Posted by: Dr Pano Kroko Churchill | December 3, 2014

Why the First World War Happened? And How Can We Successfully Repeat It?

Why the First World War Happened?

How Can We Successfully Repeat It?

Yes — Repeat it.

Because if we repeat that kind of war — we’ll be safe from a far more complete catastrophe.

To repeat that kind of war, no matter how painful it was, it will still be a rather limited war compared with what level of destruction we are capable of wielding today.

The First World War was really a minimalist war… when een through that lens.

A small war indeed.

Small when compared to a Nuclear Holocaust.

Small in Existential terms, when compared with the War to come.

Small in relation to a Nuclear Conflict that we are gearing up to see in the Pacific in the years ahead… that will bring a nuclear winter to the whole world.

China is preparing. The US is preparing. Russia is preparing. Even old oafish Europe is gearing up…

So why don’t You know anything about it?

The rise of China is going to be checked by someone and that is not going to be pretty…

When you see Nuclear ICBMs flying towards your city — you’ll understand the wisdom of my words.

But for now — let’s just say that World War I was a fight in the sandlot and a knifing in the mud when compared to a Nuclear War that is certainly going to be the conflict between the US and it’s Pacific allies in the near future.

Tricky thing about the Future is that it’s like a rain storm — You never know exactly when it’s gonna come. But like war — you can smell it clearly in the air, when it’s near to blow upon your head.

And that’ why we’ve got umbrellas.

But we ain’t got umbrellas strong enough to stop these pesky nuclear warheads from ruining our party.

Nor can we stop radiation from frying up our ultra hydrated skin…

So be that as it may — when am coming back from China, am always eager to share my wisdom with You.

But this time it has become painfully evident that we are sleepwalking towards another major conflict, and a nuclear one at that, today — in the Sino-AngloAmericanEuropean competition for supremacy.

And I care about this subject especially today — because it is today that marks the One Hundred Year Anniversary since World War One.

100 year since the most beautiful, privileged, and best looking youth, of Europe born in an era of unprecedented Prosperity, Certainty, Privilege of an eternal Peace — crashed and burned.

It was this youth that was destined to fight the “Great Peace” conflict. The war to end all wars. The Peace War…

Europe’s youth withered and died away in the bloody gray mud of the trenches in 1914 slithering in their belly, and getting blown to bits, or bayoneted through, all in vain as we marched under the drums of war all together towards the end of 1918.

Do you know that the average life span of a junior British Officer in the Western Front of the trench warfare was six weeks?

Six Weeks.

And what about the Treasure?

We spend up to 19 Trillion Dollars in Destruction, with just as much in economic loses, back in the four years, in order to prosecute those wars. In today’s Dollars that was the costliest conflict in History.

Was the money spent at least chalked up to education?

Maybe…

But what did we learn?

And are we nearer to an understanding of what happened, today?

Maybe we are wiser, smarter, and better equipped on how to avoid the Repetition of the bloodiest sport known to man…?

Or maybe we are just better able to Go Ahead and Repeat it, giving vent to the baddest Angels of our Heart.

Here are some writings that provide a bit of the back story of the Great War, as seen through the lens of some of the best writers and historians of our Lifetime.

Maybe we can better understand today, that we know very little about the real causes of this Conflict and that we understand even less.

At least that was my experience — reading through these studied texts written upon the sum total of the subject of leading and reasoning the First World War from the standpoint of the Leaders.

These are book and studies collected from seven great books, and the definitive History Compendium and are reviewed here for your betterment, for your education, and maybe for your edification.

And if you don’t mind me saying — they are all coming from the accumulated wisdom of the Foreign Affairs Council…

The 7 Books:

1) The War That Didn’t End All Wars:
What Started in 1914 — and Why It Lasted So Long
By Lawrence D. Freedman

2) The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. BY CHRISTOPHER CLARK. Harper, 2013

3) Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. BY MAX HASTINGS. Knopf, 2013

4) The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. BY MARGARET MACMILLAN. Random House, 2013

5) July 1914: Countdown to War. BY SEAN MCMEEKIN. Basic Books, 2013

6) The Great War for Peace. BY WILLIAM MULLIGAN. Yale University Press, 2014

7) July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914. BY THOMAS OTTE. Cambridge University Press, 2014

And the most important WWI treasure trove is this One History Compendium in the definitive edition:

The Cambridge History of the First World War. Vol. 1, Global War. EDITED BY JAY WINTER. Cambridge University Press, 2014

So here are the condensed Book Reviews and assorted Resources:

One response to the catastrophe of World War One, was the systematic study of international affairs. Scholars in the 1920s and 1930s hoped that by analyzing the causes of war, they could help find a cure for it. This effort failed, in that a second world war followed the first, and so students of international relations veered away from idealistic schemes of global cooperation toward a tough-minded realism.

