Published by EH.NET (July 2005)
Eric W. Osborne, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919. London and New York: Frank Cass, 2004. viii + 215 pp. $115.00 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7146-5474-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Jari Eloranta, Department of History, Appalachian State University.
Eric W. Osborne’s study explores a topic that has not been adequately researched in the past, namely Britain’s economic blockade of Germany in World War I. As he points out, it is “a glaring omission because of the enormous role that it played in the defeat of the Central Powers in the war” (p. 1). He also points out that previous forays into this topic have been too narrow in their focus, especially given their mutually exclusive emphasis either on the diplomatic, military, or political dimensions. Osborne thus has set out to correct these shortcomings in this volume. However, while on the one hand it is a perfectly adequate book of the politics of the blockade and how such decisions were made (by the British side), on the other hand it fails to convince the reader as a study of the effectiveness of the blockade, which the author raises again and again as the central aim of the book.
This book starts out with a review of the British naval buildup, foreign policy decisions, and early perceptions of blockades. Then the author discusses the failed international cooperation before the Great War (chapter 2) and blockade preparations (chapter 3). After this, he discusses in a thorough fashion the various stages of the blockade during the war in a chronological manner (chapters 4 through 7), concluding with an analysis of the final year of the blockade and its legacy. A two-page chapter finishes the book, along with a fairly extensive bibliography and index.
Before I start the criticism of this study, I would like to reiterate that this book is a perfectly capable study, based on extensive archival sources, of the British political and military processes behind the maintenance of the blockade. It avoids a purely British focus in its analysis, thereby also emphasizing the role of the smaller states (like Sweden) in this game. However, it fails to convince an educated reader on whether the blockade was effective or not. It simply lacks the evidence to back up its claims. Usually Osborne cites British official sources, for example governmental reports on the German economy (e.g., p. 102), as proof of the efficacy of the blockade. He also makes good use of British intelligence sources (e.g., pp. 127, 140) to this effect, but one has to be somewhat skeptical of these types of sources as well. At various points he mentions the “German war weariness” (p. 140) and the “decline in Germany’s condition” (p. 141) as outcomes of the blockade. The author finally attempts to provide conclusive proof of Germany’s decline in chapter 7. He cites the decline of trade etc. as hurting the German economy, yet the evidentiary base for the figures and assertions (e.g., pp. 168-169) consists solely of sources in English (one exception being Ludendorff’s biography, as an English translation). In fact, quite curiously, the secondary sources in the book do not include anything in languages other than English. I would argue that this presents a bias in the account of the effectiveness of the blockade, for example from the German perspective.
Moreover, the author does not attempt to prove his causal assertion that this form of economic warfare, in fact, was successful. This could be perhaps tested in a quantitative fashion, yet one would have to prove the direction of the causal flow (for example, from the number of ships sunk to trade flows to the development of the German economy). Even these types of exercises would, by necessity, be difficult to undertake. Fortunately one can find fairly detailed accounts of the impact of World War I on various economies, including Germany, in the forthcoming book on the economics of this war. These accounts will enable us to evaluate the deterioration of the German economy in a more precise manner. This author could have made a more convincing case, as a matter of fact, if he had read a bit more of the relevant literature. Curiously enough, for example Niall Ferguson’s works  do not feature in the book’s bibliography. Also, Osborne makes use of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, but does not cite the more applicable The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery.
Another aspect that is not explored in the book relates to the concept of economic warfare, namely when and how it can achieve its goals. Most cases in history point to a negative conclusion; that it simply does not work. This, however, pertains to peacetime measures of economic warfare, such as sanctions and embargoes. During a massive conflict, embracing all aspects of total war, economic warfare can be effective if pursued correctly. As Alan Milward has pointed out, economic warfare has become an intricate part of the strategy arsenal of modern states since the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic era. Moreover, economic warfare is intricately linked to the political, social, and economic processes that evolve during a conflict. There is an abundance of interdisciplinary literature dedicated to this concept, and it is a shame that the author decided on a more narrow focus. He certainly could have made an important contribution to this debate. For example, why and how exactly did the blockade succeed? What particularly made it effective? What was the importance of the restrictions on strategic materials during the war, instead of only focusing on foodstuffs, etc.? But, despite these criticisms, one must give the author credit for writing a thorough account of the British aims, execution, and evaluation of the blockade effort. It will certainly serve as a starting point for future efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of the blockade.
1. Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison, editors, The Economics of World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
2. See e.g. Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999; Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000, New York: Basic Books, 2001.
3. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, London: Fontana, 1989; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, third edition, London: Penguin, 1991.
4. Alan Milward, “Economic Warfare in Perspective.” East-West Trade and the Cold War, Jari Eloranta and Jari Ojala, editors. Jyvaskyla Studies in Humanities 36, University of Jyvaskyla: Jyvaskyla, 2005. Economic warfare, of course, has been around as long as human civilizations. Nonetheless, it has not been used as a specific military strategy tool, in conjunction with the execution of total war aims, until the last couple of centuries.
Jari Eloranta is assistant professor of economic and business history in the Department of History, Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His research interests include corporate political action in the long run, defense economics and the financing of wars, as well as the analysis of government spending in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His most recent publications include: Juha-Antti Lamberg, Mika Skippari, Jari Eloranta, and Saku M?kinen “The Evolution of Corporate Political Action: A Framework for Processual Analysis” (2004) 4, Business and Society; Jari Eloranta, “Filling the Void? Implications of Hegemonic Competition and the Lack of American Military Leadership on the Military Spending of European Democracies, 1920-1938”. History and Change, edited by Kirsi Vainio-Korhonen and Anu Laitinen. SKS: Turku, 2004; Jari Eloranta,”Warfare and Welfare? Understanding Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Central Government Spending”. Studying Economic Growth: New Tools and Perspectives, edited by Peter Vikstr?m. Occasional Papers in Economic History, Umea University No. 7. Ume?, 2004. He is also writing (with Svetlozar Andreev) a paper titled “The Importance of Democratization in Determining Central Government Spending, 1870-1938.”