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War and the Economy

1. The Economic Position of the Central Powers in the War

The economic aspects of the World War are unique in history in kind and in degree; nothing similar ever existed before nor ever will exist again. This combination of developments was in general conditioned both by the contemporary stage of development of the division of labor and state of war technique, but in particular by both the grouping of the belligerent powers and the particular features of their territories as far as geography and technique of production were concerned. Only the conjunction of a large number of preconditions could lead to the situation that was quite unsuitably summarized in Germany and Austria under the catchword "war economy." No opinion need be expressed whether this war will be the last one or whether still others will follow. But a war which puts one side in an economic position similar to that in which the Central Powers found themselves in this war will never be waged again. The reason is not only that the configuration of economic history of 1914 cannot return but also that no people can ever again experience the political and psychological preconditions that made a war of several years' duration under such circumstances still seem promising to the German people.


The economic side of the World War can scarcely be worse misunderstood than in saying that in any case "the understanding of most of these phenomena will not be furthered by a good knowledge of the conditions of the peacetime economies of 1913 but rather by adducing those of the peacetime economies of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries or the war economy of Napoleonic times."1 We can best see how much such an interpretation focuses on superficialities and how little it enables us to grasp the essence of the phenomena if we imagine, say, that the World War had been waged ceteris paribus at the stage of the international division of labor reached 100 years before. It could not have become a war of starving out then; yet that was precisely its essence. Another grouping of the belligerent powers would also have resulted in quite a different picture.

The economic aspects of the World War can only be understood if one first keeps in view their dependence on the contemporary development of world economic relations of the individual national economies, in the first place of Germany's and Austria-Hungary's and then of England's also.

Economic history is the development of the division of labor. It starts with the self-contained household economy of the family, which is self-sufficient, which itself produces everything that it uses or consumes. The individual households are not economically differentiated. Each one serves only itself. No economic contact, no exchange of economic goods, occurs.

Recognition that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than work performed without the division of labor puts an end to the isolation of the individual economies. The trade principle, exchange, links the individual proprietors together. From a concern of individuals, the economy becomes a social matter. The division of labor advances step by step. First limited to only a narrow sphere, it extends itself more and more. The age of liberalism brought the greatest advances of this sort. In the first half of the nineteenth century the largest part of the population of the European countryside, in general, still lived in economic self-sufficiency. The peasant consumed only foodstuffs that he himself had grown; he wore clothes of wool or linen for which he himself had produced the raw material, which was then spun, woven, and sewn in his household. He had built a house and farm buildings and maintained them himself, perhaps with the help of neighbors, whom he repaid with similar services. In the out-of-the-way valleys of the Carpathians, in Albania, and in Macedonia, cut off from the world, similar conditions still existed at the outbreak of the World War. How little this economic structure corresponds, however, to what exists today in the rest of Europe is too well known to require more detailed description.

The locational development of the division of labor leads toward a full world economy, that is, toward a situation in which each productive activity moves to those places that are most favorable for productivity; and in doing so, comparisons are made with all the production possibilities of the earth's surface. Such relocations of production go on continually, as, for example, when sheep-raising declines in Central Europe and expands in Australia or when the linen production of Europe is displaced by the cotton production of America, Asia, and Africa.

No less important than the spatial division of labor is the personal kind. It is in part conditioned by the spatial division of labor. When branches of production are differentiated by locality, then personal differentiation of producers must also occur. If we wear Australian wool on our bodies and consume Siberian butter, then it is naturally not possible that the producer of the wool and of the butter are one and the same person, as once was the case. Indeed, the personal division of labor also develops independently of the spatial, as every walk through our cities or even only through the halls of a factory teaches us.

The dependence of the conduct of war on the stage of development of the spatial division of labor reached at the time does not in itself, even today, make every war impossible. Individual states can find themselves at war without their world economic relations being essentially affected thereby. A German-French war would have been bound to lead or could have led to an economic collapse of Germany just as little in 1914 as in 1870-71. But today it must seem utterly impossible for one or several states cut off from world trade to wage war against an opponent enjoying free trade with the outside world.

This development of spatial division of labor is also what makes local uprisings appear quite hopeless from the start. As late as the year 1882, the people around the Gulf of Kotor and the Herzegovinians could successfully rebel against the Austrian government for weeks and months without suffering shortages in their economic system, composed of autarkic households. In Westphalia or Silesia, an uprising that stretched only over so small a territory could already at that time have been suppressed in a few days by blocking shipments into it. Centuries ago, cities could wage war against the countryside; for a long time now that has no longer been possible. The development of the spatial division of labor, its progress toward a world economy, works more effectively for peace than all the efforts of the pacifists. Mere recognition of the worldwide economic linkage of material interests would have shown the German militarists the danger, indeed impossibility, of their efforts. They were so much caught up in their power-policy ideas, however, that they were never able to pronounce the peaceful term "world economy" otherwise than in warlike lines of thought. Global policy was for them synonymous with war policy, naval construction, and hatred of England.2

