In August 1914, the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their lesser allies—went to war against Russia, France, Great Britain, and their lesser allies. The Great War, as contemporaries called it, World War I to those who lived through its horrible successor a few decades later, raged for more than four years, doing awful damage. Battle casualties alone mounted to 4 million dead and 8.3 million wounded among the Central Powers and 5.4 million dead and 7 million wounded among their opponents, while further millions of civilians died, either from the war itself or from causes arising out of it.
Among the casualties, too, were the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish empires. America’s saving intervention in 1917 thrust the United States into European affairs with a vengeance, while the collapse of the Russian autocracy served as a prelude to the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of a great Communist state. Disappointment, resentment, and economic dislocations caused by the war brought forms of fascism to Italy, Germany, and other countries. In many places, comfortable 19th-century assumptions of inevitable progress based on reason, science and technology, individual freedom, democracy, and free enterprise gave way to cynicism, nihilism, dictatorship, statism, and class warfare.
As it is widely agreed that World War I was the mother not only of World War II but of most of the horrors of the rest of our century, it is no surprise that historians have sought ever since to learn the lessons of this fearful catastrophe, and especially of its causes. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War1 is a most interesting contribution to the discussion. A fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, Ferguson, who is in his mid-thirties, has already written a weighty volume in his special field of economic history as well as an even longer but more popular work on the House of Rothschild. These, together with his many contributions to the press and his appearances on radio and television, have earned him a reputation (in the words of a New York Times profile) as “the most talked-about British historian of his generation.”
The Pity of War will enhance that reputation. A very ambitious book, grounded in a full grasp of the vast scholarship on the subject, it offers many bright ideas and valuable information, and sheds much light on a number of central topics. Among these, the most important concern the two linked questions of how World War I came about and how and whether it might have been averted. But before turning to them I want to look briefly at Ferguson’s discussion of two other topics: why the war went on as long as it did, and how and why it ended.
In so doing, I am following Ferguson’s own style and method in this book. Instead of presenting a narrative account of his subject, allowing interpretation to emerge from the march of events, in the manner of most historians over the centuries, he prefers an approach shaped more by the social sciences: identifying particular questions that have provoked argument over the years and setting out to answer them as directly and fully as possible. This method has both advantages and disadvantages. The gains are in focus and intensity; the losses are in context and perspective.
Why, then, did the war last so long? Was it because of popular enthusiasm at home, as is widely believed? Although granting that many people were indeed excited by the clash of arms, at least at first, Ferguson answers in the negative. Well, then, “did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going”? On balance, again, the answer is no. Instead, we must look to the battlefield itself and ask a different sort of question: “Why did men keep fighting when, as the war poets tell us, conditions . . . were so wretched?”
To this question Ferguson gives a complicated reply. Discounting the significance of military discipline and/or coercion, and discounting as well the belief of soldiers on both sides in the rightness of their country’s cause, he dwells instead on an insight of Freud’s: that war “strips us of the later accretions of civilization and lays bare the primal man in each of us.” “The crucial point,” Ferguson writes, “is that men fought because they did not mind fighting. . . . For most soldiers, to kill and risk being killed was much less intolerable than we today generally assume.”
A similar point about men at war was made long ago by Thucydides, and there is surely something to it. But as a generalization it is much too broad. All soldiers, presumably, have the same innate instincts, but some armies fight long and hard while others yield quickly. The real question is, why did the Allied soldiers on the Western front not yield to superior German force?
Here we come upon one of the serious limitations of this book—namely, that for the most part it is yet another study of the Great War from the British perspective, with considerable attention to the German enemy and some to the French ally but with little to the Austrians or Russians and with almost nothing being said about the Balkans or about the fighting outside Europe. The plain fact is that, in the trenches on the Western Front, which is where the British fought and where Ferguson’s main interest lies, the war imposed special conditions. In that constrained context, the prospects of desertion were almost nil, and mutinies could be readily suppressed. In short, it was very hard for those men not to keep fighting.
But there is another “important cement” of soldierly motivation that Ferguson mentions only in passing—namely, “comradeship at the level of the unit.” Modern studies indicate that this bond is, in fact, decisive for cohesion and military effectiveness. It clearly operated at a very high level in the trenches of France, though Ferguson does not investigate how or why, let alone how similar bonds worked or failed to work in the armies on other, less stable fronts.
Turning from the realm of human motivation to that of large institutional forces, Ferguson asks another and more illuminating question about the war’s longevity: why was the enormous economic superiority of the British empire unable to bring about a swifter victory, thus avoiding the need for American intervention? Because, his answer runs, the Allies waged war inefficiently. The British sent too many skilled workers to be killed in the fighting, thus robbing domestic industry of crucial manpower, while British labor unions forced higher wages for factory work than was justified by productivity, and strikes imposed devastating losses in work days. He contrasts this with the economic situation in Germany, where, though food and money shortages were unpleasant facts of life, the war continued to be conducted with relative efficiency.
