Jean Jaurès, 1859-1914

by Harry on July 31, 2014

Chris Brooke reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès.



john c. halasz 07.31.14 at 11:25 pm

And the hope of “proletarian internationalism’ died with him, together with the 2nd International.


MPAVictoria 07.31.14 at 11:59 pm

How have I never heard of this man?


Harry 08.01.14 at 12:25 am

That’s what CT is for!


John Quiggin 08.01.14 at 12:50 am

Yes, if there was one last chance of avoiding the catastrophe of the Great War, that was the end of it.


bob mcmanus 08.01.14 at 1:14 am

Thanks for this. Following Brooke’s link to Marc Mulholland’s paper, which is worth reading.

Marxists of Strict Observance Second International Defence and Question of War …Mulholland. MM says Juares did have a commitment and plan for the self defence of France, one that would reduce the size of a military establishment. AFAIK, and I just checked, the Japanese Socialist and Communist Parties, not politically trivial but not effective, are still committed to the elimination of the JSDF. Sheri Berman gets some snark in the paper.

Lenin, however, could not tolerate an internationalism that simply vindicated the social chauvinism of all nations.‘ In the period between 1789 and 1871, he wrote, the slogan defence of the fatherland was permissible‘. In the imperialist epoch, however, ‘it would be absurd to apply it to a war between the imperialist Great Powers, a war to decide who gets the biggest piece of the Balkan countries, Asia Minor, etc.’

For Lenin, the imperialist stage of endless conflict to repartition the globe between the great powers marked a new epoch. Capitalism had become incompatible with durable civil and political liberty. Lenin insisted upon a fundamental break with Second International socialism which had always been committed to defending electoral constitutionalism and cooperating with bourgeois liberal opposition to authoritarianism. In the advanced countries, Lenin concluded, the era of bourgeois liberty had come to an end, for militarism and capitalism had become indistinguishable. This left only one brutal decision: to choose capitalist dictatorship and endless imperialist war, or to take the path of dictatorship of the proletariat. Such was the apparent choice as understood by early Communists.

Lenin was right, as we see everyday. The horror is that is still not a politically viable position.


MPAVictoria 08.01.14 at 1:27 am

“That’s what CT is for!”

Actually one of the reasons why I love this place!


Anderson 08.01.14 at 2:43 am

MPA – cooler people will recommend more outré sources, but Barbara Tuchman has a chapter on him in The Proud Tower that’s worth reading, like the rest of the book.


Anderson 08.01.14 at 2:46 am

4: would that you were correct. But once Germany decided on war with Russia, its war plan dictated attacking France. Unless France was to engage in a Gandhian orgy of nonresistance, general war was inevitable at that point, by German design.


John Quiggin 08.01.14 at 3:03 am

@8 I don’t think the outbreak of war could have been prevented by August, and it’s even more romantic to suppose that a single individual could do so. But if the German social democrats had voted against war credits, and the French socialists had demanded a negotiated peace at the earliest opportunity, the war might have ended a lot earlier. If anyone could have brought this about (not likely, I admit) it was Jaures.


John Quiggin 08.01.14 at 3:12 am

Also on 8, is that actually correct? Wouldn’t a declaration of neutrality have sufficed? Granted, the German military didn’t have much regard for neutrality, and granted Hitler made the same mistake later, but it would still seem pretty suicidal to start a two-front war when you have the option of one.

I’ll leave it at this. I don’t think the precise sequence of events matters much – the risk of war was built into the imperial alliance system, and the socialist movement was probably never up to the task of stopping it.


ponfed 08.01.14 at 3:23 am

For those of you who understand french :

A translation is probably easy to find. It’s worth it.

It’s actually one of the last songs Brel recorded.


ponfed 08.01.14 at 3:28 am


The sound is much better in this video….

The better sound is worth it, I think cause the accordeon makes me shiver.


Peter T 08.01.14 at 3:56 am

As Great Wars that overturn the established order go, World War I was arguably a bit better than most. It lasted only 5 years, major damage was limited to a narrow swathe of France and Belgium, there were military than civilian casualties, and the total casualties were comparable proportionate to population to previous such episodes. Compare to the 25 years of the Revolutionary Wars and the devastation those left from Cadiz to Moscow, or the 80 years of the Wars of Religion – most of the Irish, a third of Germans and a significant fraction of just about everyone else.

Of course, if you see it as only the first act, with World War II to inevitably follow, then it looks worse. And if you think previous progress could and did bring enlightened humanity to the point where such disagreements could be settled without war, then it must have been someone’s fault (or maybe everyone’s fault).


Watson Ladd 08.01.14 at 4:19 am

The Revolutionary Wars brought the Code Napoleon to Eastern Europe, ended the Ancient Regime, and inaugurated democracy. In 1914 the Social Democrats had the power to vote no and end the war. They failed to do so, and would four years later kill their allies to keep the Junkers in power.


John Quiggin 08.01.14 at 5:20 am

“Of course, if you see it as only the first act, with World War II to inevitably follow, then it looks worse.”

I was waiting for you to get to that point. And then, there’s Stalin


Marc Mulholland 08.01.14 at 8:41 am

I think it’s virtually certain that Jaurès would have been a ‘defencist’ and would have accepted an invitation to join the government. He certainly thought by the time of his death that France had been honorable in seeking peace, and could not be seen as an aggressor. He would, no doubt, have hoped for an early honorable peace, but whether German evacuation of Belgium and France and self-determination for Alsace-Lorraine – pretty much a french minimum – would have been on the table before 1918 is doubtful.


Colonel Blmp 08.01.14 at 8:43 am

Serbia lost a quarter of its population, millions of Armenians were murdered…

It was no picnic, even if Western historiography has managed to bury all that didn’t happen between Ypres and Verdun.


Peter T 08.01.14 at 11:43 am

“And then, there’s Stalin”.