World War II taught us that a demonic dictator should not be appeased, a lesson now invoked every time some regional autocrat attempts a land grab as Putin did today in Ukraine’ Crimea and Donbass region — or even when officials propose negotiations with a disagreeable regime.

Meanwhile, and although we understand this, there is still nowhere near a consensus on the origins of World War I.

Nor is there any agreement on what we learned or even whether any useful lessons at all can be drawn from the conflict that can be useful for the present day. Except maybe the fact that war at this scale is painful to the extreme for the whole world and is a catalyst of Change that is not always positive.

And that the War is not necessary to effect Change because this Change we could have had in Peace time and in relatively bloodless processes as well

That conclusion remains the case even after the publication of a slew of new accounts of the drama by skilled historians, which add to an already vast literature.

And despite their grave differences, the books under review here all help readers navigate the intricacies of European politics and the maneuverings within national capitals that kicked off the war. Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMillan go back into the previous century. Max Hastings covers the whole year of 1914 and provides a vivid account of the first months of the fighting. Sean McMeekin looks at the single month leading up to the war, as does Thomas Otte. It would be a shame if those suffering from 1914 fatigue neglected Otte’s late entry into the field, because it is especially forensic and diligent.

The books have little new to say about the actual sequence of events, which started with Ferdinand’s assassination in June, followed by the ultimatum that Austria-Hungary delivered to Serbia in July demanding a crackdown on nationalist groups, the Russian and then German mobilizations thereafter, and the start of fighting in early August. The books do shed light, however, on the interesting question of what those involved actually thought they were doing as what could have been a manageable crisis turned into all-out war. Were they being opportunistic, taking the chance to implement premeditated plans? Or were they just caught up in the swirl of events, trapped by their fears and prejudices and stuck with past commitments?

WHO CAUSED IT?

The blame game began as soon as the war turned into a painful stalemate, and it intensified after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The belligerents published large compilations of correspondence to show how their peaceful intentions had been thwarted by mendacious enemies, in what the German military historian Bernhard Schwertfeger called a “world war of documents.” Over time, scholars grew more willing to spread the blame around, attributing the conflict to broader factors, such as militarized mindsets, outdated diplomatic practices, and the organization of the international system. In the 1960s, however, the German historian Fritz Fischer revived the question of guilt, claiming that his country was responsible because it had embarked on a premeditated war of aggression. Fischer’s student Volker Berghahn has now written a firm restatement of Fischer’s thesis, which can be found in The Cambridge History of the First World War, a comprehensive collection of essays on all aspects of the conflict.

Clark rejects such “prosecutorial narratives” of the conflict’s origins, which he criticizes for assuming coherent intentions. He prefers to focus less on “the political temperament and initiatives of one particular state” and more on “the multilateral processes of interaction.” In practice, however, even Clark makes his own distinctive indictment. By starting his account in Belgrade, he correctly highlights the importance of the Serbian nationalist campaign that led to Ferdinand’s assassination, which not only triggered the crisis but also removed the one Austrian who, aware of his country’s weakness, could have exercised a moderating influence on its course. McMeekin draws attention to the culpability of Russia, with its premature mobilization. Hastings is much more inclined to blame Germany and the determination of its military leaders to fight a war while they still had a chance of victory and before Russia became too strong. MacMillan and Otte fault Austria-Hungary (the party that actually set the war in motion by issuing an ultimatum it knew would not be met), Germany, and Russia, in that order, although MacMillan admits how difficult it is to settle on a single cause or guilty party.

None of these authors shows much interest in what theorists of international relations have said about World War I. Otte engages with them the most, but only to explain his distrust in structural explanations. Readers of these books will find little about whether the international system is more likely to reach a peaceful equilibrium through bipolarity or multipolarity, the comparative merits of balancing versus backing a revisionist power, or how to escape from the self-defeating logic of a security dilemma. The absence of theory is not surprising: historians tend to look askance at attempts to formulate reliable laws of political behavior and are naturally more inclined to give weight to contingency and chance.

In an early passage that somewhat belies his book’s title (The Sleepwalkers), Clark writes that the story is “saturated with agency.” The key decision-makers “walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps”; they were “political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand.” MacMillan deplores those who said in 1914 that there was no choice other than war, and she ends her book with the sentence, “There are always choices.”

