Still Not Over Over There? | The Nation - August 1999

This book review of Neil Ferguson's 'The Pity of War' was originally published in The Nation, but had two typos which turned the review inside out. The following text is the corrected review.

The estimates of the number of books written about World War I are in the hundreds of thousands.  By my estimate, Yale University Library holds 34,000 titles published before 1977 and more than 5,000 since. (The second category is on its computer, which counts up to 5,000 only.) The bibliography of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War lists about a thousand titles.  But the author, no shrinking violet, advertises his book with the subtitle Explaining World War I.

Well, Ferguson has not so much set out to explain the war as to show why he thinks it was avoidable and – more sensationally - why he thinks England is to blame for it not having remained a "little war"  and how most of the things we know about it are actually myths. Without  this war, he tells us, Europe would be exactly where it is now, more than eighty years later: working toward union, with Germany as the leading power.

Ferguson is a new kind of academic, a man for our times. Not for him endless, virtually paragraph-less pages of in-depth analyses weighing pros and cons. His text (462 pages) is broken up by hundreds of quotes, soundbites really. From everyone from Hitler to an English gardener , all leading to conclusions (he says) controversial enough  to be the delight of any television interviewer. But it feels like a book targeted at the uninformed and uncritical reader ..Some of  the  conclusions are reached with amazing speed.:A German industrialist making an important deal in England proves to him that German industrialists did not want war, and that in turn is enough to have him write, "The Marxist  interpretation of the war’s origin (i.e. capitalist competition) can therefore be consigned  to the rubbish bin of history." He sets up straw men – for instance "the myth had it was the press that kept the war going on and on." To illustrate  this myth he uses an Austrian playwright, Karl  Kraus, who argued that the increase in newspaper sales in the war years proved that only "the black-and-white  international" (the press) profited from the war; Ferguson provides two pages of statistics demonstrating this. Then he knocks his straw man down by noting that  after 1916 sales diminished, and that the closer one came to the front line, the less attention was paid to newspaper stories. Yet there seems no need for statistics in order to accept that once the frontline froze, extra-edition news would become rarer and newsstand sales would fall. As for the "cricket match approach" to the fighting taken by many newspapers, the casualty list would soon enough prove otherwise.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful passage in which he explained as well as anyone the war’s acceptance: that  it was built on the love affair of the citizens of the warring nations with their pasts, their rulers, their flag,  their national anthem, their parades, their postcard pictures on the mantelpiece  of the King and Queen or the President or the  Kaiser. My critique of Ferguson’s two main theses can run deeper and more proximately. His first thesis is that England  caused the war to expand  by intervening and made it into a disaster, and the second one is that the reason given for England’s intervention, i.e, the violation of Belgian neutrality, was a hypocritical fraud. When  he writes, "The victorious Germans would  have  created a version of the European Union, eight  decades ahead of schedule," he ignored the fatal emotional charge acquired by words such as "war" and "ally."  Before 1914, war was "politics by other means" thereafter it was for both sides a Manichean battle between Good and Evil. Even if Germany had set out to have a "little war," the idea that conflict in the heart  of Europe could have remained tightly circumscribed is fantastic. The same is true for the various scenarios Ferguson sketches for ending it, such as his suggestion that in 1918 the German general Erich Ludendorff should have sought peace negotiations on the basis of "relinquishing Belgium."

By 1914 the concept of warfare, in Europe as in the United States, was still quite positive, perhaps more positive than it had been since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century futuristic writer, predicting a warless age ahead, has a twentieth-century man say, "Our bellicose notions are fading away, and with them our honorable ideas." Lack of fear and a peculiar idea of manly honor meant to prove that the ruling classes and the white race in general were willing to pay the price for ruling the world. A handful of officers commanding native troops could keep vast colonial possessions in bondage  because they were ready to kill and, supposedly, also ready to die.  In the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica a British officer wrote in the entry for "Egypt" that the Egyptian peasant would make an admirable soldier "if only he wished to kill someone!"  As for the United States, although it had no military caste, its values of true manliness weren’t much different, and a successful general always had (and still has) a shortcut to the presidency.

