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Counterfactual Fun

The madness spreads to the Volokh Conspiracy, where Eugene foresees an American takeover of the "British" empire while Tyler Cowen has North America groaning under the yoke of social democracy. Free marketers would do well to avoid mentioning New Zealand, however, whose welfare state was producing sub-par economic growth, provoking a major bout of neoliberal reform after which they started doing even worse (interestingly, New Zealand and Argentina provide just about the only historical examples of rich countries becoming un-rich and they don't seem to have much else in common). But all this speculating got me thinking about the earlier dispute over whether or not world war one should be understood as a preventative war.

However you want to understand it, though, it's pretty clear that Germany could have avoided it by telling their friends in Austria that the Kaiser had no interest whatsoever in launching a general war over the Archduke Ferdinand's assassination and that the Hapsburg's either had to work something out with Serbia (which had put forward a reasonable compromise) or else face the tender mercies of the Czar all alone. Since the Germans went on to lose the war, we can safely say that that would have been the right call, though this may not have been apparent at the time.

Now world war one doesn't get much play here in the USA (I'm told it's huge in France) but thinking about this reminds us of just how enormous its consequences were. After all, both Communism and Nazism arose in its aftermath so the entire landscape of twentieth century history would have been radically different. Beyond the most obvious points, the dismantling of the British and French colonial empires would have gone very differently without the financial pressures of the war, the disruption at the French imperial center, the need to mobilize the ideology of democracy as part of the war effort, and the rise of Soviet anti-colonial propaganda. One is inclined to say that having wealthy democracies possess vast overseas empires was totally untenable in the long-run either way, but they might have lasted much longer. And without the impetus of world wars and the coldwar, America, like the contemporary EU, might just be some big rich place without much in the way of military capacity.

Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War argues, rather more implausibly, I think, that Britain should have simply sat things out and let the Germans overrun France. This lets him write a chapter called "The Kaiser's European Union" which is a fun euroskeptic kind of thing to do, but also a bit silly.

July 8, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 8, 2004 5:33:26 PM


Two points that don't come up much is US discussions of WWI:

1) Why exactly was the United States involved? Yes, I know about the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram, but many countries have ignored or dealt with worse. How exactly did the US end up involved in what what essentially another European "discussion" about who would be top dog for the next 25 years?

2) I personally see the origns of the National Security State and the concept of overarching State power over the individual (in the US at least) in the government approach to the WWI home front. This is so much a part of our culture today that no one even thinks that it had a starting point. But it did, and I place that point in 1917. How would our culture be different if we had not gotten involved on the Continent?


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jul 8, 2004 10:50:42 AM

Well, if we're continuing the counterfactual game, if WWI didn't take place, the Second International would most likely not have split, social democracy (in the Kautsky, Brandting, Juares version not the Brandt, Palme version) would've kpet gathering steam, especially without a 3rd (Leninist) International as a competitor, and the German SPD would've continued to grow. Maybe.

Posted by: Robin | Jul 8, 2004 11:21:39 AM

What do Argentina and New Zealand have in common? - reliance on wool exports, a sector that has been in decline for the last thirty years.

The other major wool producers, Australia and South Africa, have minerals to back them up, although that has been canceled out in part by massive social transformation in the last decade.

Sheep explain everything.

Posted by: Duncan Young | Jul 8, 2004 11:27:02 AM

Argentina I get, but since when has New Zealand dropped from the ranks of rich nations? Whatever the yearly fluctuations of GDP, surely NZ still counts as a developed first-world country. While its per capita GDP, for example, does seem to be at the low end of Western European peer countries, it's still well above former Eastern Bloc countries, for example. Was it really much higher in the past under the easy yoke of social democracy?

(OECD stats here: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/8/4/1874420.pdf)

I honestly don't know, so my questions are actually serious. But I doubt NZ's neoliberalism has truly impoverished the place.

Posted by: Richard Riley | Jul 8, 2004 11:27:09 AM

But I doubt NZ's neoliberalism has truly impoverished the place.

We liberalized just in time for the 1987 crash - and a lot of naive Kiwis vaporised their wealth in failed quasi-pyramid schemes. We took the best part of a decade to get over Black Monday, while the rest of the world was back on its feet in months.

Posted by: Duncan Young | Jul 8, 2004 11:33:27 AM

New Zealand had a very tough time of it for a number of years after the neoliberal reforms. I think in some cases, even the best economic programs can't *quickly* overcome years of mismanagement. This is especially true of small, geographically isolated states (Chile comes to mind as well). But by all accounts New Zealand has been doing well of late. Richard Florida mentions it as an example of a hyper competitive "creative economy" (think "Lord of the Rings"). He has a point.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jul 8, 2004 11:37:17 AM

By the way, Matt, I think this alternative history stuff could be a good fiction niche for you. Kind of in the same manner W.F. Buckley dabbles in spy novels. How about exploring a French victory in the Napoleonic Wars?