All the authors insist that not only was war far from inevitable but it also came about as the result of some spectacularly bad decision-making. Otte calls it a “failure of statecraft.” The overall impression one gets from these histories is that had the players been a bit less weak-willed, vain, incompetent, myopic, delusional, and stupid, the world could have been spared years of misery.

The other strong message is that even accounting for bad judgment and bad luck, the rulers of Europe had no idea what war would actually mean in practice. MacMillan describes their “failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be.” Clark calls them “sleepwalkers” because they were “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” But Hastings takes exception to the sleepwalking label, since it suggests that the decision-makers were unconscious of their own actions. He prefers to call them “deniers,” because they persisted with “supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The problem with a focus on individuals’ decisions, however, is that it neglects the importance of context. Among these authors, MacMillan does the most to describe broader factors and prevailing attitudes, whereas Otte is keenest to downplay “impersonal, structural forces.” But these governments were not improvising. They were working with well-developed alliance obligations, war plans, and conventions of crisis management. They were reacting, moreover, to the newfound weakness of the old order, which was staggering under the weight of shifts in power, assertive nationalist movements, and domestic upheavals. In other words, structural factors clearly constrained leaders’ decisions. After all, international relations theorists keep returning to the period leading up to 1914 in part because this was a time when states corresponded most to the requirements of theory, led as they were by detached elites who thought in realist terms, dominated by considerations of security.

In the end, entrenched security policies proved impressively, if dangerously, resilient in July 1914. After many high-level wobbles — including the extraordinary “Dear Willy”/“Dear Nicky” correspondence between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which the third cousins tried to stave off war — the alliances largely stuck together, with only Italy holding back. The governments implemented their war plans. Likewise, the overt bellicosity of elite discourse in the preceding years, with preposterous claims about the purifying properties of battle and outlandish celebrations of race, strength, honor, and sacrifice, did much to prepare the public for war. Once countries faced the prospect of actual fighting, the bellicosity subsided and the mood in national capitals grew subdued. Governments started to worry less about glory than about being cast adrift by a reluctant ally or left vulnerable by mobilizing too slowly. Thus, the conflict was not the result of crude warmongering. Rather, it arose from a complex interaction among systemic factors with which any collection of decision-makers would have had to contend, the qualities and idiosyncrasies of this particular collection of leaders, and chance factors.

At the heart of the July crisis lay the meaning of alliances. Nicholas declared Slavic solidarity with the Serbs, and the French stood by their Russian allies. As Clark notes, “Russia and France thereby tied the fortunes of two of the world’s greatest powers in highly asymmetrical fashion to the uncertain destiny of a turbulent and intermittently violent state.” In the same way, Germany tied itself to the dysfunction of Austria-Hungary when Wilhelm told officials from the ailing empire that they could respond to Ferdinand’s assassination as they pleased, a blank check that emboldened them to take on Serbia. Otte recalls Bismarck’s adage that every alliance involves a horse and a rider and observes that in this instance the horse was in the saddle. This phenomenon is hardly unusual. Today, for example, the United States’ weaker allies regularly demand assurances from Washington, even when they are engaging in reckless behavior, and Washington often grants such assurances for fear that failing to do so would damage its credibility.

The challenge for great powers has always been how to provide enough comfort to weaker allies to make them feel secure while maintaining enough leverage over them to ensure they do not provoke a war. In July 1914, there was no guarantee that Europe’s alliances would hold together, given how incongruent the interests between the great powers and their weaker partners appeared. Russia carefully watched France, which needed convincing that the situation was worth a war. France, in turn, looked fretfully at the United Kingdom, which was not sure it wanted to support the tsar after having laid the foundations for improved relations with Germany. Within both the Entente and the Central Powers, the sense that the alliances might unravel generated distrust and uncertainty — one reason so much energy went into shoring them up rather than peacefully settling the disputes at hand.

Historians often blame another factor for the outbreak of World War I: the cult of the offensive. In this view, prevalent at the time, wars were best won by taking the initiative as quickly as possible and getting troops to push through defensive barriers by relying on morale and élan. Because early action might just produce a victory and delay would surely spell doom, in other words, the fighting could never come too soon. This conviction explains why mobilization mattered so much, especially to the generals, who imposed their sense of urgency on their civilian leaders. On account of its vast size and cumbersome infrastructure, Russia mobilized first. McMeekin quotes Nicholas lamenting, tellingly, that his decision to do so potentially involved “sending thousands of men to their deaths.” Nicholas could not grasp the true stakes; Russia ultimately lost some two million soldiers.

