Why Did Belgium Resist in 1914?

Another entry in a series of blog posts about World War I, political science, and my textbook: The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security. You can read the previous entry here.

On 3 August 1914, Belgium refused the previous day’s “request” that Germany be allowed to pass through its territory on the way to a clash with France in the opening days of the First World War.

Germany’s note made the consequences of refusal pretty clear:

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

Its request ultimatum denied, Germany duly invaded Belgium on 4 August, and King Albert’s troops mounted a gallant resistance, slowing down Moltke’s right hook as it tried swung around the main French force in an (ultimately vain) attempt to create a modern-day Cannae.

Yet the question of why Belgium resisted near-inevitable defeat rather than accept Germany’s terms, which included promises of restituted territory and financial compensation, looks puzzling after the fact.1 Why did Belgium send its modest army into the field only to suffer entirely predictable death, destruction, and dislocation, to be pushed back to Antwerp as the Germans did what they pleased? And why forfeit the chance that Germany would follow through on its ostensibly generous promises of restitution and compensation?

Reiter and Stam, defending a unilateral model of war onset, put it down to national honor: better to go down fighting than surrendering (p. 380).2 Vasquez, in his wide-ranging and fascinating book on the spread of the war, also nods to national honor but argues further that Belgium’s resistance is an “anomaly” for bargaining theories of war (pp. 111-114)—that is, for theories that view war as a wasteful alternative to negotiations that can (and often do) produce the same outcomes as war-ending negotiations.

It won’t surprise you that I disagree with the “anomaly” take. Here’s why.

The version of bargaining theory Vasquez addresses makes a couple of basic points. First, since war is costly, states have strong incentives to avoid it by striking deals that reflect the likely outcome of a war. Second, if (a) states don’t know what bargains others will accept in lieu of war or (b) bargains struck today will only get worse in the future, then states might knowingly fight costly wars. (For more, I recommend Phil Arena’s venerable breakdown of the seminal piece in this literature.)

Let’s take a look at Vasquez’s argument. He first notes that Germany’s ability to overwhelm Belgian defenses, including the forts at Liège, wasn’t much in doubt (pp. 111-114). And, in the absence of shifting power that would make that bargain obsolete in the future, we’d expect Belgium to cut a deal; why fight a costly war when the offer on the table reflects the likely outcome minus all the death and destruction? What’s more, Germany’s offer of restitution looked pretty generous; Belgium could hardly hope to achieve that much by fighting. So far, so good. Acceptance would be consistent with bargaining models of war…

…but only if Belgium believed that Germany would’ve honored those promises.

My issue with the anomaly claim is that it takes as credible the German prewar promise to evacuate Belgian territory and provide compensation after the war. But unlike the actors in the drama he recounts, Vasquez treats German talk credulously. He argues that Belgium should’ve expected Germany to honor its pledge, citing as evidence one of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s post-invasion Reichstag speeches (a) apologizing for the violation of international law and (b) reiterating restitution promises. Vasquez’s argument that Belgium should’ve accepted Germany’s terms rests on Germany’s 1914 description of its own war aims…precisely when it had incentives to lie about just how expansive its aims were.

Yet one of, if not the, most important parts of the story in August 1914 is that those on the receiving end of German promises about limited aims didn’t believe them. I argue in The Politics of the First World War that one of the animating strategic problems on the soon-to-be Western Front was the question of whether Germany was, as it claimed, fighting a defensive war or, as its actions indicated, using the opportunity of a general war to unhinge the balance of power (see Chapters 4-6 in particular).3 The problem for Britain and Belgium was that Germany would’ve made these same promises whether or not its aims were truly expansionist. Whether we might be able to say after the fact that Germany’s aims were limited (and I’m not sure we can, tbh), what we see with hindsight doesn’t necessarily offer clues about what the actors in our story were thinking in real time.

Incentives to lie create incentives to disbelieve. And Germany’s opponents did just that: they disbelieved.

Yet Vasquez asserts that Belgium should’ve believed Germany in 1914. And this argument that Germany wouldn’t “go back on its pledge” to restore Belgium hangs on a claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium (p. 112).

