Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review - The Origins and Legacies of World War I - D.F. Fleming

In 1968, Dr. D. F. Fleming, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Vanderbilt University published The Origins and Legacies of World War I. This volume did not portend to be a comprehensive account of the military campaigns and of the waging of the war; nor did it claim to be a newer look at topics already extensively covered by other historians in the past fifty years. What it did do, is provide a new interpretation of how the war came about, its contextual relationship to the events of the next fifty years, as well as how it fits into the broader historical context. Fleming does not write this account from any particular school of persuasion, whether it be intentionalist or structuralist, instead his is an amalgamation of causes including the personal, structural, intentional, unintentional, cultural, and emotional variables of the individual leaders and nations involved in the struggles between the powers at the turn of the twentieth  century.
            This book has a masterful way of juxtaposing a war that most laymen view in isolation from its greater context. Fleming ties every event together until the mobilizations of July 1914 make perfect sense given the logic of the time. He writes on the build-up to the war in a very non-accusatory tone that distinguishes him from many of his predecessors who, being only ten or 20 years removed from the events, wrote their histories out of emotion and with a goal of alternately defending or accusing prominent actors.
Fleming’s topical arrangement of chapters can lead to some confusion for those not already well-grounded in late 19th Century and early 20th Century European history. Although there is not much that can be done about it, to remain easily followed, this book requires such a background.
On one occasion Fleming makes an unlikely leap of logic in the immediate aftermath of the Sarajevo assassination. He asserts that during the entire ‘diplomatic’ proceeding between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Germany remained confident they would be able to limit the war to the Balkans, and that Russia, not able to mobilize quickly enough, would once again sit on the sidelines and stew in impotent fury (162). He then, without making necessary crucial connections, claims that with reckless abandon, Germany soon thereafter initiated the Schliefen plan, the swift invasion of northern France, through neutral Belgium. It seems highly problematic, though not unlikely, that the Germans would make such a risky gamble on localizing the war without a plan to back down at the last moment. Although his conclusion is probable, Fleming does not make the necessary, logical case for Germany’s immediate, swift, and violent action in seizing the advantage, nor does he dwell long enough on the German internal deliberations as to the possibility of British intervention due to the violation of Belgium.
Although Fleming, for the most part, makes a logical case for the origins of the war, he rushes through the war itself and the uneasy peace that follows. He seems to lay a large portion of the blame for the start of the Second World War at the feet of the United States; indicting it for its failure in the Senate to adopt Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Versailles Peace Treaty, and the failure to join and lead the League of Nations. Fleming, so exhausted and disgusted by the death and destruction of the war, blindly shills for the internationalists in the United States and gives hardly a minute’s notice to the very valid points of the Constitutional dissenters in Congress. So embittered is Fleming to the failure of Wilson’s ability to shepherd the treaty safely through, that he tries to make a case that the Second World War occurred because of this failure. Fleming believes that only the U.S. was able to lead the League of Nations, and that this failure to do so lead to the appeasement and capitulation to Hitler and the Nazis, leading inevitably down the path to war once again (297). It is here that this author cannot but differ and voice his opinion that it was in fact the peace movement, with disarmament for disarmament’s sake, as well as the weak Western governments, negotiating and appeasing from positions of weakness that emboldened the Nazis, leading to the Second World War. Fleming fails in making a valid case, using only conjecture and the infamous ‘what-if’ question as his sole basis.
Fleming catalogues the disintegration of the various authoritarian states at the close of the 19th Century. He spends a whole chapter on the fall of the Manchu dynasty in China, the impending transformation of the sultan-ruled Ottoman Empire, and the brutal Russian Tsars’ tenuous cling to power. This was the age of the anarchist and the assassin. It was an age of violent introduction to democratic revolution. The last of the western autocracies clung to power while the oppressed took to politics through the barrel of a gun. “Among every people, from Switzerland to Japan, there was a powerful ferment operating, a striving for free institutions and the end of arbitrary government” (1).
At this time as well, the struggle between the progressive labor parties and the conservative, land-holding aristocrats reached tipping points in the western democracies. From London to Paris, Labor clashed with Tory and urban Socialist with the agrarian. The United Kingdom, splintering over issues such as military spending, social welfare spending, the problem of Irish nationalism, tariffs, and parliamentary procedures and privilege was nearly too distracted to be conducting a cohesive and focused foreign policy.
