In his four-part novel of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford has his hero, Tietjens, say to another officer at the front:
“At the beginning of the war…I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow…What do you think he was doing…what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least…. Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease; the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades…. Don’t you see how symbolical it was—the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying: There will be no more parades?…For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t. No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country…nor for the world, I dare say… None… Gone… Napoo finny! No…more…parades!”1
Tietjens was wrong, of course. Despite the horrors of the First World War and the pervasive sense that it had all but destroyed the civilization that produced it, there would be other wars and other parades to go with them. The authors of all three of the books reviewed here make it clear that Tietjens’s war was gravid with the seeds of its successors.
Donald Kagan, who writes at length about World War I, inclines to the belief that war is part of the human condition and will always be with us. He has no patience with the kind of talk about a new international system and a pax universalis that prevailed at the end of the cold war and the conflict in the Gulf, and he cites people in the past—Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Ivan Bloch, Norman Angell—who shared similar views and lived to see them confounded. The current condition of the world, he is sure, will not last. A reunified Germany will sooner or later regain military power equal to its economic strength. So will Japan, and eventually China, while the day when Russia will reassert itself as a major power is unlikely to be indefinitely postponed. Mr. Kagan believes it would be frivolous to suppose that such changes will not pose dangers to the status quo and thinks we would be better advised to study the ways war has originated in the past than to harbor the idle hope that it will not recur.
To encourage this, he has conducted what he calls an experiment in “comparative narrative history,” in which he has written accounts of the origins of four great international conflicts, the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the Second Punic War (Hannibal’s long struggle against Rome), and the Second World War, adding for good measure an examination of the Cuban missile crisis, “because it appears to have been the closest the world has come to a war between major powers since the coming of the nuclear age.”
It must be said at the outset that this exercise in comparison is a very loose and inexact one, made more so by its asymmetrical nature, the accounts of the two modern wars being much longer and more detailed than those of the ancient ones. Nor do the general conclusions that the author draws from his cases seem very impressive. He writes that “liberal republics of a democratic character, devoted to and increasingly shaped by an ethical system that is commercial, individualistic, libertarian, and hedonistic,” are much slower to resort to force, even when justified, than the city-states of antiquity, and that their peoples are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge that “the preservation of peace requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does.”
Such truths hardly need so elaborate a recapitulation of familiar facts to support them as Kagan gives us. That it is a mistake not to understand the motives of your antagonists and that politicians are often deluded about those motives have been common-places, particularly since the Munich Conference proved to be without substance, and they were reconfirmed when George Bush proved unable to stop Saddam Hussein short of war. However, if Mr. Kagan’s generalizations are not always original, they are redeemed by the fact that he is a very good storyteller, and that his case studies are a pleasure to read.
The best of these is the first, which is not surprising when one remembers that Mr. Kagan’s full-scale history of the Peloponnesian war has been described as a triumph of modern scholarship.2 Here, following Thucydides’ dictum that men are driven to war by “honor, fear, and interest,” he shows how the thirty years’ peace between Sparta and its allies on the one hand and the Athenian empire on the other was destroyed by the inflamed sense of honor of the leaders of Corinth. Purely out of a feeling that their true importance was not being recognized by their neighbors, they undertook to destroy the island of Corcyra (modern Corfu) and were prevented from doing so by the Athenians.
The Athenians had good reason for their objections—if Corinth succeeded in defeating Corcyra and confiscated its fleet, it would be a greater naval power than Athens itself and the balance of power in Greece would be subverted. It has to be said that the Athenians tried to persuade Corinth to abandon its aggressive plans by diplomatic means that would not wound its amour-propre. But the Corinthian leaders were not to be stayed, and sought the help of Sparta. In this they elected not to argue the facts of the case, but rather played on Sparta’s latent fear of Athenian expansion, hinting at the same time that, if Sparta were not prepared to protect the interests of its allies, Corinth would look elsewhere for friends. The Spartans, who had sought to remain clear of the dispute, now saw that it would be dangerous for them to do so. Their leaders tried to appease Corinth by demanding that the Athenians revoke the economic embargo that they had imposed on the citizens of Megara in order to punish them for assistance they had given to Corinth and to discourage other states from doing the same. But the Athenian leader, Pericles, refused to lift the embargo, on grounds that this would be a derogation of sovereignty and would probably only encourage other demands. Out of this deadlock, the war came.
