Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive in the First World War

David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer at out the outbreak of the First World War and later Prime Minister of Great Britain, famously wrote that World War I was not the responsibility of any particular nation but rather the fault of all European nations – “[t]he nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay.”[1]  This nonjudgmental thesis that Europe “muddled into war” long held the popular imagination as the Great Depression and the Second World War overshadowed the Great War and consumed the attention of both scholars and the public.  Moreover, for many, the idea that the First World War was the fault of all nations, and thus all remained blameless, appealed to politicians, historians, and the public as no nation wanted to be held culpable for the destruction rendered by the war.  However, the idea of a blameless war was amply refuted by historian Fritz Fischer in his 1961 study Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s Aims in the First World War) which suggests that Imperial Germany was at fault for the war.

In this groundbreaking and controversial study, Fischer delved deeply into the Imperial German archives and emerged arguing that Germany deliberately started the First World War in an attempted to become the dominant world power – that the various pressure groups within Germany with access to high ranking officials, advocated for aggressive imperialist policies in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  According to Fischer, a plan to achieve these objectives was formulated by high ranking German officials in December 1912, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 gave Germany the opportunity to execute this plan – to defeat France and Russia and create a Mitteleuropa.  Furthermore, Fischer also implies that German history developed inexorably from unification to Nazism emphasizing that while Germany advanced economically and industrially, the nation failed to develop politically.  This concept, known as the Sonderweg, suggests that Germany’s political retardation at the hands of the Junker elite led Germany into two world wars.  This study shocked the German people who long believed that World War I was forced upon Germany by encircling enemies and the historical profession sparking a revival in the study of the First World War and the factors that led to war in 1914.

The historians examining the origins of the First World War since the publication of Fischer’s book have explored numerous cultural, social, political, military, and diplomatic factors which led to war in 1914.  However, during the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, international relations scholars also took an interest in the origins of the First World War and the concept of the “cult of the offensive” in attempt to apply these lessons in the nuclear age.  This concept is the belief by military leaders that the offensive strategy is strong compared to a defensive strategy which has no chance to repel an attack leading all powers to plan an offensive assault.  The idea of the cult of the offensive and the origins of the Fist World War will be the main theme of essay and will focus on the thesis put forth by Jack Snyder who contends that the cult of the offensive developed from a civil-military crisis in European nations.

The first part of this essay will briefly summarize Snyder’s interpretation of the cult of the offensive and the First World War.  This section will be followed by an assessment of historical works on World War I and their portrayal of the cult of the offensive and civil-military relations in the outbreak of the war; furthermore, except for two studies, these books were published in the last fifteen years and depict where the scholarship has centered itself over the last two decades.   As most historians agree that Germany remains at fault for initiating the European war, the German case will be analyzed several times, however, other nations will be addressed depending on the historians’ interpretation.  The third section will evaluate the cult of the offensive and specifically Snyder’s arguments in comparison with the historical studies.  Finally, the conclusion will offer my suggestion for future studies of the First World War’s origins.

The Cult of the Offensive

On the seventieth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the journal International Security dedicated an issue to examining the origins, consequences, and lessons of the First World War to prevent a nuclear war in the 1980s.  In this volume, scholars sought to learn from the outbreak of war in 1914 and focused on the primacy of the offensive.  Later published by Princeton University Press in 1991 under the title Military Strategy and the Origins of the Fist World War, these scholars presented unique arguments on the outbreak of World War I and how those lessons were applicable to their time.  One of the scholars who contributed to this volume was Jack Snyder of Columbia University.

