The Great War of 1911 (updated)

by John Q on January 7, 2016

I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.

I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.

The Great War of 1911

Looking back at the Great War raises lots of questions. Was it, as most observers concluded in the aftermath of the war, the inevitable product of a clash of rival imperialisms, or of rising class tensions. Or should we prefer the views of the revisionists who stress the war guilt of the Entente powers, and particularly of France? Or was it, perhaps, a tragic and avoidable accident?

Starting with the now-dominant revisionist case, there’s no doubt that French aggression against Morocco, going back to the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06, was the proximate cause of the war. Not content with the effective control over Moroccan affairs gained in that episode, France used the rebellion against the Sultan to establish a formal “protectorate”. The contemptuous dismissal of the Algeciras conference agreement as a “scrap of paper” presaged the entire French war strategy. Most notable was Joffre’s invasion of Belgium (doubtfully accepted as necessary by Poincare, who had just displaced Joseph Caillaux as Prime Minister). The postwar emergence of an anti-Semitic dictatorship, headed by Marshal Petain, is seen as representing an inherent French tendency to authoritarianism and aggression, reflected in everything from the Bonapartes to l’affaire Dreyfus

The other Entente powers come off little better on this account. Lloyd George was already the dominant figure in the British government and signalled his aggressive intent with the Mansion House speech. The fall of Herbert Asquith as a result of a sex scandal propelled Lloyd George into the Prime Ministership at a crucial moment. His ascension ensured that there would be no negotiated peace. The Entente with the Czarist empire adds weight to the indictment. The aim of encircling and crushing the nascent democracies of the German-speaking world could scarcely be more obvious.

But it is the documents unearthed from wartime archives that are seen by revisionists as sealing the case. The Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East, the Constantinople Agreement handing the centre of the Islamic world to Russia, and the offers to Italy under the Treaty of London make the case for Entente war guilt seem unarguable.

Nevertheless, many historians continue to argue that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were just as aggressive and expansionist, and would have been equally keen to start a war, given the right pretext and timing. The massive reparations imposed on the defeated Entente powers, and the conversion of much the Russian empire into German-ruled kingdoms and principalities (seen by revisionists as both necessary to prevent another two-front war and justified on the basis of Entente aggression) are viewed very differently by this school.

Whatever the guilt of their leaders, it is hard to see that the people of Eastern Europe had done anything to deserve the brutal terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Nor was German rule any improvement in the colonies stripped from the British empire. And of course, the Germans had signed secret treaties of their own, not to mention plans for an invasion route through Belgium. Perhaps, given a few years to build up its military position, Germany would have found its own pretext for war in one of the never-ending series of crises in the Balkans. The imperialist system, on this view, was primed for catastrophe, and the spark would have come sooner or later.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the whole tragedy was the result of avoidable bad luck. We will probably never know what caused the explosion on the SMS Panther that sent it to the bottom of the Agadir harbor with the loss of all 130 on board. But the resulting outrage certainly helped to foreclose any possibility of a negotiated agreement.

The German decision to send all available squadrons of the High Seas Fleet out to sea, if an over-reaction, was unsurprisingm as was the British decision, following the Dogger Bank incident to order the Royal Navy into action. Surprisingly heavy British losses in the (strategically inconclusive) Battle of Jutland produced a popular demand for vengeance, and emboldened the French to adopt an aggressive strategy on land. In the fervid atmosphere that resulted, concerns about the violation of Belgian neutrality were largely quieted by the public declaration of “The Ninety Three” leading French and English intellectuals supporting the war.

If the Panther had not been destroyed, its mission might have been seen, in time, as a needless provocation. And if Germany had secured a negotiated peace that checked French colonial expansionism, perhaps anti-war arguments like those of Jean Jaures in France, Keir Hardie in Britain and Wilhelm Foerster in Germany would have prevailed over the forces of revanchism, jingoism and nationalism.



Brett 01.07.16 at 7:11 am

Good stuff. I love good counterfactuals.


Peter Murphy 01.07.16 at 9:00 am

Does the United States get involved, and if so, which side does it join?


Z 01.07.16 at 9:24 am

Very interesting and persuasive. Another not unlikely candidate for potential fascist dictator of France would have been Weygand, who had all the right characteristics (military prestige, arch-conservative catholic beliefs, anti-semitimism, disdain for democracy, admiration for hierarchy and order…).


Soru 01.07.16 at 9:38 am

Not sure it is well explained why Britain would side with the French rather than Germany here; I don’t think secret agreements are going to be enough to raise a mass volunteer army to attack the King’s cousin, invade Belgium, etc.


Stephen 01.07.16 at 9:41 am

Very neat, but surely if there had been any politicians brought down by the Marconi scandal, they would have been Lloyd George, Rufus Isaacs and possibly Herbert Samuel. The chances of it displacing Asquith, who was not at all involved in those very dodgy share dealings, and having him replaced by Lloyd George, who was deeply implicated, were surely nonexistent.

I’ve replaced this with a sex scandal over Venetia Stanley. That was what I originally had, vaguely, in mind, but a quick Google looking for the details threw up the Marconi scandal and it seemed to fit the bill – JQ

Also: Joffre’s plans were that if the Germans went to war the French would attack them in Alsace and Lorraine; not to launch an unprovoked attack on Belgium. That being what happened in 1914.

Also: the Stkes-Picot agreement, and so forth, were consequences, not causes, of the outbreak of war in 1914. The German plans for the annexation of Belgium, and so forth, were the other way round.

But very neat, all the same.


Mike Schilling 01.07.16 at 9:42 am

I still maintain that the true instigator was the American madman Thomas W. Wilson, who seemed to have some deranged notion that if he could maneuver the two sides into a stalemate, he could be elected president on a pledge to stay out of the war he had both caused and prolonged and then, as an ostensibly neutral party, negotiate an Armistice and be seen as a peacemaker and the savior of the Western world. Untold misery was avoided when after losing the Democratic nomination to Speaker Champ Clark, Wilson succumbed to apoplexy.


Stephen 01.07.16 at 10:26 am

Further, and most serious, problem with this alternative history:-

British involvement in the 1914 war was by no means guaranteed. One of the major factors determining that involvement was the unprovoked German invasion of Belgium, against international treaties (agreed by Germany, France and Britain) guaranteeing Belgium neutrality, which was greatly in Britain’s interest. If the 1911 war had begun with an unprovoked French invasion of Belgium, the chances of a largely united Liberal government declaring war in support of France would have been zero; and in all probability one of its main opponents would have been Lloyd George..


John Quiggin 01.07.16 at 10:57 am

@Stephen On Joffre and Belgium, check the link. On Lloyd George in 1911, see the Mansion House speech.


