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German Sabotage and America's Entry Into World War I
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Since neoconservative journalists, at least to my knowledge, have not been lately slamming the “German connection,” I rejoiced at a feature article in yesterday’s New York Post (March 20) going after the “series of German outrages” that helped push us into World War One. A commentary by Thomas A. Reppetto, on German saboteurs during World War, focuses on an explosion at an ammunition factory on Black Tom Island on July 30, 1916, which is now Liberty State Park in New Jersey. In this incident and other similar ones that erupted in the area between New York and Baltimore, German agents prevented by violent means the delivery of arms “to the Allied powers.”

Reppetto suggests that the federal government dealt effectively with such explosions, by declaring war on Germany and then taking counter-espionage into its own hands. At first this could not be done because we were mollycoddling Germans residents in the US while indulging such uncooperative figures as the authoritarian mayor of Jersey City Frank Hague. Reppetto does not hide the moral here, which is drawing a direct line between the sneaky, anti-democratic Germans in World War One and the present terrorist danger. “New Jersey officials need to recall the lessons of Black Tom.” “Islamic militants have operated out of Jersey City,” just as once other bad folks did.

Allow me to set the record straight. The greatest outrage in Reppetto’s account came from the Wilson administration, which turned the US into perhaps the chief supplier of arms to the Allied side. Wilson’s decision in 1915 to allow American arms manufacturers to sell to both sides was a belligerent act directed against the Central Powers. Only one side was in a position to acquire American arms, because Germany at the time, as everyone knew, was being blockaded. The English blockade, which was aimed at starving the Germans, arguably in violation of international law, also kept arms from reaching Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary.

Moreover, most arms manufacturers were far from neutral. One of the largest Pierre du Pont, who had his ammunition factory blown up, was a pro-British interventionist, who was giving arms to the side he backed in the war. Even before the arms embargo was officially lifted, the American government was turning a blind eye to the sending of contraband to the Allies. According to Colin Simpson’s 1972 study, the bombing of the Lusitania, which was advertised as a British passenger vessel, took place in May 1915, because the ship was loaded with arms being sent to England. The torpedoing however had the effect of turning American public opinion against the Central Powers and permitted Wilson to replace the truly neutralist Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, with the pro-British interventionist Robert Lansing.

ORDER IT NOW

A few other points need to be emphasized here. One suspects the head of sabotage operations and an impeccable speaker of the King’s English, Captain Franz von Rintelen, had lots of non-German support, particularly from Irish nationalists in the US who were upset with the English handling of the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin. Mayor Hague in Jersey City, who was known to be an anti-British Irish American, could not have been deeply depressed by the explosion in what was then part of his municipality. The violence came even while the British were still going after Irish rebels on the Old Sod.

The German ambassador to the US, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, cooperated with the sabotage operations, undoubtedly out of desperation. After the appointment of Lansing, and given the eagerness of the US government to flood the Allied side with arms, and finally, given the unwillingness of Wilson to do more than make toothless requests that the British lift their starvation blockade, the usually gregarious and highly approachable Bernstorff decided it was only a matter of time before the US entered the war. His attempt in 1917 to draw Mexico into the conflict on Germany’s side, if the US declared war on Germany and its allies, resulted from a justified sense of where the US government stood in the European conflict. The problem of course is that desperate measures played into the hands of the pro-British interventionists. On the other hand, the American government, with the rare exception of figures like Bryan, was never really neutral in the Great War.

In 1979 the German Federal Republic agreed to pay the American government for the sabotage operation about 95 million dollars. This may have been a bargain since the operations had resulted in twice that amount in damage; and despite some efforts to spare people, had caused a dozen or so deaths and twice as many injuries. One wonders, however, whether the NYP would rush to scold the Israeli government for blowing up a shipment of arms earmarked for Hezbollah or Hamas from anywhere on this planet. But then let’s not make insulting comparisons, even if they fit!

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History • Tags: Germany, World War I 
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  1. Tom S says:

    The fallacy of WWI era German “thinking” is the fatalistic “inevitability” of war argument. Because war with…whoever…is inevitable, let us launch a two-front war, violate Belgian neutrality, or sabotage, or subvert, or attack neutral shipping so that we (the Germans) can control the circumstances of the outbreak of fighting and win a sweeping victory. That really worked.

    Imagine German leadership responding to the events of June 1914 without the “inevitability” frame of mind. The worst-case scenario would be a defensive strategy in the West, with no invasion of Belgium. No Belgian invasion, no immediate British entry into the war, no British blockade. The French hurl themselves into prepared defences–as they did in 1914–and get nowhere. The Russians display their military ineptitude–as they did in 1914–against stronger German forces. Fighting peters out within a year.

