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An Improbable War?

An Improbable War?: The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture before 1914

Holger Afflerbach
David Stevenson
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    An Improbable War?
    Book Description:

    The First World War has been described as the "primordial catastrophe of the twentieth century." Arguably, Italian Fascism, German National Socialism and Soviet Leninism and Stalinism would not have emerged without the cultural and political shock of World War I. The question why this catastrophe happened therefore preoccupies historians to this day. The focus of this volume is not on the consequences, but rather on the connection between the Great War and the long 19th century, the short- and long-term causes of World War I. This approach results in the questioning of many received ideas about the war's causes, especially the notion of "inevitability."

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-596-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. viii-viii)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
    Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson
  7. Foreword President Jimmy Carter: A Century of War and Peace
    (pp. x-xiv)
    Jimmy Carter

    The first Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded in 1901, but the century that followed could not be characterized by peace. The explanation for why those pursuing peace did not prevail is explored in this book. It focuses on the origins and causes of the first great war of the century. My own reflections on World War I will focus more on its significance and aftermath. It continues to affect the world, my nation, and me personally.

    I was born in 1924, soon after the end of World War I. My father had served as a first lieutenant during the...

  8. Introduction An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture Before 1914
    (pp. 1-14)
    Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson

    “Being doubtful is more fruitful than being sure.” Ernst von Salomon’s aphorism is highly applicable to this volume. It focuses on the balance between underlying and immediate reasons for the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. The essays united here address the fundamental question of whether that war represented a logical—not to say predictable and even inevitable—response to political conditions in Europe before 1914 or rather, constituted a reaction against and a break with them.

    It is not our intention here to re-analyze the political decision-making process in 1914. This has been done extensively,...

  9. Part I: European Statescraft and the Question of War and Peace before 1914

    • Chapter 1 Stealing Horses to Great Applause: Austria-Hungary’s Decision in 1914 in Systemic Perspective
      (pp. 17-42)
      Paul W. Schroeder

      This essay does not present new research or attempt to revise the many recent and earlier accounts of the immediate origins of the war in 1914 and Austria-Hungary’s role in it. On these scores, as will be seen, it basically agrees with the reigning view. It instead proposes a reinterpretation of the general causes of the war and the nature of Austria’s decision, mainly by using well-known facts from familiar chapters of history, but viewing them and the international system from a different perspective. It therefore emphasizes not what Austria-Hungary did in 1914 and how its actions affected the international...

    • Chapter 2 Did Norms Matter in Nineteenth-Century International Relations? Progress and Decline in the “Culture of Peace” before World War I
      (pp. 43-60)
      Matthias Schulz

      Accounts of the origins of World War I usually emphasize the increasing tensions, the structural antagonisms arising out of imperial competition and the arms race, nationalistic and bellicose mentalities, the Balkan wars, wounded prestige, the “encirclement” fears among German political and military elites, the “flaws” of decision-makers, as well as the July crisis as a “trigger” for a more or less inevitable chain reaction which, finally, culminated in what was a European catastrophe and the first truly global war. Yet about one hundred years earlier, as a consequence of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Quadruple Alliance against France had...

    • Chapter 3 Aggressive and Defensive Aims of Political Elites? Austro-Hungarian Policy in 1914
      (pp. 61-74)
      Samuel R. Williamson Jr.

      On Tuesday, 28 July 1914, Emperor Franz Joseph approved the Habsburg declaration of war against Serbia. He did so at his desk in his beloved summer residence at Bad Ischl, and he did so with a clear appreciation of the risks the war might bring. The declaration represented the culmination of nearly twenty-four months of continuous diplomatic tension for Austria-Hungary and its ruling elite. Four times since the fall of 1912 they had confronted the prospect of war: twice against Serbia, in December 1912 and October 1913, once against Montenegro in May 1913, and, in a case usually ignored, against...

    • Chapter 4 The Curious Case of the Kaiser’s Disappearing War Guilt: Wilhelm II in July 1914
      (pp. 75-92)
      John C. G. Röhl

      The Great War was the point at which, after many years of tension, Old Europe tore itself apart, the point at which the great empires of the east disintegrated and the Kaiser’s Germany, exhausted and humiliated in defeat, descended into chaos. The War in which more than ten million men lost their lives is now seen to have been the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth-century”—the boiling cauldron out of which sprang the horrors of Bolshevism and Stalinism, fascism, Nazism, and genocide. After decades of bitter and highly charged controversy there is today widespread recognition in Germany too, in the...

