All In The Mind

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The question of what triggered the First World War has become one of the most debated topics of modern history. For almost a century following Waterloo, no major conflict had broken out amongst the great powers. Europe had become the most prosperous, powerful and developed continent on Earth. Many states had carved out vast empires for themselves in Africa and Asia. Then, in 1914, the continent put a gun to its head, pulled the trigger and splattered its blood across the fields of the Somme.

I do not claim to be the new Fritz Fischer. Accordingly, I do not expect to trigger an about-turn in how historians view the catastrophic outbreak of the Great War. Nonetheless, instead of placing the blame for the conflict on the usual suspects – Prussian militarism, alliance networks, arms races – this essay argues that the war was triggered by something lurking beneath the surface of global politics: psychology. In particular, the uniquely destructive mentality of the world leaders who were in office as the storm clouds gathered. 

“I consider a war inevitable.” These words, uttered by the moustachioed General Helmut von Moltke, represent an influential strand of thinking in pre-war Germany. In 1911, Friedrich von Bernhardi published a hugely influential tract entitled Germany and the Next War, in which he argued that “war is a biological necessity of the first importance.” This sort of pseudo-Darwinian argument implied that war was ultimately inevitable, and that peace was merely a stopgap between conflicts – not a state that could exist in perpetuity.

Nor was it only Berlin that was infected with these theorems; the bellicose Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, noted that war was “the basic principle behind all events on this earth.” He later called for war twenty-five times in one year. In 1907, the leading British diplomat Eyre Crowe began to suggest Germany was an existential threat that would need to be dealt with through force of arms. 

The belief that war was inevitable swiftly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The question was now not of if but when, and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) resolved it was better to fight sooner than later. A few months before the first shot was fired, Moltke noted “we are ready [for war] and the sooner the better for us.” Berlin and Vienna were perpetually afraid of encirclement, or to use its delightful German name, einkreisungspolitik. France lay to their west and Russia to their east, trapping the Central Powers between a proverbial rock and hard place. Russia, a power humbled since its defeat in the Crimean War, was awakening from its slumbers, steaming ahead with its Great Programme, expanding its army and building a vast rail network.

It was the rise of Russia and the fear that this inspired in the Central Powers that made war inevitable. In 1904, the combined armies of Russia and France exceeded those of Germany and Austria-Hungary by 260,982. A decade later, Germany and Austria were at a disadvantage a million men strong. The German Chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg commented of these developments “Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare.” The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, noted the concern of Germany’s leaders and observed “they are now genuinely alarmed at the military preparations in Russia.” If war had to happen, Berlin and Vienna calculated, it was best to fight Russia before she transformed into a superpower.

It seems strange that European leaders could wittingly commit this spectacular act of self-immolation. Yet those in power had not calculated the scale of conflict to come. One historian has written that “all imagined that [the war] would be an affair of great marches and great battles quickly decided.” This ‘Short War’ illusion was endemic amongst the decision-makers of the time. Bethmann-Hollweg once said the war would be “brief storm” and the French politician Emile Driant commented that “the first great battle will decide the whole war, and wars will be short.” The main conflicts of the late 19th Century, Bismarck’s conflicts, were all short, decisive and relatively bloodless, and most in 1914 seemed to have been expecting a repeat of the Franco-Prussian War.

Technology seemed to be making mobilisation, transportation and battles quicker. In the last few centuries, decisive conflicts had shortened from lasting over a hundred years, to decades, then to years and then to mere months. The leaders of Europe largely seemed unable to conceive that new innovations could make wars last longer. There were, of course, those who argued differently. French and Russian generals spoke worriedly of a “war of extermination” and an “extinction of civilisation,” while Moltke wrote that the war “will turn into a long and tedious struggle … our people too will be exhausted, even if we should be victorious.” Yet these concerns were brushed under the carpet. Leaders were willing to gamble on a war, so that they might achieve what peacetime politics could not make possible. 

Naturally, alliances and competition were key factors in the outbreak of the First World War. Yet we must remember that these were only important in the way they compounded the thoughts of the leaders of the world, and not fall into the trap of cumulative thinking. There is no bizarre Newtonian law of global politics that war must erupt if global tensions reach some mathematically quantifiable. It is madness to suggest that the sum-total of all the pre-war crises was 0.99, and the death of Franz Ferdinand was the crisis that tipped the score over the edge.

Instead, the significance of these previous events (such as the Moroccan Crisis and the Naval Arms Race) is that they formed a latent mentality of mutual hostility, which was then solidified by the alliance systems. These agreements proved vital to European thinking in the fateful days of July 1914. Russia was willing to act thanks to French encouragement, France assumed Britain would back her, while Germany had given Austria a blank check and sniffed a chance to shatter the encirclement embodied by the Triple Entente.

A few weeks ago, Robert Tombs wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the world may be on the eve of another global conflict, terming this generation of statesmen as “sleepwalkers” – borrowing Christopher Clark’s term for the leaders of 1914. There are some similarities between our modern global situation and that of pre-war Europe: world antipathy, alliance networks and arms build-ups are all present today. What differentiates our situation from that of a hundred-and-eight years ago is one of mentality. Peace has not been written off today as it was 1914, and there is no social Darwinian consensus that war must come like clockwork. Similarly, few have illusions about what total war would mean today; it’s difficult to imagine any but the most delusional of today’s leaders contemplating nuclear war with the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seared into our consciousness.

No one today expects a war would be over by Christmas; unless all human life had been wiped out by then. So, instead of ending (as most articles on the Great War do) with solemn reflection on the bloody wounds the war would eventually rip into the world, it may be better to end on a more positive note. World War Three is not around the corner – the whispering demon on the shoulders of the men of 1914 has since fallen side. 

Clark, C., 2013. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Penguin

Ferguson, N., 1997. The Pity of War. Penguin

Hastings, M., 2013. Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914. William Collins

Hobsbawm, E., 1987. Age of Empire. Abacus

MacMillan, M., 2013. The War That Ended Peace. Profile

Stone, N., 2007. World War One: A Short History. Penguin

Taylor, A., 1969. War By Timetable. Pen & Sword.