Germany wins World War I… 100 years later

I’m listening to The Modern Scholar: World War l: The Great War and the World It Made, lectures by the late John Ramsden that demonstrate we should not entirely give up on the lecture method of instruction. On the 100th anniversary of the war it is still somewhat hard to believe that Germany invested so much in a war with such modest aims, i.e., obtaining economic hegemony over central Europe. During World War I, according to Ramsden, Germany didn’t have a grand plan to conquer most of Europe and rule the territory¬†directly. They wanted to dominate trade and politics. In listening to the lectures about the millions of lives wasted, it occurred to me that Germany has finally achieved its war goals of 1914. It just took 100 years and the Germans’ main weapon was working harder and being more organized than their neighbors.

[Separately, I wonder if historians will look back 90 years from now and ask “Why did the Americans waste so many lives and so much money in Iraq and Afghanistan if they did not have a goal of direct imperial rule?”]


  1. Ed

    August 19, 2014 @ 9:17 am


    This is a complicated topic, but it appears that Germany got into the war more as a defensive measure.

    France and especially Russia had initiated a huge military buildup that Germany and Austria-Hungary couldn’t or wouldn’t match (Germany had a federal system that limited central government financing). Germany had just lost its naval arms race with Britain. The Germans and their adversaries thought that by 1916, France and Russia would be able to defeat the Central Powers without British assistance. It wasn’t so much that they were planning to start a war, but that during each crisis the German general staff was telling the politicians “if you get into a war, do it soon before the military balance changes.”

    Why didn’t France and Russia wait until 1916 and attack then? The German civilian government had prioritized rapproachment with Britain, and this was working well enough that the Russians in particular were worried about Britain moving away from its semi-alliance with Russia and France. Germany (and Britain!) were assisting Turkey in its own arms buildup, and the Russians were worried that the window of opportunity to take Turkish territory was closing. Finally, Russia was coming very close to revolution -there was unrest in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1914- and the Russian government thought that any diplomatic concessions would trigger it. Note that the German and Austrian generals would probably not have known about any of this, they definitely overestimated the strength of the Russian regime domestically.

    While everyone invaded each other’s territory in August, the German offensives gained them much of Europe’s coal and iron ore fields, so in September the thinking was “maybe we can get out of this with economic hegemony over the continent”. But a month earlier their leadership was worried about mostly losing, and the Kaiser was furious about being tricked into going to war against a stronger allieance.

  2. Izzie L.

    August 19, 2014 @ 9:39 am


    The last war that the US fought with the goal of direct imperial rule was the Spanish-American War and even then we did not seek to rule Cuba and eventually let the Philippines go. Puerto Rico was the only piece that we kept and that was a dubious prize.

    Even the Romans figured out that it was usually easier (and cheaper) to set up local proxy rulers (Herod), but there is often a problem in finding reliable proxies and keeping them in power. Usually they are more interested in filling their own pockets. See the Shah of Iran, Batista, Maliki, Karzai, Marcos, etc. Actually, it’s hard to think of ANY that worked out well.

    The Japanese in WWII made the same mistake as the Germans in WWI – they fought a bloody war to gain access to markets when all they really needed to do was make nice export grade cars and machinery and the rest would follow.

  3. Joe McGuckin

    August 25, 2014 @ 3:39 pm


    Would you say that the Japanese ‘won’ WWII thirty years after the conclusion of hostilities? In the late 70’s and 80’s, Japan was the leader in manufacturing consumer goods – leading to large trade imbalances with the US.

    Have the Chinese now won the trade battle, taking Japan’s place as the dominant manufacturer for consumer goods?

  4. Ed

    August 26, 2014 @ 8:28 am


    Actually there is evidence that the Great War was really an effort by Russia, Britain, and France to prevent German economic dominence that was happening peacefully anyway, and that it did succeed in delaying it.

  5. Natalia

    August 27, 2014 @ 10:32 pm


    Phil, to your separate note – I think this book may be of interest :

    The founding fathers worked hard to build the foundations to prevent the ‘rulers’ go to wars easily to satisfy their egos- yet ‘the rulers’ found ways to circumnavigate around them. I am currently at the Regan’s whereabouts of going to war- fascinating accounts of how much mess ONE person can get a country into.

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