Reviewed by Annika Mombauer (Department of History, The Open University, United Kingdom)
Published on H-German (April, 2004)
This book is an English translation of Charles de Gaulle's first publication, the 1924 La Discorde chez l'ennemi. It is an account of Germany's conduct during the First World War, and particularly an analysis of the errors her statesmen and military leaders committed in the years 1914 to 1918, leading to the country's defeat in November 1918. De Gaulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Germany from 1916 to 1918, based his insightful account partly on his own experiences while in captivity. During the two years he spent in Germany, he kept detailed notes and was an avid reader of German newspapers. In addition, much of his information was gleaned in the post-war years from the many memoirs and justificatory accounts that were published in Germany. De Gaulle identified a number of major failings on the part of Germany. His account is divided into five chapters, dealing, respectively, with the German defeat at the Battle of the Marne; Germany's decision to declare unlimited submarine warfare in 1917; Germany's fraught relations with her Allies, in particular with Austria-Hungary; the fall of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg; and the disunity in Germany at the end of the First World War.
The infamous Battle of the Marne was, of course, a topic that was of great interest both to the victors and losers of the war, for it was thought by many that Germany had really lost the war in September 1914. Drawing parallels between the Elder Moltke's style of leadership in 1870 and the military leaders of 1914, he concluded that the latter had been imbued with a sense of "exaggerated independence and [were] determined to act on [their] own in all situations" (p. 16). De Gaulle's account of the German defeat on the Marne follows the traditional pattern for the period in charging the Younger Moltke with allowing his subordinates too much leeway and staying too far from the front. De Gaulle concluded that, perhaps more tragic than the outcome of the battle, was the fact that the German military leaders never learnt any lessons from it, and continued to base their strategic thinking on the way the wars of 1866-1871 had been fought.
Germany's first mistake, then, was overconfidence based on a blinkered view of past wars. But worse was to come. In chapter 2, de Gaulle examined another contentious topic: the German decision for unlimited submarine warfare. His insights into the decision-making in the highest military and political echelons are astonishingly detailed and accurate. At the same time, he was astute and modest in realizing that his own interpretation of events would in time be superseded by works based on more solid evidence. And yet, although based to a large extent on memoir literature, his findings are on the whole generally borne out by some of the latest scholarship on the topic. De Gaulle understood clearly, for example, the divisions that existed within Germany and among the senior decision-makers on the question of unlimited submarine warfare, and the indecision in Berlin as to whether German's real enemy was really England or Russia. With hindsight, at least, these kinds of divisions help to explain why Germany lost the war.
De Gaulle's account of the thorny question of submarine warfare features clear villains and heroes. The villain was Admiral von Tirpitz, with his insistence on this odious way of conducting the naval war, and the hero was Bethmann Hollweg with his somewhat naïve but moral determination to oppose such measures. While clearly aware of the fact that he did not have all the necessary evidence at his disposal, de Gaulle nonetheless implored his readers to judge these men as he did, and particularly to condemn Tirpitz, whose duplicitousness vis-à-vis Bethmann he outlined in detail. Had de Gaulle been aware of the incriminating evidence of Bethmann's own expansive war aims, revealed in the discovery of the 1914 September Programme, his positive view of Bethmann might have been somewhat modified. Instead, de Gaulle praised Bethmann's moderate war aims in 1915. The weakness of the Chancellor and the Kaiser with regard to naval leaders was one of the main reasons for German's defeat on de Gaulle's view, for a country at war that was bogged down by internal divisions and rivalries could ultimately not present a united front to its enemies. By threatening to resign over the submarine issue, Tirpitz forced the monarch's hand. The result of this duplicitous and selfish decision-making at the highest military level marked a retreat of authority that de Gaulle describes as "the true moral cause of the defeat of the Empire!" (p. 44).
Unlimited submarine warfare arguably led to Germany's defeat, as de Gaulle suggested, for it ensured an American involvement in the war and turned Wilson into a determined enemy. Despite the Russian Revolution and the failure of the French offensive in 1917, despite the peace of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest, Paris and London were not discouraged due to America's involvement, which had been deliberately risked, if not provoked, by Germany's decision to opt for unlimited submarine warfare. De Gaulle pointed his finger rightly at this grave responsibility, although he failed to speculate about what might have been if Britain and France had found themselves facing the events of 1917 without knowing that U.S. help was on its way. He also noted the shameless way in which those responsible for this decision sought scapegoats elsewhere and denied their own responsibility for ill-fated decisions.
The implication of De Gaulle's analysis is quite clear--different, perhaps shrewder, decision-making in Germany might have led to an entirely different outcome of the war--not a comforting thought for the victors. This idea is also at the heart of the argument of chapter 3, in which de Gaulle analyzes Germany's relations with her Allies. De Gaulle agreed with Tirpitz that for Germany, "this [was] the war of missed opportunities" (p. 56). It was intended as an important lesson, too--perhaps in a future war she would not be so lucky. De Gaulle easily identified shortcomings in the German and Austrian conduct of the war. They failed to agree on a German general as the military head of the coalition, a decision which would have led to better co-operation and more successful engagements with the enemy (p. 56); the two emperors were not close and did not co-ordinate their efforts (and Franz Joseph never forgave the fact that the defeat on the Marne had been kept from him) (p. 59); even once Falkenhayn (a major obstacle in the question of a unified command who fell out with Conrad over the idea of a cessation of Trente and Triest) had been removed, Hindenburg and Conrad failed to co-ordinate their policies in the East or unify command (p. 66). In de Gaulle's estimation, Austria-Hungary had been dragged into the war by Germany in the first place (p. 58). Here de Gaulle did not anticipate current orthodoxy, for recent research on the question of war guilt would now apportion rather more blame to Vienna's desire to fight a war in 1914.
