The Innocence of Germany

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by Paul Gottfried

The following response was written to a detailed review of Brian Bond’s Trinity College Lectures dealing with the First World War. The reviewer Ted Rawes prepared his commentary for the twentieth-anniversary issue of the Salisbury Review, in which my rejoinder will appear during the summer. Nothing in my remarks should be interpreted as casting aspersions on this fine English publication, which for decades has welcomed my contributions. What I am arguing is intended to alert true British Tories to certain misrepresentations concerning the outbreak of the Great War.

Although I have still not read the Trinity College lectures of Brian Bond, I must disagree with his vindicator Ted Rawes, that the First World War was "deliberately provoked" by Germany and that it was "necessary" for Great Britain to enter. The choice of explanations for the War’s outbreak that Rawes offers, either that Germany was solely responsible and motivated by its "pursuit of imperial hegemony" or else that both sides "slithered into it," is simply false. Both of the great alliances that sprang up before the War behaved irresponsibly so as to provoke the struggle.

Concerning the provocative behavior of first sea lord John Fisher and first lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who sent the British fleet to blockade Germany before the war even began, I would recommend Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War One. English military commanders and English cabinet officers had worked out plans with France by 1909 for a preemptive strike on Belgium in case of war with Germany. The English may have been, so Rawes tells us, more civic-minded than the Germans, who were probably more so than the French, but this was certainly not true of their government. If ill-conceived German naval programs stoked British hostility, the British government did nothing to defuse that sentiment — and much, according to Ferguson, to make it fatal.

The German fear of "encirclement [Einkesselung]" was justified, and particularly after the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894, which, as George Kennan shows in The Fatal Alliance, was unmistakably aimed at militarily encircling Germany and Austria-Hungary. Those French statesmen who worked to isolate Germany and to engineer the Triple Entente, Paul and Jules Cambon and Maurice Paléologue, never hid the warlike purpose of their statecraft.

As for Germany’s role in bringing on the war, there is a difference between being critical and stating that Fritz Fischer’s arguments "remain effectively unchallenged." Back in January 1975, I published a feature essay for The Alternative (later to become the thoroughly neocon American Spectator) in which I tried to sum up the critical scholarship centering on Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht. After presenting the refutations of Golo Mann, Egmont Zechlin, Gerhard Ritter, and Hans-Dietrich Erdmann, historians who could not reasonably be described as rightwing German nationalists or enthusiastic defenders of the German Second Empire, I noted that barring further archival revelations, Fischer’s depiction of the German government and German people as providing a sufficient cause for the First World War stood discredited.

Although those new revelations did not materialize, what I did not foresee was the alliance of indiscriminately guilt-ridden Germans, American neoconservatives, outraged over the Holocaust, and Teutonophobic Brits, who would try to breathe new life into a cadaverous thesis. The September 1914 war aims, which appear in a memorandum drafted by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, do not bear the historical significance that Fischer and his epigones assign to them. Although these Kriegsziele were expansionist, Bethmann-Hollweg had framed other war aims before September 1914 that were less so. Furthermore, Germany’s revisionist designs were no worse than what Allied leaders planned to do to the Central Powers once they defeated them, as evidenced by the opportunistic Treaty of London that England used to lure Italy into the struggle against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

I am also amused by the attempt made by defenders of Versailles to compare the supposed moderateness of the postwar treaties, even the insertion of the notorious war guilt clauses, to the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which Germany imposed on the recently established Soviet regime in Russia in early 1918. Supposedly this treaty, which stripped Russia of the Ukraine, Baltic peoples, and Poland, illustrated what the Central Powers would have done had they won the war. The problem with this comparison, as Egmont Zechlin and George Kennan have noted, is that Germany inflicted a harsh peace on a Communist government that it helped bring to power, in order to aid its war efforts in the West. Brest-Litovsk was the heavy cost that Germany exacted from its Communist clients, in order to go on fighting in a war in which by then it was outnumbered and outgunned. Germany was also being brought to its knees by the starvation blockade that England continued to maintain until after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty with the Soviets involved the taking of military means and foodstuffs far more than the realization of war aims.

I am finally perplexed by Rawes’s singling out of the German Frontkaempfer as a uniquely German problem of returning vets. These militant vets were also characteristic of other continental belligerents and could be found in Italy in the twenties, before and during the Fascist takeover, and in France during the thirties. Not surprisingly, these riotous or politically engaged vets became a widespread problem among the defeated power, which underwent postwar revolutionary turmoil. Ernst Jünger, though the author of In Stahlgewittern and a celebrant of military heroism, does not seem to be any kind of sinister presence. Jünger was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, who attacked their atrocities and wrote positively about the enemy soldiers he had faced in the Great War. By the time he died at 107, Jünger enjoyed the plaudits of political and literary leaders from across the political spectrum.

Rawes is especially disturbed that the tendency to blame both sides for World War One may play into the hands of British pacifists. But even pacifists are sometimes right. The First World War was avoidable on both sides; and it was the old order that recklessly blundered into it, although that order hastened its own destruction by unleashing the war. It has also been the Right that has typically regretted the First World War as the destroyer of an older and better world. As Peter Hitchens recently observed in explaining why he opposed American foreign policy from the Right, wars generally benefit the political Left. Thus the self-described democratic globalist Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 31, 1999), notes how lucky we are not to be living in a "German century." If the Central Powers had won the Great War, according to Fukuyama, we would still "have unimpaired the cultural confidence of 19th century European civilization." Such a civilization would have been based on a configuration of culturally Victorian nation states and would have been insensitive to the strides of modern feminists.

Although, unlike Fukuyama, I would have considered this a consummation devoutly to be wished, I could not imagine that such a "German century" would have been possible, even if the Germans had wanted it. As Ferguson reminds us, the inescapable, long-term victor of the war, no matter which side prevailed in Europe, would have been the US. Economically and industrially, the US was pulling ahead of the leading European powers by 1914, and the devastation of the war served to increase this American material surge. In what some journalists refer to euphemistically as the Anglosphere, Britain would sink to a junior partner and by now an Oxford echo of its Anglophone imperial cousin.

Ferguson points this out but is delighted that the US has taken over the task of liberal empire from its now tottering mother country. I for one am less sanguine, knowing well the advocates of American empire. Indeed Rawes may judge less severely those nationalists who convulsed late nineteenth-century European politics after reading these "democratic" imperialists. But then there is a difference between the old and new expansionists. Unlike the Pan-Germans or Pan-Slavs, American imperialists do not have to play politics on the European chessboard of 1914 and, because of ancient European squabbles, can go on pushing the Old World around.

April 18, 2003

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, the highly recommended Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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