(Our fellow Chicago Boy Ralf Goergens had this comment in response to my post about the Battle of the Somme, which began 90 years ago today. Ralf made so many contentious points, and my comment in response got so long I decided to put it out here.)
Ralf, thanks for the reply. Most people take, generally, one of two views of World War I. The first, perhaps most famously stated in Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August is that it was a mistake. The second, perhaps most famously stated by Fritz Fischer, is that World War I was a war of German aggression. I tend toward Fischer. You however seem to be taking a third position, saying that it was a war that was more or less justified on Germany’s part, and that Germany had modest aims in the war. We will have to disagree over that.
You also gloss over the fact that Germany’s conduct such as invading neutral Belgium and using submarines to sink ships without warning, were perceived at the time as extremely barbaric. Those of us who lived in the later part of the 20th Century may find that quaint, in light of the abject barbarity that followed. But to people who grew up during the long peace after 1870, the Germans’ behavior was shocking and outrageous. And it is largely due to their behavior then and later that our standards have fallen so low.
A few responses to specific comments of yours:
“The German goal was to take down France a peg or two, just like in the Franco-Prussian war 1870/71.”
The metaphorical phrase “take down a peg” means initiate a war, invade, conquer, and annex territory. Why should anyone agree that it was “OK” for Germany to do this?
“If the British had kept out of it, the war would have been a repeat of that earlier conflict.”
Why should they have? They had spent the last several centuries preventing the rise of any continental power the point it could threaten them. The Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz had spent the last ten years building battleships making it clear that the plan was to destroy Britain’s maritime supremacy, and thereby obtain a chokehold on Britain. The Germans spoke openly and aggressively about this. They drove a mildly friendly Britain of circa 1900 into the Arms of Britains two main 19th Century rivals, France and Russia. The British hated the idea of a European alliance, and hated the idea of sending an Army to the Continent. Only extreme German provocation made this possible. The fact that a Liberal administration led by Gray and Asquith entered the entente with France in 1904 and then sent the BEF to France in 1914 was only politically possible because the Germans had led everyone in British public life to despair that they would ever act sanely. See, Zara Steiner Britain and the Origins of the First World War. The Germans brought this on themselves.
“And a war towards that limited goal was hardly unprovoked.”
Provoked by what? By French mobilization in 1914? We know that the Germans were going to attack them anyway, that was their long-term plan. By that point it was no longer a question of provocation, it was a question of preparing for the inevitable. Stepping back farther, provoked by what? France insisting on getting Alsace back? That had been hanging around as an issue for 43 years. The Germans attacked France in 1914 out of fear, but also out of a desire to impose their rule on Europe. They spoke openly of their “right” to rule Europe due precisely to economic and scientific primacy you refer to. They didn’t have any such right, and a lot of people were willing to fight them to prevent it.
“I also think that that the German defeat is great historical tragedy…”
I think the war was the tragedy, and Germany started it.
“…and the whole world is worse off for it.”
The whole world is worse off that the war happened, and dragged on and on. Germany absolutely refused to seek any kind of negotiated solution. In fact, the ratcheted up their war aims as it dragged on. See, e.g. Arden Bucholz, Hans Delbruck and the German Military Establishment. The kind of Europe Germany planned was made clear to everyone by the massive annexations following the Brest-Litovsk treaty.
“Germany was the leading economic, industrial and scientific nation at the time. A lot of scientific and technological advances that German scientists and engineers would have created without her defeat never happened.”
Right, and the Germans therefore had a responsibility to act with political responsibility since they possessed such immense actual power and potential promise. Instead they had a political and military leadership that was at once violent, aggressive and inept. The Germans were let down by their leaders. As John Lukacs said, and as you are suggesting, and I agree, the 20th Century should have been the German century. It is their own fault that it was not.
“You feel otherwise, for the Anglosaxon nations became relatively stronger because of Germany’s defeat, and because it led to the world we know now, but don’t forget that things would turned out much differently, and almost certainly much better with that war.”
