33

An essay by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, March 14, 2019, argues for rethinking the big theme of 20th-century history as a struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism, and for an interpretation of authoritarianism as explicitly ideological. In particular, he argues that

World War I, fought mainly in the trenches along the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, was very much a war between authoritarianism and liberalism.

This seems like a very novel interpretation to me, but maybe my high school education in 1980 was biased or is now out of date. Is this picture well-supported by the historical record? Is Kagan stretching a point too far?

My picture of World War I had been that it was not an ideological conflict but rather an unintended consequence of the existence of secret treaties that allowed a trivial assassination to become amplified into a world-wide conflict. I would have also thought of it as being connected to colonialism. I'm an American, and when I think of Woodrow Wilson, I don't think of classical liberalism — I think of the Palmer Raids, hardcore racism and segregation, and the East St. Louis massacres. I suppose World War I was a war to make the world safe for capital in the US and Britain, which does align with the Hayek-style notion of classical liberalism, but Kagan seems to want to disassociate liberalism-authoritarianism from right-left economic policy.

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    Imperial Russia wasn't particularly liberal, so I don't see how you can claim it started out as such a thing. – Steven Burnap Mar 16 at 20:45
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    It's as good an oversimplification as most of them...which is to say "not really very good" As long as you ignore the parts that don't fit, it works pretty well as an organizing principle. – Mark Olson Mar 16 at 22:45
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    Kagan seems to be trying to force the past into a shape that supports his ideas about the present. He isn't convincing me with this argument. – John Dallman Mar 16 at 22:56
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    @StevenBurnap Regarding your point that "Imperial Russia wasn't particularly liberal," I get the impression that Robert Kagan's attitude would be: "Who cares about that stupid Eastern Front? It was the Western Front that was full of Great Historical Significance, as I choose to perceive it, so let's focus on that! Besides, Russia's own February Revolution occurred during WWI, so I can patch up my theory to claim that this was more 'proof' of a form of liberalism fighting against a corrupt and obsolete authoritarian regime as part of the larger conflict." – Lorendiac Mar 17 at 5:19
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    Protecting your colonies, your king/queen and empire is indeed what a real liberal do. – Greg Mar 17 at 16:16
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Seeing WWI as an ideological battle between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes requires hindsight and taking the Western perspective and adjusting your lenses for what was considered "liberal democracy" at the time. While certainly empires fell and new republics rose, other empires gained, and people continued to be oppressed. When you start to look at WWI in the moment and in detail it's less clear. When you look at WWI from the perspective of the world outside the victorious Allies and remove the "liberal for the time" distortion things start to get a lot less rosy.

Maintaining the status quo

The primary drive for WWI was the rise of a unified Germany in 1871 overnight destabilizing the balance of power Europe. Previously the UK, France, and Russia were centers of economic and military power with fractured central Europe and stagnant Austria-Hungary acting as a buffer zone. Now Germany is a new center of power right in the middle. Born in the defeat of France, and later getting into a naval arms race with Britain, Germany scares the pants off both France and Britain.

They held it together for 40 years: emperor to emperor; monarch to monarch... and France. The monarchies of Britain, Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary all had a vested interest in keeping the status quo to remain in power. France had a vested interest in countering its mortal enemy: Germany. Eventually it fell apart as Germany got too ambitious. France and Russia allied against Germany. That opportunistic alliance between liberal France and autocratic Russia against autocratic Germany further complicates the narrative.

Even as WWI is breaking out we see frantic shuttle diplomacy happening right up to the last moment to prevent a general European war. None of the powers are saber rattling for general war, it's all about a power grab in Serbia. Even Germany, who was goading Austria-Hungary, hoped for a quick victory against Serbia before Russia could mobilize.

Liberal democracies?

Russia is the most obvious thorn in this idea. Autocratic Imperial Russia in WWI are fighting on the side of... democracy? No, Imperial Russia joined WWI in a spat with Austria-Hungary over who gets to protect dominate the Slavs. These were two autocrats going to war over who gets control. It's only after the war went horrendously badly for Russia (plus many contributing factors) that allowed a Communist revolt to take hold. Then the resulting Soviet regime is democratic in name only, it's more autocracy.

