Sunday, May 17, 2009

History 112: World War I

For the class on the First World War, in addition to the usual reading form Norman Davies, I also assigned a piece written by Ohio State’s own Stephen Kern. Kern examines the role of the nineteenth century communications revolution, particularly the telegraph, in the breakdown of diplomacy in the summer of 1914. Kern argues that the new speed in communication encouraged an aggressive style of diplomacy built around extreme ultimatums; comply to all of our demands within the next week or we will declar war.

1. Was WWI avoidable? For example, if all these alliances hadn't been made, would it have remained a small conflict?

The interesting question is did these alliances make war inevitable. Once alliances were being made everyone had follow suit or risk being vulnerable. What we have here are a lot of good intentions gone completely to pot.

2. The July crisis seems like something that could never have happened without the new technologies allowing rapid communication, but at the same time it seems like rapid communication should allow for better negotiating due to the fact that it doesn't take days to relay messages from one side to the other. Perhaps the time delays for slower communication methods allowed for a cool down period, but they could also allow for more time to prepare for war during the process, so how significant is it really that new technology allowed increased speed of communication between the various sides? This is leaving aside the issue of more widespread and public knowledge of events which I view to be a mostly separate issue, though it does tie in of course.
3. Kern said in "July Crisis" that "this telegraphic exchange at the highest level dramatized the spectacular failure of diplomacy, to which telegraphy contributed with crossed messages, delays, sudden surprises, and the unpredictable timing," (268). How can he attribute it all to the failure of diplomacy when Germany pressured Austria to mobilize troops before the ultimatum was even sent to Serbia? If blame is going to be placed, couldn't it also be placed on Germany, who pressured Austria into war out of self-interest? Or am I getting this all wrong?

The timetable for mobilization is one of the main causes of World War I. The general staffs of all the countries involved had detailed war plans in place and everyone knew that the other side also had detailed plans. Everyone knew that victory depended on who could get the first jump, that precious day or two to get their armies in motion. This being the case no one could afford the luxury of sitting back trying to negotiate and make the good faith effort for peace.
The question of German responsibility is quite real. Part of the problem is that because the Versailles treaty went to such extremes it has become common to accept the German apology that everyone was equally responsible. Without question Germany was the aggressor in this war. Their biggest sin being that they trampled over Belgium’s neutrality; a treaty that they themselves had signed on to. Kern, if I am not mistaken, does acknowledge the aggression issue. The German high command made the decision to push for war based on the calculation that by 1917 Russia would have completed its rearmament program, making German war plans obsolete.

4. I was wondering, why are the telegram messages in our reading so short? Were all telegrams short? And if so, is there a reason for this? Perhaps they paid for telegrams based on the number of words? It seems like to me, longer messages would be more appropriate in determining whether to declare war or not!

Telegrams are electronic messages sent across wires using Morse code. The process is expensive and every word costs money. Think of telegrams as an early version of text-messaging; they encourage a similar thought process. Last I checked the consensus about texting is that it does not exactly encourage responsible behavior. Imagine Kaiser Wilhelm texting Czar Nicholas: “WTF! Y r dead cuz." At least the leaders of Europe were not sending nude pictures of themselves through telegraph wires.

5. If Russia had no commitment to side with Serbia, why did they do it? What would make a country want war, was it stimulating to their economy, as World War II was during the depression? Or were there other factors?

Russia saw itself as the “big brother” of all Slavs. So they wished to protect their Serbian “brothers” from the Germanic Austrians. The Serbs would not usually be inclined to accept such “brotherly assistance, otherwise known as a takeover, but in this case they were in desperate need of help.

6. Why were Germany and Great Britain so protective over defending the interests of Austria and Belgium, respectively?

Austria was allied with Germany. This was in large part due to the brilliant diplomacy of Bismarck, who made a point of giving Austria a very generous peace treaty after Germany defeated them. Both Germany and England had signed a treaty guarantying the neutrality of Belgium. Germany, under the very un-Bismarck like leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm decided to ignore this very inconvenient fact and invaded Belgium. Great Britain on the other hand kept to the treaty so they came to the defense of Belgium. They were helped in this matter in that they had an understanding with France about coming to their aid in the event of being attack by Germany. How much did Kaiser Wilhelm have to antagonize people to drive even the British into siding with the French.

7. Which side was the first to use air planes in WWI and when was the first air battle?

Airplanes were already in use before World War I. World War I certainly marked the first large scale use of airplanes. Keep in mind that airplanes had, at this point, been in existence for a little over a decade so they were still highly experimental.

8. I am a little confused, In the Davies text it says Japan declared war on Germany, and Japan was an Asian associate of the allies, but Japan had issues with China, and China joined the allies. How does this work?

For one thing China did not enter the war until much later. Countries are usually very willing to put aside long running conflicts, at least temporarily, in the face of more immediate danger. So Japan and China were willing to take a break from each other to pursue their designs on German holdings.

9. In relation to all other wars leading up to America's involvement in World War I, was this a hard decision for America to make, in terms of lives to be potentially lost, man power, and resources in general?

America, for most of the war, strongly supported neutrality. Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 based on the campaign promise to keep America out of war. This failed to take into account Kaiser Wilhelm ability to antagonize the American public with his decision to wage unrestricted submarine warfare. By the time America entered the war, the American public was gripped by a xenophobic hatred of everything German to the extent that ethnic Germans were being lynched in the streets by angry mobs.

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