Elites across Europe expected that even a highly costly war would prove quick and decisive. After a few cataclysmic battles, the thinking went, the conflict would end and the continent could adjust to its new political realities. What is striking is how little strategic discussion actually took place. Decision-makers neither scrutinized the practicality of their war plans nor related them to political objectives. In Berlin, only in passing did planners question the wisdom of charging toward France through Belgium, even though that course, by triggering London’s treaty obligations to Brussels, guaranteed British participation in the war.

THE LONG WAR

Those who make the sleepwalking critique presume that although the outbreak of World War I was not inevitable, its prolonged and catastrophic character was. MacMillan shows how militaries airily dismissed warnings from such figures as the Russian industrialist and scholar Ivan Bloch, who cautioned that strong defenses would result in a drawn-out war. Hastings convincingly characterizes the grand German offensive as fundamentally flawed, despite the meticulous planning that went into it. (The strategy depended on moving the army far and fast enough to deliver a knockout blow to France before Russia’s military strength could make itself felt, but the plan put far too many demands on German logistics and inexperienced reservists.) McMeekin goes too far in saying that the Germans expected to lose, but they certainly knew that the invasion was a gamble. They simply worried that the longer they waited, the more of a gamble it would become.

Yet Berlin’s bet almost paid off. Although Belgium’s unexpected resistance held up the German advance, the Kaiser’s forces pushed the French far into retreat, until the momentum was reversed in the First Battle of the Marne, which began on September 5, 1914. The battle marked the end of any German hopes for a swift conclusion. The failure of the Allies to follow up the victory led to the stalemate that became the defining feature of the western front. The week before, Russia’s pretensions to having rebuilt itself into a serious military power were dashed at the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg. Both sides experienced moments of desperation before the trenches were dug and the long stalemate began. As governments cast around to see if they could achieve a decisive victory, questions about the durability of alliances cropped up once again. Would their partners persist in battle or succumb to the lure of a separate peace? In the end, the belligerents never found the various proposals for negotiation sufficiently attractive, even when compared with the costs of continuing with war. Leaders could never overrule the objections of the hard-liners who believed that only complete victory could justify the pain already experienced.

Once the fighting began, as so often happens, the stakes moved up a notch and turned existential. And as leaders played more to idealistic urges than geopolitical fears, their goals got more ambitious. In a phrase that later became derided for its pretension and innocence, the English novelist and futurist H. G. Wells wrote in August 1914 of “the war that will end war.” Having long urged world government as the only alternative to destructive wars, he now thought that once Germany, a “nest of evil ideas,” was defeated, good sense would reign. Although the optimism was misplaced, the sentiment was real. As William Mulligan demonstrates in an original study of the ideological impulses at the time, even as they prosecuted a war of cruel viciousness, European governments pondered the peace that might follow.

After the war, its participants promised to pursue that peace. They pledged to disarm, and they called for a new international organization that would provide “guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” (to quote the last of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points). The international community adopted these ideas with surprising speed in the 1920s, culminating in the 1925 Pact of Locarno, which formalized Europe’s new borders. Three years later, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the brainchild of the U.S. secretary of state and the French foreign minister, renounced war as an instrument of policy.

Given what followed, realists mock the interwar period for its naiveté. Scholars are inclined to dismiss the push for peace that came after 1918, just as they deplore the tug toward war that preceded 1914. Mulligan urges readers not to assume that the peace project was doomed just because of what happened during the 1930s, or even that the core themes underlying this effort died on the battlefields of World War II. They returned after the war, albeit with a more cautious gloss, with the politicians who had first heard them in the 1920s, such as West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the French diplomat Jean Monnet. In this respect, the outbreak of World War I was not the seminal catastrophe of the century. Catastrophe was fed by later decisions: namely, both sides’ insistence on continuing the war and their refusal to look for diplomatic ways out, as well as the victors’ imposition of a harsh settlement on Germany and then appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

In the end, the lesson of 1914 is that there are no sure lessons. War has no reliable solutions, because contexts change. What resolves conflicts in one setting will provide cover for aggression in another; actions that deter aggression under some circumstances will at other times provoke it. Yet there are always choices, and the best advice for governments to emerge from the story of 1914 is to make them carefully: be clear about core interests, get the best possible information, explore opportunities for a peaceful settlement, and treat military plans with skepticism.

Another long delayed aftermath of the GREAT WAR came almost 80 years later, and it was the mosaic War taking place within the former Yugoslavia. This time Serbia again was being the Bully of the Balkans…
In late June 1991 Yugoslav army tanks rolled into the newly declared Republic of Slovenia, igniting a war long feared among the peoples of Yugoslavia. More than a year later, the war had resulted in some 350,000 deaths (mostly civilians), more than two million homeless and as much as $560 Billion in loses and destruction.