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jul 8, 2004 11:42:00 AM

Other important aspect of WWI is that it changed completely the attitude about war in the world and in Europe in particular. The sheer volume and senselessness of the slaughter made war very un-glamorous from then on (try to find something like "All quiet on the western front" before WWI to see the change in attitude). Most of France behavior in WWII, especially, can be seen as a reaction to the number of casualties and destruction of WWI.

Posted by: Carlos | Jul 8, 2004 11:42:59 AM

This is really abour Iraq, isn't it? Just kidding.

All those spanking new battleships going to waste, the Germans just starting to enjoy the thrill of empire, Rosa Luxemburg's excess capacity driving the capitalists batshit....WWI was gonna happen, in one form or another.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 8, 2004 11:43:59 AM

One thing that links the two case studies in counterfactual history: the effect of revolutionary times on geopolitics.

Had there been no American Revolution, there might well have been a transatlantic revolution across both America AND England circa 1800 (as things did play out, England only narrowly avoided catching the French Revolutionary contagion in the 1790s).

If there had been a destructive revolutionary moment in England at that time, would the Victorian Empire have ever been built?

Likewise, had there been no World War One, how--and where--would revolutionary energies have played out in Europe? Would the Czar have been able to use his troops to hold on to power instead of to fight the war? Would Germany have imploded with violence instead of exporting it?

Posted by: Ottoe | Jul 8, 2004 12:03:20 PM

WW I marked the decisive victory of Anglophilism in American life. The English got here first, and furnished the bulk of capital in America for much of the 19th century. German-speakers came in great numbers after the 1848 counter-revolutions in Europe, bringing egalitarian and socialistic ideals that became a major thorn in the capitalists side, especially in the upper midwest.

With the propaganda of WW I and the passage of Prohibition, the American German-speakers were trashed.

Prohibition had an interesting sociological effect of creating an alternate 'illegal' economy that absorbed entrepreneurs who could not enter the dominant financial structure. People like Al Capone could be depended on to support the laws that gave him power and influence.

Arguably, WW I resulted in the birth of two criminal conspiracies- the bootleg alcohol industry, and the financier-war industry-intelligence nexus so perfectly embodied in the Dulles brothers.

If you trace this out in both directions, you find that there was no 'Germany' before WW I, just a collection of German-speaking states dominated by Prussia. After WW I you find 'Germany' is created, to sign treaties and repay war reparations. This new and imperfect 'Germany' is then improved by Hitler's application of American cheerleading techniques, and the lavish application of American and British loans, to eventually become the Third Reich.

In short, if 'Germany' had not existed, it would have been necessary to create it. And so they did.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 8, 2004 12:05:30 PM

Matt: "it's pretty clear that Germany could have avoided it by telling their friends in Austria that the Kaiser had no interest whatsoever in launching a general war".

This presumes a couple of things, (1) that Germany actually HAD no interest in launching a general war, and (2) That is was a foregone conclusion that Germany would lose. it was not actually apparent that Germany would lose until the failure of the German 1918 offensive and the entry of large numbers of American troops. As late as fall of 1917 things were looking pretty good for the Central Powers.

I guess if they'd realized the war would result in the collapse of three major empires and dynasties, they'd have been a bit more careful.

Hmm, dynasty, hubris, militarism, jingoism, empire...what does that bring to mine?

Posted by: Al Peck | Jul 8, 2004 1:11:19 PM

And for that favorite bar game, can you name the one independent country that was allied with Germany in World War 1 and 2?

Posted by: Wrye | Jul 8, 2004 1:39:02 PM

Bulgaria, of course.

Posted by: Brooklyn Sword Style | Jul 8, 2004 1:42:38 PM

... odd that the Volokhs and DeLong are just now getting into the act. There are prominent bloggers who have been doing the counterfactual thing for years on the Internet.

Anyway. While people have brought up cotton slavery as a sticking point -- and rightfully so -- I'd think that the Corn Laws would have thrown an earlier monkey wrench into the works. Virginia was also a wheat exporter to Britain. Also grown by slaves. Free trade and slavery versus crony protectionism and abolition doesn't sound like a growth-mighty divided government to me. Who does John Wilkes Booth shoot in this counterfactual history?


Posted by: Carlos | Jul 8, 2004 3:01:32 PM

Eugene Volokh needs to read some Linda Colley, for hell's sake. 'English'? 'Englishmen'? 'Englishness'?

*British*, please: the 18th century was all about the transformation of 'England' into 'Britain', with the Act of Union, the importation of a German monarchy and the incorporation of the Anglophiliac 'Celtic fringe' into that British identity, in tandem with the suppression of traditional culture and politics. David Hume? Adam Smith? Hellooooo? Eugene?


Sez Matthew:

"Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War argues, rather more implausibly, I think, that Britain should have simply sat things out and let the Germans overrun France."

Actually, it's more plausible than you might think. While Fergie makes a little more of it than he ought, I talked about this pretty extensively with a housemate who happened to be doing research in Kew for The Pity of War at the time (he's mentioned in the acknowledgements).

The decision of the British to enter the Great War fits the test for a Fergie-counterfactual: that's to say, it was extensively debated, and could have gone either way, given the vestiges both of traditional/familial sympathy with the German regime, and the degree to which many in the Asquith government considered it prudent to let the continentals get on with killing each other.

