Prophets of the Great War: Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo

Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860’s-70’s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.

Friedrich Engels

Way back in 1887, Friedrich Engels, the famous Communist theorist, wrote this remarkably accurate prediction of the next war.

world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.

Engels was completely right on the “total war” aspect. The number of military deaths in the war, 9.7mn, was within his predicted range. And indeed by 1918 there was a severe epidemic, the Spanish flu, and a year later the crowns of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were all rolling in the gutter. The working class only got their “final victory” in Russia (though they came close in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria).

Ivan Bloch

Ivan Bloch was a Warsaw banker, railway planner, and campaigner against Russian anti-Semitism. In 1899, he wrote a book Is War Now Impossible?, in which he argued that its costs would be such that the inevitable result would be a struggle of attrition and eventual bankruptcy and famine. His hope was that by getting people to comprehend the vast costs and uncertainties of future war, he could forestall it. Though he was unsuccessful in that goal, he did at least get the muted privilege of being almost 100% right about its nature. For instance, see this direct extract from his book.

At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.

This is, of course, a pretty accurate prevision of WW1. It was a stalemate of artillery and entrenchments. The German home front collapsed in late 1918 in large part as a result of dearth resulting from being cut off from global food imports and the requisitioning of the chemical fertilizer industries for munitions production. And the Kaiserliche Marine was indeed bottled up in port for most of the war. To further demonstrate Bloch’s predictive genius, I will quote from Niall Ferguson’s summary of his book in The Pity of War.

In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a war that ruled out swift victory for an attacker. “The day of the bayonet [was] over“; cavalry charges were too obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece would not occur. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, men in the open would “simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything“. For this reason, “the next war… [would] be a great war of entrenchments“. According to Bloch’s meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide “fire zone“. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting “spread over an enormous front”. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), “the next war [would] be a long war“. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be “the dominant and decisive elements in the matter”. War would mean:

entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply… the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.

The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.

He pretty much nails it! Now yes, Bloch wasn’t 100% spot on. He was slightly wrong about alliances. His was wrong in his conjecture that “the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed conditions as the peasant”, which coupled with her agricultural self-sufficiency, would give Russia the advantage in a war with “more highly organized” Germany. And most of all, he was wrong in predicting that social instability and revolution would doom all the belligerent states – after all, the key war objective would only be to remain the last man standing.

Pyotr Durnovo

While reading Secular Cycles by Turchin & Nefedov, I came across a reference to a truly, remarkably prophetic document called the Durnovo Memorandum. It was penned by Pyotr Durnovo, a member of the State Council and former Minister of the Interior in Witte’s cabinet, and presented to the Tsar in February 1914. A conservative Russian nationalist, he emphasized that it was not in Russia’s interest to fight a costly and uncertain war with fellow monarchy Germany, a war he saw as only serving to further Albion’s aims. His fears were all astoundingly prescient and eventually, tragically realized. More than anything, this discovery spurred me to write this post.

After digging around I found that Douglas Muir had already written about it in History: The Durnovo Memorandum at A Fistful of Euros. It is an excellent summary and analysis, and I recommend you go over and read it in its entirety. In this section, I will liberally quote and paraphrase Doug’s post.

Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…

Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. … Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…

Right off the bat, in February 1914, Durnovo correctly sketches out the WW1 alliance system, despite that “Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern”.

Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.

In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.

Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns

The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions. …

[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

“Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.” In particular, I was impressed with his negative assessment of Russia’s railways (which would break down later in the war resulting in food riots in the cities) and his gloomy perspective on the productivity and innovation potential of Russia’s military industrial complex. Obviously, he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian ministers like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.

If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles. There will be agrarian troubles, as a result of agitation for compensating the soldiers with additional land allotments; there will be labor troubles during the transition from the probably increased wages of war time to normal schedules; and this, it is to be hoped, will be all, so long as the wave of the German social revolution has not reached us. But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.

As has already been said, the trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. …

No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden. … there will be a revival of the hitherto concealed separatist tendencies in southern Germany, and the hidden antagonism of Bavaria to domination by Prussia will emerge in all its intensity.