Kagan’s description of the diplomatic struggle brilliantly demonstrates how, in a situation in which neither of the major powers had any intention of or interest in breaking the balance of power, a determined state of second rank was able to blackmail its stronger allies into doing so. He also argues persuasively that the Athenians were handicapped by the fact that the strategy chosen by Pericles, both before the onset of hostilities and afterward, suffered from a lack of real deterrent power. If Pericles, instead of seeking to deter Corinth by means of diplomacy and economic pressure, had simply attacked and defeated it by military means at the outset of the dispute, the balance with Sparta might have survived. If he had chosen any strategy for the war except the strictly defensive one he selected, the Spartans might have calculated the odds differently and abstained. As it was, the Greek world was involved in a violent conflict that lasted for almost thirty years and changed its civilization forever.
It has often been remarked that World War I arose out of the circumstances that the newly united Germany of 1871 was both too big for Europe and not big enough to be a world power. Certainly awareness of Germany’s strength and ambitions worked upon the imagination of its neighbors in much the same way as fear of Athenian expansion preoccupied Sparta and its allies: it was only Bismarck’s consistently conservative diplomacy and his avoidance of adventurism that reassured them. Kagan has compared the great Prussian statesman with Pericles, and this comparison has a double dimension, for just as Pericles’ successors departed from his policies, with fateful results, so did Bismarck’s. During the reign of William II, the emperor’s diplomats succeeded in doing something that Bismarck had always warned against: they alienated both Britain and Russia at the same time. Since France had never been reconciled to its defeat at Sedan, Europe by 1907 was divided into two armed camps, an uneasy balance that was always trembling on the verge of collapse. Now, as in ancient Greece, the control of the alliances slipped from the hands of the most powerful allies into those of the most irresponsible. With Austria and Russia alternating in the role of Corinth, all Europe was drawn into war by their machinations in the Balkans.
Seen in retrospect, there was something almost irreversible about this process, but Kagan feels that it might have been prevented with a greater exercise of will on the part of one of the players. Although he believes in general that Germany must bear the greatest responsibility for the coming of the war, he suggests that if only the British had had the courage between 1898 and 1914 to pass a conscription law and raise an army that could come swiftly and powerfully to France’s aid in case of a German attack, such an attack would never have taken place. “Unlike the Athenians,” he writes, “the British had the capacity to take all the measures needed to keep the peace through deterrence, though at great cost in money and to their traditional way of life.” That is perhaps too easily said, and it ignores the limitations set upon diplomacy by domestic politics. The prohibition of standing armies was part of the revolution that had made the English the freest people in Europe. In 1916, when they finally adopted conscription, it was with the utmost reluctance and only because they were persuaded that the step was necessary if their liberties were to be preserved. There was no way in the world, back in the years between 1898 and 1914, that they could have been persuaded that this necessity would ever arise.
The background of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage in the third century BC is a matter that scholars have wrangled over since the days of Polybius, but the main outlines are clear enough. After their hardwon victory in the First Punic War, the Romans granted their opponents a generous peace but then changed their minds, first raising the indemnity the defeated enemy was required to pay and then, in 238 BC, seizing the island of Sardinia from Carthage. The Carthaginians did not possess the power to refuse these demands, but the humiliation rankled, and Polybius believed that it was the principal cause of the second war, leading Hannibal’s father to make him swear a sacred oath that he would never forgive Rome.
Kagan agrees with Polybius. He writes:
The peace [the Romans] finally imposed on Carthage in 238 was of the least stable kind: it embittered the losers without depriving them of the capacity for seeking revenge and without establishing a system able to restrain them—and then taking the trouble to make it work.
