The Threat of the Lilliputians:  The Small Nation Danger in Central Europe 1918 CE – Present

In 1914 CE, the disaster of the Tannenberg Campaign confirmed for many of the Russian people that their government was fundamentally incompetent as well as astonishingly corrupt.

When in 1917 the Russian peasants figured out that the paper currency the government was issuing was worthless, they stopped providing food for the cities and armies, and the government of the Russian Empire collapsed.

The German and Austro-Hungarian empires, starved and impoverished by Allied blockades, and less and less capable of dealing with increasingly large numbers of fresh American troops on the Western Front, lasted a year longer.

In March of 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk marked the end of World War I for Russia, though the fighting in the East scarcely paused.

The Russian Civil War [1917 to 1922] overlapped with the Russo-Polish War [1919 – 1920].  Poland tried to conquer the Ukraine, and Soviet Russia tried to extend its western borders to their pre-war positions while exporting socialism of an international variety.  Poland won the final battle at the gates of Warsaw.  By the time its civil war ended, Russia was shorn of approximately one-third of its productive land and one-third of its population.

The German victory over Russia and subsequent Allied victory over Germany resulted in a welter of relatively small states, organized largely on the basis of ethnicity, running from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Black Seas.  These countries, including Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria, reaped major benefits from the untidy end of World War I in central Europe.  But none of them were powerful enough to defend their gains in the neighborhood of an embittered Germany and an aggrieved Russia. Belarus, which declared independence in 1917 only to be conquered and assimilated by Soviet Russia in 1919, exemplifies the problems all would face to a greater or lesser degree.

The weakness of these small states might not have mattered so much if the League of Nations had been able to guarantee their security.  But the Americans, who had worked so hard to create this multi-national organization, failed to join or support it. It has been said that the times were not propitious for diplomacy, but Germany and Russia could agree diplomatically on how to overcome their considerable differences in order to remove Poland from the map of Europe again, as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and subsequent events demonstrated.

The Turkish expulsion [1914 – 1923] of ethnic Greeks from Anatolian and Pontic lands they had inhabited for over a thousand years did not inspire confidence in the willingness of great powers to defend the principles of national sovereignty.

The English and French abandoned the Czechs to the Germans at the Munich summit in 1938.  The Poles, who were high on Germany’s acquisition list, helped themselves to a sliver of Czechoslovakia at that time.  Poland’s turn to be dismembered came soon, following German agitation regarding the Danzig Corridor between East Prussia and northeastern Germany.

The United States of America appeared to learn about the dangers of leaving Central and Eastern Europe chock full of states too weak to defend themselves from the failures of the peace treaties ending World War I and American participation in World War II.  The United Nations [founded in 1945] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO, founded in 1949] with strong American support appeared to be successful in preventing the outbreak of major international  hostilities in Europe after World War II until the breakup of Yugoslavia [1989 – 1992] began anew the metastasis of small states in the region.  Russia’s counter to NATO, the Warsaw Pact [1955 – 1991], usually kept the small countries on Russia’s western perimeter quiescent.

After the Second World War, several small or recently revived nations on or near Russia’s western border made the mistake of believing American governments would aid them in their struggles for true national independence and freedom from Russian domination.  This worked out badly for Hungarians [1956], Czechs [1968], the non-Russian residents of Crimea [2014] and the Ukrainians [2014 and following], to name a few.

The signal failure of European powers to effectively manage the replacement of Yugoslavia by six small states paled in comparison with the utter futility of Western European efforts to affect the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states in December of 1991.

After Germany reunited in 1990, the United States of America could not resist the temptation of trying to extend NATO membership to some of the minnows on Russia’s western and south-western frontiers. Some of the lessons of World War I, learned at great cost in World War II, seem to have been forgotten by America.

A mutual defense pact between a superpower and a former province of the Russian Empire is not merely asymmetrical.  It is an ambush waiting to happen, perpetually threatening to maneuver the great power into conflicts with Russia over issues that are not key strategic interests, however important they seem to be to the Lilliputians.

In other words, the small states offer intractable problems but little in the way of benefits to their Western protectors, but leaving their well-being to the untender mercies of their great power neighbors runs the risk of detonating another World War.  In early August of 1914 it was a common witticism in Western Europe to note that Serbia was a very small country, minimizing the severity of the problems that might arise from Serbia’s complicity in the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Wiser heads replied that nevertheless it would be a very large war.

Since the conclusion of World War II Americans might have learned that they can have a leading role in a world free of major conflict if they exercise responsible and engaged leadership, or a spurious freedom by retreating into isolationism.  Americans cannot have it both ways.  But this is a lesson Americans resist learning, and are quick to forget.

Further Reading: 

  • Peter Vansittart’s Voices 1870 – 1914 and Voices from the Great War present the history and culture of Europe from the Franco-Prussian War through the end of World War I by providing observations and comments of contemporary artists, politicians, soldiers, and civilians. His pointillistic portrait of Europe’s somnambulatory stumbling into the path of self-destruction is deft, illuminating, and tragic.
  • J. Goodspeed’s The German Wars provides among other things a useful summary of developments between the wars, set in a context that illuminates their continuity.
  • Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry transforms he author’s experiences during the Russo-Polish War of 1919 – 1920 into short stories that are masterpieces of that art.
  • Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [2012] reevaluates the history of the nations caught between Germany and Soviet Russia in the 20th

The Tannenberg Campaign [1914 CE ]

Most of the Russian generals did not learn much from their catastrophic defeats in the Russo-Japanese War [1904 CE – 1905 CE].  Their failure to do so became obvious to all in the opening weeks of World War I [August – September 1914].

