World War I
To the Editor:
Donald Kagan, in his article, “The First Revisionist Historian” [May], as well as in earlier pieces, especially “World War I, World War II, World War III” [March 1987], hammers home his thesis that the World War I revisionists were wrong, and that Germany and Austria were in fact the prime culprits in 1914. Mr. Kagan also scoffs at revisionist historians, without naming any, who have asserted that British and American “merchants of death” were primarily reponsible for the war.
I have been a student of the revisionists . . . since the late 1950′s and I have yet to uncover one guilty as charged. Sidney Fay, G. Lowes Dickenson, Walter Lippmann, John Maynard Keynes, Harry Elmer Barnes, and half-a-dozen others with whom I am familiar all pretty much maintain the same thing, i.e., that Russia and France were first and second in order of guilt for World War I. And George Kennan says or implies the same in his new book on the Franco-Russian alliance. Both France and Russia were revanchist, France toward Germany and Russia toward Austria-Hungary. Austria wanted a local punitive war but ardently hoped to limit it. Germany, England, and Italy were opposed to any kind of war after July 26, 1914, but were too dilatory to avert it.
The powers of the Entente, Britain, Russia, and France, said that the offense was Germany’s backing of Austria; the Germans said the offense was Russia’s backing of Serbia. Nearly all the revisionists have maintained that the German position was more reasonable, and that the Russians did not choose to localize the war. Only Serbia, Russia, and France wanted a generalized European war and worked to secure it. Russia mobilized not only along the Austrian border but along the German border, and Germany knew that under the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance mobilization meant war. France’s technical success in waiting until the declaration of war came from Germany does not alter the reality.
There were other causes of the war, conceded by almost all historians, such as British-German military and trade rivalry. . . . But Germany and Austria were essentially sated powers, more so than Russia and France.
Beverly C. Meyer
Walnut Creek, California
Donald Kagan writes:
Beverly C. Meyer’s complaint against my assignment of primary responsibility for World War I to Germany deserves a longer answer than I can give here. Fortunately, such answers have long been available to those who cared to follow the argument beyond the revisionist consensus formed in the 1930′s and ratified in the 1950′s. It was not necessary to wait for Fritz Fischer’s attack on the orthodoxy in the late 50′s and thereafter to discover the shabbiness of the case in defense of Germany. Luigi Albertini’s masterpiece in three large volumes filled with documents, interviews with participants, and hard, clear reason demolished the revisionist view when it was first published in the 1940′s (the English version appeared between 1952 and 1957). Since then the evidence and arguments produced by Fischer and his school have come to dominate the scene among professional historians in all countries. Whether one accepts the more extreme aspects of his interpretation that charges Germany with deliberately planning a war of conquest, or a milder version that accuses the Germans of launching a preventive war to forestall the threat of growing Russian power, or neither of these, there is a broad consensus that the chief responsibility for the war belongs to Germany.
Still, consensuses of experts have been wrong before, as, indeed, Albertini, Fischer, and I in my articles have argued. Let me list, therefore, some of the reasons for my opinion. If we begin with the crisis of July 1914 following the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, we find that Germany not only gave the Austrians a “blank check” to attack Serbia but actually pushed its hesitating ally forward. The Germans did so in full knowledge that such a war, which they hoped to isolate from the participation of the other great powers, could well bring a war with Russia and its ally France and more than likely involve England as well. They were, in spite of their deliberately deceptive denials, thoroughly informed about Austria’s plan to present demands to Serbia that amounted to an ultimatum and were specifically intended to be unacceptable. The Austrians had expected to delay a declaration of war until August 12, when their mobilization would be complete, but when the Serbian reply proved to be stunningly conciliatory, the Germans urged Austria to declare war at once to prevent other powers from intervening by proposing negotiations. When it became clear that Russia and its allies would not allow the Austrians to crush Serbia, Germany did not shrink from the consequences but refused all opportunities for conferences and negotiations. Thereafter, all conciliatory gestures from Germany were fraudulent, aiming to place the blame for the coming war on Russia and thereby to keep Britain out of it and to win internal support for it in Germany.
The chief argument clung to by the revisionists is that Russia was the first major power to mobilize and that mobilization was known to mean war, but that argument does not withstand scrutiny. German military leaders anxiously waited and hoped for the Russians to mobilize and give them an excuse to move. After the mobilization, the German Chancellor admitted that “although the Russian mobilization has been declared, its mobilization measures cannot be compared with those of the West European states. . . . Moreover, Russia does not intend to wage war, but has only been forced to take these measures because of Austria.” D.C.B. Lieven, a recent student of the Russian part in the coming of the war, points out that the Chancellor was preparing to send the Russians what amounted to an ultimatum even before he heard of the general mobilization, that the Russians would certainly have rejected it, and that war would have ensued. Few would disagree with his conclusion that “Study of the July crisis from the Russian standpoint indeed confirms the now generally accepted view that the major immediate responsibility for the outbreak of the war rested unequivocally on the German government” (Russia and the Origins of the First World War, London, 1983).
If we look beyond the July crisis to longer-range causes, the case against Germany seems no less clear. The formation of two sets of alliances that created the danger of a local conflict bursting into a major war was chiefly Germany’s doing. Its pursuit of economic and even political domination of Europe is well documented, and its achievement would require war with Russia and France. Its pursuit of a world policy required conflict with Britain, and its naval policy caused the British to join with their traditional enemies to meet the threat. Repeated British attempts at rapprochement were rejected because the Germans were unwilling to abandon the naval race and the threat it posed. No other nation had goals and policies incompatible with the peace of Europe. In the same way, only Germany had military plans that in themselves contributed to the outbreak and spread of war. It was the Schlieffen Plan that made mobilization mean war, made extended diplomacy and negotiation impossible, and guaranteed that Britain would be involved. In all major respects, therefore, Germany seems clearly to have been more responsible for the war than anyone else.
Beverly C. Meyer also says that I “scoff at revisionist historians,” without naming any, who have asserted that British and American “merchants of death” were primarily responsible for the war. Let me call attention to a book published in 1934 called, in fact, Merchants of Death, written by H.C. Englebrecht and F.C. Hanighen. It is full of statements blaming arms makers and the bankers that support them for war. Here is a sample:
. . . It is not contended here that the United States fought in the World War solely because of its armament makers and their financiers. There were many other factors in the situation. Yet the question of Hamilton Fish, Jr., is more pertinent than is generally admitted: “Is it not a fact that the World War was started by the shipment of munitions? . . . Was not the cause of the war our continual shipping of munitions abroad?” American commitments with the Allies were so enormous that only our entry into the war saved the country from economic collapse.
Arms makers were said to follow two axioms: “When there are wars, prolong them; when there is peace, disturb it.” The authors conclude as follows:
The skies are again overcast with lowering war clouds and the Four Horsemen are again getting ready to ride, leaving destruction, suffering, and death in their path. Wars are man-made, and peace, when it comes, will also be man-made. Surely the challenge of war and of the armament maker is one that no intelligent or civilized being can evade.
The book was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and it played a large part in establishing a Senate committee to investigate the munitions industry under the chairmanship of the arch-isolationist Gerald P. Nye. Merchants of Death benefited from a foreword by a well-known American historian who praised and recommended it. He agreed with the authors in genral, but emphasized that
even though the armament makers have played a prominent part in encouraging wars, rebellions, and border raids, they never exerted an influence upon the promotion of warfare as did our American bankers between 1914 and 1917. Through their pressure to put the United States into the War these bankers brought about results which have well-nigh wrecked the contemporary world.
Those words were written by Harry Elmer Barnes, one of the most influential of the American revisionists.