If history is not a train track (and I don’t think it is), then Hitler and Stalin did not follow inevitably. If there were choices in 1914, there were also choices in 1928 and 1932 and 1939 and…

We can identify some key moments, although neither the vote for war credits in 1914 or the alliance system seem terribly relevant. The German ruling circle had lots of experience in by-passing the Reichstag whenever they felt it necessary, and the alliances were all recognised as less than absolutely binding (see, eg, the equivocations of Italy, Turkey, Rumania).

It helps to notice that Europe 1914 was not a happy place. It was a place of underfed and overworked farm labourers, desperately anxious urban workers locked in unending struggles with fearful employers, aristocrats ever more dependent on the state for income and place, bourgeois resentful of aristocratic predominance, and all cross-cut with ethnic movements, militant nationalism and the stresses of modernisation. A good many people looked to war to solve – or at least change – their problems. In Berlin in particular the inner circle – not just the Kaiser but also Moltke, Tirpitz and Bethmann-Hollweg – increasingly saw war as a possible way of turning back all the tides they felt running against them – abroad Russian power, British imperial predominance, US financial and economic muscle, at home “socialism” and ethnic separatism. They made a war in 1914 out of fear. They knew Russia would find it hard to swallow a major diplomatic defeat, for fear that revolution would follow (as in 1905), and they set out to give her one.

People cared about many of the causes at issue – their social positions and arrangements, allegiances to country, class and ethnos – cared enough to fight and go on fighting until millions were dead. There was no major constituency for peace in any of the key belligerents until 1917 at the earliest.


Anderson 08.01.14 at 11:54 am

10: Germany demanded neutrality, but also the occupation of tbe French border fortresses of Toul and Verdun (to be returned after the war). This was not a serious offer; combined with leaving the Russians to be attacked by Germany despite their treaty, I doubt a pacifist govt cd have survived.

As for the effect of Jaures on the German SDs’ voting for war … well, I need that one explained to me. The German govt misled the country into thinking Russia had begun hostilities, and the nationalist surge vs The Slavic Menace was huge.


rea 08.01.14 at 12:50 pm

is that actually correct? Wouldn’t a declaration of neutrality have sufficed?

A consequence of railroads and mass conscription is that any war began as a race. Moving millions of soldiers to the border required elaborate schedules, and any departure from them risked mass chaos and the loss of the war. Germany’s pre-war “France first” plan meant that the bulk of its army was committed to assembling on the French border, and if France did not respond with its own mobilization, it would be helpless. On the other hand, if Germany accepted French declarations of neutrality and somehow sent its troops east, it would be rendering itself incapable of resisting a French attack.


Anderson 08.01.14 at 1:02 pm

I confess I don’t understand the “imperialist alliance system” jibe. Are alliances imperialist by nature?

The French Empire in 1870 had no allies, and got creamed by the Germans. The Third Republic feared a repeat, and secured an alliance with the most obvious counterweight to Germany, Russia – not because Russia was a despotism, but despite that.

WW1 seems to require some ideological rearrangement if one is predisposed not to blame the obvious culprits for war: Austria and Germany. Had they not been devoted to war as an instrument of European policy, the long peace could have continued.


lt 08.01.14 at 1:29 pm

If folks are interested in Jaures, My excellent CUNY colleague has a book coming out in September:


Anderson 08.01.14 at 1:31 pm

… Marc’s article via Quiggin’s link is most interesting; see p 24 re JJ and war. (Tho in view of the German war plan, a “screen” might have given up Paris… not necessarily a war-ender, but a severe blow.)


Marc Mulholland 08.01.14 at 1:36 pm

Fair point, Anderson. and of course, the Maginot ‘screen’ didn’t work out so well in WWII.


jwl 08.01.14 at 1:55 pm


There is no evidence that the Germans could not have held off the French with a relatively small force. The terrain in Alsace-Lorraine was rugged (Vosges mountains), and the criminally stupid French plan involved direct “elan-filled” assaults into the teeth of well-defended border fortresses.

There is a counterfactual novel (“Grey Tide in the East” by Andrew Heller) that probes this exact scenario, with Germany not invading Belgium and prosecuting a defensive war against France in Alsace-Lorraine while throwing the bulk of its forces against Russia in the east. The French army gets slaughtered (as it did in the actual history) while German forces rout the Russians in the east and force a collapse in 1914-1915 instead of the historical Russian collapse in 1917. To me this analysis is fairly convincing.

I see it two ways.

1) Stopping the war. There are a number of contingencies that could have stopped the war, in any of the combatant countries. See the “The Lost History of 1914” by Jack Beatty to see this worked out in detail. Obviously this is to be desired, especially because the war was horrible and saw great death and destruction, including the liquidation of two-thousand plus year communities in Asia Minor (Armenians, Greek) and Europe (Turks), mass famine in Europe (particularly Germany, Poland, and the European Russian provinces), and innumerable other atrocities. Peter T seems to think the entire war only happened in Belgium and France, which is an affliction that seems to affect many Western Europeans.

2) Ending the war earlier, hopefully by 1915. The most likely result from this would have been a German victory, with a humbling of France and defeat of Russia. This would have been easier if Britain had not entered the war and Italy stayed with the Central Powers. This result would have saved the lives of millions and the interwar period would almost certainly been less grim, as German government and society modernized and pacified in the case of victory at great cost. Austria-Hungary would have been spared the mass ethnic cleansing and probably reformed along much more democratic and liberal lines, as the AH Crown Prince Ferdinand desired.

Another interesting book on this is “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I” by Richard Ned Lebow which considers both better and worse worlds in the case of no WW1.


christian_h 08.01.14 at 2:05 pm

Whatever alternate history we imagine, and despite my disagreement with reformist socialism, this was a terrible thing to happen.


