Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
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Friday, April 7, 2017

Why counterfactuals driven only by ideology are bad. A reaction to Micael Kazin’s “Should America Have Entered World War I?”

Why counterfactuals driven only by ideology are bad. A reaction to Micael Kazin’s “Should America Have Entered World War I?”
by Konstantinos Travlos 

Counterfactuals have a proud tradition both in popular history and in the use of social science (see JamesFearon “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science”). They can help as tease out causal mechanisms and find key decisions in decision tracing. And for many they are a kind of wish-fulfillment.  We cannot change the past, but we can always try to envision how the past would be different. This second type is the one that drives a lot of the alternative history literature.

There is a danger though in that last form of counterfactual. If it is driven by nothing more than wish-fulfillment, then rather than interrogating the historical process that writer will shoe-horn it into their favorite narrative to prove their point. They will in another name choose the interpretation that supports their prejudice. In more social scientific terms, they will choose on the dependent variable. This is exactly what Michael Kazin, historian at Georgetown and editor of the radical progressive magazine Dissent does  in his New York Times opinion piece “ShouldAmerica Have Entered World War I”.

In a quick summary, he argues that the entrance of the US into World War I led to the German decision to lunch Operation Kaiserschlacht (the Spring Offensive in 1918) whose failure led to the decision of Ludendorff and Hindenburg to give up the war. If the US had not entered the war he argues that the war would had lasted one to two more years, a negotiated settlement would had followed forced by the publics, and the political powers that rose from Versailles to feed World War Two would never had risen. This counter-argument is wrong. 

Woodrow Wilson: Racist, Progressive, Political Scientist, US President, War Victor. But also the man at fault for World War 2?


It is driven largely by ideology. As the editor of Dissent magazine, and from the piece itself, we have strong indicators that Kazin is very committed to the activities of anti-war radicals in the US opposed to the war, and to the idea that radical activists in the war countries would be able to push for an end to the war in 1919 or 1920. He also is fully committed to the “American” explanation of the end of the war, the argument that it was the US and only the US entry that drove Ludendorff and Hindenburg to give up the war. Finally, he peddles the old discredited argument that it was Versailles as a treaty, rather than the war itself, that led to the rise of the totalitarian regimes that would give us World War 2. On all these points he is likely wrong.

For the starts let us begin with a short chronology lesson. I will focus on several events having to do with military operations and diplomatic decisions in the crucial, for Kazin’s counterargument. 1917-1918 argument.

·         February 1917-Germany declares unrestricted submarine warfare again.
·         March 1917- November Revolution in Russia (Old Calendar). New provisional government continues to want to fight in the war.
-Bagdad falls to General Maude’s Offensive
·         April 1917-The US declares war on Germany
·         November 1917-October Revolution (Old Calendar). Bolshevik government seeks peace with Central Powers.
·         March 1918-Punitative Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
·         March-July 1918-German Operation Kaiserschlacht-Major Participation of US units May-July 1918.
·         June 1918-Austro-Hungarians launch Piave Offensive in Italy.
·         August 1918 - Allied 100 Days Operation lunched- Major Participation of US Troops.
·         September 1918- Allebany’s Palestine-Syria campaign begins.
·         September 1918-. Entente Vardar Offensive launched in the Balkan Campaign-Bulgaria capitulates
·         October 1918- Entente Offensive into Serbia and towards Hungary.
·         October 1918- Italians launch Vittorio-Veneto Offensive in Italy.
·         October 1918-Ottoman Empire capitulates
·         3rd November 1918-Austria-Hungary capitulates
·         11th November 1918-Germany signs armistice

A)     The Military Reality

If we look at the above chronology we notice some important things. First a key decision is the 1917 German decision to re-start un-restricted submarine warfare. The available evidence indicates that the German leadership likely believed that the decision will lead to a war with the US but that they also likely believed that the US would enter more importantly. However, this decision could also be a signal of something else. The likely knowledge that it would likely lead to an expansion of the war means that it was a likely desperate choice for the German leadership. Why make such a desperate choice? The most probable answer was the understanding that the Entente blockade of the Central Powers was bringing their societies and militaries to the breaking point. At 1917! Yes, the potential US entry of the war cast an even greater shadow on this problematic fact, but that fact in itself had already made the German command desperate to win and win fast.  Desperate enough to bring the US into the war if unrestricted submarine warfare brought Britain first to its knees.
Another important point is the timing of Kaiserschlacht. While it is true that Ludendorff and Hindenburg launched the attack claiming a wish to defeat the allies before the US could fully put forward its full power, another likely reason was the let-down that was Brest-Litvosk. A extremely punitive treaty in comparison to Versailles, Brest-Litvosk was also a failure. The  Central Powers hoped that the Treaty would open  a massive repository of manpower and resources that would permit them to counter the superiority in materiel of the 1917 Entente.  This was not the case. The regions in question were under-developed or ravaged by the war. They had also largely collapsed into a general condition of war with no clear centers of authority the Central Powers could quickly defeat. It became a quagmire. In another name the Central Powers could not impose their new order in that vast region within the confines of the World War. Whether the US entered the war or not, Ludendorff and Hindenburg had to defeat the Entente before they could begin exploiting their new eastern empire. Perhaps one would answer, but that does not mean they had to do so in 1918. The 1918 offensive was done in reaction to the US! Kazin is right, and you are wrong sir! I fear that is not the case.

