After the defeat of liberal hopes and the failed revolutions of 1848, a lethal scourge of nationalism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism sweeped the continent.
Not only Germans realized after 1848 and 1871 that the political status quo had not truly changed. The princes remained in control of Europe, the bourgeoisie concentrated on economic progress and the developing socialist movement sought consolidation.
Nationalism had originally been a leftist cause – against the princes – but it was skillfully turned against the burghers and the evolving working class and most effectively reinforced by a strange new ideological concoction – anti-Semitism.
While xenophobia remains one of the apparently ineradicable hobbies of man, and persecution of Jews has happened in history alongside the persecution of every other minority one can imagine, anti-Semitism as a concept is of quite recent origin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, notably in an essay Richard Wagner published anonymously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jewishness in Music), but only found general attention after 1879, when the German agitator Wilhelm Marr published a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective)” [German text] – the same year in which he also founded the “Antisemiten-Liga” (League of Antisemites).
Anti-Semitism found a number of prominent proselytes – Emperor Wilhelm II, the influential political author Heinrich Claß and various men of the cloth, but was by far not confined to Germany. France struggled fifteen years under the Dreyfus-Affair and in Imperial Russia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favourite entertainment of the masses.
Whole books have been written on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an asinine fabrication cobbled together and first published in Russia in 1903 – a ludicrous conspiracy theory on Jewish world domination – however, the quackbook was taken as holy writ by such usual suspects as Wilhelm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 copies printed and distributed.
Nationalism and anti-Semitism were the two major fulcrums of aristocratic domination of political Europe in the second half of the 19th Century until the rise of the socialist movement created an even more suitable bogeyman. Hence the burghers need not only to fear economic ruin by Jewish shylocks and rapine by illoyal border-dwellers – indeed their physical existence was now jeopardized by the threat of revolution from the masses of unwashed labourers who failed to properly profess their gratitude for the wages they were receiving.
It is thoroughly understandable that so much existential peril left the burghers of the continent in grave and present fear – which might best be mitigated by expanding self-defense. What were the numbers on which the glorious undertaking of arming the nation might be based on?
The following statistics, which give us an idea of Germany’s industrial and political developments versus her competitors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books 1989, ISBN 0-679-72019-7 , pp. 200 ff.):
It is immediately visible that France is the odd man out in regards to her population growth; while the United States increased its population between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Russia by 48.6%, Germany by almost 36% and Great Britain by a somewhat more modest 23%, the French population remained almost constant, growing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Another indicator for economic and industrial development is the percentage of urban versus rural population:
Great Britain, whose
industrialization had started some fifty years earlier than that of any other
country, not surprisingly leads the world, although percentagewise, her urban
population grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by
85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks better here, with 26.5%
growth, while Japan more than doubles its urban population. Italy, Austria and
Russia are in between as far as percentage change goes, but their low absolute
shares of around or under 10% depict them as underindustrialized as of yet.
The following view centres on the sine-qua-non of early industrial development, the production of steel:
These numbers depict the state of the respective country’s industrialization most consequentially, for without steel neither consumer goods nor arms could be built. Taking France’s small population growth into consideration, her increase of steel production between 1900 and 1913 is, percentagewise, an impressive 307%, although her total production of 4.6 million tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 million tons. Trendwise, both Great Britain and France lag behind them in industrial expansion, while Russian steel production is beginning to take off. It approximately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in absolute numbers, the 1913 output of 4.8 million tons was still meagre if compared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy consumption:
If one were to combine the data above, and add a few other parameters, the result would describe the changes in relative industrial strength of the Great Powers:
This picture depicts the relative change in the potentials of the powers, which must be taken in their economic, as related to size and population, and geostrategic contexts, that is, related to their location. Italy and Japan remain struggling to catch up, while Russia is handicapped by her lack of infrastructure and Austria-Hungary by internal tension. If one compares the change of percentage over time, the USA expanded its capacity by 635%, Germany by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s industrial power only grew 173%, an indication that her imperial splendour was beginning to fade even before 1914. We now shall compare the absolute market shares, which, over time, indicate relative ascent or decline:
This table strikingly reveals the weakening of Western Europe, Great Britain and France, compared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Germany, in the middle of the continent. England’s portion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit better but still loses 27% of her world market percentage of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Germany by 74.1%. The quota of Russia, Austria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s continental enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell further back. Speaking of war, we now shall turn our attention to the military:
Even a cursory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the burial of a few cherished prejudices. Not only is the German army, the presumptive menace of the continent, much smaller than Russia’s, which one might take for granted given the latter’s vastness, it is smaller than France’s, too. In the case of Austria-Hungary, her men, who are dispersed to cover a hostile border of some 1500 miles length, number only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a border of far less than a hundred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hostile coalitions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 million men under arms, more than twice the number of the Central Powers’ 1,335 million men. All these numbers and many more will, of course, be discussed at length in “The Little Drummer Boy”, in the section on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.
