Ahistorical comparisons are all the rage today. We’ve got a constant stream of “Trump and Brexit are Hitler, Mussolini and the rise of fascism” posts. And the shocking murder of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov by a Turkish police officer/terrorist has brought forth a host of comparisons to the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip 102 years ago.
On the one hand, I am happy to see people thinking about history and looking for lessons in the past. This is positive. However, these comparisons simply do not work. Trump is many things, most of them pretty awful, but he hasn’t developed a private military force that has roamed the country starting riots, intimidating people, and murdering scores of citizens. He didn’t force himself into power. Is he a grotesque mashup of George Wallace, Huey Long, and Ronald Reagan? Maybe. But Hitler or Mussolini he is not.
Most people, when pushed, will accept that the 1930s/WWII analogy is deeply flawed. The notion that the assassination of Andrei Karlov could set off a firestorm similar to the summer of 1914 is more reasonable. But it is no less wrong.
I’m not the only one to notice this either. Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo has a very popular piece titled “The History You Know is Wrong” that makes the same claim. In it, Marshall explains how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was not the real reason for war, just as this assassination would not be. Instead, nations were driven to war by a state that felt that war was a necessity to achieve their national ambitions. While he comes to the right conclusion, the way Marshall arrives at it is a bit off.
The one lesson that shines through most vividly from these events a century ago is the immense danger caused when one power believes it is running out of time to secure the advantages it believes it can secure only or most easily through war. I remember thinking of this ominous parallel as the US forced its war in Iraq, even after the notional premise for threatening war – the return of weapons inspectors – had been conceded. This pessimism, this need to provoke or escalate crises, is the root of all sorts of mischief. It is the best prism through which to understand the increasingly unstable moment we are now living through. Which countries if any want a general war? Which countries, if any, believe they can gain from one and at what cost? And how do we collectively prevent any major power from believing its interests can best be secured or only be secured by war?
Germany certainly deserves the lion share of the fault for what happened in 1914, though to say historians generally accept that Germany intentionally engineered the conflict is overstating the case. Like most studies of foreign policy, this interpretation (and the lessons derived from it) are rooted in a belief that states (and their statesmen) are rational actors in full control of their destiny. They most certainly are not.
Before we can move forward with this argument, it is instructive to look back at the basic causes of the Great War. The political climate of early 20th century Europe was highly contentious. The twin forces of industrialization and imperialism (and her sister force, nationalism) had created a great, if temporary, gulf in global power. To make a long story short, being the first region to undergo industrialization gave European states, particularly those with quality coal and iron, a huge material advantage over the rest of the world. Nationalism helped the states mobilize all of their human and economic capital in the name of state power. With this advantage, European nations could send small forces to conquer or control areas around the world. Combining their material advantage with the manipulation of local power struggles, small states, like Great Britain, could control entire sub-continents, like India.
This was not new– Europeans had been colonizing far-flung regions for centuries. But the second wave of the industrial revolution accelerated this trend, sparking a European race to gobble up the remaining uncolonized regions of the world. The “Scramble for Africa” was really just part of a larger scrum to assign the last pieces of non-European dominated lands to Western nations. It does illustrate how serious the competition had grown to be.
By 1914, imperial growth had become a zero-sum game. A rising nation, like Germany, could only become greater at the expense of another imperial power. Being competitive economically and militarily required the resources and manpower of a large overseas empire. It was the difference between being a have and a have-not.
The pressure points between the major powers should be clear. Less discussed is the internal pressure this created. For the creaky Austro-Hungarian empire, their multicultural population yearned for their own nation-states. The still young German empire was driven by its elite Prussian military caste, whose hold on power was tied up intimately with the monarchy and the projection of global power. They feared that a loss in status or a weakening of militaristic drive would transfer power to emerging industrial and financial powers in the nation. The Russian autocracy was teetering on the edge, with revolution threatening to overthrow the empire on a regular and recurring basis. France chaffed under their 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. They saw their global and regional power declining, feared German aggression, and desired revenge (both for honor and territory). Along with their military cult of the offensive, the unstable French republic was stirring for a fight. Great Britain was struggling to deal with dissidents in Ireland, hoping to uphold their spot at the top of the global pecking order, and enforcing the stability of global capitalism the world over (primarily with the Royal Navy).