In Snyder’s essay “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive,” the author explains why European militaries preferred offensive strategies when the technology and weapons of the era made a defensive strategy more favorable.  Snyder’s analysis portrays European militaries as organizations devoted to the offensive strategy to preserve their own interest and prevent the outside interference of civilian authorities which facilitates planning, maintains adherence to standard operating procedures, and promotes organizational prestige.  Furthermore, Snyder contends that within the military institutional ideologies, doctrines, and biases become extreme without civilian oversight – that the state of civil-military relations in the period before World War I exacerbated the offensive “because of a lack of civilian control allowed it grow unchecked or because an abnormal degree of civil-military conflict heightened the need for a self-protective ideology.”[2]  These ideologies, doctrines, and biases then became destabilizing as an inflexible military strategy was matched with a diplomatic strategy based on the assumption that risks can be calculated and controlled through skillful threats.  This conclusion leads Snyder to contend that the roots of World War I are found domestically, within the offensive military strategies of the European nations, but intensified by the continued diplomatic events in the years leading up to the war.  Finally, Snyder states that militaries cannot be blamed for the belligerent diplomacy of the period, however, once the process began, militaries desire for the offense and quickness made war inevitable.  Thus, the only place to stop the war was at the beginning with better civil-military relations whereby civilian decision makers and military leaders were on the same page.

Origins of the First World War: Historiographical Interpretations

One of the most popular ways explaining the war is through the mobilization schedules and specifically the Schlieffen Plan of the German General Staff.  This thesis is emphasized in the work of British historian A.J.P. Taylor’s 1969 study War by Time-Table which argues that the main cause of the war was the Schlieffen plan.  Taylor’s narrative focuses on war plans, mobilization schedules, manpower, and armaments but argues that the “sole cause for the outbreak of war in 1914 was the Schlieffen Plan – product of the belief in speed and the offensive.”[3]  In this statement, Taylor first identifies culpability, squarely blaming the Germans for the war, and secondly emphasizes the cult of the offensive as a key factor in the war’s outbreak.  However, even though Taylor identifies the war as a belief in the offensive, he writes that the offensive was defensive – “every general staff in Europe believed that attack was the only form of defense.”[4]  In this case, Taylor stresses that the threat of a preemptive offensive strike was meant to deter other powers from attacking each other; however, as Taylor notes “[a]ll were trapped by the ingenuity of their military preparations, the Germans most of all.”[5]  Thus, while all the continental European powers maintained offensive strategies to deter one another, once one mobilized all mobilized leading to the war.

In terms of civil-military relations, Taylor’s interpretation of the war is in accordance with Snyder’s theory.  By focusing on the importance of the Schlieffen Plan, Taylor reveals the organizational rigidity and dogmatism of the German army to a single strategy.   In almost ten years as Chief of the General Staff, Moltke the Younger only made minor adjustments to plan and failed to reconceptualize another strategy for a two front war as the plan pervaded military thought.  As Taylor states, “Moltke . . . was bewitched by the time-table which he had inherited from Schlieffen.”[6]  Furthermore, the civilian leadership’s ignorance of the German strategy until July reveals poor civil-military relations.  Here, as with his emphasis on the offensive, Taylor’s historical argument harmonizes with the Snyder understanding of the war’s origins as based on the offensive and a product of poor civil-military relations.

Volker Berghahn’s book Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, like Snyder, identifies the origins of the First World War in domestic politics but emphasizes the interdependence of internal and external factors.  Berghahn examines these factors by focusing on German military officers and their influence over political decision makers, political decision makers’ perceptions of international crises, and armaments polices.  By exploring these issues, the author argues that the German government’s attempts to stabilize the domestic sphere through armaments policies upset the equilibrium of the international sphere and created the conditions that allowed for the war.  Berghahn’s narrative emphasizes the clash between the ruling conservative elite and the growing urban classes that powered Germany’s industrial economy.  For Berghahn, this mounting instability led to an alliance between the military and the government to expand the German navy as this would “bully other powers” into making colonial concessions, divert the peoples focus from internal inequalities, and create thousands of jobs.  However, this plan backfired as Germany’s active foreign policy and growing navy led to its international isolation.

