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Dance of the Furies: Michael Neiberg on Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

April 16, 2014

MLADEN JOKSIC: You've said that World War I is "the foundational event of everything that sets the later 20th and the 21st century in motion." In what ways? What are the effects of this war that still continue to impact the world today?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: On a country-by-country level, I spend a lot of time with my students tracing the roots of international crises back to the First World War. It is easy to do with places like Syria, where the ruling family got its power as a result of the war, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the imperial model first came under serious challenges after 1918.

On a macro level, the First World War broke a system that for all of its many inequalities appeared solidly entrenched in 1914. That system involved a small number of European empires and quasi-empires ruling over most of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Much of what has followed has been a competition to replace that system.

In the 1930s it was a competition between democracy, fascism, and communism. In the 1950s it was a competition between the American and Soviet models. In most of the former European imperial areas, we still see a competition between various ethnic and political models for governing those same spaces. In the Middle East, the competition to replace the Ottoman Empire (admittedly, the least stable of the 1914 empires) remains intense and violent.

I sometimes joke with my children that I can trace anything back to 1914-1918, and while that's an exaggeration, it does contain a grain of truth. It is impossible for me to see how a Second World War, a Holocaust, a Cold War, a globally engaged United States, and decolonization could happen without the First World War. In fact, in my view we can gain a lot of clarity by seeing the two world wars as one war, almost as a second Thirty Years War.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In Dance of the Furies, you argue against the conventional view of World War I as a people's war whose outbreak was welcomed with enthusiasm across Europe. Instead, you argue that "few Europeans expected a war and even fewer wanted one," and that the war's origins and outbreak were the products of a classic cabinet war. Can you explain your thesis?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: The question of peoples' war versus cabinet war is what first drove me to this project. I wanted to get beyond the question of war guilt and I really wanted to understand this war beyond the dozen or so men who made the critical decisions. I wanted to see what picture might come into focus if we widened our aperture.

I found a continent that did not expect war over the relatively minor cause of the assassination of an obscure archduke. They generally had faith in the diplomatic system to resolve this crisis the way it had resolved past crises in the Balkans, in Morocco, and in Africa.Those crises had always involved tensions and a few hotheads calling for war to avenge a slight to national honor, but in the end the statesmen had always found a compromise solution that maintained the peace.

That kind of solution is what people all over Europe fully expected in the summer of 1914. Many continued to believe in it even as the orders for mobilization went out. This confidence in a system that ultimately collapsed so spectacularly helps to explain the psychological shock of 1914 and the loss of faith in political systems that the war engendered.

MLADEN JOKSIC: What was the role of nationalism and historic nationalist hatreds in the outbreak of World War I in Europe?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: I don't argue that nationalism was irrelevant, merely that it was insufficient to cause this war. It is surely possible to feel pride in one's country without simultaneously wanting to invade another. Almost no one in France in 1914, for example, sought a war to recover Alsace-Lorraine. Far more people argued against war as a means for recovering the "lost provinces," however much they may have regretted their loss. A war, they believed, would perpetuate the problem, not solve it. The provinces, moreover, had been German since 1871, meaning that most French people had never known them as part of France.

To cite another example, Paul Jankowski's terrific new book on Verdun shows powerfully that no one in 1916—French or German—spoke of Verdun as an historic place of rivalry between the two nations. They did not talk about Charlemagne, the French Revolution, or even the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. They saw Verdun in strategic terms, not historic ones. In other words, they did not themselves believe that they were trapped by their own nationalist histories. We must also recognize that just like today, Europeans did not only identify themselves by their nationality. They had ethnic, regional, religious, political, and other identities that worked against exclusively nationalist identities.