Rough though this sketch is, it sort of sets the stage for what happened when Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a national separatist/terrorist gave Austria-Hungary an opportunity to crackdown on internal dissent (not unlike how Turkey seems to be responding to this assassination). Russia felt compelled to flex her muscles in defense of fellow Slavs, and told the Hapsburgs to stand down. Because of treaty obligations, both Germany and France were quickly sucked into the standoff. France needed Russia as a counterbalance to German strength– the German army was too big and powerful for France to handle alone. The Austro-Hungarian empire was Germany’s only “natural” ally– they felt compelled to back (and prop up) the only friendly state bordering them. Great Britain stayed apart, hoping to manipulate the scenario to maintain the status quo. Most accept this general description of the events leading up to the crisis. From there we have three major narratives: it was a systemic failure (Tuchman’s), Germany planned and forced it (Fisher’s view), and Germany is the only one who could have stopped the systemic failure but didn’t– largely because the Kaiser was a weak, ineffective leader (my view). There are many other narratives (like Ferguson’s crazy “the war was forced on Germany” theory), but the first two are the most common.
Tuchman’s thesis, while popular with the public, has little support outside of textbook publishers today. It was no one’s fault is too squishy a conclusion for most academics. That doesn’t mean Fisher’s view holds, though. In fact, far from accepting Fisher’s narrative, most historians disagree with his argument believing that it ignores the role of imperialism and the aims the other combatants had. The choices of decision makers in the crisis mattered. And they all had aggressive aims. Only one state was in a strong enough position to stop the gears of war once they started turning. And that was Germany. The reasons they failed to do so are myriad, but it suffices for our purposes here to say that Wilhelm was too weak to overrule his military advisors, too bellicose for anyone to view as non-threatening, too meek in his demands to scare anyone into cooperating, and too childish to understand the stakes until it was too late. So why does Tuchman’s narrative live on and how is Fisher’s narrative wrong?
Barbara Tuchman’s narrative in The Guns of August has survived for three reasons: 1) it is beautifully written 2) it captures the post-WWII mood about how the 20th century had played out; 3) it had enduring ideas that still influence public thought on foreign policy.
It is that third reason it survives that most interests me. Tuchman really hits on five key ideas: 1) the power of free trade, 2) the false belief in a “quick war,” 3) the influence of “morale” and the cult of the offensive, 4) ignorance of political backlash to wartime suffering, 5) politics and military strategy had not kept pace with technological growth. All of these attitudes have their champions today, but none has a wider and more diverse following than the free-trade will keep us safe crowd. In the context of 1914, this was the notion that European leaders had over-estimated the power of free-trade in preventing conflict. In essence, late 19th-early 20th century European leaders believed that the interconnection between capitalist countries would make war between them so obviously futile that none would dare risk it. Obviously, it failed. But people still hold on to this idea today. Thomas Friedman famously echoed it in 1999 with his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict,” saying that no two countries that both had a McDonalds had ever gone to war. This is silly and deterministic, of course. A shared love of hamburgers and french fries doesn’t keep the peace, but of course, that is not what Friedman was arguing. Instead, he was making the case that our multinational corporations have both direct and indirect influence over our policy making process, creating yet greater incentive for capitalist states to avoid conflict with one another. The idea makes sense, logically. The capitalist economy, in 1914 and today, is so intertwined that widescale war between two or more major powers would cause a catastrophic disruption in the system. Doubly so when multinational corporations have a voice in the process. This would bring, now as it did then, economic ruin, famine, and suffering to all parties. But logic rarely rules men’s hearts.
