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Talk Amongst Yourselves

So here's a question I've been toying with: Wouldn't it have been better if the German war plan had worked better in 1914 and French resistance had just collapsed? No Nazism, no Communism, etc., etc., etc. Admittedly, Germany under the Kaiser wasn't a model of modern democratic governance. But then again, neither was the United States in 1914 (no votes for women, black people, etc.). Germany had some of the elements of both liberalism and democracy and it could, like the USA, have evolved into something better.

February 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Admittedly, Germany under the Kaiser wasn't a model of modern democratic governance. But then again, neither was the United States in 1914 (no votes for women, black people, etc.). Germany had some of the elements of both liberalism and democracy and it could, like the USA, have evolved into something better.

Winning a war against your traditional enemy (and then occupying their country) is exactly the sort of thing that tends to stop militaristic regimes from reforming.

But, yeah, no Communism, no National Socialism. Wasn't something like this Niall Ferguson's thesis?

Posted by: Bob McGrew | Feb 10, 2005 8:52:08 PM

Er, um, but you still woulda had Communism....

Posted by: mumon | Feb 10, 2005 8:54:43 PM

The problem is that at the time France was seen as a bastion of liberalism and Germany as an avatar of Order and Strength. If Germany had won effortlessly, it would have been viewed as evidence that liberalism was doomed and Order and Strength were the way to go if you wanted to survive in the world.

So I don't think it would have worked out well. And the various "new order" ideologies would have oozed out from the cracks somehow anyway.


Posted by: Dave* | Feb 10, 2005 8:57:34 PM

I agree with mumon, you still would have had communism. No way the czar stays on top even if the war ends in 1915.

Posted by: jared bailey | Feb 10, 2005 8:58:41 PM

Jared and Mumon - Even if the overthrow of the czar was inevitable (debatable), you might not have gotten the Bolsheviks in power (who after all campaigned on land, peace, and bread in a time of great suffering) - the Mensheviks or moderate liberal democrats could have stabilized Russia if the situation didn't deteriorate as far as it did by 1917.

Posted by: Andrew | Feb 10, 2005 9:03:26 PM

So, if France were to have actually collapsed in 1914, what happens on the Eastern Front? After the Battle of Tannenberg, the Russian army was basically in tatters for the entire war. If the troops from the Western Front were suddenly freed up to head East, there is no way the Russians would have made it; their army would have been even more rapidly shattered than it was.

The way I see it, had the French fallen, the Russians would also have fallen. Britain is another question of course...they could have continued arming and had the Grand Fleet to protect them from invasion; they may have made peace, they may have chosen to continue the fight.

The point I would see, though, is that if France would have fallen, the world would rapidly have turned again into a 3-power world, with the U.S. on our side of the Ocean, Britain holding together her massive but threatened empire, and Germany controlling all of Europe (with the help of the Hapsburgs).

This to me seems to be a dangerously unstable situation; just as in 1812 where America couldn't help but pick sides in the Napoleonic wars (we had to trade with someone), America would be helpless to avoid picking a side.

Even if Britain had sued for Peace in 1915, there would still be a Rivalry between Germany and Britain; Britain's history suggests that it always opposed the strongest nation on the coontinent of Europe as a method of keeping itself secure, and if Germany conquered Europe, the same thing would have happened.

I see the most likely outcome of a French collapse being a much larger war between an imperial Germany controlling all of Europe and the U.S. and the British on the other side, starting probably within a few years of the French collapse.


Posted by: Balta | Feb 10, 2005 9:10:33 PM

> Wasn't something like this Niall Ferguson's thesis?

In The Pity of War, Ferguson tried to strip away the post hoc post-WWII post-Cold War anti-German history of the war (see Victors Write The History). FWIW, Ferguson is especially harsh on the British for, more or less, turning it into a World War.

To MY's question, its possible a German win may have led to some sort of United States of Europe. Today, we see some sort of United States of Europe emerging, just with far fewer Europeans than there would have been had Moltke not screwed with Schlieffen's plan.

Posted by: rickhavoc | Feb 10, 2005 9:17:48 PM

Minor correction, but black men were granted suffrage in around 1870. Women, black or white, had to wait until 1920.