In this analysis, Berghahn demonstrates that based on the budget both the navy and army remained subordinate to civilian leadership as Tirpitz and the government worked together to expand the navy in order to bring about social stability even as this unknowingly contributed to international instability.  During the naval expansion, the German army remained static much to Moltke’s chagrin until 1912 when a new army bill passed through the Reichstag.  It is not until the July Crisis that Berghahn depicts competition between the “General Staff, on the one hand, the Reich Chancellor” on the other.[7]  At this time, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg recognized the “irresistible momentum” of Moltke’s plan and “reconciled himself to the inevitability of a continental war.”[8]  In this context, Berghahn presents good relations until July when the likelihood of war led to civil-military confrontation as the civilian leadership appeared ignorant of military strategy and incapable of halting military momentum which supports Snyder.  As for the offensive, Berghahn’s study rarely addresses military plans but often describes Germany’s need for a “swift campaign” or a “quick victory.”  Furthermore, Berghahn’s comment that there was “no alternative” to the Schlieffen Plan suggests that the German army was devoted to an offensive strategy.[9]

Continuing with the interrelation between foreign affairs and military policies, David Herrmann’s book The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War examines the interaction between diplomatic crises and armaments in the decade before the war.  In this context, Herrmann argues that as diplomatic tensions increased an armaments race began between European powers which affected statesmen’s perceptions of relative military strength.  For Herrmann, statesmen’s perception of changing military strength explains why the war occurred in 1914 rather than in the preceding decade – from the First Moroccan Crisis through the Balkan Wars of 1913, Germany and Austria-Hungary held the military advantage but, by 1914, the Entente alliance achieved an equilibrium leading to Germany’s decision to fight.

Herrmann’s interpretation of the war’s origins is in almost complete accordance with Snyder’s thesis.  Herrmann, like Berghahn as well, acknowledges that the war was based on “domestic considerations” which supported “aggressive state policy as a means of buttressing the social and political status quo at home.”[10]  While practicing this aggressive foreign policy, civilian leaders were perceptively aware not only of their own nation’s military strength but the strength of their rivals.  However, this does not reveal good civil-military relations especially within Germany as Herrmann stated that “Moltke had become devoted to the belief that even a general European war would be preferable to a negotiated settlement.”[11]  Here, the author suggests that by July the German military no longer supported the efforts of statesmen to reach a settlement demonstrating discord between civilian leaders and the military.  Herrmann also subscribes to the offensive writing that the “situation was particularly volatile due to the prevalence of offensive-minded tactical and strategic thinking in armies . . . dependent upon railroad timetables and head starts measured in days”[12]  Thus, Herrmann depicts an aggressive Moltke no longer supporting civilian efforts and a strategic doctrine devoted to offensive minded first strikes which led to independent actions by the military.

In an almost identical work published in the same year, David Stevenson also addressed the influence of land armaments and the origins of the war in his study Armaments and the Coming of War in Europe.  Stevenson argues that the diplomatic crises in the decade prior to 1914 led to a European land armaments race which was accelerated by the Balkan Wars in 1912 and ultimately led to war in 1914.  However, while Herrmann focuses on the development of armaments and technological advances in the military, Stevenson examines national budgets and shows how each crisis led to further military spending.  The increased spending and military expansion was carried out by all nations and by 1914 the Germans and Austria-Hungary realized that they would no longer be the dominant military powers and planned for a preemptive war.

In Stevenson’s narrative examining the relationship between armaments and diplomacy, the author refutes Snyder’s assertion that there was crisis in civil-military and instead argues that there was a “militarization of diplomacy and of society” – as the international situation intensified and military spending increased, military strategies and planning inundated men’s minds.[13]  Rather than a crisis in civil-military relations, Stevenson’s interpretation demonstrates that civilians and military leaders worked together to increase the national armories of Europe.  In terms of the offensive, Stevenson supports this concept writing “from 1910 plans were increasingly offensive, designed to protect the homeland and seize the initiative by carrying the campaigning into enemy territory.”[14]  Stevenson’s analysis then shows that the war resulted from increasing diplomatic tensions which led the militarization of society whereby military leaders and civilian leaders increasingly sought military solutions to diplomatic problems and, with the only military plans being offensive, both civilian and military leaders made the decision for war.  This interpretation then only partially confirms Snyder’s thesis suggesting a close working relationship between civilian and military leaders to develop military capabilities and confirming the offensive minded thinking within European militaries with the main culprit being an encircled Germany.