This is the sort of issue on which Ferguson’s expertise in economics serves him well—as it does again (to digress for a moment) on the issue of the war’s aftermath.
Ever since the signing of the Versailles treaty, a confluence of opinion has managed to convince almost everybody that the terms imposed on the defeated Germany were unjust, punitive to the point of being “Punic” and hence a major cause of the rise of Hitler and the failure of peace. As against this, Ferguson summarizes and fortifies the work of a number of historians in the last two decades who argue entirely to the contrary.
The peace terms, he shows, “were not unprecedented in their harshness,” and the reparations payments assigned to Germany were far from intolerable. In fact, “the Germans received at least as much in the form of loans from abroad that were never repaid as they themselves paid in reparations,” and during the Depression in the early 1930’s they “were more successful than any other country in defaulting on their debts, including the reparations demanded from them by the Allies.” In sum, the problem with Versailles in the economic sphere was not that it was too harsh but that “the Allies failed to enforce it.”
But to return to the war and its duration: if the German economy behaved tolerably well, and if, as Ferguson also argues, the German army was clearly the superior fighting force, killing and putting out of action many more men than it lost, why did the Allies prevail?
Of one thing he is quite sure: “It was not the Allied tactical superiority which ended the war”—not improvements in battlefield techniques, not the introduction of the tank or its combination with airplanes and infantry, and not the arrival of American troops. Rather, “it was a crisis of German morale. . . . It was those Germans who elected to surrender—or to desert, shirk, or strike—who ended the war.” And why did German morale crack? Not because of the failure of the famed Michael offensive launched in March 1918, or the devastating German rout at Amiens on August 8, which represented “the greatest defeat the German army had suffered since the beginning of the war.” No, what made Amiens “truly black was the German High Command’s [i.e., General Ludendorff’s] admission of defeat,” an overreaction by an exhausted and sick man who wrongly “jumped to the conclusion that the army would collapse” if the fighting continued.
Hitler himself would later claim that the German army was not defeated in battle but stabbed in the back by subversive forces within Germany society. Ferguson’s belief is that the “fateful stab” was delivered by General Ludendorff, and it was a stab “in the German front, not the back.” But this fanciful interpretation misreads the military situation at the time, and it is not supported by evidence about the German commander’s mental or psychological condition.
The Michael offensive employed new tactics that had been carefully worked out in four years of trench warfare. It relied upon the use of specially selected men whose job was swiftly to bypass strong enemy positions and penetrate deep into Allied territory, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing retreat. The trouble was that, after a while, these attacks themselves ground to a halt, chewing up great numbers of soldiers, among them the best in the German army.
As if that were not bad enough, the Michael offensive left the Germans with no reserves either to resume the offensive or to sustain the “elastic” defense that had been developed by the German army. On the Allied side, in the meantime, the torrent of American soldiers arriving in 1918 provided a seemingly endless stream of reserves and permitted Ferdinand Foch, the new Allied supreme commander, to launch a series of attacks in different sectors, compelling the Germans to retreat or collapse. Nor was the Western the only front affected. By 1918, Allied forces in the Balkans were strong enough to attack Germany’s ally Bulgaria, thus forcing another ally, Turkey, to surrender and pressing on the Austrian frontier.
It was the collapse in the Balkans that finally caused the Germans to seek an armistice, but it was the failure of the German spring offensive, improved Allied tactics and equipment, and the arrival of the Americans that defeated the Germans on the battlefield. Any decisive stab, in back or front, was delivered neither (as Hitler would have it) by socialists, Jews, and traitors nor (as Ferguson would have it) by Ludendorff and the high command, but by the Allied armies. The boldest, healthiest, and strongest German commander imaginable would have sought a negotiated peace in the summer of 1918.
This brings us around to the really big issue, which is not how long the war lasted or how and why it ended but how it broke out in the first place. A fierce historical debate has raged around this question, to which Ferguson now adds his own very controversial reply.
Within years of the signing of the Versailles treaty, which placed full responsibility for the war and the damage it caused on the Central Powers, Germany’s new Weimar republic had launched a well-organized and largely covert effort to discredit Versailles altogether. The foreign office even established an entire subsection, the Kriegsschuld-referat, dedicated to disproving German accountability for the war.
This campaign fell on receptive ears in both England and the United States, where, for their own reasons, liberals had been complaining bitterly that the treaty betrayed the idealistic aims and principles professed by wartime Western leaders. Others, especially in Britain, went further: to those who had opposed entry into the war in the first place, the real causes of the conflict and the terrible destruction it engendered were to be sought in Western imperialism and militarism, in the Western alliance system and the habits of secret diplomacy, and in the greed of munitions makers (“merchants of death”) and bankers.
