Book Review — Gambling on War: Confidence, Fear, and the Tragedy of the First World War

Gambling on War: Confidence, Fear, and the Tragedy of the First World War by Roger L. Ransom is a study of the First World War through the eyes of an economist. Ransom is a professor of history and economics at the University of California, Riverside. He is the coauthor of the groundbreaking work One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation.

Over the last few years piles of new books about World War I have been published. Since the 100th anniversary of the start of the war in 2014 to the coming anniversary of its end, this November, many books have reexamined the war that defined the 20th century. Perhaps one of the biggest advancements was in mobilization. Railroads changed the speed of the war. Industry (blood and steel according to Bismark) was modern warfare. Most wars of the previous period were those of colonization a power going against an undeveloped country. Although there was death, it was not on a grand scale. The American Civil War was a prelude of what was to come large-scale continued fighting and attrition.

World War I involved economic powers of Europe and nearly bankrupted them in the process. Ransom does something interesting in his thesis on the war. He looks at the war from an economic perspective. Bismark was a master of the “risk versus reward” in his early policies with Denmark and Austria-Hungary in unifying Germany. In addition to risk versus reward, fear plays a major factor in the upcoming war. Secret treaties were meant to offset fear of other countries. The previous balance of power that kept the peace was being eaten away by secrecy. It is not so much that alliances caused the war. Alliances are effective in keeping the peace when open. NATO is a prime example.

Ransom uses the Composite Index of National Capability Score to assign economic power to the warring nations. This is a more accurate indicator of power than GDP. These values change over time. Britain was the clear world leader in 1850. By 1914, The United States, Britain, and Germany were competing for dominance. By 1919 the US was the dominant nation and Germany was on level with Russia which was fighting its civil war, but still above a devastated France. Another telling aspect are the graphs used to show yearly imports, exports, agricultural production, GPD, and industrial out for each of the major combatants. Each country is a bit different in the way the war took its toll. For example, German imports crashed while Britain’s imports skyrocketed. Austria- Hungary’s graph plotted impending disaster.

Confidence and fear played a major role in the war.  It was also a war no one wanted to fight but no one was able or willing to stop.    Fear brought secret alliances.  Unlike open alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact which kept the peace, secret alliances increased both fear and confidence.  Fear of invasion created a need for allies; secrecy was needed to prevent possible enemies from forming their own alliances. Confidences as in Austria-Hungary knowing Germany would support and defend them from Russia were responsible for the actual start of the war.  Gambling on War is an excellent look at the war through economics.

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