Peter T 01.07.16 at 11:21 am

Well, from the excerpt, Lloyd George is laying out a standard establishment line – peace first, negotiation by all means, but there is a line. Note that the High Seas Fleet had been building for 15 years by 1911, and British naval expenditure had grown year by year in response. The Liberals would have been glad to cut back, but public opinion and German pressure would not let them.

Can I recommend that JQ read a good book on Wilhelmine Germany (maybe Volker Berghahn’s study?) He seems to think it was run by Eisenhower Republicans when in fact it more nearly resembles the regime of the lesser Bush.


Phil 01.07.16 at 11:32 am

I like Agadir and Algeciras; I distinctly remember starting to take an interest in history at that point in the syllabus. But I don’t think this quite works. On Joffre and Belgium, I’ve just read the link (coincidentally!) and agree with Stephen – Joffre was planning a forward defence of France against German invasion through Belgium. (Aggressive and illegal defence, but still defence.) To create an expansionist France you need to change something a lot further back.

Given a defeated France, I can go for a post-war Pétain dictatorship, OTOH, as long as by ‘post-war’ you mean ‘a decade or more after the war’; give them a few years to get going (it took Hitler until 1933, after all). The question then is, how do we keep an aggressive Germany and let them win? Which perhaps reduces to, how do we keep the British Empire* and the USA out?

*A point I make to my students is that WWI was fought primarily by empires rather than nations as we now know them – British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman…


Stephen 01.07.16 at 11:40 am

JQ: link checked. It says, among other things, “if Germany violated Belgian neutrality first, Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium would automatically put her on the French side against Germany … But if France gave up the moral high ground by violating Belgian neutrality first, Britain would very likely remain on the sidelines; stern reminders from British diplomats and officers reinforced the need to respect Belgian neutrality on several occasions around this time … Ultimately the French military’s doctrine of total attack led them to focus on planning to attack German armies where they would be sure to find them – coming across the Franco-German border, from Germany. But Joffre never doubted that Belgium would be the main battlefield in a war between France and Germany.”

I reckon that makes an attack by the French into Belgium wildly improbable.


Zamfir 01.07.16 at 12:18 pm

Joffre was planning a forward defence of France against German invasion through Belgium. (Aggressive and illegal defence, but still defence.) To create an expansionist France you need to change something a lot further back.
Real world 1910s France was expansionist – just not within Europe. And if you look at French defensive plans from the early 20th century, they are not so different from offensive plans. Just skip phase 1, and they describe a combined French-Russian of Germany.

For comparison: there’s one public detailed USSR plan for an invasion of post-war Germany, from 1979. It starts with an assumed American nuclear attack on Poland. It’s not unusual to wrap offensive plans in a defensive coat, as political cover.


Stephen 01.07.16 at 12:45 pm

Peter T: it is difficult to be unfair to GW Bush, but I think you’ve managed that remarkable feat. May I recommend JCG Rohl’s biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which quotes the Kaiser’s declaration in 1904 at a banquet for King Leopold of Belgium: “I demand a written declaration now in time of peace that in case of conflict Belgium would take her stand on our side, and that to this end the King should among other things guarantee to us the use of Belgian railways and fortified places. If the King of the Belgians did not do so, he – HM the Kaiser – would not be able to give a guarantee for either his territory or the dynasty. We would then, if the case arose, immediately invade Belgium … I will not be trifled with! As a soldier, I belong to the school of Frederick the Great, to the school of Napoleon. If Belgium does not go with me, I will be guided solely by strategic considerations.’”

And writing to Chancellor von Bulow in 1905: “If England starts a war with us in some way or other, two dispatches must immediately be sent by Your Excellency to Brussels and Paris demanding that they declare within six hours whether they are for us or against us. We must march into Belgium at once, however she declares herself … If France mobilises, then that is a threat of war against us in favour of England, and in that case Russian regiments must march with us. I believe that to rape and pillage in beautiful Gaul would be a pleasant enough prospect to lure the Russians.”

Not even GWB …

As for Lloyd George, I would recommend a good history of Asquith’s governments. Roy Jenkins’ biography is entertaining and accurate. It is, or ought to be, well known that in the 1914 crisis half the UK cabinet, led by Lloyd George, were threatening to resign if war was declared, and only the German invasion of Belgium changed their minds, except for John Morley, an old-fashioned Gladstonian, and John Burns (an interesting character: son of a Scots engineering fitter who abandoned his family in London when John was a child, leaving Mrs Burns to set up as a washerwoman; young John acquired a useful local reputation for radical politics and for settling his problems with his fists, and was imprisoned after leading a riotous charge against the police in Trafalgar Square. Not, on the whole, someone who might have been expected to become a pre-1914 Cabinet Minister and to resign rather than support a war. But I digress.)


P O'Neill 01.07.16 at 12:51 pm

One counterfactual implied by this: Great War 1911 means no Irish Home Rule Bill 1912 so the country does not sprout militias and sectarian issues stay in abeyance for the war. It then gets dominion status along Canada/Australia lines as a unified island a few years later and eventually graduates to full 32 county independence.

Of course there are other scenarios …


Snarki, child of Loki 01.07.16 at 1:48 pm

Make sure to work in a graffito somewhere appropriate: “Archduke Ferdinand found alive! WWI a mistake!”


LFC 01.07.16 at 2:23 pm

Haven’t had a chance to read the OP or comments properly yet, but just to mention that afaik the most visible academic proponent of the ‘tragic accident’ thesis (at least among those writing in English) is R. N. Lebow, an IR scholar and prolific (perhaps too prolific, at least in recent years) author. Link to one of his books on this in next box. P.s. Not saying I agree w/ him.


LFC 01.07.16 at 2:27 pm

Richard Ned Lebow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I (St. Martin’s, 2014)


James Wimberley 01.07.16 at 3:20 pm

How does the fighting go? The Schlieffen plan has to work, against the odds, with France suing for peace. If it bogs down, it’s a rerun of real 1914-18. (Verdun was not an attempt to win the war by an all-out offensive gamble, as in 1918.) I don’t see how the 1911 Kriegsmarine, even weaker than the real one of 1914, can possibly defeat the Royal Navy and break the blockade.


jwl 01.07.16 at 3:49 pm

The Schlieffen plan doesn’t go into effect, because the French invade Belgium. All the Germans have to do is hold off the French in the West while they win the war in the East. Which they could have easily done since defence was favored and the French were way too overconfident on their ability to break lines with elan. See “Grey Tide in the East” by Andrew Heller for a variant of this.


Z 01.07.16 at 3:53 pm

James Wimberley, you can imagine France’s armies marching in Belgium then being surrounded and destroyed by the vastly stronger German army (in a scenario not very different from the 1870 Franco-Prussian war)


Bruce Wilder 01.07.16 at 4:29 pm

I think you need to have the French muff things in a way that puts Britain into greater sympathy with Germany, a neutral favoring Germany if not an ally. Without the British alliance, France loses big time in a confrontation of armies in Europe.

