On a Knife Edge

Holger Afflerbach

Verlag CH Beck, Munich, 2018

This is indeed a book review, but given that the book itself is in German and therefore not easily accessible, this review gives a more detailed account than would normally be the case.

Holger Afflerbach is the Professor for European History in the University of Leeds. He is German, and the book is indeed in German – its proper title is Auf Messers Schneide.

In this book, he looks afresh at the conduct of the war, the politics of it all, both national and international, and the state of the home front in Germany. In doing so, he debunks some myths and misconceptions, and provides new insight into the reasons that the war continued for as long as it did.

The book starts with an analysis of pre-war European politics. There was a general belief that in any future war there could not be a victor as such – that a war between the Great Powers would be suicidal for all of them. However, Germany saw itself sandwiched between Russia to the east, and France and Great Britain to the west. There was confidence bordering on arrogance as regards its military capabilities, having defeated Austro-Hungary and then France in the 19th century. The German public had a pride in its armies and faith in the military leadership. All had confidence in the military superiority of their country.

Norman Stone has said that, like all the other armies in Europe, the high command did not comprehend how the impetus in warfare had moved from offence to defence, due to the introduction in the 1880s of ammonium nitrate based explosives, quick-firing artillery such as the French 75mm, and the Maxim-patent machine gun.

The Schlieffen plan was von Moltke’s attempt to knock out France before engaging Russia. Afflerbach points out that it was only in 1912 that General Joffre decided that French war plans should not include invading Belgium and Luxembourg. A French historian has written that France won WWI in 1912, as an invasion of Belgium would have alienated both Great Britain and the USA. In the event, Russia beat everyone to the starting gate, and invaded German territory in East Prussia before any German soldier set foot in Belgium.

Hindenburg was brought out of retirement to nominally lead the campaign in the East. In fact, Ludendorff was the military brain but he had no charm or PR appeal. Hindenburg became the “saviour of Prussia”, as he was given the credit for pushing the Russians out of East Prussia, and a popular figure in Germany as a result. At the end of the war in 1918, as things were collapsing in Germany, Ludendorff was sacked and did a runner to neutral Sweden, disguised as a diplomat.

The myth of the victory at Tannenberg in August 1914 was Hindenburg’s creation. It was, in fact, a late suggestion for the name of the battle, which was actually at Allenstein, some 30kms from the site of the 15th century defeat of the Teutonic Knights, for which it was supposedly vengeance. (One earlier, unmemorable, suggestion for a name had been the Battle near Gilgenburg-Ortelsburg).

The scenario on the home front changed from 1914/15, where there was optimism about a great military victory, to 1917 where the effects of a coal and food shortage lead to the “turnip winter”. This change of mood is well illustrated in the book by contrasting Christmas “selfie” photos of the Wagner family in Berlin in 1915, with plenty of the table, to 1917 where they are wearing overcoats indoors.Affler 1001

Photo above: the Wagner family in Berlin at Christmas 1915. The map behind them shows the Western and Eastern fronts, far into foreign territory. There is a rather immodest display of the family’s possessions including fancy gloves and plenty of food.Affler 2002

Photo above: the same scene at Christmas 1917 with the coal shortage during the “turnip winter”. There is still a pretentious display of their possessions but less impressive than before, with less food on the table, and of course they are wearing their overcoats indoors.

Strikes grew more numerous. In 1915, there were 42,000 strikers but in 1916 this figure grew to 245,000. This is an indication of increasing social unrest and dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, there was increasing unrest by autumn 1918, leading to the November revolution in Germany. Incidentally, the downfall of Kaiser Wilhelm seems to have been almost accidental, as the American view was that he could remain as a monarch in the British mould, with no political power.

The unrestricted U-boat war from 1917 is analysed in the book. It was, in fact, a populist move, much like some of the simplistic policies of US President Trump, or indeed closer to home, that are supposed to solve everything but in reality solve nothing. Those who understood the naval situation were convinced that it could not succeed and they were right: the pressure for the offensive came from the public and the army, not from the navy. The fear was that such a move could bring the USA into the war, which indeed it eventually did. Such a move could paradoxically improve Great Britain’s supply situation, as the USA would go all out to keep Britain supplied.

