Closer Readings Commentary

Searching for Leadership in World War I

It is ironic to talk about leadership when we discuss World War I. Almost all historians agree that the war was caused by either weak or reckless leadership on the part of the leaders of the European nations involved. Moreover, historians have documented the way generals in each of these countries made a series of tragic mistakes, leading to death in the trenches of Western Europe. 

In a recent essay, historian Margaret MacMillan, the author of the best-selling book, The War that Ended the Peace, writes, “With different leadership World War I might have been avoided. Europe in 1914 needed a Bismarck or a Churchill with the strength of character to stand up to pressure and the capacity to see the large strategic picture. Instead the key powers had weak, divided, or distracted leaders.” (Emphasis added.)

After listing two of the most famous leaders of their respective countries (Otto von Bismarck, the nineteenth-century founder of the nation-state of Germany, and Winston Churchill, British prime minister during World War II), MacMillan gives us a key to understanding crucial aspects of political leadership: “strength of character” (or political courage) and big picture “strategic thinking.”

In her work MacMillan focuses on the absence of good political leadership in the summer of 1914, when Europe “slithered” toward a war that all parties thought could be contained and that would be over by Christmas. No one in a position of leadership could have imagined that the war would drag on for four years and become the greatest bloodletting in world history up to that time. It wound up destroying four great empires: Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman.  We should not be too quick, however, in assuming that we are wiser today than these figures were then. In fact, a close study of the complexity of events at the start of WWI reveals that there are limits to what even the most prudent and far-sighted human beings can achieve through politics and war.

ABC’s of leadership: Atatürk, Bismarck, and Churchill

There are any number of historical figures whose leadership students might choose to explore, many of whom, such as Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill, appear in the Chronicling America database or in EDSITEment’s vetted websites such as The Churchill Centre.*

In Chronicling America, one can find articles about the role the memory of Otto von Bismarck’s leadership played in the minds of German war soldiers. Students will be astonished to learn that Bismarck predicted that if Europe went to war it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” Bismarck, who was called the iron chancellor, had the toughness and the foresight necessary to avoid antagonizing Germany’s neighbors, Russia and France, and also to keep Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary on a short lease. He was removed from office in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm, who then proceeded to establish a foreign policy of Weltpolitk (World Policy) and expansion that succeeded only in antagonizing the other great European powers.

National power was understood in those days primarily in terms of naval superiority. One of the most influential books on the subject, The Influence of Sea Power upon History by the American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, was devoured by world leaders. One of the Kaiser’s goals was to build a navy to rival that of the greatest naval power, Great Britain, which led to a worldwide naval arms race.

Winston Churchill, a rising star of the Liberal Party, served in the British war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915, after months of trench warfare leading to a stalemate, he hatched a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front by invading Turkey through the straits of the Dardanelles. The poor implementation of his plan at the Battle of Gallipoli led to disaster for the mostly Australian and New Zealand troops fighting for the British.

It was in that same Gallipoli campaign that a Turkish officer led his army to victory. Mustafa Kemal, later called Atatürk (“father of the Turks”), became such a legend for his victories against the Western powers in WWI that he rose to fame as the founder of the Republic of Turkey, the first secular Islamic state.

The Dardanelles disaster might have finished the political career of a lesser mortal. Churchill, however, possessed deep reservoirs of courage and perseverance. In the twenties he began to rebuild his reputation, an effort that even continued into the thirties, his “wilderness” years, when he was exiled to the outer limits of British Parliamentary politics because of his unpopular stand against Indian self-government. But he kept hammering home the need for Europe to rearm against the threat posed by Adolph Hitler. Imagine what the absence of Churchill might have meant for the future of Europe! Without Churchill’s “blood, sweat, and tears” leadership in WWII, would the British nation have stood up to Hitler?

These are but a few famous examples of leadership showing how one’s reputation can rise and fall over the course of decades, and how one leader’s disaster can be another’s opportunity. Another way to study this theme in WWI would be by looking at the coverage in Chronicling America of the political leaders of the combatant nations: Woodrow Wilson (United States), Lloyd George (Great Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Czar Nicolas (Russia), and Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union)—any one of whom would make excellent subjects for a yearlong project. There are also the great military figures such as John Pershing (United States), Marshal Foch (France), and T. E. Lawrence, the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia.”


*A note on searching historical resources: Students should take note that in addition to the statesman, there was also a very popular contemporary American novelist named Winston Churchill. To complicate matters even more, the statesman Winston S. Churchill wrote one novel, Savrola, and many nonfiction books and articles.