When Bernard Shaw called the British Army outdoor relief for the aristocracy, he was really writing about eighteenth-century armies, when, briefly, warfare was a game for gentlemen. The war Bismarck fought with France in 1870-71 still had something of that spirit.  France had to pay a huge indemnification and lost two provinces, but it remained a major power whose foreign policies actually dominated those of Germany thereafter. Germany had defeated France but had not destroyed it. 

While Ferguson presupposes that Germany’s war with France and Russia would have remained just that, leaving 1914 Europe basically intact, if England hadn’t turned it into a global conflict, in fact the German war policy asked for the Vernichtung of France as a player in Europe (Vernichtung has the stem nichts, which means "nothing"). Germany didn’t set out with something akin to today’s concept of "limited conflict" – what on earth could it have gained by that? In 1870-71 it had gone as far as a "little war" could take it.

Although the Kaiser’s serious, formalistic Germany was different in style from Hitler’s and lacked a genocidal racial program, it had aims (and contempt for the Slavs) that came painfully close to the Fuhrer’s. A 1914 report to the German Imperial Chancellery included a map of the future eastern frontier in which a strip of land isolated a rump Poland (possibly to be ceded to Austria-Hungary).  That strip was to be "cleared" by deporting part of the Polish population and all of its Jews. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg noted that "the German people, the greatest colonizing people in the world…must be given wider frontiers within which it can live a full life." (Germany did not get the chance to act on that policy, not then. But in 1939 it did, temporarily.  Hitler’s satrap in Poland, Hans Frank, announced that for the first time in modern history, a war victory could be ausgenutzt – used up—to the last drop, and that Poland would be reduced to nothing.  Later the Czechs were told they might be moved to the Arctic Circle after the German victory; the Dutch were earmarked to populate settlements in Russia.)

The rulers of 1914 Germany were determined to make their country not just a world power but the world power.A popular slogan was, Am deutschen  Wesen wird die  Welt  genesen, "German-ness will cure the world." Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s "September Programme" of 1914 specified annexations of French, Belgian and Russian territory, the founding of a Central European customs union and the creation of Baltic states under German control. Germany was  to acquire new territory in Africa, where its colonial possessions  were to be consolidated in one Central Africa area from coast to coast .Other German documents specified control of the Russian and Dutch railways. France would have to pay such a vast sum that  it would forever be off the map as a European force. There was to be an effort to break up the British and Russian empires through fomenting Muslim revolt.

It is hardly politically correct to generalize about a nation, but centuries of common history may put a stamp on a society that makes it  hard for other societies to comprehend. I dare suggest that German aggressiveness  was based not only on an overconfidence but also paradoxically on a lack of confidence. What to make otherwise of a report by Gustav Krupp, the arms manufacturer, written for the government in the fall of 1914? (The great industrialist of Germany did indeed play a large role in defining war aims). Krupp wrote that German domination  of Belgium must continue and extend to the north coast of France. He said, "Here we should be lying at the very marrow of England’s world power, a position – perhaps the only one—which would bring us England’s lasting friendship. For only if we are able to hurt England badly at any moment will she really leave us unmolested, perhaps even become a friend, in so far as England is capable of friendship at all."

We can but hope that present-day Europe will not evolve like a 1914 continent in which Germany had won the war. Germany went through a unique Gotterdammerung

Trauma in World War II, which has perhaps enabled it to be the leading power on the continent without in the process Germanizing  and destroying its essence. Nothing but that trauma could have achieved that transformation. I for one am not too sanguine about the future prospects – and neither, I may add, was former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has repeatedly warned that Germany’s total integration is "a matter of life and death" for the twenty-first century. Ferguson’s thesis that a German victory in a "little  war" in 1914 would  have been the better thing more than eighty years ago, and that England’s prevention of this was a pity (  the pity in the title of the book) is terrifyingly wrong.

Germany’s war aims in 1914 have been well documented by a German historian, Fritz Fischer, who in 1961 published a book about them,, Griff nach der Weltmacht ("Grab for World Power"). An abridged version was published in English under the calm title "Germany’s Aims in the First World War". The book caused an outcry in West Germany, but its scholarship and documentation left little room for factual criticism. Fisher’s book stands in direct contradiction to Ferguson’s ideas, and it is necessary to see how Ferguson deals with this. (The importance of Fisher’s book made avoidance of it unthinkable.)