Carthage rebuilt its strength in Spain under Hamilcar Barca, his son-in-law Hasdrubal, and finally his son Hannibal. When the Romans realized the potential threat, they sent a few nervous diplomatic missions and sought to draw a few lines in the sand, but they didn’t make demands and they laid down no conditions. Even when Hannibal finally besieged the town of Saguntum, which was under their protection, they waited eight months before going to its aid. Saguntum perished while the Senate deliberated. It was all the signal Hannibal needed for beginning his invasion of Italy.
In writing about the origins of Hannibal’s war, Kagan is clearly thinking of World War II, of which he writes:
The victorious nations in the First World War brought it to an end using language of idealistic generosity in which they did not really believe, creating utopian expectations whose inevitable collapse produced bitterness and cynicism, permitting complaints used to excuse irresponsible behavior of more than one kind. They vaguely put their hopes for peace in an international organization such as the League of Nations, though no nation abandoned any sovereignty and the League had no armed forces. When the United States failed to ratify the treaty, join the League, and give a guarantee for French security, the entire basis for preserving the peace in the face of a large, bitter, and largely intact Germany was undermined. The task of peace fell to France and Britain and, given France’s many weaknesses, that meant chiefly Britain.
So far, so good; but it is unfair for Kagan to go on to say that “the main damage to international security and the prospect of peace was done in the 1920s when Britain rapidly disarmed and abandoned Continental responsibilities, deliberately disregarding and denying the threat that Germany would inevitably pose.” A lot of things are clear to all of us now that were not self-evident to the British in the 1920s, and it should not be forgotten that that was a decade in which their minds were on other things—the postwar slump, the money owed the United States and the unfortunate debt settlement, the general strike of 1926, and finally the Great Depression.
Kagan has a great deal to say about British appeasement and gives an excellent account of the failures of the 1930s, at one point referring to the fact that the chiefs of staff were among those who urged Neville Chamberlain to make settlements with the dictators. He writes:
“Flanders” and “Passchendaele” had the same paralyzing effect on British generals as “Vietnam” and “the Tet Offensive” have had on American generals since 1975. They had their own “Never Again.”… Never again would they expose their armies to conditions in which they could not be certain of having a decisive advantage and a prospect of victory without heavy casualties….”
One has a feeling that Kagan has unconsciously slipped forward in time and become involved in the 1984 debate between former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and former Secretary of State George Shultz about a new military doctrine for the United States, when Weinberger argued that US troops should never be committed to battle unless assured of an unambiguous strategical plan, sufficient resources to assure a quick and total victory, and the undivided support of Congress and the American people, while Shultz retorted that such conditions were not, in all cases, either possible or desirable, and would be an impediment to US policy. And indeed it is perhaps permissible for Kagan to revive such issues. There is just now in the armed forces and parliamentary institutions of the United States and its allies a marked ambiguity about the use of force as an instrument of statecraft, and it deserves an airing. As George Shultz said, during the debate I have mentioned,
the hard reality is that diplomacy not backed by strength is ineffectual…. Power and diplomacy are not alternatives. They must go together, or we will accomplish very little in the world.
The Cuban missile crisis is still too recent to elicit agreement among those who remember it or have studied it. Kagan takes a very stiff line, closing his account by writing that the crisis demonstrated that
it is not enough for the state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power. The crisis came because the more powerful state also had a leader who failed to convince his opponent of his will to use its power for that purpose.
He suggests that President Kennedy was an appeaser (which he was, of course, although in a different setting and in a different sense from Neville Chamberlain) and criticizes him severely for having authorized an announcement in October 1962, before the missiles were placed in Cuba, that there was no longer, as had been popularly supposed, a “missile gap” in the Soviet Union’s favor. Kagan writes that, from the standpoint of policy and strategy, this was “amateurish and a mistake,” pushing his antagonist into a corner and “putting greater pressure upon him to take a counteraction.” But surely this announcement was made less as an act of public diplomacy than as a reassurance to the American public, which was understandably nervous about relative nuclear strength after being inaccurately told by Kennedy that there was a missile gap during the political campaign of 1960. Apart from the need to correct the record, was there not also a danger that the public, if unenlightened, would have become panicky during the crisis?