All of these views were adopted by revisionist historians in the interwar years. Their writings powerfully shaped educated opinion, strengthening the tendency toward appeasement in Great Britain and toward isolationism in the U.S. Not until the 1960’s, in the work of the German scholar Fritz Fischer and his followers (building on the magisterial work two decades earlier of the Italian historian Luigi Albertini) was this revisionist interpretation shaken and, finally, overthrown.
The consensus today is that the deeper causes of the war are to be seen in Germany’s ambitions to become the dominant force on the European continent and a world power equal to or greater than Britain. Hence the German decision to build a battleship navy strong enough at the very least to make the British stand aside while this vast change in the international balance of power was taking place. Instead, of course, the alarmed British undertook an expensive (and unwelcome) naval race in order to maintain their superiority at sea, and abandoned their cherished stance of “splendid isolation” to forge an alliance with Japan and a “Triple Entente” with France and Russia. In turn, this new international configuration caused Germany to fear that it was being “encircled” by jealous and hostile forces, leading to a new arms race and to the final crisis of July 1914.
Ferguson is fully aware of the latest historiographical developments. Along with most historians today, he rejects arguments for Germany’s innocence or, at most, co-equal responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. But he departs from the consensus in his explanation of why the Germans acted as they did in 1914. “The German decision to risk a European war in 1914 was not based on hubris” he writes; “there was no bid for world power. Rather, Germany’s leaders acted out of a sense of weakness.” In short, Ferguson believes, the Germans launched a preventive war, chiefly out of fear of an attack by Russia a few years into the future.
There is, however, no reason to credit this version of events. As D.C.B. Lieven, a leading historian of imperial Russia, has put it, Russia in those years “was a territorially satiated power,” and the Russian government faced serious internal troubles that threatened to bring disaster in case of war. Besides, if Russia were to attack Germany, “the self-regulating mechanisms of the balance of power would turn against her.” An unprovoked Russian aggression on Germany, that is, would have destroyed the Triple Entente, without which the Russians could not hope to win such a war.
All this was clear to the Germans. Their fear, which assuredly existed, arose from a different quarter: the prospect of a more powerful Russia, joining forces with France and possibly Britain, in a war provoked by Germany. The German determination to move up in the world by force and the threat of force—the “hubris” dismissed by Ferguson—is taken very seriously by most historians. There is a mountain of evidence to support it, not only in the record of German actions but in the myriad statements of German government and military leaders in and out of office, businessmen, industrialists, bankers, and publicists, as well as astute observers in other countries.
Here, from the turn of the century, is one such observer, not a suspicious Englishman, Frenchman, or Russian but the shrewd and experienced ambassador to Berlin of Germany’s chief ally, Austria-Hungary:
The leading German statesmen, and above all Kaiser Wilhelm, have looked into the distant future and are striving to make Germany’s already swiftly-growing position as a world power into a dominating one, reckoning hereby upon becoming the genial successor to England in this respect. . . . Germany is already preparing with speed and vigor for her self-appointed future mission. In this connection I may permit myself to refer to the constant concern for the growth of German naval forces.
To Ferguson, none of these “flights of fancy” (his term) should be taken at face value. The only real issue was the more modest one of a Mitteleuropa dominated by German power—and, he asks in all seriousness, would that have been so bad? Suppose Germany’s “first strike” in 1914 had been unopposed, and had indeed succeeded in establishing “German hegemony in Europe.” The results, Ferguson writes, would have been “a German-dominated European customs union” little different from the one developing peacefully in Europe today. For all the bluster about an empire of the German nation and of the German will to power—“not the way,” he cheerfully admits, “German politicians talk today”—the fact remains that “Germany’s European power was not one with which Britain, with her maritime empire, could not have lived.” But instead, heedlessly disregarding the promises of moderation made by Berlin at the height of the crisis in July 1914 (when the Germans were desperately trying to keep the British neutral), Britain plunged into war.
In the concluding section of this book, entitled “What If?,” Ferguson expands on the blessings that would have flowed if Britain had stood aside-even for a matter of weeks—from war. Not only would continental Europe have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today, but Britain itself would never have suffered the massive contraction in overseas power entailed by the fighting of not one but two world wars and by the loss of its financial prominence. Perhaps, too, the complete collapse of Russia into the horrors of civil war and Bolshevism might have been averted. There would have been no Hitler, no Lenin, no Holocaust, no Gulag.
No wonder, then, that Ferguson evaluates Britain’s decision to resist in 1914 as “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.” The only trouble is that to accept his interpretation requires that we ignore everything we know to the contrary, and that is a very great deal. It has been painstakingly documented by Fritz Fischer and others, and it was epitomized in the “September program” drawn up by the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, a month after war began in August 1914. In brief, Germany’s aim was to conquer and dominate the European continent from the English Channel to the Ukraine, to exploit its economic resources, and use it as a base for a world empire.