John Keegan’s study The First World War is a narrative of the war from 1900 until armistice in 1918 that focuses primarily on the military aspects these years.  Keegan suggests the war’s origins are a product of increasing diplomatic crises and the search for security which the European powers attempted to answer through “military superiority.”  This led to the establishment of conscript armies and a revolution in military technology but no change in military strategy.  Though the growth of European armies influenced the decisions that led to war, Keegan identifies the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the event that ignited the diplomatic crisis that led to war.  Keegan contends that had Austria immediately attacked Serbia there would have been only a localized war but the intricacies of Austrian decision making delayed this action.  This delay, according to Keegan, frustrated Moltke who took it upon himself to order the Austrian’s to attack Serbia and execute the Schlieffen Plan.

Keegan’s narrative also agrees with the thesis offered by Snyder and depicts both a crisis in civil-military relations and a belief in the cult of the offensive.  In terms of civil-military relations, Keegan argues that “Moltke thereby vastly exceeded his powers” on July 30th when he contacted Austrian General Franz Conrad ordering him to mobilize against Russia and then mobilized the German forces as well.[15]  Keegan contends that at this time Bethmann Hollweg was attempting to “persuade Austria to localise the war against Serbia” and that Moltke’s actions ignited the European war.  Moltke’s actions, however, were a result of the cult of the offensive and that if “Germany failed to move on the offensive” the Schlieffen plan “would be betrayed” leaving Germany without any strategy.[16]  This leads Keegan to write the “belief in the power of the offensive was correct; whoever first brought his available firepower into action with effect would prevail.”[17]  Thus, Keegan’s narrative subscribes to Snyder’s thesis revealing Moltke’s independent decision making without consulting civilian leaders and acknowledging that the cult of the offensive played a crucial role in the wars origins.

The publication of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War in 1999 sent shock waves throughout the historical profession and the public.  In this assertively argued study, Ferguson presents a series of ten chapters that address many of the historiographical issues surrounding the First World War.  While each chapter has the ability to stand alone as an essay, together they serve to support Ferguson’s overarching arguments that the war was both unnecessary and the fault of the British.  This distinctive book is not only a challenge to works presented in this essay but also disputes the established historical consensus that blames Germany for the war’s outbreak.  Instead, Ferguson finds fault with the British government under the Liberal Party headed by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and his Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey blaming them for an ambiguous and noncommittal foreign policy which should have either warned the Entente powers that Britain would remain neutral during any continental war or clearly warned Germany that Britain would intervene on behalf of the Entente.  By remaining vague and unclear, Ferguson contends that “Britain’s position probably made a continental war more rather than less likely.”[18]  The author’s suggestion that British ambiguity allowed for the war is a challenge to the historiography but, even with British silence, the European war started with one nation attacking another and in Ferguson’s interpretation this nation is Germany.

Though Ferguson faults the British for the war, and criticizes the nation for many other decisions, the author does recognize that the decision for a European war ultimately rested with the Germans.  In this instance, Ferguson is in line with much of the recent scholarship that suggests that Germany attacked due to a real or perceived weakness – that militarily the Central Powers were at their peak while the Entente powers still had potential for growth leading the Central powers to strike before being overtaken.  Supporting this line of thought, Ferguson also agrees with Snyder that there existed a crisis in civil-military relations especially in July as the Kaiser and Bethmann Hollweg “began to lose the nerve” and sought to halt the Austria plans “but it was the German military which ultimately secured, by a combination of persuasion and defiance, the mobilization orders.”[19] In this depiction, the author demonstrates that the German civilian leadership attempted to avoid a European war on July 29 but was unable to reign in the military which independently initiated German mobilization starting a European war.  Ferguson’s interpretation also supports the concept of the cult of the offensive stressing that “‘war by timetable’ commenced the moment Russia decided on full mobilization.”[20]  The author further emphasizes this point stating that“[h]istorians who ridicule the pre-war ‘cult’ of the offensive have tended to overlook the point that defending . . . was more demoralizing than attacking.”[21]  In this case, Ferguson’s emphasis on timetables and pre-war origins of the cult of the offensive demonstrate the authors support that the cult of the offensive influenced military leaders’ decisions for war.  Ultimately, this interpretation also fully supports Snyder’s thesis displaying an insubordinate Germany military ordering mobilization in defiance of the civilian leaders once Russian mobilization was confirmed.

In Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig’s book Decisions for War, 1914 – 1917, the authors focus on four generalization that explain the war’s origins: the decisions made by the leaders of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia; the assessments for war were made by small coteries of men in each nation; the ideas and influences that motivated these men are important; and finally how decisions were made within each nations governmental structure.  Using these themes, the authors’ narrative explores these concepts for every nation involved in the war including Italy, Japan, the United States and others in attempt understand the complex origins of the war.  Within this context, the authors reject outright theories of militarism, nationalism, imperialism, alliances, and social Darwinism and instead, like Snyder and many of the scholars reviewed here, locate the war’s origins domestically suggesting that the European powers went to war to preserve prestige and national honor.

The authors specifically examine only the July Crisis and posit that the key event precipitating the war was the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austria-Hungary as this document drew in all the European powers.  With this in mind, the authors argue that “serious scholarship on the origins of the war focuses, unambiguously, on Austria-Hungary” and that this nation clearly initiated the violence of 1914; however, while Austria-Hungary instigated the violence, it was the Germans that “transformed Austria-Hungary’s ‘localized’ Balkan war into a general European war.”[22]  This interpretation, that there were two wars, has gained scholarly support and therefore requires an examination of both Austria-Hungary and Germany.  For Austria-Hungary, the authors support Snyder’s arguments writing that Conrad’s “advocacy of preemptive strike against Serbia brought him into conflict with the emperor.”[23] Here, the authors demonstrate the offensive minded strategies of Austria-Hungary’s supreme commander and his clash with civil leadership over his desire to strike first.  This is further emphasized when describing Conrad’s views during the July Crisis with three words: “War, war, war” while describing the foreign office as moving “cautiously.”[24]

When describing Germany’s decision makers in July, it is clear that Germany was influencing Austria’s decision makers but that German decisions independent from Austria made the war into a European event.  With this, Snyder’s thesis must be evaluated for Germany as well and, on both counts, the authors agree – civil-military relations were conflicting during July and the offensive strategy played a role in the decision making process.  Recounting July 1914, the authors’ depict a nervous indecisive Bethmann Hollweg who was usurped by the military leaders as “the war minister demanded that the decree for premobilization at once;” “Moltke persuaded Wilhelm II to order the invasion;” and summing up the German decision for war the authors’ conclude that “[c]hoas and confusion rather than direction and design were the hallmarks of German decision-making.”[25]  In this narration, German civilian leaders and military leaders are clashing over the direction the nation should go but the offensive strategy of the German military ultimately won out as the authors write that “the ‘strike-now-better-than later’ mentality dominated Berlin during the July Crisis”[26]  Thus when describing German decisions for  war, the authors are in accordance with Snyder showing an aggressive German military challenging the civil leaders as their military plans are based on a timetable that cannot be altered.