  2. DavidT says:

    “The greatest outrage in Reppetto’s account came from the Wilson administration, which turned the US into perhaps the chief supplier of arms to the Allied side. Wilson’s decision in 1915 to allow American arms manufacturers to sell to both sides was a belligerent act directed against the Central Powers.”

    Under international law, it is perfectly legal for a neutral power to allow its citizens to sell arms to belligerents, and the US had traditionally done so. For the US to forbid this after the Great War had started would have been changing the rules in the middle of the game to the disadvantage of the Entente (penalizing it for its superiority at sea at a time when the Central Powers were stronger on land) and thus arguably would itself be un-neutral. Even Bryan opposed an arms embargo.

  3. Matt says:

    The fallacy of WWI era German “thinking” is the fatalistic “inevitability” of war argument.

    I don’t know, the main feature of everyone’s thinking prior to WW1 was that any war would be easy and quick. No one had a clue what was going to happen, and if they did they would have all sued for peace from the beginning.

  4. At the time the arms sales took place, Germany and its Allies were already blockaded, and a discussion of this fact came up in the Wilson administration.It is not true that the US has always permitted arms sales during foreign wars. The Jefferson administration did not permit arms sales to either side during the Napoleonic War, and there was a discussion about halting arm sales to the Nationalist side under FDR. because of fear of losing the Catholic vote. I would like to know where David T got his information that Bryan opposed an arms embargo after the European conflict started.

  5. I meant to say in the above remark that FDR did not halt arms sales during the Spanish Civil War, despite advice from the Left to do so, because he was told by Joe Kennedy that he would lose the Catholic vote in the next election if he did so. I would also note that whatever the general American policy about selling arms to all belligerents may have been, it must have been abundantly clear in 1915 and 1916 that all the arms were going to one side in the European war. The denial of the arms that were destroyed in 1915 because of saboteurs probably prevented Bresilov’s army from overruning all of Austrian Galicia. Jewish neocons should feel especially happy about this turn of events,since the Austrian occupation was infinitely friendlier than the Russian one to the large Jewish population in Galicia.

  6. Tony J says:

    – The fallacy of WWI era German “thinking” is the fatalistic “inevitability” of war argument. –

    From what I’ve read about German thinking at the time war – was – inevitable, and the sooner the better. They had a real military edge that was being steadily reduced by Anglo-French co-operation and Russian military reforms, and they knew that if they waited much longer their window of opportunity would close. Germany would have to settle for being just the single biggest dog in central Europe and a no show on the international stage, and they were – not – going to just stand by and let that happen, not when they had the best military machine in the world just sitting there and the very real probability that it could change the whole political situation if it were unleashed.

    That said, yes, German strategy in the First World War varied from abysmal to down-right suicidal. OTOH, though your scenario would have been a lot better than the one they followed, it’s still a true fact that, minus American entry in 1917, they very likely would have pulled it off. Russia – was – beaten, the French Army was one campaigning season away from collapse, and without continental allies Britain would have had to seek some kind of peace deal in 1917/18.

    It was a closer run thing than many appreciate.

  7. John S says:

    Barring US intervention in April 1917, it is exceedingly likely that World War I would have ground to a halt in mid-1918 in some sort of compromise peace.

    After Germany’s 1918 spring offensive – a last, desperate effort to win the war before the US Army was in France in decisive numbers – ground to a halt in June, at the gates of Paris, the Germans were exhausted and spent, but so were the British and French, who alone lacked the ability to turn the tide. Some sort of compromise peace would have been inevitable.

    Remember, too, that the Italians had been pushed deep into Venetia, in abject defeat, in Oct-Nov 1917 by the Austrians and Germans; without UK and French help they were functionally out of the war.

    Most importantly the war in the East had already been won – by the Central Powers. The Tsarist regime was gone, and Russia was prostrate at the feet of the Germans and Austrians (few Americans realize that by mid-1918 Berlin and Vienna were occupying most of Eastern Europe).

    What certainly would NOT have happened was the establishment of the USSR, since Lenin & Co would have been crushed like a bug by the Germans if they dared to actually create a state.

    So, no Lenin … no Stalin … no Hitler.

    Sounds a lot better to me than anything that actually happened.

    Thanks Mr Wilson, and God bless America!

  8. scott says: • Website

    Pres. Wilson was a classic progressive, stick your nose in every ones business.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “I would like to know where David T got his information that Bryan opposed an arms embargo after the European conflict started.”