In fact, the Agadir crisis confirmed the French alliance with Britain. France was reassured that it could concentrate its navy in the Med, not worrying about the High Seas Fleet sailing against the French channel or Atlantic coast.

But, if France, with all its relict reactionary aggression unleashed abroad, went all Fashoda, deeply offending Britain (or the U.S.) . . .

There remained anti-French sentiment in Britain. (Polls indicate popular suspicion of each other today) One can imagine the Dreyfus business going the other way domestically, and the right-wing crazies confronting the British in Africa or China or even India in a way that made Germany look better by comparison. The German monarch was a grandson of Victoria, how bad could he be? The Great Game played with the Russians made a British-Russian alliance unlikely.

If France is not nurturing the Entente and Germany not regularly offending everyone the France could lose. But, it would be a little war, not a Great War.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.07.16 at 4:36 pm


L2P 01.07.16 at 5:02 pm

Very nice!

However, I just can’t see Britain aligning with a France that invaded Belgium. That’s a lot like imagining the US joining Great Britain in WWII after Britain bombed Pearl Harbor. Germany’s invasion of Belgium wasn’t the entire reason the British people supported the war, but it was certainly a necessary reason.


Stephen 01.07.16 at 5:44 pm

Enough of criticism. To enter into the spirit of JQ’s agreeable fantasy: first, the Italian aspects.

“One of the unexpected aspects of the War of 1911 was the partial collapse of the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The plan had been to coordinate their actions, with Italy sending at least seven divisions to fight the French in Alsace (an attack across the Alps had been very wisely deemed impossible) and with a joint Austro-Italian fleet opposing the French in the Mediterranean. Italy did indeed declare war in support of Germany. The King said that Italian honour was at stake: cynics suspected that enormous German bribes to Italian politicians were more relevant, but in the nature of things no evidence of such payments has ever been available.
Austria-Hungary, however, stood aside. There had been powerful persons in favour of war, notably the Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, who saw as the main enemies Italy and Serbia, and was obsessed with the importance of crushing the Serbs whom he feared would subvert Austrian rule of their Slavonic neighbours. However, the Austrian foreign minister and Chairman of the Ministers’ Council, Aehrenthal, wanted no such thing and contrived just in time to get Conrad dismissed.
At the opening of the 1911 war, then, the prevailing voices in Vienna were those of Aehrenthal, the Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza, and the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand. The latter two disagreed on many things, but were united in their belief that Austria-Hungary was unlikely to profit by a dangerous war against Russia. Aehrenthal, a German-Hungarian nobleman, could likewise see nothing to be gained for either part of the Dual Monarchy by war, and potentially a great deal to be lost. As for Serbia, the expurgated version of Tisza’s opinion is well known: “The Empire already has far more damned Serbs than we know what to do with”.
The old Emperor Franz Joseph would not overrule his loyal advisers. There followed what at the time was known in Germany as Der Dolchstoss, the stab in the back: Austria-Hungary remained neutral. In response to Italian and German protests, Aehrenthal agreed to allow what was called “peaceful passage” of Italian troops to Germany, with men and munitions travelling in separate trains. According to the Italian newspapers, their army’s reasonably prompt arrival on the Western Front had much to do with France’s eventual defeat, though many Italians later accused Aehrenthal, the devious Jew, of having deliberately weakened Italy by sending her young men to be slaughtered.
It was with hindsight unfortunate that, before the Agadir crisis had reached its explosive climax, Italy had invaded the Turkish province of Libya. With the defection of Austria, the Italian navy could do no more than defend the Adriatic: the expeditionary force in Tripolitania, cut off from supplies, had no hope of success, and soon surrendered to the investing Arabs, Berbers and Turks. The Turkish government affected to regard this war as quite separate from events in Europe. The only offer of alliance came from the Emperor-designate of Abyssinia, Iyasu V, who explained that the Imperial palace already had a valuable collection of the testicles of Italian officers from the previous attempt to establish an Italian African colony, and wished to add further specimens: but the Libyan adventure collapsed too soon for this offer to be taken up.
The boost to Turkish prestige, however, was enormous; we will discuss the consequences in Balkan politics later.
Logistics have never been the strong point of Italian military planning. When the war did not result in an instantaneous German-Italian victory, it was remembered too late that Italy lacks coal and was largely dependent on supplies from Britain. The subsequent “inverni senza riscaldamento” caused much discontent. This was not suppressed even by the public execution in Milan, by firing-squad, of one of the most prominent opponents of the war, the brave and eloquent Socialist politician and journalist Benito Mussolini. Many of his countrymen remembered his defiant last words before the fatal volley: “I yield to nobody in my love for Italy but, my comrades, patriotism is not enough. In our hearts we must have nothing but hatred and contempt for the thieves and scoundrels of our accursed government.” The subsequent wave of strikes greatly weakened the Italian war effort, such as it was.
Trainloads of ill-spared coal from Germany, sent via Switzerland as “humanitarian aid”, kept the more essential Italian railways and factories in some sort of activity. But it is probable that, had the war continued much longer, the ramshackle kingdom would have disintegrated entirely.
As it was, Sicily broke away after the notorious “Sicilian Breakfast” when Piedmontese officers and officials, all over the island, were shot dead in their beds. Independent Sicily has not been a success. As the prominent American educationalist, Woodrow Wilson, famously remarked in 1918, “Everyone should have a close look at Sicily. It very conveniently demonstrates, all together in one place, every one of the main disadvantages of national self-determination”.
The case of Venice is less discouraging. In the disturbances of the final months of the war, the intervention “to restore order” by the Austrian forces of General von Tegetthoff, grandson of the great Admiral who had led the seriously outnumbered Austro-Venetian navy to victory against the Italians in the battle of Lissa, was generally welcomed. The subsequent Repubblica Nuova di San Marco has never been officially accepted in Rome, but there have been no serious attempts to suppress it.
Thus, Italy gained nothing by the war except for the formerly-Italian territory around Nice, Cannes and St Tropez, annexed in the dying days of the conflict, almost against the wishes of the crisis-wracked Italian government, by the flamboyant poet and aviator Gabriele d’Annunzio, already famous for his daring flight to drop leaflets on Paris demanding an immediate French surrender. France has never been reconciled to the loss of what is now the Costa Azzurro, but compared to their grievances against Germany this is a minor matter.”

