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Monday, August 23, 2004

The New Yorker on World War I

For several years now, I've been fascinated with the Great War: it's been so influential on subsequent history, it's so unknown, and it was so full of misery and stupidity. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik has an excellent article reviewing several recent books about the First World War. More accurately, the first half, which covers political and cultural issues, is terrific. The second half, on military issues, is crap.

Here's an example of the terrific part, where Gopnik points out that recent scholarship has shown that WWI wasn't an accident, the result of escalation and alliances run amok. Instead, many of the actors in Germany and Austria-Hungary longed for war and schemed to bring it about. To a lesser extent, the Russians and the French also looked forward to the prospect.

[One interpretation], made famous by Barbara Tuchman in "The Guns of August" and later given a memorable name in her book "The March of Folly," is that the war was made inescapable by a Laoco�n-like entanglement of treaties and alliances and military mobilization plans. In addition, the workings of the German "Schlieffen" plan have long been thought to have swept everyone up into battle before anyone had entirely decided to go to war. The plans called for so many men to be mobilized in such specific stages that, once the trains began to roll (and the defensive troop trains began to roll in reaction), nothing could have been done to stop them. The rulers of Europe went away on absent-minded July holidays to their old familiar spas, but the troops and trains kept on rolling in the background. The serpents were around the throat of liberal civilization before anyone had clearly imagined what might happen.

This most famous inevitablism has been revised so thoroughly that it, too, is essentially defunct. In part, this is the result of a 1961 study by the great German historian Fritz Fischer, who, moved by a desire for Germans to face the hard facts of a militarism that did not begin in 1933, insisted that the directly guilty parties were the German chief of general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, and the Austro-Hungarian chief of general staff, Franz Conrad von H�tzendorff. They were determined to have the war, Fischer insisted, and deliberately manipulated the situation, including encouraging all those holidays, on the German side, to prevent anyone from acting decisively to stop them. Fromkin's [recent] book is, essentially, Fischer's view put into lively, popular English.

I think this is basically right, and Gopnik's review is full of fascinating details about the march to war. For example, Gopnik, describing the yearning of European intellectuals for a "cleansing" war, reports this passage from a Sherlock Holmes story:
In "His Last Bow," Holmes's last adventure, which is set in the summer of 1914, Holmes says to Watson, "It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."

In general, Gopnik gets the military issues entirely wrong. Most egregiously, he confuses deaths with casualties (the total killed, wounded, or captured), reporting that 260,000 French were killed during the first month of the war, and 50,000 killed in a single day at the Somme. The actual figures are 75,000 and 20,000.* The New Yorker's stellar reputation for fact-checking may be somewhat overblown.

But even the passage about the "march of folly" quoted above falls down when it comes to the military details. Before WWI, all the continental Great Powers had war plans that were essentially detailed train schedules. They literally spent years developing plans to mobilize a million reservists, and load them onto trains along with their horse, equipment, and other supplies, for the trip to the front. The recent scholarship that downplays the German "Schlieffen" war plan that Gopkin cites is talking about what would happen after the troops got off the trains and started marching, it's not denying that the Great Powers had put together 1000s of pages of railroad timetables.

If nothing else, this elaborate plan -- and each country only had one or at most two -- made it hard for civilian authorities to overrule the military. At one point in the march to war, the Kaiser thought that France might remain neutral, and Germany could attack only Russia. Moltke, the German military chief of staff, told the Kaiser it was impossible: the plan was to send most troops against France, and there was only one plan. Similarly, the Czar at one point proposed mobilizing only against Austria-Hungary, and not against Germany. Had this been done, there might have been no world war: the war might have been limited to Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia. But Russian military leaders told him too that modifying the plan was impossible. And the military leaders were not spinning tales. Austria-Hungary did modify its mobilization plan at the last minute, sending more forces against Russia at Germany's insistence. This change led to chaos, with troops languishing in rail depots for weeks.

Gopkin also misunderstands the role of the Americans, claiming that their entry was not a "turning point," and that recent writers have been "unimpressed" with their contribution. Absurdly, he says that instead the "war wound down from exhaustion," as if this somehow contradicts the importance of the American army. It is true that the American contribution to the fighting was minor, less than 100,000 dead, a pittance by the standards of the Great War. But by the end of the war, the American army was about half the size of the French or British, would have doubled in 1919, and consisted of fresh troops, while the other combatents were scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Germans could see perfectly well that they would be overwhelmed in 1919, and so they rolled the dice and launched a series of costly attacks in early 1918, hoping to win before the Americans arrived in large numbers. When the German attacks failed, their troops were demoralized, their generals lost their nerve, and the German army soon collapsed.

* See Strachan "To Arms," p. 230 for the 75,000 figure. The number killed during the first day of the Somme (20,000) is extremely well known and can be found in almost any book about WWI.

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