Kazin is right that most Americans know precious little about the US entry in World War 1.  But Americans, and in general western Europeans, know even less about the other fronts of the war. Look at the chronology. What do you see? Where did the Central Powers collapse first? At the Balkans. In Mesopotamia and Palestine. From 1917 it must had been clear to German decision makers that their minor allies were under immense pressure. Especially Bulgaria, which was the linchpin of the whole southern flank of the Central Powers and their link with their Ottoman allies. While both the Ottomans and Bulgarians had been able to survive 1917 offensives by the allies, by 1918 their ability to conduct offensive warfare had been exhausted.  The war did not end because of one campaign on the Western Front. It ended because of a combination of all out offensives by the Western Allies in every front. 

This was the case in Italy, in the Balkans, and in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Western Front. Ludendorff and Hindenburg had not given up with the failure of Kaiserschlacht. They still believed Germany could hold the Hindenburg lines.  But the total collapse of Bulgaria in September spelled  the end for the southern flank of the Central Powers. Bulgarians collapse opened up the soft underbelly of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and severed the logistic links with the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans followed suit.  In another name by October 1918 the Central Powers had lost two allies and about a million men from their order of battle.  Ludendorff and Hindenburg had to give up because even if the allies had been stopped in the Western Front , the rest of the Central Powers strategic edifice was like a water barrel with hundred holes.

Breaking the back of the Central Powers. The 1918 Vardar Offensive against Bulgaria.

Crucially, no American major formations were present in any of those other fronts. Without a doubt the events in the Western Front, the Allied 100 Days offensive, played its role in the interlocking set of campaigns on 1918. But I would argue that even in the absence of an American entry into the war, as long as the Germans had to maintain forces in the Western Front, and as long as the war made impossible the full exploitation of their new eastern empire, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were still running against time in 1918. The clock was not per se American entry, but the collapsing situation in the other fronts. The Germans sought to win the war in Paris so they would not lose the war in Istanbul and Sofia. They were beaten to the punch by the Entente allies.  A lot of things beyond just American entry must change to save Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire from collapse. And the collapse of those two powers means the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the collapse of Austria-Hungary means the collapse of Germany. It needs to be stressed. While American logistic support (pre-existing the US entry to the war) played a crucial role in Entente Victories in Italy, the Balkans, and the Middle East, no US major formations were present, or were planned to be sent by Pershing in the 1919 planned operations. I another name, World War I would had ended in early 1919 with a Central Power collapse, whether the US had entered it or not, as long as the US supported the Entente with supplies, and Germany could not radically change the overall strategic situation.

To get an idea of the extremely problematic  strategic balance in material for the Central Powers, consider some data from the Correlates of War Project.

In 1917 the Central Powers had a combine iron and steel production of 18937000 tons. They consumed 205794000 coal ton equivalents (a measure of industrial capacity of a state). Their combined population was  145880000 people. Their mobilized military personnel 6259000 (or 4.29% of the population). Their military expenditures were 10026961000 in current US Dollars. In the same year the Entente, excluding the US, Russia and Romania, could muster an iron and steel production of 13206000 tons (severely hampered by the loss of Norther France). They consumed  energy amounting to 291025000 coal ton equivalents. Their combined population was 134822000. Their mobilized military personnel   13247000(9.8% of population). Their military expenditures were 13706177000 in current US Dollars.

The numbers seem comparable, but that in itself is a major problem for the Germans.  By 1917 Germany was the revisionist actor (it is more complicated in 1914). It needed to win the war. And even without the US in the calculus it was facing a situation of parity, not a balance of power that favored it. Furthermore Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottomans had been bled dry, unable to mobilize any other troops. The UK though had not largely mobilized the full capabilities of its empire, and Italy and Greece still had reserves to call to arms.

