Home > Books and culture, World Events > The Great War of 1911 (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The Great War of 1911 (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 11th, 2016

I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.

I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.

The Great War of 1911

Looking back at the Great War raises lots of questions. Was it, as most observers concluded in the aftermath of the war, the inevitable product of a clash of rival imperialisms, or of rising class tensions. Or should we prefer the views of the revisionists who stress the war guilt of the Entente powers, and particularly of France? Or was it, perhaps, a tragic and avoidable accident?

Starting with the now-dominant revisionist case, there’s no doubt that French aggression against Morocco, going back to the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06, was the proximate cause of the war. Not content with the effective control over Moroccan affairs gained in that episode, France used the rebellion against the Sultan to establish a formal “protectorate”. The contemptuous dismissal of the Algeciras conference agreement as a “scrap of paper” presaged the entire French war strategy. Most notable was Joffre’s invasion of Belgium (doubtfully accepted as necessary by Poincare, who had just displaced Joseph Caillaux as Prime Minister). The postwar emergence of an anti-Semitic dictatorship, headed by Marshal Petain, is seen as representing an inherent French tendency to authoritarianism and aggression, reflected in everything from the Bonapartes to l’affaire Dreyfus

The other Entente powers come off little better on this account. Lloyd George was already the dominant figure in the British government and signalled his aggressive intent with the Mansion House speech. The fall of Herbert Asquith as a result of a sex scandal propelled Lloyd George into the Prime Ministership at a crucial moment. His ascension ensured that there would be no negotiated peace. The Entente with the Czarist empire adds weight to the indictment. The aim of encircling and crushing the nascent democracies of the German-speaking world could scarcely be more obvious.

But it is the documents unearthed from wartime archives that are seen by revisionists as sealing the case. The Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East, the Constantinople Agreement handing the centre of the Islamic world to Russia, and the offers to Italy under the Treaty of London make the case for Entente war guilt seem unarguable.

Nevertheless, many historians continue to argue that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were just as aggressive and expansionist, and would have been equally keen to start a war, given the right pretext and timing. The massive reparations imposed on the defeated Entente powers, and the conversion of much the Russian empire into German-ruled kingdoms and principalities (seen by revisionists as both necessary to prevent another two-front war and justified on the basis of Entente aggression) are viewed very differently by this school.

Whatever the guilt of their leaders, it is hard to see that the people of Eastern Europe had done anything to deserve the brutal terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Nor was German rule any improvement in the colonies stripped from the British empire. And of course, the Germans had signed secret treaties of their own, not to mention plans for an invasion route through Belgium. Perhaps, given a few years to build up its military position, Germany would have found its own pretext for war in one of the never-ending series of crises in the Balkans. The imperialist system, on this view, was primed for catastrophe, and the spark would have come sooner or later.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the whole tragedy was the result of avoidable bad luck. We will probably never know what caused the explosion on the SMS Panther that sent it to the bottom of the Agadir harbor with the loss of all 130 on board. But the resulting outrage certainly helped to foreclose any possibility of a negotiated agreement.

The German decision to send all available squadrons of the High Seas Fleet out to sea, if an over-reaction, was unsurprisingm as was the British decision, following the Dogger Bank incident to order the Royal Navy into action. Surprisingly heavy British losses in the (strategically inconclusive) Battle of Jutland produced a popular demand for vengeance, and emboldened the French to adopt an aggressive strategy on land. In the fervid atmosphere that resulted, concerns about the violation of Belgian neutrality were largely quieted by the public declaration of “The Ninety Three” leading French and English intellectuals supporting the war.

If the Panther had not been destroyed, its mission might have been seen, in time, as a needless provocation. And if Germany had secured a negotiated peace that checked French colonial expansionism, perhaps anti-war arguments like those of Jean Jaures in France, Keir Hardie in Britain and Wilhelm Foerster in Germany would have prevailed over the forces of revanchism, jingoism and nationalism.

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  1. Newtownian
    January 11th, 2016 at 14:00 | #1

    Alternative timelines have long been a favored device of SF writers like Harry Harrison who used to have fun with the timeloop contradictions that emerged with this sort of imperial period being much favored by Michael Moorcock amongst others. And of course its a Star Trek staple to.

    Outside the SF fandom this interaction of chance, free choice and structural inevitability seems to have been formerly not well explored.