A comparison of the great powers’ total military personnel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter century, the number of servicemen increased from 2,9 million to almost 5 million, by more than two thirds. How does this compare to the much-made-of naval races of these years?
It would seem almost beyond belief, but the naval tonnage of the great powers more than quintupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – growing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claustrophobic. As the figures for Japan and the USA make clear, the naval race was not limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea; the latter found it necessary to almost triple the size of her navy in the fourteen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Spanish-American War and the annexations of the Philippine, Cuban and Hawaiian islands, not before it.
As it would be expected, the different geostrategic locations of the powers decided which service was to become the primary beneficiary of the increasing budgets: the naval power Great Britain had little use for much infantry; her temporary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a result of the ongoing Boer War, not of a sustained increase in army spending. Her senior service, the Royal Navy, primary power instrument and conditio-sine-qua-non of her imperial grandeur, launched into a protracted building spree against the German and American navies (1812 was by no means forgotten) that resulted in a quadrupling of her size between 1880 and 1914.
There is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other the greater the probability that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out during the Cold War, to our all survival, but this was more the result of the impracticability of nuclear warfare than of a sudden increase in human wisdom. In the early twentieth century, however, the focus of our inquiry, every new battleship launched and each new army corps established precariously challenged the balance of power.
When we are talking modern warfare, one of the words we invariably encounter is that of a “Division“. But what exactly is a “Division”? Let’s have a look at this concept in World War I:
“The partitioning of armies into ‘divisions’ came into practice in the two French Coalition Wars (France against counter-revolutionary Austria, Russia and Prussia) in the 1790s and the subsequent Napoleonic era, in which armies had to be split up to defend against or attack more than one enemy at a given time or to fulfill tactical assignments, such as outflanking or enveloping manoeuvres.
definition of a ‘division’ is that it is the smallest sub-unit of an
army that can fulfill independent assignments, i.e., the smallest unit
that has everything to fight its own small war. Thus said, it follows
that a division must have more than soldiers, guns and ammunition: it
must have a staff, engineers, signal troops, supply troops, a medical
corps, a hospital, kitchen, laundry, map bureau and so forth.
In the First World War, a fully equipped German infantry division would contain the following troops:
4 Infantry Regiments of 3,000 men each; each Regiment composed of 3 Battalions of 1,000 men; each Battalion composed of 4 Companies of 250 men; altogether 12,000 infantrymen;
1 Artillery Regiment consisting of 12 Field Batteries of 6 135 mm guns each and 2 Heavy Batteries of 4 155 mm guns (some divisions had an additional Heavy Howitzer Battalion with 16 150 mm howitzers);
2 Brigades of Cavalry, 680 sabers each, sometimes supported by 2 Field Gun Batteries of their own and a 6 Machine-Gun Company;
1 Squadron of reconnaissance aircraft, 6 machines, pilots, mechanics;
1 Special Artillery Brigade for the discretionary use of the division commander, (54 light 77 mm guns and 18 135 mm guns);
1 Special Machine Gun Company with 6 guns, and
1 Special Artillery Battalion with 18 105 mm howitzers.
Divisional troops, staff and support:
1 Battalion Combat Engineers (Sappers, in German called ‘Pioniere’ (Pioneers);
1 Signal and Communications Detachment with 2 Companies;
1 Quartermaster Train with 2 Companies;
1 Administrative Company;
2 Kitchen Companies (Butchers, Bakers, Cooks);
1 Mail Platoon and Field Post Office;
1 Medical Corps, consisting of 2 Hospital Companies and 4 Transport and Supplies Companies;
1 Veterinary Company;
1 Divisional Staff Company with 4 Detachments: Commanding Officer, Operations Officer (Ia), Supply Officer (Ib) and Intelligence Officer (lc);
1 Map Room;
1 Music Corps, and
1 Company Field Police (MP).
complete infantry division employed therefore approximately 20,000 men,
7,000 horses and a train of 1,200 supply wagons. Yet a division that
had all these troops present and correct would have to be called lucky
indeed – for after the first battle most divisions had to do with half
of these numbers – or less. In practice – after the huge losses of the
first weeks – general staffs often commissioned whole corps take over
the independent tactical roles that divisions had been assigned to
before the melee had begun.
In terms of vertical composition, two divisions formed a corps, and two corps an army. In practice, as the war dragged on and many units had to make do with smaller numbers, corps tended to get larger, sometimes as big as four divisions. When whole divisions were not available or had to be broken up, infantry brigades were used, half of a division – two infantry regiments plus whatever artillery was available.