I think you mean “without that war”. Anyway, what I “feel” is that the war was an avoidable disaster that was the single worst thing that has yet happened in the history of the world. So yes of course things could have turned out differently. As I have said before, even a German victory after a quick war would have been much, much better than what happened – a protracted struggle that destroyed the entire European order.
“Making the Anglo-Saxon nations relatively stronger” is not what happened. It essentially finished off the British Empire, which was not clear at the time. The USA did not step into the breach, and we had to have another world war before it became clear that the USA was the only power capable of imposing an international order that could be a framework for trade. And, of course, all that got mixed up with the Cold War, which was itself a consequence of World War I, and more specifically the German decision to send Lenin back to Russia. I don’t think this supposed Anglo-Saxon triumph is such a great thing that it was worth fighting two world wars over. If the Germans of the Edwardian era had been smarter politically instead of just scientifically, the entire twentieth century could have been an alliance between them and the Anglo-Saxons. That would not have been trouble-free. But there was a constituency in both Britain and the USA for it circa 1900, and the Germans had no interest in it. They wanted to “grasp the sword” and seize their “place in the sun”. To get an idea of the kind of nonsense emerging from Germany, take a look at J.A. Cramb, Germany and England (1914), which was a series of lectures from right before the Great War. Cramb, an Englishman, admired the Germans, feared them, and despaired of any hope for peace with them.
“The German army wasn’t anything to sneeze at either …”
I have not been clear at all if you need to say this. I thought everyone already knew that the German Army of World War I was an extraordinary army. It crushed Russia. It virtually destroyed the Italian Army. It held the French and British at bay for years. It swept an entire British Army off the map in a matter of days during the March 1918 offensive. The quality of German Army of World War I is beyond dispute and needs no verbal defense from me.
The point of my comments is that the British Army of World War I ended up being a very powerful, very effective army. This is fact, however, virtually unknown. The final offensives it launched in 1918 were an amazing campaign that is virtually unknown. This is a serious defect in our historical view of the war. Yes, by then the German army had been ground down. But, that is the whole idea of an attritional war. When attrition has taken its bite, you can finish the enemy off. And even a against a weakened enemy, the final offensives were remarkable displays of skill and coordination of all arms.
“It would still have led to a honorable peace for both sides, if the US had stayed out.”
First, the Germans never demonstrated any interest in peace until their army fell apart. When they were winning battles in early 1918, many sane voices were saying “this is the time to make a deal”. By then Ludendorff was effectively dictator, and he was having none of it. The Germans wanted to annex vast swathes of Europe and no one was going to agree to that.
As to the USA staying out, the Germans brought that on themselves through their own foolishness. The USA was desperate to stay out. The Germans use of unrestricted submarine warfare turned a pacifist USA into a belligerent. The Germans knew this was likely to happen, yet they deluded themselves into thinking the USA could not make a difference. There is no excuse for this kind of political madness. Germany had her hands full and the submarine campaign had no realistic chance of deciding the war. The Germans were desparate, and making unnecessary enemies on all sides.
The Churchill quote is interesting. Twenty years later, he is saying the USA should have stayed out, yet he was part of the government that was desperate, at the time, to get the USA into the war. Despite the British efforts, including falsifying news reports and other lies to try to influence American opinion, it was only Germany’s resort to massacring civilians by sinking neutral ships without notice that finally pushed the USA over the edge into war.
“Without the prospect of facing endless numbers of American soldiers coming over the Atlantic, Germany would never have capitulated.”
No, this is mistaken. Germany capitulated because its navy had mutinied and its army had been driven from the field by a massive offensive in the Fall of 1918, and civil unrest at home. The Germans knew that the Allies were going to launch an even more massive offensive in the Spring of 1919. So it was not a “prospect” that led to the German collapse, it was a reality.
The Germans capitulated because their army had been beaten. They had fought longer and harder against greater odds than almost any army in history. But even the Imperial German Army could not hold out forever against the combination of power its own political masters had caused to be arrayed against it. If the politicians blunder badly enough, no amount of military skill and courage can salvage the wreck.