Oct 15, 2007

Book Review: Decisions for War - 1914

French heavy cavalry parade through Paris on the way to war in August 1914Wilson, Keith (ed.)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995

Left: French heavy cavalry parade through Paris on the way to war in August 1914; click for larger image

Keith Wilson is a professor of international politics at the University of Leeds, and in editing this text he selected historical specialists who provided insight into the motives behind nine of the belligerent nations in the First World War. Organized in a thematic fashion on a country-by-country basis, Decisions for War 1914 offers in-depth perspectives that are sometimes lacking in other books on the origins of the war that are designed for general readers. In a similar vein, readers of this text benefit from these individual analyses, which attempt to show the way the world looked in 1914 from the perspective of decision makers of the featured European nations.

The chapter on Austria-Hungary was penned by Fritz Fellner, and the author was critical of Habsburg leaders for what he described as “frivolity and arrogance” in launching a third Balkan War that would be used by German leaders as an opportunity to further their geopolitical aims in a wider global conflict. Fellner is a proponent of the “blank check” theory as a cause of the First World War, in which the agreement by Kaiser Wilhelm II to support Austria-Hungary in the event of Russian intervention in the Balkans was viewed as a reckless move that turned a localized conflict into a global war:
But it must be the case that immediately after the German Emperor had given the Austro-Hungarian envoys the assurances of his support for the military action against Serbia, the machinery was set in motion in the German Empire that – without regard for the interests of its own ally – was to start a preventive war against the other great powers.
The book’s analysis of the German decision makers was completed by John C.G. Röhl, a professor of European history at the University of Sussex. The author described German policy during the July 1914 crisis as “one of the great disasters of world history,” placing primary blame for the First World War on the Kaiser and his military and civilian advisers. German leaders, Röhl argued, were convinced that a war with Russia and the Triple Entente was inevitable, and that Germany’s best hopes were to be found in a preventive war that took advantage of “what appeared [to German leaders] to be extremely favourable circumstances.” This approach, one that expresses the view that German leaders such as Jagow, Stumm, and Bethmann Hollweg willfully sought war in 1914, differs from historians who argue that the German leadership was only guilty of poor leadership. This willfulness, argued Röhl, was the “true purpose behind German policy,” and the author maintained that the actions of the other European powers should be seen as responses to belligerent German foreign policy. Röhl, however, skirted around the issue of whether there was any merit in the belief by the German leadership that Germany was being hemmed in by powerful enemies.

Dead soldiers on the battlefield after the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914Left: Dead soldiers on the battlefield after the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914; click for larger image

Mark Cornwall examined the responses of the Serbs in light of the July 1914 crisis, and one of the author’s goals was to rehabilitate the historical reputation of Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. Contemporaries of Pašić generally villified the Serbian leader; Cornwall noted that Italian journalist Luigi Albertini argued that Pašić did “little or nothing to avert the Austrian démarche,” while Serbian Prince Djordje accused Pašić of “kissing the hand which will strike us.” Pašić, argued Cornwall, attempted to walk a tightrope between election-year nationalism at home and conciliation with the Habsburgs after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Moreover, Pašić received reasuring signals from the other Great Powers, which Cornwall argued led the Serbian prime minister to believe that there would be formal intervention by France and Russia to help defuse the crisis. Finally, argued Cornwall, the 48-hour ultimatum and wholly unreasonable demands by the Austrians left Pašić with little choice, as “the document contained demands that no sovereign state could accept.”