    I don’t know where David T got his information, Professor, but it is backed up by Laurence Levine’s biography (“Defender of the Faith”), pg. 32., which cites multiple statements by Bryan opposing an arms embargo in 1915.

  10. Tom S says:

    Tony J.

    Bear in mind that German policies toward Russia and Britain helped put them in the position that they feared. Failure to renew the reinsuranance treaty with Czarist Russia in 1890 turned a potential partner into a threat. Starting a naval competition with Britain–and supporting the Boers, among other things–turned a neutral country into another rival. Both Britain and Russia strengthened ties with France, Self-fulfilling prophecy?

    John S.

    The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Germany and its allies and the Boshlevik regime in Russia in March 1918, so…no, you are wrong.

  11. John S says:

    Tom S:

    No, YOU are wrong. Did you actually read what I wrote?

    By mid-1918, after Brest-Litovsk, the Germans and Austrians occupied the Baltics, Belarus, and most of Ukraine. The Treaty of B-L came on the heels of major Central Powers advances after the Kerensky Offensive of June 1917 which failed utterly and was a decisive factor in Russia’s total collapse.

    The Bolsheviks (try to spell it right, please) were on the ropes and could have been easily crushed by the Central Powers, had they not been distracted in the West.

    And, after a compromise peace in mid-1918, they would have been.

  12. If Bryan imposed the arms embargo, then he made a grave mistake. Given who received all the arms, the supplying was understandably viewed as a belligerent act by the Central Powers. According to George Kennan, the German government had little to do with the alliance between Russia and France. The Russian Tsar Alexander III was a strong Slavophile, who viewed a struggle with Austria-Hungary as inevitable. He also understood the value of French credits for industrializing Russia and at the time the Germans could not supply as much financial assistance, since German capital was being poured into the industrial development of Germany’s reliable but much poorer ally, Austria-Hungary.

  13. Leaving the larger question aside, the issue of American arms trade to foreign belligerents is moot before our Civil War, as we had no arms industry capable of filling large orders. This changed in the 1870’s but even then American arms sales were small arms sales.

  14. Thanks, Thomas. I was wondering what Paul Gottfried was referring to vis-a-vis Jefferson.

  15. Let’s put it like this, if the US was in a hot war, how would it treat a neutral country dealing weapons to its enemies? Yeah… thought so.

  16. DavidT says:

    “I meant to say in the above remark that FDR did not halt arms sales during the Spanish Civil War, despite advice from the Left to do so, because he was told by Joe Kennedy that he would lose the Catholic vote in the next election if he did so.”

    What the Left wanted was for the US to sell arms to the Spanish Republic (after all, they were the recognized government) and forbid the sale of arms to Franco’s forces.

    However, even if FDR had wanted to follow such a policy, public opinion (and not just Catholic pro-Franco opinion) would not let him. This is shown by Congress’ vote in January 1937 to strengthen the neutrality act (which had previously not included civil wars) by forbidding the export of arms to either side in Spain. The vote was 81-0 in the Senate and 406-1 in the House. The one dissenter was Farmer-Labor Congressman John Toussaint Bernard of Minnesota, who was extremely close to the Communist Party (he may have been a secret member at the time, but in any event decades later he became the only ex-Congressman to openly join the Party).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bernard_(American_politician)

    No doubt one reason FDR went along with the arms embargo was fear of losing the Catholic vote but as I have noted elsewhere:

    “Two other obvious reasons were: (1) the reluctance to go against Britain and France with their “non-intervention” policy; and (2) the fact that even Americans who preferred the Republic–and they far outnumbered supporters of Franco, though of course many people backed neither side–still did not want the US to actually do anything that might risk involving the US in war. (And there was a widespread consensus that selling arms to the Allies had been one of the things that led the US into the First World War.) At the height of the embargo controversy “only 24 percent of the
    population favored changes in the Neutrality Act in order to permit the shipment of arms to the Loyalists.” (Guttmann, p. 118)”

    http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/1f0453091dedc9ff

  17. Both sides attacked neutral shipping. Neither side would simply sit back and let neutrals ship goods to the other side. Great Britain blockaded Germany. Germany used U Boats against ships bound for Great Britain. In addition, Great Britain would not allow neutral shippers to send goods into neutral Holland, because those would or could be trans shipped into Germany. During the Civil War, the US did the same thing, attacking neutral shipping bound for neutral ports in Mexico, across the border from Texas, under the theory that the goods were ultimately bound for the Confederacy.

