On a Knife Edge: How Germany Lost the First World War


It is a mistake to approach this book simply as a ‘German perspective’ on the history of the First World War. It is actually much more, in that Holger Afflerbach brings great breadth to his work, with intriguing arguments about the course of the war and its impact for Europe and the world. Part of the well-established Cambridge Military History series, the book is a translation from the German edition first published in 2018. The author teaches European History at Leeds University.

At its heart, this is a reassessment of why the war endured and how it ended, based on a close analysis of the German experience. Yet the decisions, motives, and challenges facing Germany’s allies and enemies are also well drawn. The war, he feels, was on a knife’s edge, and we are presented with a much more nuanced account of German options and policy-making than most of us (non-German language readers) might be accustomed to. These are its real strengths. To present a well-evidenced, sophisticated account of Germany at war, and to use that to shed new light on the shape of the conflict as a whole.

The structure is straightforwardly chronological, walking us from the crisis of July-August 1914 through to Versailles, and closing with a thought-provoking overview. The style is clear and accessible, with truly poignant photographs sprinkling the book, as well as maps and charts. Particularly useful are the two indexes, one listing people, one places.

The fact of the book’s authorship and perspective can serve as an eye-opener, even for those who consider themselves well read on the period. It comes as a jolt to be reminded that the Royal Navy’s blockade from 1914 was in itself contrary to international law, and to then recognise the salience of this in German thinking. Unrestricted submarine warfare thus appears in a different light. There are other examples in the book, and it is healthy to recognise just how pervasive ‘winners’ history’ can be. Afflerbach himself is scrupulously fair – but asks this of his readers too.

For those interested in what went wrong for Germany, this book is particularly strong on questions of governance. The byzantine mosaic that was Wilhelmine Germany could have been designed for poor military decision-making. Readers will quickly become familiar with its key components: the OHL (Supreme Army Command), the navy, the government, the chancellor, the Reichstag, Kaiser Wilhelm himself, the other principalities, and importantly, German public opinion. Large characters like General Erich Ludendorff competed within this framework, but it was the Kaiser who effectively held the casting vote; and he was not up to the job.

Kaiser Wilhelm, flanked by Paul von Hindenburg (left) and Erich Ludendorff (right) in January 1917. Although Hindenburg and Ludendorff had immense influence over the direction of the German war, it was the Kaiser who held the casting vote. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Alongside the machinations of German leadership, there are excellent accounts of the diplomatic jockeying within allied administrations, such as Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, as well as their opponents, notably France, Britain, and the United States. The evolution of American strategic thinking and, in particular, the character of Woodrow Wilson, are very well captured.

Bird’s-eye view

This top-down approach, examining Germany’s situation in the context of its own leadership and that of its enemies, allows Afflerbach to take a bird’s-eye view of the war. The resulting insights are developed into arguments about critical episodes, and those are slotted into context. The decision on submarine warfare already mentioned is one. Another is the Entente’s strategic ‘surge’ of 1916, ultimately seen as a failure in Germany and thereby serving as a spur to radical militarists. In parallel, we follow the various peace initiatives, watching them founder and, in tragic consequence, prolong the war.

Perhaps the most astute discussion in these pages is that covering the collapse of Russia. The intransigence of the Communists and the imperial overreach of Germany are described as having combined to eject Russia from the European system, with huge implications in 1917 and beyond. With a shudder, one is reminded of Russia’s current situation and the wisdom of an analysis written four or five years ago.

Another fascinating theme is that of the ‘international movement to prolong the war’ – an idea coined by Reichstag member Philipp Scheidemann at the time, but used in the book as a device to describe those attitudes and imperatives on both sides of the conflict that worked towards its extension.

This is not therefore a book replete with military detail. It is a study at the macro level, with little discussion of battles or tactics. The campaigns are there, painted with a broad brush which is absolutely sufficient for this kind of study. Where it really shines is in its discussion of the impact of battles and campaigns on Germany. Verdun is a good example, chastening an overconfident German leadership, but a better one is the ‘lucky’ victory at Tannenberg, which completely changed perceptions of the Russian army: from ‘steamroller’ to ‘feet of clay’, as Afflerbach characterises it.

Overall, this is an impressive, well-researched, and readable book, which advances an important argument. The author has something new to say and does not hesitate to engage with others who have covered this ground before, such as Niall Ferguson and Alistair Horne.

Fans of First World War history will enjoy its fresh thinking and learn a lot about German command and political decision-making. Those with a general interest in modern European history will value an account from ‘the other side’ and, in particular, the broader historic context that Afflerbach provides.

For the author, it was always unlikely that Germany and its allies would win the First World War outright. He does insist, though, that the catastrophic defeat and collapse it endured in 1918 was avoidable, and, more importantly, that the war could and should have ended sooner.

We can all speculate on how European and world history might have been different had that happened. For those curious to learn more about why it did not, this book will be a rewarding read.

On a Knife Edge: how Germany lost the First World War 
Holger Afflerbach
Cambridge University Press, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1108832885