February 18, 2016

World War I's causes

With us near the midpoint of the centennial of World War I, per a couple of the newest books I've read on the issue, this is a matter for serious discussion.

A good starting point is The July Crisis. I've got it as a 5-star, though I may go back and change that again. Its biggest selling point is that it is ONLY about the events from the June 28, 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the start of World War I, hence the book's name.

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 by T.G. Otte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A gripping account of the march to WWI, yet not quite perfect

A very, very good overview of the July Crisis. Not a tremendous amount of new information about any one individual, but enough new here, and a good dovetailing of all the intersecting story lines, to make this a worthy five-star book.

Key new points for me were above all the "second blank check" from Jagow to Vienna. After that, playing up Tschirschky's having cone native, looking at Lichnowsky's efforts to sincerely prevent war, while Germany and Prussia in particular claimed HE had gone native, and, at a lesser level, how "accepting" Franz Joseph was of a push to war were all important.

Per a couple of commenters, could ha have delved more into Serbia, and its knowledge of the Black Hand, specifically what Pasic might have known and what warning he might have given Vienna? Yes. He probably could have played up Hartwig's responsibility more, too.

Ideally, I'd 4.5 star this book. Unfortunately, Goodreads still won't give us half stars.

View all my reviews

In reality, though, one should start earlier, about 525 years earlier, with Serbia getting destroyed by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo. And a book by this name does just that.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A clear lining out of how Serbian "martyrdom" has 700 years of history behind it. And, from there, the vectors are traced to Serbian thuggery, starting 100 years ago in the two Balkan Wars.

Don't let the shortness of the review fool you. This is not a 4.5-star book; it's a full 5-star, all the way.

Follow that, and counterbalance "The July Crisis," with this book.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Simply fantastic book about the run-up to World War I.

Things I learned include:
1. The Triple Entente, especially from the British angle, was not exclusively an anti-German grouping, and was "unstable" at times up close to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
2. Even more than I knew before, the governmental organization of the Dual Monarchy was rickety. (I knew that many ministries were dual, but until reading this book, did not realize it had dual prime ministers, which was part of the delay of formulating its response to Serbia.)
3. The idea of sole war guilt for Germany is ridiculous, given that Russia had given as much a blank check to Serbia as Germany did to Austria.
4. The Serb history of thuggery makes me want to believe in "cultural DNA."
5. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made a number of quasi-guarantees to France that he never told the Cabinet about, let alone Liberals as a body.

That's just a sampling of a great book.

From there, go to a good overview of the War.

Adam Hochschild had relatives who fought on both sides. He also doesn't get bogged down in too much detail.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A unique telling of World War I in Great Britain.

I knew that Bertrand Russell had been arrested as a conscientious objector, but knew little else about the movement in Britain in general. This book gives excellent insight into how strong the movement was, considering the degree of opprobrium it faced.

Hochschild starts well in advance of the war, so as to set up the social background for this, including disputes over the "rightness" of actions in the Boer War, the suffragette movement in Britain, its splintering, along with trade unionism's splintering, over the war, and more.

Two most fascinating takeaways? Sir John French's sister was one of Britain's leading pacifists.

And .. in 1915 ... war on a full year ... Britain was so desperate for high-quality optics, primarily for binoculars, and knew that Zeiss was "it," for that, had British reps meet German counterparts in Switzerland and work out a deal, in exchange for rubber for Germany from British colonies. Most papers have been destroyed, so we don't know how long this lasted.

World War II trade by American companies with Germany, for the first few months of the war, has been documented. But, I had never heard anything about this before. 

Then, get a good overview of the war.

Here's a 50-year-old classic that's still not dated:

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A classic, a classic, that I have reread many times. While Taylor was an American, his physiognomic description of many of the main players in the lead-up to the War, through its end, like Apis, Ludendorff and others, give this book a very British/European style, while adding to the fun of reading it.

There are also books NOT to read.

One is by Max Hastings, who for all of his greatness on WWII is a hack writer on WWI.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
American readers: Take this British book with a grain of salt.

Why? Because while Max Hastings is very good on military tactical issues, and solid on strategic ones in the first shifting of his pen from World War II to World War I, he's close to being all wet on geopolitical issues related to the start of the war.

First, the good.

