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Home | Library | The Other War that Never Ends: A Survey of Some Recent Literature on World War I

The Other War that Never Ends: A Survey of Some Recent Literature on World War I

April 19, 2004

The Second World War has been called the war that never ends. To a lesser degree, the same could be said of the First World War. It has been estimated, for instance, that the Yale library has 34,000 titles on that conflict published before 1977 and more than 5,000 since.

What I propose to do in this all too brief is article to survey a few recent works.

Michael Howard, The First World War (Oxford University Press)

The author is, in fact, Sir Michael Howard. It is significant that Howard was knighted, when A.J.P. Taylor, for one, an infinitely more interesting historian—even with all his faults—never got close to that. Knighthood in Britain plays something of the same role that the Legion of Honor, founded by Napoleon, does in France. It rewards men who have spent their lives promoting the interests of the state. In this way it permanently skews the country's cultural life towards the state and its beneficent wonderfulness.

It is a question worth considering in an idle moment whether there has ever been a military historian more boring than Michael Howard. His unending banalities contrast sharply with the works of two great past British historians of warfare, J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart, of whom Charles De Gaulle said he was a captain who taught generals.

Besides his knighthood, Howard has been showered with other honors. He has held prestigious chairs at King's College, London, and at Yale, and the Chair of History of War and the Regius professorship of Modern History at Oxford. I understand, incidentally that at Yale he did not exactly overwhelm the history faculty with his immense learning and analytical skill.

In the foreword to his book, Howard writes that "it was the ruling circles in Imperial Germany who were ultimately responsible, both for the outbreak and for the continuance of the war," and regrets that he will not have space to argue this thesis.

That is truly a pity, since his thesis here is, shall we say, rather central to the whole issue of the First World War.

A few schoolboy mistakes: Sir Michael lists the Greeks and the Romanians (twice) as among the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, and Slavs as a nationality along with Czechs and Slovaks. The First Balkan War of 1912 did not reduce Turkey to a "bridgehead around Adrianople." Rather, that city was included in the expanded Bulgaria; it was regained by Turkey in the Second Balkan War of 1913.

But these are errors that Oxford University Press presumably considers trivial, just as in the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century, co-edited by Michael Howard and published in 1998, we read of Auschwitz, that "approximately 4 million people were killed [there] in the Nazi ‘Final Solution' to the ‘Jewish problem' in Europe."

Anti-German clichés abound in Howard's book. The German ruling elite—there is no mention of any British ruling elite—was characterized by "archaic militarism, vaulting ambition, and neurotic insecurity." Prussia had been created by its army—unlike, one supposes, France and Russia. He claims that German policy towards the civilian populations of the eastern territories they conquered "grimly foreshadowed their behavior in the Second [World War]," a statement for which Sir Michael provides no evidence and which is simply preposterous.

There are very occasional insights. Howard makes a telling point when he states that the potential for belligerent nationalism had been inculcated for a century by public education, assisted by conscription. In an increasingly secularized society, "the Nation . . . acquired a quasi-religious significance." He is good on the Allied infringement of Greek neutrality—the landing of troops at Salonika—and on the secret treaties, with Italy and others, that divided up the anticipated spoils of war. He realizes that the Balfour Declaration endorsing Zionism was a betrayal of promises the British had made to the Arabs.

Yet, finally, Howard writes of the Versailles treaty that, "most of its provisions have stood the test of time. The new states it created survived, if within fluctuating borders, until the last decade of the century. . . ." No hint that these new states underwent certain painful vicissitudes in the 80 years from Versailles to the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Fred Barnes, one of Rupert Murdoch's stable of neocon masterminds, reviewed Sir Michael's book in The Weekly Standard and concluded that "for someone who is just starting to explore the war, Howard's book is the place to begin."

No, it isn't, not at all. And at the end of my talk I will dramatically reveal which of the new crop of books is the place to start.

Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books)

I was not as fond as others were of Fleming's earlier work, The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War within World War II. Besides serious problems inherent in Fleming's style and approach, I could not agree with his conclusion that Harry Truman was the godsend who made good the damage caused by Roosevelt and the political genius who started America on the glorious road to a half-century of cold war.

Fleming's level of reasoning on economic and social issues was already apparent in his earlier book, where he wrote:

Henry Wallace was probably the most successful secretary of agriculture [in history]. He created an "ever normal granary" in which the government worked with farmers to keep prices reasonably high and provide the nation with protection against food shortages.

Clearly, Fleming's understanding of economics is on a par with your average American undergraduate.