[events further East best left for later post: very different Turkish involvement]


Rakesh Bhandari 01.07.16 at 5:59 pm

To join threads…Piketty:
“Note that the importance of farmland in late nineteenth-century Germany made the German case
resemble the French more than the British one (agriculture had not yet disappeared east of the Rhine),
and the value of industrial capital was higher than in either France or Britain. By contrast, Germany
on the eve of World War I had only half as much in foreign assets as France (roughly 50 percent of
national income versus a year’s worth of income for France) and only a quarter as much as Britain
(whose foreign assets were worth two years of national income). The main reason for this is of
course that Germany had no colonial empire, a fact that was the source of some very powerful
political and military tensions: think, for example, of the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, when the
Kaiser sought to challenge French supremacy in Morocco. The heightened competition among
European powers for colonial assets obviously contributed to the climate that ultimately led to the
declaration of war in the summer of 1914: one need not subscribe to all of Lenin’s theses in
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) to share this conclusion.”


Stephen 01.07.16 at 7:34 pm

Z@20: in reality, France’s armies did march into Belgium in response to the German invasion, but were neither surrounded or destroyed by the Germans. A replay of 1870 was something the French had spent years planning to avoid.


Anderson 01.07.16 at 8:34 pm

I keep hoping Alan Furst will quit retreading WW2 and go back to WW1, including a novel about a good-natured, handsome, sexually not very resistible young chap (i.e. every Furst hero ever) who stumbles upon the Austrian military’s plot to arrange the assassination of that thorn in their side & obstacle to war, the Archduke of Austria.


steven johnson 01.07.16 at 11:09 pm

It seems to me the real point is metahistorical, if you will. Whole categories of the historical evidence of German war guilt could very plausibly, very easily read against the other side if events had gone differently. The suggestion that the debate is misconceived is I think well worth considering.

The English did not want one power to dominate the continent, therefore they were going to be allies of the French against the Germans, no matter what, once they had decided the Germans were the bigger threat currently.

What does seem implausible is the notion starting the war three years early would lead to Central Powers victory. I have no idea how that follows.


Xerpt 01.08.16 at 4:40 am

In the spirit of the @Stephen counterfactual, the pre-1911 majority bloc within the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Council retained their seats after that year…


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 5:24 am


Lloyd George is laying out a standard establishment line – peace first, negotiation by all means, but there is a line.

A line admirably summed up in the popular song “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do …”


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 5:28 am

I’ve updated the story so that the war starts at sea, between Germany and Britain. That would be enough, I think, to overcome qualms about Belgian neutrality.


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 5:32 am

@9 Finally, of course, the point isn’t to absolve the German leadership. In the hypothetical postwar world, I’d still be defending the view that the winners were just as guilty as the losers, against the advocates of revisionism and “who can judge” relativism.

Steven Johnson gets this right in @28


Peter T 01.08.16 at 6:07 am

Great wars are almost always, as Pitt put it, “contentions of purse”, and the French and British had much deeper purses than the Germans (and a banker of last resort in the US).

Germans may have lit the fire but all of Europe was a tinderbox. It’s more interesting to think about what might have dampened the fuel. Perhaps a mildly socialist revolution in a major state that frightened the other elites into reform rather than militarist reaction?


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 6:25 am

@24 The Turkish question is among the most interesting, since the former Ottoman Empire is one place where the disaster of 1914 is still playing itself out.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.08.16 at 7:54 am

@34 Yes about the immense consequences for the former Ottoman Empire. I am told that the work of Leila Tarazi Fawaz is most important.


otto 01.08.16 at 9:23 am

“It seems to me the real point is metahistorical, if you will. Whole categories of the historical evidence of German war guilt could very plausibly, very easily read against the other side if events had gone differently. The suggestion that the debate is misconceived is I think well worth considering.?”

Perhaps you should read the recent book on international law in the first world war, “A Scrap of Paper” by I. Hull, which really demonstrates at length the attitudes to international law and to war as a mere instrument of policy were very different in the Germany compared to other European states. There’s a very interesting two pages that collects all the instances when the Kaiser explicitly threatened neutral European states with invasion over the decades prior to 1914. I would be interested to hear JQ’s views on the book, as he seems to fall into the “they were all as bad as each other” camp.


TM 01.08.16 at 10:01 am

“the former Ottoman Empire is one place where the disaster of 1914 is still playing itself out.”

The disaster of 1914 is still playing itself out in the former Ottoman, Russian, and Austrian empires. That’s what is really frightening – nothing has been resolved, even 100 years later.


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 10:33 am

@36 Evidence of German aggressive intent isn’t to the point here, as I said only a few comments before yours.

What’s needed is an explanation of how the peace-loving democracies of Russia, France and Britain managed to sign all those secret treaties, acquire and expand colonial empires and so on in (as someone observed) “a fit of absence of mind”.


Peter T 01.08.16 at 10:48 am


That’s a pretty impressive goalpost shift.


Z 01.08.16 at 10:57 am

What’s needed is an explanation of how the peace-loving democracies of Russia, France and Britain managed to […] acquire and expand colonial empires

Indeed, expanding and retaining control of the colonial empire was a major factor in strategical decisions well into WWII, with for instance Churchill wariness of US help because it could be at the cost of the British empire or Vichy’s hope that allying with the Reich would enable France to steal British african colonies (repeating in some sense Bismarck’s offer of Tunisia to France in the hope that it would mitigate revanchist feelings about Alsace-Lorraine). In retrospect, these decisions seem pure criminal folly.

Incidentally, because the more traditionally democratic but also more imperialist and military weaker nations end up defeated in the Great war of 1911, the ensuing future appears in many respect more peaceful than in actual events (for it is hard to imagine a fascist France causing half as many damage as the actual Axis). Anyone care to elaborate how events unfolded in the far east: perhaps Japan joins Germany in 1915 and seizes French Indochina? How about the Eastern Front? Is Lenin conveyed to Petrograd in this alternate timeline?


Ronan(rf) 01.08.16 at 1:21 pm

As a number of people have made the argument, it seems to me to be trivially true that the consequences of WW1 reverberate today, but since we’re playing with counterfactuals what is the counterfactual to how these deep ethnic and national differences play out outside of WW1? How do these meaningful political arguments over identity and power in crumbling political units resolve themselves without the First World War? And independently of whether the conflicts that arose were ‘worth it’, what are the realistic non-violent alternative scenarios that placate elite (and to varying degrees public) growing national demands? I understand WW1 exacerbated these conflicts and radicalised populations, but there were broader ideological and political shifts independent of the war, so is it a little overly determined to put most of these conflicts down to WW1?

