WWI: What If?

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Michael Howard, or Sir Michael Howard to give him his due, is one of Britain's best living military historians. He is also a strategic thinker who writes wittily and in a concise manner. His latest work, The First World War, due in July, is an introduction to the Great War?as World War I is known in Europe?designed for those with no previous knowledge of the subject. At 176 pages it is an easy and pleasurable read, if one agrees with the premise. Which I certainly don't. Keeping in mind that history is written by the victors, I was nevertheless shocked to see that a double standard where the British Empire is concerned is doing very well, thank you.

About five years ago I had the idea to write a "What If" history about that great disaster, and contacted my friend George Szamuely. I needed a collaborator, as the high life does at times intrude where hard work is concerned. I also rang another friend, Lewis Lapham of Harper's, and asked whether he was interested in running a segment or two. He told me to go ahead. Well, you know how these things are. George and I are not known for burning the midnight oil, and while we kicked the idea around, still another friend, Niall Ferguson, beat us to it. (Ferguson knocked it off while in the middle of writing a two-volume history of the Rothschilds; talk about industry.) With the publication of Michael Howard's opus, however, I can finally have my say.

According to Howard, the first great catastrophe of the 20th century was Germany's international ambition. "German unification had created a nation that combined the most dynamic economy in Europe with a regime that in many respects had hardly emerged from feudalism." Shock, horror! The Kaiser sought for his nation the status "not only of a Great Power, but of a World Power." Now I ask you: Isn't it the most natural of things that a nation with the most dynamic economy in Europe would seek an equivalent status internationally? England enjoyed such a status, lording it over half the world through its empire, but what was good enough for the English bulldog was apparently not good for the German shepherd.

Ten million lives later, the Franco-British had prevailed, but only once the American Expeditionary Force had come to the rescue. The fact that the Germans threw in the towel with their army intact and in France is still argued by historians. Some insist that the British blockade on the German people was the turning point. Others attribute the collapse to military prowess. I am of both minds. The internal moral collapse of the Kaiser's society had a lot to do with it. The British, as always, were propagandists par excellence. The Kaiser's soldiers did no more barbecue Belgian babies?as contemporary propaganda claimed?than the Brits, but it was the German army that got the credit for barbarism. Which brings me to the point I wish to make.

What would have happened had Germany won the war? For starters, the most philo-Semitic nation in Europe, Germany, would have remained so. Six million Jews would not have disappeared, as Hitler would have remained a failed artist and nothing more. The dynasties would have survived, which means there would have been no communism with its 20 to possibly 100 million victims. Hungary would not have been chopped up by Romania and Slovakia and Yugoslavia would not have become the unnatural federation it became. The Ottoman Empire would have lumbered along, Iraq would not have been created, nor would've Israel, Lebanon or Jordan. Russia would have joined the modern world?eventually. The world would have been led by England, Germany, France and the United States, and Africa would have never become the slaughterhouse it is today.

Despite all its horrors, the Brits insist there was a moral case for fighting WWI, but they would say that, wouldn't they? Britannia did not wish Germany to spread her wings. But that was manifest destiny, pure and simple. So Hitler came to power because of the Versailles Treaty, and I guess you know the rest. Woodrow Wilson, a well-meaning man but criminally responsible for Jimmy Carter-like naivete, has a lot to answer for. Oh yes, I almost forgot, there would never have been a man called Mussolini lording it over the most pleasant land of Europe. Finally, socialism, the great cancer that has befallen us, would have remained a dream among hirsute intellectuals on the Left Bank of Paris. The struggle between good and evil that was WWII would never have taken place.

Even in the far Orient, things would have been for the better. Japan was the only combatant nation that achieved its aims by joining the Entente. It gave her a free hand to pursue her ambitions in Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese would not have been slaughtered, and Mao would have remained a chainsmoking peasant, unknown outside his village. There never would have been a Vietnam War. Sure, Churchill said the Germans are either at your throat or at your feet, but that was just war rhetoric. The Kaiser was a civilized man, as were the Germans, and had the Allies humored him and allowed Germany to pursue her destiny, we would today be living in a far, far better place.

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