Public opinion and the outbreak of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 7)

After working through the strategic implications of German and Russian goals in the July Crisis over the course of the last week, particularly what it meant for explaining the outbreak of the Great War, we spent time today on another puzzle—one that had never really struck me until prepping for today’s class, in fact.* We noted a few weeks ago that the Continental armies were all focused on the offensive, on striking the first blow and achieving a decision that would keep the war short.** However, two things stand out about the maneuvering in the early days of the war that don’t fit neatly into the idea of the “cult of the offensive“:

  1. Germany delayed mobilization until it could claim that Russia had mobilized first.
  2. France mobilized, but orders its forces to stay 6 km back of the German border.

In each case, a belligerent that knows war to be imminent gives up something valuable—Germany a mobilization lead over the Entente Powers and France the ability to do anything other that mount a defense in the early days of the war—that would seem heretical to the ideal of offensive operations. Why?

The answer, in each case, turns out to be public opinion—specifically, the desire of both governments to ensure that as much of the public as possible would be on board with the war, whether as willing conscripts, temporarily silent dissidents, or factory workers making shells instead of striking. (Merely locking up the leaders of socialist or workers’ parties wasn’t going to cut it in this case.) Making the war a national one of defense or survival (said, surely, with a bit of a wink in the Kaiserreich) would be key to winning a long, drawn-out war, should it come to that—Germany, after all, knew that beating Russia would take a while—but there were also strategic reasons to secure public opinion and achieve a mass mobilization of soldiers and laborers: if any belligerent failed to mobilize the whole of the public, it would be disadvantaged at the outset, and if would certainly want to mobilize the whole public against an opponent that hadn’t done so in order to secure a quick victory. So, oddly, while the desire to capture public opinion resulted in both Germany and France trading off some of the benefits of a first-strike strategy, these intentional disadvantages might’ve canceled to a degree—and thus masked the true effect of mobilizing public opinion on success in war, which requires a disparity to realize. (From a game-theoretic perspective, the effects are both canceled out in equilibrium, in the behavioral prediction, but the reason this is so is the desire to blunt any advantage an opponent might have from securing more public support than oneself.)

So what can we learn from looking at public opinion in the outbreak of war?

First, even in a semi-autocratic state like the Kaiserreich, it drove governments to trade off some of the benefits of a first-strike, offensively-oriented strategy, in order to ensure that their opponents couldn’t secure a unilateral advantage in mobilizing the whole public for war. At a minimum, it confirms for us that governments made tradeoffs in the face of strategic dilemmas—that they weren’t necessarily the outmoded, single-minded wellsprings of outdated ideas that it’s easy to see them as.

Second, and perhaps more disquieting, by enabling the mobilization of the nation qua nation for war, governments maneuvering to secure public opinion might have helped create the very conditions that made the war as long as it was and gave to the war its brutal, extractive, resource-driven, attritional character. Absent some ability to commit not to make it a “people’s war,” one that mobilized nearly everyone in society, governments presiding over a conscious, nationalist mass public found themselves leaping headlong into a drawn-out cataclysm, the alternative to which was losing—and much sooner—to an enemy that did bring the nation along with it.

* Thanks, by the way, are in order to Phil Arena for helping me out with the ideas here:

** Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there weren’t many illusions about what would happen if decision weren’t achieved early; the strict focus on the offensive was designed to avert the long, bloody, total war that ultimately did ensue.