As in the earlier work, many pages are devoted to the massive bungling of the government's war effort. Fleming frames these incidents as a kind of shocking exposé. He seems unaware that for the U.S. government, mismanagement on an appalling scale is simply Standard Operating Procedure. Earlier this month, the General Accounting Office reported that the Defense Department may have spent as much as $8 billion (sic) in fiscal 2003 reworking software "because of quality-related issues." After running through trillions of dollars, the Pentagon was so short of military cargo planes during the invasion of Iraq that it had to hire Russian aircraft to ferry tanks and other materiel. The Navy is now so short of money that it requires pilots to fly simulators rather than real jets to practice carrier landings, according to Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr., a deputy chief of naval operations. All SOP, for the American state.

Fleming goes on and on over well-trodden ground. There is much "human interest" material, most of it irrelevant. One item, though, I found interesting. The soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force were expected to refrain from fraternizing with French women. General Pershing declared that his ideal for the doughboys was "continence." At the same time, throughout his stay in France Pershing enjoyed the company of his French-Romanian mistress, an artist named Micheline Resco---another example of the Latin tag that Thomas Szasz likes to quote, "Quod licet jovi, non licet bovi": "what is permitted to Jove is not permitted to a cow." 

The author repeats the legend of Clemenceau's "vicious wisecrack" that "there are 20 million Germans too many." Jean Stengers, of the University of Brussels, and others have shown this to be a myth. Unfortunately, it was widely believed in Germany, including by Adolf Hitler, and may well have contributed to his notion of what Louis Rougier called "zoological warfare."

It is to Fleming's credit that he severely criticizes Woodrow Wilson. But here he isn't nearly as informative or analytical as Walter Karp in his brilliant work, The Politics of War. Actually, my favorite description of Wilson's character is by Sigmund Freud, in the book that he wrote together with William C. Bullitt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-eighth President of the United State: A Psychological Study. Here is Freud on Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference:

He was rapidly nearing that psychic land from which few travelers return, the land in which facts are the products of wishes, in which friends betray, and in which a chair in an asylum may be the throne of God.

That is a classic example of the psycho-smear, as practiced by its unrivaled master.

But when it comes to the fundamentals of policy, Fleming characteristically takes a middle of the road position: he is in favor, for instance, of U.S. entry into the League of Nations with the qualifications proposed by Henry Cabot Lodge. The Illusion of Victory, like his book on Roosevelt's war, shows Fleming to be much less of a maverick and debunker than he likes to think.

Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Basic Books)

I have to confess that I am prejudiced against Niall Ferguson. In the first place, because he employs teams of researchers to "help" him with his succession of big books. But most of all because, a few years ago, I saw him on C-Span, on a panel sponsored by The New Republic. Ferguson was just becoming popular in the United States, and he obviously knew which side his bread was buttered on. He was all smiles and geniality, sitting next to that pompous fake Daniel Goldhagen, who was also being lionized by The New Republic people. I got the distinct impression that Ferguson was basically an up and coming academic hustler.

The Pity of War confirms my impression.

It is a gimmicky book, which largely accounts for the splash it made. What mainly drew [my] attention was the author's claim that it might well have been a good idea for Britain to have stayed out of the war, which would have limited it to a continental rather than a world war. He tends to feel that if Britain—and America—had remained aloof, "the victorious Germans might have created a version of the European Union, eight decades ahead of schedule." German war aims were relatively modest at the start, and the Germans offered to give Britain as well as Belgium guarantees to assure their neutrality. It was only once the war began and Britain joined in that an extravagant pan-German annexationist program materialized.

This sounds gimmicky to me. In the absence of the British Expeditionary Force and active Belgian military resistance, it is likely that what remained of the Schlieffen Plan would have worked. In any case, absent British, and later American, presence on the Western Front, it is hard to see how a German victory in the war could have been avoided.

Not to worry, says Ferguson. Most likely that would simply have meant a more or less benevolent German hegemony on the continent.

But it is not at all clear why a triumphant Germany, having subdued Russia and France, would bother to keep any engagements it had made with England.

And there's another consideration. A more recent work of Ferguson's is Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. There he argues that, when all is said and done, the British Empire and the "Pax Britannica" it undergirded represented a great boon for mankind. Leaving aside the validity of that claim, the question is what would have happened to this wonderful British Empire in the event of Germany's becoming the unquestioned European hegemon? The Kaiser and the rest of the German elite openly aimed at making Germany a world power. Many influential Germans spoke of establishing settler colonies in various parts of the world.

