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The Great War – Reflections on World War I

A book review by Hans Terpstra of ‘The Great War and the Twentieth Century’ edited by Jay Winter, Geoffrey Parker and Mary R. Habeck

Most of the eleven essays in this book, issued in 2000, originated in a series of lectures organized by the editors and delivered in 1994 at Yale University to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Leading experts on the Great War like Modris Eksteins, Holger Herwig, Michael Howard, John Horne and Zara Steiner discuss its causes, character and legacy. Not only the dissolution of the four defeated empires – Russia, Germany, Austria and Turkey – is being dealt with but also the collapse of the optimistic assumption of progress that had defined the nineteenth century. The book draws together military history, international history and cultural history to offer “a wide-ranging summary of current knowledge and debate regarding the First World War”. 

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German soldiers in the trenches (Flanders - Autumn 1916)

The book surveys in depth much modern scholarship about a variety of subjects directly related to World War I:

The Eastern Front; 
The politics of the Alliances; 
Technology in the First World War; 
Mobilizing economies for war; 
Labor and Labor movements; 
Imperialism and Decolonization; 
The peace and the international state system; 
Use and abuse of history and the Great War; 
The cultural legacy of the Great War 

Basic knowledge about history of the twentieth century is presumed; these essays cannot be considered as introductions to the history of the Great War. Moreover, the subjects covered by this book will not satisfy readers mainly interested in pure battlefield reports. Each essay contains an extensive list of notes referring to international literature and related sources.

Part I - The Framework; contents
The book begins with “Reconsidering the First World War” (stating that the name from a historical point of view is inaccurate) and of course the issue of responsibility for the war. The right questions should be: “was Germany set on a course that was bound to lead to armed conflict with its neighbors and did German leaders act in a way that they knew carried high risk of escalation into a European War and a world war?” It is explained that the answer to both questions is affirmative. One element of the explanation is that before 1914 the Germany government had been behaving in a manner that made war highly probable. Moreover, the war was for many influential German thinkers, the dawn of the long-awaited day when Germany could make evident its greatness as a world power.

In the essay regarding the Eastern Front, the key issues that are being elaborated are ‘reasons why Russia lost the war’, ‘comparing the Eastern and the Western Front’ and the ‘overall allied strategic coordination’.

Enormous military resources mostly explain the fact that the War was not over by Christmas 1914 and developed into an unmanageable stalemate between evenly matched opponents. Why could not diplomacy result in a breakthrough of the impasse? In the essay “Politics of the Alliances” the political interpretation of the nature of the conflict is being presented. It is emphasized that the durability of the alliance bonds on both sides is impressive: neither the stalemate nor the peace feelers of 1917 nor the entry of new entrants such as Japan and the Ottoman Empire restructured the international alignments established between 1879 and 1907. The allied coalition was robust while the war was in progress but the entry of the United States made Germany’s enemies less cohesive: Wilson influenced the then balance of power. It is being argued that this was one of the reasons that the entry of the United States prolonged the war! The second part of the title of the book comes back in this essay when the allied coalition of 1914-1919 is compared with the situation after World War II and with the Gulf War coalition of 1991. 

Part II - The Waging of War; contents
The First World War has often been characterized as “Materialschlacht”. New technology imprisoned soldiers in an inescapable environment. A key question in the essay about “Technology” is “How did soldiers come to an understanding of the process of new machinery getting the upper hand?” Studies of the effect of technology in this war have made clear that men went through many phases during their stay at he front, accepting and rejecting technology mainly based on the expectations they brought to the war and their personal experiences during combat. By placing the new machinery in familiar contexts, men found a way to live with the new technology by constructing a private language. Examples: soldiers transformed unknown terrors into sounds of animals and the official course for new recruits to the British Tank Corps taught that there was no “it” for tanks, only “he” or “she”.

A very special essay titled “Narrative and Identity at the Front” pays attention to, among other things, similarities and differences between Russian and French mutinies. Of course the differences proved far more significant than the similarities.

The issue of how the belligerents financed the war and the impacts on their national economies is treated in the essay “Mobilizing economies for war”. Prewar soldiers and statesmen refused to face economic mobilization. They were well aware of the profound dangers of a long war, and this was one of the roots of the short war illusion. Interestingly, there have been some recent arguments that the younger Moltke anticipated a long war and urged greater economic preparedness. (It is stated that for this reason Moltke removed the Netherlands from the neutral countries to be invaded so that Germany could receive some supplies from Dutch ports.) Both the Germans and the French were unwilling to tax their citizens, and they effectively promised to cover the costs of the war by winning it and making the enemy pay. The British were perhaps the most successful in financing their war costs with taxation and the British, unlike the Germans, had a banking community used to holding government debt. The German “model” intended to mobilize the population for war effort (the Auxiliary Service Law), is compared with that of the other warring nations. Also attention is paid to the consequences of this financial mobilization on the after war economy.

