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World War One As Preventative War

David Adesnik says my account of world war one as a preventative war "was once quite popular but now has much less support" among historians. That may be right since it's what I learned in high school, and what is high school good for if not propagating outdated scholarship. On the other hand, David says "Germany attacked Russia because the German leadership wanted to divert the working class' attention away from domestic politics" which sounds like it's either a joke or else a Michael Moore documentary.

July 6, 2004 | Permalink


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Yglesias also has an ongoing discussion about whether WW1 was a preventive war, or not. David Adesnik of Oxblog weighed in and Matthew replied: On the other hand, David says "Germany attacked Russia because the German leadership wanted to divert... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 6, 2004 8:06:59 PM


Actually, I don't think the notion of WWI as a preventative war is out of date either among political scientists. Dale Copeland's The Origins of Major War (2000) argues that Germany's desire to forestall a rising Russia was the major factor. Hew Strachan's newish book on the beginning stages of the war also gives this theory some respectful attention, although as one among a number of factors.

Posted by: rd | Jul 6, 2004 11:17:39 AM

Post above should read "among either political scientists or historians."

Posted by: rd | Jul 6, 2004 11:19:00 AM

I'm familiar with RD's point, but we can distinguish "preventing" a future attack on Germany from "preventing" a future ability to defend against an attack by Germany. I've always thought the latter was a stronger consideration for the German general staff than the former. But as Matt concedes, scholarship may've advanced beyond my position.

As for David's theory (which I can't check firsthand because Blogger is hiccupping today), I'd agree that was a general consideration behind Germany's foreign policy, but I agree with Matt that it's too Moore-ish to believe that Moltke et al. were really thinking about that. At most, they might've had paranoid fears that the rise of German socialism would lead to a future hamstringing of the military, so that attacking Russia in 1914 looked better than waiting for a war in 1920 or whenever.

The better analogy to our Iraq adventure is perhaps not "preventative war" but rather the ability of an institution to convince itself, by any means available, that its preselected plan of action is indeed inescapable and necessary. Cf. Moltke's shitfit when the Kaiser blithely suggested that Germany just invade Russia & forget about France!

Posted by: Andy | Jul 6, 2004 12:23:18 PM

You mean "preventive."


\Pre*vent"a*tive\, n. That which prevents; -- incorrectly used instead of preventive.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

Posted by: tristero | Jul 6, 2004 1:04:08 PM

Germany was certainly looking to pick a fight because of social unrest. The military was a mess, too. But Wilhelm didn't want a large-scale conflict, even if he knew it was a possibility - the balance of power in Europe was so muddled that the entire continent was a powder keg with everyone trying to avoid lighting a match. The Germans, knowing that the tensions between the Austro-Hungarians and Serbians were running high, promised the A-H's their support. The Serbians were allied with Russia, but the Germans were banking on the Russians backing off. They declared war on Russia not because Russia was an up-and-coming power (Russia's civil unrest was even greater than Germany's, and its military was, to put it politely, shit, even if they had an endless supply of men), but because Russia sided with Serbia, and the Germans had promised the Austro-Hungarians full support, so that meant declaring war on Russia.

Of course, the Germans were prepared for this, even if they were gambling on it not happening. They had a plan (I forget what it was called, but I'm sure one of M.Y.'s readers knows) that, they believed, would lead to the defeat of Russia in only a few weeks, before its army had time to fully mobilize. First, though, they had to defeat the French (they thought they could do it in something like 5 weeks). It called for invading Belgium. That was the big mistake (the British had a treaty with Belgium requiring that they defend it). The Germans had no plans for defeating the British.

Anyway, the point is, the war with Russia (and France, and Britain, and Japan, and Italy, and ultimatley the U.S.) was in large part a result of Germany's motivation to quiet the growing unrest, though not only social unrest. However, this was the motivation for declaring war against Serbia. Russia was just an unfortunate side effect. The Germans would have been plenty happy if they had never had to fight the Ruskies, especially since fighting Russia meant fighting a continent-wide war (France was allied with Russia).

Posted by: Hunt | Jul 6, 2004 1:23:44 PM

I would suggest that Drezner read the first chapter of David Stevenson's new book on the WWI, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy [which has received rave reviews from Niall Ferguson, Benjamin Schwarz and Hew Strachan] to disabuse himself of the notion that WWI was not a preventative war on the part of Wilhelmine Germany and, to a certain extent, Austria-Hungary.

Posted by: derek | Jul 6, 2004 1:27:55 PM

Sorry, that should have been a reference to David Adesnik in my prior post, not Dan Drezner.

Posted by: derek | Jul 6, 2004 1:32:01 PM

Most of what I remember of WWI seems to suggest it was a pre-emptive war based on a number of flawed theories and (possibly mis-)estimates of opposing intentions, on pretty much all sides.

Although certainly one of those estimates -- through which other information was filtered -- is that common pillar of "preventive" war: that certain enemies, so long as they are capable of waging war, will eventually attack us, its just a matter of when. But even then, there was, as I recall, specific intelligence about the other sides mobilization state that contributed to each step of ratcheting up to war, until it reached the point -- all over a very short time -- where each side was convinced that the other was going to attack no matter what.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jul 6, 2004 5:24:05 PM

Having just finished "Dreadnought" over the weekend I can say that there was some thought in Germany that having Russia mobilize first was important to neutralize domestic opposition to the war.

What emerges from that and everything else I've read is that German diplomacy seemed determined to create the circumstances for Austria to get into Serbia quick and present it as a fait-accompli. The rest, including the Moltke meltdown and some genuine surprise that Britain would go to war over Belgian neutrality and wouldn't accept a side agreement to stay out if France's structural integrity on the continent were maintained, all seems like a comedy of errors. Sadly, I suspect someone is going to write that way about our grand adventure in Mesopatamia sometime in the future.

Serbia's swallowing of almost all of the Austrian ultimatum and some dilatoriness in Austrian mobilization combined to create circumstance where Russian and soon after British opinion went pro-Serb. This wasn't initially the case.

Germany's diplomacy just seems divorced from reality to the extent that I can't see any way to fit it into a broader category like "preventive" once you open up the black box. The pursuit of the naval arms race with Britain for no real purpose of security that I can discern - they weren't reallty interested in colonies for example. They were also being reactive to previous diplomatic stand offs that didn't work out so well for them and were looking perhaps to push harder on this one.

Posted by: benton | Jul 6, 2004 5:33:44 PM

(1) Thanks, Tristero. Pre-ven-tive. Ad-jec-tive. Got it.

(2) Hunt, your recap is good, except that there's good evidence that the German generals were convinced that a war with Russia was inevitable sooner or later--no one like the Germans for inevitability!--and that when Russia's numerical superiority was matched by technological savvy, Germany would be toast. Once Germany abandoned Bismarck's balancing act and became Austria's partner, conflict with Russia was indeed inevitable. (And the generals in charge, raised in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian War, couldn't see that their best solution was to woo the French away from the Russians. Instead, they took a 2-front war as a given, & devised their fatally flawed Schlieffen Plan.)

(3) Benton: very well put. It's astonishing and depressing to read how "divorced from reality" Germany's diplomacy was. I wish I knew enough to say *why* it was like that (god knows, the Germans are not stupid people). My glib suggestion would be that it's because the Germans were letting their general staff influence diplomacy too much, so that the military paranoia (which, in its due place, can be laudable) permeated the country's policy, with disastrous results.

Where's Gordon A. Craig when you need him??

Posted by: Andy | Jul 6, 2004 5:52:57 PM

An even more relevant question, though, and one that I think since Fischer would have a more general consensus among historians, is why governments carried on with the war rather than suing for a compromise peace once it had become clear that all their initial assumptions were completely wrong; a large part of the answer being that all governments had a belief (one that later turned out to be more or less correct) that any government - any class, any system of government, any monarchy - that admitted defeat would be overthrown, and the politicians were congenitally incapable of separating in their minds the destruction of their government and the destruction of their nation.
And that doesn't seem to have changed.

Posted by: Chris Borthwick | Jul 6, 2004 9:15:02 PM

Schlieffen Plan! I knew someone would know it. From what I understand, the military was expecting large-scale warfare, but the German "civilian" leadership (the leadership worried about the unrest in the military and among the general population) had hoped to avoid it, particularly with Russia, and if Russia entered, then with Britain. I've also read that if Moltke had actually carried the plan out in its entirety, it might have worked. Wonder what would have happened then.

Posted by: Hunt | Jul 6, 2004 9:47:44 PM

Always learn something new in here. keep up the good work, guys.

Posted by: justa grata honoria | Jul 7, 2004 12:12:24 AM

The Schlieffen plan was devoted to the conquest of France, but it had nothing to do with the Russian front.

Posted by: Haggai | Jul 7, 2004 12:18:54 AM

Haggai, not true. The Schlieffen plan was all about defeating Russia. The plan was to defeat France in under 6 weeks, though I don't remember the exact number of weeks. Then, move on to Russia before their army could be fully mobilized. The time-scale was based on defeating Russia, not France, whom the Germans thought they could wipe out in no time.