The missile crisis was not a game of Chicken, as Kagan sometimes seems to believe, but an episode to which the overused phrase “crisis management” can justifiably be applied. Whatever Khrushchev may have thought of Kennedy, the President made a shrewd assessment of his adversary. He perceived that Khrushchev didn’t really want to fight over Cuba and wouldn’t do so if dealt with patiently and given time. That involved care and delay, the promise of concessions, and the intimation that there was always the possibility that the President might be forced to resort to force by Congress and the military against his will. It was a messy procedure and not as heroic as some people would have preferred; the secret arrangement by which Kennedy agreed to remove US missiles in Turkey might have been handled better; but it worked. The military options remained firmly under civilian control; the crisis passed, and indeed had a catalytic effect, which changed the very nature of the international system, so that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were never as dangerous again.
Martin Gilbert’s history of the Great War, like his previous study of the war of 1939–1945,3 is a very long book and, since it tells the story of the fighting on all fronts from the first day to the last and does so in a chronological fashion, it imposes some strain on the reader, whose attention is regularly diverted from one part of the battlefield to another just as he was getting settled in, so to speak. As a result he sometimes loses his sense of direction completely. It is a book of facts rather than explanations. Gilbert describes the battle of Jutland but does not provide an account of the size and deployment of the Royal Navy, the German fleet, and other naval forces at the beginning of the war or of the war plans and strategies of the belligerents. He tells us of the beginning of Ludendorff’s spring offensive of 1918, but not that this commander was short of reserves and had consequently to sacrifice strategy to tactics, which explains why it failed.
Still, it is an informative and diverting book. The reader can find when the first Zeppelin was shot down by a British pilot, where the first submarine sinking was recorded, when gas was first used and where the first women munitions workers were employed, how the tank was developed (with Churchill’s role somewhat exaggerated), and how German atrocity films were made in New Jersey. Anyone curious to find out what the future great were doing in the war can follow Hitler’s career in the trenches, or that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Benito Mussolini, the future spy Richard Sorge, Erwin Rommel, Josip Broz, and Oscar Kokoschka; indeed, we are told more about Corporal Hitler than about most senior commanders. We learn what the soldiers were singing in the trenches (“Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers”) and what the British wartime poets were writing, including the bitter verse of Siegfried Sassoon which tells so much about war on the front line:
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for in- competent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Much of this, interesting as it is, could well be sacrificed in return for what has been left out of this volume. There is nothing here about wartime politics in Great Britain or in any other major country; nothing to speak of on the problems of the home front; nothing on the important conflicts between civil and military officials. To read Mr. Gilbert, one would never think that Lloyd George detested the duumvirate of Field Marshal Haig and General William Robertson, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, but was powerless to change their strategy. Nor would one know that in Germany, following the disaster of Verdun in 1916, the replacement of General Erich von Falkenhayn by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff was in effect the imposition of a military dictatorship. Gilbert writes as if the Kaiser were in effective command during the war. In truth, he could save neither Falkenhayn nor Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg nor the foreign minister Richard von Kuhlmann, and much of the time he was kept deliberately uninformed about military matters by his officers.
Just as unfortunate and unnecessary as these flaws (which could have been set right had Gilbert read Konrad Jarausch’s biography of Bethmann,4 which is not in his bibliography) is the scant attention paid to the United States. Here such important themes as American isolationism, Wilson’s attitude in 1914, the 1915 mission of Colonel House, and the subsequent development of Wilson’s diplomacy are passed over, for the most part, in silence. This makes it difficult to understand the tremendous authority the President had all over Europe at the war’s end.
