Cataclysm: David Stevenson on World War I as Political Tragedy

June 18, 2014

MLADEN JOKSIC: In Cataclysm, you reject the view of World War I—popularized by A.J.P. Taylor in the 1960s—as an accidental or unintended conflict that spun out of control, turning into an unstoppable machine. Instead, you argue that the war began and was prolonged for so long through the deliberate decisions of political and military leaders who were very much aware of the consequences of their actions. Can you explain your thesis?

DAVID STEVENSON: What I stressed in discussing the July-August 1914 crisis was the willingness of leaders in both camps consciously to run the risk of war by taking actions that they knew to be dangerous. This certainly applies to the Austrians, Germans, and Russians. The Austrian leaders—including Emperor Franz Joseph—considered that a war against Serbia was virtually certain to escalate into a general European conflict. Some of the German leaders (notably Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and Foreign Minister Jagow as well as Emperor Wilhelm II) believed there was a reasonable chance of localizing an Austro-Serb war, but Bethmann and Wilhelm were ready from early in the crisis to fight a European war if Russia intervened on Serbia's behalf. What we know about the Russian side suggests a similar willingness to accept escalation, and we find it again on the part of French President Raymond Poincaré. This does not mean that any of the leaders concerned foresaw a conflict that would last more than four years and cost over ten million lives. But they certainly expected tens of thousands of casualties (Tsar Nicholas said this explicitly), and several of their top military advisers expected a war that would last up to two years—although they may not have communicated that view to civilians.

Once the war had begun, it did not keep running on some sort of automatic pilot. Most of the key strategic decisions required political approval. By 1917, initiatives such as the German unrestricted submarine campaign, the French Nivelle Offensive, and the British Third Ypres battle, all followed extensive debate. Similarly, decisions to reject peace feelers (such as the Central Powers' peace offer in December 1916 or the socialist parties' Stockholm conference proposal in 1917) were taken after discussion at the highest level. And both sides, especially in the second half of the war, gave considerable attention to defining their war aims. It is true that these were a series of incremental choices—to launch another offensive or to reject the latest peace feeler—but they still resulted from a decision making process, even if the circle of those consulted was mostly pretty limited.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Over the last 100 years, there have been numerous interpretations and reinterpretations of the war's origins, character, and legacies. Almost every new reinterpretation has been sparked or underlined by the geopolitical imperatives and needs of the time. What do you think explains this phenomenon?

DAVID STEVENSON: I'm not sure that the generalization always holds. For example, it seems difficult to find a "geopolitical" explanation for the fascination with memory and commemoration over the last 20 years. But what the question is getting at is that the war has in some ways been seen as emblematic for modern wars in general, and that therefore research into it can yield insights of more universal applicability. The reasons for that are partly that it was the first general war (not just between two or three Powers) in a world of modern economic systems and global communications, and partly that it was fought between relatively open societies, leaving behind it an extraordinarily potent literary and cultural legacy. In its central period it was fought through a series of long and indecisive attrition battles, its costs and repercussions were far more drastic than initially expected, and the peace settlement it established was fragile (though that did not become obvious until the 1930s). Not altogether fairly, it has become an archetypal example of how not to start and fight a war and make a peace.

MLADEN JOKSIC: One of the most contested scholarly debates is to what extent Germany should be blamed for the outbreak of World War I. The debate started immediately after the war, when the victorious allies at Versailles marked Germany as solely responsible for the conflict. This view was challenged in the 1930s, when it was argued that Germany had no greater responsibility for the war than any other belligerent country. This "revisionist" consensus collapsed in the 1960s, when German historian Fritz Fischer and his followers argued that Germany and Austria-Hungary were determined to go to war and deliberately created and manipulated the July crises. Most recently, however, Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers debunks Fischer's argument and revives the diffuse responsibility thesis. What are your views on Germany's role in the outbreak of World War I?

DAVID STEVENSON: The German leaders gave the Potsdam "Blank Cheque," without which I am not persuaded that the Austrians would have gone to war against Serbia. When they gave it they knew they were risking a Continental European war. Subsequently, the Germans sent ultimata to Russia and France, and declared war on both countries when they failed to comply. The Germans invaded two neutral countries (Luxemburg and Belgium) whose status they had undertaken to respect, and with the knowledge that invading Belgium was very likely to bring Britain into the war.