The map of the Middle East was going to be redrawn at some stage, and that redrawing was unlikely to be the result of apolitical technocratic management and public consultation. It was going to be the result of power and politics. So what is the resolution to desires for Arab self-government that is considerably better than today? My understanding is that the settlement turned out quite close to the Ottoman administrative divisions, and was not solely a western fait accompli but negotiated over (post Sykes Picot) by elites and populations in the region. What’s the alternative? A greater Arabia driven by reactionary tribal elites from the Gulf (which afaict seems to have been what the Arab Revolt was)? Basically a greater Saudi Arabia? There were/are still local, ethnic and national identities in these regions that cut across sectarian, religious or pseudo cosmopolitan ones, so the resolutions to these conflicts don’t seem obvious to me.

Even in a very small part of it ,As p o neill implies, in ireland, as much as you might get some plausibly workable political solution independently of the war, you could get an incoherent sectarian conflict in the medium/long term. Scale out this small, intractable political dispute and you start to come close to the context that was going to meet even the best meaning of political elites.
I mean, I don’t disagree that Western Imperialism and/or global war has helped define and exacerbate these divisions, I just don’t see how the alternative runs so much more smoothly


jwl 01.08.16 at 4:29 pm


You are getting too close to the Whig view of history here: “The world we have now is the best of all possible worlds.”

The creation of artificial nation states out of multi-ethnic empires meant massive ethnic cleansing and genocide. Non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities suffered most (Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, etc.) There were a number of proposals that were not adopted by the imperial powers that might have meant much less bloodshed.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is a historical anomaly, since the bulk of Arabia has rarely been politically unified in the past thousand years. A Wahhabi oil petrostate based on hardcore Sunni Islam was not a historical certainty, for example.


Phil 01.08.16 at 4:52 pm

What’s needed is an explanation of how the peace-loving democracies of Russia, France and Britain managed to sign all those secret treaties, acquire and expand colonial empires and so on

No idea what you’re actually asking here, JQ, seeing that nobody in their right mind would describe 1911 Russia, France or Britain as (a) peace-loving* (b) a democracy** or (c) not an empire.

*Except in the trivial sense that almost*** every statesman and ruling class in history would prefer the full and peaceful achievement of their legitimate aims to ditto with war. Before total war, peace wasn’t a sine qua non – if anything it was the ‘and a pony’ of international diplomacy.
**Although France had at least had universal manhood suffrage since 1875.
***You have to wonder about Kaiser Wilhelm.


infovore 01.08.16 at 5:13 pm

@Z Regarding Japan: a plausible scenario is that Japan is Britain’s ally regardless, and wins Micronesia from a Germany that cannot project its power that far. After the war, in the army/navy arguments the navy loses standing because their arguments led to Japan allying with the losers. The ascendant and emboldened army faction starts expanding the empire from Korea into Manchuria, and from there north into Siberia against the Russian empire. Do the Russians have a Zhukov in the right place at the right time?


steven johnson 01.08.16 at 7:01 pm

France and Britain are always considered in popular history and imagination to be democracies, not empires, not just pre-WWI but always. But Wilhelmine Germany has good arguments to be considered as much a democracy as them. And even Franz Josef had to take his Diet into consideration. And it is a serious question as to how much influence the Japanese emperor really had.

Propaganda formed these popular images. I think we see in this thread the kind of arguments that a certain kind of learned writer on these issues will entertain to justify these musty constructs.


mpowell 01.08.16 at 8:08 pm

I agree with otto@36. It’s my impression that a major motivation for this exercise is JQ’s hobby horse, summarized in 32. If the proximate cause of the war and the initial aggressor are just historical accidents based on random events, this view is substantially bolstered. But if potential proximate causes of WWI are instead dominated by the actual policy goals and differential preference for war vs alternatives by the major powers at the time, that’s a problem for this view.

That you can’t get to France and Britain starting a combined war on Germany with a credible source of events (given the best historical understanding of the different motivations of these various actors) is a major problem with this view, imop.


Ronan(rf) 01.08.16 at 8:50 pm

“If the proximate cause of the war and the initial aggressor are just historical accidents based on random events, this view is substantially bolstered. But if potential proximate causes of WWI are instead dominated by the actual policy goals and differential preference for war vs alternatives by the major powers at the time, that’s a problem for this view.”

I agree that this is JQs intent, more or less , and also that it might not be historically accurate. But I think it goes further thdn this, and is more defensible . That ww1 was in some ways chickens coming home to roost. Perhaps not causally , but culturally and in practice ww1 was just visiting on Europe what european powers had (and continued after) visited on others. But this isn’t an empirical argument , but a moral one. Proving the point that evidence never has anything to do with it, it’s morals all the way for


Ronan(rf) 01.08.16 at 8:51 pm

..for all of us Obviousky , not just JQ


Rakesh Bhandari 01.08.16 at 8:59 pm

Can’t wait to read Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945


Stephen 01.08.16 at 10:06 pm

Still very interesting, but re the update:
“The German decision to send all available squadrons of the High Seas Fleet out to sea, if an over-reaction, was unsurprising.”
First among those most highly surprised would have been Grossadmiral von Tirpitz, who argued as late as 1912 that the German navy was not yet ready to confront the British, and whose whole strategic plan depended on the British maintaining a close blockade of the German coast during which they could be weakened by a series of small-scale actions. Sending the entire HSF to sea before a war had begun would have been the last thing he wanted.
Second most highly surprised, I think would have been His Imperial Majesty Wilhelm II, Supreme War Lord, who in historical fact, finding that the HSF were at sea off the Norwegian coast for peacetime manoeuvers in the crisis of early August 1914, immediately ordered them all to return to German ports lest they be attacked by the British.

“as [unsurprising] was the British response, the commitment of the Royal Navy to close the English Channel.” Well yes, if they had done that the Royal Navy would have been perfectly safe. Have a look at the map and work out the German chances of fighting their way through the Channel with some light elements of the Royal Navy operating from Harwich, others from Dover, and with the main fleet based further west. Also consider the opportunities for submarines and minelayers doing mischief to any German force trying to force their way down the Channel. Hint: during the actual war, the HSF had far more good sense than to try.

“Surprisingly heavy British losses in the (strategically inconclusive) Battle of Jutland produced a popular demand for vengeance.” Now tell us how you get from the RN blocking the Channel to the RN fighting an inconclusive battle off the coast of Denmark.

Best of luck.


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 10:08 pm

@42 (and others) Sorry, I omitted irony alerts in my description of the Entente. But yes, Germany had reasonable claims to be considered democratic, at least when the war began. The contrast with Russian autocracy, and the perfidy of Britain and France in unleashing the Russian hordes was a staple of German propaganda in 1914 and would have been even more so in the counterfactual.


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 10:49 pm

@Stephen The Dogger Bank incident is the way I imagine things starting (and yet another illustration of the accidental spark theory).


L2P 01.08.16 at 10:54 pm

“I’ve updated the story so that the war starts at sea, between Germany and Britain. That would be enough, I think, to overcome qualms about Belgian neutrality.”

