World War I

The Kaiserreich’s War

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
by Max Hastings
William Collins, 2013, 672 pages, $32.99

1914: The Year the World Ended
by Paul Ham
William Heinemann Australia, 2013, 736 pages, $49.95

The title of Max Hastings’s new book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, almost says it all. An estimated 9.5 million military personnel, along with close to 7 million civilians, perished as a consequence of the First World War; and to those figures can be added 20 million wounded. Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year the World Ended is, in some aspects, no less a tour de force than Hastings’s Catastrophe. His character portraits are often interesting if one-sided, his account of the Battle of Marne detailed, and the suffering of ordinary people clearly depicted. Nevertheless, the ultimate significance of the First World War eludes him. After such horrific carnage, the hope that it would be “the war to end war” was dashed with the Second World War’s death toll reaching somewhere between 60 and 85 million. What went wrong? According to Hastings, it was failure to understand the lessons of 1914, a problem that haunts us still, an astonishing one hundred years later.

Neither Hastings nor Ham believes Europe sleepwalked into the First World War. Not for them the canard that Archduke Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn in Sarajevo on the Sunday morning of June 28, 1914, and set off an inexorable chain of events. Over time this became the accepted and often uncontested—before the publication of Fritz Fischer’s work, at least—view of events. It surmised that the First World War was all but inevitable due to entrenched causal factors, which included nationalism, the alliance system, secret diplomacy, the arms race, militarism, navalism and imperialism. Marxians, trapped by the strictures of their ideology, invariably emphasise the latter, while appeasers, utopians and pacifists make more out of the arms race and militarism. A.J.P. Taylor famously claimed it was not these “profound factors” so much as the logistics of mobilising armies in the railway age that led to the outbreak of hostilities: “The World War had begun—imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables.” Keith Windschuttle, in the article “Was World War I Necessary?” in the New Criterion, argues that all these explanations are “committed to some version of fatalism or destiny, to the notion that what happened in history was somehow meant to be”. This kind of determinism, he suggests, has more in common with Hegelian mysticism than historical reality.

Frank Carrigan, in his review of Paul Ham’s 1914 for the Australian, chastises Ham for maintaining that “colonial rivalry between Germany, Britain and France did not lead to war” and for concentrating “unduly on the role of individuals and their peccadilloes” to explain the tragedy of August 1914. Carrigan concedes that “the clash of economic interests” was not “the sole cause” of the war, but that the role of (say) the Kaiser has to be explained by the monarch’s acceptance of Germany’s great need “to become a naval power and create a world empire” rather than his “bluster and arrogance”. Wilhelm II reigned “at the epicentre of a network of bankers, industrialists and generals”—a military-industrial complex no less—and, of course, it is these subterranean forces (also known as social classes) that propel history and not individual personalities. The problem with Carrigan’s Marxian critique is that all this “big picture” talk leaves us none the wiser about the real-life manoeuvrings of July 1914.

Carrigan commends Ham for the “racy chapter” on the 1911 Moroccan Crisis, before adding that in this crisis “there was a fusing of militarism and the great power rivalry that was to spark the ultimate showdown in 1914”. He makes a sweeping statement about an historical occurrence and ties it to the events of June–August 1914 with the use of the infinitive to spark, and yet in fact our critic has told us little. He has not, for example, explained why there was no First World War in 1911 but one in 1914. Both Ham and Hastings, thankfully, understand that while the onset of combat did not occur in a geopolitical vacuum there was also nothing predestined about the Great War. Ultimate blame falls on a clique of military and political characters who, possessing extraordinary amounts of power in their respective countries, either deliberately set out to start war (Hastings) or failed to prevent one (Ham).