Things went, as they say, to the letter. Not only does Durnovo seriously entertain the prospect of Russia’s defeat, but he spells out its consequences with an almost eerie accuracy. The Empire was indeed wracked by social revolution, as the railway system and food supply system began to disintegrate by late 1916 and popular resentment against the government was inflamed by court scandals. The soldiers in St.-Petersburg in February 1917, many of them recently drafted peasants who did not want to fight for a regime under which they were non-propertied and disenfranchised, would join the workers demonstrating for bread instead of dispersing them. Within another year, Russia was wracked by total anarchy. Likewise, following its defeat, Germany experienced political fissures between the far right and the far left, and even saw the emergence of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. If one were very generous, Durnovo’s mention of “destructive tendencies” could even be said to have hinted at the coming of Nazism.

“Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.”

The German General Staff

This is not to say that all European armies were infatuated with the offensive and the bayonet. In particular, certain thinkers from the elite German General Staff stand out for their prescience. They feared that rapid Franco-Russian military modernization meant Germany had to plan for a two-front war of attrition instead of a rapid, one-front campaign of annihilation. Thus Moltke the Elder foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, or in his last Reichstag speech of 1890, that the “age of cabinet war” would have to give way to “people’s war”.

His disciple Colmar von der Goltz had expounded on these views in his influential book Das Volk in Waffen back in 1883, which advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. (Although, unlike Bloch or Engels he did not cover the impact on the civilian role in much detail, e.g. how to feed the population or maintain industrial production – on which total war would make unprecedented demands – under harsh conditions of blockade). Köpke , the Quartermaster of the General Staff, wrote in 1895: “Even with the most offensive spirit…nothing more can be achieved than a tedious and bloody crawling forward step by step here and there by way of an ordinary attack in siege style – in order to slowly win some advantages”.

Yet for all the brilliant foresight of a few members of the German General Staff, as a body it institutionalized the military philosophy of the past. The best proof is its fixation on the Schlieffen Plan, described by B.H. Liddell Hart as a “conception of Napoleonic boldness”, which aimed to knock out France early in the war so that Germany would not have to confront the geo-strategic horror of waging a two-front war against the Entente Cordiale. But while it may have worked a decade or two before WW1, by 1914 it suffered from a host of unwarranted assumptions that made its success highly uncertain – e.g., a lack of effective Belgian resistance, a slow Russian mobilization, the ineffectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and underestimation of French logistical capacities and overestimation of their own. So even an institution as brilliant as the German General Staff was trapped between the Scylla of past experience and the Charybdis of new technologies; they were just somewhat more aware of this trap than the other European armies.

What’s the point of this post? It is really a confluence of several interests – the history of World War One, history in general, and futurism. It might not challenge any existing “narrative”, but I do think it adds a bit of richness to the subject, and reinforces the theme that sometimes the “conventional wisdom” (among both masses and elites) can be very, very wrong, and only recognized as so by a few pundits coming from surprisingly varied, even opposed, ideological positions.


  1. Doug M. says:

    “he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian executives like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.”

    I’d say it was pretty clearly political considerations!

    Durnovo was a conservative monarchist who, though out of power in 1914, had spent twenty years cycling through the highest levels of the Imperial government — he’d been an appeals judge, national Chief of Police, and director of Posts and Telegraphs for the whole country. His tenure as Minister of the Interior was short but action-packed — basically he was responsible for managing the reaction (in both the specific and broad senses) to the 1905 Revolution.

    So this was a very, very politically savvy guy. He was going to know exactly who and what he could freely criticize (the Duma and “intellectuals” were fair game) and who he couldn’t (the Czar, most of the current crop of Ministers).

    Also, Durnovo was very much a political realist. Look at that long discussion of the relationship with Germany! He’s basically saying “yeah, the Germans are screwing us over in our trade relations. What do you expect? That’s not malice, it’s more like water flowing downhill. Suck it up; the political relationship is more important.” He wanders a bit away from pure realism in his discussion of Britain — you can tell that he just absolutely hates liberalism and the idea of a constitutional “figurehead” monarchy — but even there he tries to couch his arguments in realist terms, i.e. how the post-1907 rapprochement with Britain was detracting from Russia’s security (example: Persia) rather than adding to it. So even where his conservative ideology was clearly affecting his thinking, he at least tried to work around it.

