The Stress of Total War in WWI

17 May

The Stress of Total War
The idea, or concept of “Total War” was fraught with pitfalls and risk for select governments during the Great War – Germany proved a key example of the inherent dangers. Nations stood to lose the fruits of earlier conquests – as Hamilton and Herwig offer, Germany stood to lose overseas possessions should a European war occur.[1] Total War in this new industrial age meant that those countries which had the economic means to do so – put their nations at risk for the potential of an economic collapse by complete mobilization; even if this economic mobilization was only defensive in nature and not imperialistic. Hew Strachan writes that “Berlin’s aggressive policy of Weltpolitik and unrestrained navalism after 1900 had alarmed most of Europe” which could have only evolved as a product of the industrial revolution; that was radically different from previous methods of waging war.[2] Strachan is quick to point out however that Total War does not imply modern war – in fact the opposite in this case.

National Suitability for Total War
Britain, America, France, and Germany were well-suited to withstand the rigors of Total War more so than the other belligerents due to their rapid industrialization in the mid19th Century. The early 20th Century was a transformational period for those businesses known as the “Merchants of Death,” that which changed warfare; it was also a period which changed many European political systems. As John Turner discusses these political systems in Chapter twelve’s “The Challenge to Liberalism” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War “For the most part, the left won in the defeated nations. Violent revolution overthrew the monarchical regimes of Germany and Russia. The Austro-Hungarian empire shattered into fragments. The Ottoman sultanate succumbed to the nationalist and secular insurgency of Kemal Ataturk.”[3]

Post-war failures of Leadership
Hamilton and Herwig suggest that it was the personal leadership shortcomings of the monarchs in Germany and Austria that led to the end of their respective reigns after the war. As heirs to their monarchy, they were empowered without question or qualification. The Ottoman Empire ultimately failed over a long period of time due to the rise of nationalism throughout Europe.The needs brought about by the idea of Total War that lingered following the Great War included alliances, nationalism, and militarism. Alliances formed during the Great War were solidified and reemerged at the onset of the Second World War. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 is an example of rising nationalism effecting change. The interwar years saw the continued rise of rapid industrialization in America, Britain, Europe, and Russia. Although the Versailles Treaty severely limited Germany militarily in 1919, the armaments needs of other countries effected by militarism and growing nationalism were more easily enabled by the continued advances of the industrial revolution.

Authoritarian Governments
The inherent risk associated with Authoritarian governments is one of legitimacy in the face of failure. Authoritarian leaders don’t ascend to leadership by democratic means, making their place tenuous during the period of the Great War. The era of the Second World War was different politically and socially in Europe. In both the years leading up to and during the war, the authoritative governments of Germany and the Soviet Union were able to remain in power due to the brutal regimes that were led by dictators Hitler and Stalin. In contrast, the government of Fascist Italy was torn apart in the midst of the Allied Invasion – the defeat of her military at home was more than Mussolini’s leadership could withstand.

1 Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 227.
2 Hew Strachan, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 11. 3 Ibid., 178.

Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: