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Offensiveand the I Origins o f the F i r s t World War I During the decades before the First World War a phenomenon which may be called a ”cult of the offensive” swept through Europe. Militaries glorified the offensive and adopted offensive military doctrines, while civilian elites and publics assumed that the offense had the advantage in warfare, and that offensive solutions to security problems were the most effective. This article will argue that the cult of the offensive was a principal cause of the First World War, creating or magnifying many of the dangers which historians blame for causing the July crisis and rendering it uncontrollable. The following section will first outline the growth of the cult of the offensive in Europe in the years before the war, and then sketch the consequences which international relations theory suggests should follow from it. The second section will outline consequences which the cult produced in 1914, and the final section will suggest conclusions and implications for current American policy. The Cult of the Offensiveand International Relations Theory THE GROWTH OF THE CULT The gulf between myth and the realities of warfare has never been greater than in the years before World War I. Despite the large and growing advantage which defenders gained against attackers as a result of the invention of rifled and repeating small arms, the machine gun, barbed wire, and the development of railroads, Europeans increasingly believed that attackers would hold the advantage on the battlefield, and that wars would be short and “decisive”-a “brief storm,” in the words of the German Chancellor, I would like to thank JackSnyder, Richard Ned Lebow, Barry Posen, Marc Trachtenberg,and Stephen Walt for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Stephen Van Evera is a Research Fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Intmtional Security, Summer 1984 (Vol. 9, No. 1) 0162-2889/84/01005&50$02.50/1 0 1984 by the Presidentand Fellows of Harvard College and of the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology. 58 Bethmann Hollweg.’ They largely overlooked the lessons of the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Boer War, and the RussoJapanese War, which had demonstrated the power of the new defensive technologies. Instead, Europeans embraced a set of political and military myths which obscured both the defender’s advantages and the obstacles an aggressor would confront. This mindset helped to mold the offensive military doctrines which every European power adopted during the period 18921913 .2 In Germany, the military glorified the offense in strident terms, and inculcated German society with similar views. General Alfred von Schlieffen, author of the 1914 German war plan, declared that ”Attack is the best defense ,” while the popular publicist Friedrich von Bemhardi proclaimed that ”the offensive mode of action is by far superior to the defensive mode,” and that “the superiority of offensivewarfare under modern conditions is greater than f~rmerly.”~ German Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke also endorsed “the principle that the offensiveis the best defense,” while General August von Keim, founder of the Army League, argued that ”Germany ought to be armed for attack,” since “the offensive is the only way of insuring ~ictory.”~ These assumptions guided the Schlieffen Plan, which envisaged rapid and decisive attacks on Belgium, France, and Russia. 1. Quoted in L.L. Farrar, Jr., ”The Short War Illusion: The Syndrome of German Strategy, August-December 1914,” MilitaergeschictlicheMitteilungen, No. 2 (1972), p. 40. 2. On the origins of the cult of the offensive, see JackLewis Snyder, “Defending the Offensive: Biases in French, German, and Russian War Planning, 1870-1914” (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1981), forthcoming as a book from Cornell University Press in 1984; Snyder’s essay in this issue; and my “Causes of War” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1984), chapter 7. On the failure of Europeans to learn defensive lessons from the wars of 18601914 , see Jay Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Znheritance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959);and T.H.E. Travers, ”Technology, Tactics, and Morale: Jean de Bloch, the Boer War, and British Military Theory, 1900-1914,“Journal of Modern History, Vol...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4804
Print ISSN
0162-2889
Pages
pp. 58-107
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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