Posted by: Ted | Feb 10, 2005 9:22:22 PM

>Britain's history suggests that it always opposed the strongest nation on the coontinent of Europe as a method of keeping itself secure, and if Germany conquered Europe, the same thing would have happened.

Yes, but Perfidious Albion always opposed the top dog on the continent in league with next best power or coalition on the continent (use Prussia against Nappy, that sort of thing). With no one to ally with on the main, with her navy able to protect her, with her empire so far-flung, and with the Saxe-Coburgs on the throne (recall that Edward VII was The Uncle of Europe), it may not have been a powder keg.

Posted by: rickhavoc | Feb 10, 2005 9:27:12 PM

I agree that the tsars would've been in trouble even if the War had ended in 1915. Two humiliating military defeats in ten years is never a good thing for an autocratic regime premised on the notion that the monarch enjoys divine favor, especially when said regime can't deliver the good domestically. (Though I think Russian pre-war GDP growth was second only to that of the Americans.) That said, there's no necessary flow from "the tsars can't hang on much longer" to "Marxism-Leninism in Russia". The Russian Revolution, especially in its early weeks, was an incredibly contingent affair, from which any number of outcomes could have resulted. You could have had some kind of German-style constitutional monarchy (especially since the strength of the German system had just been demonstrated by its victory in the War). You could have had some kind of liberal regime. Or moderate, non-Marixian socialism under Kerensky. Or moderate Marxian socialism under the Mensheviks. Particularly since the Germans would have had less incentive to ship Lenin from Switzerland to St Petersburg as a kind of political bio-weapon, the odds of a Russian Revolution that produces anything substantially like the Soviet Union as we knew it seem to me actually quite small.

As for Matt's original point: in the short term, things would have been better (no millions dead, no revolutions, etc). But in the long run, some kind of pan-European bloodbath was probably inevitable. The Balance of Power system devised after the Napoleonic Wars (and tweaked by Bismarck in the latter half of the century) was an incredibly complicated machine that required extraordinarily adept national leaders to keep friction at the joints from leading to war. And, since states are not always blessed with especially gifted leaders, wars of some kind were basically inevitable. As long as the military technology of the time was sufficiently unsophisticated, these wars could be kept short, limited, decisive and relatively unbloody. Think Crimea, or the Franco-Prussian War.

The alternate Great War Matt is imagining would have been a war along those lines. Short, relatively bloodless and tactically decisive, but ultimately changing nothing about the strategic divisions of Europe. It would have left in place the Balance of Power system, which would have made future wars inevitable. (Remember that pan-European wars were narrowly avoided in the previous 20 years over such important subjects as Morocco and whether the French or the English would get to build a trans-African railroad.) Those wars might have been short, limited and decisive like the previous ones, but eventually the deadliness of European military technology would have caught up with them and you would have had the kind of bloodbath that leveled the continent.

It's terrible to think, but it may be that the devastation of the two world wars was necessary to convince the Europeans that they had better things to do than slaughter each other in an effort to have their particular ethno-nationalist state become King of the World.

Posted by: Angus Dwyer | Feb 10, 2005 9:32:56 PM

To benefit this "what-if" thread, we should accept some givens. I vote for

1. Germany restrains Austria-Hungary and gets a settlement of some sort between A-H and Serbia. Serbia eliminates the Black Hand

2. Russia sues for peace and cedes Poland to Germany as far as the Bug

3. The problem, as I see it, is that France's defeat would be similar to Sedan rather than 1940. Psychologically, France wouldn't feel defeated. What does the German Empire do? occupy? withdraw with reparations?

We've got to decide what happens to France post-1914 before we can get a handle on the post-war geopolitics.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 10, 2005 9:34:10 PM

Wouldn't it have been better if the Roman Empire had never fallen? I'm sure it would have evolved into the United Federation of Planets by the 1750's.

Posted by: 2shoes | Feb 10, 2005 9:41:28 PM

No, no, no, 2Shoes. It would have evolved into the Romulan Empire. Don't you even know your most elementary Treklore?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Feb 10, 2005 9:59:34 PM

No, no, no, Bruce. It would evolve into the 20th-century Rome seen in the TOS episode "Bread and Circuses".

