What led to the Great War?

17 Jun

The Great War: total war and trench warfare

Hamilton’s and Herwig’s Thesis
Professor’s Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig both convincingly support their thesis that it was not the myriad set of circumstances, or sentiments, that led to the Great War – nationalism, social Darwinism, imperialism, or militarism – but the “separate and distinct sets of concerns” of those leaders from the five major powers that opted for war.[1] These leaders were a part of a few of the small coterie that made the decisions for war; each decision based on unique circumstances as offered by Hamilton and Herwig. Their argument against other conventional schools of thought is supported by the lack of existing hard data – or quantifiable evidence necessary to back up these prevailing theories. Hamilton and Herwig apply a set of questions, as standards, to each of these theories in the attempt to determine their individual validity in order to build their case. I believe they are successful in supporting their own thesis while exposing the weaknesses in nationalism, social Darwinism, imperialism, and militarism-arguments as causes for the war – as well as the weaker notions of newspaper agitation, domestic causes, accident thesis, joint effects, or other hypotheses. Because the decisions for war were made by these small coteries, the ideal of mass opinion is negated: “… we believe that decision-makers by and large proceeded independently of perceived mass opinion, that they probably were moved by ‘larger’ strategic considerations – their conceptions of the nation’s power and prestige.”[2]

Germany and von Moltke
Hamilton and Herwig support the Andreas Hillgruber’s notion that Germany’s nebulous foray into the Great War “was nothing more than an effort to secure the Reich’s tenuous position as a European great power.”[3] Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke was a member of the small German coterie; whose most serious failing was his own self-doubt and lack of self-confidence concerning military capability. The coterie of which von Moltke was part, took the notion of war lightly – a necessary inevitability to cure Germany’s ills. There existed popular sentiment among Germany’s elite as well as select segments within its citizenry for war – along with the accepted ideal of social Darwinism which further enabled von Moltke to a war decision. The much-favored Schlieffen Plan was to be the vehicle for a quick, winnable war against France while Austria-Hungary battled Russia – one that the demure and unconfident von Moltke could manage. Following the word on 31 July 1914 that Russia had mobilized its entire army, the order for war by Germany came the next day.

The Conundrum of Leadership
The history as offered by Hamilton and Herwig suggests that these countries became caught up in the larger process of war escalation – while only having to satisfy the opinion of the coterie. Their goals were not clearly defined and foreign policy clouded by factors such as arms escalation. von Moltke and the German coterie had the irrational fear that Germany’s window of opportunity was closing for its “greater place in European history,” sending it war with no direction. Professors Hamilton and Herwig note: “Wilhelm II failed abysmally in his assigned constitutional task of coordinating German foreign and military policies … [what] is striking about Berlin during the July Crisis is the lack of government direction and resolution.” The German coterie knew that this war would be devastating – but they were to proceed nonetheless; it’s unknown consequences far worse than a non-decision for war could have been, as history shows.

European Perceptions
Germany’s perception of a threat stemming from the alliance between France and Russia was not unfounded. The Triple Entente with Great Britain and Russia was largely a defensive posture against Germany. Hamilton and Herwig offer: “… France had no reliable strategy for avoiding war in July 1914. It could only hope to deter Germany by manifesting military readiness and maintaining the Russian alliance.”[4] There was no real threat however of France encircling Germany – this was unfounded. After Russia’s defeat to Japan in 1905, and the loss of 400,000 soldiers, there was the concern of military readiness and the need to reestablish itself as a power.
Alliances formed between Germany and Austria-Hungary and that between France, Russia, and Great Britain had the unusual dynamic of pulling an uncertain member into the fold of war – no matter what the consequences might be as noted by Hamilton and Herwig: “In this atmosphere of uncertainty and fear (‘nothing firm from St. Petersburg, nothing firm from London’), French leaders did not weigh alternatives but desperately held onto the one dangerous option that brought them the greatest assurance.”[5] Inclusion in an alliance became as dangerous as not joining – the coteries had proven this fact.

Lesson Learned for Today
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is the largest alliance among nations since the Second World War. Its twenty-eight member nations enjoy the umbrella of defense which its inclusion provides. Decisions for war today are subject to a much higher bar across NATO members and its satellite programs such as the Partnership for Peace. Perceptions and fears among nations and their leaders will always exist – but the modern world’s increased numbers of democracies provide a more open dialogue between countries and diplomacy which had not existed prior to the First World War.

1 Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 20-21.
2 Ibid., 22.
3 Ibid., 70.
4 Ibid., 120.

Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


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