    “The fragile Anglo-Dutch relation [due to the Boer-war] was even worsened during WWI, when British ships blockaded the Dutch waters and openly raided Dutch shipping. In March 1918 the British even seized the entire Dutch merchant fleet in all the foreign harbours they controlled. The British accused the Dutch of breaking the trading ban that was laid upon Germany. As a result of the British blockade, the Germans started an all out U-Boot war against all shipping in the European waters. The Dutch merchant fleet lost about 25% of its fleet due to this all out maritime war, during which all belligerents sunk every ship coming in sight, indiscriminately under which flag it sailed. Meanwhile the Dutch suffered almost as much as the Germans from the international blockade and the British were blamed for that. At the end of WWI the relationship with the British was below zero.

    “Obviously the Dutch decision to provide a safe haven to the German Kaiser in 1918, did not please the former Entente nations. It was seen as the final bit of evidence that Holland silently supported the German cause. That ‘evidence’ was in fact totally absent. The Dutch had not supported the German economy, although some border trade had continued between the regions.”

    http://www.waroverholland.nl/index.php?page=holland-wwi-and-the-international-relations

    “That said, yes, German strategy in the First World War varied from abysmal to down-right suicidal.”

    My understanding is that they could be said more accurately for Allied strategy. After the stalemate developed on the Western front, the Germans wisely retreated tactically to higher ground. Thus, for most of the war, the Allies were fighting uphill. In addition, the German trenches were usually high and dry, while the Allied trenches were waterlogged, because the former were on local high ground, ridges and hills and the latter were pressed up against them, in valleys and swamps and lowlands generally. From then on, the Allies (whose territory was occupied and who thus were under political pressure to go on the offensive) tended to launch suicidal attacks on the German trenches. The Allies lost more men on the Western front than the Germans. Only later in the war did the Allies turn away from massed, frontal, you might say “suicidal” attacks on the machine gun emplaced trenches and begin to develop small, “shock” unit attacks with specialized small arms, specially trained troops, tanks and aircraft.

    As has been mentioned, the Germans were entirely succesful on the Eastern front, soundly defeating the Russians in most battles and campaigns. The Russian government collapsed, at least in part due to the success of the Germans. The Germans cleverly exploited the situation by allowing Lenin and his cohorts to cross their territory and reach Russia, where they overthrew the provisional government and reached a separate peace with Germany. The Germans and their allies the Austrians handled Italy pretty effectively. Their ally Bulgaria knocked Romania and Serbia out of the war. Even the their Turkish ally acquitted itself pretty well, scoring victories at Gallipolli and Kut before eventually succombing to the British.

    All in all, I would say the German strategy was pretty sound. After all, they faced war on two fronts against three Great Powers when the war started. One of which had the ability to strangle it by sea (Great Britain), one of which had virtually unlimited men and raw resources (Russia) and the other of which had a strong, centralized State, a mass army made of sturdy, patriotic peasants, and a long history as the supreme land power in Europe (France). All Germany had for an ally, at the start, was the weak Austria Hungary Dual Monarchy, with its national and ethnic strains. Italy was supposed to be its ally, but it joined the other side. But by the end of the war, Germany and its allies had knocked Russia out, had driven the French Army to mutiny, had forced Great Britain, for the first time in its history, to turn to mass conscription, and, perhaps, would have won the war, but for the intervention of the USA.

  18. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    There was a very good reason why Germany didn’t renew its treaty with Russia. You can read it in The Education of Henry Adams. Adams says that traditionally the Germans had told the Russians to do what they wanted in the Far East – it didn’t matter to Germany. But by 1890 the Russians weren’t just founding a few colonies and playing “the Great Game” with Britain north of India. No, they were angling to get control of China. Russia was already the largest nation on earth. With China under its control, it would have been far larger still, and buttressed, as the Russians saw it, by a teaming and industrious subject population of Chinese. This, for obvious reasons, the Germans could not allow.

  19. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “One wonders, however, whether the NYP would rush to scold the Israeli government for blowing up a shipment of arms earmarked for Hezbollah or Hamas from anywhere on this planet. But then let’s not make insulting comparisons, even if they fit!”

    A tempting comparison, but AIPAC is easily more powerful and influential than the German-American Bund ever was. It has also been far more costly and damaging to our security.

  20. Carpenter says:

    “Under international law, it is perfectly legal for a neutral power to allow its citizens to sell arms to belligerents, and the US had traditionally done so.”, says DavidT. Ahem. Under American law it was ILLEGAL to aid a belligerent nation, which is exactly what the U.S. was doing. That’s why the White House had to claim that it allowed sales “to both sides”, when in practice it was about aiding one side only. Don’t pretend otherwise.