Ham is hard on the Austrians and the Germans—but, crucially, not hard enough. He sums up Austria’s list of demands served (belatedly) by Vienna on Belgrade in the aftermath of Sarajevo as “a set of malicious diplomatic contrivances” with no other purpose than to “extract a casus belli in order to destroy its hated neighbour and restore its ‘prestige’”. When the Serbians did not reject the ultimatum outright, asserts Ham, the hawks in Vienna were in a quandary: “Serbia’s reply made war difficult to declare.” Despite this bothersome detail, the Austrian government—with the backing of Germany—went ahead and invaded Serbia anyway. By the logic of Ham’s own argument there was little the Serbians could have said or done to dissuade Austria from disregarding their sovereign territory. Convinced, wrongly as it turned out, that its imperial troops would make short work of the Serbian army, the Austrians eventually took the plunge and went to war against their small neighbour. Given that Serbian soldiers were under strict instructions to hold fire until the Austro-Hungarian empire commenced hostilities, it is difficult to see how Vienna—along with Berlin, of course—can be categorised as anything other than the initiator of war, one that eventually left much of Serbia in ruin and resulted in the death of 20 per cent of its inhabitants.

Ham also apportions to Russia a degree of culpability for the outbreak of hostilities. He bases part of this claim on the sudden death of the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Nicholas Hartwig, on July 10, 1914. Ham alleges that for all of Hartwig’s “pan-Slav bluster”, he would have “counselled caution” when Serbia’s Prime Minister Pasic began campaigning for the impending national election using the “spiralling threat to Serbia as a vote-winner”. Additionally, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, receives Ham’s reproach for having “stiffened Serbia’s spine” during the July crisis instead of doing the opposite. Some of this might be true and yet, in the final analysis, Ham’s equivocation is mostly beside the point. After all, the thrust of his own narrative states that the hawks in Vienna were determined to invade Serbia come hell or high water. The only people more determined it should occur were Chief of Staff Helmeth von Moltke, War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn and the foreign office back in Berlin.

Over the past hundred years Tsarist Russia has often been accused of seeing advantage in a war against Germany. A successful war might unite a divided nation behind the Little Father—something it did briefly achieve—and even provide Russia with the coveted prize of Constantinople and control of the Dardanelle Straits. The far more relevant point, surely, is the absence of proof that the Tsarist government either wanted to go to war in 1914 or in any way initiated the First World War. Ham recognises that Moltke and his coterie did absolutely everything in their power to pressure Russia into announcing the full mobilisation of its armed forces on Sunday, July 31, 1914, and duly celebrated this development, since Berlin could now falsely represent “Germany as a victim”. The Kaiser began to express panic about the possibility of going to war with Cousin Nicky but was something of a lone (and no longer decisive) voice towards the end of July. Ham rightly dismisses as “grotesque” Chancellor Bothmann-Hollweg’s assertion to the Bundesrat on August 1 that Germany was “in a state of war with Russia brought on by Russia herself”. What Paul Ham fails to do, however, is follow the trail of evidence to its logical conclusion—for that, we must consult Max Hastings’s Catastrophe.

According to Hastings, every major decision by Russia from July 24 onwards was predicated upon Austria on July 23 making “explicit its commitment to destroy Serbia”. The author of Catastrophe reminds us that those who claim Russia should have stood aside “are obliged to rely on the same arguments as did the Kaiser in July 1914”. The passage of time has not altered the facts:

Unless or until evidence is forthcoming that the Serbian government was complicit in the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand, or that Russia had prior knowledge of the outrage, the Tsar’s commitment to resist the attempt to extinguish Serbia seems justified.

Obviously the Tsar and his ministers and generals “may justly be branded foolish, even reckless, for dooming their own precarious polity by going to war for Serbia”, but “moral opprobrium” for the commencement of hostilities “must rest in Vienna”. The only other critical factor in unleashing the Austro-Serbian war was Germany or, more specifically, “the institutional hubris of the German army, embodied in the inadequate person of Moltke.” Finally, Hastings suggests that the timing and extensiveness of the Russian mobilisation was less a matter of misplaced diplomatic bluster and pride than genuine military considerations on the part of St Petersburg.

