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History is too important to be left to the history professors

From Thomas Laqueur, the Helen Fawcett professor of history at the University of California, reviewing a book by Christopher Clark:

[As of 6 July 1914, the German] army made no plans for a general war; the kaiser believed the war would be localized. . . . A last small chance at least to contain a war came with Germany’s decision to force an ultimatum on Belgium [on 2 Aug] to allow it passage through its territory instead of just marching in . . .

Huh? Wait one second! It’s pretty funny there, the army invading a neutral country, if they had made no plans for a general war. Setting that aside, let’s review Laqueur’s options for Germany:

1. Force an ultimatum on Belgium (from a web search, I found the details where, among other things, the Germans charmingly offer “to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops”—but only on the condition that “Belgium adopts a friendly attitude.” I guess if you offer to invade a neutral country and they say no, you have no obligation to pay etc.).

2. Just march in.

What about this third option:

3. Don’t invade.

Considering what happened to Germany during the succeeding years, I don’t think option 3 sounds so unreasonable!

The weird thing about Laqueur’s review is that it goes on for many many paragraphs about Serbia (“If not quite a terror state, Serbia had close links to terrorism . . . The boundaries between official state policy, the army and clandestine terrorist cells were blurred at best . . .”, and four full paragraphs on the assassination in Sarajevo). And Belgium was . . . what, exactly? A neutral country bordering France, which was allied with Russia, which was allied with Serbia. OK, then. Let’s forget about war guilt and militarism and all the rest. Just from a simple decision of national interest, invading Belgium was bad bad news for Germany.

This point is not new to me, of course. Back in 1910 Norman Angell wrote a famous book on this called The Great Illusion. And I understand that a scholar such as Christopher Clark has read lots of primary sources, and perhaps no one in the German army considered option 3. But that was their problem, then. It really bothers me to see a historian write about this, and not even consider the option. I mean, if you think the only choices are (1) invade a neutral country (with ultimatum), or (2) invade a neutral country (without ultimatum), you’ve already lost.

P.S. I went to the trouble of checking Laqueur’s website and, although he is a professor of history, he does not seem to have published anything previously on World War 1 or German military policy or anything even close to these topics.

Which makes me wonder how he can be so sure that Clark’s book is “breathtakingly good . . . Clark’s narrative sophistication, his philosophical awareness and his almost preternatural command of his sources makes The Sleepwalkers an exemplary instance of how to navigate this tricky terrain. It is not only the best book on the origins of the First World War that I know but a brilliant and intellectually bracing model for the writing of history more generally.”

43 Comments

  1. So you mean to say history is too important to be left to uninformed, unrelated, or bad history professors, I presume?

  2. jonathan says:

    There’s a big leap from papers on specific subjects to overviews. For example, I really enjoyed William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire. Nicely written, terrific read. But if you dig into any of the subjects covered, you find lots of errors. Check his material about the Commune of Geneva and then look up research articles about it. You find Manchester essentially repeats a version that isn’t, well, it isn’t true. What exactly was true can’t be known – thus your blog and career – but it isn’t as the book says.

    It can be frustrating. What to make of a book about the atomic bomb that never references Leslie Groves’ own book? I have read numerous books about the end of WWII and yet there is Groves in his book relating how he made a list of targets with Secretary Stimson, who was a Japanophile (if that’s a word). The idea was a list would stop LeMay’s B-29’s from messing up “clean” targets where we could see if the A-bomb actually worked. When you read something like that and it isn’t in x or y book, neither included nor debunked, you have to wonder. (And the wonderful story of Stimson telling Groves about the importance of the Imperial legacy and Kyoto and Groves then realizing that Kyoto wasn’t on the A-bomb list … so he went back in – I think he found Stimson on the toilet – and they added it as the 4th target after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kokura, not to be bombed but preserved.) Is it sloppiness or bias? Is it story telling? Is it a reluctance to admit that someone has already covered what you have to say?

    In this regard, since I’m typing, look up Barton Bernstein’s papers on “the myth of a million casualties” and the like. They’re very good papers about declassified war planning papers. But they’re presented as though these papers were the actual determinants, rather than exercises or pieces of a larger puzzle. That’s an example of primary materials illuminating but not presenting enough of the picture to be meaningful. An invasion of Kyoto followed by an invasion of Honshu … use Iwo Jima or Saipan level casualties? Use something more? If you take x soldiers and apply this rate of loss, then you get y casualties. That’s a planning exercise. Later released were minutes of a meeting in which the bigwigs, not a war planning group, expressed the fear the Japanese would fight to the death once we set foot on their land. Can that be quantified? So sometimes primary sources give a bit of the picture.