    My current favorite stage for exploring what-if glitches is that associated with nuclear war decision making where the danger of multiple barriers being breached seems to have come close to realization once too often.

    especially the Cuban Missile Crisis and its latter successor, the Able Archer incident.

    One cannot wonder what would have happenned if Donald Trump had been president in 1962 or someone other than Stanislav Petrov had been on duty in late 1983.

    The pity of it is that we still have not learnt from these warnings that defensive nuclear weapons may be dooming the future for short term gain……rather like modern economics.

  2. Paul Norton
    January 11th, 2016 at 20:33 | #2

    And what might have been the fortunes of the Social Democratic factions of Germany, Austria-HUngary and the Russian Empire in this scenario, I wonder?

  3. Paul Norton
    January 12th, 2016 at 07:28 | #3

    The grievances of the peoples of Eastern Europe arising from the Brest Litovsk Treaty and its economic consequences provided ample opportunities for populist demagogues such as Josif Vissarionovich Jugashvili. Originally (like the Italian fascist Mussolini) a member of one of the socialist factions, Jugashvili broke with it to form the All-Russian National Socialist Workers Party, which combined elements of a debased socialism with militant authoritarian nationalism, and mined the deep vein of virulent antisemitism in Russian society and culture. Consistent with the macho and anti-feminist ethos of the ARNSWP, Jugashvili took the name “Stalin”, meaning “steel”. Western observers who should have known better were beguiled by Stalin’s apparent success in rapidly industrialising his country, and were further encouraged by his repression and purges (including mass imprisonments and executions) of Russia’s various socialist factions – Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and, above all, Bolsheviks. The annexation of the Ukraine and the Baltic states – which a flaccid British Prime Minister Chamberlain had acquiesced in with the words “peace in our time” – should have sounded the warning bells, as should the infamous Molotov-Tojo pact for the partitioning of China. As it was, when the Russian invasion of Poland presented a challenge that the West could no longer ignore, the burgeoning strength of Stalin’s New Russian Empire boded ill for the outcome of the Second Great War.

  4. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2016 at 09:27 | #4

    When you say “actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver.” it is difficult to know what you mean in detail. (I understand that this isn’t the focus of your alternative history.)

    I would argue that an event like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is a final catalyst or trigger but not a cause. At best it is a final, proximate trivial cause. Causes (if we accept the “cause” concept) for large events must be comprehensive, multiple, and chained from the past as many linked, contributing causes.

    If we read modern European history, we can see WW1 and WW2 are about dealing with successive rounds of unfinished Great Power business dating at least from The Thirty Years’ War(s) of 1618 to 1648.

    WW2 settled that business to date because the USA and Russia won WW2* and then split Europe into their own zones of influence with nuclear weapons to guarantee the peace. Another war for European hegemony become unthinkable as all parties would lose completely (mutually assured destruction). Despite this, the USA continues its pressure on Russia today by trying to roll the US zone of influence right up to current Russian borders.

    *Note: The rest of the allies were bit players. Russia and USA in that order did the heavy lifting of winning WW2.

  5. Jim Birch
    January 12th, 2016 at 10:59 | #5

    The past is a strange country. I don’t have much comprehensive detail of events but it is pretty clear to me that ideas of what rulers can do to their own and other countries has changed radically as a result of the first world war. From this perspective, the first world war or something quite like it was required to produce the cultural shift that drove Europe and and a lot of the rest of the world into a fairly radical period of relative peace. This was a case of technology – in this case, the technology of war – outpacing culture. Following the instincts that were appropriate for say skirmishes between chimpanzee troupes was no longer going to work very well but unfortunately we need to be literally clobbered by reality to get the message.

    The second world war seems an unfortunate case of old ideas die hard because there was not a lot of new cultural value gained, except perhaps to take care following charismatic leaders promising a golden age.

  6. paul walter
    January 13th, 2016 at 07:11 | #6

    Basically, the article is a revision of Platos’ cave thesis.

    Western people, far from living under democratic conditions that forgrounded the market place of ideas, logic and rationality, were kept in an information vaccuum that deliberately precluded precisely the apparatus of democracy, conditional on an informed public participating and deciding by consensus what was best for a civil society or community.

