The Price We Paid for War
Diplomat and historian , GEORGE F. KENNAN entered our Foreign Service in 1926 following his graduation from Princeton. He served as a Russian-speaking aide to Ambassador Bullitt from 1933 to 1935; was in Prague at the time of the Czechoslovakia subjugation, in Berlin until Pearl Harbor; and was our ambassador to Moscow from 1952 to 1953 and to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963.
FIFTY years ago there occurred, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, the Archduke Ferdinand, the event that touched off World War I. It was far from being the war’s actual cause. The real causes were of great complexity. They reached back into the past, as the historical roots of great events always do. They have been the subject of exhaustive study and of long controversy among the historians.
If the question were to be posed, What were the broad historical circumstances out of which the war arose? one would probably be safe in naming two: first, the failure to find an acceptable place in the European order for the united Germany which had come into existence in 1870; and, second, the rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the succession to the disintegrating Turkish empire in the Balkans. The European order emerging from the Napoleonic Wars proved insufficiently flexible, in other words, to stand the subtraction of one great power in the southeast of the continent and the addition of a new one in the northwest.
History, it has often been observed, tends to be written by the victors. Certainly this was to some extent true in the English-speaking countries in the case of World War I. Many of us were brought up on a view of the war that depicted the Germans as those most responsible for its outbreak. The confession of Germany’s primary guilt in this respect was embedded in the Versailles Treaty, over the violent protest of an entire generation of Germans.
There can be no question that the statesmanship of the imperial German government of the postBismarckian period was guilty of grievous mistakes which entered importantly into the origins of the world war. Outstanding among these were the insistence on challenging British naval power by the attempt to build a fleet of comparable strength; the uncritical support given at crucial moments to an aggressive Austrian policy in the Balkans; and the fatal decision to inaugurate hostilities against France in 1914 by moving through Belgium, thus assuring Britain’s entry into the war.
But it would be an oversimplification to accept these mistakes as proof of Germany’s primary guilt. The tragedy of Germany’s situation lay in the fact that the establishment of the German Reich was practically coincidental with the conduct of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870—1871, and that this war ended with the incorporation into the new, united Germany of two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, which had previously been part of France. This territorial change was never really accepted by the French. And this meant, in effect, that the French never really reconciled themselves to the presence of a united Germany in the family of the European powers. In the decades just prior to World War I, France was actually more hostile to the existing status quo in Europe than was Germany. Germany was a satiated power in Europe; France was not. Germany had no territorial aspirations anywhere on the continent; France did.
These two situations — the Franco-German tension and the rivalry in the Balkans — were brought together for the first time in the Franco-Russian Alliance, concluded in 1894. This flowed directly from the French unwillingness to accept the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Had France been willing to accept this loss, no alliance with Russia would have been required for France’s protection. Germany, after all, had no further territorial designs on France.
Ostensibly, the Franco-Russian Alliance was a defensive one. Almost every alliance is defensive — on paper. Actually, this one was conceived by the French as a framework within which, eventually, when the time was ripe, they could move toward the recovery of the lost provinces.
In several respects, the Franco-Russian Alliance had unfortunate consequences. It constituted the first link in that encirclement of which the Germans so bitterly complained. It was the first great step toward Germany’s isolation. But this isolation increased Germany’s dependence on its one faithful ally, Austria-Hungary, and caused Germany to feel that there was no choice but to support that ally faithfully, even when the latter’s policies were reckless and aggressive.
For the Russians, on the other hand, the alliance with France was an unnatural commitment. It reflected no real Russian interest. Russia’s acceptance of the alliance initially, and adherence to it down through the years, were simply consequences of financial weakness. It represented a political price Russia was obliged to pay for France’s financial support in a period of rapid economic development in Russia, a period in which the need of the Russian economy for investment capital was great and indigenous sources of capital were inadequate. And it had the dual effect of causing the Russians to lose much of the independence of their policy vis-à-vis Germany, where an independence of policy might have been helpful in preventing a world war, and yet to gain too much independence of policy in the Balkans, where an active Russian policy could only increase the danger of war.
Originally, the Franco-Russian Alliance was not supposed to be applicable to the contingency of a war between Russia and Austria. But it led to such extreme political tensions that any Balkan war in which Russia should be involved could no longer be isolated. It was, after all, over just such a RussianAustrian conflict, not over any German attack on either Russia or France, that the alliance was finally invoked in 1914. There can be no question that Russian policy in the Balkans in the years from 1906 to 1914 was strengthened and made sharper by the knowledge on the part of Russian statesmen that Germany could not come to the aid of Austria in a Balkan conflict without inviting the intervention of France on its western frontier.
AS FOR the conflict between Russian and AustroHungarian interests in the Balkans, here again it is not a simple matter to assess the rights and wrongs from a distance of fifty years. It must be recognized that Austrian interests were more vitally affected than were those of Russia by the disintegration of Turkish power and the emergence of the South Slav peoples to independent political activity. This development constituted no threat to Russia, which was itself a Slavic state. To Austria, on the other hand, which already had great Slavic minorities within its borders, the establishment of new, independent Slavic states on the immediate southern periphery of the empire could have dangerous consequences.
