After four years and three months of unprecedented carnage, the Great War—the most catastrophic event in all of history—ended one hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918. That war destroyed an effervescent civilization, unmatched in its fruits and vigor. A decent and on the whole well-ordered world was wrecked for ever, thrown into the abyss in which we live now.
“The summer was more wonderful than ever and promised to become even more so, and we all looked out on the world without any cares,” Stefan Zweig wrote long after it was all over. “That last day in Baden I remember walking over the vine-clad hills with a friend and an old vine-grower saying to us: ‘We haven’t had a summer like this for a long time. If this weather continues this year’s wine is going to be beyond compare. People will always remember the summer of 1914.’”
We will always remember that summer indeed, and not for the exquisite Spätburgunder. The final verses of Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV summed it up:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
On the centennial of the Armistice, it is not uncommon to hear, from poorly educated members of the postpodern commentariat, the assertion that the Guns of August were the result of unintended blunders in various courts, foreign offices, and chancelleries. In what passes for the academe these days, one notable example is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwakers, an audaciously revisionist whitewash of the Central Powers published in 2014. Clark rehashes the old claim that the decision-makers were swept into a maelstrom by malevolent forces beyond their control. The European balance was supposedly so volatile that two shots fired by a young Serb in Sarajevo could fatally disrupt it, with a revanchist France and an ever-malevolent Russia goading the hapless Kaiser and his officials into a trap.
That is beyond rubbish; it is a deliberately construed lie. As Germany’s foremost historian of the 20th century, Fritz Fischer, established in his definitive 1961 study Griff nach der Weltmacht (published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War), the Kaiserreich military and political elite welcomed the prospect of war resulting from the attentat in Sarajevo as an opportunity to make Germany the master of Europe. Fischer ascertained beyond reasonable doubt that Berlin stage-managed the July crisis in 1914 to expand her borders drawn by Bismarck and to affirm hegemony in an extended Mitteleuropa, with France and Russia degraded to long-term powerlessness, and Great Britain permanently excluded from European affairs.
To that end, only one week after Sarajevo, Germany actively encouraged Austria-Hungary to pursue what Vienna believed would be a local war against Serbia. Germany did so in order to engineer a wider European conflagration which would eliminate the “encircling powers,” Russia and France, from the scene for decades. The German elite was particularly fixated on the supposed threat from Russia once she completed her program of military modernization and railway network expansion in 1917. The historical record is fairly clear: as by then former German chief of general staff Moltke confided to his friend Colmar von der Goltz in 1915, it was the war of Germany’s making, “this war that I prepared and initiated.” Had the murdered Archduke Francis Ferdinand been alive, Austria’s Chief of Staff Konrad von Hetzendorf admitted when the conflict started going badly for the Dual Monarchy, “he would have had me shot.”
In the two decades before 1914, Germany’s foreign policy-makers ignored Otto von Bismarck’s often repeated warnings by allying the Second Reich to the decaying Habsburg Monarchy. Germany conducted recklessly aggressive foreign policy in the early years of the 20th century. (When Berlin got needlessly involved, for the second time, in Morocco in 1911, even Vienna withdrew diplomatic support.) Having additionally alienated Great Britain by building an ultimately useless high seas fleet, Germany was effectively playing va banque. In the two decades before 1914, the Wilhelmine establishment found itself in an encirclement of its own making. It blundered to the point of prompting Britain and Russia to become de facto allies in 1907, which produced a geopolitical shift that was literally unthinkable only a decade earlier.
A “preventive” war against Russia and France, based on the Schlieffen Plan, was seen as a way out of Germany’s chronic diplomatic isolation. It was also seen as a means of preempting Russia’s rapid economic, demographic and military rise, which obsessed Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and his colleagues. To that end Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary to issue an impossible ultimatum to Serbia blaming her for Sarajevo—the famous blank check of July 5, 1914—with both Central Powers knowing full well that this would lead to an all-out war, unless Russia climbed down at the last minute and thus abdicated her role as a great power.
As David Fromkin concluded in Europe’s Last Summer (2005), it takes two or more partners in the balancing game to keep the peace—but only one to start the war: “The international conflict in the summer of 1914 consisted of two wars, not one. Both were started deliberately.” One was Austria’s presumably “local” war against Serbia; the other was Germany’s European war against France and Russia. Great Britain predictably entered the fray when Germany violated Belgium’s neutrality—as postulated by the Schlieffen Plan—thus making the conflict global, a World War par excellence. It was frivolously assumed in Berlin that, in any event, the British could not field an army capable of affecting the military outcome until it was too late to save the French army.
It was not possible for German politicians and soldiers simply to declare the European system created by Bismarck null and void. They needed a seemingly righteous cause to unite the nation and, in particular, to persuade its millions of Social Democrats that the coming war was just. The resulting scenario was simple and mendacious: encourage Austria to present Serbia with an outrageous ultimatum that had to be rejected; let Russia threaten Austria in Serbia’s defense; present Germany’s subsequent move against Russia as a gallant and selfless rescue of Germany’s aggrieved Danubian ally; and attack France first, on spurious grounds, in order to kick her out of the war well before turning the might of the entire army against the slow-mobilizing Russians.