Ed 08.01.14 at 3:29 pm

I’ve been reading “The Lost History of 1914” by Beatty myself, and have gotten through the chapters on Germany, Russia, and Britain. The book reinforces my earlier conviction that at least in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain, the politicians running the government were at least less disinclined to go to war since they thought that war would strengthen their hand against serious domestic political challenges. Beatty has found some damning quotes from Asquith to this effect.

While Germany had an elite fearful of SPD electoral gains, the the bourgeois fearful of an uncontrollable army, in Russia actual rioting similar to the March 1917 rioting had broken out in the last week of July 1914 (note the timing). Trotsky at least wrote that he thought that far from causing the Russian Revolution, the war had postponed it by a couple of years.

I’m not up to the chapter on France, but there were actually two major anti-war French politicians (the other was Caillaux) suddenly removed from politics right before the war.


Anderson 08.01.14 at 3:40 pm

“There is no evidence that the Germans could not have held off the French with a relatively small force.”

This was I believe the elder Moltke’s plan: hold in the west, win in the east. Schlieffen argued that the facts on the ground had changed to where this was no longer viable, but permit me to doubt.

… Marc, I know that the German gov’t felt uncertain whether the SDs would support a war, which greatly increased their determination to spin the war as a defensive one. Some of your article suggests the General Staff needn’t have worried quite so much, though it’s unsurprising that understanding the Social Democrats was not one of the generals’ skills. Very interesting stuff – glad to read it!


Ed 08.01.14 at 3:48 pm

The German invasion of Belgium was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. They could have railed the enlarged 1st and 2nd Army, plus the 3rd Army, east by October. That would have left four armies remaining in the West. The corps that mobilized late, that historically were sent east or sent to reinforce the 6th Army, could have been used in either theater (they were historically not used to reinforce the 1st and 2nd Armies and this decision is controversial, but they would have had to march to them, no invasion of Belgium gives Germany more flexibility).

While the Germans never historically tried a strategic movement as big as the one I’m suggesting, in 1915 they did form what became the 11th Army as a reserve intended to participate in a big offensive on the Western Front, wound up using it that year in southern Poland, and then shipped it to Serbia in time to overrun the country by October. To have greater success against Russia than in our time line it wasn’t necessary that all eleven corps or whatever show up in Prussia at the same time, the actual movement would have been staggered.

The French could have invaded Belgium itself, but in both wars the German high command proved very adapt at throwing together forces from second line and recovering units to deal with these sorts of emergencies. Plus in this scenario the Belgian army would have been fighting on the Central Powers side.

The German high command seems to have thought that the country’s need to import essential resources such as nitrate meant that the war had to be short, and that there wasn’t time for a series of limited offensives against Russia to bring Russia to the bargaining table. In the event, the German chemical industry could provide synthetic substitutes for many of these resources. It should be noted that the actual successful 1915 offensives by Germany did not bring Russia to the bargaining table, the Tsar vetoing any separate peace.

I had thought that the Germans asked for the fortresses to guarantee French neutrality, and the French were right to turn this down. However McMeekin alleges what they really wanted was a British guarantee of French neutrality. The German leaders themselves were of two minds, with Wilhelm II wanting to turn the German army against Russia, and Molkte having a nervous breakdown over anything that deviated from the Plan, and everyone else somewhere in the middle of these two positions.


Colonel Blmp 08.01.14 at 3:56 pm

Clark calls the events of July 1914 the “Balkan inception” scenario, and it was the ideal scenario for the French to go to war, as they feared the Russians would not honor the alliance if war between Germany and France had come about because of other issues. It was heavily gamed in Franco-Russian war games before the war.

The Russian aristocrats in charge goaded the Serbians on, thinking the war would collapse Austria and enhance Serbia, while being totally oblivious to the dangers to the Tsarist regime itself.


Anderson 08.01.14 at 5:33 pm

30: there had just been two Balkan wars in the past 2-3 years. It was an obvious possibility a 3d would arise.

As for Russia aristos goading Serbia into war, the technical term there is “bullshit.” Austria wanted to dismember Serbia and wasn’t going to accept any lesser result. Russia was trying to deter Austria – a bit incompetently, but that’s tsarism for ya.


John Quiggin 08.01.14 at 9:46 pm

A minor point, but according to this source, the German Ambassador, on his own inititative removed the demand for Verdun etc from the neutrality ultimatum presented to the French government


Robert 08.02.14 at 4:59 am

Was there an anti-revisionist Marxist movement of any political and intellectual strength in France? I think of Sorel as the spokesperson for a more hard line approach than Jaures, but he could hardly be called an orthodox Marxist.


Peter T 08.02.14 at 10:10 am

re 25: I was thinking of the comparative destruction visited upon towns and cities in the western zone as against the east. The Armenian genocide slipped my mind, for which I apologise – the more so as I passed through the area once and was moved by the countless ruined villages.

re 32: Although the German ambassador modified the terms, the source linked notes that the French were aware of the original demands through cryptography.

Most of the counterfactuals assume that a victorious Germany would have steadily moved towards liberal modernity. From my reading, that is exactly the outcome the ruling elites hoped to avert through war. Possibly the best that could be hoped for is a period of Metternich-like reaction followed by upheaval.


Colonel Blmp 08.02.14 at 1:08 pm

An Austrian-Serbian war would have been a limited regional affair.

Russian meddling with its pan-Slavic dreams made into World War I.


jwl 08.02.14 at 1:20 pm

Peter T,

There was a lot more going on than the Armenian genocide. The British blockade of Germany that continued after the war meant famine in Germany and much of eastern Europe. The Balkans weren’t a picnic either, and Russia and Asia Minor endured fighting and mass civilian deaths into the 20s.

There is no way to be sure, but a victorious Germany after protracted struggle would probably have liberalized and adopted much more populist measures and reduced the power of the aristocracy, as happened in Britain and France.