The Russian interest in the Balkans was occasioned at that time not by any real defensive interests, but by two sentimental enthusiasms of the Russian educated class: a romantic sympathy for fellow Slaves, and the long-standing desire to control the straits at the entrance to the Black Sea. Neither of these aspirations looks very impressive from a distance of fifty years. Membership in the Slavic branch of the human family is not really, as history has shown, a very important bond. Cultural and religious traditions, varying widely among the Slavic peoples, are more important as determinants of national policy, over the long run. And as for the Russian yearning to control the straits, it is hard to view this as anything more than a matter of prestige. The regime of the straits that existed in the period prior to the war occasioned no difficulties for Russian commerce. And if one looks at the matter from the military standpoint, one can only say that this regime, barring as it did the passage of foreign warships through the straits, was a positive advantage to a country which had lost most of its naval strength at Tsushima.
All these considerations lead to the conclusion that it was indeed the Austrians, not the Russians, whose interests were most vitally concerned in the development of events in the Balkans in the first years of the century. And one cannot blame the Austrians for wishing to assure that the liberation of the Balkan Slavs from the Turkish hegemony should not occur in a manner likely to endanger the integrity of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But one can and must blame them for the reckless and aggressive measures by which they attempted to assure this: measures which offended the South Slavs themselves, relied on naked force far more than on persuasion, alarmed the international community, and made it much more difficult than it need otherwise have been for Russia to remain aloof without suffering real damage to its prestige. If it be true, as I believe it to be, that in the relations between governments the “how” is, generally at least, as important as the “what,” then one must indeed charge the Austro-Hungarian statesmen of that day with a responsibility second to none for the outbreak of the world war in 1914.
SUCH, in the main, were the political origins of the war. They point, as one can readily see, to the conclusion that none of the four greatest continental powers involved was without blame in the complicated process of its origins. But behind these specific political circumstances, there was a deeper deficiency which lay in the spirit and the outlooks of the time and pervaded the diplomacy of all four of these powers. This was the disparity between the real implications and possibilities of major warfare as an instrument of policy in the modern age, and what people supposed these implications and possibilities to be.
The international society of that day was still dominated by romantic concepts of warfare, and these concepts embraced two great errors. First, they exaggerated the role of personal bravery and determination in a war fought with modern weapons. Under the influence of this misimpression, they pictured warfare too much as a test of the personal qualities and spirit of a nation and too little as a test of its manpower and resources and its capacity for social discipline. It was thought that if a nation’s people were brave enough, spirited enough, determined enough, a nation won. People failed to realize that in a war where military realities would be governed so extensively by the machine gun and barbed wire, excessive personal valor would be only a wasteful form of foolhardiness; victory or defeat would depend primarily on the grisly mathematics of mutual destruction and, above all, on who was prepared to expend and to sacrifice the greatest quantity of men and matériel. In many of the offensives undertaken in that war, it could be, and was, calculated in advance that so and so many tens of thousands of men, one’s own men as well as those of the enemy, would inevitably perish in the course of the offensive. They would perish from shells and bullets fired by men whom they could not even see. It would make no difference, or very little difference, whether they were brave as lions; they would perish anyway. War was no longer a matter just of valor and enthusiasm.
This lesson could have been learned, one would think, from the Russo-Japanese War. It does not seem to have been. As a result, governments moved lightheartedly into the horror of war in 1914, and millions of young men went singing to their death, encouraged to believe that they were embarking on a great martial adventure, as in the days of chivalry.
Second, the statesmen of the period preceding World War I had no idea of the destructiveness of modern war. They had no idea how long it would last or how many lives and resources it would consume. They deceived themselves in believing that the fruits of victory would easily overweigh the attendant sacrifices. But they grievously misestimated both elements. It did not occur to them that the losses of life — the losses, above all, of young life, of the flower of the male youth — would be so great that no conceivable fruits of victory could possibly justify them. No defeat could have carried with it disasters worse than the sacrifice of young manhood actually incurred in pursuit of victory. And no victory could have been so glorious as to justify this sacrifice. History reveals that every one of the warring powers would have been better off to have concluded peace in the early stages of the war on the adversary’s terms rather than to accept the loss of life attendant on continuation of the war to 1918. This loss inflicted on each of the belligerents a subjective damage from which it could not recover, even superficially, for at least a generation. In a deeper sense, some may be said to have not fully recovered to the present day.
Any loss of young manhood on the scale that was incurred by the major belligerents in World War I inflicts both genetic and spiritual damage on the nation that incurs it. The age structure of the population is disbalanced. The spirit of the older people is terribly affected. They cannot stand this slaughter of their sons. A portion of themselves — of their taste for life, their capacity for hope — dies with those in whom so much of themselves was invested. Great damage is done to the youth, who are forced to grow up in an unsettled world without the steadying hand of the fathers. On the political scene, the continuity of the tradition is destroyed. The field is left to be contended for by the very old and the very young, among whom there is no intimacy. We shall never know how many of the troubles and failures of European civilization in the 1920s and 1930s, including the drift into a new world war, were attributable to these conditions.