    Two last points. First, as you know, the more you know about an area the more you realize that what you read is generally wrong or at least incomplete. The risk – which I believe you’ve touched on quite well in the past – is that you start to believe yourself, that you become solipsistic and convinced of your own quality of insight. You’ve written about Chomsky. You can see it: his early papers take a series of observations and generalize and his polemic work takes a series of observations and generalizes … except the former observations are significantly more objective while the latter are slanted, distorted and sometime mendacious arguing points advanced as objective truths. Start to believe in yourself … fall into the Narcissus trap and end up staring at your own reflection.

    Second, I try to remember that history is nearly all false. How many sources exist for Alexander? (None that can be trusted.) Move out of the mists into Rome: who was Tiberias? Was he an ascetic, devoted brother, reluctant ruler who self-exiled himself to an island rather than compete with his step-father’s natural child? Or was he a pederast? Was Caligula the monster or was that made up by the old families who wanted the Republic – or the ability to compete for the Imperial mantel? How many reliable sources exist? None really. Things are lost. Things are added. Cary Grant played Cole Porter in the biopic. And then Kevin Kline at least played him gay but Cole was short and he’s always played tall. He could pass as straight but not as tall.

  3. K? O'Rourke says:

    > perhaps no one in the German army considered option 3. But that was their problem

    I think this relates back to your parable versus story post http://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2014/01/24/parables-vs-data/

    Let me relate by my story of doing history on WW1 (in high school).

    My topic was the creation of the central bank in Canada (WW1 below).

    The arguments for establishing a central bank were very interesting, starting with tertiary and secondary sources (e.g. a book by a Canadian – Plumtree – arguing for Kenyes’ recent economic theories) but as I went through the primary sources (and got some kind pointers from a Historian at York University who caught me using my older brother’s library card), I discovered the central bank was set up as a political move by the party in power to take the proposal away from the party in opposition. They appointed someone they trusted as chair with instructions “to do nothing”. How uninteresting – so I changed my topic to the role of Canadian banks in financing WW1.

    The actual history can be very boring compared to what it could or should have been. My guess is someone has written about this less boring way of doing “history” and what it should be called?

  4. Alex says:

    I don’t understand your point. Laqueur notes, several times, his and Clark’s view that essentially every major power in Europe was to blame for the war, and that they each failed, repeatedly, to de-escalate. The bit you excerpted is an aside – having made the decision to go to war, Germany might at least have limited it if they had just decided to move through Germany. Of course they could have decided not to give Austria a “blank check,” and of course they could have reneged on it. But in the last few days of July, that really wasn’t realistic – there aren’t a “lot” of possible universes in which it happened.

    History would be much duller if writers insisted on enumerating and analyzing the best possible choices at each junction.

    • Andrew says:

      Alex:

      I didn’t say anything about Germany giving Austria a blank check. What I said was that they didn’t have to invade Belgium. Invading a neutral country is not “failing to de-escalate”; rather, it’s actively escalating.

  5. Andreas Baumann says:

    “To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: It wants only to show what actually happened” (von Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples).

    Pondering counter-factuals is amusing and can lead to insights, but the contemplation of a possibility foreign to the situation one is studying will always be a thought experiment at most. Nobody considered the option of not passing through Belgium because it was crucial to the Schlieffen plan.

    • Andrew says:

      Andreas:

      As a former Diplomacy player, let me put it this way:
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Spring 1901.
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Fall 1901.
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Spring 1902.
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Fall 1902.
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Spring 1903.
      Germany did not invade Belgium in Fall 1903.
      etc etc.
      They did not need to invade Belgium in Fall 1914.

      I accept your point that history is about what happened, not what did not happen. That’s fine. But it’s Laqueur, not me, who started the counterfactuals rolling with “A last small chance at least to contain a war came with Germany’s decision to force an ultimatum on Belgium [on 2 Aug] to allow it passage through its territory instead of just marching in . . .”

      I also think it’s a bit ridiculous for Laqueur to write as if Germany’s best chance to “contain a war” was to unilaterally invade a neutral country.

      • Andreas Baumann says:

        But don’t you think that there is a difference between comparing to a counterfactual that was seriously considered by the actors in play at that time and a counterfactual that nobody considered?

