to World War I
by Ralph Raico: Arthur
Ekirch on American Militarism
is excerpted from chapter 1 of Great
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal (2010). This
chapter is a much expanded version of an essay that originally appeared
Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories (2001).
World War mankind got into a crisis with which nothing that
happened before in history can be compared.... In the world
crisis whose beginning we are experiencing, all peoples of the
world are involved.... War has become more fearful because it
is waged with all the means of the highly developed technique
that the free economy has created.... Never was the individual
more tyrannized than since the outbreak of the World War and
especially of the world revolution. One cannot escape the police
and administrative technique of the present day.
von Mises (1919)
World War is the turning point of the 20th century. Had the war
not occurred, the Prussian Hohenzollerns would most probably have
remained heads of Germany, with their panoply of subordinate kings
and nobility in charge of the lesser German states. Whatever gains
Hitler might have scored in the Reichstag elections, could he
have erected his totalitarian, exterminationist dictatorship in
the midst of this powerful aristocratic superstructure? Highly
unlikely. In Russia, Lenin's few thousand Communist revolutionaries
confronted the immense Imperial Russian Army, the largest in the
world. For Lenin to have any chance to succeed, that great army
had first to be pulverized, which is what the Germans did. So,
a 20th century without the Great War might well have meant a century
without Nazis or Communists. Imagine that. It was also a turning
point in the history of our American nation, which under the leadership
of Woodrow Wilson developed into something radically different
from what it had been before. Thus, the importance of the origins
of that war, its course, and its aftermath.
In 1919, when
the carnage at the fronts was at long last over, the victors gathered
in Paris to concoct a series of peace treaties. Eventually, these
were duly signed by the representatives of four of the five vanquished
nations, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria (the final settlement
with Turkey came in 1923), each at one of the palaces in the vicinity.
The signing of the most important one, the treaty with Germany,
took place at the great Palace of Versailles. Article 231 of the
Treaty of Versailles reads:
and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility
of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage
to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals
have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon
them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
It was unprecedented
in the history of peace negotiations that those who lost a war
should have to admit their guilt for starting it. The fact that
the "war-guilt clause" implied German liability for unstated but
huge reparations added fuel to the controversy over who was to
blame for the outbreak of the war. This immediately became, and
has remained, one of the most disputed questions in all of historical
writing. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they gleefully opened
the Tsarist archives, publishing documents that included some
of the secret treaties of the Entente powers to divide up the
spoils after the war was over. Their purpose was to embarrass
the sanctimonious "capitalist" governments, which had insisted
on the virgin purity of their cause. This move contributed to
other nations making public many of their own documents at an
earlier point than might have been expected.
In the interwar
period, a consensus developed among scholars that the war-guilt
clause of the Versailles Treaty was historically worthless. Probably
the most respected interpretation was that of Sidney Fay, who apportioned
major responsibility among Austria, Russia, Serbia, and Germany.
In 1952, a committee of prominent French and German historians concluded:
do not permit any attributing, to any government or nation,
a premeditated desire for European war in 1914. Distrust was
at its highest, and leading groups were dominated by the thought
that war was inevitable; everyone thought that the other side
was contemplating aggression....
was shaken in 1961 with the publication of Fritz Fischer's Griff
nach der Weltmacht ("Grab for World Power"). In the final formulation
of this interpretation, Fischer and the scholars who followed him
maintained that in 1914 the German government deliberately ignited
a European war in order to impose its hegemony over Europe.
(Would that all historians were as cynical regarding the motives
of their own states.) The researches of the Fischer school forced
certain minor revisions in the earlier generally accepted view.
But the historiographical
pendulum has now swung much too far in the Fischer direction.
Foreign historians have tended to accept his analysis wholesale,
perhaps because it fit their "image of German history, determined
largely by the experience of Hitler's Germany and the Second World
editors of an American reference work on World War I, for example,
state outright that "Kaiser and [the German] Foreign Office ...
along with the General Staff ... purposely used the crisis [caused
by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand] to bring about a general
European war. Truth is simple, refreshingly simple."
not so simple. Fritz Stern warned that while the legend propagated
in the interwar period by some nationalistic German historians of
their government's total innocence "has been effectively exploded,
in some quarters there is a tendency to create a legend in reverse
by suggesting Germany's sole guilt, and thus to perpetuate the legend
in a different form."
of the First World War reach back to the last decades of the 19th
France's defeat by Prussia, the emergence in 1871 of a great German
Empire dramatically altered the balance of forces in Europe. For
centuries the German lands had served as a battlefield for the
European powers, who exploited the disunity of the territory for
their own aggrandizement. Now the political skills of the Prussian
minister Otto von Bismarck and the might of the Prussian army
had created what was clearly the leading continental power, extending
from the French to the Russian borders and from the Baltic to
One of the
main concerns of Bismarck, who served as Prussian minister and
German Chancellor for another two decades, was to preserve the
newfound unity of the this, the Second Reich. Above all, war had
to be avoided. The Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian
War compelled France to cede Alsace and half of Lorraine, a loss
the French would not permanently resign themselves to. In order
to isolate France, Bismarck contrived a system of defensive treaties
with Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, insuring that France
could find no partner for an attack on Germany.