Ferguson blithely states that "German objectives, had Britain stayed out, would not in fact have posed a direct threat to the Empire; the reduction of Russian power in Eastern Europe"—I like that, "reduction;" think of Brest-Litovsk—"the creation of a Central European Customs Union and acquisition of French colonies—these were all goals which were complementary to British interests."

This is how you write pathbreaking books: improbable speculation regarding historical counterfactuals.

On the stories of the Belgian atrocities, Ferguson makes use, as everyone must, of the 2001 work by John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. Citing the letters and diaries of German soldiers and other materials, the authors show that in the invasion of Belgium, German troops executed something over 5,500 Belgian civilians. These civilians were killed because of their suspected, but nonexistent, role as francs-tireurs (guerrilla fighters) or in reprisals against Belgian townspeople and villagers in connection with such imagined guerrilla actions.

Ferguson states that the Belgian atrocity stories, long lampooned by revisionists, were "based on truth"; indeed, he claims that the stories were effective because they were based on truth.

He does concede that "the Entente press wildly exaggerated what went on in Belgium." Actually, the press did that, not on its own account, but rather on the basis of the official British government report on the atrocities, known as the Bryce Report. Ferguson ignores the fact that what incensed the public wasn't the claim that Germans had merely executed civilians thought to be guerrillas, or simply committed reprisals because of perceived guerrilla activity. The truth about Belgium would hardly have created the firestorm of rage against the Germans that British propaganda aimed for. It was all the gruesome fabricated details contained in the Bryce report—the women raped en masse, the children with their hands cut off, the violated nuns and the Canadian soldiers crucified to barn doors—that made people's blood boil and proved German savagery. Thomas Fleming, to his credit, mentions that the real cases of people, including children, with their hands cut off occurred in the Congo beginning in the 1880s, at the behest of the Belgian king Leopold II. Because of their vast extent and nearly incredible cruelty, it's those that deserve to be called "the Belgian atrocities."

Ferguson likewise ignores the facts regarding Russian behavior on the eastern front, facts presented in the very work by Horne and Kramer he relies on. In their retreat in 1915, the Russians brutalized minority populations: Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Ruthenes and especially Jews. They deported at least 300,000 Lithuanians, 250,000 Latvians, 350,000 Jews, and three-quarters of a million Poles to the interior. As Horne and Kramer write: "The devastation caused by the Russian retreat of 1915 was probably greater than anything experienced by civilians in France and Belgium."

Ferguson tells us that the British sunk no ships without warning, "and no citizens of neutral countries were deliberately killed by the Royal Navy."

They would have been, however, had any neutral—in particular, the United States—insisted on its rights under international law and attempted to run the British hunger-blockade.

There is no entry in Ferguson's book for Robert Lansing, the American secretary of state. In his memoirs, Lansing openly and brazenly explains U.S. policy towards the illegal British blockade prior to America's entry in the war: "there was always in my mind the conviction that we would ultimately become an ally of Great Britain . . . [once joining the British] we would presumably wish to adopt some of [their] policies and practices" aiming to "destroy the morale of the German people by an economic isolation, which would cause them to lack the very necessaries of life... [in negotiating with the British] every word was submerged in verbiage. It was done with deliberate purpose. It... left the questions unsettled, which was necessary in order to leave this country free to act and even act illegally when it entered the war."

While distorting the facts of the Belgian atrocities, Ferguson neglects to inform us that the illegal British hunger-blockade led to the death of at least 100 times as many German civilians as civilians killed in Belgium.

Richard Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. (ISI Press)

This important new book was published by the ISI Press, which suggests that there are still some with Old Right tendencies in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The theme of the book is how the "forward-looking clergy [progressive Protestants] embraced the war as a chance to achieve their broadly defined social gospel objectives." Thus, the situation Gamble describes is, in a sense, the opposite of the one today, when it is the leaders of "fundamentalist" Protestantism that are among the worst warmongers. In both cases, however, the main contribution of the clergy has been to translate a political conflict into apocalyptic spiritual terms.

Gamble traces the susceptibility of Americans to this view back to colonial Puritan New England. During the later eighteenth century and the Revolutionary War the conception was fixed of the United States as the brand-new nation, casting off the burdens of the past, instituting a novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages. The Americans were the new Chosen People, destined to lead the world to an age of reason and universal virtue.

By the end of the nineteenth century, progressive Protestants, often influenced by the theory of evolution, were preaching the successive remaking of the church, of American society, and finally of the whole world. Rejecting old-line Calvinism, they rejected also the Augustinian distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man was to be made into the City of God, here on earth, through a commitment to a redefined, socially-activist Christianity. As Shailer Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago divinity school, said: "As civilization develops, sin grows corporate. We sin socially by violating social rather than individualistic personal relations."