      • Andreas Baumann says:

        To put it somewhat differently, this ties in with the emphasis of historical studies on path dependency; the Germans could not avoid moving through Belgium since, being at war with France, this would have left Alsace-Lorraine much too exposed. So, contigent on war with France, they had the options mentioned. Why did they have to go to war with France? Because Russia had declared war on them, etc…

        If the Schlieffen Plan had succeeded – which would have had a better chance of happening if the Belgians agreed to let the German troops pass through, thus eliminating the casus belli for the Brits – Germany would have been able to contain the war by beating the French, thus securing the Western Front, and then holding up against the Russians.

        • Andrew says:

          Andreas:

          Maybe. But the “don’t invade Belgium or France” option looks pretty good in retrospect! That’s my point, that Clark and Laqueur (but certainly not all historians of the WW1 period) seem to me a bit too quick to conclude that invading Belgium was Germany’s only reasonable option. To me, they don’t seem to be just making the point that German policymakers had warlike attitudes; rather, Clark and Laqueur seem to have internalized these attitudes themselves.

          • D.O. says:

            I am not well versed in WWI history, but what exactly you think Germans might have done with respect to their western borders. Not to invade anybody and hope that French will renege on their promise to Russia?

            • Andrew says:

              D.O.:

              Yes, the Germans could have stayed in their own territory and fought a defensive war had the French invaded. In retrospect, I think this would have gone much better for them than what actually happened in the war.

              • Andreas Baumann says:

                Fighting a defensive two-front war would have been even worse. Germany could have refrained from invading France, but only if they could be sure that there would be peace with the Russians, and that was hardly the case.

              • Rahul says:

                That’s just hindsight. If you had been there then, do you really feel the defensive option was clearly the best? I don’t think defense versus attack was an obvious choice.

              • Andrew says:

                Andreas:

                Sure, the “not invade Belgium and France” strategy presented some risks, as you note. But the “invade” strategy had risks too, which in retrospect are evident. What bothered me about the book review was its attitude that Germany had no choice. Maybe they were already on the road to making a horrible decision (both for their country and for the many individuals involved) but I don’t think it makes sense for the reviewer to minimize that choice.

                Rahul:

                No, I don’t know that the defensive option was obviously best, thinking prospectively, but I do think it’s a choice they should’ve considered, rather than considering attack as the only option. Yes, the Germans were successful with attack in 1870, but (as many commenters have noted) the example of the U.S. Civil War should’ve made the WW1 generals more aware of the potential advantages of defense.

          • Rahul says:

            ” German policymakers had warlike attitudes”

            In that era which European nation’s policymakers didn’t? Was Germany very special?

            • Anonymous says:

              Probably fair to say that insightful comments on the blog has shown that history should be left to history professors (maybe not this one in particular) and not statisticians who are wanna-be-amateur historians, but clearly have no clue.
              A bit like statisticians that are annoyed about amateurs that dwelve in the realm of statistics, isn’t it?

              • Andrew says:

                Anonymous:

                I don’t know if all the insightful comments on this post have come from history professors. I suspect some people who are not history professors have usefully contributed to the discussion.

                And, by the way, I’m not annoyed at “amateurs that dwell or delve into the realm of statistics.” Non-statisticians have made many important contributions to statistics. I would agree that statistics is too important to be left to the statisticians.

            • Andreas Baumann says:

              Many would say that German leaders – not so much policymakers, but the General Staff – held a more optimistic view of war than most. That’s what is called the “Fischer thesis”, best summarised in his book “Germany’s Aims in the First World War”.

              It is not that strange that the Germans held a more war-friendly worldview; althrough the naughts and the beginning of the tens, there had been a profound fear of being encircled, leading to a perceived choice between “Weltmacht oder Niedergang”.

              • Rahul says:

                Has this ” war-friendly worldview” something one could attribute to Germany exclusively over, say, the 50 years preceding WW-I? If you analysed Europe between 1850-1910 could one still single out the Germans as the warmongers? I think it’s an error to focus solely on immediately preceding events before a war.

  6. numeric says:

    The origins of World War One are a complicated subject of which much has been written. Laqueur’s review is complicated and his allusions are opaque (for example, his comment about the Soviet hydrogen bomb in 1961 as indicating the dangers of nuclear war–I presume he is referring the the 75 Megaton bomb the Soviets tested in that year). However, some facts might be useful:

    1) Germany could have attacked Russia first and fought a defensive war with France. The Kaiser discussed this with Moltke (Chief of the German General Staff) and Moltke declared it was impossible (which it was not). The Kaiser replied bitterly that Moltke’s uncle would have given him, the Kaiser, a different answer (it should be noted that the reason for Germany attacking France was that Russia could always withstand an invasion by withdrawing into the interior, as with the Invasion of 1812).