Hastings gives more detailed coverage to the Eastern Front at the start of the war than do many WWI intros, which often talk about the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and nothing else.

Hastings also covers how the Russians rolled back the Austrians in Galicia.

And, even more exposing the dry rot of the Hapsburg Empire, how Serbia, the cause of the war, also rolled back the Hapsburgs' two different early fall and late fall 1914 invasions.

On the Western Front, he rightly faults Joffre's Plan 17 and has little good to say about Sir John French as the BEF commander. And, he notes how Moltke had weakened the original Schlieffen Plan even before the start of the war, how he weakened it further with Tannenberg worries, and how he had a nervous collapse before the two sides made their race to the Channel. He also notes that the French army, outside of things such as the rouge pantaloons, was not that much worse than the German, and how some German commanders, like Kluck and Bulow, as well as the royal commanders, were either too old (them) or not fully competent for general reasons (some of the royals).

On larger strategic issues, he raises the issue of whether the Schlieffen Plan could even succeed with a pre-mechanized army. I say, just possible. The Germans would have needed to have more fodder ready for horses, and definitely more replacement boots for troops. If this AND an unaltered Schlieffen plan had been in place, the Germans might just have pulled it off.

The one thing Hastings gets right on geopolitics is wondering why Germany didn't do a better PR job on the international law violations of Britain's blockade by extension later in the war.


Now the bad, and why this book gets just three stars.

Hastings subscribes to the traditional German war guilt idea on the cause of the war, and from that, seeks to build a legal-type case for British intervention.

First, on a "balance of powers" issue, you don't have to have German war guilt as a primary cause, or even No. 2 after simple balance of powers issues. Britain's early 1700s intervention in the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, didn't go looking for "war guilt."

Second, related to that, is that his attempt to "pin the collar" on Germany is just wrong.

Hastings engages with Christopher Clark's excellent new book, "The Sleepwalkers," but only to reject it, and Clark's labeling of Serbia as a "rogue state."

I'll go one better than Clark, myself. I rarely use the term "cultural DNA," but with Serbia, having read books about the original battle of Kosovo and its aftermath, and seen the 1990s ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I make an exception. "Rogue state" might be a bit mild; "semi-failed state" might be even better.

Third, and related to that, Hastings talks about the would-be violations of international law that were in Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. True, but it had less such violations than NATO's 1990s ultimatum to Serbia. This issue got mention online at about the time Hastings' book was headed to press. Surely, he could have addressed it in the prologue, within modern book publishing time frames. And, he chose not to.

Fourth, near the end, Hastings adds in what I can only call a "British imperialism whopper." In the last chapter, an epilogue though not officially titled as such, he claims the US contributed "little militarily" to World War I.

True in 1917; not true in 1918, where the US had 1 million troops on the Western Front by early July and 2 million by the end of the war. Yes, the US was using Allied artillery and some other munitions and weapons; it was cheaper than shipping them, since an unoccupied France could make them onsite. At the same time, the US had been supplying warhorses for Britain and France from the start of the war.

The increasing American flood of men spurred the desperation behind Ludendorff's Kaiserschlact, and the expected continuation of that into 1919 led to Ludendorff's collapse in October 1918.

Beyond that, at St. Michel and elsewhere, American troops contributed significantly to the Hundred Days Offense that rolled back German gains from spring 1918.

Without American intervention, Germany still couldn't have won the war. It might have been able to keep Austria propped up, and keep from losing, though.

In addition to justifying British entry, despite his dismissal of American military contributions, I have the feeling that Hastings is trying to sell American readers on the worthiness of American intervention.

Well, there, he's plain wrong.

It's true that a German Mitteleuropa, while certainly nowhere near as bad as Nazism, wouldn't have been ideal. But, it would have been much less a problem for the US than for Britain. And, if achieved only at the price of Austro-Hungarian collapse, might not have been worth that much anyway.

In any case, I've always said that we should have protested the British blockade by extension, on international law grounds, just as much as German submarine zones, then followed George Washington's warning against entangling alliances and let the Entente and Central Powers beat each other senseless.

Hastings' "war guilt" and seeming British imperialism get this book knocked down from 4-plus stars to 3. His whopper about American intervention costs it another star to fall to 2.