And then there's Imperial Japan, at the time just getting started on a decades long brutal occupation of Korea. They joined the war on the Allied side in a deal with the UK to protect against German Pacific raiders. Japan used this as an opportunity to grab German Pacific territories including the German occupied port of Tsingtao in China which they kept. Then they turned against China with a series of unequal treaties designed to give Japan more control.

Liberal democracy for whom?

The Third French Republic is liberal democracy... for men. The UK, a constitutional monarchy, had representation for about half the men. And in the democratic US only men could vote, and in practice often only white men.

And, oh yes, their many, many, many colonies and occupied territories. Racism appears again in the preferential treatment of mostly-white colonies. Canada and Australia, for example, had a modicum of home rule. Others like India, Indochina, and the Philippines don't get democracy until after another world war and many revolts. For them the US, UK, and France are the autocrats.

Post war winners and losers

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points for the peace following WWI made some very enlightened promises regarding the handling of occupied territories. Some were kept. Most were not. But the ideas had power.

After the Central Powers surrender and the war proper is over, multiple nationalist uprisings spring up in former imperial territories. Anatolia (ie. Turkey), the Middle East, Russia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Europe all expect their autonomy. While one can view the Allies support of Central European and Baltic nationalism as a blow for freedom and democracy and self-rule... when you start to look at the Allied attitude towards other regions it looks more like a cynical buffer zone against Germany and the Soviets.

East Germany, western Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were largely carved up. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Hungary got their independence more or less by treaty and a bit of fighting. Self-rule, yes, but also convenient checks on German expansion.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia emerged from the chaos of German-occupied Baltic area following the collapse of both Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany. A three way brawl developed, generally, between nationalists, Soviets, and local Germans. The Allies and Whites generally threw in with the nationalists. Again, supporting self-rule, but they also act as a bulwark against Communism which scared the crap out of the Allies.

Once we look beyond keeping Germany in check, things become less rosy for the liberal democracies. In Russia we see a confused Allied intervention into the Russian civil war generally on the part of the autocratic Whites, though really against the Soviets who scare the crap out of them. We also see victorious ally autocratic Imperial Japan attempt to establish a Siberian buffer state, not very democratic. This is all in contrast to point VI.

VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

Looking south at the Ottoman Empire, we see the Allies making promises of independence after the war if the locals would please fight the Ottomans. Meanwhile the Allies are making secret treaties to carve up the territory for themselves. The war in Europe is over, but Allied armies continue to gobble up Ottoman territory. Russia, Britain, France, Greece, and Italy are all tripping over each other in the mad scramble to lay claim to pieces of Anatolia and the Middle East for themselves. This mostly went according to plan, the Middle East was carved up into regions for the benefit of the Allies; not very democratic.

As for the Turks, point XII promised...

XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

Instead there was a plan to carve up Anatolia with "zones of influence" and outright annexations leaving about a third of the territory for the Turks. The Turks strenuously objected to this plan that nobody consulted them about and won their independence by fighting the Allies who wanted to carve them up.

Finally, some colonies took point V to heart.

V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.

Most famously Hi Chi Minh arrived at the Versailles Peace Conference asking for independence from France for Vietnam. He was ignored and two generations of the Indochinese would suffer for it.

14

Question:
World War I as a war of liberals against authoritarians?

An essay by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, March 14, 2019, argues for rethinking the big theme of 20th-century history as a struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism, and for an interpretation of authoritarianism as explicitly ideological. In particular, he argues that

World War I, fought mainly in the trenches along the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, was very much a war between authoritarianism and liberalism.

Short Answer:
I think you are mostly correct. I think Robert Kagan proposes rethinking the lessons of history to support his own politics. When he does so he largely ignores traditional historical scholarship. That is his job as an editorialist, and why the Washington Post hired him.