    2) Laqueur seems to be implying that Germany should not have issued an ultimatum but just invaded, and this would have lead to a limited war (he similarly seems to suggest that Austria should just have retaliated against Serbia rather than gone through the long, drawn out process of issuing an ultimatum. I think the experience of the Second World War, when both Germany (Russia) and Japan (USA) attacked without warning would indicate that this would be a chancy procdure at best.

    3) There is an element of Tuchman envy in academic historical writings. Tuchman was not an academically-trained historian but was tremendously successful and influential. Therefor, it Tuchman says something or implies something, she is wrong (note that this takes place with respect to her biography of Stilwell–academic critics now claim she relied too extensively on Stilwell’s diaries and even attempted to have Chiang Kai-shek assassinated). Applied here, it could not have been the system of alliances that brought on the war but rather the conflict between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs (and don’t forget it wasn’t that long ago the Ottoman’s besieged Vienna!). Contrary to Laqueur’s claims, it was precisely the system of alliances that caused Germany to attack France rather than Russia.

    The real question of World War One is why the Germans, having failed with their execution of the von Schlieffen plan, failed to sue for peace on the basis of status quo ante. Such an effort, under the auspices of the American president (Wilson), would have undermined completely claims of Germany war guilt (and helped remove the onus of the German attack through Belgium). The von Schlieffen plan could easily have succeeded, particularly if Moltke hadn’t kept weakening the right wing, allowed counter attacks on the French border, and withdrawn three corps for use in East Prussia from the right wing (this is not generally appreciated, but this withdrawal caused von Kluck to execute the “inward wheel” and bypassing Paris, as the density of troops (5 to 6 to a meter) had fallen below what was needed for a vigorous offensive, and by making the bypass of Paris, that allowed Kluck to keep up the density for the final offensive against the French armies). The book that addresses this the best (that I’ve read) is “The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I”. The answer is German militarism, which is of course now not accepted as the reason, but Mirabeau’s comment that “Prussia is not a state with an army but an army with a state” still has essential validity.

    • joearthur says:

      numeric – I disagree with your #2; Laquer is not implying that Germany should have invaded. He contrasts the ultimatum (“A last small chance at least to contain a war”) with “just marching in”. I see only an implication that at the time of this choice, the ultimatum meant a small chance that the war would stay “local” [particularly I suppose if Belgium had accepted the ultimatum], whereas “just marching in” would have further increased the likelihood of a general war.

      • numeric says:

        Rereading the comment, I think you’re possibly correct in your
        interpretation of what Laqueur says. You state:

        I disagree with your #2; Laquer is not implying that Germany should
        have invaded. He contrasts the ultimatum (“A last small chance at
        least to contain a war”) with just marching in. I see only an
        implication that at the time of this choice, the ultimatum meant a
        small chance that the war would stay local [particularly I suppose
        if Belgium had accepted the ultimatum], whereas just marching in
        would have further increased the likelihood of a general war.

        Laqueur states:

        A last small chance at least to contain a war came with Germany’s
        decision to force an ultimatum on Belgium to allow it passage
        through its territory instead of just marching in; and with the
        British debate over whether to get into a war over Belgium whose
        result was by no means predetermined.

        I’ll point out that joining these two statements together is almost a
        non sequitur–Britain would have almost certainly responded to either
        a rejected ultimatum or an unannounced invasion. It makes sense to
        combine these two only (as you state) Belgium aquiesced to the
        ultimatum. I think I was lead astray by Laqueur’s previous comment:

        And what if the Austrians had attacked Serbia soon after the
        assassination, when they had the sympathy of much of the world but
        had not yet gone through all the negotiations that brought the world
        to war?

        I presumed that the fait accompli he was arguing for in the Austrian
        case applied to the Belgium case as well (though just for the record,
        it doubtlessly would have taken for Britain longer to respond to an
        invasion without an ultimatum, given the uncertainties of war).

        However, I want to return to Andrew’s comment which started this whole
        thread, and which I believe is a misreading of Laqueur’s essay:

        From Thomas Laqueur, the Helen Fawcett professor of history at the
        University of California, reviewing a book by Christopher Clark:

        [As of 6 July 1914, the German] army made no plans for a general war;
        the kaiser believed the war would be localized. . . . A last small
        chance at least to contain a war came with Germanybs decision to force
        an ultimatum on Belgium [on 2 Aug] to allow it passage through its
        territory instead of just marching in . . .