Still, Gilbert has written with much feeling and sensitivity of the generation whose lives were lost in the Great War. The questions that remain and that he might still address, were recently evoked by Michael Howard:
As the great wars of 1914–1945 cease to be part of contemporary consciousness and sink into “the past,” it becomes all the more important for historians to recapture the mood, the ideas and the general culture that made it possible for the peoples of Europe to endure and inflict upon themselves such prolonged suffering and destruction.5
Laurence V. Moyer’s study of the home front in Germany during the Great War is a very good book that includes a lot of material that will be new to most Western historians of the war. He has worked his way systematically through the secondary literature, which includes printed documents on the state of the working class during the war and the causes of the collapse of 1918, as well as such pioneering economic studies as those of Gerald Feldman and Volker Berghahn; and he has used thirty German periodicals and newspapers as well as archives in Washington, Stanford, Munich, Duisburg, and Dortmund.6 On the basis of what he has found there he has been able to throw much new light, not only on economic conditions during the war, but also on mood, morale, and dissent and the way they fluctuated from campaign to campaign. Not the least interesting aspect of the book is what it tells us of the widening gap in perception that existed between the military command and civilians on the home front. The public, which had been exposed to a great deal of propaganda and very few facts, was actually expecting an overwhelming victory at the very moment that Ludendorff was demanding that Prince Max von Baden sue for an armistice.
In his introduction to Moyer’s book, John Keegan points out that, whereas the British people suffered serious shortages in 1917 as a result of the submarine blockade, Germany was blockaded by sea from the very beginning of the war, and that the extension of hostilities to Eastern Europe cut off the rich grain resources of the Ukraine as well. Industry had to get along with the stockpiles provided by Walter Rathenau’s War Raw Materials Section in the War Ministry and what German science could do to substitute for shortages in rubber, chemical raw materials, and nonferrous metals. Bread was rationed as early as 1915, but in the spring of 1916 this was true also of butter and potatoes and, at the end of the year, of meat, sugar, eggs, milk, fats, coal, and many other commodities. In January 1916, the government forbade the annual department store “white sales” of clothing, towels, sheets, and fabrics, and, a month later, seized all woven materials to be sure the needs of the front were satisfied. Before long there was a severe clothing shortage; suits were made of paper and other substitutes for cloth.
The year 1917 saw the failure of the potato harvest, which was followed by the so-called “turnip winter,” and from then on conditions deteriorated rapidly, with rigid rationing but a very lively black market that served the needs of the rich, and with occasional food riots. In April 1917 there was a walkout of 200,000 workers from war plants in Berlin and in the second half of the year there were demonstrations and the plundering of food shops in Dortmund, Halle, Merseburg, and Leipzig. Bread was adulterated with barley, oats, and pulverized straw, and there were serious signs of malnutrition, particularly on the part of children. The efficiency of the bureaucracy kept matters from getting out of hand, and there were occasional upturns in the supply of potatoes and other items; but this didn’t last long, and by the summer of 1918 the cupboard was bare all across Germany. “There simply wasn’t enough to go round,” Moyer writes, “forcing food authorities to juggle slender supplies in a balancing act which produced more anger, frustration and bitterness.”
The straw that broke the collective back was the news that the grain that was to flow from the Ukraine after the signature of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would not be coming after all because of civil war in that region. As Ludendorff’s offensive began to fall back in the west, government authority was beginning to break down in some parts of the country, and there were signs of moral collapse in the great cities. While large portions of the public were suffering from respiratory illnesses and malnutrition, theaters were crammed and the stands at Mariendorf race track in Berlin were filled with people with lots of money in their pockets and a desire to put it on long shots. The unexpected news of the army’s call for an armistice was all that was needed to bring on the general crisis of confidence that encouraged, and for a time sustained, the revolution.
The outside world refused to believe how close Germany was to starvation in November 1918. On Armistice night Winston Churchill dined at 10 Downing Street with Lloyd George, F.E. Smith, and Sir Henry Wilson. When the talk turned to the desperate condition of their recent antagonist, Churchill proposed sending “a dozen great ships crammed with provisions” into Hamburg at once.7 This was not done, the victors preferring to keep the blockade in place until the Germans had signed the Peace Treaty. It was not until March 1919, after repeated German pleas, that the first fissure appeared in the blockade, and the first trickle of food from abroad reached the German states. By then there had been much suffering and not a few deaths.