Upon the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war, Bismark having united all of Germany, sought to defend its acquisitions. Fleming states that Bismark’s fundamental failure was the harsh terms of the 1871 peace terms between Germany and France that handed Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans. Bismark discounts French nationalist sentiments in his calculation (52). Later, Bismark, having realized his error[1] does everything in his power to keep France “isolated and without allies” (54). It is in this context that Fleming then documents all of the secret, intriguing networks of alliances that Bismark made with the sole purpose to hold together and defend his state.
Following Bismark’s removal by William II, Germany then proceeded on a more ambitious course; one desirous of African colonies and towards a status more commensurate with its power on the world stage. What Fleming alludes to here is that Bismark’s network of treaties being defensive in nature was incompatible with this more aggressive policy. The unlikely formation of a counter-alliance between traditional foes in Britain with France and Russia are manifest of this. Germany’s testing of this alliance’s political will in the two Moroccan crises essentially sealed the fate of Europe in 1914.
While Fleming doses much of the structuralist blame upon the continuation of Bismark’s policies under aggressive, new management, he gives his heaviest criticism to the crumbling Hapsburg dynasty to the south and east. The disparate coalition of multiple ethnic groups comprised varying nationalities with national histories and different languages was held together merely by the force of arms and the character of the ailing Emperor Francis Joseph (25). With Austria and the Russian backed Slavic states in the Balkans scrambling over the shards of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs deemed independent Serbian and Bosnian states incompatible with keeping their own empire intact, lest there spread a revolutionary fervor into its own Slavic, Czech, and other peoples. As the sparks continued to fly, the Russians, seeking to control their own access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea gave complete support to the Serbs against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As an ally Austria was now both a burden and a danger to the existence of Germany herself. In opposition to the strongest urge of the age, and of all ages, the urge of men of the same race and language to govern themselves, “she linked up her fresh and vigorous national strength with the corrupt remnant of a decaying empire doomed to destruction.” Yet the dissolution of the [Austro-Hungarian] Monarchy without disaster to Germany and without a European conflagration, was made impossible by the German policy of refusing all agreement with England on the naval [limitations] issue (128).
Following the Sarajevo assassination, Fleming asserts the stage was set for Austria-Hungary to act. Convinced on their ability, through the threat of force, to keep Russia from coming to the defense of Serbia, Germany pressured Austria to go to war in order to “finish with Serbia once and for all, and restore her own damaged prestige” (149).
Fleming’s handling of the war itself is a standard recounting of the major events. He goes into no great detail and no great length on the conflict, devoting a meager 34 pages to the event out of the 342 in the book. He seems to rush through the events in order to get to the aftermath.
In the conclusion to his book, Fleming briefly tells the story of Wilson’s failure to convince the Senate to adopt the treaty and join the League of Nations. And, as previously stated, he lays much of the blame for the Second World War at the feet of the United States’ failure to lead said League; providing the force to arbitrate the conflicts that arose in the inter-war years.
Fleming does a very good job painting a landscape of Europe at the close of the 19th Century, laying the foundations for the Great War. The war itself was inevitable. Structurally, Europe was a veritable powder keg, awaiting a spark to set it off. The spark came out of a dying Empire’s desire to continue to force subjugation on peoples that sensed their time for emancipation had come. The small fuse lit, aggressive leaders sought the advantage, knowing the inevitability of the conflict, and pursued a quick, aggressive path to victory, that dragged in quick succession all the world’s powers.
Just as Fleming did to bring some clarity to the origins of the war, he also muddied the waters surrounding the causes of the second great war. Fleming throws bombs and melts back into the crowd. He blames the United States for the Second World War, by its failure to go against its own Constitution and its founders’ principles. Washington’s advice to stay out of the quarrels of Continental Europe is swept under the rug in his haste. Fleming launches a what-if argument that cannot possibly stand on merit, and seems to attribute one of the greatest calamities of the world on the failure of one nation’s desire to police only itself, rather than the world. Ignoring the evil and the barbarous aggression of Nazi Germany, he assumes the United States would have been able to bring the Nazis to disarmament talks and to peaceful terms.

[1] Fleming clearly alludes to the fact that Bismark did realize his mistake.  “No sooner was the Treaty of Frankfurt signed than Bismark began to dread the renewal of the old anti-Prussian coalition of the days of Frederick the Great – Austria, France, and Russia” (53, 54).


  1. Thanks for this interesting review. I was intrigued to read it as I had Fleming as an instructor in Los Angeles in the late '60s. He did seem rather dedicated to the U.S. as bad guy.

    1. Interesting comment as I also had the experience of Fleming as an instructor in Los Angeles & can certainly confirm the assessment of his prejudicial bent toward the U.S. I would have thought it went unremarked because it was commonplace at the time.