Robert Tombs wrote another excellent article in the Telegraph recently:
For those unable to access the link, I have copied the article below:
Why do states start impossible wars? This question is prompted by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But it applies to Europe’s great tragedies over more than a century.
Most obvious is a failure of intelligence; the common denominator of military disaster. Governments do not start wars they think they will lose. For Russia’s rulers to believe that a relatively small invading force could conquer Ukraine in a few days, and then hold down a hostile population supported from outside, is proof of a huge failure somewhere, whether in the intelligence agencies, the military staff or perhaps by Putin himself.
How could a government machine composed of experienced, ruthless and intelligent men make such a gross error, disastrous for their victims and themselves?
Similarly, how could the German government in 1914 think they could defeat an alliance of France and Russia, and probably Britain? How could Hitler in 1939 think he could conquer Europe? For the countries that were defeated and occupied, and for the British too, German victory twice seemed agonisingly close. But in reality, its acts of aggression were almost inevitably doomed from the start. Germany, like today’s Russia, was far too weak in population, resources and economic capacity.
Some might answer “but they nearly did win”. Yet even if the Kaiser’s army had won the battle of the Marne in August 1914, or if Britain had asked for peace terms in May 1940, or indeed if Putin’s shock troops had taken Kyiv last February, what then? How could they think that victory could be anything more than temporary? How could they imagine holding down bitterly hostile countries, even if the rest of the world left them alone? How could they not anticipate the insoluble long-term problems?
There were several explanations, which I think shed light on the Ukraine disaster too. First, generals who will not or cannot admit to their masters that they fear defeat. For both Germany and Putin’s Russia, myths about military invincibility made things worse. Generals may warn of obstacles, and they certainly did so in Germany before 1914 and in the late 1930s. Perhaps some of Putin’s generals warned him too. But their jobs, their prestige – and their budgets – demand that they reassure their masters that they have a plan.
Such were the German army’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914 and its Operation Yellow in 1940. Generals and politicians convinced themselves that these were bold and brilliant solutions offering rapid victory and avoiding a long war they rightly expected to lose. But such plans inevitably focused minds on the short term, and left the aftermath vague. The Russian attack on Kyiv showed the same recklessness, but without the competence.
For such risks to seem reasonable, there has to be some ideological foundation. The common elements were short term fatalism and long-term fantasy. Fatalism, in believing that war was inevitable and that time was short. In 1914 and in 1939, Germany’s rulers believed that they were surrounded by enemies and that their security position was deteriorating: so war was unavoidable and it had to be soon. This mindset nullifies any objection to war as a policy: the aggressor claims victimhood, and anyone who advocates a moderate policy is dismissed as a coward or a traitor.
The long-term fantasy was in both cases – and clearly in Putin’s case too – some variant of racial nationalism, carried to the most extreme imaginable extent by the Nazis whose aim was not merely conquest but genocide. So the fantasy victory will mean the triumph of the Teuton over the Slav in 1914; or of the Master Race in a struggle for world domination in 1939; or of the Greater Russia in 2022. Such fantasy underestimates the enemy and closes down discussion about the long term by making practical concerns seem trivial: why bother about future trade relations or political systems when the aim is to reshape the globe?
Mr Tombs’ points are as relevant to Kruger’s 1899 attack against the British Empire as they are to Germany’s aggression in 1914 and 1939, and Russia’s in 2022. Just as in those cases, it seems totally ridiculous that Kruger would have started a war which was so blatantly unwinnable – which is perhaps why some fanatics still attempt to deny this reality.
However much it upsets those on the lunatic fringe of extreme Afrikanerdom today, the fact is that – as Mr Tombs states – ‘Governments do not start wars they think they will lose’. Kruger and his equally deluded gaggle gleefully embarked on a war against the Greatest of the Great Powers of the Age, confident that victory was theirs for the taking[i] – which must be one of the biggest failures of intelligence in military history. The notion that the invading horse-mounted Boers could somehow snatch all the ports in British South Africa before Imperial reinforcements could arrive[ii] is so utterly farcical, that one struggles to grasp just how intergalactically-ignorant those who trusted in the plan must have been.
Just as Mr Tombs states in the cases of Germany and Russia, Kruger’s lunatic ‘Crusade’ was also driven by ideology, and the ‘short term fatalism and long-term fantasy’ that Tombs refers to. Like Germany in 1914 and in 1939, Kruger also felt ‘under threat’, though also as in the case of Germany, this perceived ‘threat’ should not inspire any sympathy. By the 1890s, the Boer republics were certainly hemmed-in by Imperial territory – which meant Kruger’s non-stop expansion of his borders could only continue through war against the British Empire.
But despite the later National Party myths, any ‘threat’ to Kruger’s oligarchy was not from the British[iii] and was not to the independence of the republic – it was from within, was only a threat to his continued, highly lucrative, minority rule, and was entirely of his own making. With the vast majority of people in the Transvaal jealously denied basic human rights[iv], and with the discriminated-against English-speaking Uitlanders quite rightly agitating for a fair franchise during the 1890s, Kruger[v] feared his despotic, corrupt, outrageously unfair, and inherently rotten, regime couldn’t stagger on for much longer, and drastic action was needed.[vi]
This outlook from the extremist leadership of the Transvaal[vii], to borrow Tombs’ phrase, nullified ‘any objection to war as a policy: the aggressor claims victimhood, and anyone who advocates a moderate policy is dismissed as a coward or a traitor’. Hence the rational objections of wiser men like Botha, De la Rey and Joubert[viii] were shouted down by Kruger and his claque of Bible-thumping, Flat-Earther warmongers. Perhaps more remarkably is that, even today, we still see ill-educated / blinkered / self-pitying people claiming that the aggressor was actually the victim.
And just as there are obvious similarities in the ‘short term fatalism’ in these cases, so there are in the ‘long-term fantasies’ of these most odious regimes. Just as in Germany and Russia, racial nationalism was rife in the Transvaal, with the more deluded Boers genuinely believing they were God’s Chosen People, and that Southern Africa was theirs by some sort of Divine Right[ix]; hence the ludicrous aim of building an Afrikaans Empire ‘from the Zambesi to the Cape’[x], and, trusting that the Almighty of the Old Testament would be on their side, the insanity of picking a fight with the British Empire. Again, as in the cases of Germany and Russia, notions of racial supremacy and martial brilliance caused Kruger’s gaggle to foolishly dismiss their enemies as weak, cowardly and certainly no match for their (ahem) race of Titans.
Such naïve arrogance didn’t work out well for Kruger, the Kaiser or Hitler. With any luck, Putin’s conceit will soon be similarly punished.
[i] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p.16-17, Scoble & Abercrombie, The Rise and Fall of Krugerism, p.246, Farrelly, The Settlement After the War in South Africa, p.263, Burleigh, The Natal Campaign, p.2 and many, many others
[ii] Jan Christian Smuts by his son, p.90, quoted in O’Connor, A Short Guide to the History of South Africa, 1652-1902
[iii] Boer forces greatly outnumbered the scattered Imperial garrisons in the region
[iv] Thompson, A History of South Africa, p.102, and Guyot, Boer Politics, p.21
[v] The Kruger regime, indeed, was in a similar situation to the leaders of Apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s
[vi] Nasson, The War for South Africa, p.36
[vii] North American Review, Vol.170, Number 520, March 1900, p. 329
[viii] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.104
[ix] Burleigh, p.1
[x] Lowry, The South African War Reappraised, p.209