    Furthermore, the British were seeking to starve the German people. Typical of the Brits, who have always acted criminally toward other Europeans. Look at how they invaded the Boers and put them in concentration camp not long before the Great War they started. The blockade stayed in place FOR MONTHS after WWI! The bloodthirsty Churchill said, “If the blockade is lifted, then the war will have been for nothing.” Its purpose: to starve more German civilians to death. A war crime. Supported by the U.S.

    Germany was perfectly justified in striking back against a nation that was supplying the attackers – Britain and France – with arms meant to kill Germans. I only wish they had been allowed to kill more American attackers. For too long have Brits and Americans plagued the European continent, always claiming to be the poor, innocent victims, when in fact they are the attackers and the ones who maneuvered to cause war in the first place.

    Just like they are doing now to Iran – after invading Iran in 1941, treating it as a colony, installing the tyrannic shah, seeking to destroy Iran financially, funding Iraq’s invasion of Iran that killed two million people and laid waste to entire cities, threatening nuclear attacks, and even murdering Iranian scientists. But it is always the British, the Americans and sacred Israel who are the “victims”, right?

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Would anyone dare to approach the multiple contridictions and historical gaps with ww2. Or does fear rule the day?

  22. Professor Gottfried,

    A history of the war that I read (author and title forgotten, sorry) said that the Germans in July,1914 were not going to mobilize, or waited to mobilize, until after they should have seen what the Russians were going to do. Someone in the Russian hierarchy, the tsar or army chief of staff, was being pressured by both sides, those who wanted immediate mobilization and those who counseled patience, and he gave in to the mobilizers. It was only after the Germans had proof that Russia was mobilizing, and thus would come in on the Serbian side and destroy Germany’s ally Austria, and roll up who knew how much of eastern German lands in the process, that they followed suit, thereby triggering the French mobilization. Thus, Germany did not “start a two front war” but responded reasonably to a great threat to the east. Then, with the French mobilization, they had to go get them, before they could take western German lands. According to this version then, it was the Russians who drove this essentially regional conflict over the cliff and into an unstoppable cartwheel ending in world war. Is this how you see it?

  23. Brutus says: • Website

    Paul Gottfried articles are always gems.

  24. In response to Gilbert Jacobi’s question, there is a massive, heavily documented work by Sean McMeekin, recently published by Harvard, showing the high degree of responsibility held by the Russian government for the outbreak of the war. A much longer work in German, by Konrad Canis, demonstrates the role of Lord Grey’s government in England in exacerbating pre-War tensions with Germany, even after the German naval program was stopped by 1912. Another revisionist work that one of my respondents mentioned is by Terence Zuber and deals with the absence of the legendary von Schlieffen Plan calling for a two front war (Oxford, 2002) againstGermany’s continental enemies. According to Zuber, the Germans did not have a long preserved strategic plan for attacking France and Russia in the coming European war.What they had following Schlieffen’s death, was a hastily patched together plan for fighting on two fronts, against larger armies raised by the Russians and French who conscripted far more soldiers proportionate to population than the Germans and Austrians.For a supposedly militaristic country, preparing to attack their neighbors, the Germans were remarkably lax about building up their army. They probably could have used Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan to teach them something about being an exceptional nation with an appropriately mighty fighting force.

  25. John S says:

    I generally find myself in violent agreement with Prof Gottfried, however I must note that Zuber’s work on the Schlieffen Plan is considered rather out-there by most serious military historians. While Zuber knows the archives well and makes some valid points, ie the Schlieffen Plan wasn’t anywhere near as dogmatic in pre-1914 Prussian military circles as we’ve been led to believe by the whole Fritz Fischer Germany-is-to-blame-for-everything school, he overstates his case considerably.

    That said, I heartily concur that recent scholarship places proper blame on Russia too – as well as on Britain, as Paul Schroeder has explained eloquently in many articles. The really interesting question is – did Russia have a hand in the Sarajevo assassination? Certainly not directly, since the basic facts were established long ago (although most historians still tend to downplay this): Princip and the other would-be assassins were armed, trained, and equipped by Serbian military intelligence under the direction of Col Dimitrijevic aka Apis. It was an act of state-sponsored terrorism by Belgrade. It is clear that some of the Serbian civilian leadership knew about the plot, at least in outline.

    Before he was executed in 1917 – by his own government – Apis wrote a last testament, boasting of the assassination, in which he explained that the funding for the operation was provided by Col Artamonov, the Russian military attache in Belgrade.

    If any paper was written down about all this – and knowing the Russians, very likely not – it was destroyed long ago, so the question remains fundamentally unanswerable in detail. Yet Apis’s claim appears valid and has never been refuted.