Russia’s leaders had pledged to assist France with attacks on the Eastern Front to divert Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire should France request aid for its struggles on the Western Front.

French strategic and tactical shortcomings guaranteed such requests would come early and often:  during the Battle of the Frontiers [August 14 – 24, 1914], Germany inflicted more casualties on the French in a single day than the French had suffered on any other day in French history.  The Russian leadership honored their pledge to help France by attacking the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires repeatedly during the war, ever ready to sacrifice Russian blood to honor pre-war diplomatic agreements of dubious worth.

Invading Germany from Russia looked relatively straightforward in 1914.  The two countries shared a long border on the southern and eastern sides of Prussia, since Poland was suffering one of its periodic disappearances from the map of Europe as World War I began.

The fact that the Russian invasion routes ran through geography used by Germany for summer military training maneuvers, and that the terrain was highly suited to defensive traps and ambushes, did not give the Russian command significant pause.

Even the notorious bad blood between the Russian generals Samsonov, heading up the invasion of Prussia from the south, and Rennenkampf, heading up the Russian invasion of Prussia from the east, was not held to be an insuperable problem. The two generals had come to blows at the railway station in Mukden [now Shenyang] during the Russo-Japanese war. The generals could not agree on how to help each other as the Japanese attacked the city.

Russian generals not supporting one another was not a problem limited to the opening campaign of WWI.  The Russian General Brusilov, who had come up with effective tactics against entrenched troops by the summer of 1916, saw his offensive grind to a halt when Russian generals bordering his section of the front refused to reinforce his attack.  They also declined to learn Brusilov’s techniques for success.

The Germans learned everything they could from Brusilov’s attacks, which were based on briefer but more carefully aimed artillery barrages than normally used, specially trained shock troops, and broad rather than deep breakthroughs.  The broad breakthroughs did not leave bulges in the line surrounded by enemy territory:  such bulges were vulnerable to encirclement and destruction by the defenders. The Allied troops on the Western Front soon had to deal with successful German infiltration units using Brusilov’s tactics.

Gross negligence and incompetence in Russian communications during the Tannenberg campaign ranged from use of trivial cyphers easily decoded by the Germans to codes that could not be understood by the Russian recipients of the messages.  Most notorious were the uncrypted radio transmissions of Russian battle plans shortly prior to the main fighting.

The Russian strategy was to crush the German defenders between the Russian southern and eastern pincers, which between them had roughly twice as many men as the Germans.

The Germans, benefiting from the slow pace of the invading forces, interior lines of communication, radio intercepts, and intelligent use of railroads, withdrew most of the defending forces in the east in order to surround and annihilate the Russian army attacking from the south before returning north to chase Rennenkampf’s troops back across the border. The Germans suffered between 10,000 and 15,000 casualties. The Russians lost around 170,000 men, including about 78,000 killed or wounded, and 92,000 prisoners of war. The Czar’s forces also lost a huge amount of equipment and war materials, including hundreds of artillery pieces.

Samsonov’s suicide during the retreat of his shattered forces did not appreciably affect the battle. The Russians quickly built up another army to attack Prussia from the east.

It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the overwhelming German victory in the Tannenberg campaign owed more to Russian mismanagement than German military brilliance.  Hindenburg and Ludendorff would doubtless disagree.  This was, after all, the battle that brought them to prominence and made their later careers possible.

As a result of their victory in the Tannenberg campaign of 1914, the Germans learned that not even Russian bravery or sheer numbers could overcome the breathtaking incompetence of Russian leadership.

The Germans developed a contempt for the Russian military that was reinforced by the poor performance of Soviet forces in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939 – 1940.  This contempt was a crucial factor leading to Germany’s overconfident overextension during the invasion of Russia in the Second World War, and ultimately to crushing defeat and occupation of Germany by the Allied Powers.

Further Reading: 

  • Barbara Tuchman provides a useful and generally accurate overview of the outbreak of World War I in The Guns of August. Regarding the German intercept of Samsonov’s uncrypted radio transmission of Russian battle plans, she enthuses “No such boon had been granted a commander since a Greek traitor guided the Persians around the pass at Thermopylae.”  Perhaps, but McClellan’s receipt of Lee’s detailed orders for the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia as it invaded Maryland in the American Civil War [September 1862] comes close [Special Order 191, also known as the Lost Order, or the Lost Dispatch].  McClellan mismanaged the Battle of Antietam despite having received details of Lee’s plans.  McClellan simply could not coordinate his attacks. The victory he won at Antietam was far less complete than it should have been, though it did provide occasion for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.


  • Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 usefully summarizes the First World War in the East from its inception to the Russian Revolution.
  • The Tannenberg campaign has been the subject of a number of monographs. John Sweetman’s Tannenberg 1914 provides a clear narrative, numerous maps, contemporary photographs and illustrations, and useful indices.