In 1890, the
old Chancellor was dismissed by the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II. In the
same year, Russia was suddenly freed of the connection with Germany
by the expiration and non-renewal of the "Reinsurance Treaty." Diplomatic
moves began in Paris to win over Russia to an alliance which could
be used to further French purposes, defensive and possibly offensive
Negotiations between the civilian and military leaders of the two
countries produced, in 1894, a Franco-Russian military treaty, which
remained in effect through the onset of the First World War. At
this time it was understood, as General Boisdeffre told Tsar Alexander
III, that "mobilization means war." Even a partial mobilization
by Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Italy was to be answered by a total
mobilization of France and Russia and the inauguration of hostilities
against all three members of the Triple Alliance.
In the years
that followed, French diplomacy continued to be, as Laurence Lafore
put it, "dazzlingly brilliant."
The Germans, in contrast, stumbled from one blunder to another;
the worst of these was the initiation of a naval arms race with
Britain. When the latter finally decided to abandon its traditional
aversion to peacetime entanglements with other powers, the French
devised an Entente cordiale, or "cordial understanding,"
between the two nations. In 1907, with France's friendly encouragement,
England and Russia resolved various points of contention, and
a Triple Entente came into existence, confronting the Triple Alliance.
The two combinations
differed greatly in strength and cohesion, however. Britain, France,
and Russia were world powers. But Austria and Italy were the weakest
of the European powers; moreover, Italy's unreliability as an
ally was notorious, while Austria-Hungary, composed of numerous
feuding nationalities, was held together only by allegiance to
the ancient Habsburg dynasty. In an age of rampant nationalism,
this allegiance was wearing thin in places, especially among Austria's
Serb subjects. Many of these felt a greater attachment to the
Kingdom of Serbia, where, in turn, fervent nationalists looked
forward to the creation of a Greater Serbia, or perhaps even a
kingdom of all the South Slavs a "Yugoslavia."
A series of
crises in the years leading up to 1914 solidified the Triple Entente
to the point where the Germans felt they faced "encirclement" by
superior forces. In 1911, when France moved to complete its subjugation
of Morocco, Germany forcefully objected. The ensuing crisis revealed
how close together Britain and France had come, as their military
chiefs discussed sending a British expeditionary force across the
Channel in case of war.
In 1913, a secret naval agreement provided that, in the event of
hostilities, the Royal Navy would assume responsibility for protecting
the French Channel coast while the French stood guard in the Mediterranean.
"The Anglo-French entente was now virtually a military alliance."
In democratic Britain, all of this took place without the knowledge
of the people, Parliament, or even most of the Cabinet.
over Morocco was settled by a transfer of African territory to Germany,
demonstrating that colonial rivalries, though they produced tensions,
were not central enough to lead to war among the powers. But the
French move into Morocco set into motion a series of events that
brought on war in the Balkans, and then the Great War. According
to a previous agreement, if France took over Morocco, Italy had
the right to occupy what is today Libya, at the time a possession
of the Ottoman Turks. Italy declared war on Turkey, and the Italian
victory roused the appetite of the small Balkan states for what
remained of Turkey's European holdings.
after being thwarted in the Far East by Japan in the war of 19045,
had great ambitions in the Balkans. Nicholas Hartwig, Russia's
highly influential ambassador to Serbia, was an extreme Pan-Slavist,
that is, an adherent of the movement to unite the Slavic peoples
under Russian leadership. Hartwig orchestrated the formation of
the Balkan League, and, in 1912, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria,
and Greece declared war on Turkey. When Bulgaria claimed the lion's
share of the spoils, its erstwhile allies, joined by Romania and
Turkey itself, fell upon Bulgaria the next year, in the Second
caused great anxiety in Europe, particularly in Austria, which feared
the enlargement of Serbia backed by Russia. In Vienna, the head
of the army, Conrad, pushed for a preventive war, but was overruled
by the old Emperor, Franz Josef. Serbia emerged from the Balkan
conflicts not only with a greatly expanded territory, but also animated
by a vaulting nationalism, which Russia was happy to egg on. Sazonov,
the Russian Foreign Minister wrote to Hartwig: "Serbia's promised
land lies in the territory of present-day Hungary," and instructed
him to help prepare the Serbians for "the future inevitable struggle."
By the spring of 1914, the Russians were arranging for another Balkan
League, under Russian direction. They received the strong support
of France, whose new President, Raymond Poincaré, born in
Lorraine, was himself an aggressive nationalist. It was estimated
that the new league, headed by Serbia, might provide as many as
a million men on Austria's southern flank, wrecking the military
plans of the Central Powers.
buildup was commensurate with its ambitions. Norman Stone has written,
of Russia on the eve of the Great War:
contained 114½ infantry divisions to Germany's 96, and
contained 6,720 mobile guns to the Germans' 6,004. Strategic
railway-building was such that by 1917 Russia would be able
to send nearly a hundred divisions for war with the Central
Powers within eighteen days of mobilization only three
days behind Germany in overall readiness. Similarly, Russia
became, once more, an important naval power ... by 191314
she was spending £24,000,000 to the Germans' £23,000,000.
