Small Powers in the Age of Total War, 1900-1940, Herman Amersfoort, Wim Klinkert (red)

Reviewer: Jelmer Rotteveel

History of Warfare, Volume 65.

Small Powers in the Age of Total War, 1900-1940, Herman Amersfoort and Wim Klinkert (eds.)

Contributors: M. M. Abbenhuis, P. Moeyes, C. Paulin, M.H. Clemmesen, K. Galster, W. Murray, M. Strohn, J. Vaesen, T. Kristiansen, M.M. Olsansky, A.C. Tjepkema.

Koninklijke Brill BV, Leiden 2011

ISBN: 978 90 04 20321 1

384 pages
€132, –

Small Powers in the Age of Total War

In the historiography of human conflict, the main focus is usually on the side of the ‘action’. The causes, consequences and workings of actual war have often gained most attention. However, in recent years two important works have appeared that focus on the other side; instead of focusing on combatants, they focus on the complicated concept of (the preservation of) neutrality in the first four decades of the twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, but especially during the First World War, the scale on which war was fought grew considerably. The involvement of civilians, both as victims and actors, increased as well. With war becoming ‘total’ all nations, but small ones in particular, were presented with new and daunting challenges. The by that time already well-known concept of neutrality was seriously tested between 1914-1918.  The only recent (1899 and 1907) anchoring of neutrality in international law that was achieved during the The Hague Peace Conferences could no longer be relied upon. The preservation of neutrality was now found to require constant vigilance and manoeuvering, both in a political and military sense. It is the latter that the authors and editors of Small Powers in the Age of Total War have focused on. In doing so, they provide those who are interested in the concept of neutrality with a sequel to Johan den Hertog and Samuel Kruizinga’s (eds.), Caught in the Middle. Neutrals, Neutrality and the First World War (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press 2011).
The contributions in Small Powers are not limited to the discussion of the pre-war period and 1914-1918. In the interwar years the smaller states needed to find a balance between military logic on the one hand, and the ever-increasing financial requirements and limited means on the other. The latter being much intensified by the economic recession of the 1920’s and the economic crisis of the 1930’s, but also due to the increasingly imminent threat of German rearmament. Because of this periodisation, the book is divided into two sections. The first part deals with the years 1900 to 1914, the second part with the 1920’s and ‘30s until the outbreak of the Second World War. Each part is introduced by an article of a general historical nature, the first on the significance of neutrality prior to 1914 and the second on the difficult relationship between the greater and lesser European powers during the interwar years.
The introductory articles are followed by a wide variety of different subjects. To name but a few: the German offensive plans against the Netherlands, 1916-1918; the development of the air defence of Copenhagen; the Belgian fortification system; the development of the Swiss Army’s combat methods, etc. This great variety is both an advantage and a drawback. Although this provides the reader with an interesting overview of the problems faced by Europe’s small nations when trying to preserve neutrality, it leaves him with a somewhat diffused picture. This creates some  imbalance, as some aspects are discussed lengthily, while others are only mentioned briefly.  Then again, this does illustrate the complexity of the concept of neutrality. It does show that the small nations that painstakingly managed to stay out of the great destruction of the trench warfare of the First World War (although by no means escaped all of its economic and social impact) faced a wide variety of complicated problems. Another, though perhaps minor, drawback of Small Powers is the lack of attention for the ‘other’ small powers in Europe, such as Italy, Bulgaria and Romania. These are only mentioned briefly in the introductory article for part two of the book, but the discussion of at least one Eastern European nation might have given the work a wider scope. The lack of attention for the challenges for non-(Western)European countries is only partially remedied by the discussion of the Dutch policies in the East Indies.
The discussion of the policies of three countries not usually included in works on the causes and effects of World War I, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland is interesting and refreshing. The topics within the various national contexts might by some be considered rather esoteric, such as the air defence of Copenhagen and the German army’s recovery and war-planning in the interwar years, but also usually remain rather underlit, presenting the reader with much diversity.
Small Powers is an interesting and well-researched take on the complicated subject of neutrality. The contributions are well written and the choice of different subjects effectively illustrate the diversity of the problems facing small powers between 1900-1940. In all, although due to its pricing it may not be something for the casual reader, I highly recommend it to anyone with a definite interest in the ‘other’, or military side of neutrality.

Jelmer Rotteveel