Anderson 08.02.14 at 2:20 pm

I don’t know how to guess what a victorious Germany would have looked like, but it’s clear that success in 1866 and 1870 helped keep the Junkers in power. I don’t see why another triumph would not have likewise validated their rule.

35, your generous view of Austria’s privilege to attack Serbia with impunity befits your name, by gad, sir!


Colonel Blimp 08.02.14 at 6:47 pm

Whether the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia after the assassination was too harsh, or justified, is of limited importance 100 years later.

The relevant question is how were these petty Balkan squabbles allowed to generate a global conflict.


Anderson 08.02.14 at 10:22 pm

38: because Germany promised Austria it would go to war with Russia (and hence France) if Russia defended Serbia.

Remove the blank check, and what do you have? Austria threatens Serbia. Russia goes ” the hell you say.” Austria wails to Germany. Germany points out that Balkan problems are not German problems. Austria backs down.

Austria in fact knew German support was not automatic, which is why they sent Hoyos to Berlin to get a guarantee of support. No guarantee, no war.

The bizarre thing, as Otte points out in his new book July Crisis, is that war with Russia was entirely foreseeable, but not discussed when Hoyos got his guarantee. Germany may have kidded itself that Russia would stay out … but when Russia reacted to the Austrian ultimatum, Germany failed to rein in Austria, choosing va banque instead.


Peter T 08.03.14 at 1:34 am

From Berlin’s point of view:

1. Austria monsters Serbia, Russia humiliated, Russian government discredited, probable revolution, Germany expands east and deals with socialists internally untroubled by liberal powers, Austria deals with national questions from position of strength; or

2. Austria monsters Serbia, France and Russia intervene, excuse for war with hoped-for outcomes as above; or

3. Nothing is done, Austria continues to weaken, socialist forces grow, civilisation as the German elites define it collapses, and it all ends with guillotines and communism in women.


John Quiggin 08.03.14 at 3:44 am

And similar stories could be told for the ruling classes of France (back Russia or give up any chance of recovering Alsace-Lorraine and restoring its natural position of pre-eminence in Europe) and Russia (back Serbia or give up its ambitions, still active and poisonous today, of a Pan-slavist settlement which Russia would naturally dominate).

England, being the biggest beneficiary of the status quo, was of course the least interested in war. But that didn’t stop Lloyd George (Mansion House Speech 1911) threatening war in response to vaguely defined threats that Britain might be “treated where her interests were vitally affected as if she were of no account in the Cabinet of nations”.

All the Great Powers of Europe were willing to go to war for essentially trivial reasons and all were destroyed, or at least gravely damaged, as a result.

Sorry, I know I shouldn’t bother with this, but I can’t help myself.


Anderson 08.03.14 at 5:04 am

France backing Russia was self defense. What hope would France have in a Europe where Germany had subdued Russia?

It is possible to forget what power started 4 wars in 50 years. And again, I don’t get the strange desire to hold everyone at fault. Similar to the Nation arguing that poor Putin is sadly abused by Europe & US.

.., Peter, I think that was the General Staff’s view; a weakness of Otte’s book is that he scants the military side of things. But of course the army’s grasp of politics and policy was ignorant in the extreme. Bismarck deserves blame for helping to create a monster that no one cd control after his fall.


Peter T 08.03.14 at 10:22 am

“All the Great Powers of Europe were willing to go to war for essentially trivial reasons”.

If you can still say this, you really don’t understand it. I’ll say it again: France, Britain and Russia were not prepared to go to war over trivial causes – that’s why the proposed a conference, the accepted way of dealing with European issues. They were prepared to to go to war to prevent Germany gaining a position from which it could limit their choices to acquiescence to German policies or loss of vital interests (the Empire for Britain, Belgium and frontier districts for France, an enhanced prospect of violent revolution for Russia). Germany and Austria were prepared to force the issue because they feared the status quo threatened what their elites saw as vital interests. Vienna feared the break-up of the empire, Berlin feared creeping liberalism and an end to its ability to resist this by playing the military card.

These were, for the people concerned, very high stakes. Just as high as, for instance, as the stakes for the southern slave system in the 1850s. In both cases they thought (probably correctly) that they were doomed without a war. The more percipient thought they were doomed even with a war. But you should note that it is very hard to persuade people – especially powerful people – to let their power and culture die quietly


jwl 08.03.14 at 11:15 am


France started the Franco-Prussian war. They declared war over a telegram (voted on by French rrepresentatives), were the first to mobilize, and invaded German territory. The French thought they would win easily and wanted to annex German territory and prevent any alliance between the southern German states and Prussia.

They had been doing exactly that kind of aggressive warfare against Germans as and others for at least the last 150 years (remember Napoleon and Louis XIV) and thought they could continue. They were wrong and Bismarck took advantage do their aggression and stupidity to form the German Empire.


jwl 08.03.14 at 11:16 am

Triumph in over countries after the slaughter of WWI did not validate rule by elites in other countries. Why would it in Germany?


Colonel Blimp 08.03.14 at 12:19 pm

Matthew Yglesias once summed up some of the ‘Blame Germany’ anachronistic opinions in this thread:

From the standpoint of, say, 1960 or 1980, it was easy to look at World War I overwhelmingly through the lens of World War II and say that this was just another example of Germany’s quest for continental hegemony and that European peace has only ever been achieved by German disunity. But from the present day, things look different. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere, it’s a bit harder to regard Serbia’s irredentist agenda in the early 20th century as so benign. After 9/11 and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a bit easier to regard a terrorist attack as very genuinely being a cause of large-scale political outcomes even if the broader geopolitical context is always relevant. Last and by no means least, after the Lisbon Treaty, it’s quite a bit harder to regard the Habsburg dynasty’s multi-ethnic Central European polity as inherently doomed and outdated. With Croatia’s accession to the European Union, virtually all the Habsburg lands are now once again part of a loose but substantial political federation and it’s not totally crazy to imagine the relevant territory having evolved in that direction without passing through the veil of world wars and communist dictatorships.