And there is good reason to remember these event as this year marks the hundredth anniversary of a transformative event of modern history. World War I killed some 20 – 30 million people and ground up a generation of Europe’s youth. It also fundamentally changed the international order in Europe and beyond.

Indeed, WWI destroyed not only lives, but also seven empires in total. Three empires in Europe – those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – and, with the collapse of Ottoman rule, a fourth on its fringe. And of course three more – depending how you count them – in the Far East.

Up until the Great War, the global balance of power was centered in Europe; after it, the United States and Japan emerged as great powers. The war also ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prepared the way for fascism, and intensified and broadened the ideological battles that wracked the twentieth century.

How could such a catastrophe happen? Shortly after the war broke out, when German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was asked to explain what happened, he answered, “Oh, if I only knew!” Perhaps in the interest of self-exoneration, he came to regard the war as inevitable. Similarly, the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, argued that he had “come to think that no human individual could have prevented it.”

The question we face today is whether it could happen again. Margaret MacMillan, author of the interesting new book The War that Ended Peace, argues that, “it is tempting – and sobering – to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and Britain a century ago.” After drawing a similar comparison, The Economist concludes that “the most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.” And some political scientists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have argued that, “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.”

But historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. WWI was not inevitable. It was made more probable by Germany’s rising power and the fear that this created in Great Britain. But it was also made more probable by Germany’s fearful response to Russia’s rising power, as well as myriad other factors, including human errors. But the gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914.

Drawing contemporary lessons from 1914 requires dispelling the many myths have been created about WWI. For example, the claim that it was a deliberate preventive war by Germany is belied by the evidence showing that key elites did not believe this. Nor was WWI a purely accidental war, as others maintain: Austria went to war deliberately, to fend off the threat of rising Slavic nationalism. There were miscalculations over the war’s length and depth, but that is not the same as an accidental war.

It is also said that the war was caused by an uncontrolled arms race in Europe. But the naval arms race was over by 1912, and Britain had won. While there was concern in Europe about the growing strength of armies, the view that the war was precipitated directly by the arms race is facile.

Today’s world is different from the world of 1914 in several important ways. One is that nuclear weapons give political leaders the equivalent of a crystal ball that shows what their world would look like after escalation. Perhaps if the Emperor, the Kaiser, and the Czar had had a crystal ball showing their empires destroyed and their thrones lost in 1918, they would have been more prudent in 1914. Certainly, the crystal-ball effect had a strong influence on US and Soviet leaders during the Cuban missile crisis. It would likely have a similar influence on US and Chinese leaders today.

Another difference is that the ideology of war is much weaker nowadays. In 1914, war really was thought to be inevitable, a fatalistic view reinforced by the Social Darwinist argument that war should be welcomed, because it would “clear the air” like a good summer storm.

As Winston Churchill wrote in his book The World Crisis:

“There was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity, the nations turned fiercely toward strife, internal or external.
National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce, if shrouded, fires.
Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare.”

To be sure, nationalism is growing in China today, while the US launched two wars after the September 11, 2001, attacks. But neither country is bellicose or complacent about a limited war. China aspires to play a larger role in its region, and the US has regional allies to whose defense it is committed. Miscalculations are always possible, but the risk can be minimized by the right policy choices. Indeed, on many issues – for example, energy, climate change, and financial stability – China and the US have strong incentives to cooperate.

Moreover, whereas Germany in 1914 was pressing hard on Britain’s heels (and had surpassed it in terms of industrial strength), the US remains decades ahead of China in overall military, economic, and soft-power resources. Too adventuresome a policy would jeopardize China’s gains at home and abroad.

In other words, the US has more time to manage its relations with a rising power than Britain did a century ago. Too much fear though, can be self-fulfilling.

Whether the US and China will manage their relationship well or slide off the scales, towards a vicious conflict of the Warring States variety, is an entirely different question.

But one thing is certain: Whatever they will choose to do, will be dictated by human choice alone, and not by some ironclad fatalistic historical law of Inevitability…

Yours,

Pano

PS:

Among the lessons to be learned from the events presaging 1914, is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have an air of inevitability.

But here is the standard lessons that we draw from the First World War. It’s not many but it’s the best we’ve got.

War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is — can become one of its main causes.

What the Leaders believe matters far more than History’s Days leading up to a Conflict.

The Leaders and not the People make the Gravest Mistakes that end up sending All the Young People to mass graves.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 09.47.00

 


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