This hints at the core of why The Guns of August continues to be read. It seems to have lessons for us on how to avoid the pointless ruination that modern warfare can impose on two or more great powers. Understand that the economy alone won’t protect us. Know that overconfidence in a “quick war” is often misplaced. Be wary of militaristic behavior and propaganda. Know that wars quickly become unpopular and can overthrow governments. Remember that generals are often fighting the previous war.
Fisher’s narrative suffers in two ways. One, it is German scholarship. Tuchman’s book was read by JFK and impacted his thinking about the escalating danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fisher’s work was not widely read by the American public and thus holds no special place in our memory. Secondly, the lessons it offers are much less persuasive.
Marshall asks “Why did Germany drive Europe and the world into war which would led to the collapse of the German state?” He answers with the simple explanation derived from Fisher’s work– that the German government and general staff believed that such a war would inevitably come, “that such a war was essential to its territorial ambitions and – most importantly – that time was not on Germany’s side.” This was true, of the general staff anyway. Bethmann-Hollweg felt differently. So too did the Wilhelm, depending on the day you caught him (and who he had last spoken to). The Germans correctly believed that they were better prepared for a war in 1914 than the Entente powers of Britain, France and Russia. They were convinced that over time their position would weaken– a conclusion that hindsight tells us was way off.
From there, Marshall overstates the reasons Germany saw the tide turning against them (the rise of Russia was a real concern, the collapse of the already weak Austro-Hungarian empire less so). Germany was far from alone in this feeling. France feared that Germany would become increasingly impossible for them to defeat moving forward. The British were concerned with growing German naval power– how could they maintain their position in the world if Germany dominated the continent and challenged them at sea? Russia, unstable politically and embarrassed internationally after their defeat at the hands of Japan, (rightly) saw danger everywhere. Each state had reason to fear that further delaying the inevitable would only tilt the conflict further in their enemies favor. As students of the Cold War will tell you, rational fear of your opponent can lead to irrational, dangerous, and deadly conflict when it is not buttressed by an understanding of how and why the other state might be thinking/acting the way they are (the entire history of the Cold War reads like a series of comical miscommunications and misguided actions based on assigning the worst motivations to your opponent).
The real story of 1914 is that a complicated international order based on white supremacy, social Darwinism, industrial might, and a sense of mutually assured destruction broke down. When honor, security, national ambitions, and national survival seem to be at stake, rational behavior broke down. Rather than avoid a ruinous war, the people of Europe talked themselves into it. And it wasn’t simply the Germans. Each country had a sense that this system could only last for so long. The ambitions of Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain were too at odds with one another to survive. Simply fading away wasn’t an option.
Hence, Marshall arrives at the right lesson through the wrong evidence. There IS immense danger caused whenever people believe they are running out of time to secure the advantages it believes it must have to survive and prosper. It will cause people to throw caution to the wind and risk it all on one roll of the dice. I am less reminded of the US forcing its way to war in Iraq– the potential consequences of that were never on the scale of a World War– and more in the rhetoric and behavior of Donald Trump voters in the last election. People who are willing to risk the entire economic and political order because they are convinced their way of life– their very civilization– is at risk. You might see it in Putin’s aggressive behaviors, from his actions in the Ukraine to his interference in the US Presidential election.
So it IS like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand!! Not quite. The Turks are no major power. And no power has any underlying commitment to defend Turkey is Putin gets punitive with them. Donald Trump is the kind of feckless leader that could make the same kind of idiotic decisions that the Kaiser did. But Putin is not the impotent Tsar Nicholas II. It seems unlikely that he would risk it all to avenge the death of a diplomat. It is hard to fathom that he believes Russia can win a first-strike nuclear war. And Putin has shown he thinks his interests can be secured by means other than war– again, our election is a great example. Putin is a Cold Warrior, not a Tsarist fool.
So I feel safe saying this is not the beginning of World War III, not because of our sage leadership or the strength of our alliances. Instead, we are safe from WWIII because Putin is winning enough without it.