Niall Ferguson is Wrong about World War I

by Benjamin Studebaker

I ran across a piece in The Guardian in which Niall Ferguson, a British historian, made the increasingly popular argument that it was in the British national interest to avoid participating in World War I, that the decision to do so was a mistake. This argument, which I am seeing made all over the place in the popular press (as 2014 is the 100-year anniversary of the 1914 start of the war), is deeply misguided. I contend that it was an absolute strategic necessity that Britain enter the war to prevent Germany from defeating France. Here’s why.

First, let’s get oriented:

World War I was a great power war in which the allies (initially Britain, France, and Russia) fought against the central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). The war was fought by the central powers to alter the European balance of power in their favor, and by the allies in order to maintain the status quo. The Germans were pursuing regional hegemony in Europe–they were tired of being constrained by Russia and France and sought to inflict defeats upon these powers in order to eliminate them as threats and acquire additional territory and resources. The Austrians fought with the Germans in order to regain territory in the Balkans, which the Russians objected to. The Ottomans fought with the Germans in order to regain territories taken from them by the British and the French and to receive German assistance with modernizing their economy and military.

How did Britain get into the war? Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914. In order to get around France’s militarized border with Germany, the Germans invaded Belgium the following day. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, to prevent Germany from defeating and occupying France. The British and French successfully checked the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne the following September, and from there the war turned into the grind-it-out slugfest we remember today. Had British troops not been in France during this period, France would almost certainly have been defeated by Germany as it had been in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and even if France had managed to hold out for some time, Germany swiftly knocked Russia out of the war and would have been able to concentrate its forces and prevail against France sooner or later.

So on what grounds does Ferguson claim it was not in the British interest to prevent a German victory over France in 1914? He does not dispute that France would have been overrun without British involvement. Instead, he makes this argument:

Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory…even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British Empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability.

There are two claims here, both of which are monstrously wrong:

  1. That it is not in the British interest to go to war on the European continent in order to prevent the rise of a European continental hegemon.
  2. That the British Empire in the early 20th century was capable of winning a war against a European continental hegemon on its own.

The history of Europe in the last several hundred years is the history of a series of would-be hegemons attempting to dominate the continent and reconstruct new visions of the Roman Empire. When European states begin to feel they are close to establishing hegemony, they start making all kinds of aesthetic and rhetorical appeals to the Roman Empire.  Consider the sheer amount of Roman imagery we see on the continent–the German and Russian leaders during World War I were called “Kaisers” and Tsars”, both of which mean “Caesar”, Napoleon called himself an “emperor” and erected Roman-style victory arches, the Nazis borrowed the Roman salute, and all of these countries made extensive use of the imperial eagle. The desire to be like the Romans was not merely a matter of style, it was a matter of policy. The goal of every European continental great power has been to reestablish the empire.

Why? Because the Roman Empire provides the blueprint for how a European state can not only achieve longevity but can imprint its culture upon the entire world. The Western Roman Empire survived for 1,229 years, the Eastern Roman Empire lasted 2,206. Every European country and every European colony both current and former has been shaped by Roman law, the Latin language, Roman culture, and so on. If you want to survive and make the world in your image, you do it by emulating the Romans. European statesmen have always been aware of this–Machiavelli’s 16th century Discourses on Livy openly advises European states to follow the Roman method of expansion, and Friedrich List in his 1841 National System of Political Economy advised Germany to unify, industrialize, and then attempt to become the head of a continental European empire in the mold of Rome, a strategy they followed to the letter.

Britain has always recognized that it is very much in the British interest to prevent any European state from achieving Roman Empire status. British statesmen recognize that the only time in history Britain has been successfully invaded and subjugated by a foreign empire was in 43 CE when Emperor Claudius annexed “Britannia” as a Roman province, a province that the Romans held in servitude for 366 years, which is longer than the United States has been a country. The Romans were able to do this because they were the hegemon on the European continent. After the defeat of Carthage in the Punic Wars, the Romans no longer had peer competitors and could do whatever they wished. The British are intent on never again being vulnerable to the whims of a continental megastate. They recognized that they were able to develop a vast maritime empire during the 18th and 19th centuries precisely because Europe remained divided–France, Germany, and Russia has to focus their industrial power on building land armies to fight one another and consequently could not invest on challenging British naval power. Had Germany been able to decisively defeat France and Russia, it would no longer have peer competitors on the European continent and would have been free to roam. This means building a navy to take on the British, it means annexing the foreign possessions of France and Russia and challenging Britain abroad, in time it would have meant a new continental invasion of Britain similar to Claudius’ invasion in 43.