        Huh? Wait one second! It’s pretty funny there, the army invading a
        neutral country, if they had made no plans for a general war. Setting
        that aside, let’s review Laqueur’s options for Germany:

        1. Force an ultimatum on Belgium (from a web search, I found the
        details where, among other things, the Germans charmingly offer bto
        purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and
        to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by
        German troops, but only on the condition that Belgium adopts a
        friendly attitude. I guess if you offer to invade a neutral country
        and they say no, you have no obligation to pay etc.).

        2. Just march in.

        What about this third option:

        3. Don’t invade.

        Andrew takes Laqueur’s text too literally when Laqueur states “the
        Germany army made no plans for a general war”. Laqueur of course
        knows (and any reader of Laqueur should know he knows) that the Germans
        had a very well-developed plan for a general war–the von Schlieffan
        plan. Laqueur meant here that the German army did not believe that
        the Serbian crises would lead to a general European war, for reasons
        that he spells out at length in his essay.

        But the gist of Andrew’s comment is the lack of a third
        option–don’t invade. I argue at length in my post that this option
        didn’t really exist because of the system of alliances. This is
        where, I believe, Clark’s and Lequeur’s argument, while potentially
        plausible in the situation leading up to war, does not apply to how
        the war was conducted–Germany had to invade France because they
        believed France would participate with Russia in a two front war
        against Germany, repeating the nightmare of the Seven Years War
        (French and Indian War to Americans). This is true even if the system
        of alliances did not drive the “contingent” outcome (hate that word
        when applied to history).

        So why didn’t Lequeur talk about option three? For Lequeur to argue
        that there was no third option would be to acknowlege it was the
        system of alliances that dictated how the strategic course of the
        German attack would occur (knock France out, then turn on Russia).
        But he’s too good a historian (or fears ridicule from his peers) to
        argue “don’t invade” was an option–it was not.

        I think he doesn’t talk about it because of the conflict of
        contingency and historicity. Contingency is a what if and historicity
        is what. What is easy–the Entente fought the Central Powers.
        Contingency is hard (compare inference and casual modelling as an
        analogy). To argue historicity undermines contingency, because what
        happened happened and that beats what didn’t happen anytime. To admit
        the alliance structure had any effect on the war undermines the
        argument that it wasn’t the cause of the war. If the case seems
        overwhelming you can fudge–remember “the Civil War wasn’t caused by
        slavery, but without slavery there would have been no Civil War”
        (thanks Southern historians for feeding this pernacious nonsense into
        the American psyche for a century). Or, as the discourse analysis
        theorists tell us, that which is not discussed are often more
        important than the ones which are discussed.

        So Lequeur doesn’t mention it and Andrew picks up on this but, I
        think, misses the context. Note the way Lequeur addresses the concept
        of alliances:

        The war in his [Clark’s] account was not the consequence of two
        great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it
        was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the
        alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose
        side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of
        Europe.

        Lequeur never states that the war was not the consequence of the
        alliance system, but rather that the alliance system did not yield to
        “specific provocations.” Maybe “the alliance system did not cause the
        war but without the alliance system the war would not have occurred”
        is the correct formulation?

        Of course, the most glaring omission in the entire review (and I
        have not read Clark’s book) is the utter lack of discussion of the
        creation of the German Empire. There is no discussion of the Holy
        Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War (though we hear about the battle of
        Kosovo in 1389!), of the German Wars of unification (Denmark, Austria and
        France, in quick succession). Instead we get the following blithe
        dismissal:

        Clark says it isn’t up to him to determine whether some of Serbia’s
        complaints against Austria were justified or whether France had
        anything to fear from Germany.

        Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play (Austria’s
        annexation of Bosnia, the Franco-Prussian war and annexation of Alsace
        and Lorraine are historic and not contingent, presumably)? How can
        one write a book about the origins of WWI and not mention the historical
        processes that created Germany?

        In the end, Clark is a revisionist because academic history requires
        revision. Germany was militaristic, the Kaiser could have stopped the
        war (Lequeue fails to mention the Kaiser’s comment on the Serbian
        reply to the Austrian-Hungarian ultimatum–“it removes all cause for
        war”), and the alliance system ensured that Germany would conduct
        an all-out attack on France rather than fight a defensive war on that
        front. The real question to my mind is why Germany could not accept
        defeat (they were effectively defeated upon the failure of the von
        Schlieffan plan, which Erich von Falkenhayn realized), and to that
        I turn to German militarism, which I think was the underlying cause
        of the Great War.

