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The Pity of War
By Niall Ferguson
(New York: Basic Books, 1999. Pp. 606. $30 cloth.)

Europe Sans War, 1914:

Kaiser Bill and John Bull As Co-Hegemons

by John H. Maurer

Editor’s Note:
Historiographical debate concerning the origins of the First World War has raged ever since the end of the twentieth-century’s most calamitous event. During most of the postwar era, including the World War II years, up to 1961, most historians accepted the orthodox interpretation that no single European power was solely responsible for starting the war. Ironically, it was a German historian, Fritz Fischer, who challenged the notion of collective responsibility with his highly controversial, Griff nach der Weltmacht (“Grab for world power”), which was later published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1967). Fischer argued that, eager to divert the German people’s attention away from domestic turmoil and determined to become the dominant European (and even global) power, Berlin initiated the war in 1914 and in the process embraced an expansionist agenda, which included territorial gains in central and eastern Europe.


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The anti-Fischer school, led by Gerhard Ritter, has dismissed the idea of an aggressive Germany bent on global hegemony as lacking in evidence. Berlin backed its Austrian ally and ended up fighting a defensive war, which it tried to prevent. While most historians today agree that Germany bears primary responsibility for the war, they disagree over the type of war Berlin intended to pursue (e.g., a defensive war to maintain Germany’s status as a major European power and to tilt the balance of power in its favor vs. an aggressive war for land in central and eastern Europe).

The role of nationalism, alliances, arms expenditures, militarism, and imperialism — while important in understanding the outbreak of the war — cannot themselves alone be blamed for producing our century’s most catastrophic chapter. (A good summary of the complex causes of World War I can be found in Frank McDonough’s The Origins of the First and Second World Wars, published in 1997.)

We hope our readers will find interesting Professor Maurer’s review of yet another serious, albeit controversial look at the origins of this great turning point in world history. (RMPlatt)

NAILL FERGUSON, A PROLIFIC OXFORD HISTORIAN and author of an acclaimed account of the Rothschild family, has written a provocative new study about the First World War, entitled The Pity of War. His goal is to explode what he views as some of the myths that have grown up about why the war occurred, how the major powers fought it, and what its consequences were. One great strength of Ferguson’s analysis is his willingness to tackle head-on some difficult questions about a conflict that was, in his view, far from inevitable. For Ferguson, there were no forces beyond the control of decision makers pushing them into the grisly war of attrition that destroyed the social and political fabric of nineteenth-century Europe and ushered in the horrors of the twentieth. Rather, those horrors were the result of bad policy and strategy choices made by the leaders of the great powers, especially in Germany and Great Britain. By highlighting history’s contingent nature, exploring in depth the realistic options open to decision makers at the time, and considering other paths that events might have taken, Ferguson has dramatically captured the ways in which leaders’ errors can ruin great countries.

The greatest weakness of Ferguson’s account, however, is that in his haste to demolish old myths he has erected new ones in their place. Consider his contention that Britain blundered by opposing Germany’s drive for European hegemony. British decision makers would have been far better advised, in Ferguson’s estimation, to avoid intervention in the conflagration that was emerging during the summer of 1914, even if their inaction ultimately meant German domination of the continent. “Had Britain stood aside . . . continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today.” (p. 460) This startling supposition of equivalence between Wilhelmine Germany and the Federal Republic is simply not credible, given the enormous differences between the two in terms of governmental system and political culture. Today’s Germany is a mature liberal democracy anchored in a security network made up of other democracies led by the United States. Imperial Germany strove for world power.

Ferguson’s aim, in essence, is to demonstrate that Britain need not have fought against Germany in 1914. He paints a decidedly rosy picture of what German hegemony in Europe would have looked like if Germany had defeated France and then Russia. “With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated Central Europe about which he could have found little to complain. And Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, forever waiting for capitalism to collapse — and forever disappointed.” (p. 460) To be sure, a twentieth century in which the likes of Hitler and Lenin played only bit parts on the historical stage would be far superior to the way history actually unfolded. But the best way to have avoided the rise of those megalomaniacal leaders, of course, would have been if Germany had not started a major war that decimated Europe. Germany’s failed bid for European hegemony helped unleash some of this century’s worst political pathologies.

To make his case, Ferguson conjures up an alternative, counterfactual history to show how much better off Britain would have been if it had not fought to stop Germany. Britain’s horrendous losses in World War I are indisputable. More than 700,000 British soldiers died on the Western Front fighting to roll back the German armies’ early gains in France and Belgium. These losses, along with those suffered during the Second World War, accelerated Britain’s decline as a world power. Britain might have remained a superpower, Ferguson contends, if it could have avoided these conflicts with Germany.