That economic dependence on world trade must be of decisive significance for the outcome of a campaign could naturally not also escape those who had occupied themselves for decades with preparation for war in the German Reich. If they still did not realize that Germany, even if only because of its economic position, could not successfully wage a great war with several great powers, well, two factors were decisive for that, one political and one military. Helfferich summarized the former in the following words, "The very position of Germany's borders as good as rules out the possibility of lengthy stoppage of grain imports. We have so many neighbors—first the high seas, then Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria Russia—that it seems quite inconceivable that the many routes of grain import by water and by land could all be blocked to us at once. The whole world would have to be in alliance against us; however, to consider such a possibility seriously, even for a minute, means having a boundless mistrust in our foreign policy."3 Militarily, however, recalling the experiences of the European wars of 1859, 1866, and 1870-71, people believed that they had to reckon with a war lasting only a few months, even weeks. All German war plans were based on the idea of success in completely defeating France within a few weeks. Anyone who might have considered that the war would last long enough for the English and even the Americans to appear on the European continent with armies of millions would have been laughed down in Berlin. That the war would become a war of emplacements was not understood at all; despite the experiences of the Russo-Japanese war, people believed that they could end the European war in a short time by rapid offensive strikes.4 The military calculations of the General Staff were just as false as its economic and political ones.

The assertion is not true, therefore, that the German Empire had neglected to make the necessary economic preparations for war. It simply had counted on a war of only short duration; for a short war, however, no economic provisions had to be made beyond those of finance and credit policy. Before the outbreak of the war the idea would no doubt have been called absurd that Germany could ever be forced to fight almost the whole rest of the world for many years in alliance only with Austria-Hungary (or more exactly in alliance with the German-Austrians and the Magyars, for the Slavs and Rumanians of the Monarchy stood with their hearts and many of them also with weapons on the side of the enemy), Turkey, and Bulgaria. And in any case one would have had to recognize, after calm reflection, that such a war neither could have been waged nor should have been waged and that if an unspeakably bad policy had let it break out, then one should have tried to conclude peace as quickly as possible, even at the price of great sacrifices. For, indeed, there never could be any doubt that the end could be only a fearful defeat that would deliver the German people defenseless to the harshest terms of its opponents. Under such circumstances a quick peace would at least have spared goods and blood.

That should have been recognized at once even in the first weeks of the war and the only possible implications then drawn. From the first days of the war—at the latest, however, after the defeats on the Marne and in Galicia in September 1914—there was only one rational goal for German policy: peace, even if at the price of heavy sacrifices. Let us quite disregard the fact that until the summer of 1918 it was repeatedly possible to obtain peace under halfway acceptable conditions, that the Germans of Alsace, the South Tyrol, the Sudetenland, and the eastern provinces of Prussia could probably have been protected from foreign rule in that way; even then, if continuation of the war might have afforded a slightly more favorable peace, the incomparably great sacrifices that continuation of the war required should not have been made. That this did not happen, that the hopeless, suicidal fight was continued for years—political considerations and grave errors in the military assessment of events were primarily responsible for that.5 But delusions about economic policy also contributed much.

Right at the beginning of the war a catchword turned up whose unfortunate consequences cannot be completely overlooked even today: the verbal fetish "war-economy." With this term all considerations were beaten down that could have led to a conclusion advising against continuing the war. With this one term all economic thought was put aside; ideas carried over from the "peacetime economy" were said not to hold for the "war economy," which obeyed other laws. Armed with this catchword, a few bureaucrats and officers who had gained full power by exceptional decrees substituted "war socialism" for what state socialism and militarism had still left of the free economy. And when the hungry people began to grumble, they were calmed again by reference to the "war economy." If an English cabinet minister had voiced the watchword "business as usual" at the beginning of the war, which however, could not be continued in England as the war went on, well, people in Germany and Austria took pride in traveling paths as new as possible. They "organized" and did not notice that what they were doing was organizing defeat.

The greatest economic achievement that the German people accomplished during the war, the conversion of industry to war needs, was not the work of state intervention; it was the result of the free economy. If, also, what was accomplished in the Reich in this respect was much more significant in absolute quantity than what was done in Austria, it should not be overlooked that the task which Austrian industry had to solve was still greater in relation to its powers. Austrian industry not only had to deliver what the war required beyond peacetime provisions; it also had to catch up on what had been neglected in peacetime. The guns with which the Austro-Hungarian field artillery went to war were inferior; the heavy and light field howitzers and the mountain cannons were already out of date at the time of their introduction and scarcely satisfied the most modest demands. These guns came from state factories; and now private industry, which in peacetime had been excluded from supplying field and mountain guns and could supply such material only to China and Turkey, not only had to produce the material for expanding the artillery; in addition, it also still had to replace the unusable models of the old batteries with better ones. Things were not much different with the clothing and shoeing of the Austro-Hungarian troops. The so-called bluish-gray—more correctly, light blue—fabrics proved to be unusable in the field and had to be replaced as rapidly as possible by gray ones. The supplying of the army with boots, which in peacetime had been done while the mechanized shoe industry that worked for the market was excluded, had to be turned over to the factories previously shunned by the quartermasters.