Ham even tries to shift some of the responsibility for the First World War onto France’s Raymond Poincaré, albeit less than any other significant European political or military figure. Ham writes that French enmity towards Germany because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in the aftermath of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War ebbed and flowed over the years but mostly ebbed: “By 1900, Alsace and Lorraine hardly threatened a dinner-party argument, far less to drive the two nations to war.” On the other hand, Ham notes that Poincaré, the Lorraine-born intellectual whose “family lost their home in the annexation”, was one of those who breathed life into the revanchist case in the mid-1900s. Combine this with the antipathy between Germany and France generated by the growing Franco-Russian alliance (beginning in 1892) and Poincaré’s elevation to the presidency in 1913, and it is almost a case of 1 + 1 = 3. Ham never claims that Poincaré sought war with Germany—on the contrary, in fact—but castigates him, nonetheless, for not applying more pressure on St Petersburg during July 1914 to calm down Belgrade. This seems something of a stretch given that Ham elsewhere informs us that Austria was ready to declare war on Serbia whatever its response to the July 23 ultimatum.

Germany’s official explanation for declaring war on France on August 3, 1914, was no less farcical than the reason Germany gave for invading Poland on September 1, 1939. As it happened, the telegram from Berlin that Ambassador Schoen had to read out to French officials was so mutilated that at the critical moment he did not know which lie to choose to justify Germany going to war: “French air attacks (legible) or French border violations (illegible).” For no real reason, other than the print being more decipherable in that part of the telegram, Schoen hastily picked the fib about a French air attack on Nuremburg. Germany’s excuse for invading Luxembourg and Belgium the following day—the quickest route to Paris—was no less risible. Paul Ham relates all of this to his reader and yet remains an advocate of the “pox on both your houses” school of thought. Max Hastings comes to a markedly different conclusion. Whether or not Berlin deliberately endeavoured “to contrive a general European conflagration” in 1914, the Kaiserreich “was willing for one” and must bear “principal blame”.

David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914 (2005) goes further than even Hastings. Fromkin’s contention is that Germany hijacked “Austria’s war” for its own purposes. At no time during the July crisis did Conrad von Hoetzendorf or the other hawks in Vienna contemplate a war that would involve Russia. Moreover, they anticipated that having given them the “blank cheque”, Germany would do everything in its power to mollify Russia so that any war between Austria and Serbia would remain contained. Evidence suggests that this is what Germany, in the first instance, planned to do, or at least what the Kaiser tried to do. Later in the month, with the Kaiser absent on holiday, Germany’s Foreign Office—largely independent of the Reichstag—adopted a second and more radical stance. By the end of July, “animated by Moltke, Falkenhayn and colleagues”, the German foreign office saw that conditions were propitious for a very different war, a war on Russia and France or, at any rate, the threat of a war on Russia and France, a move that would break up the Triple Entente’s “encirclement” and allow Germany to “escape forward”.

All the prerequisites for Germany to launch a continental war had clicked into place by the end of July: “The Kaiser’s authority had to be on the wane, Austrian participation assured, and Russia had to look like the aggressor.” Events appear to corroborate Fromkin’s thesis, including the fact that from August 1 Moltke was demanding Austrian troops be pulled back from the Serbian frontier in order to help Germany hold the Russians at bay—so much for Germany’s interest in Austria expeditiously crushing Serbia. There is also the somewhat overlooked detail of Austria appearing reluctant to declare war on Russia, declining to do so until August 6. The relationship between the Wilhelmine Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire had always been something of a one-way street, with (for instance) Vienna refusing to back Berlin during the Moroccan Crisis. All the same, Austria’s hubris inadvertently ensnared it in a standard Prussian power play, not that the German foreign office, in the first place, set out to co-opt Austria.

