Who's To Blame for World War One?

This paper was delivered at the Mises Institute’s 2017 Austrian Economics Research Conference in Auburn, AL.

Having devoted considerable time over the last forty years to studying the Great War, an interest that I developed in graduate school in the mid-1960s, I am no longer surprised or disappointed by fictional accounts of this conflict. In a forthcoming anthology, I try to explain why the glaringly obvious is so often neglected in most popular histories of the War. This is seen particularly in the attempt to attach overwhelming responsibility to the losing side while making the Allied governments look better than they were.  These accounts also typically feature Imperial Germany as a forerunner of the Third Reich, that is, an aggressive power that unleashed immeasurable suffering while trying to achieve world dominance.

In my book Revisions and DissentsI examine this skewed approach not as an exception to current historical studies but as characteristic of the way they are now done: although at no other time has there been so much available historical information, perhaps never before has historiography been so drenched in ideology. Historians and journalists now have at their command more data than was available to great historians of the past. But this opportunity for accurate depictions is squandered when readers are bombed with ideologically shaped stereotypes.

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One can cite as examples such journalists as Victor Davis Hanson, Max Boot, and David Frum, all of whom never rise above clichés in their condemnation of the losing side in World War One.  In The Atlantic in 2015 Frum offers this picture of the Herculean battle that has been periodically waged between the Wilson administration as the champions of democracy and our vile adversaries, including Imperial Germany: “Any aggressive illiberal power must fear the United States as the ultimate potential check on its aspirations. So it was with Germany in 1917. So it is with Iran today.” With an equivalent uninformed arrogance, Hanson tells us in a column (in 2012) that German governments caused “three German wars,” all since 1870. One might ask VDH whether the other side had anything to do with any of these conflicts. Another illustration of this pontificating about a subject the author knows Revisions and Dissents... Paul Gottfried Best Price: $3.26 Buy New $29.00 (as of 05:00 EDT - Details) nothing about is Fred Siegel’s comments in Weekly Standard (in 2011), that the US should not have hesitated so long in declaring war on the “anti-democratic” Germans. This action came just as the bad guys were about to pounce on us. As far as I could tell, Siegel was referring to a contingency plan that the Germans like every other European power had put together for dealing with possible enemies in a hypothetical war; the plan that Siegel hyperventilates over had been ditched several years before the War began.

More relevant to my discussion, however, are those who know something about the War but who can’t resist serving us warmed-over platitudes. Someone who fits this category is the distinguished British historian Sir Max Hastings. In his monumental study Catastrophe 1914, Hastings does not “engage in hand-wringing,” according to the WSJ, over why the War took place. He appropriately goes after the Central Powers, since he knows that “the price of German victory would have been democracy itself.”

Such praise for what the book allegedly demonstrates is, unfortunately, overblown. In his narrative Hastings keeps coming back to the thesis constructed by the anti-national German historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, that Germany in 1914 “directed policy toward precipitating a general European conflict.” But Hastings tries to moderate Fischer’s extravagant position on German war guilt by rephrasing it thus: “subsequent German conduct shows Berlin strikingly untroubled by such an outcome.” This statement does not explicitly accuse the Germans of starting a premeditated European-wide war, but it also does not deny that this was their intent.

For better or worse, Fischer’s evidence that Germany and Austria were alone responsible for the War has been dying the death of a thousand stabs for decades. In Der Fischer, Komplex Gunter Spraul notes the sloppiness with which Fischer cites sources, particularly those attributed to the German Kaiser and to Helmut von Moltke, the chief of the German General Staff in 1914. Spraul could have added considerably to his list of Fischer’s misrepresentations and garbled citations, but doing so would take me too far afield.  And why are we supposed to believe that if the Germans and Austrians came out on top, “democracy,” meaning the Anglosphere, would have perished? If the US and Great Britain had stayed out of the continental European conflict in 1914, as Niall Ferguson soberly points out, the US would have remained the most powerful country in the world while England would have continued to be the dominant financial power in Europe, with by far the largest navy.

During the War itself, as German academic historian Hans Fenske documents, the Central Powers far more than their adversaries sought a negotiated peace. It was they who ran to accept intervention by the Pope and from a supposedly neutral American government. By contrast, it was the Allied side that proved utterly resistant to a peace without victory and territorial annexations.  Equally relevant: France and the US suppressed civil liberties more than their adversaries. Enemy newspapers were sold on street corners in Berlin and Vienna throughout the hostilities, and no one was persecuted there for buying them. German Socialists in 1916 were allowed to go to Stockholm for a peace conference, but Socialists from the so-called democracies were barred from doing so. War & Totalitarianism,... Harry Elmer Barnes, Si... Best Price: $45.21 (as of 04:55 EDT - Details)

Opponents of the War or those demanding immediate peace were allowed to speak in the legislative bodies of the Central Powers. In July 1917 a majority of the German Reichstag voted for a peace without annexations. Although the German Chancellor considered this resolution “inopportune at the time,” legislators in the US or France would have been jailed for treason for doing anything similar.   In 1914 Germany and Austria permitted more, not less, academic freedom and free expression of political views than now exists in such “liberal democratic” citadels as Sweden, Canada, and the German Federal Republic. These state-of-the-art “liberal democracies” rigorously punish so-called hate speech and monitor politically correct behavior, of course in the name of “democracy.” If Germany and Austria were such political monsters in 1914, why did they alone among the belligerents seek a negotiated peace and do so several times? At the end of 1916, the Germans even grabbed at the false peace negotiations launched by the American government, overtures that the British were urged to turn down. The English and French made clear that no peace was possible until their enemy was thoroughly vanquished and Germany chopped up into confederated territories under Allied control.

