The Great War started 100 years ago this August. The most tragic event in human history, that war destroyed a vibrant, magnificently creative civilization. A prosperous and well-ordered world was shattered forever. New killing machines that only a generation earlier did not exist were deployed on a massive scale: airplanes, tanks, poison gases, submarines. The lethal mix of the machine gun and barbed wire made going over the top of the trench tantamount to a death sentence.
Tens of millions of reservists were mobilized. In France and Germany, four fifths of all men between 18 and 50 were in uniform. Russia lost over two million soldiers even before the February 1917 revolution. Serbia’s demographic losses were proportionately the greatest of all, a blow from which she has never recovered.
The war claimed some 20 million lives—soldiers and civilians, in roughly equal proportion. Additional millions of men were maimed and damaged forever. Epidemics that raged during and immediately after the war claimed still more millions. Even more horrendous were the war’s moral and spiritual consequences. Bolshevism, fascism, Nazism, the sequel known as World War II, and the wounded civilization we now live in are its poisoned fruits.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear the claim that the war in 1914 was the result of a series of blunders and miscalculations in various “great power” courts, foreign offices, and chancelleries. One notable example is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a brazen revisionist attempt at whitewashing the Central Powers. The key to this narrative is the old claim that the decisionmakers were swept into a maelstrom by malevolent forces beyond their control. The European system was allegedly so inherently unstable that two shots fired by a young Serb in a turbulent Balkan city could fatally disrupt it.
That is a lie. As one of the most prominent German historians of the 20th century, Fritz Fischer, demonstrated in his masterly 1961 study Griff nach der Weltmacht (published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War), the Kaiserreich military and political elite welcomed the prospect of war resulting from the attentat in Sarajevo as an opportunity to make Germany the hegemon of the Old Continent. Fischer established beyond reasonable doubt that Berlin manipulated the July crisis in 1914 to revise her 1871 borders and establish dominance in an extended Mitteleuropa, with France and Russia degraded to long-term impotence, and Great Britain permanently excluded from European affairs.
Germany’s policymakers had ignored Otto von Bismarck’s warnings by allying the Second Reich to the decaying Habsburg Monarchy. Germany conducted recklessly aggressive foreign policy in the early years of the 20th century. (When Berlin got needlessly involved, for the second time, in Morocco in 1911, even Vienna withdrew diplomatic support.) The Iron Chancellor would never have allowed the worn-out Viennese barge to drag down the dynamic German frigate. He regarded an alliance with Russia as essential to Germany’s stability and security. In the 1880’s, while still in power, he warned that, “if there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” This area was, in his words, “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” Bismarck’s inept successors disregarded that advice on both counts. Having alienated Great Britain by building an ultimately useless high-seas fleet, Germany was effectively playing va banque.
In the two decades before 1914, the Wilhelmine establishment found itself in an “encirclement” of its own making. It blundered to the point of prompting Britain and Russia to become de facto allies in 1907, which produced a geopolitical shift that was literally unthinkable only a decade earlier. Determined to break out of this self-imposed “encirclement,” the Second Reich discarded Bismarck’s flexibility of external alliances in favor of an implacable hostility to France, a self-generated fear of Russia, and an alliance with Austria-Hungary that was both debilitating in its implications and disastrous in its consequences.
A “preventive” war against Russia and France, based on the Schlieffen Plan, was seen as a way out of Germany’s chronic diplomatic isolation. It was also seen as a means of preempting Russia’s rapid economic, demographic, and military rise, which obsessed Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and his colleagues. To that end Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary to issue an impossible ultimatum to Serbia, blaming her for Sarajevo—the famous blank check of July 5, 1914—with both Central Powers knowing full well that this would lead to an all-out war, unless Russia climbed down at the last minute, abdicating her role as a great power.
As David Fromkin concluded in Europe’s Last Summer (2005), it takes two or more partners in the balancing game to keep the peace, but only one to start the war: “The international conflict in the summer of 1914 consisted of two wars, not one. Both were started deliberately.” One was Austria’s presumably “local” war against Serbia; the other was Germany’s European war against France and Russia. Great Britain predictably entered the fray when Germany violated Belgium’s neutrality—as postulated by the Schlieffen Plan—thus making the conflict global, a world war par excellence. It was frivolously assumed in Berlin that, in any event, the British could not field an army capable of affecting the military outcome until it was too late to save the French army.