Moltke’s less-than-Bismarckian genius took time to devise his Bismarck-esque trickery. Germany’s sleight-of-hand was intended for both foreign consumption and also a domestic audience, since much of the population—not least the Social Democratic Party—were initially keen on peace. David Fromkin and Max Hastings include in their respective books a letter written by Moltke in his wartime retirement: “It is dreadful to be condemned to inactivity in this war … this war which I prepared and initiated.” The contrary notion that Germany was dragged into war on account of the treachery of Russia, France and United Kingdom might have been a lie but, nevertheless, proved a very useful one for the Prussian military caste during the First World War and through the bitter aftermath. In the years ahead, Germany-as-the-victim and other sundry fantasies would be articles of faith not only for Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists, but also for the misapprehending German populace.

Understanding the real causes of the First World War is something more than a century-old blame game. European politicians and diplomats in the 1920s and 1930s often thought they were putting into good use the lessons of 1914, but the problem was that they had learned all the wrong lessons. The Kaiserreich, according to Hastings and Fromkin, saw the solution to its problems through the “prism of war”, a war they believed Germany could comfortably win against military foes less able than themselves. Capturing Paris (via Belgium) within six weeks and then turning its full military strength against Russia seemed very doable to the warlords in Berlin HQ. However, if Moltke and Falkenhayn had seriously believed the armed forces of France and Russia possessed the capacity to (eventually) hold the line and so transform the German advance into a stalemate and the conflict into a war of attrition—as, in fact, transpired—there would have been no First World War. Thus, it is not just with hindsight that we can see why the progressive disarmament of France in the post-war years failed to serve the cause of peace.

Ham’s determination to exculpate Germany from the role of “sole provocateur” of a continental war takes—as we have already noted—many forms, and one more is the part played by the British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey. Ham quotes Luigi Albertini, Italian journalist and historian, and author of Origins of the War of 1914 (1953), who describes Grey’s performance during the July crisis as “inept and dilatory” and laments his failure “to avert the catastrophe”. Ham rates Albertini’s assessment as overly harsh, and yet he himself rebukes Grey’s expertise as “utterly inadequate to the challenge of 1914”. Grey’s defectiveness, in the opinion of Ham, arose from “the forms and constraints of the rigidly prescribed rites of his class”—that is, his enigmatic, gentlemanly, upper-class reserve. As a consequence, Berlin never received a clear sense of how Britain might respond to German belligerency: “When Europe needed an assertive British bulldog, they got a vacillating fly fisherman.” If Grey had been able “to stamp British military support on the Entente” earlier in July, contends Ham, this “may have deterred German aggression”.

Grey’s seeming vacillation has to be considered the context of the rapidly changing circumstances in the course of the July crisis. On July 5, argues Hastings, the British population were less on the side of Austria than Serbia and in no mood to see their country involved in a continental skirmish. Asquith’s Liberal government, which included Grey, was of a similar bent, Triple Entente or no Triple Entente. There was no question of Grey either wanting to or needing “to stamp British military support on the Entente”. The situation after July 23 represents an entirely different phase of the July crisis, and not one of his making or one he or any British foreign minister—even one not born with a silver spoon in his mouth—could have solved. Berlin’s likely skulduggery is further underlined, Fromkin informs us, by the knowledge that both the official records of their July 5 conversations with the Austrians that resulted in the “blank cheque” and the discussions among German leaders in the week of July 25 leading to war are missing. Today, fortunately, we have comprehensively researched works such as Annika Mombauer’s Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (2005) that make it devastatingly clear the July crisis “seemed to present an opportunity rather than a threat” to the German Chief of Staff.

There is another important aspect to consider. Max Hastings makes the essential point that even though the Kaiser characterised Britain as “perfidious Albion” for its August 4 declaration of war, the German warlords’ plan to occupy Paris within six weeks did not hinge on the involvement or otherwise of the undersized British Expeditionary Force, a military force the Germans—according to Hastings—would have rated as “marginal”. Britain was a Great Power—but a naval rather than a continental one. As the Kaiser liked to joke: “Dreadnoughts have no wheels!” In all likelihood there was nothing Britain could have done in 1914 to prevent “Germany’s war”. The biggest mistake by the Liberal government during the decade preceding the First World War, in the opinion of Hastings, was to believe that a “balance of power” could be maintained on the continent “without a credible mass of soldiers to support its diplomacy”. This may have been a serious miscalculation on the part of the British, and yet “failure to create a conscript army can scarcely be characterised as warmongering”.