As noted above, this requires us to credit Germany’s words when Belgium, to say nothing of Britain and France, didn’t. The question for those watching (and fearing) the approaching German right hook was what Germany would do with a prostrate Belgium if given the chance. And protestations of defensive intent simply weren’t credible as German footfalls echoed through Liège, Namur, and Mons.

The claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium elides the fact that, once in control of some chunk of Belgian territory, Germany would’ve been in prime military position to refuse its return. Merely by holding Belgian territory, Germany’s power over Belgium would’ve increased substantially. “Friendly” language in ultimatums, as Vasquez has it, and ex post apologies (as Bethmann-Hollweg hoped to have it) aren’t evidence that the Belgians believed other than they did, i.e. that a Germany aiming to reorder great power politics wouldn’t have relinquished its gains. (You show me an apologetic speech in the Reichstag, I show you the Septemberprogramm.) If the Kaiser held Belgium, Belgians and French and Britons believed, he’d have every reason to hang onto it. And whether we can say that Britain, France, and Belgium were wrong over a century after the fact doesn’t matter if we want to explain Belgian resistance in 1914; it matters what Belgium and France and Britain believed in 1914.

And Belgian resistance responded to a clear commitment problem: whatever promises Germany made in early August would’ve come due after German troops occupied Belgium. Attractive those terms may have been, but credible they weren’t. Demanding tomorrow the withdrawal of a German army already sitting on Belgian territory looked like a fool’s errand today, making war (with eventual Entente support) more attractive, even with long odds in the short term.

Unilateral control of Belgium would’ve allowed France, Germany, or Britain to menace the others, and that that fact wasn’t lost on France, Germany, Britain, or Belgium.4 And as I argue in Chapter 6 of “The Politics of the First World War” and a forthcoming article at Security Studies, violations of 1839’s Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality indicated to observers that the violator had aggressive ambitions—i.e., a desire to overturn the European balance of power—even in the face of likely balancing responses by the other powers.5

So, if we take into account

  1. the fact that occupying Belgian territory would’ve shifted power dramatically in Germany’s favor, making it very easy to refuse to leave; and
  2. the international-legal environment, which framed the German invasion of Belgium against the 1839 Treaty of London,

we can see that Belgian defiance in the face of Germany’s note isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. An account of why Belgium resisted follows directly from those theories. We just have to remember that Germany’s contemporaries were skeptical of its promises, whatever we might believe today about the credibility of those promises.

If Belgium resisted to preserve the national honor (and would any belligerent government have said otherwise?), it also had good reason to believe that resistance promised the best (if long) odds on preserving independence. Had Belgium welcomed German troops, it would’ve compromised its independence if Germany won the war; and it might’ve fare less well at the eventual peace conference had Germany’s enemies won the war. In the final accounting, a commitment problem explains both Belgium’s resistance and its skepticism of German promises.

Vasquez’s account, on the other hand, requires us to (a) ignore what observers in 1914 saw and believed about German aims and (b) deny that it’s easier to hold on to most of a country’s territory than it is to take it in the first place. I’m unprepared to do either. Plenty of offers, even ultimatums, can look attractive, but they’re only acceptable if commitments to follow through are believed to be credible. And when the pain of a future weakened bargaining position is greater than the costs of war today, states may take the plunge into costly war…just as Belgium did in 1914.

TL;DR Belgian resistance to Germany’s 1914 ultimatum isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. States sometimes have good reason to fight in the face of unfavorable odds if the peaceful alternative is near-certain disaster, and King Albert’s decision is a compelling case in point.

  1. To call back to an earlier post, hindsight is great for generating puzzles but often shit for solving them. ↩︎
  2. I don’t think they needed to make that argument, though. War occurs because the side that wants war chooses to over-demand, not because the victim views defending “one’s own land as an insubvertible good” (p. 380). Countries can still have wars when they want them; they’ve just got to demand (or try to take) more than the other side will yield. ↩︎
  3. And not just in Europe, but globally. This was a bid for world power, in the sense of competing with other global empires, as Fischer notes; but it was a bid to dominate the pre-World War I world of empires, not the one produced by World War I. ↩︎
  4. Belgium was a valuable buffer state, a source of bargaining power to whoever controlled it. ↩︎
  5. Here’s an older post on the topic from the first time I taught “World War I in Real Time.” ↩︎

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