In the part about “Labor and Labor movements”, an analysis is given for the principal European countries, about the three key figures of World War I that affected organized labor and socialism and how labor’s responses in turn shaped the war. These factors are the outbreak of the war, the industrial war and national mobilization of what became a prolonged war of attrition. The industrial and related protests in various countries, in particular during the second half of the war, are explained in relation to the inflation erosion during the war and the extremely tight labor market. The roles of the unions in the warring nations with respect to readiness to collaborate with governments in anticipating conflicts and settling strikes, is analyzed.

Part III - The Shadow of War; contents
The essay “The War, Imperialism, and Decolonization” stars with a quotation of Lenin: “The First World War had been imperialistic on both sides”. Generally spoken, this is true. In 1914 the German objectives were not only continental: Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s last minute bid to secure British neutrality on July 29, 1914, already made it clear that Mittelafrika was still on the German agenda. The German territories in Africa and in the Pacific were occupied one by one, and it was clear from the start that they would not be returned. British and French ambitions were not limited to enemy positions. As part of their colonial planning both sides developed an amazing array for taking territory from each other (in Africa) as well from other allies and neutrals. Greediest of all were the Italians, who had been drawn into the war by Anglo-French promise of territory in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was no more or less than an attempt to divide after war influence in the Middle East between Britain and France. 

These Anglo-French ambitions in the Middle East were in conflict with the Wilsonian principles. The French ambassador in London tried to convince the British Foreign Secretary to settle all outstanding issues before the Peace Conference began: “so that President Wilson would find himself face to face with a united opposition and an accomplished fact” To reinforce his argument the ambassador “even raised the specter of a future war that would pit Britain and France against the combined might of the United States and Germany!” But the British would have none of this. 

Some historians consider the end of the First World War as the beginning of the European decolonization even if its effect would not be felt for several years. Two reasons are mentioned: the French as well as the British mobilized lots of resources from their colonies but this affected their imperial policies. The colonial rulers were forced more to rely on persuasion and to offer their subjects rewards for continued loyalty: reforms and much more to come. The second reason is that the expansion of the British Empire by new mandates and other forms of colonies, created an Imperial overreach resulting in important changes of the old colonial rules. French imperial overreach was not so dramatic but it took the French more time to manage its crises. 

The essay of Colonization ends with another quotation. Sarraut, the Third Republic’s longest serving minister of colonies, wrote in 1931: “ the war has dealt a terrible blow to the moral standing of a civilization which Europeans claimed to be superior, yet in whose name they spent more than four years savagely killing each other. Europe’s prestige, particularly in Asia, has been gravely compromised. It has long been a commonplace to contrast European greatness with Asian decadence. That contrast now seems reversed”. A decade later, as the Japanese overran Southeast Asia, Sarraut’s fear became reality.

In the essay The War, the Peace, and the International State System, the changes of the peace treaties of 1919 are, for a better understanding, viewed with long-ranged glasses. The conclusion is that the twenties represent a break in diplomatic practices. New issues (financial, social) and conference diplomacy, from which foreign ministers often were excluded at the cost of experts with their own communication channels, created a big difference with the prewar diplomacy. 

The lack of consensus what to do with Germany was critical in the subsequent undermining of the Treaty of Versailles. Revision of the treaty when it came after 1925 was too slow and piecemeal to suppress German nationalism or to strengthen the Weimar Republic sufficiently to weather the future economic storm. In contrast to Wilson’s revolutionary ideas about the future world order, his economic and financial preconceptions were highly traditional. The creditor position of the U.S. and its enhanced and commercial strength ruled out any return of the prewar situation whatever may have been the hope of the Bank of England. The U.S. took a crucial part in the reconstruction of the global trading and financial system but Washington did not shoulder the financial burden of European reconstruction, as happened after World War II. 
Reparations emerged as the battleground for establishing the new European equilibrium. It was not the reparations as such that was the issue, “for many historians today argue that Germany could have afforded the total sum set in 1921 had her government agreed to pay!” The struggle between France and Germany over payment emerged as the chief bone of contention in the French-German struggle for political and economic dominance in Europe. It marked, in short, the continuation of war by other means.

The Soviet impact was less damaging than the peacemakers feared. With the suppression of the Spartacists in January and the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919, the German temperature chart began to dip. The Rapallo treaty, concluded in 1922 by Germany and the Soviet Union in which Germany recognized the Soviet Union, nourished Anglo-French fears of a German-Russian partnership. In 1925 the Locarno treaties were seen as a way to detach Germany from the Soviet Union.
Finally, the peace settlements and the changes that followed the Great War are compared to those of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

In the essay “Of Men and Myths, The use and Abuse of History and the Great War” five instances are given of historical pollution and mythmaking. Some are well known but some interesting details have been added. 