In 1918 the numbers are even more punishing.  Central Powers iron and steel production is 14092000 tons. Military expenditures were 10976702000 in current US dollars. Energy consumption 194550000 coal ton equivalents. Military Personnel were 10099000 out of a population of 145923000(7% of total population, mostly the last German reserves). The Entente powers, excluding the US but including Romania, mustered 12436000 tons of iron and steel production. They spent 16159685000 in current US dollars. They consumed 273334000 in coal ton equivelants. Their military personnel were 13513000 out of a population of 144025000 (9.3%). In another name 1917-1918 were the last years Germany could hope to impose its will on the Western Allies before they outpaced it in key variables. This is the case whether the US intervened directly in the war or not, as long as it supported economically the Entente.

The 1917-1918 Data in Figures


The key here is not the relative parity of the Entente and the Central Powers (if we leave out the US as an active participant but still count it as a logistic support, which is not tied to is belligerency status). The key is that this relative parity is in place when the German Empire is already stretched thin trying to keep its collapsing allied up. This harsh statistical reality would not have changed in 1918. It would only have become worse as the Entente blockade bit in.

It is my hope that I showed you a plausible story about why the Kazin argument that a US decision to not enter the war would had meant a war ending in 1919 or 1920 on negotiations is wrong. Instead the war would had ended in 1918, at most in 1919 with the collapse of the Central Powers.  That said, Kazin has another crucial argument that needs to be addressed. That if the US had not entered into the war, the negotiated peace that would have followed would have led to the avoidance of the tragedies of World War 2.

The nature of the Peace
The opinion piece seems to indicate that Kazin subscribes to the argument that the rise of the Nazi party and other totalitarians ideologies among the defeated powers of 1918 was due to the harsh character of the Versailles Treaties. This is a position that has been advanced by people as varied as the liberal Keynes, to the National Socialists itself. It is through a position that has also been strongly resisted. Compared to Brest-Litvosk, Versailles was moderately tame treaty. Of course the appropriateness of a punishment is always based on the subjective view of the person receiving it. Thus it is very likely that even a negotiated and less transformative treaty (Say one that returns to status-quo ante, or just gives France Alsace-Lorraine), would still be resented. Indeed one could say that Wilson acted as a check to the more punitive French ideas. We could spend hours debating this. But ultimately for the point he is trying to make, the punitive treaty is irrelevant.

Fascism, Nazism, or for that matter Bolshevism were not born from the punitive treaties. The totalitarian mindset was born and bred and nourished by the war itself. If the war had ended in 1914, then yes one could tentatively argue that they might have not risen. But by 1917 the rot had settled deep in the soul of western civilization. Any negotiated treaty that did not “feel” as making up for the immense losses of the preceding three years of war-fare would had created the very same resentments that Versailles did. The totalitarian impetus, whether raising the Red banner, or taking the mantle of conservatism, would had risen, perhaps not in Germany, but maybe France, or the UK, or Russia, definitely in Italy.  The potent mix of technological utopianism, fatalism, anti-industrialism, camaraderie etc that brewed in the fetid swamps of no-man’s land was complete by 1917. No treaty exists that could had averted some of its advances in the inter-war years. Lest we forget fascism was a soldier’s movement. There is no reason to think that they would not had resented the civilian populations that had poured their sacrifices down the drain of a negotiated stalemate peace.
German "storm-troopers". It was in such elite units that the idea of totalitarianism took hold (Italian Arditi, White and Red Russian "Death" Battalions. A good film on this dynamics is Captain Conan. The best book is Storm of Steal by Ernst Junger)

Kazin also assumes the some of the punitive treaties were the result of greedy motive. That was there, but in many cases the victors had to deal with collapsing situations. The complete collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire was not in the war-aims of even its fervent enemies. It came as a shock. Except if Kazin and others believe it realistic for the Entente and Germany t send troops into Vienna, Prague and Buda-Pest to impose a rec-reaction of the Empire, any peace treaty had to recognize the facts on the ground.

