Response to Ralf about The Battle of the Somme, etc.

(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.

23 thoughts on “Response to Ralf about The Battle of the Somme, etc.”

  1. Lex,

    thanks for the comprehensive response.

    I’ll answer at length tomorrow, just two points
    for now (I’m not in the habit of glossing things over :):

    1) The alleged “German conduct in Belgium” was to a large extent propaganda by the British press (‘Huns slaughtering babies’ etc). This ‘Gräuelpropaganda’ later made Orwell and others very skeptical about the warnings against the Nazis during WW2, which unfortunately were very true.

    2) The ‘sinking of ships using submarines’ was a reaction to orders by Churchill that ship of the merchant navy should try to ram and sink U-Boats, after mock-surrender, if need be:

    there were secret Admiralty orders (February 10, 1915,
    cited by both Bailey and Simpson) to all British merchantmen to ram submarines whenever opportunity offered.

    The Lusitania was a civilian passenger liner loaded with munitions. Earlier, Churchill had ordered the captains of merchant ships, including liners, to ram German submarines, and the Germans were aware of this. The German government even took out newspaper ads in New York warning Americans not to board the ship.

  2. 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.

    Well, the prospect of endless numbers of American troops arriving had something to do with the mutinies; the British propaganda I mentioned in the comment above also had taken its toll on morale.

    Were morale was good, even the tanks couldn’t dent the German lines.

    More tomorrow.

  3. One last thing:

    I don’t approve of wars of agression, but from a German perspective France needed to be taken out of the equation. The Czar was spoiling for a fight with Germany, especially after Britain and France had offered him the Dardanelles and Istanbul, for he wanted to resurrect Byzantium there. But if France could have been knocked out of the fight, Russia would have thought twice before declaring war on Germany, and at the very least Germany wouldn’t have faced a war on both fronts.

  4. This ‘Gräuelpropaganda’ later made Orwell and others very skeptical about the warnings against the Nazis during WW2, which unfortunately were very true.

    Do you have any Orwell writings in support of this assertion? The only Orwell essay that I recall addressing atrocities was one where Orwell concluded that the depressing fact of war was that atrocities *did* happen. He recited events from the Spanish Civil War in support of that position. What he found interesting was not the fact of atrocities, but that the response to and reporting of them was guided by politics, not by the nature of the atrocities themselves. But in that essay Orwell was speaking of the normal atrocities of war, I don’t know that he wrote specifically of the concentration camps and the extermination of the Jew and other undisirables.

    The reported Belgium atrocities were interesting. I read one tale told by a Belgium refugee and it reminded me of nothing so much as the tales coming from some of the Arabs in Iraq or the unfounded stories of the events in the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina. Where such stories come from and how they gain credence is worthy of study. I suspect that some folks even manage to convince themselves that they witnessed events that never happened, for otherwise one must conclude that the world is full of pathological liars.

  5. The dialog above reminded me for some reason that place in Heinrich Boll’s Billiard at 9:30, where he talks about Host of the Beast and Prussian upbringing and the War of 1870. Somewhere in the pre-parade scene in the “Prince George”.

    (Yes, Lex, I know, he was an abtract pacifist with sympathies to Reds and all that. Still love him.)

  6. Actually, Tatyana, I know nothing whatsoever about Heinrich Boll’s Billiard at 9:30, or anything else by him. Is that his best book? I’ll add it to my list.

  7. My oh my.
    I guess there ARE certain pluses in being raised behind the iron curtain.
    About H.Boll (don’t know how to find the German umlaut for a proper spelling) – see here.
    Personally, my favorite book of his is “Group portrait of a Lady in Interior”. Billiard at half past nine was considered a major anti-war anti-militarist, even anti-NATO book by a Western author in Soviet Union of my youth; it shows how propaganda appropriates everything to its own benefit.

  8. Thanks for the tips. One of these days I’ll read some fiction again. I want to read The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth, which has been hanging around here for a long time. I have some Indian novels I want to read, too. And The Ambassadors by Henry James. Lots of stuff.

    Life is short and the book-pile is very, very high.

  9. Sorry, I put most of what I had to say in the comments on the original post. Short version: if Germany had devoted as much thought and effort to keeping the US out of the war as Britain allocated to drawing us in, things would have been very much different.

    Europe (not just Germany) was spoiling for a fight, and they got one. It was downhill for most of that century after that.

  10. “A lot of scientific and technological advances that German scientists and engineers would have created without her defeat never happened.”

    Those scientists and engineers were not Germans. They were Jews. Their departure from Germany and Central Europe was hardly an accident.

    Lex: Leave us not forget the Zimmerman Telegram.

  11. Mitch, agreed.

    Robert, almost agreed. There were a lot of very good ethnic German scientists, engineers, etc. But the proportion of Germanophone Jews was incredible. With 2% or so of the population they were massively over-represented in the sciences, medicine, engineering, business as well as literature and music. But, to the credit of Kaiserian Germany, it was a positive environment for its Jews, especially compared to Russia. So it takes nothing away from Kaiserian Germany to recognize the contribution of its Jewish citizens, who were extremely loyal to the monarchy, with good reason.

  12. Well, I will withhold most of my comments until Lex and Ralf have their main rounds tomorrow. Since Lex has read a hell of a lot more about WWI, especially the military side, I am tending to think “Uh, what Lex said.” What I have read suggests to me that Germany’s war aims were far from beneign, nor good for anybody except crtain circles of Germany’s ruling classes. At the same time WWI was (here I agree with Lex, Ralf, Helen, and most others) the critical tragedy of our times and the root of most other tragedies that have befallen us since, including 9/11 and the war wih radical Islamism. So a compromise peace at almost any moment of the war (but especially before 1917) would have been far preferable than its continuation.

