Tag Archives: German history

Review: Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War (Miller, et al.)

miller-et-al

Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War (Revised and Expanded Edition): An International Security Reader.

Straining at gnats and swallowing camels, most of the writers in this book join the throng of revisionist Great War Guilt theorists who overlook the obvious: that the First World War was exactly what Willy wanted.

Consisting of chapters by separate authors, the book includes much politically correct thinking about the Great War. Divided into two parts, it first examines “Offensive Military Doctrines and the Great War” in five essays which focus on aspects of the notion of military provocation, which, couched as “the cult of the offensive” is attributed to all of the belligerents on both sides.

Certainly, hostile “encirclement” was the favorite internal and international propaganda used by the Kaiser, to justify his invasion of Luxembourg, Belgium and France (events which were accompanied by baldfaced lies). But just because Germany’s emperor wholeheartedly believed in “might is right” and “possession is nine-tenths of the law” does not mean that the members of the Entente were driven by the same obsessions because they ended up in combat with him.

The Entente was made up of gentlemen (yes, even the French, who had grieved the loss of Alsace-Lorraine for more than forty years, yet throughout that time had done nothing belligerent about it), who chose to ignore the Kaiser’s rants, expecting him to get over himself, as any sassy but otherwise sane modern monarch should be able to do. But as most parents can tell you, there’s a limit to how long the warning “Don’t make me come down there” will silence the squabbling of a child who’s spoiling for a fight. The problem with the Entente was that they waited too long to do anything about the whiner: he had grown from a snotty kid to a burly adolescent bully who thought he could take what he wanted and get away with it.

The second part of the book, “Crime or Blunder? Inadvertence, Guilt, and Historical Responsibility,” consists of four essays that disagree in different ways and to varying extents with the military provocation theory, but the first three still largely sidestep the whole truth: Because the Entente’s efforts at diplomacy were ineffective to discipline the bully on the block, they were simply forced to resort to means and methods that the bully understood. Unfortunately, the Entente was not strong enough to settle his hash without help.

The saving grace of this book is its final chapter, “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War.” This is where the rubber meets the road: Germany’s policy and procedures to deny its War Guilt, which even a generation after the fact took the form of persecution of those who tried to tell the truth (including Fritz Fischer, whose massive scholarly exposé of Germany’s war aims merits only a mere nod in the first part of the book). In this chapter we learn of the measures which Germany’s spin doctors took to alter the historical record that ever since have had a remarkably consistent effect on both public perceptions and political policies, worldwide.

Not for the Wilhelmine Reich, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, nor postwar Germany would be the kind of statement that later became the hallmark of terrorist behavior: the smugly issued announcement that they “take responsibility” (a positive-sounding euphemism for something I have always felt should be more accurately expressed by the press as “take the blame”) for what are nothing less than irresponsible acts of war. From the very first – even before the Sarajevo shot was fired – it was always part of Germany’s plan to protect its interests by lying about its intentions and denying its responsibility for prosecuting a genuine war of conquest that was inevitable only because it was what Willy wanted.

Recommended reading because the final chapter tells the truth about the origins of the First World War.

(My copy is a quality trade paperback issued by Princeton University Press, with a preface to introduce the studies, but no index.)

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Review: Germany’s Aims in the First World War (Fischer)

Germany’s Aims in the First World War.

This analysis of the truth about what Willy wanted (as formulated by his Imperial Chancellor) is only a fraction of its original size in the German language, but it’s still a massive effort. It examines in minute detail Germany’s evolving war aims from every possible angle, as the war progressed, and because of that approach it seems to be redundant, but invariably there will be different “Aha!” moments that make all those words worthwhile.

It’s slow going, because of the numerous names, dates and places involved in the structuring of the hegemony the German empire hoped to achieve, but Fischer is a good writer who knows how to bring all this information together into a readable whole. This book was written in the 1960s, but the reader can see the roots of the Second World War, and even the origin of much of the current political state of the world.

Post-war historical revisionism is always dangerous. Its proponents justify it on the basis of the popular belief that “history is written by the victors” (quote attributed to Winston Churchill), but it’s divisive, and it sets people up for future conflict. First World War revisionist history, as promulgated during the Wilhelmine Reich, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich, directly led to the Second World War, and it still makes up much of the teaching of history today. Fischer did everything he could to protect the world from revisionist thinking.

Many used copies of this book are available. It’s not for everybody (certainly not for the casual reader), but it’s a must for serious Great War researchers, who will recognize Fischer’s name in works by other authors, not all of whom agree with him.

Highly recommended.

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Review: The African Queen (Forester [book, 1940 edition]; film, 1951).

The African Queen.

The African Queen is one of those rare movies that improves upon the book. It has a much more satisfying denouement than the 1940 edition of C. S. Forester’s novel, even if it does perpetuate the pleasant myth that ship captains have the authority to solemnize marriages. But this is meant to be fictional entertainment, not a historical documentary.

It’s a complex narrative, told through three tightly plaited story lines. First, and most importantly, it’s a war story, set in German East Africa at the start of the First World War. Next, it’s an adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat, no matter how often you’ve seen it. Lastly, it’s a love story, of the “unlikely romance” genre that’s built on a deeper development of character which implies that this is a meaningful relationship that will last.

The screenplay has such engaging, fast-paced writing that one forgets that without the war story line, there would be no plausible rationale for the adventure or the romance. Furthermore, the war story is built around the declared mission of a woman, Rose Sayer (who, until her brother’s untimely death, served as his missionary companion): to commit an act of war against a vessel of the Imperial German Navy. No such event occurred during the war, but the viewer comes away from the film feeling that it could have happened.

World War I in East Africa, map by Mehmet Berker

 

The novel delves into a little more character psychology than one would expect for so short a book (I re-read it in about 8 hours), and it presents a lot more back-story than feels necessary: it’s as if the author felt a need to justify why Rose “goes native,” so to speak, in her relationship with Charlie Allnutt.

Given the times and her upbringing, we cannot doubt that after her grand adventure, Rose would happily settle down in a cottage surrounded with hollyhocks, there to bear Charlie’s children and make blancmanges for the rest of her life. But we can also tell that without her, Charlie the drifter would have been happy to keep a low profile and float out the war in the backwaters of Africa. Rose makes a hero out of Charlie, not on the flimsy premise that he “rescued“ her from the hazards of a war-torn African colony, but by inspiring him to buck up and brave the leech-infested waters of the river, to help her achieve her grand design.

The African Queen thus becomes a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of women of Rose’s generation who served and inspired in wartime roles of amazing diversity: from traditional sock-knitting and bandage-rolling, and becoming nurses or voluntary aides, to munition workers, ambulance drivers, and innovative lifesavers, such as Madame Marie Curie with her mobile x-ray units, which she personally outfitted and personally delivered to hospitals and casualty clearing stations near the Western Front, and who trained doctors in their use.

Apparently the book’s first publisher didn’t like the way the story ended, and prevailed upon Forester to permit it to be changed, but he changed it back to the way he’d originally written it in the 1940 edition. Normally I don’t think much of publishers who want to become co-writers, and because I haven’t read the first edition, I don’t know exactly how the end differed (other than by the removal of the last two chapters), but in the case of The African Queen, I agree with the first publisher’s decision: Forester’s choice of ending is lame.

Read the book by C. S. Forester, or not, as you like. But be sure to dial up the movie, or dig out your copy of it, and enjoy it for everything it can mean to you, in your understanding of the wars of history and your approach to the battles you face in your own life. Highly recommended.

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