Friday, July 10, 2009

Why study World War I?

It seems to me that there are three main reasons for studying World War I. The first is to question how it came to happen. The second is to ask how Britain, France and the U.S. could have been so unprepared to fight it. The third is to explore how the end of World War I gave rise to, or perhaps more precisely, caused World War II.

For a long time it was thought that World War I occurred as a result of a series of misunderstandings and accidents, but in the 60s the German historian Fritz Fischer published Germany’s Aims in the First World War arguing from German archives that Germany sought war and was looking for a pretext to start one. The incident in Serbia seemed like a series of accidents, and no doubt it was, but if that incident hadn’t furnished the pretext for Germany, some other incident would have. So instead of focusing on the “series of accidents” theory, historians have been exploring why Germany felt a need to go to war.

The second reason for studying the war is to explore why two of the three main opponents of Germany, Britain and the U.S., were so unprepared. Britain and the U.S. both relied upon their navies and the ocean to keep them safe. When it became necessary for them to fight on European soil, first Britain and then the U.S. had to build up to it. In the case of the U.S., had Germany not opted to use its U-Boats to sink American shipping, America may never have entered the war.

The third reason for studying the war is to examine how it gave rise to the Second World War. Some now argue that there was only one war, that the nothing was ended in 1919, that the interwar period did nothing more than allow Germany the time to build its army back up so it could continue the fight.

Whether it was a new war or a continuation of the old one, there seems even less excuse for the unpreparedness of Britain, France and the U.S. Britain and the U.S. thought they had learned something, but the lesson they “learned” was something like what the American Gun Control lobby believes, namely, if you get rid of all the guns then violent crimes will stop. These groups are not students of human nature. If a person or a nation says, “Hey look, I got rid of all my weapons,” this does not inspire all the other people or nations to want to do likewise. Some will sneer, “what a dumb thing to do.” And others will say, “ah ha, a victim.” We see that the states with the toughest gun laws have some of the highest crime rates. And we see that defenseless France was an easy victim of the German Blitzkrieg in World War Two.

And the Japanese were not impressed by America’s unpreparedness. They destroyed many of America’s ships at Pearl Harbor and a great number of planes in the Philippines.

The evidence is persuasive that the unpreparedness of France, Britain, and the U.S. inspired Germany to strike when it did rather than wait for the allies (including Russia) to become better prepared.

In a sense, the European conflict that resulted in World War I was between Germany and France. “Raymond Poincare, president of the French Republic, in terms that outlined concisely his country’s conception of the task at hand. Reminded the delegates that this was the anniversary of the taking by the Germans of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from a prostrate France . . . he said: ‘On this day, forty-eight years ago, on the eighteenth of January, 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed by an army of invasion . . . at Versailles. . . . Born in injustice, it has ended in opprobrium. You are assembled in order to repair the evil that it has done and to prevent a recurrence of it.’” [Fromkin, In the Time of the Americans, p. 300]

If we know anything about Wilson, we know he had something very different in mind, but he couldn’t sway the French. So in 1919 Clemenceau and Poincare could rejoice in reversing what had occurred after the German victory of 1871, but if we fast forward in time we discover Hitler making a point of reversing what had occurred after the French victory in 1919. Fortunately, in a sense, there was no Poincare or Clemenceau, at the end of the Second World War to exact the same kind of vengeance that might inspire Germany to want to keep the ball rolling. There was only De Gaulle. And Roosevelt didn’t really want to invite him to be part of the agreements that were being reached at the end of World War II.


It would be nice if we could say we’ve learned all our lessons and that we won’t make any of those mistakes again, but we really can’t say that. There are sizeable numbers of people, primarily in the West, that would love to make those mistakes all over again. There are still huge numbers that think guns cause crimes and armaments cause wars. They would be delighted if some law could be passed forcing the destruction of all our guns and armaments. They haven’t learned that such a law would cause us as individuals and as nations to have large “V’s” for “Victim” painted on our chests and on our flag. They haven’t learned anything about human nature.

Or rather it might better be said that they believe human nature is more malleable than it really is. There is no evidence that predators, whether individual or large groups such as nations, can be induced by example to join the ranks of what they are convinced are the “losers” and “victims.” But despite this lack of evidence, nay, despite evidence to the contrary, they continue promoting their schemes for disarmament and their philosophy of pacifism.

So those people haven’t learned anything. They want to be as unprepared as Britain and the U.S. were prior to the two World Wars. Can we say they are in a minority? I don’t know.


Someone might counter what I have written by arguing that there is nothing on the horizon like Germany and Japan were prior to World War II; so matters are entirely different. To some extent that is true. The most immediate concern, from the standpoint of an enemy to be countered, is Islamism, and there is no Islamist force that can mount an attack like Germany and Japan could in World War Two. Further, we seem to be managing the Islamists fairly well. More work needs to be done, but perhaps most of it needs to be done by Muslim nations.

But setting aside the Islamists, suppose we were to not stop after we had gotten our atomic weapons down to zero by 2020, or whenever that is supposed to occur. Suppose we continued on getting rid of all our fighters, bombers, submarines, Aircraft Carriers, etc. Have we learned that this would be an invitation for some nation, perhaps even a nation we don’t recognize as a threat at the present time, to take military advantage of us? I’m not convinced that we have learned that. By “we” I mean a majority of Americans and a majority in the West.

There are still a lot of Europeans and Americans who would love to try pacifism just one more time, not understanding that “one more time” might just mean the end of us.

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