According to the detailed plans of the September program, for example, “France must be so weakened that it cannot rise again as a great power. Russia must be pushed back from the German frontier as far as possible, and its rule over the non-Russian peoples must be broken.” A preferential trade treaty would make France “our export land,” and the French would be required to pay an indemnity that would make it impossible for them to manufacture armaments for at least twenty years. Belgium would lose Liège, Verviers, and probably Antwerp, and would become a vassal state. Holland would be ostensibly independent, “but essentially subject to us.” Luxembourg would be incorporated directly into the German empire. Apart from these territorial provisions, but by no means less important, was the aim of establishing “mutual customs agreements” that would guarantee German economic domination of Europe.
Plans for the East were not yet formulated in such detail, but the ideas already being entertained by Bethmann-Hollweg and others led naturally to the settlement imposed on the new Bolshevik government of Russia by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. This deprived Russia of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and parts of the Caucasus.
Would the Germans have changed any of these plans in order to keep promises made to Britain in July 1914? Hardly likely. And we must remember that Bethmann-Hollweg was a moderate in the context of Wilhelmine Germany, and that his program fell short of the wishes not only of right-wing extremists, both civilian and military, but also of most intellectuals and political centrists. Had Britain been deterred by German promises, it would have ended up facing a Europe dominated by a single power far stronger and more dangerous than the Spain of Philip II or the France of Louis XIV, or even of Napoleon.
This power would have the greatest army the world had ever seen, unprecedented economic resources with which to build up its already formidable navy, and reserves of men the British could not hope to match. Not only would the new Germany have the capacity to exclude British trade from the continent, doing fearful damage to the British economy, it could even, if necessary, invade and subjugate the British Isles. A British leader willing to run the risk of such an eventuality would have been reckless beyond reason.
Niall Ferguson’s taste for “counterfactual” history, exemplified to such striking if misguided effect in the book’s concluding section, is one of the truly refreshing features of The Pity of War. A dozen years ago, in The Fall of the Athenian Empire, I defended my own practice of “comparing what took place with what might have happened had individuals or people taken different actions.” “There is no way,” I then asserted, “that the historian can judge that one action or policy was wise or foolish without saying, or implying, that it was better or worse than some other that might have been employed, which is, after all, ‘counterfactual history.’ ” I still hold these views, and yet I admit that there are real dangers in the practice.
One danger is that the path actually taken is known, warts and all, with all its negative consequences exposed, while the untaken path tends to be imagined in terms of an unlikely perfection of success and with no consideration of unpleasant outcomes. And that can happen even when the analysis is well founded. When it is not, the risk of counterfactual hypotheses going badly astray is only compounded. Ferguson’s speculations fail on both counts.
If the Germans had, as he argues, no “Napoleonic” plan for European conquest, and no designs against Britain, why, one wants to ask, did they launch a great naval race that lasted to the eve of the war? Why, in 1914, did they adopt the Schlieffen plan for a two-front war that would first defeat France and then assault Russia with full force, sticking to this plan in spite of the obvious risk that it would bring Britain into the war? Ferguson does not raise, let alone answer, these questions, leading a reader to the wholly implausible conclusion that the Germans must have been foolish or stupid. Nor does he ask why British leaders, for their part, so misjudged Germany’s moderate (to him) intentions. They, too, must have been foolish or stupid. Only Ferguson, in retrospect, has seen the situation clearly.
But let us suppose that contemporaries had it right about the menace from Germany. Perhaps Wilhelmine Germany was not just another European nation seeking to maintain its national interest or even to advance that interest by tolerable means. Perhaps it was a fundamentally dissatisfied power, eager to disrupt the status quo and to achieve expansionist goals, by war if necessary. If so, a different set of counterfactual speculations might be called for by the historian.
“What if,” for example, the British had faced the fact of Germany’s ambition and the threat it posed more squarely than they did? What if they had recognized that the only way to deter Germany, or defeat it quickly if deterrence failed, was not only to make firm alliances with France and Russia but to take the difficult and unwelcome step of instituting military conscription, which would have provided an army and reserves of such a size as to have made the Schlieffen plan a clear impossibility? Such an action might have averted the war and all its dreadful consequences more surely than standing aside in the hope that Germany would behave well. But it would also have required expense, sacrifice, and above all the facing of unpleasant reality.
Democratic, commercial nations, like Britain then and the United States today, typically resist the facing of reality for as long as they can—until, at last, they are driven to fight wars they have failed to deter and find it costly and difficult to win. Then, if they survive, they can count on revisionist historians to explain how they need never have fought at all, if only they had been more tolerant and understanding.
1 Basic Books, 520 pp., $30.00.