Could Germany have won World War I with high probability given the benefit of hindsight?

post by Roko · 2023-11-27T22:52:42.066Z · LW · GW · 6 comments

This is a question post.


    5 ryan_b
    4 Logan Zoellner
    2 James_Miller
    1 Sergii
    0 trevor

Related: Could World War I have been prevented given the benefit of hindsight? [LW · GW]

Consider the following scenario: you are sent back in time some number of years before the beginning of WWI, say 1904 for concreteness, with the goal of changing Imperial German strategy before and during the war such that Germany wins with very high probability [meaning that throughout many small deviations of the timeline, including small variations in the enemy strategic response function, at least 95% of them lead to an Austro-German victory over at least France and Russia, taking lots of new territory and establishing a German empire on the world stage. We will define winning as either total destruction of the enemy military or a surrender by the Russia/France side of the war where Germany gets to dictate terms.]

This includes winning similar wars that happen slightly earlier or slightly later - you are aiming for a durable strategy for Germany and Austro-Hungary that makes them win over the opposing European powers.

To prevent silly strategies, minor details of the world you are sent to will be changed, so for example dates and names may differ very slightly.

Furthermore, you carry some evidence of extraordinary status that is credible to the leaders of Austro-Hungary and Germany. They will grant you an audience and they have an unusually large amount of patience to listen to you, but they will not blindly trust you. You need to convince them based on reasoning that they will accept. You may lie to them or tell them the truth. I will also stipulate that if you manage to convince the leadership of a plan, they will actually follow it with an unusually high degree of fanaticism and coherence.

You don't have detailed designs for post-1914 technology, but you have an ordinary informed layman's understanding of actual history. So you can tell them that nuclear bombs will be invented, but not exactly how, and they may or may not believe you.

Please answer with your strategy and why you think it would work (including in the face of likely reactions from the major players)!


answer by ryan_b · 2023-11-27T23:26:18.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Under these conditions yes, through the mechanism of persuading German High Command to invade through the French border directly rather than going through Belgium. Without the Belgian invasion, Britain does not enter the war (or at least not so soon); without Britain in the war Germany likely does not choose unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic; without unrestricted submarine warfare the US cannot be induced to enter the war on the side of the French.

As to why the direct invasion would work, we have the evidence from clashes in the field that the German armies were in general superior to the French ones, including those with defensive positions, and field experience also showed that the innovations which went into the new defenses (and the war generally) were poorly understood and inefficiently used (I have in mind here particularly the habit of radically overshooting targets and extreme underestimates of the supply requirements to sustain fire).

My extremely rough guess is that the fortifications along the border add a few days to a week of delay, with the rest of the German strategy and timetable going according to plan.

comment by Roko · 2023-11-27T23:34:46.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But the British could have entered the war anyway. After all, British war goals were to maintain a balance of power in Europe and they don't want France and Russia to fall and Germany to be too strong.

answer by Logan Zoellner · 2023-11-28T05:32:21.635Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does an "ordinary layman's understanding of actual history" include knowledge of how tanks are used in combined arms warfare to create breakthroughs in "blitzkrieg" style warfare?  Seems like "don't attack until you have tanks and a good idea of how to use them in coordination with infantry and artillery, and also don't antagonize America" is sufficient for near certain victory.

comment by Lalartu · 2023-11-30T10:08:54.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The biggest problem with proposing tanks is convincing military leadership that they need them. They didn't expect trench warfare at all (and yes, some writers predicted it, and nobody believed them).

comment by Roko · 2023-11-28T17:08:40.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It certainly seems that a mastery of tank warfare would have helped a lot. But the British experience with tanks shows that there was a huge amount of resistance within the military to new forms of warfare. Britain only had tanks because Winston Churchill made it his priority to support them.

New weapon systems are not impressive at first. The old ways are typically a local optimum. So the real question here is how to leave that local optimum!

comment by Simon Fischer (SimonF) · 2023-11-29T19:48:49.939Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess it's hard to keep "they are experimenting with / building huge amounts of tanks" and "they are conducting combined arms exercises" secret from France and Russia, so they would have a lot of advance warning and could then also develop tanks.

But if you have lot more than a layman's understanding of tank design / combined arms doctrine, you could still come out ahead in this.

answer by James_Miller · 2023-12-20T17:28:48.533Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Germany should plant agents inside of Russia to sabotage Russian railroads at the start of the war. At the start of the war Austro-Hungary should just engage in a holding action against Serbia and instead use almost all their forces to hold off the Russians. Germany should attack directly into France by making use of a surprise massive chemical weapons attack against static French defenses.

answer by Sergii · 2023-11-28T18:48:36.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that advanced tanks are needed for more efficient and more mobile warfare at that time. Just making an investment into transport for troops and supplies would be enough to hold better at the battle of Marne, or similar situations.

