The Great War as a Conflict Full of Paradoxes

Herfried Münkler: Der Große Krieg. Die Welt 1914 bis 1918. Rowohlt Berlin, ISBN 978-3-87134-720-7

There have been a great many books, magazines, and articles commemorating a centenary of the Great War with many already arriving at the market last summer. There is one book, however, written by a German political scientist Herfried Münkler, which stands out and not only due to its sheer volume—920 pages, references and index included. Its publication in Germany has attracted a great deal of attention, if only due to the fact that since the sixties it has been the first work of such scope to focus exclusively on the First World War. We can only speculate why it has taken so long, with the most likely reason being the fixation of German historiography on the Second World War, holocaust and guilt.

But it was the Great War, its events and course that helped to set the stage for eventual Franco-German reconciliation. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle declared the end of historical enmity (“Erbfeindschaft”) between their two countries with the Reims cathedral providing a dramatic backdrop; their successors Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand would symbolically shake their hands over the war graves in Verdun.

It is to be expected from a German author to view the Great War from the German perspective. What he sees is, above all, a conflict ripe with paradoxes, one of them being that victorious powers did not come out of the war strengthened by their victory. Germany is, on the one hand, one of the most developed countries in Europe thanks to its enormous economic boom; on the other the simmering conflict between the working class struggling for empowerment (politically represented by social democrats) and the government weakens the country from the inside.

Münkler sets about to debunk several often propagated myths about the Great War.

The first one is that the war that was later to engulf many parts of the world was somehow inevitable, “about to happen anyway.” There is evidence that during the first six months of 1914 the relationship between the warring powers, Germany on one hand and Great Britain with France on the other, did not show any signs of growing tensions. Colonial rivalry between France and Britain created a source of much greater friction then any enmity that was to be found between the Brits and the Germans or the Germans and the French.

Another debunked myth concerns the one alleged culprit of it all—Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, a militarily organized entity led by Junkers aristocracy. To support his alternative view the author provides a detailed analysis of German society in the first two decades of the twentieth century that was, for the first time, to assume a decisive role in shaping of German history. There were the chanting masses in front of the Kaiser’s Palace and elsewhere on the squares that pushed hesitant Wilhelm II into the war. And there was the middle class first passionately singing war songs and then buying the war bonds, thus helping to finance the war effort. They were to suffer the most casualties and to find out, after the lost war, that their government bonds were a worthless piece of paper and their social status gone. The middle class was not alone. An unprecedented leveling of social classes occurred. German aristocracy found itself in a similar situation despite their deeply held convictions that a prospective war could stem the rise of the bourgeoisie along with its values.

The Great War was a conflict that for the first time not only in Germany but in France and Britain as well was being waged also on the propaganda front. As a result, often simplistic views became firmly rooted in the collective sub-consciousness of concerned nations for many years and proved very difficult to overcome. Münkler argues that the Germans suffered a decisive loss in the propaganda war as early as in the autumn of 1914 when German soldiers violated the neutrality of Belgium. British papers were full of stories describing in vivid detail atrocities committed on Belgian civilian population. German High Command severely underestimated the power of British public opinion. It had hoped to keep Britain out of the war with only one opponent on the western front—the French. Several decades later German generals repeated the same mistake when a “total submarine war” targeting civilian ships as well drew the United States into the conflict.

The power of media became evident also in Germany. It is documented by the rise of field marshal Paul von Hindenburg. He became a symbol of victory presented by the media as Germany’s last hope. Almost seventy years of age, he became an ideal candidate in the public eye for the vacant position long before assumed by chancellor Otto von Bismarck—who, by the way, never ceased to be a loyal counselor to his ruler. On this pedestal Hindenburg was now to be erected. In reality he was neither a very good tactician nor a genius strategist. He was of a rather phlegmatic nature and if it were up to him, Germany would settle for peace without achieving its territorial claims. All decision making was in fact done by a young hawk Erich Ludendorff. And there was only one goal he had set his eyes upon: “SiegFrieden”— peace only after victory.

We should not be then surprised that after an unsuccessful spring offensive in the year of 1918, which proved beyond any reasonable doubt the war could not be won by Germany, Ludendorff was still unwilling to acknowledge defeat and even managed to depose Foreign Minister Richard von Kühlmann, who in summer 1918 initiated secret negotiations with the British.

Münkler also draws attention to one of the key issues which could shed some light on the conduct of Germany and its leadership before and during the Great War. That issue in question is the so-called “Mittellage”—simply the fact that Germany lies in the middle of the continent. It was a focal point of historiography in times between the wars, which was also in line with the prevailing spirit of the era—the culprits were being found all over the place but, of course, not in the Germany itself. On the contrary, Germany was being described as a victim—first of competing European powers and then of the Versailles Treaty and the world community as such. No wonder it was a fertile breeding ground for Nazi ideology and, after 1945, a reason not to bring the issue of “Mittellage” back into the limelight.

Münkler, on the other hand, has a comfortable distance of several generations and does not risk much opening the topic again. He seems to come to a conclusion that given his country’s specific location German policy makers would have been wise to tread especially lightly when dealing with other European powers. Failure to do so tended to strengthen an irrational streak and inclinations to believe in “exceptionality” of German nation and its “specific mission” in Europe.

Generations of historians were of an opinion that the main role of Germany in starting the First World War lies in issuing the infamous “blank cheque” to Vienna and a departure from the policy of restraint, which was in place during the first Balkan war. Münkler sees things differently; if Berlin had not unconditionally supported Vienna, the Hapsburg Empire would not have proceeded against Serbia so aggressively; moreover, it would not have risked a military confrontation with Russia. As a result, the Austro-German alliance would have grown weaker and Berlin would have risked losing an important ally. Vienna, struggling to keep its multinational empire from falling apart, might have looked for another ally.

It is no great secret that the relationship between German and Austrian High Command was far from perfect, and Münkler takes note of that. The Germans saw the Austrian effort as lacklustre at its best; the Austrians, in return, were irked by Germany’s focus on the defense of Eastern Prussia and their ignoring of Austrian struggle on the Galician front. An offensive to the south would have greatly helped the Austrians to keep the Russians at bay. Even the military strategies on the highest level were different. Germany would rigidly follow Schlieffen’s plan with its strictly set timetable for westward advance resulting in the French capitulation; the violation of Belgian neutrality was a given. The Austrian strategy was of a different kind. Its armies were organized into several entities, which could eventually support each other if need arose. This intended flexibility resulted in chaos when units would often receive conflicting orders and a quick succession of defeats followed. By the end of 1914 Austria was nearly finished and without German aid it would have collapsed.

Münkler’s work is interesting not only for its deep analysis of what has already happened, but also because it attempts to draw lessons for the present. He sees an analogy between pre-war Wilhelm’s Germany and today’s People’s Republic of China—with all the corresponding implications. Chinese economic growth and increasing political self-confidence together with ultra-modern military technology deeply trouble its neighboring countries. These might in turn be tempted to form some sort of anti-Chinese alliances. It is up to the West to tread especially lightly and not to give China any reason to fear some sort of encirclement and to launch preemptive strikes as a result.

Study of the history of the Great War then provides an excellent opportunity to become aware of how international relationships can be mismanaged and to what ends it can lead.

Robert Schuster

Robert Schuster is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent of Austrian daily Der Standard in Czech Republic from 2000 till 2012. He is a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.