In 1911? No way. This is even LESS likely then Britain joining a France that invaded Belgium. It’s barely possible that the High Seas Fleet could damage the British fleet, but impossible that it could have even the moderate success of Jutland.

The High Seas Fleet would be missing the Kaiser Dreadnoughts and the Konigs. That leaves the Helgolands, a bunch of obsolete ships, and a handful of modern cruisers, and destroyers. Against a British fleet with plenty of excellent Dreadnought-class ships. Either the Captains and Admirals of the HSF would have resigned their commissions, or they would have gone with their ships to the bottom of the sea. The only plausible result of Germany challenging Britain on the seas in 1911 is the German fleet being mauled.

Germany would then need to declare war on Britain for Britain to enter the war.


John Quiggin 01.08.16 at 11:21 pm

This is getting way too literal.


John Quiggin 01.09.16 at 12:11 am

Anderson @27 I like it. Terry Pratchett’s Jingo has a similar plot, IIRC.


Peter T 01.09.16 at 1:16 am

JQ @ 51

“Germany had reasonable claims to be considered democratic”. Only if you don’t know anything about the German constitution 1870-1914. Yes, the Reichstag was elected by near-universal male suffrage. Yet, even aside from anti-socialist laws, administrative guidance, a “deep state” controlled by the executive and a pervasive military presence, the Reichstag had very limited powers as compared to the British Parliament or French Chamber of Deputies. Germany was technically a confederation, and Prussia comprised 60 per cent. The key institutions were (by design) Prussian, not German, and there was very little democratic about them. That’s why one of the major struggles was over the Prussian three-class franchise.

In any event, democracy is not incompatible with imperialism. The political nations of France, Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy and the Ottoman Empire were all heavily invested in their empires, and any administration that sought to liquidate that investment unilaterally would have been repudiated very quickly.


Arioch 01.09.16 at 3:14 pm

steven johnson 01.08.16 at 7:01 pm writes:
>France and Britain are always considered in popular history and imagination to be >democracies, not empires, not just pre-WWI but always.

Very strange schooling you must have had to get that vibe. King Alfred who burnt the cakes was not the figurehead of any democracy and noone I have ever known thinks that.

>And it is a serious question as to how much influence the Japanese emperor really had.

Obvious not that much influence, since he was against the war. Sadly, being educated in Britain he was full of the teachings of the rules of “constitutional monarch”. So after some minor protestations did not do anything to obstruct the rule of the lawfully elected government. Which unfortunately was full of warmongering idiots.

However, since the topic in question is the Great War not WW2, and the Japanese were our allies in the Great War, that’s all by the by.

I do find the counterfactual somewhat bewildering not to say unconvincing on many counts. Germany in 1911 was less relatively powerful than in 1914. Running the Battle of Jutland 3 years earlier would be entirely to the advantage of the British, since their numerical superiority would be even greater, and less likely to provide a worse outcome. I’m not sure any further analysis is to the point, or indeed what the point is supposed to be. Germany attacking the UK because the French was taking control of Morocco is the opposite of convincing, let alone the prospect of them winning.

If one is to argue for Entente “war guilt”, and hey why not, it would be more interesting if based on what they actually did (i.e. not invade Belgium, or indeed declare war on another country except as required by formal alliances). One might have though that there would be plenty that they did do wrong without inventing stuff; if not it displays a fatal weakness in the position — i.e., that the OP believes that in reality there is no Entente war guilt.

The “serious historians” I’ve read certainly don’t consider the Great War to be the result of some unfortunate accident. The precise timing obviously depends to a small extent on external events, but much of it does not.

“I’ve changed … dates … political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore [and added an] improbable event” is agressive handwaving and gives the lie to “no more improbable than the actual”. Well, given different leaders, policies, dates, events … ok you’ve convinced me, war with the Martians in 1911 was inevitable.


steven johnson 01.09.16 at 3:54 pm

Peter T@56 Every socialist in the world thought the plan to vote against war credits had a meaningful chance of success in affecting policy. If the SPD’s vote instead for war credits wasn’t regarded as genuinely relevant, it wouldn’t have mattered so much.
It could have been passed off as tactical.

And although having empires turns out to be acceptable accoutrements for democraciess, even back then there was a certain embarrassment at having them. The US and Germany had practically nothing compared to English and French and Dutch who between them had chained the world. And in 1911, Italy didn’t have colonies. Besides, having a king is popularly viewed as wholly compatible with “democracy,” just like a Princess in Star Wars is a Senator. Yet, musty and disused as phrases like royal prerogative may seem, they represent loopholes that can be used to take aim at the unruly when necessary. At least Gough Whitlam and Stephen Harper could argue the point.

Arioch @87 And it must be a strange schooling you’ve received if you think burnt cakes instead of Magna Carta are what’s important in popular mythology. The Tudors (saving the embarrassment of Bloody Mary) are the gentle doves of religious freedom, not despots. Etc. Etc.


John Quiggin 01.09.16 at 10:14 pm

@57 As I already said, way too literal. I’m not a wargamer, and I’m not interested in the details of battleship armaments and similar.

More specifically, when I mentioned Jutland, I didn’t mean a rerun of the WWI battle with 1911 fleets, just a naval encounter in the general vicinity that turns out worse than expected for the Royal Navy.


John M. Burt 01.10.16 at 12:00 am

The World Wars, and the authoritarian states which caused them, are such an abomination that I am vastly more interested in scenarios in which they could be prevented. Hence my novel, The Christmas Mutiny, in which the Christmas Truce of 1914 turns into what Winston Churchill imagined in November of 1914: a “strike” in which all truly does become quiet on the Western Front:
The discussion of the British and German fleets and their preparations suggest an interesting alternate scenario: the Great War of 1922, in which Kaiser Franz Ferdinand is busy with his democratic reforms and declines to take part in Germany’s latest quarrel with France. Britain does join in, and the Royal Navy is clobbered by the thoroughly modernized German fleet, possibly the biggest change in the world’s balance of powers. Russia is embroiled in yet another revolution, an even more serious one than 1905, and also does not get involved. In 1924, President Harding wins a second term running on the slogan, “He Kept Our Boys Out of Europe” . . . .


Peter T 01.10.16 at 1:08 am

“And in 1911, Italy didn’t have colonies.”

Apart from Libya, Eritrea and Somalia…..


John Quiggin 01.10.16 at 3:03 am

@60 I’m definitely going to get this


Arioch 01.10.16 at 1:40 pm

John Quiggan writes:
>As I already said, way too literal. I’m not a wargamer, and I’m not interested in the details of battleship armaments and similar.

I understand the “way too literal” bit, but I think that this is the rock on which successful counter-factuals live or die. (NB: My view, obviously not others.) Positing counter-factuals that are just totally made-up is trivial and uninteresting – anyone can posit anything.