Anderson 08.03.14 at 1:24 pm

JWL – you are doubtless aware of the Ems telegram, Napoleon’s precarious position, etc. Bismarck wanted the war and was sly enough to make it inescapable for Napoleon by the political standards of the day. But you are right to correct me, since it’s not straightforward.

… Yglesias is straw-manning. The issue isn’t whether Serbia was a hero. Poland in 1939 had little to recommend it either. As for “outdated,” it’s the pre-Fischer contrarianism that’s out of date. Fischer himself overstated his case (I don’t think the war was planned out in 1912–the Germans weren’t that sharp), but the #Slatepitch view of the Allies as the real villains has ceased to command the consensus view, pace Christopher Clark.


Bruce Wilder 08.03.14 at 4:42 pm

Matthew Yglesias isn’t attacking a strawman. He’s noting the way current events tend to color popular views of historical events.


Rich (In Name Only) in Reno 08.03.14 at 8:07 pm

Victor Blasco Ibanez’ “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1916) briefly alludes to Jaures’ assassination in chapter V. I picked up a 1920s A.L. Burt reprint edition at a local Salvation Army and decided to give it a go. I have developed the habit of referring to Wikipedia whenever I encounter people and events referenced in older works with which I am unfamiliar, and so that’s how I learned about Jean Jaures.


jwl 08.04.14 at 1:20 am


I’m just going to quote from wikipedia directly, since it has a decent summary here:

“The immediate cause of the war resided in the candidacy of a Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Prussian prince, to the throne of Spain. France feared encirclement by an alliance between Prussia and Spain. The Hohenzollern prince’s candidacy was withdrawn under French diplomatic pressure, but Otto von Bismarck goaded the French into declaring war by altering a telegram sent by William I. Releasing the Ems Dispatch to the public, Bismarck made it sound as if the king had treated the French envoy in a demeaning fashion, which inflamed public opinion in France.[9] For his part, Napoleon III also sought war, particularly for the diplomatic defeat in 1866 in leveraging any benefits from the Austro-Prussian War,[11] and he believed he would win a conflict with Prussia. He also expected it would resolve growing domestic political problems.[12] Six days later, France declared war on Prussia and the southern German states immediately sided with Prussia.[9]”

If you are declare war and invade another country, then you are responsible for starting the war. Bismarck may have goaded France into being stupid, but he refused to start the war precisely to paint it as French aggression against Germany, which he knew would bring the southern German states to his side since they were well acquainted with invading French troops (see the previous hundred plus years).

One doesn’t get to retroactively call France the non-aggressor here. French troops crossed the border on 2 August and invaded the Saarland.

If you think Germany was an aggressor in WWI by invading Belgium, then France was the aggressor in the Franco-Prussian War by invading Saarland.


John Quiggin 08.04.14 at 2:17 am

@Peter T. Sure, they saw these things as vital interests. No one is going to launch a major war over something they themselves see as trivial. It doesn’t change the fact that, compared with the alternative of world war, these perceived “vital interests” were, as I said, essentially trivial: domestic political advantage, a free hand in imperial adventure, irredentist claims and so on.


Anderson 08.04.14 at 4:12 am

Bruce, no one in 1914 was under any illusions about the Serbs. Yglesias suggests otherwise. He is smart on many subjects. This isn’t one of them.


Peter T 08.04.14 at 6:42 am

@ John

I am not sure what “trivial” means here, other than “trivial to me personally”. In which case I can only point out that those involved were not Quiggins.


John Quiggin 08.04.14 at 6:50 am

@Peter How about “trivial in comparison to 10 million dead, the mutual ruin of the contending parties, and the seeds of even greater catastrophes to come”?


Bruce Wilder 08.04.14 at 6:54 am

They weren’t ordering world war off a restaurant menu, after hearing a description from a waiter and checking their wallet for sufficient cash.

I’m with Peter T on this: “France, Britain and Russia were not prepared to go to war over trivial causes – that’s why they proposed a conference, the accepted way of dealing with European issues.” But, I would place heavy qualifications on that endorsement.

The critical question — a question the answer to which is tied up with “the precise sequence of events” insofar as some interpretative hypotheses are not compatible with those facts — is, why wasn’t there a conference?

There’s a strong case to be made that elites in several countries had, to varying degrees, and in a multiplicity of ways, lost an essential degree of administrative control with the rapid advance of the industrial revolution. The rise of a mass politics, a national politics of national interests conflicted with the persistence of a feudal aristocracy’s grip on foreign policy and military affairs.

The way in which the elites, which governed the Powers conceived of their countries’s vital interests were not trivial, but they were, in important respects, anachronistic and, in several countries, stunted by the corruption of bureaucracies isolated from metropolitan and parliamentary politics, and oriented toward an Imperial Great Game, both romantic and ethically handicapped, as well as economically ill-informed.

In the event, the elites did not know how to channel a national interest corresponding to a nation of mass-participation politics. More prosaically, they had little idea how to control the deployment of a mass military, possessed of industrial firepower. Ironically, the most administratively sophisticated of the Powers, Germany, could not control its own mobilization well enough to permit a timely negotiation of a conference. Nor could it control the rapid deployment of its massive army well enough to actually win the initial battle along the Western Front.

The ambition of the plan — to knock out France and Russia in rapid sequence — combined with the limitation of technical means at hand, to unintentionally preclude the pursuit of policy by other means.