    A couple of points: it is hard to see how Mitch can say “Americans aren’t Europeans” except in some sort of tautological geographic sense, or in the sense that “European” is taken to mean “Continental European” in contradistinction to English-speaking civilization, in which case I would agree. Our speech (and therefore our whole cultural-linguistic mindset) is European. Our laws and institutions are European. The majority of our population has princially come from Europe, bringing with them the customs and habits of those lands. And we have been enmeshed in a unified Atlantic political and economic world from the first moments Cabot spotted Newfoundland. Our finances have been totally intermixed from then till now. Every international political and military consideration we have made has interacted with European actors, starting with the French-sponsored Indian raids on Massachusetts. We have dabbled in European wars and politics since the first Massachusetts troops sailed back to fight in the English Civil War in the 1640s. (Rainsborough’s Regiment, one of the best of the Puritan units, was officered mostly with Americans.) Mostly we fought Europeans and their proxies on New World soil, both during the monarchical and republican periods, but we did so as part of a larger Atlantic military-political-economic system. Isolation was always primarily a political myth, although a widely-believed one.

    The other one is that Russia was probably not a lot less autocratic than Germany in the 1905-1917 time period. It was refoming, liberalizing, and industrializing very rapidly and very successfully. Richard Pipes has written on this point very extensively. Everybody tends to think of WWI Russia in terms of Russian literature of the 1880s or even 1860s, but that’s kind of like thinking The Grapes of Wrath is a good guide to the life of a software manager in Silicon Valley. The optimistic, liberal, bourgeoise St. Petersburg that Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand (to name two highly disparate figures who came from that milleu — although Rand was a schoolmate of his sister) grew up in was nothing like the Moscow of Dostoyevski. In a way Russia then was a bit like India today — much of it still poor and pre-industrial, but also reforming rapidly and containing a sizeable and virorous moern, educated, progressive nation.

  13. Jim, the English are the least European of the Europeans, and we are even less so. Remember the joke: “Thick fog over Channel; Europe cut off,” or the more vulgar “Wogs begin at Calais.” We’ve had a whole different ocean to deal with since Fremont exceeded his orders, and are as much a Pacific power as Japan or China. The Aussies will second that.

    The US split off from Europe before Rousseau, Hegel, and that bunch revived the Roman superstition that a significant group or place acquired a spirit (genius) separate and distinct from the people making up the group or the inhabitants of the place. Britain was less afflicted with this Romantic nonsense than France or Germany. There were not many Englishmen blowing their brains out at young Werther’s grave. There is a collectivist strain in European thought that is not as strong in Britain as on the continent, and is still weaker in America. A couple of centuries of separation will have an effect.

    Separate discussion: Latin America. They are not European, either. (You doubt me? Ask a Spaniard.) They also split at about the same time, and have developed into a range of cultures easily distinguishable from Europe.

  14. Lex: 1. The percentage of Jews in the German population was less than 1%. (about 600,000 our of 68 million).

    Many Jews were loyal to Germany, but they did face discrimination and religious restrictions. Einstein, who hated the German System, went to Switzerland for higher education and stayed there until after he was world famous.

    Zionism arose out of the recognition that European nationalism would never accept Jews. Germany was as nationalistic as any country in Europe.

  15. In my own family background there were German Jews who were loyal Germans and some of whom had served in the German army during the war, who began emigrating in the mid-1920s. While Germany was not terribly oppressive, it is clear that many opportunities were not available to Jews. For example, family lore recounts that one of the first family members to leave, who was completing or had just completed his doctorate, was warned by one of his advisors that as a Jew he had no chance of having an academic career in Germany.

  16. Robert, thanks. The fact that the Jews were less than 1% of Imperial Germany’s population makes their achievement even more remarkable. Kaiserian Germany was, of course, a country that had bigotry against its Jews. But, at that time, every country in the world had bigotry against Jews. Compared to the rest, Imperial Germany was the veritable “land of opportunity”. There were German Jews in many, many positions of respect and authority. Russia, at that time, before World War I, was the land of oppression of Jews.

    We should not mistake the pathologies that arose after World War I with the world that existed before it. Monarchies tend to be favorable to minorities, since they provide a check on majoritarian behavior. Also, the defeat in the war and the political disorder allowed a lot of things out in the open that would only have been said sotto voce before the war.

    One of the many tragedies of World War I was that it made the Nazis and the Holocaust possible.

  17. Mitch:

    As I said, if you want to define “European” as “Continental European”, then we are in substantial agreement.

    As for Latin America, yes and no. As the Zamoyski book I referenced here recently discusses in some detail, the Continental idea of the organic nation-state was quite influential with Bolivar and other South American revolutionaries. (No wonder Chavez is so screwed up.) But the degree of European-ness varies quite considerably from one part of Latin America to the other; the Argentine brag of Buenos Aires as “Paris without the French” has some truth to it.

  18. “Compared to the rest, Imperial Germany was the veritable “land of opportunity”.”

    Britain? US?

  19. The rest of Europe, certainly. Britain was a partial exception, as was the USA. But there was serious anti-Jewish discrimination in both places. And of course there was bigotry in all of these places. This was mitigated in the USA because we had such a free and open economy that Jews were able to invent their own businesses and even their own entire industries. Nonetheless, I think that pre-1914 Kaiserian Germany was probably the best of the bunch, in terms of meritocracy and freedom and opportunity for its Jewish citizens, despite some discrimination and bigotry. There could not have been a Walter Rathenau in wartime Britain or the USA, for example. No Jew would have been allowed that much power. Military defeat and the loss of the monarchy were the factors that put the vicious anti-semitic elements in German society in control. Or so it seems to me from what I have read.

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