  10. Part II: The Military Situation before 1914:: Europe between Hot and Cold War

    • Chapter 5 Chances and Limits of Armament Control 1898–1914
      (pp. 95-112)
      Jost Dülffer

      “To put an end to these incessant armaments and to seek the means of warding off the calamities which are threatening the whole world—such is the supreme duty which is today imposed on all states.”¹ These were the objectives urged in a diplomatic note published by the Russian Foreign Minister, Count Muraviev, on 12/24 August 1898²:

      The intellectual and physical strength of the nations, labor and capital, are for the major part diverted from their natural application, and unproductively consumed. Hundreds of millions are devoted to acquiring terrible engines of destruction, which, though today regarded as the last word...

    • Chapter 6 Was a Peaceful Outcome Thinkable? The Naval Race before 1914
      (pp. 113-129)
      Michael Epkenhans

      In hisMemoirs, published at the same time in Germany and Britain in October 1919, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the so-called father of the German battle fleet, entitled the last paragraph of his chapter dealing with Anglo-German relations before 1914 “Relief.” Thus he wanted to emphasize in this book, as well as in many publications to follow, that Germany’s naval build-up was not responsible for the outbreak of World War I in July 1914.¹ In Tirpitz’s opinion, this change in Anglo-German relations was merely the corollary of a new policy toward Great Britain, embodied by the new German ambassador...

    • Chapter 7 Was a Peaceful Outcome Thinkable? The European Land Armaments Race before 1914
      (pp. 130-148)
      David Stevenson

      The previous chapter focused on naval rivalry; here the spotlight turns to competition between armies. This chapter will consider not the more conventional question of whether the arms races caused the war that broke out in 1914, but rather the more speculative and counterfactual problem of whether the land arms race made such a war inevitable. By so framing the issue, it addresses the general hypothesis considered in this volume that World War I was “improbable,” and the possibility that its outbreak was not a direct and logical consequence of mounting international tension.¹ The ominous military trends in pre-1914 Europe...

    • Chapter 8 The German and Austro-Hungarian General Staffs and their Reflections on an “Impossible” War
      (pp. 149-158)
      Günther Kronenbitter

      In May 1914, Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the German General Staff, was enjoying the waters at the Bohemian spa of Karlsbad. Since 1905, when he had taken over from Alfred von Schlieffen, the political and strategic situation of Germany had been changed for the worse. As a result of the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905–6 Russian Revolution the leverage of military superiority on the European continent had made it possible for the German General Staff to present war as an effective political tool to the civilian leadership. Without the imminent threat of a two-front war against France...

  11. Part III: Hopes and Fears of War and Peace:: Subjective Expectations and Unspoken Assumptions in European Societies before 1914

    • Chapter 9 The Topos of Improbable War in Europe before 1914
      (pp. 161-182)
      Holger Afflerbach

      “I will never forget 1 August 1914. The memory of this day will always recall a profound feeling of quietness, of lost tension, of ‘all is well.’” Surprisingly, this was how Sebastian Haffner described the day World War I broke out in his book,Memories of a German. His family spent their holidays in the countryside of Pomerania, well removed from world affairs. In fact, newspapers did not arrive there until the next day. And so, on this August evening, there was a feeling of safety in comparison to the preceding days. Haffner wrote:

      I will not forget the quiet...

    • Chapter 10 Unfought Wars: The Effect of Détente before World War I
      (pp. 183-199)
      Friedrich Kießling

      Victor Klemperer, the German scholar of Romance studies, is famous mostly due to his diaries from the Third Reich. But Klemperer, born in 1881, kept a diary even before 1933. On 30 July 1914, two days before Germany declared war on Russia, thus launching World War I, the 32-year-old wrote: “I still believe that finally peace will be kept in what is real Europe. Everyone will mobilize and then stop, and after that they will get on with each other, though growling.”¹ Even in his memoirs, which were written some decades later, Klemperer reports that his “convictions of the impossibility...

    • Chapter 11 “War Enthusiasm?” Public Opinion and the Outbreak of War in 1914
      (pp. 200-212)
      Roger Chickering

      “In August 1914 a powerful surge of war enthusiasm gripped the Germans.” As he committed these words to paper in 1991, Thomas Nipperdey embraced practically every one of the myths that have surrounded the beginning of World War I in Germany. “National unity was a primal experience in a moment of threat and crisis,” he wrote. “The war itself had something liberating about it; it offered escape from the stifling atmosphere of tensions, of middle-class respectability [Bürgerlichkeit], of class conflict. Hardly anyone could escape this mood, this ‘experience’ of August 1914.”¹ The pressure of illness is perhaps the most charitable...

