The Origins and Legacies of World War I
The United States and the League of Nations: 1918-1920
Combatants fight while a war is on. Historians fight about the war when it is over. Few topics have been so fertile in historical disputes as war origins. The most ruthless aggressor likes to claim that he was provoked into war by the other side. No doubt Attila used to grumble that he would have remained a peaceful shepherd in Asia if the Romans had not offended his moral sensibilities by their vulgar luxury. In the nineteenth century, we know, the redskins were always the aggressors, and even General Custer set out on his massacres with the utmost reluctance. The earliest job of the historian was to justify the wars of his chieftain, and most historians have remained true to their assignment. Nearly all school textbooks and most academic historians still conclude that their own nation has been more often right than wrong. If American historians dispute this about themselves, they will endorse it about Russian historians, and the Russians feel the same the other way round.
In recent times, some historians have reacted against this prostitution of their calling and have been prepared at any rate to examine the case for the other side. This broadmindedness is said to be a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon virtue, though French historians have done pretty well against Napoleon and even German historians against Bismarck. Still, it was Anglo-Saxon, and especially American, historians who first took a detached view about the First. World War, and their outlooks have fed controversy to the present day. This impartiality is a difficult operation. Ideally, a historian should write with his eye set on eternity. The reader should not be able to deduce a historian’s nationality, his creed, or even the epoch in which he wrote. This is a counsel of perfection. No historian escapes the climate or the prejudices of his own society. When he tries to do so, he often falls over on to the other side, or seems to do so.
I experienced this myself when I once tried to consider the origins of the Second World War in scholarly detachment. Since I was an active propagandist for opposing Hitler from the day he came to power, it did not occur to me that anyone would see in my book a defense of him and his policy. But so it proved. What had been written as explanation was condemned as apology, and the condemnation was reinforced by personal abuse. (Only the other day, I learned from the American journal Dissent that I had been a member of the notorious Cliveden set—a group of people whom I had never met and often denounced.) I do not mind this from English historians, at any rate when their record is as clean as mine. I take it hardly from Americans, citizens of a country which entered the Second World War only when it was attacked and had no choice. Yet most of this controversy is unnecessary. The origins of the Second World War are clearer than those of other wars. In a confused, stumbling way, Hitler, like most German statesmen, assumed that Germany should become the dominant Power in Europe. The British government first dithered toward acquiescence and were then pushed into opposing him by the national pride of their own people. Everything else followed from this.
The origins of the First World War are a different matter. This really was a confused affair. No one was quite clear how it had started, and few people knew precisely why they were fighting while it was on. War aims became as much a tangle as war origins. Great ideals were mixed with imperialist ambitions, and neither provided the full motive. Afterwards, men hoped that they would discover the explanation if they had enough knowledge, and the secret records were combed over with unparalleled industry. The results were disappointing. As usually happens, greater knowledge did not produce greater wisdom. It merely produced greater knowledge. Fifty years have gone by since the First World War ended. Yet no historian could put forward a view of its origins which would command universal acceptance, and even the predominant view is shifting all the time.
Crudely put, there are three possible ways of explaining the First World War. The first is to blame mainly Germany. The second is to blame one or more of the Entente Powers. The third is to blame nobody and to assert that the war was produced by “the system” or lack of system—international anarchy or the alliances or capitalist imperialism. Advocates for each of these views have been found in most countries, though few German historians blamed Germany until recently. Among Americans, Bernadotte Schmitt put most of the blame on the Germans. Harry Elmer Barnes put most of the blame on the Entente. Sidney B. Fay delivered what seemed to be an impartial verdict.
The ups and downs of these rival views provide an interesting study. Hardly anyone now goes along with Barnes, who was incidentally a revisionist radical and by no means a pro-German. No one now thinks that Poincaré and Sazonov plotted to trap an innocent Germany, just as no one now accepts Bernard Shaw’s theory that the war was “the last spring of the old Lion,” carefully arranged by Sir Edward Grey. But Fay had a long run. Between the wars, his book was undoubtedly regarded as the most serene and scholarly study of war origins, and Schmitt was under a cloud. Since the Second World War, opinion has swung the other way. An Italian historian, Albertini, produced a book which is much the largest if not the best on its subject, and which largely endorsed Schmitt’s approach. The Second World War led some historians to recognize that the fact of your own country being at war does not necessarily provide that its case is wrong. Finally, a German historian, Fritz Fischer, has shown from the archives the extent of German ambitions during and, more contestably, before the First World War. Indeed we now know that Bethmann’s ambitions were more extensive than Hitler’s, though accompanied with more soul-searching and breast-beating. As a result, Schmitt is on the top of the wave. His book is now regarded as the best on the origins of the First World War, an opinion which I have always held. Fay’s book is forgotten except in the backwoods, an outlook which I have also always shared. But it would be rash to conclude that the controversy is now over. When British and French archives are explored for the war period, some startling war aims will be discovered, and there will be a renewed outcry that the Entente Powers were fighting for sordid aims.
These changing fashions are reflected in the book which Professor Fleming has written in retirement. It is not a book of much originality or distinction. Professor Fleming deserves respect. He was the first American historian to write critically about the Cold War, when others were loyally marching on the side of national prejudice. But wise and scholarly views do not necessarily make a man a good writer or even an effective historian. Professor Fleming is by no means a pro-Communist. He is and always has been a thoroughgoing Wilsonian. Some American radicals became revisionist isolationists. Professor Fleming championed the League of Nations and dated all subsequent ills to the day when the United States refused to join it.