  26. Tony J says:

    Tom S,

    “Bear in mind that German policies toward Russia and Britain helped put them in the position that they feared. Failure to renew the reinsuranance treaty with Czarist Russia in 1890 turned a potential partner into a threat. Starting a naval competition with Britain–and supporting the Boers, among other things–turned a neutral country into another rival. Both Britain and Russia strengthened ties with France, Self-fulfilling prophecy?”

    It’s said that Bismarck was the last German leader to really understand how to craft long term strategy, and the historical record would certainly bear that out. It’s also said that Imperial Germany had only two default modes, which I’m paraphrasing as “Either at your throat or at your feet.”, and you never knew which they were going to fall into when the fit hit the shan.

    IMHO the major factor in the run up to the Great War was that a majority of German decision makers actually – didn’t – fear the prospect of taking on all of their rivals at once. They wanted an all-out national effort to leverage their military superiority into political dominance because they – knew – there was no other way to overturn the old order. A Germany powerful enough to achieve first-rank Power status was always going to be seen an an existential threat to Russia and France and Britain, because their interests were diametrically opposed. Why play by the old rules when you have the raw power to impose your own?

    So they pushed and they prodded and they blustered and, eventually, they got the war they wanted, a few years later than they would have really liked. And they almost won. American entry in 1917 was decisive because otherwise 1918 would have seen Germany in a position to impose something as harsh as the Brest-Litovsk treaty on western Europe.

    Fast forward twenty years and there would have been another global war, but with a German superpower far, far more dangerous than Hitler’s cobbled together Reich.

  27. Tony J says:

    freemansfarm,

    I don’t disagree with your analysis. The strategic error they made was to – choose – to fight all of their rivals at once while trusting in the strength of the German Army to decide the issue. Yes, it – almost – worked, but in a conflict of that scale you either win or you lose, there’s no other option.

    It would have been – easy – for the Germans to keep Britain out of the war for as long as it would have taken to destroy Russia’s military, but they – chose – not to. Violating Belgium’s neutrality was vital to the kind of western offensive they planned, but it was truly stupid to do it in 1914 while also fighting a full-scale war on their eastern border.

    The German offensive of 1914 came – this – close to taking Paris and knocking France out of the war, but it failed because they weren’t able to throw in enough reinforcements at the vital moment, because they were on their way east where they weren’t even needed, the Russian offensive had been blunted and driven back before they arrived.

    Notice that after the failure of the western offensive the Germans – did – play defence in the west while hammering the Russians, and they won that war handily. Do that in 1914 and Germany is in a much better strategic position. They could have turned west in 1916 (at the latest) and faced the a much weakened French army one on one. Britain would probably have come in at this point if not earlier, but so what? Without the Russians to provide the manpower France falls and Britain has to make the best deal it can out of a losing hand.

  28. John S says:

    Tony J: There are so many statements at odds with the historical facts in your post that I will confine myself to this one:

    “IMHO the major factor in the run up to the Great War was that a majority of German decision makers actually – didn’t – fear the prospect of taking on all of their rivals at once. They wanted an all-out national effort to leverage their military superiority into political dominance because they – knew – there was no other way to overturn the old order.”

    Perhaps in your “humble” opinion, but not in the opinion of anyone who actually knows the subject.

    The Wilhelmine political and military leadership never sought a fundamental reordering of the European system, they simply wanted to take out Russia before 1917, at which point the Prussian General Staff (correctly) assessed that it would be impossible to defeat Russia given known Tsarist military and rail expansion programs. Their designs bore no resemblance to the Nazis’ genocidal intent for much of Europe.

    And there was, in fact, considerable disgreement among top German military leaders before 1914 about what the next war would look like; Falkenhayn, who wound up dealing with the mess after the Schlieffen Plan failed, had for years been telling everyone in Berlin who would listen that a quick, decisive victory over France (or Russia, much less over France AND Russia) was impossible and dangerous illusion but he – like General Shinseki in early 2003 – wasn’t listened to because he was “off-message.”

    And I’d love to know how anything remotely like the Wilhelmine system, which was a Rechtstaat with considerable freedoms, could have ever been ‘”a German superpower far, far more dangerous than Hitler’s cobbled together Reich.” Exactly what planet are you on?

  29. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The British in 1916 were as shamelessly pushing America into war as the Israelis are now against Iran. In 1916 British banking ran the world and the sovereign was the worlds reserve currency. China now, like Germany then, is trying to gain equal footing with the Anglo-American banking cartel.