    • Chapter 12 Education for War, Peace, and Patriotism in Russia on the Eve of World War I
      (pp. 213-230)
      Joshua A. Sanborn

      On 13 October 1893, a Russian naval squadron arrived in Toulon for a two-week visit. Officially, they were simply returning the favor paid two years earlier when the French navy spent ten celebratory days docked at Kronstadt, the Russian naval base not far from the capital St. Petersburg. Unofficially, the visit was to seal the secret military convention that the two countries were about to sign. Never before had such a secret compact seen such an enormous public celebration. From the moment they landed, George Kennan would later note, the Russian sailors were subjected to “an uproarious and continuous round...

  12. Part IV: Culture, Gender, Religiosity, and the Coming of War

    • Chapter 13 Honor, Gender, and Power: The Politics of Satisfaction in Pre-War Europe
      (pp. 233-255)
      Ute Frevert

      In these dry words, Max Weber assessed the role of honor in national and international politics. Large political units, he claimed, develop pretensions of honor and prestige that tend to become an irrational element of international relations. The “honor of power” (Ehre der Macht) typically bears an expansive character and is highly flammable. At the same time, it is self-affirmative and thus acts as a strong amplifier. As a contemporary example, Weber (who wrote this before 1914) cited the German-French antagonism during the early years of the twentieth century.

      A few years later, Weber found himself immersed in a fresh...

    • Chapter 14 International Solidarity in European and North American Protestantism before 1914 and after
      (pp. 256-270)
      Hartmut Lehmann

      As the Great War began in August 1914, European governments proclaimed declarations of war, mobilized troops, and rushed them to the battlefields, while the churches of all states involved in this conflict of yet-unknown proportions performed enthusiastically what they considered to be their duty. They arranged special services for the departing troops, assured those at home that God was on their side, and assigned some members of the clergy to serve as army chaplains.¹ No one had expected a conflict of this magnitude, and everyone was shocked that peace could not be preserved; but Protestant clergy and the members of...

    • Chapter 15 An Improbable War? International Relations, Arts, and Culture before 1914
      (pp. 271-284)
      Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht

      “Whenever I hear Wagner,” Woody Allen is rumored to have said, “I want to march into Poland.”¹ It is open to speculation whether Allen meant to emphasize the political content of Wagner’s compositions. But in any case, he failed to mention that the composer’s largest contingent of fans used to reside in the United States. Here, Wagner remained en vogue long after he had fallen out of grace with most of his European admirers.

      In this essay, I wish to argue that in the long run World War I mattered very little to the development of cultural relations between Europe...

  13. Part V: The Perspective from Afar:: The Outbreak of War in Europe in the Eyes of Other Continents

    • Chapter 16 War as the Savior? Hopes for War and Peace in Ottoman Politics before 1914
      (pp. 287-302)
      Mustafa Aksakal

      On 13 July 1914, about two weeks after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister, Said Halim Pasha, dispatched a confidential note, written in his own hand, to the Ottoman war minister, Enver Pasha, conveying the strong possibility of the outbreak of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Said Halim rang the alarm bells based on information he had received from an “authoritative” and “high-ranking” source in the German Foreign Ministry itself. The German official had disclosed remarkable news: “I can tell you confidentially that next week war will break out between Austria and...

    • Chapter 17 The View from Japan: War and Peace in Europe around 1914
      (pp. 303-319)
      Frederick R. Dickinson

      Far from the principal locus of activity on the Western front, Japan seems an unlikely arena to weigh cultures of war and peace in August 1914. But Japanese observers closely followed events in Europe and participated passionately in speculation over the causes and probable consequences of the war. Although Western historians have subsequently crafted a more comfortable Western-centric vision of the conflict, Western belligerents, in turn, eagerly sought Japanese participation in hostilities. Few World War I buffs will recall how fervently British, French, and American policy-makers appealed for direct Japanese aid.¹ At their most ambitious, these requests envisioned up to...

    • Chapter 18 War, Peace, and Commerce: The American Reaction to the Outbreak of World War I in Europe 1914
      (pp. 320-334)
      Fraser J. Harbutt

      Europeans naturally look back to August 1914 as an irredeemable moment, tragic in all its consequences and implications. The decline of Europe as a primary force in the world, notwithstanding its turbulent second wind in the inter-war period, is reasonably dated from this point. For Americans too there was necessarily at the time, if only by virtue of their multifarious associations with the old continent, a tragic dimension. But for the United States, in the long run of history, 1914 may be said to mark a new beginning, opening up for the first time as a realizable prospect, the ascension...

  14. Contributors
    (pp. 335-340)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 341-360)
  16. Index of Names
    (pp. 361-366)