Again, I am not arguing for the absence of nationalism in Europe in 1914, but there is little evidence that popular nationalism caused, or even seriously contributed to, the outbreak of this war. Even in states we think of as relatively homogenous like Britain, France, and Germany, nationalism competed with a wide variety of identities, some of which transcended national borders. Nationalism provides the easiest explanation for the outbreak of the war, but it just doesn't stand up to serious analysis. I fear we have clutched back to nationalism as an explanation for the outbreak of this war because it offers the shortest, and in some ways the easiest, explanation. The problem is that it does not offer the best one.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Carnegie Council's founder, Andrew Carnegie, a leading pacifist at the time, believed as late as February 1914 that Britain, the U.S., and Germany would sign treaties of arbitration which would form the basis for world peace. Carnegie called Kaiser Wilhelm II an "apostle for peace." How do you explain Carnegie's belief in great-power diplomacy? Should we dismiss it as mere naiveté or was it actually a rational expectation, given the established diplomatic system?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: The diplomatic system had, in fact, worked reasonably well before 1914. It is sometimes easier to see the instabilities in the system in retrospect than it was at the time. The Berlin Conference of 1884 divided Africa in a way that was brutal to Africans, but removed Africa as a cause of serious tension in Europe. British and French diplomats took a crisis in Fashoda in 1898 and, after a few tense weeks, turned it into an Entente Cordiale that brought two ancient enemies together. Similarly, British and Russian diplomats turned a long-simmering rivalry over Persia and Afghanistan into a diplomatic agreement that largely ended serious problems between them.

Kaiser Wilhelm later became the most hated man in the world specifically because in the eyes of Andrew Carnegie and so many others he had been such a crucial part of this system. Although Wilhelm could be bombastic, he had ruled since 1888 without starting a European war. He had, in fact, worked on a few notable occasions to calm tensions on the continent. By 1914, Anglo-German relations had improved dramatically, and French President Raymond Poincaré had dined with great fanfare at the German embassy in Paris. Many people read the latter as an important symbol of warming relations between France and Germany. People in both countries talked of an Entente across the Rhine to match the one signed in 1904 across the English Channel.

In short, it looked in early 1914 like the system was solid, even if it was clearly not always democratic or representative. That Germany then unleashed its massive military machine through Belgium and France made it seem as though the Kaiser had been lying all along and had only put on a smiling face to distract from his mailed fist. Before the war, however, most close observers saw him as a man of the barracks, but not the battlefield. They worried much more about his more militarist son, the Crown Prince. This is not to excuse the Kaiser or his cousin, Nicholas II of Russia, both of whom often proved incompetent and clueless, and both of whom deserved to lose their crowns. It is merely to say that Europeans in 1914 did not view them as the war mongers they are seen as today.

MLADEN JOKSIC: The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo is known as the "shot heard round the world." But you point out that to the vast majority of Europeans at the time the assassination of the Austrian archduke seemed "a minor, almost insignificant event."

MICHAEL NEIBERG: We call the road to war in 1914 the July Crisis, not the June Crisis, for a good reason. The archduke was not a particularly well-known or popular figure in Europe, and Sarajevo seemed a very long way away from London, Berlin, and Paris that summer. After a couple of days, the assassination moved to the back pages of European dailies, then disappeared altogether. The story competed unfavorably with coverage of the sensational murder trial of the wife of a senior French politician, news of the Suffragettes in England, and the problems over the proposed implementation of Home Rule in Ireland. The assassination itself did not destabilize Europe; Austria-Hungary's response to it in the form of the July 23 ultimatum did. The Austrian intellectual Stephan Zweig was right, I think, when he said "only a few weeks more and the name and figure of Franz Ferdinand would have disappeared for all time out of history."

MLADEN JOKSIC: In the decades prior to 1914, Europeans saw numerous diplomatic crises, but none of them erupted into a general war. What was different about the July 1914 crisis that made the European diplomatic system incapable of resolving it?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: Most importantly, the crisis involved the killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Consequently, Austria-Hungary could for the first time in a long time depict itself as the victim; up to this point, it had been the bully, as in its provocative annexation of Bosnia in 1908. Austria-Hungary's leaders could therefore anticipate having some room for maneuver in this crisis, especially if they could prove that the Serbian government had been behind the assassination. Neither Britain nor Russia nor even France, moreover, could possibly defend regicide.

Also, because the crisis did not involve France or Britain in any way, those two states might move slowly or even remain on the sidelines; both were deeply mired in domestic problems in June 1914. The Austrians also remembered that the Russians had not backed the Serbians in 1908 and guessed that they might not to do so in this case either. For its own reasons, the German government foolishly decided to give its Austro-Hungarian allies full support. The Austrians rightly assumed that they might never get such a favorable set of circumstances again, so they fatefully decided to press their luck too far by issuing an astonishingly harsh ultimatum that demanded too much of Serbia. That ultimatum, not the assassination, created the real crisis because it forced the great powers to respond to it, and they did so clumsily enough that war resulted.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In August 1914, even pacifists and socialists across Europe accepted their government's pleas for national unity and supported their country's war efforts. Why do you think European socialists failed to mobilize mass opposition to the war, especially given their strength on the continent and their previous successes in preventing larger conflicts through their unity and the use of the threat of a general strike?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: Socialists were opposed to imperial wars of conquest and had pledged to unite across borders to stop such a war through cross-border industrial strikes. The kind of war they had in mind was something like Italy's blatant land grab in Libya in 1911-1912.

