The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation
is a 1989 academic study of the causes of the First World War by Israeli historian Avner Offer, Fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Fellow at All Souls’ College, Oxford. Offer argues the changing wheat economy in Britain and Germany was the major factor contributing to the outbreak of the War. The book challenges the orthodox view that the War was caused by industrial competition between the two countries.
Offer opens his argument by examining the causes of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. He argues that although the German populace avoided outright starvation, the severe hunger imposed by the British naval blockade of German ports “played a critical role in German collapse.”
From this premise, Offer turns to a consideration of the blockade strategy: where it came from, and why it was effective. This examination takes him back to 1846, the year the British government repealed the Corn Laws, allowing foreign competitors to compete with British farmers on the British market. Because British agriculture proved unable to compete, Britain’s food supply increasingly had to be imported from overseas. By 1900, 80 percent of all bread grain was imported, and by the end of the harvest season, domestic supplies amounted to as little as seven weeks’ worth of bread.
The British government soon realized that in the event of war, the country’s dependence on imported food would be a serious vulnerability, as enemy forces could starve the British people by blockading British ports or targeting grain ships. As a result, control of the seas became an increasingly higher priority. Offer argues that, in effect, the Royal Navy took the place of the tariff rates abolished by the repeal of the Corn Laws. Instead of the tariffs ensuring that British farmers could supply enough food for the British populace, a strong Navy guaranteed that no one could prevent the importation of food from abroad.
Offer points out that while economic specialization increased Britain’s productivity and prosperity, it also led directly to the country’s need for a powerful, war-ready military. In other words, international free trade entailed an arms race, or as Offer puts it: “the adjustment to economic specialization was the root cause of the war.” Against the orthodox economic view that closer economic links between Britain and Germany might have prevented the War, Offer argues that it was precisely the specialization of these countries’ economies and their growing dependence on the global economy, which made the War inevitable.
From the British situation, Offer turns to the German economy, finding that the same scenario was playing out there. As the German government pushed hard to accelerate the process of industrialization, urbanizing the labor force, more of Germany’s food had to be imported, primarily from Eastern Europe. As a result, Germany needed a stronger navy—like the British, to prevent blockades in case of war—and stronger land forces to ensure continued control over the food supplies to the east (a similar dynamic obtained in Britain with the need to control the colonial territories).
Both the British and German authorities continued to worry that food supply would be their weak spot in the event of a war breaking out. This anxiety was compounded by the rise of working-class socialist movements, which caused the ruling classes to fear that they would be unable to command the loyalty of their citizens if food began to run out. Either workers would be too hungry to fight and force a capitulation (which is exactly what happened in Germany, at the end of the War), or they would topple their rulers altogether through violent revolution (which is what happened in Russia). From this point on, Britain and Germany were locked into a naval arms race: whichever side had the stronger navy would have an unassailable advantage in war. The outbreak of war had become inevitable.
Offer finds further evidence for his theory in an examination of Britain’s strategic planning ahead of the First World War. He points out that British plans focused heavily on disrupting Germany’s food supply: by blockading German, Dutch and Belgian ports, or even by invading northern Germany by land to disrupt the supply chain there.
Interwoven with this argument is a consideration of another way the increasingly globalized economy fed into preparations for War. Because British citizens were able to seek opportunities in colonial territories such as Canada, Australia, and South Africa, social tensions were easily defused at home. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, opposition to Asian migration steadily role. The turn towards economic specialization in these countries produced a backlash against Asian immigrants, due to fear that native workers would be unable to compete with cheap foreign labor.The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation
helped to establish its author as “one of the most inventive historians writing in English on the Edwardian period” (Social History