Lessons of World War I

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Victor Davis Hanson shares some of the lessons of World War I:

But the crux is why exactly did Germany believe in late summer 1914 that it could invade neutral Belgium, start a war with France, draw in Britain and Russia (and eventually the U.S.), and expect the Schlieffen Plan to knock out France in a matter of weeks, allowing a redirection to Russia to ensure the same there?

Yet what seems fantastical today was deemed entirely logical in the Germany of 1914 — given prewar British reluctance to support France, American isolation, the utter French collapse in 1871, the Russian humiliation in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, the ongoing political instability that threatened to unwind the Russian czarist state, the amazing surge in German dreadnought construction that promised to nullify traditional British naval supremacy, and the inability of France, Britain, and Russia — and the United States — to craft a credible deterrent force to convince Germany of the folly of any aggressive act, a viable strategy that had actually worked well enough to deter the Kaiser in the prior so-called Moroccan crises.

One of the lessons of the outbreak of World War I is the importance of perceptions. At some point in 1914 the German military and diplomatic community concluded that the country not only could pull off a successful lightning strike against France, but could do so without starting a world war — given various events over the prior decades.

Such flawed thinking is a good reminder that appearances often matter as much as reality in provoking wars.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    The example of WWI would seem to suggest that carrying out a policy of confrontation with a great power from a position of perceived weakness is an invitation to catastrophe, but that seems to be exactly what we’re doing in Ukraine. A dangerous game indeed.

  2. Magus Janus says:

    a lot wrong with this (par for the course with VDH) with some right.

    Germany’s attempt to outbuild the UK in ships had at that point failed miserably. the Uk had clearly met the challenge and was WAY ahead navally, this was recognized as such by both parties.

    US “isolation” (he couldnt help himself, could he? oh VDH…) is hilarious as a supposed cause of war. I mean really, grow up.

    Instability “threatening to unwind the Russian czarist state” is a clear case of reading into history what we know in hindsight. Almost anyone in 1914 upon being told what would happen to the Czar’s regime would just laugh you out of the room.

    If anything the ongoing massive industrial/economic growth of Russia was viewed (rightly) by Germany as a large threat that would overwhelm them if not checked, a strategic reality that was eventually effected with US/UK aid in 1945 and led to 45 years of Russian dominance of Eastern Europe.

    VDH is right that Perfidious Albion was a factor, inasmuch as the Germans were unsure even after going into Belgium as to how the Brits would react. The French loss in 1870 also played a role, though more important than that was the view that this would be a quick war and whoever could mobilize the fastest would win.

    almost NO ONE learned the lesson from the later years of US civil war, of how the war might last far longer and be far more static and horrible than anyone imagined.

    VDH here is doing his usual trick of trying to shoehorn whatever historical facts (or myths) into a narrative of “US MUST NOT BE ISOLATIONIST!!! WE MUST INTERVENE… EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS, FOREVER!” Youd think the neocons would just go away. sadly, they dont.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    VDH is more right than wrong, but he needs to get the Hell away from NR; the neoconnery over there is starting to poison his thinking. Looks like Mark Steyn has already made his break, so once VDH leaves, there will be no reason to even look at NR. A sad end for what was once a good publication.

  4. Phil B says:

    Actually, the Schlieffen plan WOULD have worked had it been followed to the letter.

    The Germans put a feint through the Ardennes aimed at Sedan and the Staff impressed on them that the Army was NOT to fight too vigourously but to hold the Frencha nd fall back under pressure, drawing the bulk of the French Army into the area, away from the Northern coastal plain.

    Except for a few regiments allocated to the Ardennes, the remainder of the German army was to attqack hard in the North.

    Unfortunately for them, the Ardennes front succeeded too well and they put a large part of their reserves into the area to reinforce success.

    As the main army was weakened and delayed at Mons (by the British) it permitted the French to reorganise and hold the line in the North.

    Britain guaranteed Belgium neutrality and the decision was made, “If Belgium does not fight, then neither will we.” Belgium did resist the germans and so committed Britain to the war.

  5. The problem with the Schieffen Plan was that it was impossible. With any reasonable number of troops who were not perpetual motion machines there was simply no way for the great wheel towards Paris to be accomplished successfully.

    The German staff realized this and put von Moltke the younger on the job of fixing it. He did his best, but the what he came up with was a fatal compromise: pulling the far wing of the German army inwards, thus obviating much of the point of the maneuver in the first place.

    In practice, this “von Moltke Plan” performed better than anyone had a right to expect. The troops of the 1st and 2nd armies put in a truly superhuman effort in the parching heat, but they were totally spent and lagging behind by the time they got close to Paris. There was no energy left to snap closed the trap; the Germans had culminated.

    For what it’s worth they recognized this immediately, right around the time the French contraction had put some stuffing back into them. The result was that the Germans got their noses bloodied along the Marne before pulling back to the only defensible high-ground along their lines of advance. There they stayed, mostly, for the rest of the war.

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