David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer examines the decision making process of the European power’s ruling coteries in a similar fashion to Hamilton and Herwig.  The author’s narrative explores the short term origins of the war focusing almost exclusively on the July Crisis while dismissing many of the cultural factors emphasized by previous historians such as imperialism, nationalism, socialism, and alliances.  Though Fromkin recognizes that an arms race developed after 1912, he does not see this as a long term affect that resulted in war.  For the author, the war was Germany’s war, specifically Moltke’s war, and, in an argument similar to Hamilton and Herwig, contends that there were two wars: a localized war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and European wide war initiated by Germany; moreover, Fromkin suggests that the German war was not possible until Austria decided to go to war – Germany’s generals preformed a “trick of first getting Austria involved in a war and then getting it to change its enemy.”[27]  Within this context, Fromkin places the blame of the war squarely on the shoulders of Moltke stating “we point to Moltke.  He started the world war, and he did so deliberately.”[28]  Moltke started the war not for imperial aspirations but because he feared German decline relative to Russia growth as Fromkin states Moltke “feared that Germans . . . would eventually be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Slavs unless action was taken promptly.”[29]

With an antagonistic Moltke as his center piece, Fromkin’s narrative of the war’s origins subscribes to Snyder’s arguments concerning civil-military relations and he cult of the offensive.  In terms of quarrelsome civil-military relations, Fromkin claims that Moltke was frustrated by the “civilian leadership [which] shared neither his point of view nor his objectives.”[30]  This crisis among the civilian and military leadership is further emphasized “[t]here had been no military coup d’état, yet the Kaiser – and the Chancellor – later . . . deferred to the views of the Generals.”[31]  These statements, along with Fromkin’s assertions against Moltke, clearly exhibit a crisis in the civil-military relationship whereby the German military subordinated the civilian leadership in order to prosecute their war.  Fromkin also advocates for the offensive stressing that “countries were aware of one another’s production timetables for armaments and therefore could be tempted to launch a preemptive strike,”[32] and that German army officers “advocated for a preemptive strike before the Russians were ready.”[33]  While not explicitly using the term offensive, Fromkin’s usage of the word preemptive demonstrates that the German military feared that the Russian mobilization would overtake them if they did not mobilize immediately.  This resulted in clash between German civilian and military leaders in which the civilians deferred to the military’s offensive strategy based intricate timetables.

The latest entrant into the debate surrounding the origins of the First World War is Sean McMeekin’s study The Russian Origins of the First World War.  McMeekin claims that his study aims to thaw the “deep freeze” surrounding the scholarship and argues that the current consensus identifying Germany cannot withstand serious scrutiny as the war was Russia’s more that it was Germany’s.  The author contends that German fears of encirclement were groundless and that Russia was also encircled by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Japan, China, and the Ottoman Empire.  According to McMeekin, the most problematic region for Russia before the war was the Black Sea area where other European powers were supporting the declining Ottoman Empire.  The author emphasizes that Germany was training the Ottoman army and that Britain sold the Ottomans dreadnoughts and was updating Ottoman docks.  These ideas of encirclement and support of the fading Ottoman Empire created a “hostile international environment” and that “Russia rulers would not shrink from going to war to improve her precarious position.”[34]

After establishing a sense of fear and paranoia within Russia, McMeekin focuses his narrative on the July Crisis noting that Russian leaders were unsurprised at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and perhaps even knew beforehand.  The author truly enters the realm of controversy when discussing the July meeting between the French and Russian leaders in St. Petersburg and, while McMeekin acknowledges that documentary evidence for this occasion is scant, he suggests that with the evidence available “we have a fairly accurate picture of the mood of the meetings.”[35]  By examining the “mood” of the meetings, the author contends that during the summit the French and the Russians knew of the Austrian ultimatum and “conspired together” and were “willing to risk war by refusing to countenance Austria’s demands on Serbia-and came to this decision before, not after, reading the actual text of the ultimatum.”[36]  With the French now supporting the Russians, the next objective for the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov was to bring Britain into the war on the side of the Entente powers.  This involved making it appears as if the Germans mobilized first.  Sazonov accomplished this through “a secret large-scale mobilization of Russia’s army” on July 24 and, as rumors of mobilization filtered into Germany, the German leadership chose to mobilize and strike before the Russian’s were fully operational.[37]  Germany’s actions, concludes McMeekin, allowed Sazonov to manipulate “London into the war” and achieve his objective of “a European war.”[38]