That’s why in my view, positing that if the Great War begins earlier, when Britain and France had greater relative resources (economic, armaments. whatever), it leads to worse outcome (from UK/France), making Britain and France *lose* instead of *winning even more extravagantly*, makes no sense to me.

I do think there is something valuable in the consideration of counter-factuals, but to get real mileage (or at least insight) one needs, in my view, to be really strict on oneself in how you construct it; otherwise, it ends up as just another handwavy self-indulgence in fairyland.

And perhaps in the case of the Great War this is even more important than usual. There is just so much “going wrong” in Europe at the time, that altering the conventional (amongst the hoi polloi) view that it is all the fault of those German fellows, needs the counter-factual to be incredibly strict: a handwaved counter-factual can be handwaved away with equal facility. Of course if one is not concerned with the hoi polloi, the serious historians already have many quibbles and doubts about the whole kerfuffle anyway, no counter-factual is (I think) necessary to get them to see the light.

>More specifically, when I mentioned Jutland, I didn’t mean a rerun of the WWI battle with 1911 fleets, just a naval encounter in the general vicinity that turns out worse than expected for the Royal Navy.

Pretty much in line with what happened at Jutland in real life then. Only even more unlikely (and I still don’t understand why you think Germany attacks Britain because France is obstreporous in Morocco!).

steven johnson writes
>And it must be a strange schooling you’ve received if you think burnt cakes instead of Magna Carta are what’s important in popular mythology.

’twas not I who claimed
>France and Britain are always considered in popular history and imagination to be democracies, not empires, not just pre-WWI but always.

So you now clarify that “always” means “post Magna Carta”. Not in my book, nor in anyone else’s. Apart from Humpty Dumpty’s of course, but that’s glory for you.

And my schooling certainly did not promulgate any nonsense about Magna Carta meaning democracy! Unless you think “the people” == “the barons”. It was certainly an important first step on the journey towards a constitutional monarchy which could be categorised as a democracy, but the last step? No. Just no.

And just what democracy has to do with “doves of religious freedom” rather escapes me. One might rather have thought it had something to do with “rule by the people”, rather than “what God the people should believe in”.

I mean, “gentle doves”, are you kidding me? Henry VIII is a dove? Is gentle?!?! A dove of religious freedom! He was certainly never shown as that at school.

There is a significant difference between the general belief, and I certainly would not contest that it is a general belief, that Britain was a “good country” even in the Dark Ages, and the absurd assertion that Britain was a democracy in the Dark Ages. Of course it was not a democracy and no-one thinks it was one. Tudor times? Not a democracy. Rule by Cromwell? Not a democracy. These are not difficult questions even at O level.


Arioch 01.10.16 at 2:03 pm

John Quiggan wrote:
>As I already said, way too literal.

And I wrote far too many more words still taking him too literally.

What it all boils down to, I think, is that in my opinion it would be a more interesting and more effective counter-factual if the number of departures from factuality were fewer. That is, more interesting and thought-provoking for us; OTOH, that would be more work for John, and given what’s already been posted, more work in areas John is probably less interested in and less familiar with. Still, I would not have bothered posting anything if I did not think there were some interesting things that could be said…

ASIDE: I’ve already been treated to the spectacle of a serious historian proclaiming the cause of the Great War was “Railway Timetables”. Which certainly makes one think.
But I do not think it leads to anything profound… We should have better arguments by now…


steven johnson 01.10.16 at 2:21 pm

Peter T @61 is correct, of course. The magnitude of the damage from the conquest of Ethiopia later was so much greater I just plain forgot Italian imperialism’s humble beginnings.

Arioch @63 is confused by mere facts. Just as in the thread on England’s loss of empire, when current issues are relevant to historical questions, the popular mythology, which was created for the people, is the default. Until denying the mythology becomes a habit, false details keep creeping in. The English people were a free people and it was their will that triumphed, barring the occasional Norman yoke. Or maybe a bad king like John, but of course the people stood up for their rights, like Robin Hood. Citing mere facts like Cromwell’s Protectorship hardly matters when hardly anyone but a despicable Irishman who doesn’t like the English knows who Cromwell was. Henry VII as the killer of the Roman Catholic Church is the will of the English people and his more unsavory actions become a novelty song by Herman’s Hermits. Yeah, there’s a Bloody Mary but that brief episode is graced by martyrs who bring the glorious triumph of the English people who sank the Armada.

I hope that Arioch is finding it difficult to accept that anybody could possibly believe the enormity of the popular mythology. The thing is, as with all propaganda, it’s not so much that anyone is expected or even needed to believe every jot and tittle. The propaganda is successful if people are merely prejudiced to believe, so that absurd propositions seem reasonable. Putting the origins of democracy back at Anglo-Saxon witans and moots and shire reeves and whatnot means you can pretend that democracy had nothing to do with ugly unpleasant things like the English Civil War or the mobs with tar and feathers in the American Revolution or, least of all, the Great French Revolution. Instead it means the great democracy of the American People was just the antique rights of Englishmen, a conservative phenomenon, all about not paying taxes. It means you can attribute an historic love of freedom to a race and a religion, which is satisfying if you want to kill lots of Muslims today.

Also, Arioch’s school seems to teach an awful lot of English history. In my experience people are nearly as shaky about English history as Mexican history. Quite a few people were surprised to discover that Scotland was once an independent country, and most of those have likely forgotten by now. They are vaguely aware that England has a history, something still unknown about Canada. But the details are vague. English people were free and ruled, some kings, democracy since ages ago but still kings. If they have kings now, and democracy too, how not then too? The more sophisticated may know the phrase Glorious Revolution…but may not.

But perhaps personal experience is unduly infuencing me? I was graced with an edition of the Geneva Bible with the text of the Magna Carta and the US Constitution appended. This was clearly meant to be a gift of political enlightenment as well as a book.


Arioch 01.10.16 at 2:41 pm

steven johnson asserts:
>Arioch @63 is confused by mere facts.

No, I’ve just never heard such BS about medieval England being a “democracy”, promulgated with such furious intensity.

Nor indeed about the “great democracy of the American people”. Are you sure it’s UK beliefs in propaganda you are channelling?

>I was graced with an edition of the Geneva Bible with the text of the Magna Carta and the US Constitution appended

…apparently not.

>most … are vaguely aware England has a history

…definitively not.

Obviously nothing I or any other Briton can say could possibly be relevant to such an opinion. Other than “You’re full of it.”


