What Matt Yglesias Gets Right and Wrong About Germany and the First World War

On Friday, Slate policy wonk Matthew Yglesias decided to dive into World War I history, a topic far removed his commentary on politics and business.  When reading Yglesias’s blog, I generally find myself in disagreement with his arguments but I find his analysis and commentary refreshing.  His work forces me to rethink my own understandings and positions on policy.  However, when it comes to the never-ending debate of responsibility for the First World War, Yglesias should probably have remained just endorsed the book he was citing or perhaps looked more deeply into the historiography. 

In the review like essay he posted on Friday, the 99th anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death, Yglesias summarizes and supports the argument put forth by Christopher Clark in his recent book Sleepwalkers, which I admit I have not read.  According to Yglesias, Clark criticizes the historiography of mid 20th that anachronistically reads the Nazi war for a European empire back into the First World War. Clark’s argument here is hardly unique and since the 1990s numerous historians, such as David Herrmann, David Stevenson, Richard Hamilton, Holger Herwig, and David Fromkin, have debunked the idea of WWI being fought for a German land empire. These historians present diverse and strongly research arguments that show the multitude of factors that led to the European conflagration in 1914. 

I agree with Yglesias’s conclusion that the cause of war was much more complex than Germany’s desire for European empire, as stated above, this argument is well debunked.  Although Yglesias avoids the crises, arms buildup, and military thinking, he does correctly point out the emergence of ethnic nationalism and the Russo-French alliance that helped spur Germany to war (and thankfully avoids Sean McMeekin’s recent book on Russia).

Yet, no matter the ever growing evidence that numerous crises combined with arms buildup slowly congealed and burst into war, Germany still made the ultimate decision to start the war.  Yes, the burden of war guilt should not be solely placed on Germany, but Germany, particularly the General Staff, concluded that war between the European powers was inevitable and 1914 looked much better than 1915.  This decision emerged from political, geographic, and military situation.

Germany’s failure to renew its alliance with Russia allowed the Tsarist Empire to make an end around and align with France, encircling Germany.  According to German estimates, the Entente powers would soon overtake Germany in terms of armaments and manpower.  And, I think one of the most important factors, the German belief in the military offensive.  Prussian military history and particularly the last European war, the Franco-Prussia War, convinced military generals throughout Europe that striking first created a strong advantage.  Furthermore, the speed with which Germany defeated France in 1870 convinced Europeans that any future war would also be short.  These factors would ultimately lead the German General Staff to act first and employ a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan to strike France quickly and then turn east towards Russia.  Thus while a multitude of factors in the early 20th century created an atmosphere that fostered the martial spirit, Germany struck first. 

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