My geek credentials are unrivalled.

Posted by: FDRLincoln | Feb 10, 2005 10:09:19 PM

yes, black men officially had suffrage, but just try to exercise it anywhere in the South (where the vast majority of black men lived in 1914)

Posted by: b | Feb 10, 2005 10:09:28 PM

This isn't my area of expertise. Am I correct in assuming that the Great Depression probably would have occurred no matter the outcome of the war? How would this have affected Europe?

Also, what about the "sick man of Europe," the Ottoman Empire? Clearly, the empire would have still collapsed due to internal pressures, but instead of the Middle East being parceled out under League of Nations mandates, would we have seen independent Arab states? Under this future, there probably would have been no state of Israel, but would the Middle East have been more democratic than it is now?

Posted by: Anthony | Feb 10, 2005 10:10:14 PM

A few points.

First, Ted: You're right that the fifteenth amendment de jure gave African-American men the right to vote in 1870. But by 1914 that law was pretty much nullified in the South (which, at the time, was where the overwhelming majority of African-Americans lived). So it's fair to say that, de facto, (most) black men were denied the vote in 1914.

Secondly: A number of people have pointed out that there's no reason to believe that a Communist state would have emerged in Russia had WW1 ended quickly in 1914. But it's worth remembering that the entirety of what "communism" meant in the twentieth century was, in practice, Bolshivism -- which would not have been the case without the Bolshevik revolution. (Thus, shortly after the Russian Revolution the French left split into pro-Bolshevik and anit-Bolshevik factions). There might not have been a totalitarian left (or right) without WW1; socialism might have stayed what only the anti-communist socialists remained in the real world.

On the other hand, in the wake of the French collapse of 1871, the Paris Commune took over that city. It's already been noted that Commuinism emerged in Russia (and esssentially emerged in its twentieth-century form) in the wake of problems late in WW1. The Nazis, of course, arose in part due to lingering German resentment over their loss in WW1. So: if France had lost a second time to Germany, what totalitarian movements (left, right or both) might have arisen there?

Posted by: Stephen Frug | Feb 10, 2005 10:13:42 PM

While we're on the subject of SF: ever notice how alternate-history stories and novels are absolutely awash with speculations on what would have happened had the Civil War or WW II gone the other way -- but virtually none on what would have happened had the Kaiser won WW I? Ian Macleod's "The Summer Isles" is the only example I can think of (unless you count Harry Turtledove's series in which the South won the Civil War with the aid of Britain and France, and then that coalition, along with Russia and Japan, lost WW I to a US-German-Austrian-Turkish alliance -- which is really a radically different setup).

And Macleod's story deals with world politics only vaguely: Britain responds to its loss by turning into something close to Nazi Germany -- but that's only because a British Hitler-type oratorical genius is thrown up by pure chance. And Fascist Britain doesn't get as far as Hitler's Germany did, because the opposition to its ambitions from the rest of the world is pretty unified -- the Hitler-type is finally assassinated by members of his own party before he can wreak too much harm, and Britain staggers back in the direction of democracy. Meanwhile, France apparently stays democratic and Germany gradually evolves in that direction (although Macleod's one-sentence description of this is extremely vague).

In Turtledove's more radical alternate history, France responds to its loss by going fascist (thanks to Action Francais), while Germany remains a (relatively benign) dictatorship under the increasingly incompetent leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Britain stays democratic, but is itching for a rematch to regain its lost empire, especially after Churchill becomes PM -- and so exactly the same two damn coalitions reassemble for WW II (although Turtledove cheats here by having the Czarist regime maintain control of Russia, for reasons he never explains). Neither of these speculations is enlightening -- I wish some alternate-history writer who knew what he was doing, like Poul Anderson, had taken a crack at it.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Feb 10, 2005 10:15:36 PM

"No, no, no, Bruce. It would evolve into the 20th-century Rome seen in the TOS episode 'Bread and Circuses'. "

As one letter to TV Guide pointed out at the time, Nimoy deserved a special award for keeping a straight face throughout that episode. (Not to mention the one in which they found a duplicate of America on another planet.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Feb 10, 2005 10:22:40 PM

The UK would have probably attached itself to the US, pronto. I doubt the monarchy would have had much say (hell, there's a reason to abolish that nonsense). There's no way an empire is slow decline would have been able to fend off a new Continental power (with all it's resources) centred in Berlin. Sure, their navy was awesome, but imagine the naval force the Germans would have potentially ramped up with new French, Belgian, Dutch and Polish resources and manpower at their dispoal.

