I am firmly of the belief that history is to be studied in order to understand the essence of man’s collective social decisions so that we can learn vital lessons that can be applied in future scenarios to create more beneficial outcomes. With that in mind I watched Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War with a degree of horror, that a world class historian could present such an ill-interpreted and potentially dangerous thesis on such a vital event as WW1 shocked me to the core. The programme in the end was saved by the audience and a panel of historians who were less restrictedly informed and who in many areas effectively countered the misconceptions Mr. Ferguson presented. Strangely enough the producers of the programme may have done the viewers a great service by allowing NF to present such a poor and distorted case, and then allowing the reality of the situation to come through in the question and answer session.
One question that NF asked was, “Are we learning the right lessons from history?” A question very dear to my heart that encouraged me to write Breaking the Code of History and now my new work in progress The Road To Wars. The latter specifically deals with decades that preceded the inexorable military expansion of Germany up to 1914.
With the benefit of my research I thought it necessary to clarify and respond to a number of statements made by NF and I propose to do so in three separate sections.
- ‘The war came about due to a sudden collapse of a complex system that had two catalytic focal points, Belgium and Serbia. The war was in effect the product of small unnoticed war that escalated unexpectedly.’
- I would argue most strongly that wars are the confluences of forces and energy that require years of momentum before they result in conflict. Understanding well trodden paths to wars and their key milestones can alert societies to the increasing risks, and the significance of what appear to be small catalytic events that eventually trigger large scale war. The evidence that I published for the cycle of empires and specifically the Super Western Christian Empire, with it sub-empires of Britain, France ,Russia, and Germany views WW1 as a civil war within the super empire driven by Germany's demographic expansion seeking to challenge the old order as it sensed that Britain and France were moving into decline. Germany’s ultimate goal was to replace Britain as the world’s dominant power. This lead to decades of an arms race catalyzed by Germany forcing its neighbors to match where possible the obvious challenge and threat. Only when Germany felt that it was ready to make its military challenge did it finally precipitate the war it so long sought. Thus whilst it resisted a sequence of earlier flash-points such as Agadir in 1911 as an excuse to start a war, when the Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated it suited Germany’s purpose to let loose the dogs of war, and the only option left for its enemies was to choose how they responded.
- ‘That Germany was not the most militarized nation in Europe, France was.’
- This statement is grossly misleading as Germany had been outspending its neighbors for decades, and it was only in the last year before the war that the Entente finally woke up to the inevitability of the German threat and accelerated their own armaments programs to attempt to keep pace with Germany. By 1914 Germany had the largest and most effective army in Europe and also a navy second in size only to Great Britain (and only marginally smaller in terms of capital ships).
- ‘Germany had a strong anti-military element to its leadership.’
- Germany’s internal structures were hybrid between autocracy and constitutionalism. Whilst the German Empire was a federation, although one dominated by Prussia, whose king was also German Emperor, there was no imperial army. The Prussian General Staff became the sole strategic planning agency. The Chief of the General Staff reported to the Emperor and the head of the civilian government was also appointed by Wilhelm and did not need majority parliamentary approval. The Reichstag was split between catholic voters who backed the Centre Party, the Social Democratic Party and various small conservative groupings. The effectiveness of the parliamentary parties was further diluted by class and regional conflicts. Power was exercised by the CGS and the Chancellor who both did the Kaiser’s bidding. There was no anti-military element in this power structure.
- ‘The Germans were driven by a fear of Russia building its armed forces.’
- Naturally Germany was aware of being bordered by two enemies, France to the west and Russia to the east, and it feared Russian military growth. However in 1914 (and especially following Russia’s humiliating defeat at Tannenberg )and even by 1917 the Russia military was still a long way off from being an effective threat to Germany and its well founded industrial complex strong enough to support a modern army. The reality is the Kaiser and his army had a clear long-stated purpose to turn Germany into the dominant empire of the world, and planned to achieve this by force of arms.
- ‘That Britain should have stayed out of the war in 1914 , and waited to see what would have happened, and could have fought it on her own better prepared at a later date. It was a great mistake driven by politicians with their own self serving priorities?’
- Britain's long term foreign policy in Europe was always to create an alliance against the strongest individual power, to create a balance of power primarily with British wealth rather than large scale continental military intervention. Initially it had done this against Spain and then France, but in 1906 it made Germany the object of the policy and joined forces with France to do so. Thus not to have acted in August 1914 would have been to disregard well over two centuries of effective British foreign policy.
- If Britain had not decided to fight, the battle of Mons would not have delayed the German advance for the critical days, and there is every chance that the Germans would have reached Paris and France surrendered with the ‘miracle on the Marne’ never taking place. In which case as per the Von Schlieffen plan, the full might of the 2nd Reich would have fallen on the poorly equipped Russian army leading to its inevitable defeat (again). At that moment Napoleon’s vision of a single ruler over the European continent would have come to fruition. Germany would have no doubt at that stage paused and fully digested its conquest, integrating its resources into an expanding war machine as it prepared to attack Britain. An onslaught that Britain would most probably have not won.
- Notably by the time war was declared by Britain the various perspectives had coalesced into almost unanimous support, in the cabinet, in the house and amongst the population of Britain that war should be declared. Thus Britain went to war united in a common cause.
- ‘If Britain had stood back, and as proposed by NF this would have allowed it to build up its land forces and prevent the great loss of life in the Somme and similar battles of 1916 onwards.’
- Although the British Army has historically (with a few exceptions) been highly capable it was never designed to be a large scale army due to the demographic limitations of Britain. Instead it was designed to be deployed overseas in colonial wars. WW1 represents a paradigm change at a critical point in weapons technology, and without such combat experience with radically improved weaponry, it is impossible to contemplate that the army could have become fully effective to evolve into the final capability of 1918 that was able to bring the Germans to a halt. Ultimately it is highly doubtful if such a strategy would have been successful.
- ‘Britain could have lived with a German victory in the First World War’
- The view that Germany was not to be feared as it was benign, and any government post-victory over France would have been moderate can be clearly contested by the very character of German colonial rule. Furthermore, its brutal treatment of the peoples in occupied territories in western Europe i.e. France and Belgium and in Russia.
- ‘All parties acted out of weakness which caused the war?’
- No. Germany acted out of misplaced confidence in its strength fueled by aggression and nationalism. France acted because she had no choice and Britain because the only correct strategic choice was to support the alliance with France and Russia.