an old argument, namely that the war was allowed to happen by incompetents. It was allowed to happen, first, because of a failure of imagination to understand how dreadful any modern war would be; and, second, the ‘lack of courage’ of politicians to stand up to those who said there was no choice but war. As MM notes in magesterial flourish at the end of her her book: ‘There are always choices.’

    And so there are… It would be foolish to argue that something is inevitable, particularly something as complicated and multi-causal as an international war. But, as a rant against the emerging orthodoxy of MM and her disciples, present and future, there follows a very modest counterblast. It would have taken extraordinary acts to prevent the war once Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated and particularly once Germany had given Austro-Hungary the  ‘blank cheque’ (5 July): you do what you like to Serbia, we’ll back you, no matter what, no matter whom… It is true that contemporary European politicians were not, for the most part, aware of this: but that is simply because they lacked, let’s call it, the ‘semi ominiscience’ of historians who have reams of diaries and diplomatic documents and memoirs to sort through and can trace changing attitudes. The proof of the almost irresistible drift to war is that there was not one moment after the giving of the blank cheque, when war could have been stopped had the dice fallen differently. The Second World War would not have happened had, say, Hitler been assassinated in the spring of 1939, say. There is no equivalent for World War One. Everyone had their patterns of behaviour, most of these patterns were quite reasonable in terms of the perceived interests of the various European countries. In fact, what is striking about that dreadful month before hostilities began is how most leaders were dispassionate and calm about the coming events. There was not that much dripping saliva outside the Balkans: there were calculations, headshakes and occasionally tears.

    So why was the First World War all but inevitable by 5 July? It was inevitable because France and Germany did not just dislike but loathed each other and at that centre of that hate were the lost French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine: Strasburg, as Churchill pointed out, in a celebrated essay, has a hell of a lot to answer for. France had lost AL forty years before and was determined to get them back with that rather messianic passion that characterises any French reflection on nationhood. Germany knew the French position and its institutions were convinced that war was a not-if-but-when question so Germany prepared for war not least because France had pulled Russia into an alliance and had managed to bring Britain into its orbit. What is worse the Germans were convinced – and they may have been right – that time was an issue. Germany enjoyed superiority in every part of their war machine save on the oceans, yet each year that passed Germany’s rivals, to some extent France and particularly Russia, were going to get stronger. Germany felt then that as a war had to be fought, it might as well be now. Given this poisonous relationship between France and Germany the alliance system in Europe, instead of being a deterrent (think the Warsaw Pact and Nato), became a continental death sentence. As France and Germany plunged into the abyss the powers chained to them would inevitably be dragged down too. The horror of July 1914 is the horror of watching an out of control timber truck plunge towards a genteel picnic party: and the horror is that much greater because most of those eating the cucumber sandwiches just don’t realise what is about to happen to them.

    But had there been individuals of extraordinary determination and strength could they have stopped the war? There were probably three individuals who were able to brake the whole process after July 6 1914 because of their dictatorial powers: the royal heads of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. If Austria-Hungary had allowed Serbia off the vicious hook it had caught its tiny neighbour on… If Russia had let Austro-Hungary off the hook for attacking Serbia…. If Germany had torn up its blank cheque and allowed Russia to pummel Austro-Hungary with no interruption… In any of these three cases then the truck would never have got to the picnic. But each of these concessions would have required superhuman violence to the personalities of the three monarchs involved and superhuman violence to the short, mid-term interests of those countries. It can, of course, be argued that it was hardly in Russia’s interest to have a revolution or in Germany’s to experience 1918: it was certainly not in Austria-Hungary’s interest to dissolve. But these powers and these individuals were gambling. Things turned out badly for all three: actually catastropically for Russia and Austria-Hungary. But things need not have been like that. This is where there is really agency in the history of the First World War. If Germany had not been stopped on the Marne in September of 1914, for example, we would live in a different world today. There were many mistakes made prior to the First World War but these were made in 1911, 1912 and 1913. By 1914 the best thing these powers could do was try and finish the resistance of their neighbours as quickly and as cleanly as possible. Other views on the inevitability (or not) of the First World War: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    30 Dec 2013: LTM sends in this fascinating series of telegrams that give pause for thought (and that are quite chilling) Thanks LTM!