LFC 08.04.14 at 6:30 pm

A problem w this discussion (having read some of the thread though not every word) is that it’s operating on two (or more) different levels. On the ‘structural’ level, there were certain ‘permissive’ “causes” of the war, such as the European alliance system as it had evolved and the technical limits on military flexibility resulting from railroad timetables, mobilization logistics, etc. On what cd be called (sorry for the word, I can’t think of a better) the ‘conjunctural’ level, there are the specifics of who said what to whom and when, Germany’s ‘blank check’ to Austria, the relative willingness of the different natl elites to risk war, etc. There’s also a ‘cultural’ level that hasn’t figured much in this thread (except a bit in, e.g., BW’s remarks on mass politics and nationalism and some of Peter T’s remarks).

Esp. on the conjunctural level, I think a modified or toned-down version of the Fischer thesis prob. still explains quite a lot (though I must caveat that I’m not an expert on this and haven’t read the current crop of WW1 bks, only a couple of reviews); and some more recent research (mentioned in that K. Lieber article that Anderson will recall my citing previously elsewhere) suggests that the German Gen. Staff was prepared for, or at least expected, a long war, which they tended to consider ‘inevitable’ rather than undesirable.

However, on the structural level JQ’s perspective prob has some merit since all the Great Powers have to share some resp. for the intl system as it evolved pre-1914. There are some real disagreements betw JQ and his critics here, but there’s also some talking past, b/c they are thinking in terms of these different levels.

Finally, that Yglesias quote is unimpressive. I know what he’s trying to say (sort of), but he doesn’t say it well and he unhelpfully mushes together issues of causation w other issues. There is something to be written about how present perspectives always influence our views of the past, but that Yglesias quote I don’t think is it.

p.s. I think Snyder’s account from 20 yrs ago in ‘Myths of Empire’ (while not the ‘whole story’ as no such acct can be) is fairly convincing, re: how the political alignments and ‘cartelized’ politics of Wilhelmine Germany, which were partly a result of its relatively late industrialization, determined or heavily influenced its foreign policy from Weltpolitik (c.1897) onward. If the alignments had been different — eg if the SDP had been able to form an alliance with the export-oriented sectors of industry that would have benefited from lower tariffs — things might have been different. But who knows for sure. (Also I wd note that on a previous WW1 thread someone who appeared to know what he or she was talking about urged people to read Rohl (on origins) and I. Hull, ‘Absolute Destruction’, on conduct of the war and mil. culture.)


john c. halasz 08.04.14 at 6:47 pm

The Neo-Marxist historian Arno Mayer argued that domestic politics were the primary driver of the various elites decisions to go to war, that the pressures of revolutionary class struggles were at a boiling point and the war amounted to the counter-revolutionary option.


Ronan(rf) 08.04.14 at 7:27 pm

Isn’t the point about looking for ‘structural’ causes also (whether at the international level, domestic pressures etc) that it implies you can’t examine the decision making process in each state independently, or even in a directly linear fashion (A did X so B did Y)
Instead the actions of all the parts of the system react in all sorts of subtle, unpredictable ways and create outcomes that can’t be analysed just by looking at each part in isolation (ie looking at each countrys decision making process in isolation, or even just as a *direct* reaction to another countrys actions)
I don’t know if that makes sense, in fact it’s probably hogwash, and I also don’t think it means you cant asign ‘blame'(ie for the main culprits) either.
I mean there do seem to be some similarities with what is going on in the Levant and North Africa now, or in Central Africa over the past 2 decades, or Latin America over the second course of the 20th century,so perhaps there are some larger structural similarities with how these regional wars/breakdowns occur ?
Isnt it just that JQ is thinking like an eonomist (looking for larger patterns) whereas his opponents are thinking as historians (looking for direct causes and a coherent story)
Anyway, Im not sure that makes sense, but interesting thread all the same.


LFC 08.04.14 at 8:02 pm


Isn’t the point about looking for ‘structural’ causes also (whether at the international level, domestic pressures etc) that it implies you can’t examine the decision making process in each state independently, or even in a directly linear fashion (A did X so B did Y)

Instead the actions of all the parts of the system react in all sorts of subtle, unpredictable ways and create outcomes that can’t be analysed just by looking at each part in isolation (ie looking at each countrys decision making process in isolation, or even just as a *direct* reaction to another countrys actions)
I don’t know if that makes sense, in fact it’s probably hogwash

I don’t think its hogwash; it’s probably more or less what, e.g., R. Jervis argues in System Effects (as w too many other bks, on the shelf but haven’t really read).

In the IR-theory terms that every 1st yr grad student learns, we’re more or less talking about the Waltzian ‘second image’ (domestic drivers of foreign policy) and the ‘third image’ (the structural context). [from Waltz, ‘Man, the State and War’] (There’s also the so-called ‘second image reversed’ (intl influences on domestic e.g. econ. or other policies).)

I think a good explanation here wd draw on both 2nd and 3rd images, and also prob incorporate what you refer to as unpredictable or indirect ‘system effects’ (though the last is no doubt easier said than done). One can analyze decision making and political pressures from a purely domestic standpt in each country, but obvs (esp w elite f-p dec-making) not in isolation from what the other relevant countries are doing.

I mean there do seem to be some similarities with what is going on in the Levant and North Africa now, or in Central Africa over the past 2 decades, or Latin America over the second course of the 20th century,so perhaps there are some larger structural similarities with how these regional wars/breakdowns occur?

Perhaps. How’s that for a non-answer? ;)

Isnt it just that JQ is thinking like an economist

JQ is also maybe thinking like (horror of horrors) a political scientist (or some of them, at any rate).


LFC 08.04.14 at 8:06 pm

p.s. except he’s less shy about moral judgments, wh/ is usu. ok afaic, though perhaps shd be applied w some caution to ‘why did ww1 start and who’s to blame’.


Bruce Wilder 08.04.14 at 9:09 pm

john c. halasz @ 57

On the evidence, I think the “boiling point” metaphor might be seriously misleading, but still making an important point. Some kind of breakthrough had occurred for socialism and for inclusion of wage workers in the body politic about the time Marx died. The rise of socialist and labor parties, and the trans-formative effect on liberal politics, was remarkable over the course of a couple of decades.