Professor Afflerbach’s analysis of the figures for the unrestricted U-boat war does cast matters in a more informed light than is often the case. If the tonnage sunk is broken up and expressed per U-Boat or per day of deployment, then the figures for ships sunk are only marginally higher than previously. Indeed, in the Mediterranean the figures were actually lower. The point is that there were more U-boats deployed, not that the tactics made much difference. One of the problems for the U-boats was finding targets. The use of a wolf pack, as happened in WWII, was not feasible, as you need long-range aerial reconnaissance to locate the convoys and transmit that information to the U-boats, which also implies good radio communications. So, in WWI the U-boats had to hang around the shipping lanes, typically the approaches to major ports. For example, the locations of ships sunk by U-boats off the Welsh and Irish coasts are clustered around the ports such as Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown in that era).

The unrestricted U-boat campaign put an end to the peace discussions that had been going on since late 1916. The war positions of the various protagonists were disparate and complex. A very real fear of some in the German leadership was that Russia would disintegrate into chaos of a communist revolution sparked from within, and that would generate mass unrest in Western Europe. The decision, or lack of decisiveness, to let the war continue into 1917 and beyond was to let Europe glide into a catastrophe. The consequences were a dysfunctional post-war order, communist and fascist dictatorships, the “bloodlands” of eastern Europe, a second world war, and the cold war. A compromise peace in late 1916 and early 1917 could thus probably have avoided the subsequent catastrophes of the 20th century.

France and Italy had clear, nationalistic, albeit destructive, war aims. The British war aims were more nebulous. Certainly, both the British and the French had their eyes on new colonies at the expense of the Ottomans, as evidenced by the Sykes-Picot agreement. A central war aim was to put Germany in its place. In other words, the British saw the conflict as a return of the Napoleonic Wars and a struggle to restore the balance of power in Europe. The belief was that could not happen until Germany was defeated, and a negotiated settlement would not do that. The comparison was with the negotiated peace agreement signed in Amiens with Napoleon in 1802, which only lasted a year. However, the continuation of WWI put Britain and France into more debt to the USA and bolstered the USA’s position as a centre of world finance, which continues today. Lord Lansdowne was one voice who sought compromise. On the other hand, the cabinet of Lloyd George saw things as a military issue, not as a political one. Perhaps this was a common failing of British governments throughout the 20th century?

The “victory” which the Entente of 1916 sought was ill-considered goal setting. Neither the collateral damage that was to ensue, ie hundreds of thousands of deaths, was brought into consideration, nor how to bring about a functioning peaceful framework. This only changed with US President Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” and his fourteen points.

This brings us to the key problem of dealing with the Entente – it was a coalition. So, who can you negotiate with? That issue was only resolved in 1918 when the USA came into the war openly, and President Wilson was seen as the man in charge. However, the Kaiser Schlacht offensive of March 1918 was a major obstacle to negotiations at that stage. Then, in October 1918 the sinking of the RMS Leinster between Dublin and Holyhead with the loss of 567 lives hardened President Wilson’s position. (My goodness – an historian who has actually mentioned the Leinster). By 1918, of course, Russia was out of the war and in a civil war, with which the Entente were interfering, remarkably unsuccessfully. Communism was seen as the rampant danger which would “infect” the populations of the West.

A key component of Wilson’s plan was self-determination for national groupings. Indeed, one of the suggestions inside the German government earlier on in the war was to allow the population of Alsace and Lorraine to have a vote on which country they wished to belong to. The problem there is that there would have been consequences for other regions, especially Poland. At one stage, the Germans sought to raise a Polish Legion to help fight the Russians, with little success. But, once you have recognised the Poles as a national group how can you not give them a vote on their future? Where would the territory for this new Poland come from? It could not all come from Russia. Austro-Hungary had a large Polish population, predominantly in Western Galicia, which presumably would have to be given up. In Germany, there was a significant Polish population in part of East Prussia, which is where Falkenhayn, Luddendorf and Hindenberg came from. So, could you cede the homeland of your politico-military leadership to form part of a homeland for the Poles? Politically, it was thought unacceptable at the time, but it is part of Poland today, as is Western Galicia.

