Ludwig Dehio's Theory of War Cycles

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Joshua Goldstein:

"German historian Ludwig Dehio ([1948] 1962), writing in the shadow of World War II, argues that European history over five centuries has been structured by the recurrent drives of Continental powers (Spain, then France twice, then Germany) for world domination. Each drive was eventually defeated by island nations that controlled the seas (Insular nations).36Unlike Wright, Dehio relies on interpretive history rather than quantitative data and does not explicitly refer to the recurrence of hegemonic challenges as "cyclical." But Dehio's instances match Wright's "more severe" war concentrations closely.


Venice for Dehio ([1948] 1962:37) was the prototype of an insular power. He dates the rise of the modern system of states from the beginning of the struggle among the great powers over Italy in 1494. Only Venice "preserved its freedom," and that success derived from its insular position as an "island empire." Portugal, Dehio argues (pp.51-52), was the first nation in the European state system to develop long-distance trade to Asia by sailing ship and hence capture Venice's role as "the intermediary... between two worlds" Europe and Asia. But Portugal lacked the "insular" security of Venice, especially against Spain's armies, and so "Portugal's legendary glory was as fleeting as a meteor." In 1494 Portugal had to concede half the globe to its Spanish rival, and "in 1580 she lost her independence, together with all her overseas possessions, to Spain, not to regain it for two generations." Under Charles V and Philip II Spain mounted the first big push for domination of the European state system, according to Dehio. Charles V came of age in 1515, inheriting both the Spanish and Hapsburg empires, including the Netherlands, and battled France throughout the middle sixteenth century with considerable success before abdicating in favor of his son, Philip II. After conquering Portugal (which had in turn taken much of the Asian trade from Venice) in 1580, "Philip held both the Spanish and the Portuguese colonial empires in his mighty hand. Did not this colonial monopoly appear to be the harbinger of Spanish supremacy in Europe? Was not the end of the European system of states in sight?... To understand how it was saved, we must take stock of England" (p. 53). Since France was unable to contain the Hapsburgs, England emerged as Spain's adversary: "Thus, the supreme Continental power, seemingly at the peak of its strength, [faced] the small and untested island power.... Now, for the first time in the European setting, two ways of life confronted each other. Their derivatives have remained face to face right down to our own times" (p. 55). The decisive showdown came in 1588, when the Spanish armada, "like a tract of continent on the high seas" (p. 56), was decimated by the longer-range artillery and experienced seamanship of the British under Sir Francis Drake. The decades after 1588 saw Spain's gradual downfall, which culminated in Spain's big land defeat in 1643 at Rocroi. The defeat of Spain, according to Dehio, laid the foundations for the second great drive for world domination, under Louis XIV of France.

- "The defeat of the Armada dried out the veins of the Spanish lands while it swelled those of the opposing countries. However, the political and economic decline was so gentle that... not until the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659 and Louis XIV's assumption of power in 1661 did the wave of France gather majestically, to attain its proud crest a century after the defeat of the Armada. The broad trough between these two waves is packed with incident in many forms and ramifications. But they lack paramount significance (p. 66)."

Louis XIV, like Philip II, found England in his way, and the English defeat of the French fleet in 1692 repeated the experience of the Spanish armada 104 years earlier. After this defeat, according to Dehio, France had "passed her zenith," but her decline, "like that of Spain before, ensued by degrees. " Eight years after the defeat of the French fleet, the dying king of Spain left all of Spain's dominions to Louis's grandson, and France fought to claim them in the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-13.France was defeated by a coalition again led by England, and France signed peace treaties in1713and1714.39 The next drive, at the end of the century, again came from France under Napoleon and again ran up against Britain. The British declared war in1803,and the French attempt to invade England resulted in yet another French naval defeat, in 1805. The French fleet regrouped in the Mediterranean and was decisively beaten by Adm. Horatio Nelson at Cape Trafalgar, near Gibraltar.40It had been just over a century since the French fleet was decimated under Louis XIV. Shortly after Trafalgar, "Napoleon was destroyed on land, and this defeat, in turn, was an effect of his inability to master Britain at sea, for otherwise he never would have had to march on Moscow" (p. 164). The invasion of Russia in 1812 wasa disaster for Napoleon, and his defeat was ratified at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which shifted borders westward to France's disadvantage.

The next drive for domination came from Germany. With the defeat of France, Germany moved into the vacuum and began to grow and evolve in new ways:

- "The economic strength which the early stages of industrialization had brought to this agricultural country made it vulnerable as industrialization advanced; self-sufficiency was transformed into dependence on foreign raw materials and markets.... This sense of constriction also became increasingly tangible in foreign affairs (p. 225-26)."

Dehio argues that as Germany industrialized and expanded into the world scene, it found itself competing with Britain everywhere (p. 231).

- "[T]he building of the German battle fleet, designed for decisive operations in British coastal waters... constituted a direct threat to Britain's insular strength. The prosperity of Germany enabled her to embark on a breathtaking armaments race. Moreover, Germany's lunge into the Near East pressed the more disturbingly on the [British] Empire's major artery since the Reich had no need, as France had had under Napoleon I, to make claims on the sea route (p. 236)."

The German challenge was, however, like those of Spain and France, defeated in World WarI,by a coalition led by Britain (with the addition of the United States and Japan, which in Dehio's terms increased the insular strength of the coalition). But Britain's costly "victory" in World War I "sucked at the vitals of her world position" (p. 240). The power of America thus emerged as the crucial new insular factor in the world. Tragically, "America, unprepared in spirit for the global role suddenly proferred her, rejected it, and withdrew into the `splendid isolation' of her giant island" (p. 244). The "withdrawal of Russia and the United States from the world scene" destabilized the shaky peace of Versailles, allowing some in Germany to "misread the situation" (p. 256). Thus Germany mounted another full-blown attempt at world domination in World War II but Dehio argues that, although "still vigorous and vital, [Germany] was in fact engaged in a death struggle" (p. 259). Dehio notes that the world wars transformed the European balance-of-power system into a bipolar world order, raising the possibility "that the great game of the modern era... has been played to a finish" (p. 263). But in fact the new "global order," which is "going through its birth pangs," has recreated the pattern of an insular power (the United States) trying to contain a Continental power (the Soviet Union) (p. 266). "Once again, the continental and insular principles are face to face, stripped down to their essence and at the same time magnified to global proportions" (p. 267). Dehio closes hopefully, in 1948, since the new world order faces different dangers than the "peculiar mechanism of European history" (p. 268). But in a 1960 epilogue, Dehio argues that Soviet technological development after World War II aims ultimately at supporting a drive for "communist world domination" (p. 275). Furthermore, the insular principle is "gravely menaced" by new technology, since naval power can no longer protect an island from rockets and aircraft (p. 281).

Dehio suggests that "a broad and deep current in world politics has begun to favor the continental principle" and threatens to bring about the "decline of the West" (p. 286). But, although the Western powers have lost their trump cards, "they have by no means lost the game" (p. 287).

What is required is renewed strength and vigilance:

- "Is not the nightmare that weighs upon us—a third world war—the product of experience in an earlier epoch unthinkingly applied to the present? To answer this question in the affirmative, and to ignore the need to prepare for the worst, would be a dangerous error. God grant that the world of Western culture may not suffer the fate of the ancient world when the cry of "panem et circenses" could still be heard even as the barbarians, thirsting for plunder, burst into the limes (p. 287—88)."

This quote, which ends Dehio's book, conveys the deeply conservative flavor of his approach."