Detailed Answer

WWI was fought with prominent empires and kingdoms on both sides of the war.

Leaders of WWI
WWI antagonists:

     **Allies**                                **Central Powers'**
     France (PM, Raymond Poincare)             German Empire (Kaiser Wilhelm II )
     British Empire (PM David Lloyd George     Austrian-Hungary (Emperor Franz Joseph)        
     Russia (Czar Nicolas II)                  Ottoman Empire (Enver Pasha)
     Serbia ( Nikola Pašić )                   Bulgaria (Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov)
     Belgium (King Albert I)                   
     Montenegro (King Nikola I)
     Japan (Emperor Yoshihito)
     Italy (King Victor Emmanuel III)
     United States (President Woodrow Wilson)
     Romania (King Ferdinand I)
     Portugal (President Bernardino Machado)
     Hejaz ( King Hussein bin Ali )
     China ( Premier Duan Qirui )
     Greece (King Constantine I)
     Siam (King Rama VI)

Robert Kagan is a neoconservative. Their movement which championed pre-emptive war in Iraq after 911 promotes alternative views of history to support their own agenda. Recasting Woodrow Wilson's as a Liberal and claiming he was a historical example to their interventionist ideology in WWI. "Make the World Safe for Democracy" joined with the "Democratic War theory" are used to demonstrate how broad politically their ideology of intervention was historically, even liberal Democrats used this policy.

The association with history the neoconservatives put forward are jingoistic and don't penetrate much beyond slogans. A more traditional interpretation of history would say that Woodrow Wilson was a conservative democrat from the South who only became president when the liberal vote was split by Teddy Roosevelt's bull moose party and Roosevelt's hand picked successor William Howard Taft in the 1912 election. That WWI lasted for a little longer than 4 years (1564 days) and that Americans involvement was only 1 year seven months.

That when WWI began in 1914 Wilson pledged neutrality and kept that position for most of the war. That as you say Wilson had significant other reasons for involving the United States in WWI not the least of which were economic.

  • The UK was America's largest foreign trade partner.
  • That American Banks lead by J.P Morgan had heavily invested in France and the UK and had also invested thousands of other American Banks deposits in that outcome.
  • “Zimmermann Telegram” where Germany was conspiring with Mexico to attack the United States.
  • Unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic including the sinking of the Lusitania and the death of 120 Americans, turned public opinion away from Neutrality.

Democratic Peace Theory - Democracies don't make war on other democracies. First proposed by age of reason philosopher Immanuel Kant and political theorist Thomas Paine in the late 1700's when there weren't very many democracies around. That they proposed it not as an observation of historical fact as neoconservatives do, but as a conjecture based upon their belief in the future benefits of democracy. History has recorded many wars between Democracies.

  • Punic Wars between ( Roman Republic and Carthage )
  • The American Revolution
  • Quasi War between French and American Republics
  • War of 1812.
  • Mexican American War
  • American Civil War
  • Sonderbund War in Switzerland
  • War of 1849 between Roman Republic and French Second Republic
  • War of 1859 between Peru and Ecuador
  • Spanish American War
  • Philippine-American War
  • First and Second Boar Wars
  • First Balkan War (1912)
  • WWI
  • Polish Lithuanian War
  • Continuation War
  • Israeli War of Independence
  • First Kashmir War
  • Six Day War
  • Football War between ElSalvador and Honduras
  • Turkish Invasion of Cyprus
  • Paquisha War (Ecuador and Peru )
  • Yugoslav Wars
  • Cenepa War

Sources:

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    While I may not be a fan of neoconservatives politically myself (they are currently the ideology everyone loves to dump on), I think this answer leans a bit hard into that as an explanation. Woodrow Wilson was a liberal in the old ("liberal" vs. "monarchist") sense of someone who wants people to have a say in their government. In the modern US political sense, yeah, not even close. Otherwise, this is a very good answer though, so I'm upvoting. – T.E.D. Mar 18 at 13:24
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    Also, after "Democratic Peace Theory" I'd suggest replacing every use of "Democracies" with "Republics". I know its a technicality, but its one that made my mind at least stumble over what was, upon reflection, actually a pretty good point. – T.E.D. Mar 18 at 13:26
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    Many items in the list of "wars between democracies" are debattable because at least one of the belligerent was not much of a democracy, but pressing that point would be off-topic, so let it be. – Evargalo Mar 18 at 14:31
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    "Democratic Peace Theory?" Start here users.erols.com/mwhite28/demowar.htm – LangLangC Mar 18 at 15:12
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    @LangLangC, As always, thank you for the heads up. Axis was the wrong term and not synonymous with "Central Powers". Changed it. – JMS Mar 19 at 17:31
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World War I, fought mainly in the trenches along the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, was very much a war between authoritarianism and liberalism.

The first problem is the claim about where WWI was "mainly" fought in the West. WWI was not fought mainly in the trenches along the Western Front. The Eastern Front in the time it was active was about as bloody as the Western Front.

WWI started and finished in the Western Front; the losses Germany took fighting in the East, plus the arrival of fresh American troops, plus the choakhold of the British blockade, is what let allies overrun Germany in the West.

Mainly, to me, means that the other theatres where significantly less important. And that is a strong claim I'd question.


Next, we can actually look at why the various parties entered the War.

Based on records, it appears that the British entered the war based on the principle of the neutrality of Belgium. They had guaranteed its safety for a long time, and where willing to burn the world to keep it neutral; the calculus being the UK wanted the promise of security it provided to prevent the need to fight, you must be willing to fight for nothing but your promise.

There are communications between Germany and the UK where Germany desperately tried to keep the UK out of the war. Germany promised UK the moon, so long as the UK would let Germany walk through Belgium, defeat the French, impose a peace treaty on the French that would involve dismantling their defensive line, then turn and smash Russia.

The UK, at the time, was milquetoast about bleeding to save France, and old enemy/rival. As far as the UK was concerned, if France/Germany/Russia fought each other and bled each other dry a bit, it was fine. Well, they didn't want a single super-power on the continent. But really, if Germany was friendly and France was a bit beat up, that isn't a huge problem for the UK.

Russia was mobilizing to intimdate Austria, the sick man of Europe, over its threats against the Serbs. Russia intended to intimidate Austria into backing down, and if they didn't to bloody its nose.

Austria was still a major power, and some Serb terrorist had just blown up someone more important than the US President is in the USA (the heir to the absolute monarch's throne -- imagine if a terrorist killed the President-elect, and half of the entire Senate and Congress). They where not about to back down over this, and where going to make the Serbian terrorists pay for it. A lot like the USA invading Afghanistan.

Germany had a secret plan to defeat France and Russia, who had allied against them. They did not want to go to war at this point -- based on projections, in another 30 years they would win without having to shoot -- but their plan to defeat Russia and France right now relied on attacking before Russia mobilized. With Russia mobilizing for any reason, Germany had to decide if it was willing to risk defeat. Russia might be mobilizing to give Austria a bloody nose, but once mobilized it might turn its eyes on Germany; and Germany figured it could not defeat a fully mobilized Russia with France at its back.

So for Germany to not risk that, it had to implement its war plan, which was to mobilize extremely rapidly, smash though Belgium, take Paris, force a surrender of the French, then turn around and face Russia. It would be a roll of the dice, but it was plan that plausibly didn't lead to Germany being hemmed in and defeated.

France wasn't willing to let Germany defeat Russia, as it relied on Russia to prevent Germany from defeating France through just repeatedly smashing into France's fortifications.

About the only bit that was a fancy treaty and not a balance of power calculus or victory-in-war strategy was the UK joining the war over the invasion of Belgium.

This is the first spot where Germany has lost the war; they figured they could win against France+Russia, but not against France+Russia+UK. They attack anyhow.

So Germany executes its war plan, smashes through Belgium. Nobody really knows how to fight total war with modern weaponry. Some things go better than expected, some go worse.

