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Blame France for World War I

30 Jun 2013

Christopher Clark is one of the best living historians who write for a popular audience, known to friends of this blog as the author of Iron Kingdom. His latest book, The Sleepwalkers, sets out to explain why a global war (and, one could argue, a second global war, a Cold War, and many other unfortunate parts of 20th century history) started over a single terrorist attack on the European periphery. Matthew Yglesias explains why the intervening century changes how we look at the events of 1914:

From the standpoint of, say, 1960 or 1980, it was easy to look at World War I overwhelmingly through the lens of World War II and say that this was just another example of Germany’s quest for continental hegemony and that European peace has only ever been achieved by German disunity. But from the present day, things look different. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere, it’s a bit harder to regard Serbia’s irredentist agenda in the early 20th century as so benign. After 9/11 and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a bit easier to regard a terrorist attack as very genuinely being a cause of large-scale political outcomes even if the broader geopolitical context is always relevant. Last and by no means least, after the Lisbon Treaty, it’s quite a bit harder to regard the Habsburg dynasty's multi-ethnic Central European polity as inherently doomed and outdated. With Croatia’s accession to the European Union, virtually all the Habsburg lands are now once again part of a loose but substantial political federation and it's not totally crazy to imagine the relevant territory having evolved in that direction without passing through the veil of world wars and communist dictatorships.

Clark is quite clear that Germany is, at least not solely, to blame for the war; that there’s plenty of blame to go around; and that history is complicated and we don’t necessarily need to blame anyone. I’ve received my instructions, however, so I’ll lay out the argument for why we should blame the French.

World War I was several wars, including one by Russia for control of the Turkish Straits and another by Serbia and Russia against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to redeem South Slavdom. It was so terrible, however, because it was a war between France and Russia (and later Great Britain) on the one hand, and Germany on the other, which was caused by a terrorist attack and diplomatic crisis in the Balkans, and lead to France regaining the terroritories in Alsace and Lorraine that were lost in 1871.

As Christopher Clark lays out in his book (see especially the section “The Balkan inception scenario” in chapter 6), it was French policy to cultivate an alliance that would ultimately obligate Russia to wage war against Germany, and to have that alliance triggered by a Balkan crisis, so that Alsace-Lorraine could be regained. France offered huge loans to Russia to double and quadruple track its strategic railways to speed up a Russian mobilization against Germany, and yet more loans and arms deals to Serbia so the Serbians could fight the Dual Monarchy. France and Russia strongly urged Serbia not to cooperate with Austrian demands for an investigation into the terrorist assassination of Franz Ferdinand in order to trigger a war with Germany.

Although a Frenchman did not fire the first shot, we should blame France for World War I because it started exactly as the French policymakers planned.

Alsace and Lorraine are undisputedly French today, and perhaps France was justified in setting off, well, all of 20th century European history in order to regain those three departments. That doesn’t change the fact that if they hadn’t, things would look very different today.

Part of the reason why France and their Russian partners thought they could (and did?) get away with this was that they had come to see Austria-Hungary as doomed, and therefore no longer a state with legitimate interests that should be respected. Although Clark doesn’t make explicit parallels to his previous book and the history of Prussia, he does lay out the ways in which the international community treated Germany in the same way, as a lesser nation without the rights and legitimate interests of other countries such as France or Great Britain. This was the case in the areas of defense, alliances, the naval arms race, and the colonies. We may now see Germany as a uniquely belligerent nation (a view that should change), and Prussia did invade France in 1870, but in many ways Germany would have more reason to be fearful of French intentions: it was less than a hundred years ago that a French army raised by conscription (“inconceivable to even the most absolutist ruler by the grace of God” as Kissinger reminds us) forced Germany to prostrate itself and sit by while Napoleon dissolved the German nation and marched an army across Prussia to invade Russia.

If we fully accept Clark’s thesis, many things about European history change, one of the least of which is that we can say the SPD passed essentially all the moral tests of German politics of the past hundred years.