A few months ago I read Barbara Truchman’s classic book The Guns of August in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of World War I. It’s a fantastic account of the first month of the war, especially of all the mistakes and assumptions that led to the needless deaths of thousands of soldiers. I especially enjoyed reading it because WWI tends to get overshadowed by WWII here in the U.S. Perhaps it’s because the Nazis make such compelling villains or because WWII simply was the last great war, either way as a society we focus more on the period after 1939 than on what came before. As such, Truchman’s book offered me a valuable education on the subject and also opened my eyes to what I believe are some lasting lessons from the conflict. They are, in no particular order:
Being surrounded and having a sense of superiority/right to rule don’t mix
This is a big one. In the period leading up to the War, Germany came to believe it was a great and historic civilization, destined to be the future of the world, and entitled to the expansion long denied it by other powers. Yet, when the Germans would threaten and pressure other European states in an attempt to put their plan into action, for example by building a navy to rival Britain’s, Berlin was surprised when they answered by forming alliances, rather than capitulating. Germany responded by crying “Encirclement!!” and the cycle continued unabated until it finally led to war in 1914.
Every modern nation that has achieved great power status has done so by believing fervently in its superiority and its right to expand. Yet there’s a big difference between the aspiring powers that sought greatness at the immediate expense of neighboring states of equal power and those that were largely in uncontested neighborhoods. Take for example Britain, which became the predominant power by defeating an expansionary neighbor (Napoleon and the French fleet) and then grew even more powerful by unleashing the Industrial Revolution and building a globe-spanning empire. Or take the United States, which was able to develop largely unmolested thanks to its separation from Europe and the lack of strong neighbors.
The difference between these examples and that of Germany, or say Imperial Spain, is that neither the UK nor the US had territorial ambitions that directly threatened the security of a neighboring great power. They warred over colonies or other distant aspirations, but never aimed to take possession of another great power’s territory. This is key because of how it relates to the security dilemma. The security dilemma refers to when the attempts of one state to augment its security, say by spending more on the military, cause other states to respond similarly, thereby producing a vicious circle that can lead to conflict even when no one wants to fight.
The security dilemma explains why Germany’s mixture of geography, ambition, and indignity was so toxic. Deprived of significant overseas colonies, and with nowhere to achieve its aspirations for greatness except at the territorial expense of its neighbors, Germany set off a security dilemma in the heart of Europe. Furthermore, Berlin’s attempts to overcome the problem by trying to intimidate its neighbors only made things worse, leading to the arms race, alliances, and trip-wire military plans that sparked the conflict.
Winning the war of popular opinion is key
Germany’s greatest mistake wasn’t fighting a war on two fronts (it managed that just fine) but rather adopting a strategy that pinned it as the aggressor (Schleiffen plan) as well as using brutal tactics in occupied territories, such as Belgium, that turned world opinion against it. The reports of slaughtered Belgian citizens and razed cities and towns made garnering public support for a war against Germany much easier in undecided states such as Great Britain and the U.S. Likewise, the label of Germany as the aggressor allowed the Allies to push for a far more punishing peace deal at Versailles. It was a legacy Germany wouldn’t overcome until after the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.
Listen to the dissenters and “crazies”
World War I was, in many ways, Act II of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. For France, the capture of Alsace-Lorraine was a national humiliation that had to be avenged. For Germans, despite winning the conflict and even proclaiming national unification at Versailles, the war failed to resolve the chief challenges they believed faced their country, namely the need to ensure Germany’s ability to grow and prosper within the European continent. This meant dealing once and for all with Germany’s geographic situation. Sandwiched in the center of the continent between France and Russia, and hemmed in by the British Navy, Berlin felt it had nowhere to go and was being actively conspired against by its rivals, who envied Germany’s strong economic and population growth. As such, France and Germany both believed another war was inevitable and planned accordingly.
Both countries’ militaries spent years preparing detailed war plans. In Germany, Schleiffen advocated storming through neutral Belgium with a strong, far-right wing, instructing his staff to “Let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.” The idea was to unleash the entire force of Germany’s Army in one massive blow that would swing down, encircle the routed French forces, and end with the capture of Paris. Opposite Schleiffen was of the General Staff of the French Armies, which espoused one tactic and one tactic only: the offensive. Instead of yielding to France’s geographic situation, which favored the defensive, the brass decided it would counter Germany’s strong right wing by attacking its weaker left in a bid to drive into the Rhine and defeat the Germany Army from behind.
In the process of developing these strategies, all dissent was snuffed out. They became not so much battle plans as holy scriptures. Suggestions that modern technology favored the defensive, or that a quick war was impossible were ignored, and the people who espoused them driven from power. Even proposals as sensible as changing the French uniform, with its bright red hat and pants, to something less visible, was considered a dangerous step away from the bold doctrine of the offensive and all the flair and spirit needed to carry it through. Sadly, the consequence of such obstinacy was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
These are just a few of the takeaways I got from The Guns of August. I’m sure if I had written this right after reading it I’d have more to say. If you’re interested in the military origins of the War as well as its dramatic first month of action, I highly recommend the book. If you’re more interested in just the political conditions that led to the conflict, I recommend Kissinger’s classic Diplomacy.