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Why the First World War lasted so long

- November 11, 2018

The First World War ended 100 years ago today. Scholars have long debated its causes and effects. Yet surprisingly few have explored why the war lasted four long and bloody years. Could it have ended sooner?

In fact, largely forgotten is how Germany and the United States issued peace overtures in December 1916. Had these overtures been successful, they could have spared countless lives and have helped Europe escape the financial ruin and deep-seated animosity that produced World War II. Unfortunately, the Entente — Britain, France and Russia — dismissed both offers, and the fighting continued. In our Security Studies article, we show that honor influenced their decision to forgo peace.

Honor vs. rationality

Sociologists argue that honor is crucial to group self-esteem, involving an emotional investment in how groups define themselves and their place in social hierarchies. Honor leads actors to believe that others must respect these identities. It can enhance cooperation when mutual respect exists, but encourage severe escalation and undercut conflict resolution when it does not.

Accordingly, when identity faces an external threat, actors feel an intense psychological need to salvage their honor. To restore besmirched honor, either the transgressor apologizes or the victim punishes. The longer the transgressor refuses to apologize and resists punishment, the more the victim will dig in and perhaps even risk dying for honor’s sake.

Threats to honor can thus undermine rational behavior and make wars longer. Rationality means that an actor objectively assesses available information, selects which goals it will pursue and picks the most efficient and risk averse way to do so. However, when honor is at stake, leaders might begin to ignore disconfirming evidence, prioritize honor over survival and adopt strategies based on hope, not efficiency.

How did honor preclude peace in 1916?

In 1916, both sides suffered catastrophic losses and devastating setbacks. Victory remained elusive. The Western Front was deadlocked. Though Russia achieved modest progress on the Eastern Front, a German counteroffensive quickly erased its gains. The Entente was losing soldiers faster than it could replace them.

Financially, the Entente was almost insolvent. Britain’s leadership role in global finance was in jeopardy, and its expenditures exceeded revenue by a factor of three. For France, the ratio was about five to one.

Against this backdrop, Germany dispatched peace notes to the Entente on Dec. 12, 1916. Several days later, President Wilson issued a separate offer to mediate an end to the conflict. Considering the hurting stalemate that then defined the war, rejecting the offers out of hand had no rational basis. Arranging secret talks with Germany would have been simple, bearing little risk. The Entente could have easily resumed combat operations if talks collapsed.

Honor pushed the Entente to prefer war over peace despite the overwhelming costs and risks. In his Aug. 3, 1914, address to the British Parliament, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey invoked “honour” seven times. He stated: “If, in a crisis like this, we run away … from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in face of the respect that we should have lost.”

Honor was worth the material price, no matter how high. Germany was unapologetic about its transgressions. Atrocities in Belgium and repeated frustrations on the battlefield to win and exact punishment made national honor take priority over national survival. War aims expanded; by December 1916, the Entente came to believe the only way to overcome dishonor was to destroy the German regime itself.

The historical record shows Entente leaders were clouded in their judgments of objective facts and rational alternatives. The diplomatic cables and British cabinet minutes that we discovered reveal their logical contradictions, emotionality and irrational decision-making.

British leaders cherry-picked pieces of good news from the overwhelmingly negative battlefield reports they received. The chief of the Imperial General Staff wrote that Britain should not “flinch” and warned how “we need the same courage in London as our leaders in the North Sea and France.”

British leaders were outraged by the German offer’s “haughty rhetoric.” They failed to consider that Germany likely used boastful wording to offset the weakness that offering peace signaled. They denounced the overture as a “duplicitous war ruse,” and decried it for lacking specificity. Yet, they breathlessly added that the terms were unacceptable.

Entente leaders did not reject the offers because they expected Washington to enter the war, as Anglo-American relations were worsening. Wilson won reelection on an isolationist platform; Congress was decidedly anti-British. The Federal Reserve Board discouraged U.S. banks from loaning money to the Entente. Far from anticipating American intervention, the Entente feared the United States would use its financial power to force both sides to negotiate.

Honor closed the door on peace in 1916 and set the stage for a brute force fight to the finish. As work by Scott Wolford suggests, German leaders soon became convinced anything short of total victory meant total defeat. Instead of seeking peace after knocking Russia out of the war in 1917, Germany “gambled for resurrection” by launching a massive offensive on the Western Front in early 1918.

Our explanation makes sense of Germany’s seemingly self-defeating decisions. Germany was sincere when it offered peace in 1916. Why otherwise risk looking weak by offering to negotiate? The speed and finality with which the Entente rejected the overture convinced German leaders that the Entente was now fully committed to regime change. The episode convinced German leaders that they were in an existential fight for survival.

The autumn of 1916 offers a sober lesson for today. Leaders may have trouble acting rationally when they believe their nation’s honor is at stake. Far from a relic of a bygone era in international relations, honor can still intensify violence and undermine peaceful resolution — a frightening prospect in a world with nuclear weapons. From saber rattling in the Baltic States to brinkmanship in the South China Sea, we have good reasons not to let honor subvert global peace and stability 100 years on.

Alexander Lanoszka (@ALanoszka) is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Waterloo and an honorary fellow at City, University of London.

Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an assistant professor at George Mason Universitys Schar School of Policy and Government. He is a veteran of the Iraq War.