After four years and three months of unprecedented carnage, the Great War ended 95 years ago today. The most tragic event in the history of mankind, that war destroyed a vibrant, magnificently creative civilization. A fundamentally decent and well-ordered world was shattered for ever. The floodgates of hell in which we live now were opened.
It was truly the first global war—la Grande Guerre, der grosse Krieg. Tens of millions of men were mobilized. In France and Germany four fifths of all men between 18 and 50 donned the uniform. The entire human, physical and moral resources of Europe’s major powers and a host of smaller nations were strained like never before in history. The weapons were deployed on a massive scale, killing machines that only a generation earlier did not exist: airplanes, tanks, poison gasses, submarines. The lethal mix of the machine gun and barbed wire made „going over the top“ tantamount to a death sentence.
The war claimed close to 20 million lives, soldiers and civilians in roughly equal proportion. Millions of young men were maimed and damaged for ever. Epidemics during and immediately after the war claimed millions more. Even more horrendous are that war’s moral and spiritual consequences. Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, the sequel known as the Second World War, and the wounded civilization we now live in, are its poisoned fruits.
How it actually happened, or, as Ranke would put it, wie es eigentlich gewesen?
As we near the centennial of its outbreak, it is not uncommon for educated non-historians who think about such matters to assume that the war in 1914 was the result of a series of blunders and miscalculations in various Great Power courts, foreign offices, and chancelleries. The key interwar American text on the subject, Sidney B. Fay’s Origins of the World War, suggested that nobody wanted the war but—like in a Greek drama—forces beyond the actors’ control and understanding drove everyone into the maelstrom. Implicit in this narrative was the view that the European system was so inherently unstable that a single terrorist act by a troubled Serb adolescent in a troubled Balkan city could fatally disrupt it.
That view was wrong. As one of the most prominent German historians of the 20th century, Fritz Fischer, demonstrated in his masterly Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s Bid for Global Dominance), 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 Europe, whereby France and Russia would be degraded to powerlessness and territorial insignificance.
To that end, after Sarajevo Germany encouraged Austria to pursue what Vienna believed would be a local war against Serbia in order to engineer a wider European conflagration which would eliminate France and Russia from the scene for decades. The record is clear: as (by then former) German chief of general staff Moltke confided to his friend Colmar von der Goltz as early as 1915, it was the war of Germany’s making, “this war that I prepared and initiated.” Had the murdered Archduke Francis Ferdinand—who did not want war—been alive, Austria’s Chief of Staff Konrad von Hetzendorf mused when the war started going badly for the Dual Monarchy, “he would have had me shot.”
Moltke and other Junkers were not acting alone. Having betrayed Bismarck’s legacy by tying Germany to the decaying Habsburg Monarchy and by conducting a reckless foreign policy in the early years of the 20th century, having alienated Britain by building an unnecessary and ultimately useless high seas fleet, the Wilhelmine establishment found itself in the encirclement of its own making. That establishment blundered to the point of prompting Britain and Russia to become de facto (albeit not as yet formal) allies in 1907—unthinkable in the days of the Iron Chancellor. At times Germany acted on the global stage like a bunch of McCains with manners: when Berlin got needlessly involved in Morocco in 1911, even Vienna withdrew support.
A “preventive” war against Russia and France, based on the Schlieffen Plan, was seen as a way out of Germany’s chronic diplomatic isolation and as a means of preempting Russia’s economic, demographic and military rise, which obsessed Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, who complained that it was useless to plant oaks on his Brandenburg estate since some Cossacks would rest in their shade. 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 and thus abdicated her role as a great power. As David Fromkin concluded in his excellent Europe’s Last Summer, it takes two or more 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 war against Serbia, the other Germany’s war against France and Russia. Britain inevitably and predictably entered the fray when Germany violated Belgium’s neutrality—as postulated by the Schlieffen Plan—thus making the war global. It was frivolously assumed in Berlin that in any event the British could not field an army capable of affecting the outcome until it was too late.