The great technical superiority that the armies of the Central Powers had achieved in the spring and summer of 1915 in the eastern theater of the war and that formed the chief basis of the victorious campaign from Tarnów and Gorlice to deep into Volhynia was likewise the work of free industry, as were the astonishing achievements of German and also of Austrian labor in the delivery of war material of all kinds for the western and the Italian theaters of war. The army administrations of Germany and Austro-Hungary knew very well why they did not give in to the pressure for state ownership of the war-supplying enterprises. They put aside their outspoken preference for state enterprises, which would have better suited their world view, oriented toward power policy and state omnipotence, because they knew quite well that the great industrial tasks to be accomplished in this area could be accomplished only by entrepreneurs operating on their own responsibility and with their own resources. War socialism knew very well why it had not been entrusted with the armaments enterprises right in the first years of the war.


  • 1. Cf. Otto Neurath, "Aufgabe, Methode und Leistungsähigheit der Kriegswirtschaftslehre," Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, vol. 44, 1917/1918, p. 765; cf., on the contrary, the discussion of Eulenburg, "Die wissenschaftliche Behandlung der Kriegswirtschaft," ibid., pp. 775-785.
  • 2. Especially characteristic of this tendency are the speeches and essays published by Schmoller, Sering, and Wagner under the auspices of the "Free Association for Naval Treaties" under the title Handels und Machtpolitik (Stuttgart; 1900), 2 volumes.
  • 3. Cf. Helfferich, Handelspolitik (Leipzig; 1901), p. 197; similarly Dietzel, "Weltwirtschaft und Volkswirtschaft,"Jahrbuch der Gehe-Stiftung, vol. 5 (Dresden: 1900), pp. 46 f.; Riesser, Finanzielle Kriegsbereitschaft und Kriegfuhrung (Jena; 1909), pp. 73 f. Bernhardi speaks of the necessity of taking measures to prepare ways during a German-English war "by which we can obtain the most necessary imports of foods and raw materials and at the same time export the surplus of our industrial products at least partially" (Deutschland und der nächste Krieg [Stuttgart: 19121, pp. 179 f.). He proposes making provisions for "a kind of commercial mobilization." What illusions about the political situation he thereby indulged in can best be seen from his thinking that in a fight against England (and France allied with it), we would "not stand spiritually alone, but rather all on the wide earthly sphere who think and feel freedom-oriented and self-confident will be united with us" (ibid., p. 187).
  • 4. Modern war theory started with the view that attack is the superior method of waging war. It corresponds to the spirit of conquest-hungry militarism when Bernhardi argues for this: "Only attack achieves positive results; mere defense always delivers only negative ones." (Cf. Bernhardi, Vom heutigen Klieg [Berlin: 1912], vol. 2, p. 223.) The argumentation for the attack theory was not merely political, however, but was also based on military science. Attack appears as the superior form of fighting because the attacker has free choice of the direction, of the goal, and of the place of the operations, because he, as the active party, determines the conditions under which the fight is carried out, in short, because he dictates to the party under attack the rules of action. Since, however, the defense is tactically stronger in the front than the offense, the attacker must strive to get around the flank of the defender. That was old war theory, newly proved by the victories of Frederick II, Napoleon I, and Moltke and by the defeats of Mack, Gyulai, and Benedek. It determined the behavior of the French at the beginning of the war (Mulhouse). It was what impelled the German army administration to embark on the march through neutral Belgium in order to hit the French on the flank because they were unattackable in the front. His remembering the many Austrian commanders for whom the defensive had become misfortune drove Conrad in 1914 to open the campaign with goalless and purposeless offensives in which the flower of the Austrian army was uselessly sacrificed. But the time of battles of the old style, which permitted getting around the opponent's flank, was past on the great European theaters of war, since the massiveness of the armies and the tactics that had been reshaped by modern weapons and means of communication offered the possibility of arranging the armies in such a way that a flank attack was no longer possible. Flanks that rest on the sea or on neutral territory cannot be gotten around. Only frontal attack still remains, but it fails against an equally well armed opponent. The great breakthrough offensives in this war succeeded only against badly armed opponents, as especially the Russians were in 1915 and in many respects also the Germans in 1918. Against inferior troops a frontal attack could of rourse succeed even against equally good, even superior, weapons and armaments of the defender (twelfth battle of the Isonzo). Otherwise, the old tactics could be applied only in the battles of mobile warfare (Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914 and individual battles in Galicia). To have misunderstood this has been the tragic fate of German militarism. The whole German policy was built on the theorem of the military superiority of attack; in war of emplacements the policy broke down with the theorem.
  • 5. It was an incomprehensible delusion to speak of the possibility of a victorious peace when German failure had already been settled from the time of the battle of the Marne. But the Junker party preferred to let the German people be entirely ruined rather than give up its rule even one day earlier.