All these are subjective damages which no victory could have made good, even if it had been as glorious as the statesmen of 1914 pictured it to themselves, and even if it had accorded fully with the objectives they had in mind when they entered the
war. But actually, the war ended with results which nobody could have predicted, and which did not correspond at all with the aims for which the victor powers entered the war.
The war, as it turned out, produced the destruction of all three of the great empires so prominently involved in its outbreak: the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the German. This was something which no one — not even the French and British, but least of all the statesmen of those three empires themselves — wished or expected to achieve when they went to war in 1914, and from which no one really profited.
The destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire led merely to the establishment in Central and Eastern Europe of a new status quo even less stable than the one that had existed prior to the war. It involved the establishment of an entire tier of independent states in Central and Eastern Europe, lying between Germany and Austria, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. The idea was that these states, in alliance with France, would keep Germany helpless and would serve as a barrier to the spread of Russian Communism into Europe. This
was, therefore, a status quo predicated on the weakness of both Germany and Russia. It was bound to break down as soon as that weakness was overcome. And break down it did, in a manner that contributed greatly to the outbreak of World War II. In addition to that political defect, the new status quo represented a deterioration from the standpoint of the integration of the economies of that area. No new form of international unity could be found to replace the unity which the Austro-Hungarian empire had once given to the economic life of the peoples of the Danubian Basin. None has been found to this day.
If we turn to the collapse of the Russian empire, we have to note that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the direct result of the war. The Revolution would probably never have occurred at all at that juncture had the Czar’s government not involved itself in the war. It would certainly not have ended in a seizure of power by the Communists if the Allies had not insisted that the Provisional Government continue the war effort. The Russian Revolution: the estrangement of Russia, the conversion of Russia, with its great resources, from the status of a friend to that of an opponent of the Western nations for a period of at least half a century — all this must be regarded as part of the price paid by the victors of 1918 for the privilege of smashing Germany. A higher price, surely, it would be difficult to imagine.
And the significance of the Russian Revolution was of course not restricted to Russia’s relations with the West. This Revolution represented only the first phase of that great revolt, moral and political, of “non-Europe” against Europe which has been a dominating development of this century and has included other Communist revolutions, notably the Chinese, as well as the worldwide anticolonial movement. All these processes were greatly hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution.
Finally, there was the destruction of the German empire itself. Who gained from this? True, the Germans were thoroughly defeated. For a number of years they could no longer threaten Britain on the seas. They were obliged to return Alsace and Lorraine to France. But these were perhaps the only Allied gains of any importance from the four long years of war. It proved impossible to collect from the Germans anything more than a fraction of the reparations the Allies once thought to collect. Even when the reparations could be collected, the transfer of them turned out to present serious financial difficulties. The restrictions placed on German rearmament were only temporarily effective. So long as they were observed, their principal result was to free the Germans from the financial strain of maintaining armed forces, thus giving them a competitive advantage over the Western Allies in economic recovery. The moral and political effect of the effort to impose a punitive peace on Germany in the 1920s was just enough, together with the economic crisis, to overstrain the resources of moderate, democratic government in Germany, and to render the political life of that country vulnerable to capture by extremist forces.
We all know the result. Within less than two decades after the world war came to an end, the Allies were faced with a revived and rearmed Germany, but this time under a leadership that of Adolf Hitler — far more hostile and dangerous to the remainder of the West than the Kaiser’s Germany they had been so concerned to defeat in the period from 1914 to 1918.
In the damage it did to the structure of international life, and in the even deeper damage it inflicted on the biological and spiritual condition of the European peoples, World War I still looms on the historical horizon as the great determining tragedy of our century. There are many lessons to be gained from it for our own generation. But one stands out in importance. It is the lesson of the unsuitability of major war as an instrument of policy in the modern age. In that period of 1914 to 1918, thirty years before the development of the nuclear weapon, it was demonstrated that war, conducted in the grand manner and as a means of achieving major political objectives, was no longer a rational means of procedure. Defensive war might still have a rational purpose, as long as it remained exclusively and truly defensive and as long as one hoped for nothing from it but sheer survival. Limited war — war for limited objectives — might still have a rational purpose, provided the actual military effort could be held to modest dimensions and provided one could be sure of stopping in time. But all-out war, involving the total commitment of a nation’s manpower and resources and aimed at the total destruction of an enemy’s will to resist and the complete power to order his life and to shape his behavior, had already, in 1914, lost its rationale.
It had lost its rationale because of the terrible destructiveness of modern weapons, because of the enormous cost of cultivating and employing such weapons, because of the great complexity of modern society, because of the impossibility, the sheer technical impossibility, of one great country holding another great country in subjection for any long period of time and shaping its life in ways contrary to the will of the people.
In the 1930s, this lesson was widely forgotten or ignored. The result was tragedy and great suffering. Today, when the destructiveness of weaponry is many times greater than it was in 1914, one can no longer afford to ignore it. If people today will ponder the meaning of the great conflagration that occurred a half century ago, and will learn to take it into account in the conduct of statesmanship, then, perhaps, the eight and a half million young men who laid down their lives at that time will not have died entirely in vain.