But what if the peace was negotiated by socialists, social democrats, and other progressives as the result of massive civil society movements as Kazin argues likely in his counterfactual?  This is a view largely based on the narrative that Germany collapsed exclusively due to the German Revolution on 1918. Germany did not collapse exclusively due to that. It collapsed when the front lines collapsed. The military defeat, first of its allies and then of its own armies in the 100 Days campaign were in synergy with the popular revolt.  Until the military collapse studies have shown that the Central Powers, especially Germany and Austria-Hungary were quite able to keep the rising social tension under wraps. It would have exploded inevitably, but military collapse determined the reaction of governments to that explosion.  Hungary capitulated only when the victorious Entente armies had reached the Hungarian plain. Germany only when the Hindenburg line, and thus the left bank of the Rhine was lost.  In all cases leaders and revolutionaries begun the process of dismantling the states after the defeat of the armies in the field.  A military stalemate would mean peace negotiated not by socialists etc, but largely by the same people who had run the war. Only defeat could lead to changes. Especially in a Germany ruled by the iron-fist of Ludendorff and Hindenburg.

Joseph Pidulski. Social-Democrat Warlord.

But let us accept that progressives and radicals could had taken power. Well would they be any better than the governments that had run the war? The experience of the Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Russian Empire should make any careful scholar apprehensive. In the Caucasus socialist Armenia fought socialist Azerbaijan, and both fought socialist Georgia. Bolshevik Russia fought social-democratic Poland and socialist Ukraine. Social-Democratic Poland fought socialist Ukraine. In the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire socialist Hungarians fought liberal democratic Czechs. In Germany a social-democratic government fought a socialist insurrection. While we can all debate about the term “socialist”, “social-democrat” etc, the point remains that many of those anti-war radicals once in power largely behaved as the majority of  socialist parties did in 1914. In pursuit of nationalist or particularistic goals. As I said, by 1917 the rot had settled. The revolutionary and radical governments that might had replaced the war governments of 1918 in Kazin’s counter-factual, would still have had to deal with the totalitarian impulse, ruined societies, and demands for restitution, in addition to the previously repressed internal disputes of imperial orders. Civil wars might had followed the stalemate in Germany, Austria-Hungary, even France and Italy. Some of these would had led to the rise of some variation of the historical totalitarianisms. The Inter War period would still had been the Twenty Year Crisis of E.H.Carr. A great war would still had followed the first great war.
Symon Petlirua. Socialist Warlord

Thus there is no reason to believe that Kazin’s counterfactual would have led to a result different from the historical one. Any peace following the stalemate would had created resentments. By 1917 the rot that led to totalitarianism had been well developed by the war itself. The resentment over the peace would had led to the rise of totalitarian movements. Socialist or progressive governments in 1918 or 1919 would not have been able to avoid this. Indeed they may very well had been aggressors themselves as their counterparts in Eastern Europe.  In another name, the core conditions that led to the great tragedy of World War 2 were the result of the war itself and not the US entry or the peace treaties it led to.

Conclusion: A more valid counterfactual
I hope I have shown the many issues with Kazin’s counterfactual as presented in his New York Times opinion piece “Should America Have Entered World War I?”. It rests on completely wrong premises, ignores the actual chronology of events in the war, and the actual conditions the war engendered.  It wrongly turns the US entry into the war into a key event, while I hoped to show that it accelerated but did not change long term trends both in the war, and in the aftermath of the war. It is driven by an ideological belief in the power of the anti-war movement, that simply misreads why the Central Powers collapsed, and the roots of the Inter-war totalitarian movements.

This does not mean that the US role in World War I is not catalytic. But it was not the declaration of war that is the key event here. It is not even the arrival or expected arrival of US troops. Instead the catalytic event was the US material and economic support to the Entente in the years of 1915-1917. It is that support that permitted the Entetne powers to continue fighting, and to be able to sacrifice resources to secondary fronts that put a massive strain on Germany’s allies. As long as the US was bankrolling the Entente war efforts, not even the fall of Russia can have changed the trajectory of the war.  The true counterfactual here is what would had happened if the US had followed strict neutrality. But I do not think there is one serious scholar of any ideological bias that believes  such a thing possible.

Moltke the Younger. Strategic understanding married with political imaturity


Thus we must always go back to those decisive days of summer 1914. It is hear were different choices would have led to a truly different historical trajectory.  Motlke the Younger for all his faults did capture rightly the significance of the First Battle of the Marne. "Your Majesty, we have lost the war." As long as the US was willing to fund the Entente war effort, Germany had lost the First World War on 12 September 1914. The hellish madness that followed in the next four years can never and should never be considered rational. Germany lost the war in 1914, but Europe lost its soul and the world in 1915-1918. To think that two more years of the same would have changed the trajectory of history is wrong.  If the American entry led to the war ending in 1918 rather than 1919 or 1920, that is something to be thankful for, whether biased to the Central Powers, the Entente, or simply the millions caught up in the madness. 

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