Slithering into War

As the centennial of the outbreak of World War I approaches, a deluge of new publications seeks to commemorate it and to re-interpret it. Among the best of the lot is Christopher  Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York, Harper, 2014). That is why I have chosen to discuss it here.

The war itself broke out on 31 July. As one would imagine, the search for its origins began right away. Assuming, of course, that the accusations which the various future belligerent started throwing at each other during the preceding weeks should not be seen as part of that search or, at any rate, as preparation for it. At first it was a question of pointing fingers at personalities, be it Serb Prime Minister Nikola Pasič, or Austrian Chief of Staff Konrad von Hoeztendorf, or the Russian Tsar, or French prime minister René Viviani, or British foreign minister Edward Grey, or the German Kaiser, or whoever. Very quickly, however, the hunt expanded to include not only persons but entire peoples. Not just Pasič but all, or at any rate most, Serbs were bad people always ready to throw bombs so to undermine the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the name of irredentism. Not just Hoetzendorf, but many of the ruling circles in Vienna demanded war in the hope of saving the empire from disintegration. Not just the Tsar but many of his people entertained pan-Slavic dreams of expansion, mostly at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Not just Viviani, but the entire French people formed an arrogant nation used to exercise hegemony over the continent and unable to resign itself to its loss. Not just Grey, but the British people as a whole were hypocritical warmongers determined to hold on to their commercial superiority. Not just the Kaiser, but all Germans were power-drunk militarists. The list goes on and on.

It was this version of events, directed against the losers, which underlay the famous decision postwar decision to saddle Germany with “war guilt,” an innovation in international law that had few predecessors during the previous quarter millennium or so. As one would expect, time caused the debate to change its shape. It was not this or that country but their commons scourge, arms-manufacturers and capitalists in general, who were to blame, claimed Marxists. It was not this or that ruler or people but all those bad Europeans, claimed some American historians. It was not this or that country but the treaty-system as a whole others said. It was not so much the treaties as the railway timetables of the various general staffs, which forced them to act precipitously so as to avoid defeat, claimed other historians still.

The outbreak of World War II, and Germany’s role in it, caused some historians to go back to blaming the Kaiser and his associates. Nobody more so than Fritz Fischer in World Power or Decline, the original German version of which was first published in 1961. Clark’s work is not specifically directed against any of these interpretations. Nevertheless, in passing he makes short shrift of them. The railway system is barely mentioned. The treaties, he shows, were not automatic but left their signatories with plenty of room for maneuver. Those who allowed the continent to slither into war were rulers, diplomats, and top-ranking soldiers, not the owners of large industrial corporations. The last-named were never even asked for their opinions. Given that economics only came to be considered as part of war during the interwar era, that is not surprising.

More significant still, none of those who ruled the most important powers wanted war—at any rate a general war among the great powers. His occasional bellicose talk notwithstanding, that even applied to the Kaiser. As one of his courtiers was to write later on: His Imperial Majesty liked wargames much better than he liked war itself. What really happened was quite different. Though decision-makers might not be interested in a general war, quite a few of them were prepared to risk a more limited one. In doing so, the model they had in front of their eyes was, naturally enough, the limited “cabinet wars” of the nineteenth century. Serbia, provided only it could obtain Russian and perhaps French support, was quite ready to fight Austria. Certain governing circles in Austria were quite ready, indeed eager, to go to war against Serbia if only they could be certain that Germany would support them and thereby neutralize the Russians. The Russians were ready to support Serbia against Austria but hoped to do so without causing Germany to join the fray against them. The French hoped for a chance to recover Alsace-Lorraine but looked forward to doing so without setting off a general conflagration. More than one leading German thought Russia’s growing power called for a preemptive war. However, and as Austrian foreign minister Berchtold saw clearly enough, almost to the end people in Berlin hoped to wage it without dragging in France, let alone Britain.

In other words, in almost all capitals it was a question, not of unchaining a general conflict but of taking what was seen as a calculated risk. In the event, the calculations failed. A European war, later known as the Great War, later still as World War I, was the result. Needless to say, such calculations have always formed the very stuff of which power-politics are made. In many cases they continue to do so still. Are we, then, to conclude that sooner or later they are certain to fail again? One of those who thought so was the noted English historian A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990). Having spent much of his career studying the numerous diplomatic “crises” that dotted the decades before 1914, almost to the end of his life he remained convinced that, sooner or later, another such crisis would lead to World War III. A quarter-century after Taylor’s death, there is no point in trying to deny the logic of his argument. Among those who echo it is Christopher Coker in his forthcoming book, The Improbable War.

However, there is one critical difference: the world which Taylor, Clark, and so many others describe was a pre-nuclear one. In such a world, whatever fate might await the defeated, there would no question of annihilating most, or even a great part, of the population of the loser. The winner, on his part, might expect to prosper. The introduction and proliferation of nuclear weapons has changed the equation. As a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin kindly reminded us just a few weeks ago, with those monsters about another war might very well turn the countries involved, both winners and losers, into radioactive deserts. Judging by the fact that no two nuclear countries have fought each other directly and in earnest since 1945, there is some reason to believe that rulers and commanders are aware of the Damocles’ sword hanging over their collective heads. It seems to have made them much more cautious than they used to be.

It may or may not be true, as some believe, that “the better angels of our nature” are taking over and are responsible for what is sometimes known as “the long peace” which, among the great powers at any rate, has prevailed from 1945 on. Supposing it is, it would represent very good news indeed. Yet even so I propose that a considerable number of H-bombs be kept in reserve ready to deliver a second strike, as nuclear strategists say. Just to make sure that, should the better angels in our dear leaders’ nature fall asleep or go on strike, there will still be fear to keep them from each other’s throats.