Today's lecture is going to be an informal discussion on military history dealing specifically with World War I. The origins of this lecture come from my recent studies—well really a lifetime of study—but I've recently been studying more Russian history, the prelude to the revolution, the revolution itself and German military history.

What we're going to focus on is one of the most important battles in world history, without a doubt the most important battle of World War I, the Battle of Tannenberg in the eastern part of Germany. This was a disaster for Imperial Russia and set the stage ultimately for the collapse of the Imperial Russian government.

Now in order to understand Tannenburg you need to go back and study some important background material. As a lifetime student of military history, I've always been frustrated by the fact that most historians and not even most military historians spend enough time studying the preparations for war along with war itself. Senator Sam Nunn, the Chairman of the Senate armed services committee years ago once made a very good point that modern war is a "come as you are party." He was particularly referring to the enormous amount of destruction that would take place if there was ever a war between America and Russia.  Looking back in history, war has always been a come as you are party. Countries that were unprepared for war had a tendency to get wiped off the map. So the preparation for war, the training for the organization for war is every bit as important as brilliant military leaders, glamorous military leaders and so on and so forth. In our lecture on German history we discussed this. While Frederick the Great was an extraordinary genius. Truly he was. Though he probably would've ended up being Frederick the Nobody if it hadn't been for Frederick William I's, Frederick the Great's predecessor. But Frederick William I was a very unglamorous person.  He was very crude, he was very eccentric and he gets practically no coverage from historians. However he built the military machine that Frederick the Great was able to use as well as building a very strong state economically.  So these are points that need to be understood.


Now in dealing with the conflict between Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany in World War I, you need to get back to a number of realities. First, an issue that we have discussed in a previous lecture, the totally insane decision of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1890 to not renew the nonaggression pact with Imperial Russia. Bismarck, the mastermind who created Imperial Germany, had been the German ambassador to Russia. He understood the Russians on a very deep level and the cornerstone of his policy which is not been widely understood was an axis so to speak between Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia. That was the axis for peace in Europe.  As long as Germany and Russia were at peace, Germany was secure. By canceling the nonaggression pact, the Russians understood this very understandably is a potentially very threatening act and made a military alliance with France, which changed the entire course of world history and led to the disaster of 1918 for Germany.


Now when war broke out in 1914, Germany was facing an almost totally hopeless situation due to the idiocy and incompetence of the Kaiser.  Not only was Germany facing Russia and France, the Kaiser had also managed to antagonize England by his crude behavior in threatening England with the fleet that actually could never really threaten England and so on and so forth.  So Germany was facing a basically catastrophic situation. What happened at Tannenberg decisively changed the course of the war.  Had the Russians, for example, won Tannenberg Germany would've been defeated in 1914. The situation really was that bad. However the Germans won and why was that?


In order to understand that you need to go back to the disastrous mismanagement of Russia by one of the most disastrous and irresponsible leaders in the history of the world. That was the bumbling Nicholas II. Nicholas II had enabled Russia to blunder into a war with Japan over Korea.  Japan did not want to war with Russia but Nicholas II thought that he could take over Korea and force the Japanese out.   It was an absolutely catastrophic mistake. The war was astronomically expensive. Failed wars by the way are things that severely weaken countries militarily because the money that was spent on the Russo-Japanese war by Russia was taken away from building up Russia's military power on the Eastern front vis-à-vis Germany totally taken away astronomical amounts of money.  The stupidity didn't end there. The Russian Baltic Fleet was not in the greatest shape anyway but Nicholas came up with the brilliant idea of sailing it halfway around the world to supposedly show the Japanese this great power of Russia and defeating them. The result was an absolute unmitigated disaster when one of the most important battles in the history of the world, the Battle of the Tsushima Straits, where a for the first time Japan completely smashed a first world European imperialist power. That also set in motion a series of major events, which we will not discuss in this lecture, but one that we will discuss is how this set the stage for the collapse of Nicholas II's regime. As it was it led to riots and a semi revolution in Russia in 1905 but the more important thing was the severe destruction of Russian military power which would have huge consequences in World War I.

Now as World War I approached, and as international tensions grew, Russia was involved in a major military buildup. However, Russia in 1914 was in no condition for war.  It was not.


Now in 1914 it was Russia that pushed Europe into a world war. A lot of people don't realize that the timetables of mobilization were such that any mobilization of Russia on the German frontier would be considered an act of war.  Nicholas II understood this. He understood this but went ahead with this anyway. So on Nicholas II you can bear the single biggest part of the blame for the first world war. Not that there wasn't a lot of other blame to go around in light of the disastrous policies of the Kaiser, the stupidity of the British and so on and so for.  They really didn't have the A-Team in power in any major country at that point in time.


Nicholas II ordered an invasion of Germany. Here's the problem: his military was so incompetent and so badly run and so poorly organized that while he sent two large armies in Germany, it's not entirely clear they could be classified as "armies." They might be classified shall we say as armed mobs. It was really unbelievable because some soldiers didn't even have rifles. The ones that did have rifles frequently had very little ammunition. They did have a certain amount of artillery but a lack of shells. So this was a bad situation from day one. Nevertheless, had they won, they would've indeed defeated Germany. In this situation, the Kaiser appointed two people of very great historical significance. He appointed Hindenburg to be in charge of the overall war in the East and he appointed General Ludendorff (a true military genius) to be supporting Hindenburg.  Now who exactly on the German side had the plan that produced the tremendous victory at Tannenberg. This is a subject of raging controversy among military historians and we are not going to resolve it. Now there is some evidence that a good part of the plan was written by a guy called General Hoffman. However, you have to give Hindenburg and Ludendorff credit that they were in charge. They could've changed that plan and they have to be given credit for the spectacular victory that occurred.


The victory that occurred is a lesson in life. Germany was facing two armies coming in. They did not have the troops to fight two armies. So they then made an extremely risky decision: which was to pull most of the troops away from the Northern Russian army and throw everything at the Southern Russian army. Had the Northern Russian army advanced, this would've been considered one of the biggest blunders in the history of war, but it did not. And the two German armies descended on the Russian army at Tannenberg and basically annihilated them. Then they turned north and drove the other Russian army out of Germany.  Tannenberg decisively changed the course of World War I. It ended totally the possibility of an Allied victory anytime soon. The disaster was so total that it set in motion the military collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917. The incompetence with which the Russian soldiers were supplied would be a key factor in leading to the overthrow of the Romanoff regime because at the critical moment in 1917 and they couldn't find any troops to even defend the palace. The Russian soldiers had had enough of being sent into battle and slaughtered like cattle by a regime that was to incompetent to equip them correctly. We could go on and discuss further aspects of World War I but we will leave the matter there having discussed this matter and will look into discussing other matters as we analyze this situation.