Even worse is Scott Berg's bio of Woodrow Wilson, a truly godawful writing.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
At the end of this book, Scott Berg describes what propelled him to undertake this biography. He says he had read a number of biographies, and none of them captured Wilson's essence.

Well, now we can add one more to that list.

Berg has written, but not quite crafted, a tome that is clearly hagiographic, and in being such, also clearly lacks analysis and depth, despite some 750 pages of body text.

I found myself by the end of the first chapter questioning Berg's claims about the depth of Wilson's support for women's suffrage, and simply shaking my head at Berg's conceit that Wilson alleged wrestled all his life with issues of race.

And, it is on that subject, throughout the book, that Berg's hagiography is most apparent. While mentioning that Wilson grew up in the South, and that his father was briefly a Confederate Army chaplain, he nowhere explicitly talks about his father owning slaves.

He does mention that his Presidential cabinet was almost all Southerners, most of them unreconstructed, but doesn't mention how unreconstructed they were.

He tries to downplay Wilson's official segregation of Washington. And fails.

On women's suffrage, the proper analytical dots aren't connected. He doesn't ask if Wilson's refusal to support woman's suffrage on the federal level isn't due to his worry that this would make his failure to support black suffrage on the federal level — black suffrage already in the 15th Amendment — all the more hypocritical.

There's plenty of evidence Wilson was a racist by enlightened standards of his day, let alone ours. No, Scott Berg, not nearly every white person made "darkie" jokes, thought blacks were lazy, etc. And never did Wilson seriously "wrestle" with issues of race.

But, the lack of analysis doesn't stop there.

Wilson believed, overtly, he had been directly called to his office by god in a way no other president afterward did until George W. Bush. Berg, despite giving each chapter of his book a Biblical title like "Sinai" or "Gethsamane" (titles eyebrow-raising in and of themselves) never asks how this affected Wilson's domestic record. And, even when connecting it to World War I and Versailles and the League of Nations, he still doesn't go into a lot of detail.

Given that Wilson's religious background was not like Bush's, but was a traditional Calvinism theoretically including double predestination, unlike Bush's psycho-therapeutic evangelical Protestantism, I certainly would, and do, wonder: After the Senate defeat of the League, rather than pour out ire at Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, etc., did Wilson just once, for a moment, wonder if this meant he had been negatively predestined on this issue? Berg never asks.

More to the point, and also related to Wilson's belief he had been messianically chosen — why was Wilson such a "hater"? And, it's more than in modern social media buzzspeak. Once he started hating somebody, he kept on hating them. He cut his successor as Princeton president and Col. House, among others, permanently out of his loop after he started hating them. Berg doesn't take a look at the "why" of this at all.

And, the hagiography, combined with errors of omission, also doesn't stop there.

Berg almost totally glosses over Wilson's massive amount of interventionism in Central America. Oh, sure, several pages are devoted to Mexico. But the Caribbean? A couple of mentions, no more than a paragraph's worth.

He nowhere wrestles with the reality of Wilson's quote: "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men."

His discussion of the formation of the Federal Reserve is superficial. As part of that superficiality, Berg doesn't ask whether the Federal Reserve, as a solution to U.S. banking needs, really was that progressive. (The 2008 meltdown and the actions, or non-actions, of the New York Federal Reserve tell us "no.")

But, the hagiography is just warming up!

On page 328, he claims that Wilson's 1913 record of accomplishments, including the Federal Reserve, Clayton Anti-Trust Act, creation of the Federal Trade Commission, a new tariff and other things, was the greatest legislative outburst since the foundation of the Republic!


I'll take Lincoln's 1862 over that — Homestead Act, Morrill Act for land-grant colleges, transcontinental railroad legislation, first and second Confiscation Acts that were slowly setting the country on the road to emancipation in the Civil War, and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation itself.

Wouldn't you?

But, we haven't gotten to the outright errors of fact yet! There's several related to World War 1.

First, no, Japan was NOT "forced" to declare war because of its treaty with Great Britain. Rather, said treaty gave Japan the legal cover to declare war and not be an aggressor. How Berg got this wrong is totally beyond me, and frankly, I don't even want to try to figure it out.

Second, on page 395, the torpedoing of the Sussex, as a ship traveling between two belligerents and not a belligerent and a neutral, had nothing to do with the United States needing to consider entering the war.