It was not possible for German politicians simply to declare the European system created by Bismarck null and void. They needed a seemingly righteous cause to unite the nation and persuade its millions of Social Democrats that the coming war was just. The resulting scenario was simple and mendacious: Encourage Austria to present Serbia with an outrageous ultimatum that had to be rejected; let Russia threaten Austria in Serbia’s defense; present Germany’s subsequent move against Russia as a gallant and selfless rescue of Germany’s aggrieved Danubian ally; and attack France first, on spurious grounds, in order to kick her out of the war well before turning the might of the entire army against the slow-mobilizing Russians.
This was a breathtakingly risky scenario. The British duly declared war when Liege was attacked, and the Schlieffen Plan collapsed with the Miracle on the Marne. But in July 1914, both the military planning and the political rationale behind it reflected the German establishment’s obsession with the notion of “encirclement.” Just as the political paradigm was unduly dark, its military solution was based on an optimistic game plan that had many elements that could, and did, go wrong.
The Wilhelmine ruling elite’s understanding of national interest was corrupted by a host of ideological claimants who were Germany’s equivalent of our interventionists today: the naval lobby, the colonial lobby, the annexationist lobby, the völkisch lobby. They branded all moderation as weakness and all doubt as treason. In the end, Germany’s criminal blunder of 1914 was a sinister precursor of her crime of 1939. As Fischer writes, these were the “ideologies, values, and ambitions that led our country to destruction in the space of two generations.” Gripped by a self-image of weakness that demanded aggressively proactive policies, the Central Powers’ political elites were unwilling to question the dictates of military planning. Mobilization schedules and railway timetables took over politics. The lights went out all over Europe, never to be lit again.
Four awful years later, President Wilson’s Fourteen Points—the device allegedly meant to end the war—espoused the principle of self-determination. Wilson threw a revolutionary doctrine at an already exhausted Europe, almost on par with Bolshevism in its destabilizing effect. Two decades after the Armistice, burdened by Clemenceau’s harsh revenge at Versailles, Europe staggered into a belated sequel in September 1939. After 1918, it was badly wounded; after 1945, mortally so. A century later, we are living with the consequences, and on the ruins, of the Great War.
The key to avoiding another European catastrophe, which would mark the end of our civilization forever, is a long-term strategic understanding between Moscow and Berlin. To stabilize the Continent—once the crisis in Ukraine is over—the world needs an integrated “Europe,” but not in its current E.U. form, bureaucratically totalitarian and still dominated from across the Atlantic. Bismarck would understand this, and Vladimir Putin probably does; the German political and business elite should follow suit.
The leaders of both parties in Washington still subscribe to the notion of American exceptionalism, and to the propositional creed rooted in Puritan millenarianism, which produces never-ending wars. Germany has gone along with various American idiosyncrasies for a long time, but with the Ukraine crisis her elites have finally ceased to be comfortable with the ideological arsenal of American interventionism. In geopolitical terms, Germany—like Russia, but unlike the United States—is a continental power and has limited and “rational” strategic and security objectives. Both are wary of America’s self-appointed global missions, although Russia is more directly threatened, and therefore more vocal about its misgivings.
Under the Iron Chancellor, the towering genius of 19th-century European diplomacy, Germany and Russia had a genuine strategic partnership, based on a compatibility of interests and an absence of insurmountable obstacles. Bismarck’s incompetent successors had abandoned this in favor of an unnecessary and ultimately fatal bid for multispectral hegemony—a Wilhelmine brand of neoconservatism—which finally entangled Germany in the affairs of the Habsburgs in the Balkans and caused the war.
As the United States continues to lose her briefly held position of world dominance, the traditional nation-states of Europe—the main victims of 1914—need to rediscover the benefits of togetherness based on spontaneously emerging, interest-based links. Acting accordingly would display the degree of wisdom and statesmanlike seriousness that Europe so conspicuously lacked in the summer of 1914.