    By getting Wilson to allow the one sided arms sales this British-American banking cartel insured that America had a vested interest in seeing England win: otherwise all those weapons loans would never be repaid by the allies. This is one of the main reasons Wilson, who earlier sold out America to the Federal Reserve, also sold out America and dragged her into the war at the behest of foreign bankers.

    But all this pales in comparison to what the elites are planning for us in the middle east and asia.

  30. GT says: • Website

    Publuis Cato, on March 21st, 2012 at 8:59 pm Said:
    “Let’s put it like this, if the US was in a hot war, how would it treat a neutral country dealing weapons to its enemies? Yeah… thought so.”

    That’s the first thing that crossed my mind too: we have all seen the breathless braying on Fox and elsewhere about such-and-so a weapon being found in Iraq/Pakistan/Yemen/Somalia… supposedly funded, underwritten or provided by Iran (or someone with links to Iran, or with family links to someone who once saw a documentary that concerned a person once accused of have a program that might lead to the development of sympathies for Iran-related activities).

    It’s American Exceptionalism writ large – just like the recent incident at Pangwai (you will never convince me that Pangwai was not a team effort: 16 kills in an hour spread over 2 miles?)

    When a Yank (and is team) systematically kills women and children in their beds, it’s because he had ‘snapped’ due to the intolerable stress placed on him by repeated tours of duty (no mention that these tours were caused by him signing up to try to evade jail for a $1.5m fraud when he was a broker).

    When an Afghan or Iraqi – whose exposure to the new hostile environment is NOT punctuated with periods of furlough – loses his shit, it’s because he’s a primitive ragheaded follower of a 7th century primitive cult, who hates Freedom(tm), and who is intolerably ungrateful for the US’s magnanimous decision to foist Western Values (a la Raytheon and Xe) upon his society.

    It’s always been thus: whatever we (the West) does is above reproach, and if we violate our own declared view of the world (or our own laws) it’s for some noble purpose and as such we must not be judged.

    So now we have a US leader who can order the death of one of his subjects without any right of the subject to examine the evidence against him or to respond to the accusation – that’s something that even George III did not assert. (Plus, you can also kill his kid just for that extra bulge in the pants… and also anybody who attends the aftermath).

    There is only one way for this to end well: to – as Mencken said – “Hoist the black flag and start slitting throats”; the only way to de-psychopathise the political system is to remove it entirely (folks can’t imagine the idea of no State, just as 15th century intellectuals could not visualise a life without Church hegemony).

    Everybody has to stop masturbating about the decisions of political parasites 100 years ago (near as dammit); war happened for the same reason it ALWAYS happens – that is, because the political class wanted it.

    The political class and their hangers-on wanted it because they are parasitic vermin who thrive under wartime situations (as Randolph Bourne and Smedley Butler made clear in different ways): they are never in a better position to mulct the productive classes, stifle dissent, and enrich themselves and their cronies.

    And THAT is why there was no decade of the 20th century that was completely free from war (the 1920s was close). Bandits gotta bandit.

  31. Thanks, Professor G.,

    for an informative and witty response. I really have to learn German, my dad’s language, some day to get the incredibly rich material I keep hearing about, and of course, a point of view that reamains hidden otherwise. The author and title I forgot were Paul Fussel, “The First World War”.

  32. JonF says:

    Re: The Bolsheviks (try to spell it right, please) were on the ropes and could have been easily crushed by the Central Powers, had they not been distracted in the West.

    Referring to any sort of war in Russia as “easy” is a huge mistake: one made by the Swedes, the French and the Nazis in succession. It was one thing to actually defeat the Russians on the border; quite another to march deep into their territory and attempt to occupy their country. I doubt Germany would have any easier time of that in 1918 than it did in 1941-42, or Napoleon had in 1812.

  33. Two German policies during WWI really were atrocities against Western Civilization:

    1. Even after it became clear that the Ottomans were engaging in mass murder of the Armenians, the Germans continued to support the Ottomans with weapons, advisers, troops etc.

    2. The Germans helped fund the Bolsheviks, and gave Lenin and co. free passage through Germany on their way from Switzerland to St. Petersburg.

  34. “The strategic error they made was to – choose – to fight all of their rivals at once while trusting in the strength of the German Army to decide the issue. Yes, it – almost – worked, but in a conflict of that scale you either win or you lose, there’s no other option.”

    I think it is a little unfair to say they “chose” to fight all of their rivals at once. They backed up their Au-Hu ally who, after all, did suffer a fairly outrageous terrorist attack. After that, the alliance system ensured a two front war no matter what.

    “It would have been – easy – for the Germans to keep Britain out of the war for as long as it would have taken to destroy Russia’s military, but they – chose – not to. Violating Belgium’s neutrality was vital to the kind of western offensive they planned, but it was truly stupid to do it in 1914 while also fighting a full-scale war on their eastern border.”

