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This Veterans Day, Why Preemptive War Saves Lives

A politically incorrect history lesson from World War I: the price of Kaiser Wilhelm II's cowardice.

David P. Goldman


November 10, 2013 - 6:55 pm
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The London Economist observes Remembrance Day under the headline, “Avoidable brutality,” citing a new book by Margaret MacMillan claiming that the whole horrible mess was the result of blunders. That also is the view of Sir John Keegan, who in his history of the First World War calls it a “tragic and unnecessary conflict.”

That is a contradiction in terms, for “tragic” implies necessity. MacMillan and Keegan, in my view, offer in place of hard analysis a Utopian rescue fantasy. The same Utopian view infects Western policy towards Iran. If only reasonable men could sit down and split the differences, there would be nothing to fight about. I do not believe this is always, or even often, the case. In the case of Iran, the West encounters a dying civilization with a death wish: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per female in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 at the moment, the fastest demographic decline ever recorded, which ensures societal collapse at the horizon of one generation. Iran is like a hostage-taking bank robber with a brain tumor. It has little to lose and can only be dissuaded from building nuclear weapons by force.

The flaws in Europe were fundamental, not arbitrary: Russia as an empire depended on Poland and other industrialized Eastern provinces for its tax base. The pull of the German cultural-economic sphere constantly threatened to dislodge the Eastern part of the Russian Empire from the center, which would have caused its economic collapse. That is why Russia sponsored pan-Slavic movements including the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. I listed the reasons for war some years ago (in an essay titled “In praise of preemptive war”) as follows:

1. With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 unless it fought soon.
2. Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
3. Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia.
4. Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, the Baltic states and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
5. England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.

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The Point to MacMillan's book (which you either didn't read or didn't understand) is that history isn't inevitable, especially in a case like World War I, which arguably led to its successor directly, therefore costing the world tens of millions of casualties, the holocaust, etc.

The idea that the Kaiser could have ended the war quickly by declaring war on France earlier is interesting, but military theorists have been going over the Schlieffen plan for years, and the conclusion is that the whole thing was probably unworkable in any case. The old man himself was 75 that year, and retired at the end of it...not exactly in the prime of life. The Brits would have joined the war on France's side the minute German troops crossed the borders into Belgium. Oh, and Schlieffen's plan called for fighting on both fronts, and famously couldn't be altered to avoid fighting on either, so half the German army would have been in Russia, fighting that country while it was occupied with Japan.
Counterfactuals are always interesting, and always dangerous. If you change one thing in history, there are so many moving parts that the next year is unrecognizable. Teddy R negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War...would he in this counterfactual? Would he have been able to prevent the Russians for sacrificing their fleet in the Far East? The lack of railroads would have made the Russian mobilization slower...but that would have just meant that German troops marched further into Russia, with poor logistic systems behind them...and no Tannenburg to thin out the Russian defenses. Italy conceivably could have stayed with the Central Powers, but if they had, they'd have been a very weak sister. That would have left the Austrians fighting only the Russians...but wait...would the various Balkan states have taken advantage of the hostilities, and tried to pry off pieces of Austria Hungary in the Balkans? Romania, perhaps, Serbia, etc? Would the Ottoman Turks have remained neutral?

It's a nice thought, but I don't think it stands up to prolonged scrutiny.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I believe that Mr. Goldman's argument here has some serious flaws. Britain had made it clear since long before Napoleon that threats to the balance of power in Europe were threats to Britain which it would not take lightly. And in 1902, Admiral John Fisher considered Germany to be a more likely enemy than France in the near future. This was a reasonable conclusion based on what was happening in Germany. And well before 1905, Britain had been openly moving towards friendlier relations with France. Edward VII was responsible for much of this, and he did much to promote the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France. Britain would not have stood idly by and let Germany become "the sole hegemon" on the continent. Although the British Army was small before WWI, Britain had showed in its wars with Napoleon how it could use its fleet to effect the state of things on the Continent in a major way. It also did that later on against the Kaiser's Germany.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
France was the only country that wanted war in 1900-14. The Germans were quite content with their territorial gains in the Wars of German unification. Austria only wanted to punish Serbia and Russia was just staggering along. However, the political culture of the time and the use of the Prussian reserve system created the tools for a prolonged war of attrition. Sorry, Keegan and MacMillian are correct. The war was fought for no good reason and all the bad things you cite that would have happened, happened in spades. Plus we got an even Communism, Nazism and a bigger war as a bonus.

What made WWI inevitable was not rational causes but technologically and military organization
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To be sure, although Kaiser Bill loathed his uncle Edward VII, he was also immensely jealous of him, not least due to the size of the British empire and its guarantor, the Royal Navy. At the same time, Kaiser Bill took a rather proprietary interest in Nicholas II, giving him all sorts of advice on how to rule, whom he should marry, etc. Without a doubt, these interpersonal relationships provided William with a source of great reluctance in going to war in 1914, let alone 1905. Perhaps a Bismarck could have settled things in Europe in 1905 with less bloodshed, but it appears that William's ministers on both occasions were too clumsy in their reckoning of the situation to direct the Kaiser to make the proper decision for the Reich.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
On the other hand there's a reason why some refer to WW I as "cousins at war."
1 year ago
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