WHY WORLD WAR 1 MATTERS MORE TODAY THAN WORLD WAR 2

Here's a trivia question for you: which nation listed below did NOT surrender during World War One:

  1. Germany
  2. Austria-Hungary
  3. France
  4. Russia

I'm not sure what percentage of Americans would get this right, but I am pretty certain it would not be 100%. So, why is it that the American stereotype of France is that they always surrender, but we have no such stereotype of Germany (which surrendered in both World Wars), Austria, or Russia? I'm not sure how many Americans even know that France did not surrender in WW1, but Russia did.

I think part of the reason is that Americans like to think about WW2 a lot more than we like to think about WW1. This is not simply because WW1 is longer ago, either; we think (and talk and write and make movies about) the Civil War and the American Revolution a lot more than WW1, as well. There are other "forgotten wars", of course, but they were much smaller in size than the wars we do remember; WW1 is the only "big" war (in terms of American casualties) that we don't like to remember or tell stories about. It is pretty clear why the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and WW2 are the ones America most wants to remember.

The Revolutionary War had the practical effect of ending the rule of monarchs in America, and replacing it with a republic. The Civil War had the practical effect of ending slavery. World War 2 had the practical effect of ending fascism in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Americans feel pretty good about those effects. Note that I am leaving aside if those were the "real" reasons for the wars in question, which is a thorny and complex question not relevant here. Afterwards, it was clear that these were the effects these wars had.

We also tend to like the apparent lessons from those wars, which mostly revolve around rejecting appeasement, whether of monarchs or racists or expansionist dictators. That is a pretty straightforward lesson that Americans take to readily.

In fact, though, I believe that WW1 has more interesting lessons, and largely for that reason, it is not much looked at. World War 1, like all wars, was horrible and had a lot of senseless death and destruction, but there's not much of a lesson to get from that, except that war is really, really bad (which is a lesson any war's history should teach you). The lessons which WW1 teaches (more than those other three big wars) are::

  1. things will not go according to plan
  2. small problems can spiral out of control into big problems
  3. soft power matters just as much as hard power
  4. it is very hard to learn something you don't want to be true

Let's take them one at a time.

THINGS WILL NOT GO ACCORDING TO PLAN

The most infamous example of this, of course, was the Schlieffen Plan, wherein Germany thought that by going through Belgium (until that point neutral in the new war), they could circle around France's impregnable fortress complex of Verdun, and knock France out of the war early (thus preventing a two-front war). It turns out that an operation this complex will almost never go according to plan, and the Schlieffen Plan had essentially no substantive provisions for this fact.

It turned out, though, that the Schlieffen Plan was just the first of many pathologically optimistic plans by Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and just about everybody else. Essentially no one in a position to make decisions in WW1 was willing to admit that things would go wrong, or even that they were going wrong once they began to. Offensive after offensive ended up leading primarily to horrible losses, especially for the side that was on the offensive. There is a point, in any group decision, when the most pessimistic person in the room either gets listened to, or told to shut up. In WW1, it appears that they were not listened to.

SMALL PROBLEMS CAN SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL INTO BIG PROBLEMS

The most infamous example of this, was WW1's beginning. While tragic for the Arch Duke's children, the killing of Franz Ferdinand and his wife need not have resulted in anything more than a trial for Gavrilo Princip and his co-conspirators. It was the decision of Austria-Hungary to use this (admittedly quite provacative, but not at all clearly Serbian) act, as an excuse to invade Serbia, that turned it into a world-shattering catastrophe. Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia, France declared war on Germany, Germany invaded Belgium to get at France, the U.K. declared war on Germany. All of these took a bad problem and made it bigger, and the efforts to deal with the bigger problem set the stage for the next step up in scale, in an upward spiral of disaster.

SOFT POWER MATTERS JUST AS MUCH AS HARD POWER

Germany had, in terms of hard power, by far the best results. They managed, with less manpower and fewer natural resources, to defeat Russia and fight off the combined efforts of France, Italy, and the U.K. for years. Why then, did Germany lose the war?

Because of soft power, and their utter disregard for it. They brought the U.K. (and its navy) into the war, when they didn't need to, by disregarding the fact that invading Belgium would provoke outrage. They used unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the fact that it alienated neutral nations such as the U.S. In both cases, they didn't really even gain much, since neither the plan to invade France through Belgium, nor the plan to knock the U.K. out of the war using submarines, ended up working.

They also missed obvious opportunities to use soft power to their advantage. Ireland rebelled in a small way 1916, and again in a big way in 1919, so clearly there was anti-British sentiment there to exploit. The Germans also could have supported nationalist movements in Poland, but instead demanded that the Poles fight for them first, and then we'll see about an independent Poland later. They could have supported colonial uprisings throughout the overseas colonies of the U.K., France, and Belgium, all of whom had given their colonial possessions plentiful grievances. Instead of a "war to save democracy", they could have branded it a "war to end colonialism", since all the really big colonial powers were on the other side.

This all requires, though, that the idea of cultivating allies is something you care about, which requires that you care about the opinions of other nations. The U.K. worked long and hard to get the U.S. into the war, and had to overcome entrenched isolationism to do so. The proclamations of Germany at the time mostly amount to boasting of their own military greatness. They continued to accumulate additional enemies throughout the war, largely because they could not (or would not) believe that "soft power" was important.

IT IS VERY HARD TO LEARN SOMETHING YOU DON'T WANT TO BE TRUE

Napoleon is reputed to have said, "The moral is to the physical as ten is to one." Whether he did or not, it is certainly true that during Napoleonic times, morale mattered far more than it did by 1914. If your troops held together and continued to charge, the enemy would break, and victory would be yours. What mattered most was determination, and achieving the decisive breakthrough, after which the retreating army could be routed. The majority of the actual casualties did not happen at the front lines, they happened after the breakthrough, as the victors routed the defeated. But by 1914, this was no longer true.

Mechanical advances in firearms and artillery meant that you could mow down attacking troops as fast as they could come at you, no matter how good their morale. If you fell back a few hundred yards, into a prepared trench behind your front-line trench, you could do it all again. The advantage had dramatically swung to the defense, and for year after year, there was no breakthrough. Whoever was attacking, was losing. Nonetheless, the generals continued to order attacks, and their civilian (or imperial) commanders could not or would not stop them. Why not? Well, in 1914 it was because they thought they could win the war, but by 1916 or so I believe it was because admitting that the whole thing had been a colossal mistake was just too hard to do. It wasn't just generals who refused to change their views, and instead expected reality to bend to their will. Prime ministers and kaisers and emperors and tsars did as well.

It also required something even harder than admitting your mistakes. It required admitting that courage and morale were not enough any more. If you had troops that believed in you, and followed orders, and had courage, and you went "once more into the breach", it just resulted in a lot of dead young men, mostly on your side. By 1914, winning a war depended more on factories and logistics than on courage and patriotism. This, was not something that the leaders of any side wanted to admit. It is very difficult to learn a lesson about the world being a way that you don't want it to be.

When I look around myself in 2018, I don't see a lot of mistakes of appeasement, though I notice that a lot of my peers seem to be seeing Nazis everywhere they look. I see instead, a lot of people in the ruling class trying the same thing again and again. It doesn't work, and they try again because changing their world view would be harder than just repeating their orders, because the hardest price for repeating the same mistake again doesn't fall on them, it falls on people who have less power than they do. WWI matters more than WWII, now and probably always, because it is rarely the case that leaders of the old school realize their mistakes and change plans. It is often the case that it is more difficult to change your mind, than to just order those with less power to try the same thing again with a minor variation. Even if, as in WWI, that thing keeps not working.