Given all this, I don't see how we can escape the conclusion that Germany was centrally involved in the escalation of the crisis in July and August, and if pushed I would allocate to it the primary share of war responsibility. But certainly there were mitigating circumstances. Clark is quite right to highlight Serbia's role, and Austria, Russia, and (to a lesser extent) France can also be seen to have behaved provocatively. More fundamentally, both sides had to be willing to fight rather than back down.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Unlike World War II, which has largely been perceived as a heroic and necessary struggle for a good cause, the dominant image of World War I today is one of pointless carnage that accomplished nothing close to justifying the immense sacrifices it required. Did the generation that fought World War I see it as similarly futile and unnecessary?

DAVID STEVENSON: Many of them did. There was a good deal of articulate dissent while the war was going on, particularly by 1917 when anti-war opposition was a crucial element in the growth of support in Russia for the Bolsheviks. But Russia was an exception, and the struggle could not have carried on for as long as it did had it not been for widespread acceptance that it was a justified and necessary enterprise.

Remember that until it ended nobody could do a cost-benefit analysis of exactly what the cost of victory would be, whereas they did know that a defeat or even a compromise peace would mean that the sacrifices consented to so far might have been in vain. Governments on both sides argued that only victory would bring a lasting peace so that the next generation did not have to undergo the experience all over again. After 1918, perceptions obviously depended on whether people were on the winning or losing side. In Germany, a crucial minority drew the conclusion not that the war had been wrong but that it had been mismanaged and that it needed to be restaged more effectively. On the Allied side, the idea that the war had been not only a tragedy but also futile gained currency less in the 1920s than in the 1930s, particularly once it seemed the world had not been made a safer place after all.

MLADEN JOKSIC: One interpretation of World War I—popularized by Lenin in the 1920s—was that it was an "imperialistic" war, caused by colonial rivalry and fought for the division of the world and for access to new markets and resources. Does this view of the war still play some role in the current narratives, or is it considered untenable by today's historians?

DAVID STEVENSON: Lenin is often misunderstood. He saw imperialism as applying within Europe, not only in Africa and Asia, and the war as being for the redivision of territory, markets, and investment outlets. And in fact conflicting territorial war aims were a major obstacle to settling the war by compromise—think of Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, the Rhineland, Poland, and the Trentino. In a broad sense, it is quite justified to see the war as a struggle between rival imperialisms, with the provisos that "imperialism" can be a supposedly defensive, security-driven phenomenon, and that Lenin's analysis of it (much influenced by Hobson and Hilferding) was too economistic.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Most of the studies on World War I, as well as our knowledge of it, are concentrated on the war on the Western Front. But as you point out in Cataclysm, a lot was happening on the Eastern, Balkan, and Italian fronts as well. To what extent did these non-Western fronts influence the overall dynamic and outcome of the war?

DAVID STEVENSON: The Eastern Front was vital, because up to a third of the German army was stationed there. If the Germans had been able to concentrate on the Western Front, it might well have made a war-winning difference. On the other hand, although an Allied breakthrough in the Balkans triggered Germany's decision to seek an armistice, it did so only because the Germans were simultaneously under tremendous pressure on the Western Front. The Italian Front was probably most significant in June 1916, when the Austrians committed their best troops to an offensive there that left them exposed when the Russians attacked in Poland, causing an emergency that forced the Germans to wind down their operations at Verdun.

MLADEN JOKSIC: What was the role and contribution of the various colonies to the Allies' war effort? Did the benefits provided by their empires constitute an indispensable advantage for the Allies?

DAVID STEVENSON: This was most significant for the British Empire war effort, but an important supplement also for the French. Although the great majority of British Empire military expenditure was paid for by the British Isles, the Dominions and India were enormously important as sources of military manpower, both on the Western Front and in Africa and the Middle East. Without it, it is doubtful if the British would have been able to defeat the Turks and occupy Mesopotamia and Palestine. I'm not sure that it made an indispensable difference in Europe, however, although the Canadians and Australians were among the most effective contingents in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in 1918.

MLADEN JOKSIC: World War I is generally considered as a catalyst for the decolonization processes, even though its full impact on decolonization was not yet visible. How did the war and its demands affect imperial policies and imperial control?