Many of those who are cynical about (or mystified by) Britain going to war on August 4, 1914, to protect the territorial integrity of “little Belgium” have no problem accepting the decision to declare war on September 3, 1939, after Germany’s invasion of “faraway Poland”. Max Hastings questions the reasoning of the modern-day critic of the Asquith government. He addresses, for instance, Niall Ferguson’s proposition in The Pity of War (1998) that Britain’s entry into the conflict prolonged a war that would have otherwise resulted in a German victory and the imposition of a continental customs system, an arrangement not so different from what emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Kaiserreich, counters Hastings, might have been far less brutal than the Third Reich, but its elevation to the role of solitary Great Power on the continent was not one to be lightly countenanced. The German armed forces of 1914 behaved with “systematic inhumanity” in both Belgium and France, burning, looting and butchering—6,427 civilians murdered in 1914 alone—their way towards Paris.

Paul Ham’s shared-culpability approach leads him to classify the First World War as an “unjust” war. Germany’s criminal invasion of Belgium and the plucky response of the Belgians, France’s heroic fightback at the Battle of the Marne, and Serbia’s valiant repulsion of the (atrocity-committing) armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire are but components of “an avoidable, unnecessary exercise in collective stupidity and callousness”. While this permits Ham to finish his narrative on a note of early-twenty-first-century high-mindedness, closer to PC rectitude than the truth, it brings us no closer to understanding why the tragedy of 1914-18 occurred and how such catastrophes can be averted. Let us not forget that the notion of shared-culpability fashioned a great deal of inter-war diplomacy, and that diplomacy—however high-mindedly anti-war the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) or the plethora of disarmament conferences sounded at the time—did not save Paris from the jackboot.

Paul Ham depicts Winston Churchill in a relentlessly unflattering light. The First Lord of the Admiralty is variously described as a pompous imperialist, a jingoist, a Germanophobe, keen to ready the Royal Navy for war, even keener for hostilities to begin. He includes, of course, Churchill’s remark to Violet Asquith in 1915 that he loved war despite the “smashing and shattering” of lives. Nobody would dispute that Churchill possessed a peculiar attitude to war—though few (except the Nazis) were complaining about that peculiarity on May 10, 1940, the day Winnie the British Bulldog assumed the prime ministership. Omitted from Ham’s character study are Churchill’s missives to his wife Clementine in July 1914 expressing determination to prevent the onset of a continental war and deep regret once it appeared inescapable. Ham pays Churchill the dubious compliment of having “the honesty” to acknowledge the Great War as a personal “source of excitement”, and then includes him amongst the “criminal” politicians who promoted pro-war sentiments among the young. This acrimony echoes the kind of anti-Churchill attitudes prevalent in Great Britain during the appeasement era of the 1930s. Winston Churchill’s warning against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles being further degraded and his campaign for Britain’s (and France’s) speedy re-armament also brought cries of “Warmonger!”

If Hastings and Fromkin are right about the causes of the First World War, Germany unleashed the horror of war for two reasons. First, a tiny clique of influential men in Berlin feared that Germany, and in particular Prussian Germany, would soon be outnumbered and overwhelmed by the growing potency of Russia. Second, these same characters calculated that the armed forces of Germany most probably had the ability to crush the Russians and their allies. Only the greater fear of defeat on the battlefield might have stayed Helmuth von Moltke’s hand. Can we not say something similar about the Second World War? Churchill was not a warmonger for wanting Britain to be formidable enough—and Germany correspondingly powerless enough—to avert a reprise of the Great War. He had simply learned the lessons of the 1914-18 calamity, something those who unfairly denigrate Churchill have conspicuously failed to do.

Daryl McCann wrote on the Muslim Brotherhood in the December issue. He has a blog at


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