I puzzled where I had heard these views before. Light broke in on me. Our English equivalent of Professor Fleming was the late Konni Zilliacus, an influential writer in his time. Zilliacus started as an official of the League of Nations and remained loyal to it when he became a political pamphleteer. The Covenant of the League was for him the answer to all international problems, and he believed that if it were enforced all would be well. He advanced various explanations of why it was not enforced. Sometimes he blamed the feebleness of individual statesmen; sometimes he blamed the Fascist sympathies of capitalists. He never considered the possibility that the Covenant and indeed the whole conception of the League was an unsuitable instrument—dangerous when it did not work and even more dangerous when it did, a recipe in Barnes’s phrase for making perpetual war in the name of perpetual peace.
Zilliacus, like Professor Fleming, developed the same enthusiasm for the Charter of the United Nations, again the answer to all mankind’s ills. Enforce the Charter was his constant cry. The Charter said that the five Great Powers were peaceful and friendly to each other. Therefore they were peaceful and friendly, and anyone who suggested otherwise was betraying the cause of peace. Since the Soviet Russians have always been more skillful than others at observing the letter of the law, Zilliacus usually found himself arguing the Soviet case. But he had no basic tendency in their favor. When they broke the law, as they did over Finland, he went against them more passionately than others—aided no doubt by the fact that he was by origin a Finn. In Professor Fleming Zilliacus has come again.
The earlier part of Professor Fleming’s book on the origins of the First World War derives from lecture notes which he must have compiled long ago. This is the straight Fay doctrine: the rival alliances made war more likely and finally produced it. One could argue more plausibly the other way round. Europe had an unprecedented period of peace between 1871 and 1914, and this peace was secured by the very means which are alleged to have caused the First World War. Bismarck’s system of alliances kept the peace in the decade after the Congress of Berlin, and European peace was reinforced when the Franco-Russian alliance established a Balance of Power. F. H. Hinsley has argued that the war broke out because Germany had grown too strong and the Balance of Power therefore broke down. This seems the reverse of what German statesmen felt at the time—that the Balance of Power was moving against them. Maybe therefore the First World War was caused by what happened in 1914 and not by what had happened in the thirty years before.
Professor Fleming comes near to this. For when he reaches 1914 he scraps his old notes and is converted to the views of Fritz Fischer. It now appears that Germany was the only country inclined toward war because of the military spirit of her rulers. The alliances had little to do with it. Austria-Hungary was a German cause, with an alliance or without. And national independence was a French and Russian cause, even if they had not been allied. The match was certainly supplied by Vienna. The Hapsburg Monarchy was growing increasingly feeble, and the Austrian statesmen, themselves a feeble lot, thought that it would totter into the grave, unless they made some violent demonstration against nationalist Serbia. The Germans welcomed this demonstration and were eager to back it even at the risk of general war. That was really all that happened. There was no premeditation, no deliberate conspiracy for domination. Statesmen were taken for a ride by their previous habits and produced a war by behaving as they had often done before. The deterrent failed to deter, as was bound to happen sooner or later.
There are two quite different morals which one could draw from this story. One is to say that a world of sovereign states is hopeless. One day someone will make a mistake again, and there will be another war. The only solution is to close the whole system down. Since mankind shows no inclination to do this, the historian may shrug his shoulders and say: “To Hell with the lot of them.” A way of dodging this conclusion is to lure mankind into giving up sovereign states without noticing. This and none other was the purpose of the League of Nations and the United Nations. But men are not deceived, and the United Nations has not been able to prevent two wars from growing where one grew before. If you get killed in Korea, you are dead, and it makes no difference whether you are dead for democracy or communism or the United Nations.
The belief that war could be cured by a system rested historically on the Fay school, which taught that the First World War had been caused by lack of system. In the Fay view, no one nation was more at fault than another. The problem of the Second World War was evaded by asserting that it had been caused by one wicked man, not by the German people. Fay’s followers were indignant, logically enough, at any suggestion that Hitler was in line with previous German policy. Of course, they were also anxious that, if Hitler were not merely a wicked man, they would have to discard their lecture notes and start again. Fritz Fischer has made things worse for them. Now the demonstration has been made both ways round. Not only did Hitler resemble his predecessors. They resembled him.
In this case there follows an alternative moral to be drawn from the First World War. It is that Germany was growing too big for Europe—too many Germans and too great German resources. The victors of 1919 had some idea of this, but they could think of no answer. Their only solution lay in restrictions imposed by treaty—another system, but a system all the same. Reliance on treaty rights and international rules led up to the Second World War. At its end, statesmen were no nearer a solution than before, as witness the extraordinary idea (promoted by some historians) that Germany could be taught democracy in a few elementary lessons. Fortunately events provided a solution. Germany was partitioned, quite unintentionally and to the accompaniment of general moaning. This was a wonderful stroke of luck. Germany will be no great nuisance to the world while partition lasts, and there is no chance of its disappearing unless Soviet Russia and the United States resume their close association of the Second World War—and then even a united Germany could do no great harm.
The German problem is temporarily solved. No other Great Power is fundamentally dissatisfied with its place in the world. It looks as though we are safe from a great war and will be troubled only with small wars. The partition of Germany may not last forever. But it promises to last our time, and that is something to be thankful for. Such, at any rate, is one possible moral to be drawn from the study of recent history.
Big Wars and Small Wars March 27, 1969