Russian historians, argued Keith Neilson, have traditionally depicted the Tsar’s participation in the First World War as a function of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Neilson described this tendency as “inadequate and essentially sterile,” and argued that understanding the Russian decision to enter the war necessitates that scholars grasp the contextual roles of the Russian economy, military, foreign policy, and decision-making processes. Contrary to traditional depictions of the Russian economy as backward prior to 1914, Neilson argued that Russia was “typical of the rapidly growing economies of the era,” and that “the Russian economy before 1914 was sufficient to support Russia’s status as a Great Power.” The Russian military, Neilson maintained, had “recovered from the debilitating experience of the Russo-Japanese War,” and that Russian diplomacy “was no longer precluded by military weakness.” Moreover, argued Neilson, Russian diplomacy “had a decade of failure behind it,” and Russian embarassments in the 1911 Moroccan crisis and in the First Balkan War “engendered a growing sense of irritation in Russia.” Finally, the author noted, ministers such as Stolypin and Kokovtsov – who had previously steered Russia away from European conflicts – had been replaced with ministers much more willing to risk war. Seen within this context, Neilson argued that the Russian decision to support Serbia against the Habsburgs was “almost a foregone conclusion,” and the Russian government was prepared “to risk a conflict rather than abdicate its position as a Great Power.”

German civilians killed in East Prussia during initial conflict with Russians in 1914Left: German civilians killed in East Prussia during initial conflict with Russians in 1914; click for larger image

John F.V. Keiger examined the history of the French decisions during the July crisis, and argued that there were two significant factors that influenced the policies of President Raymond Poincaré and his advisors. The first of these was the French state visit to Russia and the Scandinavian countries, which kept Poincaré and Premier René Viviani “literally and metaphorically at sea.” Keiger noted that Berlin and Viennese diplomats deliberately waited until Poincaré and Viviani sailed from Russia to issue the infamous ultimatum to Serbia, effectively crippling the ability of the French and Russians to coordinate a response. The French decision to enter the war, argued Keiger, was also predicated by the strategy of “ensuring that any decision for war should be perceived as being defensive by both domestic and foreign opinion.” This posture served two purposes: the French government could count on a unified nation desirous of repulsing a foreign invader, and British support would be more likely to materialize if the French were seen as victims. Poincaré, argued Krieger, was “constrained by events into taking his country into war – a defensive war,” and the French President’s “freedom to choose a different course of action was severely limited.”

Given the fact that their country was invaded, argued Jean Stengers, the Belgians did not decide to go to war, and their decisions were limited to “whether to resist the invasion, and if [Belgium] did resist, how?” Prior to the invasion, noted Stengers, Belgian neutrality was never questioned, but the country’s ability and will to defend itself were not taken seriously by either France or Germany, and thus the attitudes of the Belgians should war break out “could not be fully forseen.” The Germans failed to anticipate the high degree of resistance and outrage that would be displayed by ordinary Belgians, and the German ultimatum sent to the Belgians on 2 August 1914 was a “terrible psychological blunder” that could have been better handled by simply invading the country and later explaining the move as a necessary pre-emptive military action.

Austrian soldiers executing Serbian POWs in 1917Austrian soldiers executing Serbian POWs in 1917; click for larger image

Wilson, editor of this fine anthology, contributed an essay on the British decision-making process in 1914. The author eschewed the broadly contextual approach used by most of the other contributors in favor of a style that reads in an almost epistolary fashion, weaving narrative with excerpts of diplomatic and political documents. While this technique means that the essay necessarily sacrifices some analytical structure and cohesiveness, Wilson created a compelling exposition of the frenetic efforts by British leaders such as Sir Edward Grey. The author also worked to redeem the historical reputation of Grey, who has been maligned by the likes of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Sir Henry Wilson. The author depicted Grey as a dedicated public servant whose primary goal was to develop a non-partisan, unified response to the crisis, and who showed courage and resolve in moving toward a war stance “as soon as the Russian government made it clear that they would not tolerate a forcible Austro-Hungarian solution of the Serbian problem.”

Decisions for War 1914 also includes essays on the Japanese and Ottoman decisions to enter the war as allies of, respectively, the Entente and the Central Powers. The inclusion of these contributions helps readers better understand that the European war quickly assumed global dimensions, and that the decisions made by a few handfuls of European diplomats, politicians, and generals affected the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people on six continents. The only significant omission from this text would be a chapter on Italy, whose decision to avoid war in 1914 deprived the Central Powers of an important ally, while ultimately leading to an Italian entry into the Entente a year later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Should GWB read tis? Oh wait, too late, sorry.