Four myths about the Great War of 1914-1918

Roundup
tags: World War I



Mark Harrison is a Professor of Economics at University of Warwick.

The Great War offers lessons for today. But this column argues from recent research that many so-called lessons are misunderstood. Secretive, authoritarian regimes become dangerous when they fear the future. Deterrence matters. Other aspects also demand re-evaluation.

As its centennial approaches, the events of the Great War have worldwide resonance. Most obviously, is China the Germany of today? Will China’s rise, unlike Germany’s, remain peaceful? The journalist Gideon Rachman wrote last year (Financial Times, February 4, 2013):

“The analogy [of China today] with Germany before the first world war is striking … It is, at least, encouraging that the Chinese leadership has made an intense study of the rise of great powers over the ages – and is determined to avoid the mistakes of both Germany and Japan.”

The idea that China’s leaders wish to avoid Germany’s mistakes is reassuring. But what ‘mistakes’ do they seek to avoid? We ourselves continue to debate, and sometimes misunderstand, what mistakes were made, and even whether they were mistakes at all. This is not reassuring.

A recent paper (Harrison 2014) reviews four ‘myths’ of the Great War. These concern misinterpretations of how the war started, how it was won, how it was lost, and how the peace was made. Each has implications for today.

How the war began: An inadvertent conflict?

Interviewed earlier this year at Davos (Financial Times, January 22, 2014), Japanese premier Shinzo Abe likened modern China and Japan to Britain and Germany in 1913. He noted that strong commercial ties had not prevented the latter powers from going to war. He warned against a similar ‘inadvertent’ conflict.

In fact, the record is clear, despite attempts to falsify it (described by Herwig 1987). There was no inadvertent conflict. The decisions that began the Great War show:

  • Agency;
  • Calculation;
  • Foresight; and
  • Backward induction.

Agency is shown by the fact that in each country the decision was made by a handful of people (Hamilton and Herwig 2004). These governing circles included waverers, but at the critical moment the advocates of war, civilian as well as military, were able to dominate. Agency was not weakened by alliance commitments or mobilisation timetables. In its ‘blank cheque’ to Austria, for example, Germany went far beyond its alliance obligation. Italy, in contrast, eventually took up arms against former allies.

No country went to war for commercial advantage. Business interests favoured peace in all countries. Public opinion was considered mainly when the leading actors worried about the legitimacy of actions they had already decided on. If capital and labour had been represented in the Austrian, German, and Russian cabinets, there would have been no war.

What ruled the leaders’ calculation in every country was the idea of the national interest (Hamilton and Herwig 2004: 239; on interests as ideas see Rodrik 2014), based on shared beliefs and values. All the decision makers were subscribers to a negative‐sum game of power, not the positive‐sum game of commerce and development. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were in decline. This triggered a struggle for geopolitical advantage.

The first movers expected that action would be followed by counteraction (Herwig 2002, Hamilton and Herwig 2004, Fromkin 2007, McMeekin 201, Macmillan 1913, Clark 2013). While the ignorant many hoped for a short war, the informed few rationally feared a longer, wider conflict. They planned for this, acknowledging that final victory was far from certain.

The European powers understood deterrence (Macmillan 2013: 503-4). No one started a war in 1909 or 1912 because at that time they were deterred. War came in 1914 because in that moment deterrence failed...

Deterrence was weakened by the atmosphere in Berlin and Vienna, which was far from triumphalist. The German and Austrian leaders believed their enemies were growing in strength. They knew that defeat was possible, but they also feared the future would never favour victory more than the present (Berghahn 1973, 2013, Herwig 1997: 11, 22, 37, 51, Ferguson 1999: 13). This ‘rational pessimism’ turned them into risk-takers.

The failure of deterrence was an immediate cause of the war. A deeper cause was the authoritarian regimes of the Central Powers and Russia, under which a few war advocates could decide the fate of millions in secret...




comments powered by Disqus