Even the socialists believed that a state had a right to defend itself, however. German socialists voted for war credits in 1914 not because they suddenly found faith in the German government but because they believed (rightly) that a Russian victory in the war would be a disaster for German and, therefore international, socialism. Similarly, French socialists believed (also rightly) that a German victory would be a disaster for French socialism.

Thus even though they had a great deal in common ideologically and had worked closely before the war, French and German socialists both saw their state's victory in the war as essential for the future of socialism. They saw the tragedy in their situation, and most French socialists knew that they would have done what the German socialists did had they been in Germany's position, but they could do little about it until the war ended. This disillusion with the socialist model led after the war to the rapid development of both communism and fascism as alternatives to socialism.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Once the war broke out, people across Europe accepted it—at least initially—as a just, defensive war. Was that a spontaneous feeling or engineered by government propaganda?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: I think it was a popular sentiment but we must not confuse enthusiasm with determination. People felt the latter much more than the former. Germans could (and did) claim that their war was a defensive war against the reactionary Russians, who had in fact mobilized their armies first. Similarly, the French could (and did) argue that they were only fighting because the Germans had invaded France. They did not need propaganda to see those realities, and in fact they were often quite skeptical of what the French derogatorily called "skull stuffing." Georges Clemenceau's satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné often poked fun at government propaganda, as did Punch in Britain. It is hard to know with any certainty how people reacted to propaganda, but in 1914 one finds far more skepticism than faith in news and propaganda coming from official sources. Europeans knew that governments had to twist the truth to suit their own purposes. We should not presume that they were so naïve as to believe whatever they read.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Another argument you make in your book is that disillusionment with the war set in remarkably quickly, within the first few months. Why then did societies continue to fight?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: A large part of the reason is their view of the war as defensive. If they could not always identify what they were fighting for, they could identify what they were fighting against. In 1914, motivation came from the desire to defend one's own territory, to avenge the men already killed, and to ensure that societies got something in exchange for their sacrifices. In the Allied case, further motivation came from the incredibly harsh peace terms Germany imposed first on Romania, then Russia. Allied populations hated the war, but they saw surrender to an avaricious Germany as being even worse.

Thus when the Germans resumed the offensive in France in 1918, French morale rose. I do not mean to say that the French suddenly embraced the war. I mean to say that their determination to win it rose. Accepting defeat on German terms was the only option worse than continuing the war. This tragic dilemma helps to explain the vengeful emotions with which the Paris Peace Conference opened and the desires of Clemenceau and others to make the Germans pay.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Let's move the conversation outside of Europe, for a moment. The U.S. entry into the war in 1917 has sometimes been portrayed as the first true humanitarian military intervention, conducted to prevent further horrors of war rather than as the result of geopolitical calculations. Do you agree with this assessment? What do you think motivated the U.S. to enter the conflict when it did—in 1917, and not 1914?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: I'll have a fuller answer to this question after I finish my next book, which is on American attitudes to the war from 1914 to 1917. There is a clear progression in American attitudes from 1914's desire for neutrality to 1917's reluctant acceptance of the need for war. The Lusitania sinking in 1915 did not incline most Americans to seek war, but it did drive home the cold reality that the nation would no longer be able to avoid the war merely by saying that it wanted to do so.

Thereafter, a debate opened in this country about the best way to prepare the nation either for war or a more assertive policy of neutrality. By the end of 1916, following a very close presidential election in which neither candidate wanted to talk about the war, tensions with Germany had fallen. The following spring, however, Germany's decision to resume submarine warfare, the Zimmermann telegram, and ongoing German espionage activity in the United States finally convinced Americans of the need for war. We can also trace the increasingly pro-Allied sentiment from 1914 to 1917 of key immigrant groups, most notably Italian-Americans and Jewish-Americans. One point seems clear to me: Woodrow Wilson did not lead his nation into war. It had decided on war before he had.