The progressive gospel was spread through the takeover of influential churches, the infiltration of prestigious seminaries and divinity schools (now offering courses in "Social Ethics" and "Christian Sociology"), the control of journals such as Christian Century, and, nationally, the creation of the forerunner of the National Council of Churches. At conferences sponsored by the progressive Christians, speakers included Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and, naturally, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson claimed that the role of Christian youth was to ignore divisive "dogma" and instead to concentrate on the goal of making "the United States a mighty Christian nation, and to christianize the world!"

The vision of the progressive clergy was internationalized, as they looked to America to lead the world in accordance with God's will for human society. "Isolationism" was a selfish doctrine that had to be overcome. Many of them supported the war with Spain from this point of view. Among the supporters was Julia Ward Howe, composer of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," who addressed progressive meetings. She reported on her vision of all mankind "advancing with one in end in view, one foe to trample . . . All of evil was gone from the earth . . . Mankind was emancipated and ready to march forward in a new Era of human understanding . . . the Era of perfect love."

Once the war in Europe began, and after America entered, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was cited and sung incessantly by the Christian progressives. A favorite line, of course, was "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." The progressive Protestants saw World War I as a continuation of the great crusade for righteousness that was the American Civil War. As Gamble writes, "the fight for freedom had to be resumed, but this time it was to be carried to ends of the earth." Fittingly, there was a constant invocation of the hovering spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

The progressives quickly realized that President Woodrow Wilson was one of their own, flesh of their flesh. They eagerly took to his cant on the duty of national self-sacrifice and of America as the suffering servant. "A war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die," Wilson declared. The day was coming when the nations would realize that Old Glory was "the flag, not only of America, but of humanity." In 1915, addressing the Federal Council of Churches, Wilson proclaimed that America had been founded and had "its only object for existence" (sic) to lead humanity on the "high road" to universal justice.

Once the war was underway, the rhetoric of the progressives grew increasingly blood-thirsty. One contingent became "militant pacifists," that is, men whose aim was world peace, to be achieved if necessary by waging ongoing murderous war. As the butchery in Europe continued, they attacked the notion of "a premature peace," an end to hostilities that would permit the continued existence of iniquitous regimes. A statement signed by over 60 eminent churchmen, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, Billy Sunday, and the president of Princeton, scorned the idea of "a premature peace:" "The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death . . . above the holy claims of righteousness and justice . . . "

On the day that national registration for the draft began, Wilson addressed a reunion of Confederate veterans. He told them that God had preserved the American union in the Civil War so that the United States might be "an instrument in [His] hands . . . to see that liberty is made secure for mankind." Sadly, here, as before and ever after, the grandsons and great-grandsons of the Confederate heroes who resisted the northern invasion of their country took the side of their former mortal enemies. In a kind of Stockholm syndrome, of identifying with the aggressor, they identified with the Union and disproportionately supported and fought and died in its wars. That strange anomaly continues to this day.

When the time came for Congress to consider war against Germany, the people's representatives repeated the rhetoric and imagery of the progressive Protestants. One congressman stated that, "Christ gave his life upon the cross that mankind might gain the Kingdom of Heaven, while tonight we shall solemnly decree the sublimest sacrifice ever made by a nation for the salvation of humanity, the institution of world-wide liberty and freedom."

In the Second World War there was a nice sentimental propaganda song, "The White Cliffs of Dover," which went something like this:  

There'll be blue birds over,
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter,
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

The poor, deluded people ate that up, as they ate up the fantasies of the progressive Protestants during the Great War, as they swallow all the lies dished out to them to this day.

Of all people, H.G. Wells, the freethinker and prophet of evolution who got religion during the war, became a favorite of the progressive clergy. Wells, who coined the phrase, "the war to end war," wrote that "the kingdom of God on earth is not a metaphor, not a mere spiritual state, not a dream . . . it is the close and inevitable destiny of mankind." By the kingdom of God, it turned out, Wells meant his Fabian socialist utopia globalized, through total war against evil.

Incidentally, one of H.G. Wells's last books, published in 1944, is Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church. Wells had been in charge of British propaganda during the war. The first chapter is titled, "Why Do We Not Bomb Rome?" Rome, he argued, was not only the center of Fascism, but "the seat of a Pope . . . who has been an open ally of the Nazi-Fascist-Shinto Axis since his enthronement." "Why do we not bomb Rome? . . . A thorough bombing (à la Berlin) of the Italian capital seems not simply desirable but necessary." If the Allies had taken Wells's heartfelt advice, today tourists would be able to take photos of the ruins of St. Peter's just as they do of the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. This is the way this Fabian humanitarian ended up—screaming to have the city of Rome razed to the ground.