    Of course, a century or more on, we see the evidence of a society that matured, no dumbing down, no censorship, real world info prioritised, open and accountable government from the humble elected representives of the People in the legislatures.

    Don’t you think?

  7. Michael
    January 13th, 2016 at 14:06 | #7

    If any of the 1914 actors could have seen what would actually happen, they would have resolved any crisis with diplomacy. Which to me points to a key delusion – that the enormous armies with their unprecedented but untested technologies would deliver quick, convenient and relatively bloodless victories à la 1866 or 1870.

    The German elite, if not the whole population, buoyed by their scientific and industrial growth after 1870, were conditioned to expect that their General Staff would deliver them victory, and allow the Kaiser to redraw the map as he pleased. More so than other countries, this delusion led the Germans by the nose into both World War One and World War Two. It destroyed Austria-Hungary, which only forced war with Serbia because of it. It destroyed Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. It underwrote the racist fantasies that permeated the German-speaking elite in both world wars.

    It’s hard not to see the recent sequence of American wars in the Mid-East in a similar vein.

  8. John Turner
    January 14th, 2016 at 07:22 | #8

    An interesting idea that a has been used as a literary device by many authors to explore a historical perspective. E.g stories based on a successful assination of Hitler.

    The genesis of the First World War is as Ikonclast has argued above, somewhat complex and arguably goes back several centuries. While I am no expert in this historical period, it had been suggested by some historians that neither the relatively new nation state of Germany nor the UK wanted armed conflict and that the real culprits here were Austria, France and Russia. The Serbians were suitably humbled by Austria but the Austrians demanded more and rebuffed every German and UK initiative to soften their demands and wanted to put Serbian nationalistic aspirations firmly in their place and France too was keen on a military solution; the event that made war inevitable was the mass mobilisation of Russian forces on the border which Germany could not ignore.

    The assination of the Archduke was a cause in only a superficial sense, it simply provided the excuse for the European powers to continue the great power game that had been going on since 1815 and was as Ikonclast suggests a continuation of a much longer rivalry.

    To get back to JQs proposition, the point of departure for his alternative history is as good a place as any, but he could have chosen almost any pivotal event in the preceding 100 years or more.

  9. Ikonoclast
    January 14th, 2016 at 09:59 | #9

    My rather cynical realpolitik assessment is this. Nation states which are “Great Powers” are always looking for ways to increase their wealth, power and influence by whatever means seem most expedient at any given time. At times, war looks to some Great Powers, or at least to their elites, like it will be an expedient and cost effective method for gaining wealth, power and influence. Such calculations, namely that war will pay positive dividends, are almost invariably wrong, as I recall Prof. J.Q. pointing out correctly several times in his many blogs. The puzzle is why war is chosen so often, relatively speaking, when it so often turns out to be a patently bad decision.

    Does the answer to the above puzzle revolve around the optimism bias? This could operate at two levels. First, there is the general over-optimism about winning the war. Second, is there elite optimism about being able to take the spoils if a winner or shift the costs if a loser?

    In relation to the “1911 Thesis”, we can’t forget that a desire and even intention to go to war as an aggressor still remains dependent on at least some rational force calculations before it is enacted. Force calculations in turn depend on re-armament and mobilisation progress. The question about 1911 as a possible start date might revolve around whether certain powers felt they were ready for full war. How advanced were countries like France, Germany and others in their preparations for war by 1911?

    I adhere to the theory that arms races and high levels of armament are probabilistic predictors of war. I noticed that Obama’s State of the Union speech was full of that standard overweening American pride, shameless boasting about the USA’s power in armaments and economy and how nobody will ever be able to challenge them for the remaining duration of world history. I noticed at the same time how Obama’s voice was squeaky, breaking and uncertain. It is clear that the more they have to say it, the more they are beginning to fear it’s not true.

  10. Jim Birch
    January 14th, 2016 at 11:10 | #10

    Ikonoclast :
    The puzzle is why war is chosen so often, relatively speaking, when it so often turns out to be a patently bad decision.

    It’s only a puzzle if you think about it abstracted philosophical or moral terms. From a biological perspective what is sometimes referred to a the “mad dog strategy” works. If you look like you’re primed to fight to the death you may not actually have to fight at all. Animals devote energy to threats because the performance costs are small. If it actually comes down to a physical battle with a real potential for injury there is an option to slink away. This may have real costs in loss of territory, resources or social status but at least you remain alive and functional.