Every country deviated from the scheme in characteristic ways. French divisions were equipped with a brigade of pre-established reserves, and while their field artillery, the 75 mm gun, was excellent and outperformed the German 77 mm model, they were usually weaker in the larger artillery calibres. British divisions were of somewhat larger size and compensated for an initial dearth of machine-guns with excellent marksmanship. Russian divisions – at least in the early campaigns – were huge, on account of their having not only three but four infantry regiments per division, i.e. sixteen battalions as opposed to twelve. American divisions were truly monstrous, roughly twice as big as German divisions.”
After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.
The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:
International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.
Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.
had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as
represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the
support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still
thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German
army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen
(Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle,
while the French, Austrians and
Russians also expanded their horse arm.
was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in
close-order tactics and taught,
above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was
gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.
The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.
the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the
twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished.
Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the
Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain,
sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had
accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in
early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s
disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.
The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.
The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.
The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.
testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from
the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of
the state. As a young revolutionary
he pinned his hopes of that victory on the
proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he
sought to persuade himself that the
proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would
liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.
His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.
In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.
In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.
A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:
Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants – and confronting the legions in their homeland.
Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.
Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.
Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:
As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.
whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the
Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the
freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government
bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially
significant in the military realm.
The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.
They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.
And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …
schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the
sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.
As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.
Clovis I (Chlodwig, Chlodowech), the first man resonably called “King of the Franks” (Rex Francorum) did not hesitate long in his desire for the geographic expansion of his realm. Chris Wickham relates (in The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p.92) that “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520’s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach.
That particular trophy went to an initially obscure warlord, who governed the Ostrogoths, a people who numbered perhaps less than one hundred thousand heads and still lived along the middle Danube. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern EmperorZeno, Anastasius’ successor, who, at length, did want to punish the rebellious upstart Odovacar in Italy. In the missive, Zeno invited the Ostrogoths to subjugate Italy in his name and to destroy Odovacar’s regime of mercenaries. Theodoric accepted, and the greatest part of the nation set forth from their Pannonian pastures and Illyrian meadows in the direction of fabled Italia.
Zeno, however, got more than he had bargained for; belatedly he realized that the precious Italian provinces were now in hands much more capable than those of the comparatively simple soldier Odovacar. Theoderic’s gifts did not include literacy, but a keen sense of political feasibility, of justice and fairness, honour and honesty, and in the murderous centuries of the age of migration, his name is one of the very few for whom the appellation of “the Great” is perhaps justified. His Goths swiftly closed in on Odovacar, who had no choice but to gain the security of Ravenna, where he resisted the Gothic siege for almost three years.
Yet in the commission of his duty, Theodoric committed, with his own hand (it is said), the only crime of his life. When, in March of AD 493, the situation became unbearable for both besiegers and besieged, a diplomatic mission succeeded with the proposal that Odovacar and Theodoric were to govern Italy and some neighbouring provinces [Sicily, Dalmatia, Noricum and Bavaria] together, like the original consuls had ruled the early Imperium Romanum. Edward Gibbon reports on the outcome of the deal:
A treaty of peace was
negotiated by the bishop of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted to the city,
and the hostile kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with
equal and undivided authority over the provinces of Italy.
The event of such an
agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to the
semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn banquet, was
stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his rival.
Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment and without resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent of the emperor of the East. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years, the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the minds of the Goths and Italians. [March 5, AD 493 – August 30, AD 526].
Zeno’s mounting anxieties were completely justified when, after the death of Alaric II at Vouillé, Theodoric was invested with the regency over the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, as the warden of Euric, Alaric’s eldest son [here seems to be some confusion, on Alaric’s sons see Amalaric]. Should Theodoric succeed to reunite the Goths and lead them against Constantinople, the continued existence of the Eastern Empire might well be in peril. Yet Theodoric did not strive at further conquests, which, he believed, could not be gainfully controlled with the limited number of troops available to him. Instead he emphasized in embassies who he directed to his German neighbours, the necessity of unity against their enemies; that is, against Byzantium.
Theodoric had diagnosed this enmity correctly, and it eventually resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern Empire. Therefore we shall have a more detailed look at the events of the second quarter of the sixth century. Significant changes on the political map around the Mediterranean Sea in the generation after Zeno and Theodoric were provoked, in these decades, by Emperor Justinian and his Imperial reconquista, which, one might argue, ran against the Empire’s best interests. Theodoric had brought stability to the remaining core provinces of the West; stability that Justinian could have utilized instead of hazarding it. Chris Wickham explains:
Theodoric ruled Italy from Ravenna, the western Roman capital, with a traditional Roman administration, a mixture of senatorial leaders from the city of Rome and career bureaucrats; he was (as Odovacar had also been) respectful of the Roman senate, and he made a ceremonial visit to the city in 500, with formal visits to St. Peter’s, to the senate building, and then to the imperial palace on the Palatine, where he presided over games, like any emperor. …The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, beside a new (but partly Romanizing) Gothic or Ostrogothic military elite.