Posted by: nick | Jul 8, 2004 3:30:54 PM

france was itching to fight germany in 1914.

Posted by: Olaf glad and big | Jul 8, 2004 3:59:28 PM

I suggest you read Keegan, John, 1934-
Title The First World War / John Keegan
Edition 1st American ed
Publisher New York : A. Knopf ; Distributed by Random House, 1999
Descript. xvi, 475 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm
Subject World War, 1914-1918

ISBN 0375400524

He makes it very clear that the general staff and mobilization systems took it out of the hands of the diplomats very early.

Posted by: marc sobel | Jul 8, 2004 4:59:37 PM

"Had there been no American Revolution, there might well have been a transatlantic revolution across both America AND England circa 1800"

Actually, what happens is that the French Revolution collapses in starvation in 1794--in our "real" history, the French saved themselves from disaster by fighting a huge convoy of American grain across the Atlantic, despite a tactical loss to the British in the naval battle of the Glorious First of June. But of course, the Revolutionary French wouldn't have been buying grain from British colonies . . .

Posted by: rea | Jul 8, 2004 9:16:24 PM

My favorite counter-factual is the War of Spanish Succession. What if Louis XIV had defeated all of Europe? Absolute monarchy strangles nascent developing democracy. It probably just makes the inevitable French Revolution only worse (perhaps a dominant 18th century France extracts enough wealth from Spain or the rest of Europe to avoid the economic troubles underlying the French Revolution, though).

A defeated Britain would not have spent the glorious 18th century building and defending an Empire. There would have been no French and Indian War, with no resulting taxation pressure on the English colonies to stimulate revolt.

And, had Louis XIV triumphed over Britain, it is possible that the Catholic Stuarts could have been restored to the British throne, reversing the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (a bad result for the progress of English parliamentary democracy).

If the Stuarts had come back, there would have been no House of Hanover to come in, no George I, II, III, or IV, and no Queen Victoria.

Posted by: Greg Abbott | Jul 8, 2004 10:50:47 PM

During the run-up to the Iraq invasion I re-read The Guns of August. None of the players had the vaguest idea of what they were starting. Even after it began they thought it would be over within weeks.

The Iraq adventure is still in its early stages, but the unintended consequences are likely to be enormous, if not unimaginable. By the time order is restored in Iraq the region may look very different, and I wouldn't be surprised if new alignments form among the industrial powers.

Wilhelm II and George Bush II. As the high school history teachers used to ask, compare & contrast.

Posted by: social democrat | Jul 9, 2004 2:01:33 AM

Serial Catowner -- don't you mean the Franco-Prussian war, not WW1?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Jul 9, 2004 12:50:09 PM

Maybe WWI was inevitable. And Ferguson's idea of Britain sitting it out is problematic - Britain had an actual treaty with Belgium and a long-standing policy of preventing any European hegemony.

The United States, on the other hand, had neither. What it had was a few civilians on the high seas drowning thanks to U-Boat sinkings, and a dumbass German diplomat that thought there was a chance in Hell that Mexico would fight Americans for Germany in exchange for being "given" American land that the Mexicans would have to take and hold themselves, and then lacking the sense God gave a rock, fessed up to sending his telegram when lots of Americans were ready to believe the whole thing was a hoax.

So, a better and more plausible counterfactual is this: what if the United States sits out WWI?

First, Germany comes out ahead when the dust finally settles. The Kaiser stays in office, and the prospects for Austrian ex-corporals taking over the top spot he's occupying are slim to none.

Also, Prohibition never gets off the ground. The idea had been around for a while, but really took off during the wartime grain restrictions. All sorts of economic and social interventions got tried out during the war as well and were ready to be dusted off a decade or so later.

Hoover, who gained prominence in our world while running the wartime Agriculture Department, toils in obscurity and retires with few people remembering his name. In 1929, the economy has one of its periodic downturns, but Coolige's successor (or maybe Coolige himself) refrains from jacking up taxes or cutting off world trade; the economy recovers a year or two later. No New Deal. Vast improvements in American prosperity and technological level over our history ensue up to the present day. Possibilities include American expansion into space (and 150 stars on the flag) and a handful of living Civil War veterans thanks to faster medical advancement (no FDA).

The Kaiser ends up going for a rematch against Russia, now the USSR, a couple of decades later. The Kaiser is by far the lesser of two evils, and any American involvement is going to be on the German side. You can spin this any number of ways depending on the level of American involvement you predict. Possibly, you end up with the odious USSR wiped from the face of the Earth in the 1940's or so, with vast improvements over our history resulting therefrom.

Posted by: Ken | Jul 9, 2004 2:02:01 PM

Oh yeah, and the British never get their hands on the Middle East. There's several possibilities concerning what the Germans do with it, but "screw it up worse than the British did in our history" probably isn't one of them.

Posted by: Ken | Jul 9, 2004 2:16:50 PM

A small side effect of no WWI, and thus no Nazis is that Israel becomes exceedingly unlikely.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz | Jul 11, 2004 11:07:04 PM

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