The legitimacy of the old elite had already been foreclosed before the war began. It was a bit late for counter-revolution, when the House of Lords had lost its veto; Ireland had the promise of home rule; the Catholic Church in France had been thoroughly disestablished; the mighty Czar had lost a war to the Japanese, and the once-powerful Ottoman Empire could be handily undone by the comic opera forces of the Balkan League.

The last redoubt of the old order, the Hapsburg Empire, had made itself into an ungovernable administrative monstrosity, by the desperate efforts of Franz Joseph to frustrate liberal progress and reform and nationalism, with a divide and rule strategy. The desire to punish Serbia militarily was counter-revolutionary in its motivation and its means. (And, honestly, Serbia was a criminalized society.) But, in accord with the strictures of the old order’s “imperial alliance system”, the execution of that impulse should have been negotiated at a conference of the Great Powers.

The actual trigger for general war — Germany invading Belgium on its way to France — was not counter-revolutionary; it was just aggressive war prosecuted by a modern nation-state, quite possibly because the administrative imperatives of organizing a massive, industrially-equipped conscript army had outrun the political and strategic control of monarchs and politicians.

The pervasive, unexamined conventional wisdom among the military types and conservative politicians that a general war would, somehow, be a good thing, relieve a felt tension, almost certainly contributed to the nonchalance, which left the Great Powers unable to manage — or crucially at the outset, restrain — their forces.

The closest analogy in current events might be the way the NSA/CIA secret state (plus globalized financial capital?) seems to have burgeoned beyond the purposeful control of political leaders, under the impulse of novel technical possibility and the anxieties attendant on a collapse of the American imperium in the wake of 9/11. They have this great, novel power, but they just bumble about, unable to accomplish anything of note, unable to see either the necessity, or practical means, to constrain the power. Whatever that is, it is not counter-revolution exactly, since there’s no ancien regime still extant, only an obsolete liberal state and international order waiting to crumble. That might be a not-bad mirror for the events leading up to 1914.

LFC @ 56 the ‘structural’ level, . . . ‘permissive’ “causes” . . . ‘conjunctural’ level, . . .specifics of who said what to whom . . . There’s also a ‘cultural’ level

The problem, I would submit, lies with the topic. The causes of the First World War lie in the breakdown of systems and institutions and a political culture, that ceased to exist with the war and with which subsequent generations were wholly unfamiliar. Leaders were not able to guide the vehicles they were nominally charged to drive, because the vehicles were so old they had broken down or so new, no one understood how to drive. It was a revolutionary event, a singularity if you like, and, like the French Revolution, it was hard to understand what had gone before, even for people, who had lived through its last decades; its leaders were carried along like flotsam on a tsunami, following an earthquake. It’s worth noting how different the historiography of the Second World War is: the story of the Second World War is a story of Great Men astride industrial war machines — coherent, organized nation-states prosecuting total war. The statesman and generals, even when they err, seem to know their business, so that it is possible to compress the narrative of the doings of nations into the doings of their leaders. Hitler, FDR, Stalin, Churchill, Marshall, Zhukov, Hitler, Rommel, Patton, MacArthur, DeGaulle, etc. The First World War produced very few great men — Ataturk? — and some seriously flawed near-Greats like Wilson, Clemenceau, Kitchener, Petain, Hindenburg, David Lloyd-George while flushing away the Kaiser, the Czar and a large number of simply appalling politicians and generals.

When you cannot pin anything on the leaders, because they were atop palsied beasts, you have to tackle the harder task of narrating the multiple layers of culture and conflicting, competing factions, forces and ideas.

People, who are familiar with the liberal internationalist order put in place following the Second World War, just have a lot of trouble grasping the pre-WWI order, with its decaying Empires and emerging nation-states, the reactionary elements enriched by the on-rushing modernism, the final mad dash to create new colonial empires. Until I read Piketty, I honestly do not think I had fully grasped how skewed and archaic income distribution had remained right up to the breakout of war, and I’m still now sure what to make of its political implications. How does one explain the Serbian Black Hand or the Young Turks, or any of the secret societies that drove European politics in the 19th century — the Masons in France or the Filiki Eteria, the granddaddy of Balkan secret societies?

The order put in place following the Napoleonic Wars was a reactionary order, fearful of the potential of the nation-in-arms. It was trying to keep alive an international politics in which only a few Great Powers had anything like a claim on independent sovereignty, and much of Europe was made up of principalities, governed by hereditary right, by constantly inter-marrying dynasties, great and small. The mid-century formation of German and Italian nation-states greatly reduced the scope for that sort of international politics in Europe.

From the 1878 Congress of Berlin onward, the major tasks were managing the clashes of a few hundred soldiers or a few ships in far-flung oceans or darkest Africa, and the disassembly of the Ottoman Empire. How many Frenchmen faced Kitchener at Fashoda? 120? How long was the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885? Two weeks?

It was a big deal in the late 19th century to have one’s polity elevated to the status of an independent state. The Great Powers did it reluctantly, when they did it at all. Tiny Montenegro got its independence almost inadvertently, when the Congress of Berlin absent-mindedly drew a boundary for it with Ottoman Turkey.

The imperial alliance system really wasn’t compatible with mass conscript armies or the mass-participation politics of national interest that they entailed. The outbreak of war catalyzed a transformation of nation-states, and the old elites were instantly obsolete and de-legitimated. I think that the pervasive unawareness of how much international politics had changed justifies the “sleepwalking” hypothesis or something like it, although walking zombies might be closer to the truth.

Woodrow Wilson deserves a lot more credit than he gets for marshalling expertise to propose a new architecture of international relations. Identifying the breakdown of the Great Power system as a breakdown was a big deal, in finally getting a resolution to the war, even if the negotiations at Versailles went very badly wrong, informed as they were by old prejudices and concepts, or uninformed arrogance regarding the power of new ones, in equal measure.


