Anasazi Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Review of "The First World War an Agrarian Interpretation" by Avner Offer, 1991

The author of this book has a wandering mind with a lot to say. He gives the reader much to think about, even if the books sometimes lacks focus. In fact, it reads like several books in one. Still, I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of World War I or in the general economic issues of globalization and international trade. The main focus is on the international trade in bread grains between Great Britain and the wider "Atlantic Economies", primarily Canada, the United States, and Australia, but also Russia, Argentina and India. A second focus, carefully explored, is the impact on the war of the trade global and internal of grains and potatoes of Germany. A third focus is on how this globalization and the opportunities of the lower classes in Britain to better themselves by migration while remaining connected to the British economy defused social friction at home while maintaining the immigrant's social ties to Britain.

Wheat Farming in Ontario, Canada at the End of the 19th Century

The primary message of the book is that the globally integrated British economy - industry in the metropolis of Great Britain and grain growing in an overseas hinterland - enabled Britain to wage war against Germany with much greater strength than appeared possible from simply measuring the population and industrial output of that island nation.

The integration started when the Corn Laws freed British grain markets from protective tariffs in the 1840s. Afterward Britain came to depend on overseas sources of food, including grain, fats and meat. By 1900 the country was especially dependent on bread grain, of which 80% was imported. Towards the end of the British harvest season the amount of bread grain in Britain could be less than seven weeks. The cargo ships carrying grain to Britain were moving silos. This was an obvious target for an enemy with a navy. At the same time it was an economically efficient specialization of resources, which benefited both the metropolis where industry flourished and the grain producing countries that grew rich off agricultural exports. The cost to Britain was borne by the need to maintain a large navy.

The author shows that the cost of the British navy was covered by the economic efficiency and increased industrial production for most of the period up to the great naval building race with Germany before World War I. Furthermore, this global trade tied the US and the British Dominions so closely to Britain that their war-time aid was to be expected. The author notes that the Germany army, good at operations, but not wise in strategy, did not recognize the possibility that the British Dominions would contribute so much militarily to the British war effort. In fact, the Dominions fielded 5 Canadian and 5 Australian divisions in France that provided some of the best unites of the British Empire's army that never had more than 60 divisions in France.

Canadian Soldiers Attacking in France During World War I

But, as I mentioned the author wanders: The first chapters focuses on Germany, examining whether the British naval blockade of Germany during the World War I defeated Germany through starvation of her civilians and/or its army. His answer is yes, with qualifications. The food situation in Germany was indeed very harsh during the last two years of the war. But it was the long term impact of the blockade on German morale which was additionally weakened by demands of continental war - rather than outright starvation - that led to Germany's defeat.

Offer believes that the naval blockade of Germany was justified during the war. He is much harsher on the continuation of the blockade after the Germans accepted an armistice, when the Allies used the blockade as a tool to force German acceptance of peace terms. Offer points out that after the armistice, the Allies could no longer claim war-time necessity as justification, and that the German people blamed the allies for the lack of food rather than their own government, as they had during the war.

As part of his focus on German trade, the author has insights on the role of economic specialization on Germany's war plans before 1914. Like Great Britain, Germany was also a net food importer. Although much less dependent on food imports, Germany lacked means of making up for a food deficit when faced with a naval blockade. One problem was that that primary food source, potatoes, were grown in eastern Germany and shipping them to the west was going to be a major problem for Germany during a long war. This was recognized by the German General Staff and contributed to Germany's choice of rash war plans which would work only if it won the war in an aggressive first strike through Belgium at France.

And yet, the author continues to wander well beyond his primary themes. He manages to bring up all kinds of kinds of related issues. He writes about the political repercussions of the efforts of the "white" dominions of Canada and Australia to exclude Asian labor; the economic and emotional impact of migration from the metropolis of Great Britain to the agricultural hinterlands of Canada or Australia, or the United States; the organization of the agricultural communities in the British hinterland; the social equality that existed in the Canadian prairies in contrast to the stratified society in Great Britain; the development of international law with respect to naval blockades; and the surprising willingness of certain influential British leaders in the first decades of the 20th century to consider a political union between the British Empire and the United States.

The author spends a fair amount of time on the stupid thinking of Germany's leadership, both military and civilian. He points out that three times, once in 1914, in 1917 when it decided on unrestricted submarine warfare, and again in the spring 1918 offensive, it made decisions that had less than 50% chances of success, yet risked all. Offer places the blame is on intuitive thinking, shaped by the selfish biases of many German elite decision-makers. (In fact, in both World Wars the British were much better at analytical thinking than were the Germans.)

One thought that struck me after reading this book is that it might have been better for Germany to wage World War I without Austria-Hungary as an ally. A neutral Austria-Hungary would have provided food for Germany and not required the diversion of so many German army divisions to support a inefficient friend.

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