Germany treats the Belgish people pretty harshly, which is used in the UK as part of the propoganda in justifying the war. (Germany is pretty authoritarian; I've seen arguments that their harsh treatment of the Belgians was not far misalinged with their harsh treatment of their own people).


The American banks back the Empire/French; the UK mortgages huge pieces of its empire, and the Americans are willing to take it. Now the USA is trading with the UK. It would probably be willing to trade with Germany, but the superior UK navy makes that impossible.

So the UK goes deeper and deeper into debt with the USA. And there is an old saying; if you owe the bank 1000$ you do what the bank says, but if you owe the bank 1,000,000,000$ the bank does what you say.

After the defeat of Russia in the East (Germany smuggles revolutionaries in while bleeding Russia dry at the front; and it works), Germany is still in a losing position. It cannot outlast the Allies; a stalemate leads to failure, as Germany continues to starve.

Either it has to (a) defeat Empire+France in the trenches (and increasing numbers of Imperial troops are arriving, which means that even with the fresh Eastern troops Germany isn't winning the war of numbers), or (b) force one of them out of the war.

The UK is most vulnerable here; if they can cut off shipping UK would starve in months. So they both try to win the surface naval battle (nobody knows if German naval docterine beats UK naval docterine; but the result is stalemate) and open up unrestricted submarine warfare. The second fails to starve the UK (it works initially, then fails) and brings the USA into the war.

The USA joins not only because of the sinking of American ships, or liberty, or whatever, but because the UK's debt is worthless if the UK loses the war.

The Germans then try to break the Empire/France on the battlefield. It almost works, but then it doesn't -- lack of lines of supply and not enough fresh troops doom the German offensive. As fresh American troops arrive, the UK/French/American forces break the German lines, and the war is actually over. Germany surrenders without being occupied; out of food, fuel, ammo and soldiers. Their enemy has solid supplies, fresh troops, and 1000s of constantly improving tanks.


Now, Germany was more authoritarian than the UK and France, and definitely more than the USA. Comparing Russia, Germany and Austria? Not a significant difference.

This is total war. For a side to not lose, it had to mobilize its entire population.

In the liberal western countries -- UK, France, USA -- they had to motivate the population to sacrifice to suppport the war. France used "get the Germans off our land", naked patriotism. The USA/UK/Empire didn't have this -- so they used the authoritarianism of the German and its allied powers as part of the propoganda to recruit support.

The difference was real, but calling it the cause of the war seems wrong. Now, after the war, we had a generation of people who believed they sacrificed almost everything for liberty and freedom; their brothers, fathers, sons and friends died. These people are probably going to consider liberty and freedom to be pretty damn important, and be pissed if politicians discard it as unimportant after the war.

So the very propoganda used to win the war can retroactively change what the war means.

The people in charge are still "that was a good way to manipulate the masses", but the masses are serious about it! They both have political power, and each of these countries now has millions of veterans who are quite capable of picking up a gun and fighting and dying for whatever they believe in. Meanwhile, Russia has fallen to an upper-class slaughtering peasant rebellion.

Democratic Franchise expands in the victorious powers. Those who use the mythology of "we are a nation that believes in liberty" get political wins. And the entire world shifts, just a little bit.

  • The Russia / Austria angle is presented strangely. It looks (a bit) as if you count Austria as Entente? And "significantly"? It might be difficult to convincingly present a unquestionable scale of 'liberal vs authoritarian regimes', but I guess most would place Russia from that time as the polar end marker of that scale? – LangLangC Mar 18 at 15:29
  • @LangLangC Reworded to be closer to what I intended. I'm saying Autria/Germany/Russia being "more/less authoritarian" than another becomes much more difficult to argue than Germany/France or Germany/UK. – Yakk Mar 18 at 15:42
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    I thought it was Turkey that was "the sick man of Europe" at the time, not Austria. – Martin Bonner Mar 19 at 9:46
  • @MartinBonner, Austria-Hungary was almost as internally unstable as the Ottoman Empire, it just wasn't as obvious from the outside. – Mark Mar 19 at 22:46
  • This is a great answer, I think, regarding european theatre. – Edheldil Mar 20 at 10:48
4

If you either accept the war-guilt clause in the treaty of Versailles, or the German ambitions hypothesis of Fritz Fischer, then who started the war? Germany!