It was not possible for German politicians and soldiers simply to declare the European system created by Bismarck null and void. They could not admit that they wanted to revise it by force in favor of an extended Mitteleuropa, dominated by Germany, with an emaciated France to the west and a humbled Russia—minus the Ukraine and the Baltic provinces—to the east. The Prussian elite needed a seemingly righteous cause, the latter-day Ems Telegram, to unite the nation and, in particular, to persuade its millions of Social Democrats and Roman Catholics that the coming war was just, and the Vaterland’s cause worth dying for. The scenario was simple, mendacious, and effective: 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 whatever grounds, in order to kick her out of the war before turning the might of the entire army against the slow-mobilizing Russians.
This was a reckless scenario full of incalculable risks. 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 military planning and the political rationale behind it reflected Berlin’s establishment’s obsession with the notion of “encirclement.” Just as the political paradigm was unduly pessimistic, its military “solution” was based on an optimistic scenario that had many elements that could, and did, go wrong. Determined to break out of this self-imposed, intellectually wanting and largely imagined “encirclement,” the Second Reich discarded Bismarck’s flexibility of external liaisons in favor of an implacable hostility to France, a self-generated sense of existential danger from Russia, and—perhaps worst of all—an alliance with Austria-Hungary that was debilitating in its implications and disastrous in its consequences.
The Iron Chancellor would never have allowed the worn-out Viennese tail to wag the dynamic German dog, and in the 1880s and 90s he repeatedly warned that the Balkans must never be allowed to release its potential as Europe’s proverbial powder keg. His successors of 1914 disregarded that advice on both counts. In this they encountered no effective opposition, and even the seemingly middle-of-the-road Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, joined the fray with an air of fatalistic determination, only once or twice interrupted by pangs of fearful lucidity.
By 1914 Germany’s ruling stratum’s understanding of the State reason was fatally corrupted by a host of ideological mantras which were Wilhelmine Germany’s equivalent of America’s global interventionists today: the naval lobby, the colonial lobby, the annexationist lobby, the Voelkisch lobby. Like the proponents of the war against Iran, they branded all moderation weakness and all doubt treason. Germany’s criminal blunder of 1914 was a sinister precursor of her crime of 1939. As per Fischer, these are the “ideologies, values, and ambitions that led our country to destruction in the space of two generations.”
In addition to being gripped by a self-fulfilling and gloomy Weltanschauung that demanded aggressively proactive policies, the Central Powers’ political elites were unable and unwilling to question the dictates of military planning. As Fischer’s old foe, conservative German historian Gerhard Ritter, readily admitted, a desperate gamble, va-banque Spiel, replaced policy making: in Vienna Conrad presented the Cabinet with a rosy and unrealistic assessment of Austria’s military capabilities that were soon demolished in a series of humiliating defeats in Serbia. In Berlin the German plan of campaign—which relied on a great Austrian offensive in the East which never happened—suffered from an over-estimation of German capability. Mobilization schedules and railway timetables took over. The lights went out all over Europe, never to be lit again.
Four awful years later President Wilson’s Fourteen Points—the device that was allegedly meant to end the war—espoused the principle of self-determination. It threw a revolutionary doctrine thrown at an already exhausted Europe, a doctrine almost on par with Bolshevism in its destabilizing effect. It unleashed competing aspirations among the smaller nations of Central Europe and the Balkans that not only hastened the collapse of transnational empires, but also gave rise to a host of intractable ethnic conflicts and territorial disputes that remain unresolved to this day. Wilson’s notions of an “enlarging democracy” and “collective security” signaled the birth of a view of America’s role in world affairs which has created—and is still creating—endless problems for both America and the world. It was Wilson, speaking through President George W. Bush a decade ago, who declared that America not only “created the conditions in which new democracies could flourish” but “also provided inspiration for oppressed peoples.”
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 very badly wounded; after 1945, mortally so. The result is a civilization that is aborting and birth-controlling itself to death, a civilization that is morally bankrupt, culturally spent, and spiritually comatose. Ninety five years later we are living—if life it is—with the consequences, and on the ruins, of the Great War.