Monday, November 11, 2013

The war to end all wars

Today we celebrate Armistice Day (aka Veterans Day aka Remembrance Day) because 95 years ago today, the armistice was signed between Germany and the allied powers (at 11:11 CET), marking the end of The War to End All Wars.

I knew a lot about World War II since both my parents were active duty, and the history of America’s “Greatest Generation” was prominent when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. But I had only fragmentary knowledge of WW I, other than a vague understanding of the combatants and how they were similar to (and different from) those 25 years later.

That has changed since I read July 1914: Countdown to War, a marvelous new history detailing the month that led up to World War I. Its author, Prof. Sean McMeekin, trained at Stanford and Berkeley and is now a professor in Turkey. He’s drawn upon the archives of the various combatants, with citations pointing to specific memoirs, cables and other internal documents.

Americans (of my and my parents’ generation) were trained to think of Germany as evil, whether under the F├╝hrer or the Kaiser. McMeekin paints a much more nuanced picture. In short form

  • Austria sought to punish Serbia because its irregulars assassinated the emperor’s brother, but was incompetent to conduct either diplomacy or a short punitive war;
  • Russia was ready and waiting for an excuse to destroy Austria and seized upon Austria’s threats against Serbia to do so;
  • Germany felt it had to back Austria, without realizing how reckless its allies were and how perfidious its enemies were;
  • France and Russia conspired to draw Germany into war — and lied about their intentions — even though Russia was the first of the European Great Powers to mobilize for war;
  • All three powers sought to manipulate Britain to their side, but France was a better liar than Germany, and Britain was too incompetent to know what was really going on until too late.
As Scottish historian Hew Strachan put it: “most historians today believe that Germany did not deliberately plan to go to war.” The Russians and French were clearly more successful at prewar diplomacy — particularly in influencing the British (to join their side) and Italy (to not join Germany) which helped tip the odds in their favor.

It was also interesting to note that this was probably the last time in history where inherited monarchies played a significant role in the nature or timing of major decisions by European governments. The monarchs of Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Germany and Russia all figure prominently in their respective government decisions.

It’s impossible to determine whether war was inevitable, or whether a war under other circumstances would have ended differently. But by assassinating the Austrian leader, Serbia was rewarded by dismembering of the Austro-Hungarian empire and taking away Slovenia and Croatia from the Austrian territory. And Britain was drawn into a war where it had no real national interest, and lost nearly a million men for its mistake. Meanwhile, even before Lenin, Russian leaders sought influence and power through military might rather than economic growth and the well-being of its citizenry.

Overall, it appears that both Germany and Britain would have benefited — and found common ground — with more effective intelligence services that understood the intentions (and actions) of the other Great Powers. As with “weapons of mass destruction” decades later, faulty intelligence can lead to military disaster.


Anonymous said...

"Serbia was rewarded by dismembering of the Austro-Hungarian empire and taking away Slovenia and Croatia from the Austrian territory"

Serbia was not rewarded by Croatia and Slovenia: they did not become part of Serbia at all. They did form a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the first Yugoslavia), but it had been their desires, before the war, to join into a union.
They needed Serbs' help to be free of the Austrian Empire (which they wished back then) to do this and it was a Croat who had first advocated the idea decades before the war.
Also, it was Slovenia and Croatia which became "greater" - that is acquired new territory (had lands drawn into them) that weren't part of them before.
Croatia got Dalmatia, which had been mostly under control of Italy or semi-independent on its own. Croatia also got Slavonia which wasn't part of Croatia either and had a large Serbian population which was drawn (unfortunately for them) into Croatia. Also, Istria and Rijeka were taken in part or whole and added to Slovenia and Croatia, even though they were Italian lands.
So Croatia and Slovenia benefited even though they fought on Austria's side and were enemies of Serbs.
Hindsight shows it was very stupid of Serbia, since both of those peoples only used Serbia and didn't like it, Yugoslavia or Serbs once they got what they wanted. They had no loyalty. They started causing problems, including terrorism, and killed their king Alexandar (ethnic Serb) in France. Croats felt and still feel that Serbs shouldn't live in Croatia, so Serbs drawn into Croatia's borders were under threat.
Slovenia and Croatia, as well as the Balkan Muslims, were not loyal to Yugoslavia and betrayed it during WWII.
Croats had gotten deep into the Yugoslav military structures, sometimes even by marrying the Serbian daughters of Generals or other military or government officials to get good positions.
They betrayed classified information to the Germans in the run-up to WWII and/or after it started, they sabotaged equipment (and laughed about it: read Ruth Mitchell's "Serbs choose War" book about WWII - she was an American spy who witnessed things first hand), and also helped round up Serb soldiers for the Germans to kill or take prisoner.

Joel West said...

The prior desire to form Yugoslavia does not detract from the fundamental result of the war. Serbian irregulars provoked Austria into war, Austria lost the war and after that part of its empire.