The progressive Protestants intertwined their warmongering with their social gospel. William Faunce, president of Brown, gloated that "the old petty individualism and laissez-faire" were dead: "'Me' and ‘mine' will be small words in a new world which has learned to say the great word ‘our.'" The president of Union Theological Seminary warned that the churches had to abandon their "egoistic and other-worldly character," and "must cease to minister to selfishness by promising personal salvation"—blah, blah, blah.

I must confess that the one drawback of Gamble's excellent book is having to slog through the endless high-minded drivel of these progressive Christians.

Hunt Tooley, The Western Front: Battle Ground and Home Front in the First World War (Palgrave/Macmillan).

This book has recently been published by Palgrave/Macmillan in its prestigious series, European History in Perspective, a very hopeful sign.

Hunt Tooley's main theme is "the relationship between the battle front and the home fronts among the Western Front powers." But much more is covered in a little over 250 pages. The author has not only consulted the older standard and a great deal of the recent literature on the war in several languages. He has also mastered it, carefully considering and evaluating various interpretations on different aspects of his subject. He is particularly good on the Fischer thesis that was at one time popular, of the war as the outcome of a premeditated program of German expansionism. The so-called "social historians" are dismissed for their preoccupation with a pre-war revolutionary class-consciousness that was, in reality "rapidly waning in Western and Central Europe, except for the artificial class consciousness of leftist intellectuals."

Tooley's account of the years up to 1914 as well as the July crisis is exemplary. For instance, the sinister role of the Anglo-German naval rivalry from 1898 on is clearly explained. The creation of a great oceangoing fleet was fanatically pushed by the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz and bitterly, futilely opposed by the last of the authentic German liberals, Eugen Richter. In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson downgrades the significance of this rivalry, noting that by the eve of war, the British and Germans had arrived at a naval understanding. What Ferguson does not take into account and Hunt Tooley does is the impact of the perceived German naval threat on the earlier British decision to abandon its traditional "isolationism" and enter into the Entente with France and later Russia. Tooley, unlike Ferguson, has an appreciation of the "path-dependency" at work in British policy.

Hunt Tooley's presentation of the military side of the western war—tactics, strategy, major battles, weapons, generalship, morale of the armies—while comprehensive is succinct and set forth clearly. But he never loses sight of the larger picture. Unlike other writers, Tooley does justice to classical liberalism in a necessarily brief but flawless discussion. Liberalism, based on individual autonomy and regional rights, had been under siege from proliferating anti-liberal ideologies for decades before 1914.   The author shows how the war accelerated the vast, fateful growth in the size and power of the state in all the belligerent countries and how this process shook the remaining pillars of the liberal order.

Tooley is in a better position to explain this than other historians, since he is intimately familiar with the ideas and literature of free-market liberalism. It is a pleasure, for example, to see Murray Rothbard cited on the wartime inflation and its role in initiating the cycle that ended with the crash of 1929. And while other authors have wondered at the passive acceptance of the war's dreadful carnage, Tooley has the insight to link it in part to the fact that Europeans were already accustomed to the spectacle of persistent violence. For years they had witnessed strikes which "displayed organized violence by the workers, when . . . strikers used physical violence to take over workplaces, fight non-union workers (scabs), and the like."

On the conclusion of the war and the ill-fated mess produced by the victors at the 1919 Paris conference, Tooley is true to the facts, as well as mordant, referring in ironic quotes to the "peace" treaties forced down the throats of the defeated nations, above all, Germany. Not for him the fatuousness of Sir Michael Howard, who argues that the new countries created after the war did, after all, manage to survive in some form until the end of the century.

I have only been able to touch on some of the main features of The Western Front. There is, amazingly for such a short work, very much more. If challenged, I would not be able to point to a single sentence that is not at least informative. The only fault I can find in The Western Front is its somewhat misleading title. Hunt Tooley's book is by no means merely an account of the war in the west. Instead it is, in my opinion, the best introduction we have to the history of the Great War altogether.

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Ralph Raico, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute and the 2000 Schlarbaum Laureate, teaches history at Buffalo State College. He is the author "World War I: The Turning Point" in John Denson's  The Costs of War (expanded edition). Send him MAIL. Purchase the 10-tape set History: The Struggle for Liberty. Comment on this article on the blog.


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