  7. Ubs says:

    I’m having troubled understanding what numeric means in blaming World War I on “the conflict between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs”. By 1914 the Ottoman Empire was reeling from having lost half of its remaining European territory to yet another round of defeats by the upstart states in the Balkans. Indeed, the Habsburgs and Ottomans had a lot in common in this era, both disintegrating empires trying to champion the ideal of multinationalism against a tide of nationalism. The Habsburgs’ enemies — Serbia, Russia — were no friends of the Ottomans either. If the siege of Vienna “wasn’t that long ago”, how long ago was the Crimean War? How long ago were the Serbian uprisings? When the Ottomans did join World War I, after an initial attempt at maintaining neutrality, they joined as allies of the Habsburgs, not enemies. In what way is there conflict between them here?

    As for the question of why Germany failed to sue for peace, you may as well ask why France, Britain, or Russia failed to sue for peace. For most of the war, the Germans still thought they could win, or at least could improve their position for a later negotiation. And when the war was clearly lost, they did sue for peace. The Germans signed the armistice with the expectation – egged on by Wilson – that it was in fact an armistice and not a surrender and would thus lead to something approximating the status quo ante. If they had known Wilson would flake out and Clemenceau et al would convert it to total surrender, they never would have agreed to it.

    On the main point, I do completely agree with numeric. Andrew’s idea of “option 3: don’t invade Belgium” is naive. Passing through Belgium was essential to invading France, and invading France was essential to fighting with Russia. Sure, you could say “Well, why did they have to go to war with anyone at all?” but that’s a spiritual question not a historical one. Short of turning pacifist and/or breaking all its alliances, Germany was going to put soldiers in Belgium.

    • Rahul says:

      One point I wonder about, is on what parameters were the Belgian decision makers thinking this through. What would the counter-factual look like if Belgians had acceded to the German request (demand?) for passage?

    • Andrew says:

      Ubs:

      I think that, in retrospect, a defensive strategy would have been better for Germany, just from the purely military point of view. Look at what happened to them during the war. They managed to get the Belgians, the French, the British, and the Americans all fighting them. It doesn’t seem so likely that would’ve happened, had they just kept their troops in Germany to defend against a possible French attack. And of course the Germans did just fine defending against the Russian attack in the east.

      Of course this is hindsight, and I can accept that various people in Germany didn’t see things that way in 1914, and I agree that it is an important part of the historian’s job to consider the options that were seriously being considered by the people in power. That all said, I got the impression that Clark and Laqueur were not merely saying that German leaders had this mistaken belief (that starting a general war was the safest course for them) but were also endorsing this belief (by, for example, minimizing the way in which invading a neutral country was an escalation of the war, and by not even considering defensive options). In this way, it seems to me that the historians are echoing the mistakes of the past.

      • numeric says:

        In reply to Andrew: von Falkenhayn (Moltke’s replacement as chief of the German General Staff) did see the war as a defensive struggle (this was of course after the failure of the von Schlieffan plan). As for a defensive plan from the outset, as I describe above:

        1) Germany could have attacked Russia first and fought a defensive war with France. The Kaiser discussed this with Moltke (Chief of the German General Staff) and Moltke declared it was impossible (which it was not). The Kaiser replied bitterly that Moltke’s uncle would have given him, the Kaiser, a different answer (it should be noted that the reason for Germany attacking France was that Russia could always withstand an invasion by withdrawing into the interior, as with the Invasion of 1812).

        But this is tied into the system of alliances (which Laqueur and Clark argue against) because a local war in the Balkans was guaranteed to become a general European war because of the alliances. Clark’s thesis that alliances were unstable did not effect war plans, which to most observers would seem to indicate that they were not considered unstable but rather operative. The analogy that Laqueur ties to the Cuban Missile Crisis is inaccurate in this sense–Kennedy did not view the theme of the Guns of August as rival blocks rushing towards war over relatively insignificant provocations. No, he saw the message that the demands of the military could overcome prudent statesmanship. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted a military attack (and after the U-2 was shot down, retaliatory bombing) and Kennedy was thinking of how all the generals demanded mobilization in WWI and once mobilized the armies had to be used and he was afraid of that process leading to a nuclear exchange.

        Anyway, I disagree with you that Laqueur (haven’t read Clark’s book) was endorsing the belief that Belgium needed to be invaded. I believe that Laqueur knows full well that German war plans called for an invasion of France and that the German military would not change those plans, because of the alliance system. This would seem to make a prime cause of the general war the alliance system rather than Serbia being a terrorist state, which vitiates their thesis.