So I would:

  • explain (with examples) benefits of mobile warfare
  • explain problems with troops speed and logistics that would cause defeat at the battle of Marne
  • point towards existing gasoline (possibly off-road tracked) vehicles as a solution

Introducing stormtrooper tactics would be another impactful message.

answer by trevor · 2023-11-27T23:51:18.945Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much of your knowledge of game theory, FDT, and prediction markets/forecasting can you bring?

You wouldn't need to start with respect. People are much better at writing now than they were 100 years ago, on an instant-gratification basis. Plus, the Hobbit was 1937, I, Robot was the 1950s, Dune was 1965, so you'd be inspired by HPMOR and Three Body Problem and Hyperion while all your competitors would be running off of Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare. Not to mention real stuff like the Sequences, and the Extropian list, and what actually went down with the people involved in AI alignment from 2016-2023. 

In 1904, the world's best behavioral economist was Sigmund Freud. Most people would quickly notice what they're capable of, after having nothing to do in their spare time but read Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare.

Write an awesome book about German greatness, optimize for maximizing troop morale, but explain things well enough that most German officers can understand it. If you depict the French and British as sufficiently stupid and crude, it will probably never occur to a single British or French person to plagiarize it and use it for their own side's propaganda. It would probably get translated word-for-word and get super popular in Britain and France anyway.

comment by Roko · 2023-11-27T23:59:31.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But I don't see an actionable plan to winning here?

Replies from: TrevorWiesinger
comment by trevor (TrevorWiesinger) · 2023-11-28T00:40:17.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't really see how you lose; you have a cultural renaissance, an economic boom, and a coordination takeoff in your pocket, and you have substantial degrees of freedom to convert it into German Nationalism that's an order of magnitude memetically stronger than the original WW1. 

The risk comes from Britain and France getting their own cultural renaissance, and that's actually a pretty easy fix; just insult the French and British every single time you write something, and that will probably be enough.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2023-11-28T01:58:50.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you have a nerdy novel society and a loss of WWI for the same reasons it was lost in our timeline

Replies from: TrevorWiesinger
comment by trevor (TrevorWiesinger) · 2023-11-28T02:18:49.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's definitely possible that it increases defection rates and/or decreases morale among the officers, or that it completely bounces off most of the troops or increases defection rates there. Especially because you can't test it on officers and measure effectiveness in the environment of long trench wars, where nihilism ran rampant, because that environment wouldn't exist until it was far too late to use it as a testing environment.

But propaganda and war recruitment was generally pretty inferior to what exists today, e.g. the world's best psychologist was Sigmund Freud and behavioral economics was ~a century away. They were far worse than most people today at writing really good books that are easy to read and that anyone could enjoy, and the contemporary advances in propaganda that they did have resulted in massive and unprecedented scaling in nationalism and war capabilities, even though what they had at the time was vastly less effective than what we're used to today.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2023-11-28T03:07:45.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm struggling to see why fun books would make any difference. Germany didn't lose because it ran out of light reading material.

As for troop morale and so on, I don't think that was a decisive element as by the time it started to matter, defeat was already overdetermined.

In other words, I think Germany would have lost WWI even with infinite morale.

comment by Roko · 2023-11-27T23:59:01.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure you can bring decision theory knowledge. All I'm disallowing is something like bringing back exact plans for a nuke.


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comment by RolfAndreassen · 2023-11-28T03:57:41.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mu: Question cannot be answered because "win" is not defined. Does winning require 

a) Dictating terms, in the style of Versailles?

b) As above, but also not burning to cinders the social technology that allowed you to fight such a war in the first place? (As happened to the OTL victors.)

c) As above, but also getting some kind of actual net benefit either in geopolitical-power terms or in goods for your citizens? (As very noticeably did not occur for the OTL "victors".)

d) A negotiated peace in which it's generally recognised that you had the upper hand and got most of the surplus? (Surplus relative to continuing the war, that is.) Same variants as above.

e) Any peace that avoids the total collapse of OTL Germany and resulting even-more-disastrous war?

f) Any peace in which the prewar decision makers emerge with their personal power and prestige enhanced, whatever happens in Germany at large?

g) Avoiding the conflict entirely? (Best option! Investing in productive assets will get you a lot more benefit than trying to win a massively negative-sum game!)

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2023-11-28T13:04:58.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a good point. I will clarify. I mean [a] - you win, the enemy surrenders.

Replies from: Tapatakt
comment by Tapatakt · 2023-11-28T15:43:54.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do outcomes "Russia/France surrenders, France/Russia stays neutral or whitepeaces" count?

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2023-11-29T14:22:03.885Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Lalartu · 2023-11-29T16:19:54.081Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The winning strategy exists: don't build a large fleet and don't invade Belgium. The problem is, there is basically no way to convince German leadership to follow the first part, and the second part alone doesn't reliably keep Britain neutral.

comment by dr_s · 2023-11-27T23:00:19.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)