And this is
not even to count France.
program underway called for even more imposing forces by 1917,
when they might well be needed: "Plans were going ahead for seizure
by naval coup of Constantinople and the Straits, and a naval convention
with Great Britain allowed for co-operation in the Baltic against
Germany as an inevitable enemy, because Germany would never consent
to Russian seizure of the Straits or to the Russian-led creation
of a Balkans front whose object was the demise of Austria-Hungary.
The Habsburg monarchy was Germany's last dependable ally, and
its disintegration into a collection of small, mostly Slavic states
would open up Germany's southern front to attack. Germany would
be placed in a militarily impossible situation, at the mercy of
its continental foes. Austria-Hungary had to be preserved at all
come to such a pass that Colonel Edward House, Woodrow Wilson's
confidant, traveling in Europe to gather information for the President,
reported in May, 1914:
is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad.... There is
too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents,
France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.
Ludwig von Mises, Nation,
State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of
Our Time, Leland B. Yeager, trans. (New York: New York University
Press, 1983), pp. 21516.
Alan Sharp, The
Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919 (New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 87. The Allied Covering Letter of
June 16, 1919 filled in the indictment, accusing Germany of having
deliberately unleashed the Great War in order to subjugate Europe,
"the greatest crime" ever committed by a supposedly civilized nation.
Karl Dietrich Erdmann, "War Guilt 1914 Reconsidered: A Balance of
New Research," in H. W. Koch, ed., The
Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalries and German
War Aims, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 342.
Sidney B. Fay, The
Origins of the World War, 2 vols. (New York: Free Press,
Joachim Remak, The
Origins of World War I, 18711914, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth,
Tex.: Harcourt, Brace, 1995), p. 131.
See Fritz Fischer, Germany's
Aims in the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967
); idem, War
of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914 (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1975 ), Marian Jackson, trans.; Imanuel Geiss,
1914: The Outbreak of the First World War, Selected Documents
(New York: Charles Scribner's, 1967 ); and idem, German
Foreign Policy, 18711914 (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1975). The work by John W. Langdon, July
1914: The Long Debate, 19181990 (New York: Berg, 1991)
is a useful historiographical survey, from a Fischerite viewpoint.
H. W. Koch, "Introduction," in idem, Origins, p. 11.
Holger H. Herwig and Neil M. Heyman, eds., Biographical
Dictionary of World War I (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press,
1982), p. 10.
Fritz Stern, "Bethmann Hollweg and the War: The Limits of Responsibility,"
in Leonard Krieger and Fritz Stern, eds., The
Responsibility of Power: Historical Essays in Honor of Hajo Holborn
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), p. 254. Cf. H. W. Koch, "Introduction,"
p. 9: Fischer "ignores the fundamental readiness of the other European
Powers to go to war, but also their excessive war aims which made
any form of negotiated peace impossible. What is missing is the
comparative yardstick and method." Also Laurence Lafore, The
Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I,
2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1971), p. 22: "Fischer's
treatment is very narrowly on the German side of things, and a wider
survey indicates clearly that the Germans were by no means the only
people who were prepared to risk a war and who had expansionist
programs in their minds."
The following discussion draws on Luigi Albertini, The
Origins of the War of 1914, Isabella M. Massey, trans. (Westport,
Conn: Greenwood, 1980 ), 3 vols.; L. C. F. Turner, Origins
of the First World War (New York: Norton, 1970); James Joll,
Origins of the First World War, 2nd ed. (Longman: London,
1992); Remak, Origins; and Lafore, The Long Fuse, among other
George F. Kennan, The
Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World
War (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 30.
Ibid., pp. 24752.
Lafore, The Long Fuse, p. 134.
In February, 1912, the chief of the French Army, Joffre, stated:
"All the arrangements for the English landing are made, down
to the smallest detail so that the English Army can take part
in the first big battle." Turner, Origins, pp. 3031.
Ibid., p. 25.
Albertini, Origins, vol. 1, p. 486.
Egmont Zechlin, "July 1914: Reply to a Polemic," in Koch, Origins,
Hew Strachan, The First World War, vol. 1, To Arms
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 30, 63: "In the
summer [of 1913] the French government intervened in Russian
negotiations on the French stock market for a loan to finance
railway construction. The French objective was to bring pressure
to bear on the speed of Russian mobilization, so as to coordinate
mutually supporting attacks on Germany from east and west...."
"By 1914, French loans had enabled the construction of strategic
railways so that Russian mobilization could be accelerated and
the first troops be into battle within fifteen days."
Norman Stone, The
Eastern Front, 19141917 (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1975), p. 18.
Charles Seymour, ed., The
Intimate Papers of Colonel House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1926), vol. 1, p. 249.
Raico [send him mail] is Professor
Emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College is a senior
fellow of the Mises Institute. He is a specialist on the history
of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship
between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The
Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville,
and Lord Acton. His latest book is Great
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. You can study
the history of civilization under his guidance here: MP3-CD
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.
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