    Final point: my understanding is that this memo was intended for the eyes of Nicholas II himself, and that it did eventually reach him. How Durnovo managed that I do not know, but good for him.

    Thanks for the shout-out, BTW.

    Oh, and… Hennet the (human, male) sorceror?

    Doug M.

    • Alex(that one) says:

      Oh – Dug M. – thank you for pointing me to Dunning-Kruger effect in your post in another thread. Their original paper in Psychology, 2009, 1, 30-46 is a pleasure to read (although it seems their interpretation is not without a caveat) & I might want even to comment on it in the near future.

      Igor, AU

    • Hey Doug, congrats – your’s was S/O’s 2000th comment! 🙂

      About the pic – I just searched for “sorcerer with sword” or something like that in Google. Didn’t know he was Hennet or had anything to do with Dungeons and Dragons. Though, using the War Nerd’s trademark symbol might have been more accurate / amusing.

  2. Alex(that one) says:

    It was an interesting reading, Anatoly. (this is a compliment, since the history of WW1 is well outside of my general interests). Of course, even if there are people who can correctly predict the future, there is always a question how to find them in the crowd of others making predictions.

    IMHO, this text is an extended illustration of the thesis (also in your very first paragraph) – “we don’t know what the WW III will be, however there is a historical evidence that the consequences of the future war most likely will be worse than most of us can even imagine or ever plan for today” .


  3. Interesting stuff. The question of how inevitable Russian involvement in WWI was is, obviously, closely tied to the question of how inevitable the revolution was. No major power ended up abstaining from WWI. If Russia abstained, it would have been the only one.

    Through circumstances and/or herd-like thinking certain decisions become completely unthinkable at certain points to everybody but the irrelevant fringe. I wonder if the thought of keeping Russia neutral was that unthinkable before WWI. Would Durnovo have been considered an irrelevant lunatic for saying that Russia was unprepared for the kind of war that was about to start? If there was a real debate about neutrality in high circles in Russia, then Nicholas’s decision to go to war would cast him in a pretty bad historical light. Not nearly as bad a light as the Bolsheviks’ of course, but bad enough.

  4. georgesdelatour says:

    You don’t mention Józef Piłsudski. As Wikipedia notes:

    “In 1914 he anticipated the outbreak of a European war, the Russian Empire’s defeat by the Central Powers, and the Central Powers’ defeat by the western powers.”

    Of course Piłsudski had to believe this, because only this chain of events would result in an independent Poland.

    Also worth mentioning the Russian general Aleksei Brusilov. He was the first general to formulate effective offensive tactics to the new reality of trench warfare.

  5. Not entirely on point, but here it goes: even though he was assassinated three years before WWI, let us remember that Stolypin felt that in order to succeed Russia needed to avoid wars at least until the 1920s. Stolypin is described as a conservative, but Durnovo was much much further to the right than him. In addition, Stolypin and Durnovo were great political enemies.

    Durnovo’s memorandum was prescient. On the other hand, can we, in all fairness, state that Russia could have easily avoided that war? The Germans took it for granted that a war with Russia was inevitable and they wanted it sooner rather than later. According to British historian Norman Stone, a concern of the German military was the pace of military reforms in Russia. The German Staff was confident of victory as long as war broke out before 1917. The Germans were worried that by 1917 Russia would reach military parity with them. In other words, Germany was waiting (and hoping) for a pretext to start a war before too late.

    WWI, of course, was a disaster to the Russian Empire. Despite Germany’s superb army, however, the war at the Eastern front proved to be much harder than the Germans anticipated. As Stone writes, between August 1914 and November 1916 Russians killed more German soldiers than the Brits and French combined. Moreover, Russia inflicted even more casualties on the Austrian-Hungarians.