Of course, it would have all been temporary anyway. The French would have likely rebelled, and the Russians would have likely played the Slav/Orthodox card to stir discontent in some of the smaller states. The Hapsburgs were ruling a majority Slav empire, that was never gonna be pretty. As such, much of the later anti-Slav rhetoric of the Germans and particuarly the Austrians may still have been realized.

Posted by: Soviet Canuckastani | Feb 10, 2005 10:28:37 PM

The German collective conciousness was a disgusting diseased mass before WWI. So we might not have the word "nazi" today, but the Jews of Europe would have been in sad shape had the Germans won WWI.

Posted by: Eric | Feb 10, 2005 10:28:43 PM

Couple comments:

1) The Schliefflen plan was doomed. Even with the French doing precisely what the plan called for, it still failed.

Much is made of Moltke moving some corps around, but if you look at the railway system of Belgium and the logistical situation in Northern France, you would see that there was no possible way to support one more corp on the extreme right of the German line or any additional troops at the Marne.

THIS is the reason why there aren't that many counter-factuals for the early part of WWI. While the American Civil War and World War II possessed many turning points as they stood, Germany could not have done any better than it did. Given any reasonable assumptions about the French military, the Germans simply were not going to conquer France. Of course, you could assume some massive technological or tactical change, but then it is unlikely that that counterfactual will be all that useful in assessing how our world could have been different. This lack of military contingency kills counterfactuals. The obvious result is that most military counterfactuals in WWI are based in other theaters or occur much later, where the failure of the initial plans create some flexibility.

Take a look at Kennedy's Great Power Politics and Archer Jones War in the Western World and you will see that a devastatingly quick victory between modern states with equal tactical and technological abilities really isn't possible.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 10, 2005 10:53:03 PM

Maybe I give the French too much credit but if the Germans occupied France and other European nations wouldn't that spawn some serious resistance movements (if not immediately over time)? Even if the Germans quickly ended any formal occupation, one wonders if a German puppet regime could have lasted long, especially as I imagine German resources would have been stretched absorbing various French and other colonies around the world.

An interesting question would be what ideology a possible guerilla movement might have adapted; someone can correct me if I'm wrong but didn't France by this period have a strong Socialist/Communist movement? How odd if the major European Communist revolution happened in France and not Russia as far as proving Marx's contentions about a communist revolution.

Anyways, it's nice to see people considering "what-if" historical scenarios seriously; I find it one of the best ways to understand the true import of the events that did occur.

Posted by: Paul Adler | Feb 10, 2005 10:54:57 PM

That was only one comment.

The other is this. Consider the effect on the United States. If the war had finished quickly, it probably would have continued along in its Great Power imperialistic vein. This certainly would have brought it into conflict with Japan and probably Great Britain.

It must be remembered that the US kept on updating its "Red" war plans against Great Britain until the brink of WWII.

I find it highly doubtful that the UK would have run into the arms of the United States. In all likelihood, France would have rearmed, and their would have been a general conflagration 20 years later.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 10, 2005 10:56:24 PM

And what if all those German liberals (including my great great or great great great or something grandfather) hadn't left Germany and come to the US after the failed 1848 revolution? Well, they might've been mostly slaughtered, but assuming they weren't Germany might've evolved into a decent liberal democracy (rather than endure nearly another century of destructive and ultimately self-destructive militarism) and the US might've remained a reactionary backwater, with slavery lasting for several decades more than it actually did.

Posted by: Green Dem | Feb 10, 2005 10:58:40 PM

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