Another key aspect of WWI is that it was indeed a world war, not just on the Western Front. It was in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Africa. In short, it was going to be very complex to unwind the military engagements all over the world – who would give up what territory and who would take it over? It was not just a matter of vacating Belgium and deciding what was to happen to Alsace and Lorraine.

It is worth mentioning the issue of the Ottoman Empire, which rather came into the war by the back door. The German High Command (OHL) believed that the Ottoman forces would equate to one percent of the German strength and would need bolstered. (Afflerbach points out the similar undervaluing of the Soviet army by the Allies in WWII, which ultimately pushed the Nazis and their allies out of the Soviet Union and all the way to Berlin.) In the end, the Ottoman army lasted until October 1918 and occupied 1.5 million Entente troops for four years, which was no mean achievement. The author points out the Ottoman view of Gallipoli, which was their first military success in 100 years or so, and which bolstered their morale enormously.

Looking at the strategy of the war, the author refers to two catastrophic political decisions which caused so much death and destruction. The first was not to avoid the war in the first place. He quotes Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and indeed Foch said that one wages war only to get the desired result. The second catastrophic decision was to let the war run on so long, but it is much less discussed today. Lord Lansdowne aired this issue in 1917. The Entente are portrayed in other publications as wanting to prevent a German takeover of Europe, but was this a realistic fear? Afflerbach’s point is that the German system of government was deeply flawed, with a monarch as a central figure. The military leadership was a key political force that suffered from arrogance and tunnel vision, and a lack of reality. Germany’s allies, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, were even more compromised, with moribund structures, certainly in the case of the first two. However, the Entente increasingly had imperialistic goals as the war progressed, and was less and less looking for an end to the war.

Professor Afflerbach opines that the two strategic mistakes which the German regime made were, firstly, the invasion of Belgium and, secondly, the U-boat war. The invasion of Belgium made it virtually certain that Britain would enter the war on the side of the French. The U-boat war of 1917/18 brought in the Americans as participants when perhaps otherwise they might have remained behind the scenes, possibly pressuring all sides for a political settlement.

So, the old order was destroyed by autumn 1918 and the new order did not function. But it could have been otherwise – it was all on a knife edge. In many ways, the problem for Germany and her allies was how to get out of the mess that they had created in 1914, and indeed they did try to do so, with an absence of success. They were in defensive positions on the Western Front and knew they could not win, especially once the US bolstered France and Britain with finance and supplies, and eventually with soldiers. The various voices in the German regime could not come up with a common position to solve the deadlock, in terms of what to concede, at various stages. As we have seen, the Entente were pushing their own war aims and perhaps would not have agreed to any negotiated settlement, earlier than they did.

Professor Afflerbach’s analysis of the situation is as follows:

The international club of war prolongers lived under a chimera, a concept of “victory”, which they expected to be the solution to the political problems, many of which emerged because of the war, and those existing ones that were aggravated because of it. This is not only an element of WWI but of wars in general and also can be seen in many conflicts of our own time.

The way out of the WWI conflict was open for a long time. It was such a bitter conflict with such wide-reaching consequences for various reasons. For a long time, it was perched “on a knife edge”; it lasted too long; it could have had other endings and both the victors and losers knew that; and the victors ultimately, weakened as they were, in their moral, social and financial misery which the war had generated, could not be other than merciless.

Overall, the book is, dare I say it, not particularly light reading, but is an insightful analysis of the political and strategic situation which castes new light on the spurned possibilities for an earlier end to WWI which would have saved so many lives and so much destruction.

Trevor Adams