A bright young man who served on a panel with me at an intelligence conference earlier this year said during a break, "A lot of us read your On War columns, but there are two things we don’t get. We don’t get your dislike of technology and we don’t get the Prussian monarchy stuff." Readers interested in the former may turn to my piece in an early issue of The American Conservative. But with the shadow of 1914 looming ever larger over us, I thought this might be a good time to explain "the Prussian monarchy stuff."
Of course, like all real conservatives, I am a monarchist. The universe is not a republic. My specific attachment to the House of Hohenzollern grew as I began to comprehend the Prussian/German way of war, and its vast difference from the Franco/American approach. Maneuver warfare, aka Third Generation war, was created and developed under the Prussian monarchy; it was conceptually complete by 1918. That is not a mere accident of history. The Prussian monarchy was willing to trust its officer corps, and allow officers who were difficult subordinates to rise, to a far greater degree than most other governments. It understood that Prussia, a poor country, needed to be rich intellectually, including in ideas about war. There was an intimate connection between the Prussian virtues, which have vanished from the Brave New Federal Republic, and the evolution of maneuver warfare. Old Kaiser Wilhelm I represented those virtues well; though Emperor of Germany, when he wanted to go somewhere, he went down to the railway station and bought a ticket.
Given the centrality of maneuver warfare to my work, this might be explanation enough. But there is more. As both a cultural conservative and an historian, I realize that the last chance of survival our Western, Christian civilization may have had was a victory by the Central Powers in World War I.
To most non-historians, World War I is a vague and distant memory, faded photographs of guys in tin hats standing around in mud-filled trenches. In fact, it was one of two cataclysmic disasters of Western civilization in the Modern period (the other was the French Revolution). In 1914, the West put a gun to its collective head and blew its brains out. No, it wasn’t the fault of Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom history has treated most unfairly. As Colonel House wrote to President Woodrow Wilson after meeting with the Kaiser in 1915, it is clear he neither expected not wanted war. A World War became inevitable when Tsar Nicholas II, not Kaiser Wilhelm, very reluctantly yielded to the demands of his War and Foreign Ministers and declared general mobilization instead of mobilization against Austria alone.
Once war occurred, and the failure of the Schlieffen Plan guaranteed it would be a long war, a disaster for Western civilization was inevitable. Still, had the Central Powers won in the end, the civilization destruction might not have been so complete. There would have been no Communism, nor a republic in Russia; a victorious Germany would have never tolerated it, and unlike the Western Allies, Germany was positioned geographically to do something about it. Hitler would have remained a non-entity. Prior to World War I, the best major European countries in which to be Jewish were Germany and Austria; Kaiser Wilhelm would never have allowed a Dreyfus Affair in Germany. The vast Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe would have held their traditional places in multi-nation-empires, instead of becoming aliens in new nation-states. It should not surprise us that in World War I, American Jews attempted to raise a regiment to fight for Germany.
Even more importantly, the Christian conservatism — more accurately, perhaps, traditionalism — represented by the Central Powers would have been greatly strengthened by their victory. Instead, the fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian monarchies let the poisons of the French Revolution loose unchecked upon the West, and upon the world. The Marxist historian Arno Mayer is correct in arguing that in 1914, the United States represented (as a republic, with France) the international left, while by 1919 it was organizing the international right. America had not changed; the spectrum had shifted around it.
Thus, when Americans and Europeans wonder today how and why the West lost its historic culture, morals and religion, the ultimate answer is the Allied victory in 1918. Again, the fact that World War I occurred is the greatest disaster. But once that had happened, the last chance the West had of retaining its traditional culture was a victory by the Central Powers. The question should not be why I, as a cultural conservative, remain loyal to the two Kaisers, Wilhelm II and Franz Josef, but how a real conservative could do anything else.
Nor is this all quite history. Just as the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918 marked the tipping point downward of Western civilization and the real beginning of the murderous Twentieth Century, so events in the Middle East today may mark the beginnings of the 21st Century and, not so much the death of the West, which has already occurred, but its burial. The shadows of 1914, and of 1918, are long indeed, and they end in Old Night.
Note: In response to an earlier column, a reader asked for recommendations of some books on the fin de siecle and Kaiser Wilhelm II. From the military perspective, the two best works on the former are Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. The most balanced biography in English of Kaiser Wilhelm II is The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II by Giles MacDonogh.
William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.