Which now leads us from errors of fact back to hagiography.

Berg talks about his hero worship of Walter Bagehot (along with William Gladstone), and his wanting to graft British parliamentary government onto the American tripartate system.

He never asks how this might have made Wilson un-neutral not just in heart, but how his heart expressed itself, from the start of the war. (Author Walter Karp details how it did.) For example, why did Wilson never protest Britain's blockade by extension, just as illegal under international law as the German submarine zones?

The Bagehot issue leads us back to analysis of Wilson as public policy intellectual. Why, if these ideas are so brilliant, have none of them been adopted? Even LBJ, for all his effort to be like a prime minister in some ways, didn't go that far.

Was it in part, in the early years after Wilson's presidency, the fact that he was seen as such a hater? Had that alone made these ideas that toxic?

We're not done with the errors of fact yet, though!

Why, if Wilson wanted "no part" of invading Russia, was the U.S. in Russia as long as all the other Western countries? Actually, Wilson overrode the Department of War to approve the Archangel campaign. That said, Berg also gets issues of Polish involvement, Versailles and post-Versailles (it was a Polish nationalist fight) and Japanese involvement wrong, too. Add to that something not strictly a factual error, like calling the Czech Legion "freedom fighters," and you can see how bad this section of the book is.

As for his coverage of Versailles? Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919" is far better.

The only interesting thing to the good is Berg covering Wilson's health and his apparently suffering several mini-strokes during Versailles and after, up to his major stroke in Pueblo. But, given that Wikipedia notes Wilson's first stroke may have been in 1895, I'm sure any good bio of Wilson does similar.

I had planned on two-starring this book when I started writing my review from my notes. But I can't. It's that bad, and needs a serious one-star review.

If one wants a truly skeptical, critical take on Wilson, go here:

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I never totally bought into the myth that Woodrow Wilson did everything he could to keep us out of war. But, before reading this book, on the recommendation of an Amazon commenter to another review of mine, I didn't realize that, instead, he did everything he could to drag us into that war, and was doing that long before he was successful.

That said, my eyes were actually even more opened as to the Machiavellian character of William McKinley. Far from circumstances forcing us into war with Spain over Cuba, he was pushing that angle as soon as he was inaugurated. AND, already then, looking at the Philippines as well. Karp argues it's precisely that, and related things, that led him to appoint TR as assistant secretary of the navy.

And, since Wilson couldn't have pulled off his degree of international meddling without McKinley doing it before him, McKinley is worse in some ways.

That said, Karp's contrarian take digs deep. He also notes that Wilson was far from being a progressive, including on the allegedly progressive creation of the Federal Reserve.

The one thing I found missing, if you will, is that I would have liked even more background from Karp on his take on the populist movement/People's Party. 

OK, all of this sets the table for that header.

If we're going to apportion blame for WWI, let's say, while ignoring Gavrilo Princip as the proximate cause: 
1. Apis, 22.5 percent; 
2. Berchtold + Hötzendorf, 17.5 percent; 
3. Austro-Hungarian Schlamperei, 15 percent; 
4. The Serbian government's partial knowledge of the Black Hand, etc., 15 percent; 
5. German pseudoconstitutionality, 15 percent; 
6. Wilhelm II, 7.5 percent; 
7. Nicholas II, 7.5 percent;
8. Sir Edward Grey, British foreign minister, for not accepting that he was as devious at times as he actually was, and for not making a guarantee of neutrality to Germany if it directly avowed it would not invade Belgium; 10 percent
9. Maurice Paleologue, 5 percent; 
10. Sergei Sazonov, 5 percent; 
11. The failure of the old, tottering "Concert of Europe" to rein in Serbia before this, 5 percent.
12. Nicholas de Hartwig, Russia's ambassador to Serbia, 5 percent;
13. Admiral Tirpitz, for pushing a naval arms race Germany never could win, while probably knowing that, 5 percent;
14. Pan-Slavism, 5 percent
15. Russian "rot" after the Russo-Japanese War, 5 percent.
16. Moltke the Younger, 5 percent.

Yes, that's 150 percent. WWI was "overdetermined."

And, I haven't even added another 10 percent, after the war started, for Wilson's pseudo-neutrality.

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