MLADEN JOKSIC: World War I is considered the first industrial war, won not necessarily on the battlefield but by industries and technological innovations at home. How long did it take for military and political leaders at the time to realize that technology and new weapons would make a critical impact on the war's outcome?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: They knew even before the war that technology would be critical. These armies were what we would call today symmetric, meaning that they shared a general structure, doctrine, and equipment. Neither alliance had any decisive advantage over the other. Technology could, theoretically, provide such an advantage. This symmetry continued throughout the war. In the end, the Allies did prove better suited to produce tanks, airplanes, and other weapons in greater numbers. They also developed ancillary technologies in fields like communication and optics that gave them tremendous advantages, but not until 1918.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Militarily, how did the conduct of World War I affect the conduct of World War II and subsequent wars?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: The war produced a great debate about how to fight in the future. Some experts saw technology as the solution: combining new generations of air, armor, and infantry weapons might return mobility and rapid decision to the battlefield. Others recognized that the Allies had won the war by attrition. They foresaw future wars as being, like the First World War, global, bloody, and a test of both industrial and military might. Still others saw in airplanes a way to avoid the slaughter of 1914-1918. They envisioned enormous flotillas of bombers directly targeting civilian populations who would then force their governments to make peace.

It is important to remember that all of the key strategic leaders of the Second World War had experience in the First World War and they were deeply shaped by it. They did not always agree on the lessons to be derived from those experiences, however.

MLADEN JOKSIC: World War I is remembered for its senseless carnage, the horrors of the trenches, and the enormous destruction it wrought. Did the war have any moments where universal moral values and a common humanity prevailed, however briefly?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: We have held desperately onto half truths like the Christmas truce of 1914 (which were far less widespread than most people believe) and the belief in the chivalry of aviators as ways of holding on to the idea that there were such moments. The sad truth is that such moments were in fact few and far between. The war brutalized those who fought it even if some people were able to see through the hatred and horror long enough to envision a better world after the war.

MLADEN JOKSIC: The historian Margaret MacMillan points to a number of striking similarities between today's world and the era just before World War I. These include globalization, a prolonged period of peace among the major powers, and the belief that a full-fledged war between these states is unthinkable, given their interconnectedness and interdependence. MacMillan compares today's relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago, and she sees today's Middle East as the modern-day equivalent of the Balkans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Do you agree with those parallels? One hundred years later, are we in danger of repeating the same mistakes that we made in World War I?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: This argument has some utility if it is meant to show the relevance of the First World War to our world today. We surely do live in a world that has some surface resemblances to 1914: rising and falling great powers; acts of terror that sometimes have state sponsors; and increasing globalization, to name just a few. I think 2014 has more in common with 1914 than either year has with, say, 1964.

But the analogy has serious limits as well. China is simply not Germany. It has a different history, a different geography, and a different culture. Nor is the Middle East the same place as the Balkans. In the same vein, for all the similarities, 2014 is not 1914. Thus I worry less about the surface similarities in the two cases than I do about such a comparison becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If people think of China circa 2014 as Germany circa 1914 then they will tend to see China as an inevitable enemy. We may be shaped by our history, but we are not prisoners of it. Statesmen on both sides of the Pacific will make the ultimate decisions, not the ghosts of Kaiser Wilhelm.

MLADEN JOKSIC: How should the Centennial of World War I be commemorated in a manner that is both meaningful and relevant to our times?

MICHAEL NEIBERG: My first hope, that we might have a discussion based in history—not politics or identity—seems already shot, so let me offer another. I hope that 2014 will be the start, not the end, of a conversation.We should not be interested in the First World War simply because this anniversary happens to be a nice round number. Nor should we look for a simple set of "lessons learned" then move on. We need this year to open dialogues about the role of this war (and wars in general) in causing historical change.

We don't need interest in the First World War to be a fad that will wither as soon as we move on to another anniversary of another event. I would also be very pleased if we can get beyond the old debates about war guilt and the contributions of localities and instead discuss some of the bigger questions like empire, race, and the relationship between peoples and their states in times of crisis. I have no problem with local history, of course, but local history should relate in some way to larger patterns.This is a moment to ask the big questions.I also think this is an opportunity to talk about how we teach events like the First World War in our schools and how we present it in our culture more generally.

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