Though scholars before McMeekin have long pointed out that the Russian mobilization initiated the German attack, he is the first to argue that this was done purposefully in order to create a European war.  Yet, even while focusing on Russia’s role in war’s origins, McMeekin addresses the issues that Snyder puts forth in his argument but only partially accepts his thesis.  McMeekin disagrees with the belief of poor civil-military relations and displays a good working relationship between Sazonov and Nikolai Yanushkevitch, the chief of Russia’s General Staff.  This is evident when the author describes the decision making process for mobilization on July 24 writing “Sazonov had already instructed Nikolai Yanushkevitch . . . to make ‘all arrangements for putting the army on a war footing.’”[39]  By demonstrating that Sazonov ordered Yanushkevitch to begin the mobilization process, McMeekin shows that the civilian leadership was in charge of the situation and the military remained in a subordinate role.  However, in terms of the offensive, McMeekin does subscribe to Snyder’s argument writing that Russia’s early mobilization allowed Russia’s generals to gain “precious time – time the desperately needed to offset the enemy’s speed advantage.”[40]  In this interpretation, McMeekin exhibits a precarious Russian state that orchestrates a European war to solve a geopolitical situation whereby the foreign minister orders mobilization which is supported by the military leaders because of their lengthy mobilization schedules.

Evaluating the Civil-Military Relationship and the Cult of the Offensive

All of the scholars examined above concur with Snyder that speed was a key factor in the decision made for mobilization – that the nation that mobilized first had the best chance for victory.  However, while all historians agree this was crucial in the decision making process, few attempt to explain where this idea emerged from and those that do identify the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  These historians contend that the offensive tactics employed by the Prussians throughout the war, though costly, demonstrated the success of the offensive strategy.  This led to the creation of intricate time dependent mobilization schedules that dominated military doctrine as no major European war occurred again until 1914.  This resulted in the European powers adherence to the offensive even as technological advances in weapons made the offensive more costly. Furthermore, most scholars also agree that the offensive was just as much a preventative strategy as it was an offensive strategy.  Knowledge of a nations’ mobilization timetable can deter other nations from going to war; however, as technology, timing, and practice improve, nations can reach an equilibrium making the offensive first strike vital.  Thus, all continental nations, no matter their objectives, developed offensive military plans in case of a European war and in all cases this involved taking advantage of timetables and rapidly mobilizing before the enemy.

Where these scholars disagree is over the concept of civil-military relations.  As Snyder contends, poor civil-military relations allowed the military to maintain autonomy but this also reveals dogmatism within military doctrine which made military leaders incapable of thinking beyond certain scenarios.  The majority of the works reviewed above support this idea of poor civil-military relations especially those historians that identify Germany and Austria-Hungary as responsible for the war’s outbreak.  These scholars depict a German military wary of Russian and French military power and frustrated by civilian leaders incapable of diffusing the diplomatic situation or failing to accomplish a fait accompli in the Balkans.  The long, contentious, and stressful month of July without any solution and the mobilization of Russian forces ultimately led German and Austrian military leaders to mobilize without consulting civilian leaders.  Those historians that depict good civil-military relations show either a military subordinate to the civilians who ultimately order the military into action or a civil-military relationship in agreement over the decisions made.  However, the dominant view depicts chaos and confusion in the last days of July and, with Russian mobilization, German military leaders cannot delay as their offensive minded mobilization schedules demand immediate action leading them to bypass civilian authority.