The same disunity between the Central Powers also defined decision-making within Germany, as de Gaulle outlined in chapter 4. Bethmann Hollweg had many enemies and Hindenburg and Ludendorff were openly hostile after 1917. The Chancellor had few friends in the political sphere. He remained in power solely because he still had the Kaiser's support. As de Gaulle outlined, however, the Chancellor would eventually be powerless against the agitation of his political rivals, in particular Matthias Erzberger. He charted the intrigues against Bethmann, in the process of which not Erzberger but his co-conspirator Ludendorff extended his power and influence.
Once Ludendorff's victories ceased, however, vain hopes for victory would be squashed, and the ensuing "moral breakdown" is the subject of de Gaulle's final chapter. According to the translator and editor, de Gaulle wrote this chapter in 1919 and 1920, based more on personal observations than on the memoir literature which informs most of the book (p. 151, n. 39). It is in many ways the most interesting chapter, for de Gaulle painted a vivid picture of the atmosphere in Germany in the last months of the war, in which the mood of the people changed from an almost certain belief in victory to utter despair. War-time disunity had dissipated briefly in 1918, following the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest, and "when the great offensive of the spring began, Germany found herself as united, resolute, and fierce, as she had been in the first days of the war" (p. 120). De Gaulle's account conjures up the vain hope with which the German people watched the offensive in the West, and shows how the disappointments they suffered were all the more dispiriting in light of their previously inflated expectations. But the armies failed to secure a victory, and despite the concealing actions of the press, a crisis of confidence spread that also impacted faith in the Austrian ally. The starving population had hoped for food from the Ukrainian harvest, but it was poor and transport was unavailable--leading to a further reduction in rations. By the summer of 1918, the German people had been resigned to defeat even before the Champagne offensive in July failed completely. And again, according to de Gaulle, Germany made mistakes, and made an allied victory possible. When the Central Powers began their counter attack on July 18, instead of fostering unity and resolve, the German press spread moral confusion. The events of November 1918 were, in de Gaulle's words, a "hurricane" (p. 139). By the time the harsh armistice conditions were presented to the new Ebert government, refusing to accept them was no longer an option.
At the heart of De Gaulle's book is the question of why Germany lost the First World War. A sobering theme runs through his account, not just for Germans, but particularly for the victorious allies. Germany's defeat was, above all, a moral one. De Gaulle concludes that Germany was essentially defeated due to inner disunity, lack of a sense of common goal, and internal quarrels, coupled with a number of fateful decisions that could easily have been avoided. These can be traced from the outbreak of war, when discord existed over who Germany's real enemy was, to mistakes on the Marne in September 1914, to the decision for unlimited submarine warfare, to intrigues against political leaders, even to the fact that, when it really mattered, the German people recalled their political, even regional, differences rather than showing united resolve. With hindsight, and in view of these events, it is difficult to see how Germany could have won the war, and yet, the logical conclusion of de Gaulle's account is surely that a more united, less factious Germany would have been much harder, if not perhaps impossible, to defeat. Clearly, then, important lessons were to be learnt by both sides, and it would not do for France to be complacent following the allied victory.
De Gaulle's interpretation of Germany's conduct during WWI is interesting, and its accessibility for English-speaking readers is certainly to be welcomed. The aim of the editor and translator was, as he informs the reader, to achieve as faithful and accurate an English rendition of the prose as possible. In addition, the English language account was to meet de Gaulle's own exacting high scholarly standards. This goal necessitated additional citations, further bibliographical references, and editor's notes. This new edition is thus "annotated more elaborately than the original." While this is to be welcomed, perhaps the editor could have gone further, for example, by including bibliographical references and annotations to ensure that his readers know where de Gaulle's account has been superseded by the latest scholarship. To give just one example: the extent of the enthusiastic response to the outbreak of war, the so-called Augusterlebnis to which De Gaulle alluded in his final chapter, has been seriously questioned by historians in recent years. Annotations to that effect, and references to that latest work, would have been a useful addition to De Gaulle's necessarily dated text. Moreover, where the editor has provided footnote annotations, it is impossible to distinguish between these and De Gaulle's own footnotes, which is confusing. More thorough cross-referencing would also have been helpful, although the editor has provided an "index of minor characters," aiming, with the provision of such additional information, to make the book "more useful as a teaching text." This list does, however, concern some errors and omissions. Bernhard von Buelow, for example, is listed here as "German secretary of state for foreign affairs (1897-1909)," when he was actually German Chancellor for the last nine years of this period (p. 171). Schlieffen was not Chief of the General Staff until 1907 (p. 173). It might have been useful to include more "major" characters in this index, too. Although additional information about them is provided, it is contained in the footnotes, making it more laborious for readers to find than if it were contained within the descriptive index of characters. It certainly would have been useful to add to de Gaulle's own, necessarily brief bibliography (dating from 1924), more substantial and up-to-date references which would have enabled the modern reader to go beyond de Gaulle's necessarily limited account, particularly where primary sources have only become available to historians subsequently. Thus, as a teaching text, this volume could have been more helpfully annotated. However, as a general read, and as an interesting and beautifully written analysis of Germany's failure to fight the First World War successfully, the book deserves to find an audience, and this English translation is to be welcomed.
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Annika Mombauer. Review of de Gaulle, Charles, The Enemy's House Divided.
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