The End of the Great European Peace, 1914

The Great European Peace* began and ended with German military action. German Unification (1871) followed, as planned, from crushing victories; leading again, as planned by Bismarck, to peace. Forty- three years of European peace and an entire generation of German generals had had their ‘military’ careers trashed. Other European generals had some warfare experiences, France turned north Africa into a (military) playground as did Italy in Libya. Britain and Russia fought major non- European wars.** Therefore only a small number of European officers had any experience of modern war. Mythic war is an opportunity for war based fantasies especially featuring ‘glory’. The tone had been set by jingoistic press campaigns in every country stoking up nationalistic pride. And, of course, in this context peace is boring.

Perversely the death of the Great European Peace was ‘democratically’ endorsed as men hurried to the enlistment offices: European men voted with their feet. War was not imposed on unwilling populations and so it is irrelevant that Europe was, at best, only partially democratic. The Tsar ruled Russia as an autocrat. Germany, France and Italy had universal male suffrage whilst the UK lagged some distance behind with about 60% of men qualified to vote. No European country had female suffrage. But it didn’t matter anyway because no European country would have consulted their populations anyway.

Only Britain and Russia had any knowledge of what it meant ot engage in a ‘competitive’ war. Neither country had had glorious campaigns in their respective major battles. Britain was a genuine world power in 1899 and should have been able to see off the Boers of South Africa with some ease. But it wasn’t to be. The British defeated the Boers in set piece battles but guerrilla warfare favoured the Boers. So badly did the British do that the High Command introduced warfare against women and children via their concentration camp policy. Boer guerrilla soldiers saw their loved one’s starving to death and sued for peace. The British army proved Hobbes right; there are no morals in war.

At least the British were fighting quasi- Europeans; the Russians were at war with Japan. Racist Europe couldn’t conceive the possibility that an Asian country could be a significant military opponent. Proving them wrong the Japanese navy routed the Russian fleet at the battle of Tsushima (1905). The Russian army fought better at the battle of Mukden*** but they were out- thought and out- manoeuvered by the Japanese. Japan had defeated an allegedly first rate European army and navy.

And the conclusion that German generals reached? Russia was not a first- rate power because they hadn’t defeated Asians. The French were still trautmatised after the rout of 1870 and defeating north African Arabs was not a demonstration of first- rate power. The Germans assumed that the British couldn’t care less about Europe as they had a world- wide empire. Therefore Germany as the only first- rate military force in Europe could take on all comers. Such hubris underpinned the Schlieffen Plan (1905). This plan was a timetable where both France and Russia would be defeated in five months. Winning a two- front war, long regarded as military impossibility**** was the aim of men who had not even fought a colonial war against ‘natives’.

The Great European Peace began with German generals and politicianswho knew exactly what they were doing and did it. They had a clear exit strategy with limited military and political objectives. The German generals who were gung- ho for war in 1914 were inexperienced amateurs who had bamboozled the Kaiser and his supine cabinet officers. Unfortunately the German army was first- rate and against all the odds lasted for four dreadful years.

*1871- 1914
** The Boer War 1899- 1902; Russo- Japanese war 1905- 6
*** 20th Feb- 10th March 1905
**** Hitler mopped up western Europe by summer 1940 and attacked the Soviet Union in summer 1941

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