    The problem for humans, unlike say dogs, is that the standard hormonal reaction is accompanied by the creation of cultural artifacts, like a belief in your moral (etc) superiority over your enemy. Once you “believe your own BS” the process becomes self-sustaining. A further problem is that in modern industrial warfare the managers get minimal feedback – the king no longer leads his troops into battle – it’s only the guys on the front line that lose limbs. The biological off switch is subverted.

    As I see it, we’re kinda stuck with the hormonal reactions, and improving the feedback mechanism is problematic, but at least we could require a serious look at expected outcomes, costs and benefits. I’m not (generically) antiwar but I am anti-stupidity. Was eg Iraq ever going to follow the fluffy script? I think not.

  11. Robert (not from UK)
    January 14th, 2016 at 20:33 | #11

    Professor Quiggin might be interested in the following passage, from MEN, WOMEN AND THINGS, the autobiography of the sixth Duke of Portland. I encountered this 1937 book by accident when researching Spain’s Alfonso XIII.

    His Grace writes of a 1913 hunting trip with Franz Ferdinand: “One of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the archduke and myself. I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

  12. John Turner
    January 14th, 2016 at 22:14 | #12

    @Jim Birch
    Your comments reminded me of another book by Ben Elton – “First Casualty”. The historical context of that book is the First World War and the story is centred around a police officer who is a conscientious objector, not because of any religious belief but because he regards the war as stupid.

    A great read, I can recommend it.

  13. Ikonoclast
    January 15th, 2016 at 10:36 | #13

    I would regard a statement like “I don’t want to fight in a war,” as a reasonable and sufficient conscientious objection. For momentous personal decisions, persons have a right to keep their reasons to themselves.

    From a practical military point of view, soldiers who don’t want to fight are usually so ineffective as to constitute a drag on the effort. The unit and army are better off without them. And a nation in turn is better off if it is extremely reluctant to fight (non-aggressive) and only fights as a last unavoidable resort.

  14. Greg Mckenzie
    January 16th, 2016 at 15:19 | #14

    I am a supporter of the Marx view of history. The alternatives to capitalist imperialism are capitalist democratization and communist universality. That the War of 1914 saw an end to empires seems to indicate that rampant democratization was on the rise. The central role played by the US President at the Treaty of Versailles, also suggests that capitalism had found a new and more powerful champion. When the Austrian Emperor tried to maintain the status quo, he plunged the European and Arabian world into war. Once the USA assumed the mantle of “Defender of free enterprise capitalism” the next war became inevitable. One hundred years after the First World War began, the world is now poised on another turning point. Now communist universality is trying to dominate the global economy. Another war may result and this time it will be a true world war. As the USA, Russia and China extend their influences over all seven continents; the rest of us have to hold our breath. Donald Trump may become President of the USA. Someone worse than Vladimir Putin may take over in Russia; and China may return to aggressive communist expansionism. Then again none of this may happen. Just like back during the Cuban missile crisis, it may come down to who blinks first.

  15. jungney
    January 18th, 2016 at 14:22 | #15

    Positing ‘what if?’ is one way in which historians reconsider established history. Sometimes established history is so festooned with social meaning through memorial buildings and cemeteries and ceremonies and days of national holiday and remembrance that the actual events of the past need to be reasserted in order for the reality of what happened to be known. Timothy Snyder’s ‘Black Earth: the holocaust as warning and as history’ does this. The short argument: Hitler’s conduct and strategic and tactical misconduct of the war had no greater meaning or purpose than killing Jews; everything he did militarily and socially was about killing Jews and nothing more. The author’s argument derives from a close rereading of ‘Mein Kampf’ and his grasp on the consequences of Hitler’s peculiar ecological thinking; read Spencerianism on steroids.

    So, it is always useful to re-imagine history.

  16. J-D
    January 19th, 2016 at 11:07 | #16

    The website uchronia.net provides an extensive catalogue of fictional and non-fictional (but mostly fictional) explorations of ways history might have gone differently; it includes a list that indexes these works (books, short stories, articles) chronologically by the date at which the imaginary/hypothetical history diverges from real events. There are three entries in that index under 1911, but none of them hinge on a different version of the Agadir crisis, so it looks as if you’ve got something new here.

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