    I doubt that. What makes you think Britain would not have entered the war, even without the violation of Belgian neutrality? Britain was not going to stand by and see France knocked out, thereby leading to German hegemony in northwestern Europe.

    “The German offensive of 1914 came – this – close to taking Paris and knocking France out of the war, but it failed because they weren’t able to throw in enough reinforcements at the vital moment, because they were on their way east where they weren’t even needed, the Russian offensive had been blunted and driven back before they arrived.”

    Now you’re just Monday morning quarterbacking. They sent the troops east because they thought they were going to be needed. The Russians were advancing on the Empire. In the West, the Allies were on the defensive. How were they to know that the Russians would be driven back before the re inforcements arrived? Anyway, is that a strategic failure? Or simply a tactical misassessment? Even without the British, a two front war was inevitable. That being the case, the issue of how, exactly, to divide the forces was always going to be a tricky one.

    “Notice that after the failure of the western offensive the Germans – did – play defence in the west while hammering the Russians, and they won that war handily. Do that in 1914 and Germany is in a much better strategic position. They could have turned west in 1916 (at the latest) and faced the a much weakened French army one on one. Britain would probably have come in at this point if not earlier, but so what? Without the Russians to provide the manpower France falls and Britain has to make the best deal it can out of a losing hand.”

    Easy enough to say. But without a real western front, perhaps allied aid to Russia would have been greater. Perhaps the allied efforts to attack Germany through the Balkans and through Italy would have been more successful.

    Also, if the Germans had been merely playing defense on the Western Front since 1914, why would the French have been “much weakened” by 1916? They were weakened in fact because of the initial successes of the German offenseive, which they then spent years, and unimanigable human and other resources, trying to undo. If the Germans had just stood on their borders in 1914, perhaps the French would have launched a few attacks. But, after those failed (assuming they failed), why would the Western Front not have resembled the “Phony War” situation of 1949-40? Without the initial German successes, the political imperative of reconquering lost French territory would not have been operative. That being the case, why couldn’t the French merely “play defense” too? Who knows, really, what “would have” happened if things were different?

    “Yes, it – almost – worked, but in a conflict of that scale you either win or you lose, there’s no other option.”

    Basically, you are saying that, since they lost, their strategy must have been a bad one. I don’t see it that way. They lost because the balance of forces was always against them. The combined weight of Britain, France, and their empires, with Russia, and then when Russia was gone, America, was simply more than the Germans could handle.

  35. Its morally wrong to give weapons to anyone unless you agree they are in the moral right to use them.

  36. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    freemansfarm,

    With all due respect, you are incorrect about the 2 corps sent east at the time of Tannenburg. German commanders, H/L and Prittwitz before, did not ask for them and thought it was a mistake. Mainly because the critical moment was at hand in the west and they would arrive in the east to late to be of use in the Tannenburg campaign. Both of which were proven true.

    Also the Allies were on the “defensive” at the time not because of a plan on their behalf, but because they were being soundly defeated by the German armies. It wasn’t as much “defensive” as it was retreat. Defensive implies prepared positions and assignments, neither of which existed.

    The German General Staff correctly assessed France as the main and deadliest threat. But for Von Kluck’s turn south in front of Paris their plan would have perfectly proved itself. In fact, the whole history of the 20th century turned south with him.

    The Russians, while formidable on paper(or defense), have a long history of not exactly stellar performance outside their borders. Even in the closing days of WW2 the Germans caused massive loses in the Red Army in spite of overwhelming odds. In a straight up one on one matchup Hitler would have defeated Stalin.

    I also believe that the last 100 years would have been immeasurably better had the Germans won the Great War. Which would surely have happened had we not interfered.

    But this is just the opinion of one student to another well informed student.

  37. tbraton says:

    Prof. Gottfried, kudos for a blog which has elicited so many intelligent and learned responses. I thought I was well versed in history, and I am not embarrassed to say that I have learned something both from your original post and all the responses it elicited. It’s almost like a graduate school seminar. I would bet $10,000 (to pick a number out of the air) that you never got such intelligent responses from any of the undergraduates you taught. I may be wrong, which is why I am buying a derivative in order to hedge my bet.

  38. John says:

    But God told Wilson to enter the war; at least that’s what Wilson claimed. Without American support for the British and French,–first with supplies, later with troops– the war would have been fought to a standstill and a peace acceptable to both sides. With American intervention, the German surrender gave birth to the Treaty Of Versailles, and paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the second World War.

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