Posted by: Hunt | Jul 7, 2004 5:49:41 AM

Those interested in the subject will find that A.J.P.Taylor has written an excellent diplomatic history of the 25 years preceding WW I, 'The Struggle for Mastery in Europe'. This is available in a reasonably priced softcover reprint.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 7, 2004 8:46:56 AM

"Reasonably priced" is not how I'd describe Taylor's book, but it's in libraries, and it's a good one (Brad DeLong has blogged on it some too).

Hunt is of course right that the whole point of the Schlieffen Plan was to facilitate the defeat of Russia by turning the two-front war into a one-front war. I'm skeptical of the "if only Moltke hadn't detached those divisions" argument; the fundamental flaw of the Plan was that it violated Belgium, thus dragging Britain into the war. John Keegan also has some good criticisms in his WW1 book, tho I forget what they are ....

Chris is right to wonder why the nations were so stiff-necked; two other considerations: (1) the casualties, up to the stalemate's becoming evident, were so great that no state could've justified a "status quo ante bellum" peace to their people, which maybe is Chris's argument restated; and (2) Germany had a big, profitable chunk of France under occupation, and saw no reason why it should sue for peace without getting a lot in return. For the same reason, the French didn't want a peace that didn't restore their losses and cripple the Germans, who were getting into a bad habit of tearing up France whenever they felt like it. The shadow of 1870 hangs over 1914. "Losing again" to the Boche was politically unthinkable.

Posted by: Andy | Jul 7, 2004 12:57:34 PM

A quibble:
Andy writes:
"And the generals in charge, raised in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian War, couldn't see that their best solution was to woo the French away from the Russians. Instead, they took a 2-front war as a given, & devised their fatally flawed Schlieffen Plan."

Two things here:
1) The idea that France could have been wooed away from Russia strikes me as impossible. In 1870, Germany, likely against Bismarck's wishes, annexed Alsace and Lorraine. The French considered the provinces an integral part of France, and a nationalistic press kept the plight of "the kidnapped children" in the front of the public's mind. There was no reconciliation possible between France and Germany as long as Germany held the provinces. Even if the Kaiser were interested in returning them, his noisy pan-Germanist constituency would have howled. The mistake was the Kaiser's rash dismantling of Bismarck's alliance system that had isolated France.

2) Was the Schlieffen Plan fatally flawed? It dang near worked. Von Moltke altered it. That the thrust across Belgium was weakened by diverting divisions to the east and also to the center of the German line. That point's been mentioned. (The premature pivot, before the North Sea was reached, was not, but that's not a big deal here) What's not been mentioned is that the original plan included a march across southern Limburg in Holland, a move that would have enabled the Germans to move military traffic into Belgium and faster, and perhaps even bypass the Belgian forts at Liege. Schlieffen expected nothing more than diplomatic protest from the Dutch, and felt, as many pan-Germanists did, that the Dutch might just join Greater Germany. Von Moltker feared that an offended Holland might close the Rhine, the "air pipe" of German economic life and cancelled the incursion, crimping the invasion. In a long war, that was an issue, but not in a short one.

To me, the point that doesn't get enough play, even in Keegan's fine book, is that the Belgian fought. Had the Belgians stood down, as the Germans anticipated, the Germans would have made much more rapid progress through Belgium, not had to guard their supply line much, and the British would have been denied the use of the ports of Antwerp, Oostend, and Zeebrugge. In short, the Brits never could have disembarked in any significant number close to the front. My guess is that then the Germans would have been at the gates of Paris pretty quickly. The length of the war would then defend on how tenaciously the French would have defended the city. The Plan might have worked; we'll never know.

The Belgians essentially screwed themselves in 1830. Had they stayed a part of the United Netherlands, they would have enjoyed the security of owning the mouth of the Rhine (put bluntly, that's holding Germany by the cojones). By gaining independence, Belgium transformed itself from a barrier into a highway. There's no reason why the enlarged Netherlands, constructed at Vienna in 1815 as a barrier against France, couldn't have served as a barrier against Germany. The 1839 Treaty was exactly what the Kaiser said it was: "a scrap of paper." The Brits didn't enter the war so much to honor its treaty obligation, but to prevent Germany hegemony on the continent. Lord Grey said as much in his address to Parliament asking for the war declaration.

Posted by: Batavicus | Jul 7, 2004 1:49:30 PM

Batavicus may be right about France's permanent hostility after losing Alsace-Lorraine, but it's a case of "we'll never know, because the Germans never tried." France and England had some bad blood that a smart German foreign office could've exploited, assuming Germany realized that it was alienating England. But I'll concede that my point about wooing the French is too what-if.

