World War I Is Finally Over!

Your history books lied to you, man.

I bet you’ve gone your whole life thinking that World War I ended in 1919.


British newspapers report that the “Great War” is finally coming to an end with the final restitution payment from Germany, totaling 60 million euros, arriving in Allied bank accounts this weekend.

What took so long?

The problem is that the war reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles totaled 132 billion marks, or $800 billion in 2010 dollars. The massive and unsparing compensation that the Allies demanded of Germany essentially destroyed the latter’s economy, leading to a crippling depression and the rise of Hitler. Peace treaty FAIL.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazi dictator decided to postpone the reparations timetable indefinitely. The debt originally would have taken Germany until 1988 to pay off, but that time horizon ended up being pushed back to 2010, due to the whole World War II thing.

The fact is, World War I wasn’t simply Germany’s fault, and asking them to bear all the responsibility was a catastrophic blunder. In the end, the debt that the Allies slapped on Germany after World War I only sowed the seeds for more death and destruction.

I’m not going to attempt to cover all the historical causes of WWI — neither my historical chops nor your attention spans are up to the challenge.

But suffice it to say that when it comes to this war everyone deserves a little share of the blame pie:

  • The German king, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was obsessed with the plans of rival powers to “encircle” him in a series of stifling alliances. He and his generals thought that an inevitable war with France and Russia would allow them to achieve the dominance over Europe they deserved. They formed strong alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy in pursuit of this goal. Because the Kaiser was diplomatically inept, he believed that England would stay on the sidelines. The Germans’ faith in their complex war architecture allowed them no doubt that they would succeed.
  • French internal politics were rife with conflicts between left-wingers and right-wingers, and many French politicians felt that a nationalistic war would be the ideal panacea. The nation was still smarting from its embarrassing defeat by the Prussians (essentially, the German Army) in 1870, and was determined to take back the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine that it had lost. On the eve of war, French President Poincaré called the prospect of peace “a great pity” and believed the nation was obligated to recover the lost provinces.
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling, its internal cohesion threatened by independent-mindedness of the dozens of ethnic homelands within its borders. Some of those homelands were the domain of Slavic people, who felt more affinity to neighboring Serbia than to their Austro-Hungarian overlords. In turn, the Austrian kings feared Serbia’s influence and wanted to crush it.
  • The unstable Russian monarchy, meanwhile, was allied with the Serbians against their Austro-Hungarian rivals. Almost ignorant of the Bolsheviks and other rebels plotting revolution against the Tsar, the Russian aristocracy was focused on expanding their power and possession of natural resources abroad. A series of wars in the Balkans only intensified the Austrian/Russian rivalry and added to tensions in the region.
  • The British Empire was highly concerned about the ambitions of the brash Germans, particularly in the naval sphere that they had long dominated. Modern historians have demonstrated that the British skillfully manipulated Germany and Austria’s neighbors against them, creating alliances that isolated the central powers and may have even aimed at the breakup of their monarchies. Most crucially, this included the Triple Entente with France and Russia. Britain was also committed to protect tiny Belgium, nestled between Germany and France, mainly because it did not want to see Germany gain control of the strategically valuable Belgian ports.

These states did not appreciate what they were getting themselves into as they confidently strode into the quicksand of war. Each was confident of its own rightness, and none appreciated the determination of its rivals. Whether there would be a war was not even questioned, for they all knew one was coming. All believed, however, that the war would be over in a matter of months.

Events famously came to a head when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia/Herzegovina — one of those Slavic regions of Austria-Hungary mentioned earlier — by Bosnian Serb assassins.

Austria-Hungary, backed up by Germany, immediately demanded Serbian acquiescence to a series of harsh demands.

Serbia and its ally Russia bristled in response and began to mobilize their armies.

Germany, anticipating a fight with Russia, put its amazingly ambitious Schlieffen Plan into effect, calling for a massive sweep through Belgium that would overrun the French, while their enemies vainly battered against a defensive front on the French/German border. The Germans believed that a rapid defeat of the French was essential to beating the massive Russian army mobilizing to their east.

I know it’s hard for English speakers to root for the Germans, but come on. This is possibly the most bad-ass war plan in history.

And it almost worked. The French took the bait, pouring over the border into their much-bemoaned lost territories, only to run into an immovable German defensive wall.

Everything was going as planned by the German General Staff. What the Germans had not anticipated, however, was the resistance of tiny Belgium. Under the leadership of their young king, Albert I, the hopelessly overmatched Belgians attempted to hold their medieval fortresses against the massive German onslaught. (The Belgian citizens later paid dearly for their resistance, suffering appalling war crimes from the occupying German forces.) While the Germans eventually obliterated the Belgian forts with massive siege guns, the efforts of the Belgians threw off the intricately plotted German war plan.

Not only that, but the Germans’ disregard for Belgian sovereignty helped bring the British Army into the war — another unanticipated hindrance in the German plan.

(The Russians mobilized much faster than the Germans had expected, but their armies made massive blunders in their initial attack on the Germans’ Eastern Front, allowing the Germans to wipe the floor with them at the Battle of Tannenberg.)

The Germans got in their own way as well, shifting resources to their left wing in defiance of the Schlieffen Plan’s strategy, and failing to gain from this adjustment whatsoever.

The German attack thus bogged down in France after the Battle of Ypres; the Schlieffen Plan failed thanks to the Germans’ diplomatic tonedeafness, foolish tactical adjustments, and overweening faith in their own logistical superiority.

This led to the infamous World War I stalemate — a morass of trench warfare and battles of attrition that would last more than three horrible years, before armistice was finally declared in late 1918. Should have paid more attention to the American Civil War, folks.

So — who’s fault was the war?

Clearly, everyone’s fault. Yes, the Germans bear a significant measure of responsibility, for obvious reasons. Their feeling of being surrounded and menaced is understandable, but they were clearly at fault in their invasion of neutral Belgium on the way to attack France, and the German leadership seemingly welcomed war. For its part, France is hardly blameless either; its offensive into the lost provinces essentially proves its complicity in the outbreak of war. The Russians were the first to mobilize their army, an act that precipitated Germany’s mobilization. Austria-Hungary clearly wanted war with Serbia, a conflict that led to the chain reaction of war declarations. Finally, while the British claimed noble motives in protecting little helpless Belgium, historians like Niall Ferguson have made compelling arguments that the British Empire had its own self-centered objectives in mind as well.

And yet, once the Germans surrendered, the Allies were quick to place all the blame for the war on their defeated enemies.

The Treaty of Versailles was meant to bring a definitive conclusion to the war, but immediately after it was signed, all parties knew that it could never achieve that aim.

The French were pissed because it wasn’t harsh enough. The Germans were pissed because it was way too harsh, and because they knew the war wasn’t 100% their fault. The English were pissed because they had a feeling the Germans might not take this one too well. The Americans (late to the party) were pissed because they’d failed to mediate the situation. The Austro-Hungarians were pissed because their empire got broken up into a bunch of little pieces. The Russians were pissed because they had all been killed by commies.

Twenty years later, they were all fighting each other again.

The Treaty was an epic failure, and because it did not appropriately conclude a war that had killed 10 million people, it led to an even greater conflict in which over 100 million people died.

So let’s say goodbye to this awful treaty on the occasion of the final reparations payment.

The original victims of the war are almost all dead, and the German government is actually paying bondholders, pension funds and corporations in France and America. The European powers are now strong economic and military allies and friendly neighbors…or at least it seems that way from this side of the pond.

Goodbye, Treaty of Versailles. And good riddance.

For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” and Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War,” along with the consistently excellent coverage of military history on Wikipedia.


About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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