The Magazine

The Historians' War

The lessons of 1914

Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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Keegan thus resists the temptation (succumbed to by the author of one of the early classic histories of the war, Basil H. Liddell Hart) to condemn Allied generals as idiots while leaving the impression that the German generals were a collection of Erwin Rommels. In fact, if any high command was criminally irresponsible, it was Germany's. The famous Schlieffen plan was. Keegan insists, doomed from the start. Once they reached the French border, the truckless German troops would have to get off their trains and walk. On the narrow roads of those days, a single army corps extended almost twenty miles. The great constraint on striking power in 1914 was not manpower but road surface. Keegan argues that there simply was not room on the paved roads of northern France for an army the size that on Schlieffen's plan required, and he identifies despairing hints in the text of the plan that suggest von Schlieffen himself knew it. The Germans proceeded anyway.

If "brilliance" is coming up with an idea that nobody ever thought to say before, then we pay undue honor to intellectual flash when we make brilliance the touchstone of excellence -- since the most common reason that nobody has thought to say a particular thing is that the thing is wrong. In this sense, John Keegan's The First World War is the opposite of brilliant: It is instead lucid, impartial, and authoritative. Most impressively, it is a miracle of concision, compressing problems that have consumed entire books into two or three crystalline paragraphs. And in the same understated style as the British Imperial war cemeteries in France, it is quietly heart-rending.

"Brilliant," however, is exactly the word to describe Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War. Ferguson has produced a dazzlingly ambitious attempt to write not a narrative history, but a debunking of what he bills as ten "broadly held myths" about the war.

On examination, his broadly held myths usually turn out to be either not broadly held or not myths. When, for example, Ferguson attacks the notion that Germany went to war in 1914 because it felt strong, he's attacking something believed by almost nobody. The brave counter-position Ferguson claims as his own -- that Germany went to war because its leaders felt weak and feared that Russian industrialization would leave them weaker still -- is held by almost all modern historians.

But Ferguson's overhyping of his originality does not entirely diminish his achievement. The Pity of War is a fascinating volume, bristling with interesting ideas. Ferguson approaches the war from an unusual angle. He is a financial historian (his previous book was a history of the house of Rothschild), and he never loses sight of the truth that paying for the war was an absolute precondition for fighting it. The First World War was the most expensive thing the human race had ever until then done. It cost about $ 180 billion in the money of the day (at a time when $ 1 bought one-twentieth of an ounce of gold, or fifteen times as much as today), and that's not counting the reconstruction of northern France and southern Belgium or the postwar cost of caring for the crippled and the orphaned.

Cost was the crucial variable of the war. One of the enduring mysteries of the war is how Germany managed to survive as long as it did when its enemies so outnumbered it. It's true that the Germans were better fighters: "From August 1914 until June 1918," Ferguson observes, "there was not a single month in which the Germans failed to kill or capture" more soldiers on the Western front than they lost. But this alone would not have sufficed, given the Allies' over-whelming economic advantage. The key, Ferguson determines, was Germany's superior management of its military resources. He grimly calculates that "whereas it cost the Entente powers $ 33,485.48 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Central Powers, it cost the Central Powers just $ 11,344.77 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Entente." It was this three-to-one disparity in killing efficiency that kept Germany in the fight for four and a half years.

This same close attention to numbers leads Ferguson into some of his most ingenious but least convincing suggestions. He argues that Germany did not emerge from the war economically broken: Its internal war debt and its external reparations debt amounted to 160 percent of its gross domestic product in 1921, less than Britain's (165 percent) and substantially less than Britain's after the 1815 defeat of Napoleon (which Ferguson believes to have been close to 200 percent).

Ferguson argues that Germany could thus have afforded to honor its debt and pay as well its reparations to the Allies. The Young Plan of 1929 envisaged a pay-out of about 3 percent of German national income a year for sixty years -- a not unimaginable stretch of time when one considers that modern Germany has been, as Ferguson notes, a net contributor to the European Union budget for forty years now. Three percent of national income is substantial, but hardly crushing: It's roughly equivalent to America's post-Cold War defense budget.