Belgium's courage is credited by Tuchman in her oldie-but-goodie "The Guns of August," and it certainly was a big deal. Batavicus may've been right that the British would've jumped in regardless; their policy reasons were sound. But could the gov't have sold it to the Commons and to the voters without The Rape of Belgium? Another counterfactual ("the terrible ifs accumulate"). I'll just say that Germany's cavalier treatment of Belgium was a major error & leave it at that.

(Since Batavicus is better informed than I, let me ask: Why would Britain have been denied Antwerp et al.? If the Belgians had trashed their neutrality by standing down, the Brits wouldn't have been obliged to honor it, surely. Is the point that the Germans would've reached & seized the ports before the Brits could get there?)

Posted by: Andy | Jul 7, 2004 5:13:30 PM

Had the Belgians allowed the Germans to pass, then not denied their ports to GB, then the Germans could claim that was an unneutral act. Even so, the Dutch closed the Scheldt, so the Brits would have had to have gone up the river guns a-blazin' at both the Dutch and the Belgians. The point probably would have been moot as an unimpeded German army would have been across Belgian in an eyeblink.

The German high command figured on the Brits entering the war, but didn't think they'd contribute much. Again, the were counting on being on the coast before the Brits could get much unloaded. It's true that the British cabinet appreciated having Belgium as a moral cause to unify the population behind the war effort. Still, it wasn't the decisive factor. Grey revealed the Commons the secret history of Anglo-French war preparation (the Brits were supposed the guard the Channel; most of the French fleet was in the Mediterranean, so if the Brits stayed neutral, the French Atlantic coast would be wide open), but emphasized that Britain's choice of action or inaction was not restricted. He asked Commons to see it from the point of view of "British interests, British honor, and British obligations." Britain had to stand "against the unmeasured aggrandizement of any power whatsoever." He argued that if the Brits stayed out and the continent fell to Germany, that the Brits would lose too, eventually, and thus urged that GB join the fight immediately.

There's good evidence that Bismarck objected to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine for he anticipated the bitterness it would cause. The point of the 1870 war was, for him, to consolidate Germany, not conquer territory. But German generals objected with "we didn't fight this war for a lousy indemnity" and pointed to the military advantages of having a German army on the French side of the Rhine. (I always have to remind myself of the fact that Als-Lor was German when looking at maps of the war) Bismarck probably figured that as long as France was isolated at the tip of the continent, France was powerless, even with Als-Lor.

The whole Belgium thing presents quite a few what ifs. The Dutch and Belgians were discussion mutual defense arrangements in the last week of July, 1914. Those talks broke off only when the Germans gave the Dutch ironclad assurances that they would respect Dutch neutrality. (The Dutch lived in mortal terror throughout the war that if overrun, they'd be incorporated into Germany and the Brits would seize their overseas empire and perhaps give it to Japan as reward for the modest Japanese war effort). Had the Germans been a bit more tactful and prepared better diplomatically, they might have convinced the Belgians to let them pass. Of course, the French would have howled that that was unneutral and invaded--rightfully--southern Belgium. The forts at Dinant would have given them trouble.

On the rape of Belgium: It's about time someone put the notion that since many of the most of the more grisly atrocity tales were fabrications, that the Germans were rather well-behaved in Belgium. That wasn't the case. Check Larry Zuckerman's recent _The Rape of Belgium: The untold story of World War I_. I don't care for the dramatic title, but it's solid research. The Germans were nasty from the beginning of the occupation and got nastier. It seems the Belgians were so bad at PR that they weren't able to use sympathy to advance their cause much at Paris in 1919.

Whew, longwindedly yours,

Posted by: Batavicus | Jul 7, 2004 8:20:43 PM

the website u ppl made is sOOOOO dumb!!!

kiss my asss!!

Posted by: bob | Mar 23, 2005 10:27:41 AM

Bob is right you know, Batavicus, he put a lot of effort and discussion hours in to make it happen, you should at least take take that into account first before you make insubstantial claims such as the absurd one posted above.

Posted by: DrWho | Dec 5, 2005 10:28:59 PM

Oops, in the post above it should have Bob swapped with Batavicus. My deepest apologies Batavicus, i wasn't exactly concentrating fully!

Posted by: DrWho | Dec 5, 2005 10:33:31 PM

By the way, is there anyone who could give me some interesting reasons on why WW1 was evolving into a stalemate by 1916, thanks.

Posted by: DrWho | Dec 5, 2005 10:36:15 PM

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