I am reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. It is an excellent read. One passage early in the book reminds me of the particular German capacity to lose a war for failure to understand what is at stake, to not see beyond their noses, to fail to understand what a tactical decision may actually mean.
The Lusitania was a huge Cunard liner that was sunk in 1915 by the largely successful U-boat campaign, one that came very near to starving the British war effort of munitions. It was broadly thought that the Germans would not be so ruthless as to sink a passenger ship, even if it flew the British flag, on account of the bad odour of targeting civilians. Little did they know of the German military mentality. The ship was sunk with heavy loss of life, which set in motion a series of events that led to the US entry into the war in 1917. By the end of the war the US was pouring 50,000 new troops per month into the war, and there is little doubt that the US entry tipped the scales in favour of allied victory, both by troops, by materiel, and by the certainty that with the United States on the Allied side, victory was inevitable.
A debate occurred back in 1914 in the German high command concerning the extent of discretion to be allowed U-boat captains. The maximalists won. As Larson writes:
The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination of which ships were to be spared, and which to be sunk, to the discretion of individual U-boat commanders. Thus a lone submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now had the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war. As Chancellor Bethmann would later put it, “Unhappily, it depends upon the attitude of a single submarine commander whether America will or will not declare war”.
To review the facts for a moment, few can recall how very very close the Central Powers came to winning World War 1. By 1917 the Germans had knocked out the Russian Empire from the war (and successfully implanted Lenin in Russia to infect it with communism) and taken for themselves most of Ukraine for food supplies. They then attacked the Italians at Caporetto in the mountains of Slovenia and drove them back 75 miles out onto the plains of the Po river valley, with heavy loss of life and heavier loss of equipment. Two out of four fronts were in the hands of the Central Powers. The Brits were winning in Palestine and Syria against the Turks- which really was a sideshow -and things were stalemated on the Western Front. The French had been in mutiny and bled white , and were essentially doing no more than holding their lines. Into this front the Germans were able to pour all their resources, including 50 divisions from the east, and Ludendorff attacked the Allies with fresh tactics and more troops in March 1917, driving the British (including Canadians and Australians) back many miles. Once again the Germans doubled down rather than negotiate a peace, as they might well have done.
The Germans had realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the overwhelming human and matériel resources of the United States could be fully deployed.
The very weakness of American military power encouraged Berlin to start its unrestricted submarine attacks in 1917. It knew this meant war with America, but it could discount the immediate risk because the US Army was negligible and the new warships would not be at sea until 1919 by which time the war would be over, Germany thought, with Germany victorious. The notion that armaments led to war was turned on its head: refusal to arm in 1916 led to war in 1917.
The story of the sinking of the Lusitania, and of how close Germany came in both world wars, but especially the first one, prompt melancholy reflections. When civilians are largely excluded from war-making decisions, as they were in Imperial Germany, the people left in charge know only one thing: more and more total war. A war-making culture, such as Germany’s was then, can distort political decisions to favour upping the ante, rather than consider limiting one’s losses. “Go for broke” may be resorted to more by soldiers than by civilians with a business background who answer to electors.
Generals are the only people in civilized society who are socially and legally authorized to kill people in great numbers. It is important to allow and empower them to do this when they have to, and just as important to ensure that civilians decide when and how far generals are to be allowed to engage in their deadly business.
Delegating that kind of decision to young men in their late twenties or early thirties is a bad idea. I think we can all agree on this.