I am citing Hastings’s work not because it contains an unusual number of errors but because it typifies a widely accepted interpretation of the War. Unlike such publicists as Hanson and Max Boot, Hastings understands his subject. He also commands a fluid narrative style and fills his work with a wealth of detail about the major personalities and events of the War. In short, he could have produced a far more objective work than the one that he wrote.

Too often his anti-German, anti-Austrian bias gets in the way of impartial judgment. Supposedly the German government lied when it claimed in 1914 that the English and Russians were coordinating plans to invade Pomerania. Evidence for this provisional agreement, however, has been available for more than a century, ever since the Baltic German spy, Benno von Sieberts, who was working in the Russian embassy in London, uncovered plans for this joint military action. The controversial agreement was scheduled to be signed in summer, 1914. Details about the planned British amphibious landing, which would carry Russian troops to the German coast, was transmitted to the German General Staff, three weeks before the German government issued its blank check to Austria-Hungary. These events were obviously related. Austria’s enemy Serbia was backed by Russia, whose leaders seem to have known in advance about the plan hatched by Serbian operatives to assassinate the Austrian Archduke and his wife. News of the plan for a joint operation against Germany added fuel to the already enveloping international fire.

The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, who worked from 1905 on to build an anti-German alliance, lied three times about the agreement, once to the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, who knew he was lying and then to members of his cabinet, who had been kept in the dark. The plan for German encirclement helped determine the fateful decision taken by the chief of the German general staff to go for broke. The Anglo-Russian plan made clear that those efforts by the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to reconcile the English government, by among other things abandoning German naval expansion, had failed utterly. The British cabinet was continuing to plot against the Germans, with continental allies. The Sleepwalkers: How ... Christopher Clark Best Price: $3.63 Buy New $9.89 (as of 05:30 EDT - Details)

According to Hastings: “It is hard to sustain the argument that Grey bears a large responsibility for the war because of his failure to speak frankly to the British people during the last years of peace or explicitly to warn Berlin that Britain would not remain neutral.” Apparently, none of this mattered since the Germans “would not have been impressed by the potential involvement of an army they despised.” There are at least two facts that Hastings neglects: Grey had spent eight years, unbeknownst to most of his cabinet, making reckless commitments to Germany’s and Austria’s continental adversaries. He had given, as the distinguished historian Paul Schroeder stresses, a free hand to Russian and Pan-Slavic expansionists, at the expense of the Habsburg Empire. Grey’s government had persisted in this course despite German efforts to seek an accommodation with England in the years leading up to the War. The German government, including the German Ambassador to London, who was a critic of the German decision to go to war, thought that Grey and his collaborators were untrustworthy. By August 2, 1914, the German government may have learned that Grey was a self-righteous liar.

Hastings also asserts that there “were no major massacres of civilian populations ever laid at the door of the British, French or Italians to match those repeatedly committed by the Germans, Austrians, and Turks.” But Hastings does note the apparently minor inconvenience of the British blockade of Germany, the legality of which he admits “was disputable.” “Nevertheless, the blockade seems to belong to a different moral order of conduct from the deliberate murder of civilians.” These judgments are so muddled that one hardly knows where to begin making sense of them. Although Turkish units did massacre Armenians within their borders, after Armenians took up arms against the Ottomans on the side of Russia, I’m not aware of any similar massacres committed by the Germans and certainly not by the Austrians. Hastings does mention the shooting of Belgian hostages, as a reprisal for the guerilla war waged by the Belgians against German forces, and the execution of snipers by the Austrian forces in Galicia. Yet all this pales next to Hastings’s “legally disputable” starvation blockade of Germany, which caused over 750,000 deaths through malnutrition and disease, and which was not lifted until March 1919, after the newly established German Republic signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. Hastings is correct that the blockade might not have been illegal under international law. The British government, which intended to use it against Germany, never signed the convention banning this measure. More German civilians died because of the British blockade in and after the First World War than in all the aerial bombing of the Second.