The level of consistency in British foreign policy is startling:

  • In the Italian Wars, Britain fought with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to prevent France from dominating Italy and becoming hegemon.
  • In the War of Spanish Succession, Britain fought with the Holy Roman Empire to prevent France from dominating Spain and becoming hegemon.
  • In the War of Austrian Succession, Britain fought with the Austrian Habsburgs to prevent the French Bourbons from dominating Europe and becoming hegemon.
  • In the Napoleonic Wars, Britain fought with various coalitions of European states to prevent France from dominating Europe and becoming hegemon.
  • In World War I, Britain fought with France and Russia to prevent Germany from dominating France and becoming hegemon.
  • In World War II, Britain fought with the USA and USSR to prevent Germany from dominating Europe and becoming hegemon.
  • In the Cold War, Britain fought with the USA, France, and West Germany to prevent the USSR from dominating Europe and becoming hegemon.

There are really only two kinds of major war Britain has engaged in during the modern era:

  1. Wars to prevent the rise of a European hegemon on the continent (see above).
  2. Wars to expand/defend colonies and trade routes (7 Years War, Boer War, Opium Wars, etc.)

Sir Humphrey argued the point in Yes, Minister, claiming that it’s still British policy even to this day to prevent European unity on the continent:

Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well? … We had to break the whole thing [the EEC, which became the EU] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

So when Ferguson claims that Britain “could have lived with” a German victory, he’s being rather ahistorical for a historian.

What about the claim that Britain could have defeated Germany on its own after France and Russia had been defeated? Here Ferguson makes the mistake of vastly overestimating British military power in the early 19th century. To borrow from John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Table 3.3–the book is fantastic and well-worth reading), here’s the changing relative wealth and power of the major European great powers between the Napoleonic Wars and the dawn of WWII:

Great Powers Share of Wealth 1820-1940

What we see here is that Britain peaked in 1850 and declined from there. When World War I began, Germany already had around 30% more wealth than Britain, and had Germany managed to defeat France and Russia, that percentage certainly would have grown further. Indeed, what we see here is that the defeat of the Germans in World War I and the territorial acquisitions made by Britain and France via the treaties that end the war briefly restored both Britain and France relative to their European competitors, such that by 1920 Britain is more powerful than it had been at any time since 1890 and France is more powerful than at any time since Napoleon walked the earth. However, that brief surge in power proves ephemeral–the Germans cease to be held down from 1930 on, and Stalin completely turns around the Soviet economy beginning in the 20’s. Two key takeaways for the purposes of this discussion here, however:

  1. Britain was weaker than Germany when World War I started and the German advantage would only have grown larger if Britain had permitted Germany to achieve continental European hegemony.
  2. The rate of British relative decline actually slows as a result of World War I–if Britain had declined proportionally as much as it had from 1880-1910 during the 1910-1940 period, it would have controlled around 15% of the wealth in 1940 rather than 24%.

None of this is to say that it is not immensely regrettable that 16.5 million people (1.2 million of which were citizens of the British Empire) were killed in World War I. 20th century trench warfare is horrific. But the consequences for Britain would have been much worse if Germany had been permitted to become hegemon on the continent. Some of the scholarship even indicates that British involvement was not quite sufficient, that if the United States had not deployed troops to France in 1918, Germany might have achieved regional hegemony anyway. The notion that Britain would have been better off taking on the Kaiser’s forces via amphibious invasion without the aid of the French and Russians (who absorbed nearly 1.7 million and 3.5 million of the deaths respectively, sparing Britain a far greater loss) is naïve in the extreme.