And what were the driving forces in that country at the time?

The chancellor at the time was

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg held liberal views and was close to the Progressive People's Party.

The whole affair of financing to be able to continue the war in Germany hinged on the support of the worker's party, the Social-Democratic Party.

The main drivers for expansionist war aims where of course found in the military, the aggressive Prussian military? Well, not exclusively.

The war aims majority (for the 'offical' programme by Bethman-Hollweg) in the Reichstag extended from conservative and liberal parties to the social democratic camp.

Then there were non-parliamentary industrialists, like Rathenau, staunch liberals, who went even further and formulated views that called for annexation of vast swathes of land.

This is not to say that Imperial Germany was a liberal democracy in the absolutes. But it was much more liberal compared to Imperial Russia. And it was in no small part the liberals themselves in Germany that drove the way to war and prolonged it.

In short, if that liberal vs authoritarian thesis were true, then we should have seen the British with the Germans against the Russians. That is an experimental setup we only see realised in recent years.

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    I'd say you can come to the conclusion that Germany started it through quite a few different routes that have nothing whatsoever to do with knowing the terms of the final peace treaty or that one German historian. I suppose one could argue there's some English-language bias in all the stuff I've read, but its really tough to find a historical finger that doesn't point back to Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany. – T.E.D. Mar 18 at 13:49
  • @T.E.D. That's to avoid any discussion in comments on this, as it's detrimental to the hypothesis here that "liberals" *and "authoritarians" from eg GB & Germany were pretty close on the spectrum in driving for war (not to mention the other parties involved). Main point: the dominant narrative for over 70 yrs is incompatible with Kagan's analysis. Apart from die-hard revisionists who went anaphylactic on Fischer, Clark's Sleepwalkers ('12) is worthy of mention (despite my numerous disagreements in quite a number of details). Add things like that & Kagan's thesis collapses under eigen-weight. – LangLangC Mar 18 at 13:57
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    @T.E.D. Further: anyone looking for a 'main culprit', then Fischer is your ammo-man. But "Germany (or X, really) started it" seems quite wrong in oversimplification. It's not 'avoid blame and guilt' like in couple therapy either. If it's not politicians constructing some self-service, then quite some historians look at a broader picture of drivers, people, interests, structures. One of the oldest American authors pointing not at the Kaiser has his PDF online: ia801902.us.archive.org/16/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.499097/… (Fay) – LangLangC Mar 18 at 14:38
2

There was one truly authoritarian regime on each side....the Russian Empire on the side of the Entente, and the Ottoman Empire, on the side of the Central Powers. The only democracies were France and the United States. All other major countries involved were various non-authoritarian constitutional monarchies (including the UK, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary). Germany was probably the most "progressive" of these if you value modern welfare state accoutrements like social security.

  • This answer would be improved if the assertions were backed by evidence. Why do you assert that (titular) constitutional monarchies are not "liberal"? What does "progressivism" have to do with the question? – Mark C. Wallace Mar 18 at 17:27
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    I did not assert anything as to which regimes were "liberal", a notoriously ill-defined term. If it means spending more than you can afford, Austria-Hungary was very liberal. – C Monsour Mar 18 at 21:16
  • In which case is this responsive to the question? – Mark C. Wallace Mar 18 at 22:37
  • Russia was the truly authoritarian regime on the side of the Allies? How about the Japanese Empire? Other than the British where the Parliament ruled really in the kings name, their were 9 kings, emperors and Czars who actually ruled their countries which fought on the side of the Allies. – JMS Mar 19 at 0:28
  • I was focusing on the main powers. Yes, you could make a good case I should have included Japan in that. – C Monsour Mar 19 at 0:53
0

No. It was a war of "let's try and pit the powers of the old world against each other so that we can emerge the sole power afterwards".

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