Moyer notes that when it was all over, there were many Germans who rejoiced in the fall of the regime that had brought the war down on their country, and many who had hopes for the future of the republic. But he adds that, for most people in the middle class, who had proudly given their sons to the army, who had patriotically obeyed all of the wartime regulations and tolerated all of the restrictions and rationing, and who had seen their savings eaten away by wartime inflation,
not even that silver lining existed; for many of them, no “better world” flowed from either the war or the Revolution, no compensating benefit… Their sons had sacrificed their lives for nothing. They had died in vain. From this arose so much of the bourgeois trauma which influenced and colored postwar German life. It fed political movements as diverse as a militant pacifism and a violent nationalism, a brutal anti-Semitism and an idealistic internationalism; it generated countless cross-currents of irrationalism and mysticism, a searching examination in religion, the arts, and life itself. On the battlefields of modern France, the comfortable, rational, optimistic world of the nineteenth century drowned in rivers of blood.
The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in May of this year will evoke both reflection on the role of war in our century and speculation about its future. There will be those who will argue that, after Verdun, Coventry, Dresden, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the long agony of Vietnam, we have gone just about as far as we can go in violating Clausewitz’s warning against allowing war to assume its absolute form; that we have, at long last, made it unusable; and that, indeed, if we are lucky, it may even become irrelevant as a result of present tendencies toward the globalization of the world economy, the simultaneous creation of a new international society of nongovernment elites and multilateral organizations, and the appearance of complex forms of interdependence between states and peoples, particularly in the economic sphere but extending also into ecological and biospheric systems. These developments are already forcing modification of old assumptions about the essential characteristics and instruments of international politics.
Realists will doubtless answer that it will take decades before such tendencies change the essential character of the international system, which will continue in the meantime to operate in old ways. Thus Donald Kagan argues the necessity of studying “the outbreak of wars between states in an international system, such as we find in the world today,” because such study will provide guidance for the future.
This may, however, be of limited usefulness. It is striking to note that the highest incidence of war in today’s world is not between states but within them, between resentful minorities and inflamed nationalists in places like Somalia and Rwanda, and Bosnia and Chechnya, and that these internal conflicts are not susceptible to control by the coercive diplomacy of the Great Powers or their threats to intervene with their superior military resources. Indeed, the best chance of promoting peace and security in the unstable parts of the world would seem to lie not in traditional ways but in new ones, and particularly in the new techniques devised and practiced by the United Nations in preventive diplomacy, peace-making, peace-keeping, and peace-building—activities in which war has a subordinate, although not an unimportant, role.
If this is true, it seems singularly wrongheaded for the new majority in the US House of Representatives to try to base a foreign policy on the building up of traditional weapons against unspecified, and perhaps nonexistent, antagonists, while doing all it can to hamper the UN’s attempts to deal with the new forms of war that endanger us all.
April 20, 1995
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End (Charles Boni, 1924–1928). (No More Parades, Part 1, Chapter 1.) ↩
Donald Kagan, A New History of the Peloponnesian War: Volume One, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; Volume Two, The Archidamian War; Volume Three, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition; Volume Four, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Cornell University Press, 1969–1987). ↩
Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History (Holt, 1989). ↩
Konrad H. Jarausch, The Enigmatic Chancellor: Bethmann Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany (Yale University Press, 1973). ↩
Michael Howard, “Patriotism at a dead end,” The Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 1995. ↩
The archives include those of the American Relief Administration in the Hoover Institution, relevant files on German political and internal affairs in the US Department of State, and the papers of the Bavarian Department of Trade and the state archives of Duisburg and Dortmund. ↩
Winston Churchill, The World Crisis (Scribner’s, 1927), Volume IV. ↩