LFC 08.04.14 at 9:36 pm

@B Wilder: I think I agree w much or most of that.

Levy and Vasquez, eds., The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics, and Decisionmaking (Cambridge UP, 2014) wd seem on point here, based on the blurb/description.

link (Amazon)


bob mcmanus 08.04.14 at 9:55 pm

61: BW, yeah that’s good and interesting, although as I often say, a little too top-down in most of the analysis. It started better. Control structures are not necessarily reflective of the masses, but they may be responsive.

And the parallels with current conditions could use more work. Isn’t the fairly obvious arrogance and impotence of the post-WWII idealized NGO’s like the UN, IMF, central banks, military alliances, semi-official cultural exchanges comparable symptoms? A lot of people are saying Empire (American and globalized) is in collapse, but besides geo-political-military floundering, how else does that show?


William Timberman 08.04.14 at 10:01 pm

Sclerosis gave us Zouaves marching confidently into the muzzles of machine guns. Worse, it gave us Marshall Haig sending the rest of that unfortunate generation over the top at Passchendaele three years later.

What have we learned in 100 years? A lot. Precious little. Context, as always, is everything. Yeah, we tortured some folks, but we have every confidence that the world won’t end until we’ve had our way with it….


LFC 08.04.14 at 10:06 pm

b mcmanus:
And the parallels with current conditions could use more work

This is the weakest part, I think, of what BW wrote, partly b/c there aren’t IMO a lot of obvs parallels. (Though mcmanus wd presumably disagree.) The post-WW2 order is under some stress but not anywhere near the pt of crumbling as BW suggests. Plus, when/if it does crumble the result is unlikely to be a global great-power war. But that’s a whole other discussion.


bob mcmanus 08.04.14 at 10:08 pm

For instance, if Ukraine and the Levant are new proxy wars, Empire seems to be able to provide material support quite adequately to forces that are incoherent, incompetent, and pretty much out of control. This strikes me as a ground grass roots problem.

WWI: Leaders were not able to guide the vehicles they were nominally charged to drive as you say, iow, a coherent mass mobilization, so widespread as to perhaps be self-organizing or at least self mobilizing, and pretty easily co-opted in the generation following.

So you know, what are the people doing now, on their own initiative? What’s happening in the Donbass, Mosul, and I learned today there is a little war between Armenia and Azerbijan. What does Facebook mean, and what can emerge from it?


Peter T 08.05.14 at 12:04 am

LFC at 59 is helpful, and I’d agree with most of Bruce at 61.

What I’m trying to get across to JQ is the central role of what might be called the pathology of political fear. I could produce a good many quotes from German, Austrian and Russian leaders to the effect that, yes, a great war would probably/certainly mean the end society as they knew it – the society they were trying to defend. Yet they did it anyway. Because they feared it was doomed anyway. For some it offered a slim but definite possibility of escape, for others it was more like a last grand gesture. Fear will do that. So will the tension of unending stressful competition – there’s a moment when people cry “fuck it” and kick the board over just so they don’t have to go on calculating any more.

The old order was, for lots of people, a world of stressful competition and creeping fear. It was particularly so for the German, Austrian and Russian elites. There was a strong current of this even in Britain (see the reactions to Lloyd George’s Limehouse speech, and think how elites felt about being mocked and threatened by a low-born Chancellor).

If there is a modern parallel, it’s with, eg, the way Republicans are prepared to repeatedly break long-standing conventions and recruit deranged allies in the service of short-term resistance to liberalism. At some point they will destroy the system they claim to defend in the name of saving it. And the world will change.


John Quiggin 08.05.14 at 12:33 am

@67 I don’t disagree with any of this. Indeed, a large part of the reason I go on about this is because I don’t think the issues have changed much in 100 years. The reasons various elites chose to go to war in 1914 are, as you say, similar (not identical) to those that drive advocates of war today, and apologetics for those who caused the catastrophe of 1914 serve also to advance the cause of war today.

All I am doing is talking about the pre-1914 elites (and the large body of the public who supported them) the same way I talk about Republicans and other warmongers today. I don’t see any need for historical relativism here – the only truly important difference between then and now is that we have the experience of the disaster and those who created it did not.


Peter T 08.05.14 at 9:38 am


Fair enough. But then the focus shifts from blame (my thesis above is that, although Berlin and Vienna were the drivers, and their decisions monstrously wrong, they were indeed in the grip of a genuine dilemma) to how to avoid this sort of breakdown. Finger-pointing won’t do that, only understanding.

It’s not total war we have to fear (for one thing states can no longer achieve the level of mobilisation needed), but breakdown of state capacity to address environmental and related issues. This has all the intertwined domestic/international/faction/short-term vs long dilemmas that great power war posed in 1914, and sometimes I think we are heading in the same way towards a brick wall.


Bruce Wilder 08.05.14 at 8:48 pm

bob mcmanus: the parallels with current conditions could use more work. Isn’t the fairly obvious arrogance and impotence of the post-WWII idealized NGO’s like the UN, IMF, central banks, military alliances, semi-official cultural exchanges comparable symptoms? A lot of people are saying Empire (American and globalized) is in collapse, but besides geo-political-military floundering, how else does that show?

LFC: there aren’t IMO a lot of obvs parallels. . . . The post-WW2 order is under some stress but not anywhere near the pt of crumbling

Peter T: sometimes I think we are heading in the same way towards a brick wall

@ 61 I wasn’t intending to draw parallels with the present, so much as to implicitly draw contrasts.

It seems to me that 19th century Europe was on the way up the mountain, building and expanding, while our 21st century world is on the way down the mountain. They might hit a wall; we might fall off a cliff.

A wall and a cliff might look similar, but in terms of encountering them as obstacles, the experience is completely different.

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