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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great alternative view of the First World War, 29 Jan 2006
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
A very interesting book by Niall Ferguson, which although it was published back in 1998, I am first reading it now.
I have read a lot of books on the subject of the First World War, and therefore it is most interesting with an in-depth alternate history analysis based on economic and other facts. I can recommend also to read his own piece "The Kaisers European Union" in "Virtual History", which he is the editor of, where he develop the counterfactual (his)story. Alternate history is indeed an interesting approach so long as it it is based on probable scenarios and facts.
One minor point, I would like to have had developed was the (political) implications of an alternative German strategy in the beginning of the First World War. Niall Ferguson dismisses the "Ostaufmarch" (concentration on the bulk of the German forces in the East rather than in the West) very quickly on page 315 of "The Pity of War".
The political implications of an "Ostaufmarsch", which for instance also Hindenburgs and Ludendorffs subordinate Max Hoffmann argues for in his still worthwhile read "The War of Lost Opportunities", which is lacking in Fegusons Bibliography, would have ment no German violation of the neutrality of Belgium. Maybe he is right that Britain itself could have contemplated violating this neutrality, but Grey and other interventionist would have lacked the major political and public argument for intervention. There would also have been less reason to fight for France if it was Russia, which was invaded instead.
Other benifits of a German Eastern approach would have been that Austria-Hungary would have not experienced a great defeat in the beginning of the war as it did, and Rumania could have been won over to the camp of the Central Powers.
Would the Kaiser have suceeded, where Napoleon and Hitler failed? The answer is more likely yes, considering that he did succeed later in the war, and also a strike on Sct. Petersburg, would have been possible with the land support of the Balkan States (except of Serbia), Turkey and Austria-Hungary and the big German fleet. With strong fortresses in Alsace-Lorraine, the German Western army could probably have held out against France, and without Britain imediately in the war, maybe Italy would also have stucked to the Central Powers.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Nov 2013 11:21:08 GMT
Last edited by the author on 9 Nov 2013 11:41:51 GMT
Manzikert says:
Don't forget the German general staff spent over 40 years 1871-1914 developing and testing plans for every eventuality of a war in Europe. It's highly likely they played out this scenario hundreds of times with both favourable and unfavourable variations, but still rejected it as unrealistic and impractical, as indeed it was.

Also pre-1914 European military thinking was dominated by the belief in both the the moral and military superiority of offensive action: the idea of saying on the defensive on the western front would have been rejected on politcal, military and moral grounds. By allowing your enemy to attack, you were surrendering the initiative and paving the way for your own defeat. This was the product of studies of both the Napoleonic and Wars of German unification, although it neglected the impact of modern weaponry.

A German focus on Russia would have created diplomatic difficulties for Britain, if not for France, but militarily the German general staff would never have countenanced it and in fact rejected the kaiser's request to confine mobilisation to the east in July 1914, as they assumed correctly that a German attack on Russia would automatically provoke a French counteroffensive in the west which they considered the far greater threat, which it was. This was the genesis of the German strategy dubbed to eliminate France and then deal with Russia and why it couldn't be altered at the last minute. So this is really pointless speculation.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 12:53:53 GMT
Thanks for your comment.

Diplomatically it would have been excellent for Germany and Austria-Hungary if they only had to fight France and Russia. That war they would have won.

It is difficult to assess the situation on the battlefield of course but an offensive on the Eastern front would have stabilised Austria-Hungary, and probably Romania would have entered the war on Germanys side and the Balkans would have been dominated by Germany. Without Britain in the Entente camp there would also have been no Italy probably. In the West the German frontier had many fortresses, the Voges mountains and many rivers. Actually in the First World War the defensive prevailed over the offensive. The Germans should of course have at least half of its army in the West.

The German High command did not take politics into account and there had not been a strong chancellor since Bismarck. Sebastian Haffner has written an excellent about Germany's seven cardinal mistakes in the First World War.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 13:47:03 GMT
Manzikert says:
"German High command did not take politics into account"

Your presentation makes it seem all very obvious in hindsight, but your posts also indicate a strong military bias and myopia. You could be right that Germany would have won against France and Russia, but would Britain have stood by to see the European balance of power destroyed, something that had dictated its foreign policy for 200 years and its decision to join the entente? The thought of a 'German dominated Balkans' and its consequences for Britain's imperial communications and the Suez canal (not to mention Turkey and the Berlin-Baghdad plans) were the stuff of British diplomatic nightmares. A British declaration of war would have come sooner or later, which I believe must always have been in German calculations and why they abandoned an eastern strategy as dangerously impractical.

Militarily, Germany would have needed at least two years to subdue Russia, its vast space precluded a quick victory in the first few months. That's a long time to leave its western border to hold off the full weight of the French army and ulitmately they would still have been in a two front war, which is why they opted for an offensive in the west, where a quick victory was more feasible. Your assumptions seem largely based on the benefit of hindisght of what actually happened in the war with the triumph of defence over attack. In 1914, it was assumed by all the powers that the attacker had the advantage and that was why German would not have countenanced a defensive strategy towards France, its principle enemy. (One of Clausewtiz's principles of 'On War' the German General Staff's bible, was destroy your main enemy's capital forces, the rest can be dealt with in due course).

You also underestimate France's military potential; don't forget France largely repulsed the German offensive in 1914 on its own with only minor British involvement against a numerically superior German army, still fresh and full of confidence, and despite the French having taken huge losses in Alsace. If as in your scenario, France had concentrated the full power of its army for an offensive in Alsace-Lorraine against a skeleton German force while the bulk of its army went east, a French breakthrough even at the cost of enormous casualties, at that stage of the of the war cannot be ruled out and that would have spelt the end of the German eastern strategy, and left it in a very precarious state with British intervention looming ominously and wavering neutrals like Italy and Romania waiting to see the outcome. Such a setback would have swayed many to join the war on the entente side.

Ultimately the debate is fruitless: Germany had weighed up all its strategic options and always came to the same conclusion that in a two front war it had to commit to the west where it had a small chance of a quick victory. But even then Germany's real problem as Schlieffen and his successors recognised, was that Germany simply lacked the numbers to win a long war in any scenario: The Real German War Plan, 1904-14

You can also go further and argue the Germany did in fact pursue the 'eastern strategy' after its failue in the west: with the exception of Verdun most of the German offensives were on the eastern front with Russia largely defeated in 1916/17, but still too late to affect the outcome of the war.

One can play through all manner of alternative scenarios, but I'm a believer that history always turns out the way it does for sound reasons and counterfactuals are pointless speculation.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 14:40:20 GMT
If you think history is a one way street then there is no point in further discussions :-).

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 17:43:03 GMT
Manzikert says:
You'll find most historians do as well. After all, history ('his story') is the story of what happened, not 'what might have beens'.

We live in a world that was created by events that happened and it is more important to understand that, than speculate and waste time on books and discussions on alternative outcomes that never occured.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 17:50:43 GMT
A critical assessment of history means that you evaluate alternatives.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 17:58:06 GMT
Manzikert says:
As long as it's done with the purspose of exploring credible alternatives to cast light on the actual events, which is I believe what I did in my last post. Nonetheless I, believe you'll find that if you pursue that line long enough you'll normally come to the conclusion that the alternate scenario would not have made all that difference to the final outcome. A very good, convincing and entertaining example is The Moscow Option: An Alternative Second World War

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Nov 2013 19:23:15 GMT
A very deterministic view of history. I am a liberal and believes that people make a difference and so does for instance Margarat MacMillan in her new book: "There was notning inevitable about the First World War". And of course Niall Ferguson in his book.
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