Zachary Keck

The Great Myth: World War I Was No Accident

Recent Features

Zachary Keck

The Great Myth: World War I Was No Accident

World War I wasn’t an inadvertent war but the result of deliberate German state policy.

The Great Myth: World War I Was No Accident
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, formerly called the Great War.

Not surprisingly, this has brought all sorts of stories and op-eds discussing the disastrous events that killed some 16 million people and wounded an additional 21 million others.

To this day, most observers continue to claim that World War I was an inadvertent war: that is, that none of the countries involved particularly wanted war but war came nonetheless. Some claim it was the major armament programs and offensive military doctrines adopted by European countries in the run-up to the war that made WWI inevitable. Others claim it was the hypernationalistic populaces that caused the war. Still others blame the tight alliances that European nations formed in the years prior to WWI, which created an environment in which the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by an anarchist could plunge the entire continent into a bloody war. And then there are those that blame the situation on the irreconcilable interests of a rising Germany and a declining Great Britain. Regardless of the particular explanation invoked, most seem to agree that the war was an accident.

More troubling, recent years have seen numerous individuals comparing early 20th century Europe to the Asia-Pacific today. Perhaps most memorably, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, made the analogy that the Sino-Japanese rivalry today bears remarkable resemblance to the English-German rivalry prior to WWI. In this case, Abe was trying to portray Chinese aggression and its military buildup as pushing the region to war.

Others have compared the budding U.S.-China rivalry today to the ill-fated one between Great Britain and Germany a century ago. For example, writing in the Boston Globe this week, College Station’s finest, Christopher Layne, argued that WWI was caused by Great Britain’s refusal to revise the status-quo despite Germany’s rise. From this example, Layne warns that the U.S. and China are heading for war, and only the U.S. can stop it by “undertaking a policy of strategic adjustment in East Asia” to accommodate China’s rising power and influence.

In both cases, the point of the comparison is to suggest that unless something dramatic is done, Asia may stumble into a major war that no one wants just as Europe did a century ago.

Fortunately, as the wise philosopher Rob Farley once cautioned in these pages, “accidental wars rarely happen,” and instead are usually the result of deliberate state policy. And in this regard, WWI is no exception, at least according to Dale C. Copeland.

In his instant classic, Origins of Major Wars, Copeland developed a theory he called “dynamic differentials theory” to explain the causes of great power conflicts. To slightly oversimplify, dynamic differentials theory argues that declining states initiate wars when they are still clearly militarily superior but they believe they are in deep and irreversible decline relative to the rising state.

In such a situation, the leaders of the declining state come to see war as the only way to prevent the rising state from overtaking it as the most powerful nation in the system, thereby becoming a major security threat. Dynamic differentials theory posits that these leaders are most likely to initiate war when they believe they have maximized their relative power– that is, when they believe their relative military power is peaking and delaying war will only allow the rising nation to grow relatively stronger.

Copeland tests the theory through a number of excellent case studies, the best one of which is WWI. In the first WWI chapter, Copeland pokes holes in all the other theories about the causes of WWI, as well as covers a number of crises in the Balkans and Africa in the years prior to the war. In the following chapter, he traces German decision-making–particularly German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg– from the July Crisis to the outbreak of WWI.

In this case study, Copeland makes a convincing case that it was the power transition between Germany and Russia–not Germany and Great Britain–that was the real cause of the war. Specifically, he shows that German leaders had long feared that Russia’s greater land mass, resources and population made it a long-term threat to Germany’s survival. This threat would be realized, German leaders assessed, once Russia completed its massive industrialization and military buildup that it began undertaking in the years before WWI began.

Germany thus began its own military buildup (particularly of the naval variety) in hopes of maximizing its power for a war German leaders increasingly saw is inevitable. Before this buildup reached its conclusion, Berlin successfully prevented four major crises in the Balkans in 1912-1913 from escalating into major war, mainly by restraining its Austrian ally enough to prevent it from provoking Russia into fighting. Thus, Copeland talks of a “common theme” of the 1912-1913 Balkans crises, which was “when there was little possibility of Russian intervention, Berlin allowed Austria to act forcefully; but whenever it seems that Russia might be obliged… to oppose Austrian actions,  Berlin withheld support and advised Vienna to maintain its ‘waiting attitude.’”

German leaders also began “educating” the public on German national interests so they’d be motivated to fight once war broke out. As Copeland explains, “Far from leaders responding to the public’s aggressive passions, they deliberately created those passions to fight the war more effectively.”

After the July Crisis of 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, however, Copeland notes that Berlin drastically changed its position. It was at this time that German leaders led by the chancellor decided that war would be most favorable to Germany. Part of this was due to the circumstances of the moment: namely, Germany’s ability to paint Russia as the aggressor. This was necessary in order to ensure that the German people–particularly the Social Democratic Party–would back the war. Portraying Russia as the aggressor would also force Austria to join the war, and could make Great Britain less supportive of France and Russia, at least initially. That being said, Copeland vigorously disputes some historians views that German leaders believed that England would remain neutral in the war. While they certainly would have preferred such an outcome, they realized this was wholly unlikely.

But the main reason German leaders preferred war in 1914 was their belief that German power was at its zenith. Berlin had managed to build up its military forces in the years before the war. More importantly, “German leaders believed that continental or world war had to be fought in 1914, since by 1917 as Russia completed its military reforms and strategic railways, Germany could no longer expect to take on” the combined Russian, French and British forces.

As a result, German leaders masterfully manipulated the aftermath of the July Crisis to ensure a European war in which Russian appeared to be the aggressor because it announced a mobilization of its forces. Thus, Copeland argues “that Germany actively sought war in July 1914 and that German leaders by the end of July preferred world war to a negotiated peace, even to one that gave Austria most of what it wanted. Berlin thus took all steps necessary to prevent any kind of negotiated solution, while at the same time ensuring that Russia was blamed for the war.” More succinctly, Copeland writes: “given a choice between world war and a negotiated peace, the German preferred the former and did nothing to achieve the latter.” In fact, it actively undermined the latter by declaring war to avoid a “last minute capitulation by Russia to Austrian demands.”

The fact that WWI was not an accident but rather the result of Germany’s deliberate state policy is good news for those who believe contemporary Asia resembles Europe 100 years ago. So long as no states see war as in their interests, it’s unlikely to come about even if crises like the assassination of the archduke materialized, as they almost certainly will. Moreover, under dynamic differentials theory, it would be the U.S. or Japan that would be the aggressors in the war. Thus, the lesson of WWI should be that unless the U.S. or Japan decide that war is in their best interest, Asia will remain peaceful.

Notably, we already see the dynamics of dynamic differentials theory at work, except through actions short of war. Most notably, Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands partially because it saw its ability to defend them as evaporating as China’s military buildup progressed. Japanese military leaders I’ve spoken with over the past two years have all expressed confidence that Tokyo could defend the islands from Chinese invasion at the present time. But they were equally certain that this wouldn’t be true five or ten years down the line. In this context, it made sense for Japan to nationalize the islands now, lest they surrender them to China later. Still, even this was done with an eye towards preventing a regional war; not provoking one.