This was a breathtakingly risky scenario. The British duly declared war when Liege was attacked, and the Schlieffen Plan collapsed with the Miracle on the Marne. But in July 1914 both military planning and the political rationale behind it reflected the German establishment’s obsession with the notion of “encirclement.” Just as the political paradigm was unduly dark, its military solution was based on an optimistic game-plan that had many elements that could, and did, go wrong.
Determined to break out of this self-imposed, intellectually wanting and ultimately self-imposed “encirclement,” the Second Reich discarded Bismarck’s flexibility of external alliances in favor of an implacable hostility to France, a self-generated sense of existential danger from Russia, and an alliance with Austria-Hungary that was both debilitating in its implications and disastrous in its consequences. The Iron Chancellor would never have allowed the worn-out Viennese barge to drag down the dynamic German frigate. He regarded an alliance with Russia as essential to Germany’s stability and security. In the 1880’s, while still in power, he warned that, “if there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” This was an area which, in his words, was “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” Bismarck’s inept successors disregarded that advice on both counts.
The Wilhelmine ruling elite’s understanding of national interest was corrupted by a host of ideological claims which were Germany’s equivalent of our interventionists today: the naval lobby, the colonial lobby, the annexationist lobby, the Voelkisch lobby. Like the Duopoly in today’s America, they branded all moderation weakness and all doubt treason. In the end, Germany’s criminal blunder of 1914 was a sinister precursor of her crime of 1939. As per Fischer, these were the “ideologies, values, and ambitions that led our country to destruction in the space of two generations.” Gripped by a self-fulfilling image of potential weakness that demanded aggressively proactive policies, the Central Powers’ political elites were unwilling to question the dictates of military planning. Mobilization schedules and railway timetables took over politics. The lights went out all over Europe, never to be lit again.
It was truly the first global war—la Grande Guerre, der grosse Krieg. Tens of millions of men were mobilized. In France and Germany four fifths of all men between 18 and 50 donned the uniform. The entire human, physical and moral resources of Europe's major powers and a host of smaller nations were strained like never before in history. The weapons were deployed on a massive scale, killing machines that only a generation earlier did not exist: airplanes, tanks, poison gasses, submarines. The lethal mix of the machine gun and barbed wire made “going over the top” tantamount to a death sentence. The war claimed close to 20 million lives, soldiers and civilians in roughly equal proportion. Millions of young men were maimed and damaged for ever. Epidemics during and immediately after the war claimed millions more. Even more horrendous are that war's moral and spiritual consequences. Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, the sequel known as the Second World War, and the wounded civilization we now live in, were its poisoned fruits.
In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points—the device allegedly meant to end the war—espoused the principle of self-determination. It threw a revolutionary doctrine at an exhausted Europe, almost on par with Bolshevism in its destabilizing effect. Two decades after the Armistice, burdened by an imperfect peace treaty concocted at Versailles, Europe staggered into a belated sequel in September 1939. After 1918 it was badly wounded; after 1945, mortally so. A century later, we are living with the consequences, and on the ruins, of the Great War.
To avoid another European catastrophe, which would mark the end of our civilization for ever, the key is a long-term strategic understanding between Russia and Germany. To stabilize the continent, the world needs an integrated “Europe”—but not in its current EU form, bureaucratically totalitarian and still dominated from across the Atlantic. Bismarck would understand this, and Vladimir Putin probably does; the German political and business elite should do likewise, once Frau Merkel is finally out of the way.
The fundamental German-Russian compatibility is that they are traditional European nation-states pursuing limited objectives by limited means. By contrast, the leaders of the United States of both parties still subscribe to the notion of America’s exceptionalism, and to the propositional creed rooted in Puritan millenarianism which produces never-ending wars. Germany has gone along with various American idiosyncrasies for a long time. In geopolitical terms, however—like Russia, but unlike the U.S.—Germany is a continental power; and also like Russia, but unlike America, Germany has limited and “rational” strategic and security objectives. Both should be weary of America’s self-appointed global missions. Russia is more directly threatened right now, and therefore more vocal about its misgivings; but as the Nord Stream II controversy indicates, Germany should have no illusions about the true nature of the present arrangement.
Under the Iron Chancellor, the towering genius of the European 19th century diplomacy, Germany and Russia had a genuine strategic partnership, based on the compatibility of interests and the absence of insurmountable obstacles. Bismarck’s incompetent successors had abandoned this paradigm in favor of an unnecessary and ultimately fatal bid for multi-spectral hegemony—a Wilhelmine brand of neoconservatism—which finally entangled Germany in the affairs of the Habsburgs in the Balkans . . . and caused the war.
As the global distribution of power regains its multipolar character, as America continues to lose its briefly held position of full-specter dominance, the traditional nation-states of Europe—the main victims of 1914—need to rediscover the benefits of togetherness based on spontaneously emerging, interest-based links. Acting accordingly would display the degree of wisdom and statesmanlike seriousness which Europe so conspicuously lacked in the summer of 1914.