        Up above, I compared historicity to contingency with inference to causal modelling. This should have been estimation to causal modelling (I realize that statisticians disagree on estimation also but historians disagree on whom did what to who, so the analogy holds).

    • numeric says:

      I don’t blame WWI on the conflict between the Ottoman’s and the Austrians–Clark does (and Laqueur implicit agrees with him). I was being sarcastic about the siege of Vienna–primarily because Laqueur describes the battle of Kosovo (1389!) as instrumental in the shaping of the Serbian world view, without mentioning, for example, the Franco-Prussian war. My point is that Clark is engaged in age-old academic revisionism and needs to emphasize some things and neglect others to make this pluasible.

      As for suing for peace, France was never going to sue for peace since the Germans were occupying northern France. Ludendorff realized this and Operation Michael (the 1918 spring offensive of the German Army) was directed to the aim of getting the British to quit the war. Since the Germans were occupying Entente areas (including in Russia by early 1915), they alone could have made a peace through strength. von Falkenhayn told the Kaiser that the German Army was a “ruined instrument” in 1915, and even Ludendorff in his memoirs admits that by 1918 that the German Army was no better than a militia. The point is that since the Imperial Army depended upon its vastly superior organization, dependent upon its non-commissioned and lower level officers who had undergone years of training, it was no longer superior to its enemies (it was also a lot hungrier, thanks to the blockade).

      Something similar happened in Russia in the Second World War. The Germans invaded with about 3 million men in 1941 against a Soviet Army that had nearly (over the course of 1941) 10 million. The Wehrmacht nearly knocked Russia out of the war. In 1943, after Stalingrad and the counterattack at Kharkov, the stablized front had 6 million Soviet soldiers and 3 million Germans. The Germans then lost Korsk and started a long retreat. The difference? Well, of course the Soviets were far better lead and better equipped, but also the German Army was just no longer as effective.

      “If they had known Wilson would flake out and Clemenceau et al would convert it to total surrender, they never would have agreed to it”–Ludendorff did want to fight on once he saw the terms of the armistice (withdrawal of German forces across the Rhine, three bridgeheads over that river into Germany in case hostilities resumed). He was overruled and dismissed, since by that time the German Army was in near collapse (junior officers refused to salute senior officers at General Staff Headquarters, for example). But the demand for an armistice came from Ludendorff himself–as he wrote at the beginning of one of the final chapters in his memoirs, “August 8, 1914 was the black day of the German Army.” (this is a paraphrase since I don’t have the book here). The Army was through and Ludendorff knew it.

      • Ubs says:

        Ah, I see. I hate it when people bring up the old battle of Kosovo as if it’s instrumental to anything other than national myth. It wasn’t even the decisive battle THEN. To bring it up now it sort of like bringing up Joan of Arc to discuss French foreign policy. It’s bad enough when journalists do it. They want to look smart on TV, so for pretty much any hot spot in the world they’ll intone sagely about “age-old ethnic/religious rivalries” in order to hide their ignorance about the last 50-100 years of local history which really do matter. But what excuse does a historian have?

  8. Jacob H. says:

    “General von Bernhardi was engaged in 1910 in writing a book called Germany and the Next War, published in the following
    year, which was to be as influential as Angell’s but from the opposite point of view. Three of its chapter
    titles, “The Right to Make War,” “The Duty to Make War,” and “World Power or Downfall” sum up its
    thesis.
    As a twenty-one-year-old cavalry officer in 1870, Bernhardi had been the first German to ride through
    the Arc de Triomphe when the Germans entered Paris. Since then flags and glory interested him less than
    the theory, philosophy, and science of war as applied to “Germany’s Historic Mission,” another of his
    chapter titles. He had served as chief of the Military History section of the General Staff, was one of the
    intellectual elite of that hard-thinking, hard-working body, and author of a classic on cavalry before he
    assembled a lifetime’s studies of Clausewitz, Treitschke, and Darwin, and poured them into the book that
    was to make his name a synonym for Mars.
    War, he stated, “is a biological necessity”; it is the carrying out among humankind of “the natural law,
    upon which all the laws of Nature rest, the law of the struggle for existence.” Nations, he said, must
    progress or decay; “there can be no standing still,” and Germany must choose “world power or
    downfall.” Among the nations Germany “is in social-political respects at the head of all progress in
    culture” but is “compressed into narrow, unnatural limits.” She cannot attain her “great moral ends”
    without
    increased political power, an enlarged sphere of influence, and new territory. This increase in
    power, “befitting our importance,” and “which we are entitled to claim,” is a “political necessity” and “the
    first and foremost duty of the State.” In his own italics Bernhardi announced, “What we now wish to
    attain must be fought for,” and from here he galloped
    home to the finish line: “Conquest thus becomes
    a law of necessity.”
    Having proved the “necessity” (the favorite word of German military thinkers), Bernhardi proceeded to
    method. Once the duty to make war is recognized, the secondary duty, to make it successfully, follows.
    To be successful a state must begin war at the “most favorable moment” of its own choosing; it has “the
    acknowledged right… to secure the proud privilege of such initiative.” Offensive war thus becomes
    another “necessity” and a second conclusion inescapable: “It is incumbent on us… to act on the offensive
    and strike the first blow.” Bernhardi did not share the Kaiser’s concern about the “odium” that attached
    to an aggressor. Nor was he reluctant to tell where the blow would fall. It was “unthinkable,” he wrote,
    that Germany and France could ever negotiate their problems. “France must be so completely crushed
    that she can never cross our path again”; she “must be annihilated once and for all as a great power.””