Rich Puchalsky 01.10.16 at 5:08 pm

“That is, more interesting and thought-provoking for us; OTOH, that would be more work for John”

Just give Arioch some blood and souls already.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)


Rakesh Bhandari 01.10.16 at 5:51 pm

Smelser and Reed, Usable Social Science:

‘Despite the shaky knowledge basis of much counterfactual thinking in practical
situations, social scientists and others have developed criteria by which it
is possible to assess the quality of different kinds of counterfactual statements
about political and historical events. Tetlock (2001) notes some ways in which
counterfactual statements can be assessed as sounder or less sound:
• Good counterfactual arguments should have clarity, specifying precisely
which variables are hypothesized as causes and effects.
• They should be logically consistent in specifying causes and effects, and
avoid pseudocausal formulations such as “if I had a million bucks, I would
be green,” or “If the match had been struck, it would have lighted.”
• They should be theoretically consistent, i.e., consonant with causal knowledge
in which we have confidence.
Methods of Research and Their Usability 289
• They should be statistically consistent, i.e., consonant with known statistical
regularities that have been established.
• The manipulation of antecedent conditions should apply the “minimal
rewrite rule”—that is, to imagine only a limited number of specified
condition—and should not lead to wholesale and wildly directed “what if”
Many of these rules of thumb are indirect ways of seeking to control variables in
counterfactual formulations by systematic reference to “other knowledge.”’


Bruce Wilder 01.10.16 at 6:00 pm

steven johnson @ 65

I liked this comment, but it does seem to have crossed over from the Hitchens and the Tories thread a bit.

Arioch @ 64

Constructing close counterfactuals can help one learn more about the actual history.

One of the difficulties with JQ’s scenario is that it presumes a conflict over petty geopolitics between “normal states”, conceived of as being rather like countries today, belligerent and self-righteous, and its target seems to be the myth that the war was in any respect justified.

It is certainly a worthy target — the myth of justification. I cheer that.

But, the factors driving Europe toward a catastrophic war had to do with the nature of the Great Powers as Empires ruled by aristocratic elites and their uncomprehending relation to the emergence of a bourgeois modernity and a mass politics of nationalism and the industrialization of war.

One root of the the Great War was in the Franco-Prussian War, after Napoleon III had been decisively beaten and captured. A wave of nationalistic patriotism swept France as well as Germany. The latter had been Bismarck’s intention in provoking a series of small wars, with Denmark, Austria and finally France as a means to create a German nation-state with a Hohenzollern on the throne. French patriotism — the nation-in-arms redux — was not anticipated and nearly undid the German plan. The franc tireau terrorized the German army, leaving a deep impression on German military thinking. And, after the war was concluded, the French adopted universal conscription, setting off a pattern that soon enveloped all the Great Powers except Britain. The stage was set for a war of mass armies wielding industrial firepower.

Bismarck became the bumbling architect of the other great root cause of the Great War when he convened the Congress of Berlin in 1878, in an attempt to rescue Austria from being pulled down into the whirlpool of the Ottoman collapse. He was self-consciously trying to revive the reactionary consensus of Prussia, Russia and Austria that had dominated post-Napoleonic southern and central Europe. Instead he created a framework within which new nations emerging from Ottoman collapse could claim statehood thru an arduous process of begging Great Power sponsorship and recognition while building basic institutions of state.

The problem with the scenario of a Great War breaking out in 1911 as a part of the Agadir Crisis is that Agadir is nothing but the usual cutting of slices of world pie. Germany isn’t objecting to France taking Morocco so much as demanding that Germany be offered something for acceding. (Just as France had offered Italy “permission” to take Libya some years earlier in return for Italy supporting France in Morocco.)

The actual Great War started in the Balkans, because the small nation-states emerging from Ottoman collapse had formed a feral wolf pack, capable of defeating the Turks and quite possibly capable in the foreseeable future of dismembering the Hapsburg Empire.

Somehow, a plausible counterfactual has to make use of the internal anxieties driving the Great Powers — particularly the powerful anxieties over collapse or overthrow evident in the demands from below. The Zabern Affair, the Curragh Mutiny, Dreyfus, the 1905 revolution, the Young Turks as well, of course, the contention of nationalities in the Hapsburg Empire.

It is a complex knot that unraveled in 1914.


ozajh 01.11.16 at 8:09 am

Bruce Wilder @65,

To me the most plausible counterfactual is if Franz Ferdinand is not assassinated, and duly becomes Austro-Hungarian emperor upon the death of Franz Joseph in late 1912.


ozajh 01.11.16 at 8:10 am

Sorry, all. Replace ‘1912’ with ‘1916’.


John M. Burt 01.11.16 at 8:27 am

Ozajh@70/71: And after Franz Ferdinand becomes Kaiser of the Dual Monarchy, when does the Great War start, how long does it last, who is declared the winner and who gets the blame? Also, is one Great War enough, or will there be a Second?


Vanya 01.11.16 at 12:12 pm

Franz Ferdinand very possibly would have provoked a civil war inside the Habsburg Empire as the Hungarians were unlikely to respond passively to his efforts to enfranchise the non-Magyar population of his Hungarian kingdom. FF seems to have been a fairly stubborn person and it would be easy to imagine Hungarians deciding they had had enough of the dual monarchy and unilaterally leave. The question is then whether the collapse could have happened somewhat peacefully (with Germany probably incorporating the Austrian half of the Empire, maybe ceding Galicia to Russia) or would it have provoked a free for all as the various neighbors tried to attach their ethnically related constituents.


Brian Siano 01.11.16 at 2:33 pm

_Time and Time Again_ by Ben Elton? About an attempt to use time travel to prevent WWI?

You might enjoy looking up a pair of novels by Jack Finney. _Time and Again_ is about a man who learns to travel in time, and goes to live in 19th century New York. The sequel, _From Time to Time_, is about his attempt to prevent WWI.

They’re not about historical events and what-ifs, but more about the texture of everyday life in another era. Lovely books, both of’em. (Finney also wrote _Invasion of the Body Snatchers_.)


Arioch 01.11.16 at 2:33 pm

Firstly I should apologise to steven johnson for lowering the tone of the conversation.

Bruce Wilder@69

Good comment. Bismarck certainly did a lot of “interesting” things, but I was unaware of the Congress of Berlin and its possible effects here.


That certainly is an interesting thought. Though… were international tensions and flareups not been on the rise anyway?… so lacking the assassination one might imagine that some other incident would likely have brought the whole house of cards tumbling down.

Once things start to unravel, perhaps the treaties – supposed to keep the peace, as a deterrent – mean that everyone ends up fighting everyone else. Well, it’s better than being turned into radioactive wasteland (today’s deterrent!), but maybe not that much better.


ozajh 01.11.16 at 9:19 pm

John Burt @72,

I had to hit and run on my way out the door yesterday evening (in my time zone).

I personally think Vanya pretty much nails it @73. I am not qualified to judge the likelihood of any internal Austro-Hungarian turning into a wider war, but whatever happened would be very different.

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