The Great War, and the Futile War

We are hearing a lot this year about the centennial of the First World War, and time and again, we hear what a “futile” and “meaningless” struggle that was. Obviously, then, by extension, US entry into that war – which we commemorate next month – must have been a tragic blunder. This is for instance a recurrent theme in multiple reviews of Michael Kazin’s recent book about anti-war movements of that era, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. That’s an excellent book in itself, but I disagree with the point about the correctness or legitimacy of the Great War. That struggle was precisely as justifiable as the Second World War, and for very similar reasons.

The American mythology of the “futile” war has its roots in the 1930s, and a series of tendentious political and academic studies that studiously ignored the international realities of the conflict. If that approach was ever justified then, it became ever less so in the light of later historical scholarship. Defeating Germany was essential to preventing the creation of a global empire that would very soon have posed an existential threat to the United States.

Niall Ferguson, who is a fine historian, has expressed the view that a German victory in the Great War would have created a united Europe under German leadership, much like what occurred from the 1960s. He is right about the German leadership, but in reality we would have been looking at nothing vaguely like the civilian and democratic structures of modern Europe and the EU. In fact, the more we look at German planning for war goals and aims, the more they resemble the plans of the Nazis in 1939. We really make a mistake when we speak of “Nazi plans” or a “Nazi Empire,” as if Germany after 1933 was led by some strange cosmic force come out of nowhere. The Third Reich built exactly on the precedents of the German Empire, the Second Reich, which went to war in 1914. In 1942, as in 1916, Germany was struggling to create and expand a continental German Empire.

There’s an interesting difference in usage here concerning the 1914-1918 struggle. The Allies at the time called it the Great War. Germans, on the other hand, called it the World War, Weltkrieg, right from 1914 onwards. By about 1918, the British agreed, and in fact started calling it the First World War: they assumed there would be others. My point, though, is that the Germans right from the start recognized this global quality. Their propaganda throughout built on this “World” idea, in apocalyptic and messianic terms

Just what did the Germans want in that earlier war? At the high tide of its military push in September 1914, German officials drew up a sweeping program of war aims that threatened the permanent annexation of French and Belgian territories and the destruction of French defenses and fortifications, and further demanded reparation payments that would cripple France for the foreseeable future. Scholars argue at length whether such ambitions predated the war or they just emerged ad hoc as opportunities arose following the initial victories. But whatever the answer, the German demands of late 1914 were extraordinarily aggressive by the standards of recent decades.

The British in particular faced an existential threat. As long as the Germans occupied Belgium and parts of the northern French coast, they posed a constant threat of an amphibious assault on England and a quick strike at London. In order to remain an independent nation, Britain could accept no settlement that left that coast in German hands; Germany would accept no settlement that did not. The September 1914 wish list of German war aims envisaged Belgium and the Netherlands becoming de facto members of the German Empire, ensuring that British coasts would be permanently indefensible.

While its Western schemes remained in the realm of aspiration, the Second Reich really did succeed in imposing comparable terms on a defeated Russia in 1918, in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Under this arrangement, Russia would be pushed far east of its current borders, losing its teeming subject peoples to German control. Russia would have lost fifty million of its people and three hundred thousand square miles of territory. The country would also have lost its industrial base, forfeiting most of its coal and iron reserves. These plans also neatly foreshadowed the ambitions of the Third Reich in 1942: just compare the two maps.

If not an actual Carthaginian peace, in which one side seeks to annihilate the other, Brest-Litovsk was a close modern parallel. It also gives an idea of the kind of peace that the Germans would have inflicted on a defeated Britain or France, or even the United States. The 1917 German proposal for an alliance with Mexico included renewed Mexican sovereignty over Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Nor was this just a case of one imperial flag replacing another, while the lives of ordinary people went on as before. Throughout the war, the Germans treated their occupied populations dreadfully, in Belgium and elsewhere, imposing forced labor and supplying starvation rations. In 1916, the Germans deported hundreds of  thousands of Belgians to work in their farms and factories, transporting many in cattle trucks. When the Germans withdrew to a new defensive line in northern France in the winter of 1916–17, Operation Alberich, they engaged in a scorched earth campaign that prefigures German withdrawals from Ukraine a generation later.

If events had developed differently, the Germans would have established their rule securely over the vast regions of eastern Europe granted to them at Brest-Litovsk. In that case, they would likely have created there a servile society foreshadowing the Nazi era. In occupied Poland and the Baltic, German overlords already had a strong ideology of racial supremacy. The influential General Erich Ludendorff had far-reaching plans for the full-scale Germanization and ethnic cleansing of conquered eastern Europe, with the Crimea as a German colony. He also regarded Jews as the source of most evils in the modern world.

In a counterfactual world of German victory, Germany would never have fallen to Hitler, not because the country would somehow have retained its moral moorings but because it would already have won everything the Nazis promised later. Germany would have held total mastery of Europe and almost infinite Lebensraum in the east, complete with millions of serfs.

If Germany had won the Great War in 1918, Hitler would have been superfluous.

If the Second Reich had succeeded, Germany would not have needed a Third.

So did the United States do the right thing in joining a struggle that was necessary, indeed essential? Obviously, I believe it did. This was a fight for global supremacy, and survival.


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