    -Tuchman, Guns of August

    • Jacob H. says:

      I can’t help but feel that Niall Ferguson’s praise for this book, which like his own views war as inevitable and ineluctable, is connected to his own past bloody warmongering.

    • Andrew says:

      Jacob:

      This “compressed into narrow, unnatural limits” thing rings a bell. There was something in Christopher Clark’s book along those lines. Of course, given that the Germans lost World War 1, maybe those limits weren’t so unnatural after all. Hindsight is all, of course, but I thought Clark was way too accepting of the militaristic position without seeming to reflect on its absurdity.

  9. stringph says:

    … A Bayesian statistician should probably put a higher prior on the general level of knowledge and intelligence of history professors whose works he is skimming. If a professor writes something in their own field of expertise which looks obviously wrong or stupid to you, think at least twice before trying to demonstrate that to the world at large.

    Also: there is already a world over-supply of glib hindsight about WWI and it’s still only January. How much more of it can we stand in the next few years?

    • Andrew says:

      Stringph:

      As I noted above, Thomas Laqueur does not seem to have published anything previously on World War 1 or German military policy or anything even close to these topics. I’ve actually published more (one article, in an Italian sociology journal) on World War 1 than he has.

      Christopher Clark, sure, he is an expert. But even experts can expound contrarian views. I was more disturbed by Laqueur, though, as he seems to just jump on and accept Clark’s more controversial positions without question.

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      stringph:

      I’d rather follow Ian Hacking’s advice to me as a graduate student – don’t worry about your background just bring what you can to the problem (and I think – others maybe in better position to evaluate it but won’t mind).

  10. TaiPS says:

    Andrew: it seems to me you apply way too much 20/20 hindsight to the situation, and particularly,
    you dismiss the General Staff plan’s internal logic, which was:
    1) knock France out FAST
    2) turn around and confront the massive (if ill-equipped and poorly led) Russian army

    If you buy this logic (and they gambled their empire’s survival on it so I’d say they must have given it more thought than we do), England’s ill-will and its entry into the war are entirely irrelevant.
    What matters is to reach Paris, preferably without having to cross the French north-east forest/fortresses maze. Not invading Belgium and fighting a defensive war would probably have been a good approach given the weapons imbalance of the day (MGs, indirect fire effectiveness et al.), but they hadn’t fully realised that. In their context, they firmly believed they needed to beat France and Russia in succession.

    Don’t dismiss also the possibility that they thought they might convince the UK “not to go to war for a scrap of paper”. Commitment is a fluid thing in the world of geopolitics (remember the strong clear US line re:Syria and chemicals?)

    So no, judging the decision based on the beliefs of the parties involved at the time I don’t regard invading Belgium as a blunder.

    • Andrew says:

      Taips:

      The German decision to invade Belgium was not necessarily a blunder. But I think the defensive option was still worth considering, on their part, and I was bothered by Laqueur and Clark’s stance in which they didn’t even seem to consider it as an option. Again, I’ll accept Clark’s historical judgment that this was an accurate description of the options that German leaders were actually considering, but I think that in a history it makes sense to also consider the facts on the ground and point out that the leaders had another good option at their disposal.

      • Barry says:

        Remember, Germany had gained a number of ‘blitzkrieg’ victories in the 1800’s. The idea that they could defeat France wasn’t far-fetched, especially since ‘defeat’ didn’t have to involve conquering the whole country.

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