What Ferguson neglects to mention, however, is the reason that Germany's debt was as low as 160 percent. By 1921 -- two years before the famous German hyperinflation of the 1920s began -- Germany had already inflated away most of its internal debt. Britain financed the war by dissolving its overseas investments; Germany financed the war by expropriating the savings of its middle class.

The country that Ferguson envisages paying reparations was thus not a stable, prosperous Germany, quietly accumulating trade surpluses in a free trade world; it may have been spared the terrible physical damage inflicted on France and Belgium, but it was teetering politically, locked out of world markets by discriminatory tariffs, and convulsed economically.

Ferguson is right that Germany should have been made to help rebuild France and Belgium. But it was not mere truculence that caused Germany to default. Britain and America -- the winners of the war -- had already defaulted on their obligation to build an international economic order in which there was room for Germany to earn the money to pay France and Belgium. In the end, the United States ended up lending Germany the money, which only made the already ramshackle financial structure of the 1920s more rickety still.

Ferguson's The Pity of War has attracted attention most of all for its argument that Britain ought to have stayed out of the First World War. This is the section of his work excepted in the Atlantic Monthly and the argument that inspired the New Yorker to publish a lengthy article about him. Ferguson contends that Britain was not bound to come to the aid of France and Belgium in August 1914. True, France would have lost had Britain not. But so what?

Had Britain stood aside -- even for a matter of weeks -- continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today -- but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars. . . . It would have been infinitely preferable if Germany could have achieved its hegemonic position on the continent without two world wars. . . . By fighting Germany in 1914, Asquith, Grey and their colleagues helped ensure that, when Germany did finally achieve predominance on the continent, Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check on it.

But what grounds do we actually have to believe that the sort of rule a victorious Germany would have fastened on the continent would look like the European Union? In 1967, the leading scholar of the subject, Fritz Fischer, offered impressive documentary evidence that the German war aims of World War I bore an uncanny resemblance to the German war aims of World War II: a continent-wide system of economic exploitation.

Ferguson dismisses Fischer's work, but -- in curious contrast to the painstaking care of most of the rest of the book -- at this all-important juncture he substitutes unsubstantiated assertion for proof. Fischer, Ferguson says, was talking about Germany's aims in 1916. Had Germany won the war in 1915, its aims would have been less radical. Perhaps that's true, although Ferguson offers no evidence for it. But even moderate aims would have been bad enough: economic and military control of Europe from Spain to Poland by an illiberal, militarized regime.

Such a Europe would in no way resemble the modern European Union, a confederacy of democracies in which Germany happens to be the richest. A German victory would instead have ushered in a premature Cold War between two world powers, the United States and a German-ruled continent of Europe, only with the ships and armies of the illiberal great power based on the south shore of the English Channel. Under those circumstances, Britain would have ceased to be a great power just as rapidly as it did in actual fact.

If Ferguson wanted to argue a radical position, he might have tried this one: Britain did not decline because of the First World War. Had Britain in 1919 been what it was in 1859 -- the world's most productive economy -- all the foreign assets spent to win the war would speedily have been replaced. Ferguson ought to have thought harder about the implications of his observation that Britain spent relatively more to defeat Napoleon than it did to beat the Kaiser -- but that Britain nevertheless dominated the nineteenth century economically; harder too about the observation, which he does not make, that Britain spent only slightly more to defeat the Kaiser than the United States spent to win World War II -- an expenditure that did not prevent the United States from dominating the twentieth. The war weakened Britain because it deprived her of the accumulated wealth that would otherwise have cushioned her decline. But war or no war, she was declining, because of the failure of her economy to continue to lead.

The causes of this failure are much debated. Probably the best explanation is the unique strength of British trade unions, which had already by 1900 loaded onto British industry the most restrictive business practices in the developed world. But whatever the explanation, it does suggest that the right might-have-been for Britain is, "How could we have maintained our economic edge?" and not "How could we have accommodated ourselves to the Kaiser?"

There's a lesson in this for America. A country, no matter how rich, ceases to be great when it loses the heart to protect itself in a world of dangerous states. There are plenty of examples, of which the eighteenth-century Netherlands is the most familiar. The technical term for such countries is "prey." That's what Britain would have been had Germany prevailed in the First World War. That's what the United States will be on the day its readiness to defend itself falters.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His previous essay on World War I, "1917 and All That," appeared in the April 28, 1997 issue.