DAVID STEVENSON: It destroyed the German and Ottoman Turkish empires. Its effect on the French empire was surprisingly limited (much less than that of the Second World War), though the French did expand in Africa and the Middle East, and their colonies became more important to them as an export market and investment outlet. The biggest impact was on the British Empire, most obviously in Ireland, where the breakaway of southern Ireland from the UK can be seen as a direct result of the war. The war also led to devolution over foreign policy to the Dominions, and over some domestic policy issues in India. The Indian precedent was the most important in the long run. Once again, however, the Second World War was much more important.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In military terms, much changed from the beginning of the war to its end. In your opinion, what were the most important tactical, operational, and technological innovations of World War I that later influenced the conduct of World War II and subsequent wars?

DAVID STEVENSON: On land, the coordination of heavy artillery with aerial observation, new infantry tactics, more portable small arms, and more flexible logistics that enabled the Allies by 1918 to find an answer to trench defences and to some extent restore a war of movement. At sea, submarines on the one hand, but also the combination of convoy, intelligence, depth charges, and air power that enabled the Allies to keep the sea lanes open.

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, even if ephemerally?

DAVID STEVENSON: The obvious answer is the 1914 Christmas truce, and although that was not replicated subsequently we know there was a good deal of informal "live and let live" between the front-line combatants on both sides. Less well known (though now being rediscovered) is the role of the war in stimulating international humanitarian efforts. The Commission for Relief in Belgium is one of the best known examples.

MLADEN JOKSIC: The way World War I ends appears paradoxical (and fundamentally different than that of World War II). Why did the German government decide to request a ceasefire in the fall of 1918, when its forces still stood almost everywhere on Allied soil?

DAVID STEVENSON: It was a (largely unsuccessful) attempt at damage limitation. The Germans had failed to defeat the British and French in their all-out offensives of March-July 1918, and in the process had so weakened their armies that they could no longer halt the Allied and American counter-offensives of July-November. If the war had gone on into 1919, the Germans could have expected an invasion of their own territory, and they no longer had any means of turning the war around. Their army was dwindling rapidly because of surrenders and desertions, and the high command feared that it would become a rabble that could not be relied to repress revolutionary disorder at home.

MLADEN JOKSIC: It is often argued that the Treaty of Versailles made another war inevitable. Do you agree?

DAVID STEVENSON: No. If the treaty had been enforced it would have made another major war impossible because of its German disarmament provisions. As late as 1933 when Hitler became chancellor, he believed he could not risk a war against Poland, let alone against France, Britain, or the Soviet Union. What is true is that there was little chance of achieving voluntary German compliance with the treaty (though this happened to a limited extent in the late 1920s). Probably the best prospect would have been strict maintenance of the disarmament clauses coupled with economic generosity, but that would have required much closer cooperation among the victors. The post-1945 example is sometimes used to support critiques of Versailles, but actually Germany as a whole was treated more rigorously after the Second World War and until 1989, even if its western half was rehabilitated economically and diplomatically.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Is it possible to discern any positive impact of World War I on European integration?

DAVID STEVENSON: Both the German and the French governments had integration projects during the war, though neither was implemented, and neither much resembled the post-1959 integration model. A "European movement", favoring the creation of pan-European (though not federal) institutions, emerged in the mid-1920s and was more or less a direct result of the war. But customs tariffs were higher and intra-European trade levels lower for a generation after 1918, and European economic integration took a backward step.

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 led to World War I?

DAVID STEVENSON: I think this over-simplifies her position. But in any case this question looks dated. I am afraid that an all-out (and therefore nuclear) war between the U.S. and either or both of Russia and China is certainly possible, and that the international situation has become much more dangerous over the last 10 years. Some of the pre-1914 and pre-1939 characteristics are beginning to replicate themselves—rising and declining Powers, recurrent diplomatic crises, contested international alignments, and an incipient arms race. I think the most likely flashpoint that could trigger conflict is not the Middle East but the Baltic and/or the South or East China Seas. The biggest danger is that either or both of Russia and China might use armed force to challenge U.S. alliance commitments to Latvia/Lithuania/Estonia, the Philippines or Japan, miscalculating that the use of force could be localized. I don't think we are that point quite yet, but we are getting disturbingly close to it.

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

DAVID STEVENSON: The UK government's approach is generally appropriate—commemorative events on the benchmark centenary dates, an investment in new galleries at the Imperial War Museum, and (perhaps most important) facilitating battlefield visits in order to pass on an interest in and concern about the war to the next generation. It is not for the government to take a position about the various controversies that continue to surround the conflict, and it has rightly insisted that commemoration does not mean glorification. The official role should be to provide an appropriately serious and dignified framework within which ordinary citizens and their families are encouraged to explore and draw their own conclusions about these events.

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