"There is a fundamental flaw in Fisher’s reasoning," Ferguson argues, "which too many historians have let pass. It is the assumption that Germany’s aims as stated after the war had begun were the same as German aims beforehand... If this were true, then the argument that war was avoidable would collapse... But the inescapable fact is that no evidence has ever been found by Fisher and his pupils that these objectives existed before Britain’s entry into the war."

That’s it, the basic justification for this 462-page text.

But it would surely have been amazing had any official plan such as the September Programme not been kept a complete secret in peacetime, when its publication would have spurred France, England and Russia into unheard-of efforts to manufacture more arms and train more soldiers. Even its publication after the war would have been a blow to Germany’s bargaining position at Versailles.

It also seems unacceptable to assume that on August l, 1914, Germany held the limited war aims Ferguson ascribes to it but that five weeks later, and, moreover, right after the German march on Paris had been stopped in the Battle of the Marne, Bethmann-Hollweg would come up with a completely new, closely reasoned plan enlarging those aims to the nth degree.

Ferguson’s book presents another accusation, only slightly less startling and controversial than blaming England for turning a little war with a good ending into a huge war with a bad ending.  He informs his readers that if Germany had not violated Belgium’s neutrality, Britain would have done so. "This puts the British government’s much-vaunted moral superiority in fighting ‘for Belgian neutrality’ in another light," he writes.

England was certainly not just fighting for "Belgian neutrality" when it declared war. The main reason England entered the war was to guarantee that the Belgian coast would not be held in potentially hostile hands.

What evidence does Ferguson cite to assume that if Germany had not broken that treaty, England would have? He quotes a document issued after a British strategy meeting held in December 1912, which stated, "In order to bring the greatest possible pressure upon Germany, it is essential that the Netherlands and Belgium should either be entirely friendly to this country, in which case we should limit their overseas trade, or that they should be entirely hostile, in which case we should extend the blockade to their ports." And from this Ferguson extrapolates, "In other words: if Germany had not violated Belgium neutrality in 1914, Britain would have."

But are these really "other words" for what the 1912 meeting stated? The Netherlands remained neutral throughout the war; in March 1915 Britain set up a system under which ships’ cargoes to the Netherlands (and Denmark and Norway) were inspected by the navy for "contraband," i.e., food and cotton for Germany.  A year later the Netherlands Overseas Trust – a corporation of shippers that sent advance information on cargoes to the British Contraband Committee—was formed; this greatly speeded up the inspections.  Through most of the war Dutch shipping between Rotterdam and German ports continued freely.  The discussions of the legal limits to a blockade are really not comparable to the occupation and ravaging of Belgium, if that is what Ferguson’s proof is about.

Throughout his book Ferguson uses the word "Germanophobic" in referring to Sir Edward Grey and others in Britain who mistrusted the Germans.  When Ferguson himself quotes the 1906 Chancellor Prince Bernhard von Bulow as "effectively postponing the idea of a preventive war until ‘a cause arose which would inspire the German people’" and calls this a sign of the Prince’s nonmilitarism; or when he writes that under unrestricted U-boat warfare, ships were sunk without warning only "if they were believed to be carrying war supplies to Britain"; or when he mysteriously states that the coveted "blighty wounds" (light wounds that were nevertheless serious enough to require hospitalization in England) proved not that British soldiers liked to get away from the frontline but that they had a Freudian affinity to "murder and death," I am tempted to label him a Germanophile and an Anglophobe. Not that I share his obvious opinion that such adjectives contribute much to a discussion.  But I certainly belong to the generation that had every reason to regret that Neville Chamberlain wasn’t more of a Germanophobe.

The Germany of 1914 was as determined as the Germany of 1933 to become the world power.  The idea that Europe is now where it would have been in 1914  after a German victory over France and Russia is not the subject for an academic quarrel but a disastrous misreading of history.  It relativizes and then obliterates the glory of the twentieth century: that in the end, and at staggering cost, the Good Guys carried the day. 

-Hans Koning