Crimea and Getting the Great War Right

April 16, 2014

Maybe it’s the nice, neat round number of the 100th anniversary. Maybe it’s the resurgence of China and Russia as global powers and the feeling of increasing anxiety that has resulted in some quarters. Maybe it’s the flood of new books, television programs, and media attention to all matters relating to 1914.

Whatever it is, analogies to 1914 are everywhere. The prime minister of Japan is making them, comparing the Chinese–Japanese situation today to that of Germany and Britain a century ago. Scholars like Margaret MacMillan, Christopher Clark, and John Mearsheimer also see in 2014 a replay of the world of 1914 with its multipolarity, its world of rising and falling powers, and the seemingly random acts of potentially state-sponsored terrorists.

As a professional historian who studies World War I for a living, I see echoes of the First World War everywhere. It truly is, in George Kennan’s phrase, the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. No understanding of the world we inhabit is even remotely complete without a deep understanding of the Great War in all of its stunning complexity.

Therein lies the problem: very few people really understand this incredibly complex event. For decades now, we have been content with simple stereotypes and half-truths. The incredible paucity of serious scholarship on the topic in the United States and the astonishingly narrow scope of so much European scholarship have not helped us. As a result, we find ourselves a century later with a vague understanding that the war is of vital importance, but know little about it.

Thus the analogies are everywhere, but nowhere do they give us the knowledge and the fidelity we need. Take, for example, the outbreak of the war in 1914. It has become common to draw upon 1914 to depict a rising China as the new Germany, a growing revisionist state with excess power that it will, sooner or later, use. In this analogy, the United States is the new Britain, a global empire on the decline that cannot contain or deter the rising challenger for much longer. Each new crisis brings new analogies: that western intervention in Syria will bring a new war of alliances, for example, or that the next Gavrilo Princip (Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin) will not be holding a gun but a smart phone, and instead of killing an archduke, he (or she) will shut down a power grid.

So we should not be surprised that the Russian takeover of Crimea has brought forth the same kind of analogies. But let’s take a step back and be sure we understand the history we are using as our analogy. The Crimea analogy has a rising Russia temporarily taking the place of China as the main threat to western interests. Eventually, so the analogy suggests, the Russians will rise to a point that they invade a latter-day Belgium like, say, a NATO member in the Baltics, and an alliance system will kick in, dragging the world to war.

We cannot predict the future, of course, and such a scenario could well happen. But the experience of 1914 does not actually suggest that it will. Although few people today recognize it, the First World War occurred not as tensions were rising between the great powers, but as they were, in fact, falling. On the very day that Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the British and German navies were not planning how to sink one another; they were instead getting riotously drunk together at Fleet Week ceremonies in Kiel. Even after the hangovers faded and news of the assassination spread, the British still fully expected to return Germany’s hospitality in Portsmouth the following year. Germany had, in fact, accepted that it had lost the naval arms race with Britain. The celebrations at Kiel showed how little it mattered, especially given the ever-growing commercial links between the two.

In France, too, tensions with Germany had fallen. To be sure, French nationalists still pined for the return of Alsace-Lorraine, but “the lost provinces” were no longer a cause for war. None of France’s allies wanted to go to war for French territorial ambition. More than a generation of Frenchmen had grown up never knowing Alsace and Lorraine as French, and by all evidence they no longer cared. Socialists and businessmen alike in both France and Germany spoke openly of the day when the recent hatreds between their two countries would vanish, just as the much older hatreds between France and Britain recently had.

Placing the causes of this war on the Rhine River and the English Channel badly misses the point. The causes were on the Danube, where Austro-Hungarian officials saw in the assassination of an unloved archduke a chance to push their luck. From this act, the states of Europe went to war, but they did so not out of enthusiasm, a need to balance challengers, or a desire to avenge ancient hatreds. Structural causes did not drag Europe into war. Had that been the case, then any number of recent crises should have done the trick. The July Crisis was different because of the odd perfect storm it seemed to create for leaders in Vienna.

The real lesson of 1914, therefore, may well be that great power rivalry does not always explain the outbreak of major wars. In this case, a conflict between one great and one lesser power made a very deadly mountain out of a molehill—and the assassination of the archduke was surely a molehill. The outbreak of the First World War so deeply stunned Europeans precisely because they never saw it coming. That conclusion is hard to accept because we want so much to distill the lessons from 1914 and learn from them. But if we know the wrong history, we will learn the wrong lessons. And we will do so to our great peril.


Michael Neiberg is Professor of History in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College.  He is the author of several books on the world wars, including Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914 (Harvard University Press, 2011) and The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (Basic Books, 2012).  Basic Books will soon publish his tentatively titled, TERMINAL: The Potsdam Conference and the End of the Era of Total War in Europe, 1914-1945.  The views expressed herein are those of the author, not of the Army War College, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense. Follow him on twitter: @MichaelNeiberg.


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