Book Review: On a Knife Edge: How Germany Lost the First World War


by Holger Afflerbach

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xiii, 557. . Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., indices. $28.95. ISBN: 1108832881

How Did Germany Lose the First World War?

The translation of a German work of 2018, this problematic book combines some interesting material with a questionable overall view. The continuance of the war is blamed on the Allies:

‘the German advocates of a compromise peace lacked one decisive weapon in their power struggles against the hardliners, especially the OHL. They were never able to offer a convincing way out of the war, because the Allies would never settle for a peace without victory.’

Thus, this book comes in the tradition of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). The evidence, however, that is offered is slight. There is scant sign that the German advocates of a compromise peace had the power to push through their solution. Blaming the outsider is of course convenient, but the understanding Afflerbach offers for the Allies is based on a misreading of their position combined with a more general failure to consider the impression provided by German policy. Afflerbach does not really understand Allied decision-making, while the military dynamic affected the diplomatic one to an extent that he also does not grasp.

Furthermore, some of the suggestions thrown out would look surprising in an undergraduate essay, as in

‘It might be argued that, despite their radical methods, the Germans were fighting what Clausewitz had defined as a limited or normal war, while the Entente wanted to fight to victory, and this had been the case since 1914.’

Evidence? Perish the thought. Yet, Afflerbach reiterates his argument as if that proves the point:

‘The rigid stance of the Entente not only prevented the opening up of peace talks but also undermined the position of German supporters of a peace by negotiation.’

Of course, the latter had been tried in the case of Napoleon without success in 1813 and the start of 1814. Afflerbach does not really address the issue of trust in the First World War. In terms of more detailed criticisms, the naval war receives insufficient attention and so, even more, do German bombing ambitions. There is also room for more of a consideration of the operational/strategic dichotomy. The short-war aspect of German military thinking deserves attention. I am unclear why Afflerbach does not really address the work by Wawro and Citino on abutting German conflicts. As far as his argument that the First World War could have ended in a draw, that is not exactly novel, but, aside from the point that the contrast with the Second World War deserves attention in this context, so also does that between Russian collapse and the continued determination of Britain and France. Maybe Afflerbach blames them for not accepting what should have been defeat, as in 1940 France did and Britain would not do. Thankfully, there was no victory for Wilhelm II. This is a poor book. There are better German works that deserve translation.


Originally published in The Journal of European Studies, this review is used by the kind permission of the editors and Prof. Black.



Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history and international affairs, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare, and The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. He has previously reviewed The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, King of the World, Stalin’s War, Underground Asia, The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, The Atlas of Boston History, Time in Maps, Bitter Peleliu, and The Boundless Sea. 

Note: On a Knife Edge is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jeremy Black   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close