Cult of the offensive

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The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War Stephen Van Evera International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Summer, 1984), pp. 58-107.
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TheCult of the 1 stephen Van Evera Offensive and the I Origins of the First World War
D u r i n g the decades before the First World War a phenomenon which may be called a "cult of the offensive" swept through Europe. Militaries glorified the offensive and adopted offensive military doctrines, while civilian elites and publics assumed that the offense had the advantage in warfare, and that offensivesolutions to security problems were the most effective. This article will argue that the cult of the offensive was a principal cause of the First World War, creating or magnifying many of the dangers which historians blame for causing the July crisis and rendering it uncontrollable. The following section will first outline the growth of the cult of the offensive in Europe in the years before thewar, and then sketch the consequences which international relations theory suggests should follow from it. The second section will outline consequences which the cult produced in 1914, and the final section will suggest conclusions and implications for current American policy.


The Cult of the Offensive and International Relations Theory

The gulf between myth andthe realities of warfare has never been greater than in the years before World War I. Despite the large and growing advantage which defenders gained against attackers as a result of the invention of rifled and repeating small arms, the machine gun, barbed wire, and the development of railroads, Europeans increasingly believed that attackers would hold the advantage on the battlefield, and thatwars would be short and "decisiveu-a "brief storm," in the words of the German Chancellor,

I would like to thank Jack Snyder, Richard Ned Lebow, Barry Posen, Marc Trachtenberg, and Stephen Walt for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Stephen Van Evera is a Research Fellow at the Center for Science and international Affairs, Harvard University.

International Security,Summer 1984 (Vol. 9, No. 1) 0162-28891841010058-50 $02.5011
O 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Cult of the Offensive 59


Bethmann Hollweg.' They largely overlooked the lessons of the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Boer War, and the RussoJapanese War, which had demonstrated the power...
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