A mystery of the War that needs to be addressed concerns why the French were caught off guard by the German invasion. French foreign minister and from January 1913 on, the French president, Raymond Poincaré and a host of the French ambassadors had boasted, Poincaré most notably to Russian foreign ministers Alexander Izvolsky and Sergei Sazonov, about encircling the Germans. They would force the Germans to break out of their encirclement by striking the first blow, thereby putting them in the wrong and allowing Grey to bring England into the conflict on the side of France and Russia. Historian Rainer Schmidt compares the wily Poincaré trying to push Germans into firing the first shot with Bismarck as he lured Napoleon III in 1870 into war against a seasoned Prussian military. But Poincaré and his confrères, unlike Bismarck, never bothered to hide their design. The Great Wars and Great L... Ralph Raico Best Price: $11.88 Buy New $12.95 (as of 12:35 EDT - Details) French foreign minister induced his government to build railroad lines for Russian troops that would enable them to occupy German East Prussia. He also made sure that the French defrayed the cost of modernizing the Russian military that would be deployed to invade Germany.

Not insignificantly, the French had been in possession of the German Schlieffen Plan since around 1905. They knew the details of how the Germans would conduct a two-front war, first by attacking the French in the West, and then, by turning their military power against Russia. French leaders regularly consulted with their British and Russian counterparts about how they would counteract the eventual German offensive. As late as 1913, the French had more infantry than their enemy to the East, despite the fact that the German population was approximately one-third larger.

For three weeks the German offensive against France continued to gain ground, although the movement of German troops through Belgium encountered unexpected resistance and although German units had to be diverted in order to deal with the simultaneous Russian invasion of East Prussia. It was only during the fourth week of August, on the Marne River, almost within striking distance of Paris, that the French military halted the German advance; and it did so by hurrying people into uniform and then carrying them in some cases from Paris in cabs.

This occasions the reasonable question of why the French were so unprepared for an invasion that its government helped bring about.  Allow me to suggest two answers, neither of which is original. Like the British people in relation to the war party in the British cabinet, the French population was only vaguely aware that its government was rushing into provocative military alliances. The peoples who would soon be at war were not aware of how near they were to the precipice. In 1912 and 1913, for example, while the British war party became more and more entangled in anti-German intrigues, the popular press was hailing the efforts of the German government to patch up its differences with the British.  One cannot, therefore, assume that the French and British populations were emotionally ready for the war when it came.

Even more significantly, as Christopher Clark underscores, French political leaders who were boasting about how they would pummel Germany, may not have believed that the Germans would actually invade. In this respect, Poincaré did not measure up to Bismarck, who did not consider war with Napoleon III’s France as necessary for his other plans, but who was ready for the fisticuffs when they started. If Bismarck’s dealing with France in 1870 was, according to Rainer Schmidt, a model for the “outline” adopted by French leadership before the Great War, the mentality of French leaders was different from that of the Iron Chancellor. The French foreign minister and his coworkers were certainly not reticent about their belligerent designs. And yet they were strangely unprepared when their neighbors launched the attack that the French and Russians had worked to provoke.

The War of the World: ... Niall Ferguson Best Price: $1.99 Buy New $11.89 (as of 09:25 EDT - Details) Let me close by mentioning those Anglophone historians who have influenced my own study of the First World War. Harry Elmer Barnes, Sidney Fay, and William Langer are the golden oldies whom I’ve studied over the years. And I’ve also learned much about this struggle from a zealous apologist for the Allied side Bernadotte E. Schmitt. Unlike the rabidly Germanophobic school of history whose rants I listened to as a graduate student, Schmitt and his mentor Luigi Albertini, who wrote in defense of the Italian participation in the War, provide useful information for researchers. Closer to the present and certainly of value are the works of Justus Doenecke, Paul Schroeder, Christopher Clark, Niall Ferguson, Jim Powell, and Hunt Tooley’s monograph on the staggering costs of the War. But not least of all among those I would commend as scholars on the Great War is someone who would be on this panel if he were still alive, Ralph Raico.

In two truly illuminating essays, one on the inflated reputation of Churchill as a statesman and the other on American involvement in World War One, Ralph made me keenly aware of the degree of finagling engaged in by the British government to draw the US into war. Ralph focused on the critical role played by the war party in the English cabinet between 1905 and 1914. He was among those honored few who (along with the historian Paul Schroeder) investigated the role played by British war-hawks in loosing the tide of war. Grey and his circle not only failed to alert Germany as to the true extent of their continental commitments. More importantly, the English war party, including Churchill, worked to encircle the Germans with armed hostile powers who were egged on with assurances of English support.

The charge that Germany was the unprovoked aggressor should have rung hollow by 1914, given the intrigues that had gone before. Of course, no one is denying that Germany’s catastrophic blunder furnished the casus belli. But as the historian Thucydides noted thousands of years ago, a true historical study examines the genesis of events. Such an account is not limited to the immediate causes of a war nor to the pretext or excuse “(prophasis)” that is given for one when it breaks out.

In my journey toward historical truth, Ralph played a critical role that I wish to acknowledge today. It is entirely fitting that our session be dedicated to this contentious, anti-establishment historian, who was for all of us on this panel a close friend. We are bestowing this honor on him despite the obvious fact that Ralph would not have wanted us to honor his achievement. One can almost hear him snarling somewhere in Heaven: “Hey, what the hell are those guys doing down there? Have they lost their minds? Just leave me alone to finish my cigarette!” But of course, we can’t observe this hypothetical command. Ralph was and is a looming presence in our lives.

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