This thesis is akin to one advanced a few years ago by Alan Clark and John Charmley, who argued that Britain should have made peace with Hitler at some point during 1940-1, after the fall of France and before Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. By reaching an accommodation with Hitler, Britain ostensibly would have avoided the costly struggle to overthrow the Nazi regime, preserved the British Empire, and escaped the apparently dreadful fate of dependence on the United States. Not surprisingly, given the bestial nature of the Nazi regime, Clark and Charmley found few takers for their thesis.

Ferguson attempts to sidestep the problems with the Clark-Charmley thesis by presenting the Kaiser’s regime as one that Britain could have successfully appeased, and he presents a stern indictment against Britain’s leadership for not doing so: “It was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long and cost many more lives.” (p. 461) Britain’s leaders, then, were to blame for frustrating a quick victory by Germany, provoking a protracted slaughter, and accelerating their own country’s decline.

But Ferguson’s picture of German and British superpowers coexisting in peace and harmony glosses over some serious obstacles. One potential impediment to Ferguson’s Anglo-German condominium lies in the chronic problem of defining great powers’ spheres of influence, which Thucydides depicted in his classic study of the protracted struggle between ancient Athens and Sparta. Dividing Western Europe in a manner that would keep Britain secure from Germany would have been beset with a host of problems, any of which might have led to war. Could Britain be secure if France and the lowland countries were reduced to satellite states under German domination? And what would prevent Germany from undermining Britain’s imperial interests in other regions of the world?

There could be no guarantee that Germany, once dominant in its own sphere, would play the role of a satiated power. If German foreign policy behavior before 1914 is any guide, then it would seem more likely that Germany’s leaders would have mounted a strong challenge to Britain’s world position soon after they consolidated their hold on Europe. After unification in 1871, Germany for a time showed less interest in external affairs, but before long it was bullying France in Africa, and Russia in the Balkans and the Middle East. A German victory in a war against France and Russia would worry Britain for at least three reasons. For one, victory might vindicate the predatory foreign policies of the imperial regime and encourage more aggressive behavior in the future. Furthermore, a German superpower with a much-reduced military threat on its borders could build an even stronger navy and, in time, an air force that could threaten Britain anywhere. Britain would then need to marshal considerable resources to build up and maintain the sea, air, and land forces sufficient to face the German war machine. Third, with other powers defeated, Britain would stand virtually alone in Europe against Germany. One strategic advantage that Britain garnered by going to war in 1914 was the presence of allies that bore the brunt of the ground war against Germany for almost two years.

Britain’s leaders were well aware of the dangers that a German hegemon in Europe might pose to their country’s security, despite Ferguson’s contention to the contrary. During the Agadir Crisis of 1911, when British decision makers feared an imminent war between France and Germany, Winston Churchill was concerned that Berlin was stoking the crisis in an attempt to overturn the balance of power. Germany seemed poised to provoke a war with France over Morocco, swinging large German forces through Belgium in an attempt to win a quick victory over the French army. “It is not for Morocco, nor indeed for Belgium, that I [would] take part in this terrible business,” Churchill wrote the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. “One cause alone [could] justify our participation — to prevent France from being trampled down & looted by the Prussian junkers — a disaster ruinous to the world, & swiftly fatal to our country.”

What, then, could Britain have done to prevent Germany from dominating Europe — and yet avoid the heavy losses in two world wars? In theory, Britain needed more consciously to pursue a strategy aimed at deterring Germany from striking. A cold war, however onerous, would have had fewer costs than a hot one. Upsetting the strategic calculations of imperial Germany’s rulers, however, would not have been an easy task for Britain. Britain would have to have posed a credible threat to German success by means of peacetime military preparedness and a defensive alliance with France. Unfortunately, Britain’s Liberal government was incapable of taking such a determined stance.

During the July Crisis of 1914, the Liberal government could not even agree that it should deter a German offensive against France. What was needed at this critical juncture was an unequivocal statement from the government that Britain would fight if Germany launched an unprovoked attack on France. A hard-line foreign policy stance, similar to Lloyd George’s resolute declaration during the Agadir Crisis, might have induced Germany’s leaders to rethink their dangerous course. In 1914, however, the Liberal leadership was deeply divided as to the course of its foreign policy. The prime minister, H. H. Asquith, thought that the cabinet was “on the brink of a split.” He confided to his girlfriend Venetia Stanley: “I suppose a good part of our own party in the H[ouse] of Commons are for absolute non-interference at any price.” In other words, British Liberals wanted to do precisely what Ferguson thinks they should have done: stay out of the imminent war. While a tougher British foreign policy line might not have deterred the hawkish German political and military leaders, it would certainly have done no harm. The real pity was that Britain’s Liberals, struggling to reach a foreign policy consensus amongst themselves, let Germany’s leadership seize the initiative in the unfolding crisis and lost whatever opportunity that did exist to deter the onset of this terrible war.  

Republished with permission from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, PA.

John H. Maurer is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and an Associate Scholar of the FPRI.~ Ed.

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