  During many decades almost all writers deemed Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian-Hungarian chief of the General Staff in 1914, “the best strategic among the Central Powers”. With regard to the mobilization of 1914, the prevailing view has been for a long time that Conrad was caught by a terrible dilemma, whether to concentrate first again Russia or Serbia, and that he handled it about as well as could be expected. This mobilization myth was kept alive in the official history of the Great War. In 1993 the world finally received a detailed research book on Habsburg mobilization that debunked the “official” Conrad legend”.

  The German victory in 1914 in East Prussia did not take place in Tannenberg but nearby. Ludendorff transferred the victory to Tannenberg because of historical reasons. There, in July 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian force had dealt the Teutonic Knights a crushing defeat, ending Germanic eastward expansion.

  Casualty figures of Verdun 1916 became legendary. Various authors claim hundreds of thousands of losses per side; the book of Stokesbury reports 89,000 French poilus and 82,000 Landser died on Dead Man Hill only. In truth, the German Fifth Army, which fought the Battle of Verdun, reported 81,668(!?) men either killed or missing at Verdun.

  Of course, also here the issue is brought up of War guilt and War denial of July 1914. The author of this essay limits his contribution to the roles of Germany and Austria. The picture given of the formal archives in Berlin is remarkable. Already in early August 1914, Berlin published its account of the origins of the War but half of the documents were very obvious forgeries. By 1920 the Foreign Office had created a special War Guilt Section, whose job was threefold: to “order” and “cleanse” the Office’s records with regard to the origins of the war; to produce a massive documentary publication for the period 1871-1914 to show Germany’s peaceful policies; and to subsidize scholars, both at home and abroad, who were willing to distort the official German line for July 1914. The Foreign office used a number of prominent American historians to put its case before the scholarly community. The works of Barnes and Fay were translated into German, distributed for free and both authors were wined and dined in Berlin in the twenties. By contrast, Schmitt was considered by the Wilhelmstrasse as an “incorrigible” historian, his work was never translated and a proposed tour to Germany was rejected. Other incorrigible historians fared no better: Kantorowicz (1923) and in 1964(!), West German Foreign Minister rescinded travel funds to Fritz Fischer for a planned lecture tour in the United States. Both authors concluded after careful studies that responsibility for the war lay largely with the Central Powers.

Researchers did not find a single document in the Foreign Office Archives related to either German deliberations or to German-Austrian discussions at Potsdam on July 5th and 6th. For that reason, Holger Herwig, the author of this essay, undertook in 1993 a research trip to the Bavarian archives. Knowing that under the German Constitution the Federal Council needed Bavaria’s votes to gain the required two-thirds majority vote for war, and thus had to keep Munich in the picture, he combed the files of the Bavarian legation in Berlin. Indeed, Munich was kept in the loop:

  On July 9th , 1914, the Bavarians were informed that Berlin saw the moment as “very propitious for Vienna to launch a campaign of revenge against Serbia”.
  Nine days later Berlin instructed Munich that it fully backed Vienna’s decision “to use the favorable hour” to settle accounts in the Balkans.
  To confuse European capitals, Berlin informed Munich that it was sending Kaiser Wilhelm II on his annual Norwegian sailing trip and Generals von Moltke and von Falkenhayn on their yearly vacations. 

  Dolchstoss: The Granddaddy of Myths. Von Hindenburg’s testimony (under oath!) before the Reichstag’s Committee of Enquiry stated that neither the Kaiser, his government, nor the General Staff had wanted war in 1914. The German army was stabbed in the back by the home front in 1918. This gave official birth to the Dolchstoss legend. A year later von Hindenburg repeated the charge of domestic treason in his memoirs. (Herwich adds to this: “…the papers of von Hindenburg, which are still held by his grandson, were cleansed in the 1960s by a nationalist patriotic censor”).

In the last essay “The Cultural Legacy of the Great War”, Modris Eksteins argues that in the cultural domain Germany may be said to have won the war. Germany, the carrier of all the contradictions of “modernism”, understood as the explosion of the nineteenth-century belief in progress, conventional values, had to sign the Armistice and admit defeat. By contrast, Britain and France, the victors who wanted to preserve the nineteenth-century order, became, Eksteins claims, the ultimate losers. In this essay also the influence of the First World war on history is analyzed.

A lot of World War I books claim to cover the relations between the Great War and the events and changes of the twentieth century. Only a few books really do. This book, not in all essays easy to read, gives a number of excellent contributions for better understanding of the twentieth century and for further studies and debates. Several essays define parts of history still to be written.

Hans Terpstra - June, 2004.

The Great War and the Twentieth Century
Yale University Press - 2000; 356 p.

Want to know more about the Great War? See: 
The battle of Verdun - The greatest battle ever 
Great War Pictures - Archive of World War One Photos

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