Another disagreement among historians centers on timeframe and those that focus their narrative on the July Crisis and those that take a broad view by starting their narrative with the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.  Those scholars that center their analysis on the July Crisis, Fromkin, McMeekin, Ferguson, and Hamilton and Herwig, explore the diplomatic origins of the war.  With this emphasis, these historians focus on the diplomatic cables and discussions that seemed to encompass Europe during the final month of peace and, though they disagree on responsibility for the war, all acknowledge the German preemptive strike into France ignited the Europe war.  Other scholars, such as Taylor, Berghahn, Herrmann, and Stevenson, take a broader view of the war’s origins by beginning their narrative in 1905.  By exploring the long road to war, these historians demonstrate the interrelation between aspects of domestic policy and foreign policy and contend that domestic issues influenced the decisions of diplomats and national leaders yet still exhibit that a small group of individuals hemmed in by domestic issues, whether social or military, finally made the decision for war.  The choice of where to begin an interpretation of the war’s origins also effects how historians understand civil-military relations during the July as those who take the longer road tend to suggest good civil-military relations while those that focus solely on July show contentious civil-military relations.


Fritz Fischer’s study sparked a rival in the study of the First World War’s origins and many of the scholars following him examined military, cultural, social trends such as alliances, imperialism, nationalism, and social Darwinism as factors that led to war; however, as many of the more recent studies reveal, the search for the war’s origins have again shifted back to examining diplomatic events and national leadership.  These scholars are then suggesting that decisions for war were made by each nation’s military and civil leaders independently from social and cultural events rejecting the many of the arguments that emerged from the Fischer school.  This is most likely due to the governmental structure of each nation, as Hamilton and Herwig note, four out of the five nations, except Great Britain, had written constitutions but in three, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, the decision to declare war remained in the hands of powerful elites rather than parliamentarian bodies.  Acknowledging the independence of elite decision makers from parliamentarian bodies and civilians, these scholars explore how national leaders managed crises.  Yet, while much of the recent historiography has focused on the small coteries and their crisis management capabilities, they continue to disagree on civil-military relations.  Moreover, as these national elites figure most prominently into scholars interpretations of the war’s origins it is important that historians focus on who held the war powers and how decisions for war were made.

With this divergence, future interpretation need to integrate both military and diplomatic narratives and take a broader approach to the war beginning with the Russo-Japanese war followed by the First Moroccan Crisis, the Annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary, the Second Moroccan Crisis, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.  Furthermore, by focusing on the longer approach to war, historians should demonstrate how diplomats, civilian leaders, and military decision makers interacted during of the international crises, how each crisis influenced Foreign Ministers and Chiefs of General Staffs to prepare their own staffs and organizations for future international conflicts, and finally show how these past interactions and preparations influenced decision makers during the July Crisis.  Through this approach, historians can demonstrate how the individuals within these small coteries developed the mindsets and strategies they brought to the table during the July 1914 which will not only reveal how preceding internal conflicts shaped perceptions but also demonstrate how civil-military relations evolved over this period and explain whether civilian military officials were in agreement during 1914 or whether the military, constrained by mobilization schedules, acted independently.

[1] David Lloyd George quoted in Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 19.

[2] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and he Cult off the Offensive, 1914 and 1984,” in Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War, rev. ed. edited by Steven E. Miller, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen Van Evera, 20-58, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), 21-22.

[3] A.J.P. Taylor, War by Time-table, (New York: American Heritage Press, 1969), 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 99.

[7] Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), 202.

[8] Ibid., 209.

[9] Ibid., 210.

[10] David Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 229.

[11] Ibid., 213.

[12] Ibid., 229-230.

[13] David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of the War in Europe, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 421.

[14] Ibid., 414.

[15] John Keegan, The First World War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999),  64.

[16] Ibid., 45, 46.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 80-81.

[19] Ibid., 149.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Ibid., 316.

[22] Hamilton and Herwig, 67, 91.

[23] Ibid., 53.

[24] Ibid., 60.

[25] Ibid., 87, 89, 89-90.

[26] Ibid., 91

[27] David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 275.

[28] Ibid., 287.

[29] Ibid., 203.

[30] Ibid., 202.

[31] Ibid., 271.

[32] Ibid., 30.

[33] Ibid., 157.

[34] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 40.

[35] Ibid., 51.

[36] Ibid., 53.

[37] Ibid., 59.

[38] Ibid., 72, 73.

[39] Ibid., 54.

[40] Ibid., 64.


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