Ostrogothic Italy was the most “Roman” of all Germanic kingdoms in the West, and might have remained so. Tom Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1) summarizes the effect of Theoderic’s long reign in that …
“…whether addressing crowds in the Forum, slaughtering armies of savages beyond the Alps, or building palaces, aqueducts and baths, he demonstrated to glorious effect just how Roman a king of foederati might truly be. By the time of his death in 526, he had ruled as the master of Italy for longer than any Caesar, with the exception of Augustus himself. As a result, it seems barely to have crossed the minds of most Italians that they might not still belong to a Roman Empire.”
Yet the emergence of new characters on the stage of Byzantium changed the political picture completely within a single year: in 527, one year after Theoderic’s death, the powers of the Empire were invested upon the new emperor Justinian, nephew of the previous emperor Justin, whose reign was long assisted by the famously wicked (says Procopius) Empress Theodora, the general Belisarius and the talented eunuch Narses.
Justinian, whom the dutiful laudations of his courtiers soon labelled “the Great”, was the son of a Bulgarian shepherd who nourished his flock on grazing grounds somewhere near today’s Sofia. The youth eventually headed to Constantinople, under the tutelage of his uncle Justin and two fellow villagers, the three of whom enlisted in the legions upon their arrival. The uncle proved an industrious if not exceedingly gifted soldier: but in an age when average performance, by the old standards, stood out as heroism had in days of yore, he was promoted steadily: to tribune, count, general, senator; finally to the command of the palace guard. He did not only retain his life and fortune at the delicate occasion of Anastasius’ death in AD 518, but emerged from the momentary confusion in possession of the diadem and purple that Anastasius had to relinquish the previous night.
Justin’s age, at this most important
promotion of his life, was already sixty-eight, and since he was a brave but
not an educated man and governed the realm without the benefit of literacy, he
had to rely on the counsel of his quaestor Proclus in affairs of the empire,
and groomed his nephew Justinian as heir apparent.
A few years passed without remarkable advents, and an old wound which persistently festered despite the mobilisation of all the doctors of the capital at length deprived Justin of his life. His last act of state was to affix, in the presence of the senators and excellencies of the realm, the diadem of the Imperial dignity upon his nephew’s head, who was forty-five years of age at the beneficial occasion. The subsequent reign of the emperor Justinian has been accounted for in copious detail by the quill of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived in Constantinople as a patrician and senator during Justinian’s government. He has provided us with comprehensive descriptions of his sovereign’s activities as legislator, builder, especially of churches, warlord – relating to the campaigns of his generals – and bane of mankind.
The latter particularity, described in his Secret History, Procopius attributes to a large degree to the nefarious influence of the famous Theodora, whom Justinian promoted from most popular ecdysiast of the theatre and most expensive strumpet of the capital to the ranks of First Lady, Empress, and, post-mortem, Saint. The story is simply too juicy to be disregarded, and here is Tom Holland’s take on it:
Even her bitterest critics
– of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and
beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd,
far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier
critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.
Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.”
Steel of this order, in a
woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the
origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had
her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and
stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and
the destitute a career even more scandalous.
Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.
In our context, the foreign policies
and advantages and deficiencies of Justinian’s warlordship are of greater
interest than his private pleasures. He had the fortune, yet, in hindsight, the
empire perhaps the liability, to have at his command the military genius as
well as the civil cowardice of the great general Belisarius.
It was Justinian’s desire to restore the lost provinces of the West to the imperial fold: Britannia, Gallia and Hispania, perhaps, later, but as soon as possible Africa, for its grain, and Italy, the original imperial treasure. But other business, that is, the perennial Persian wars, had to be dealt with first. The eastern border of the Empire had been fixed for centuries at the Upper Euphrates, but the boundless approaches through the Arabian Desert could not possibly be guarded effectively.
Parthian and Persian kings and their armies had overstepped the borders regularly, and sometimes with impunity. From the fourth century on, a time of military decay, the Romans had frequently replaced counterattacks with financial considerations for the peace-loving Persian kings; in the year AD 532, for example, following five years of borderline rapine, Justinian’s contribution to the Royal Persian Exchequer amounted to 11,000 pounds of gold; this quantity was to secure, as the treaty document specified, nothing less than a perpetual peace between the two empires.
As the future was to show, perpetuity had to be reinforced every decade or so by additional remunerations. But the peace secured in AD 532 (which held until AD 540) allowed Justinian his first move in the West. He was assured of the services of a general whose military deeds were to rank him with Caesar and Alexander, but whose civil timidity placed him among the meek and mendicant of this earth.
The soldier Belisarius was born, not far from where the emperor’s father had kept his sheep, on the plains of Thrace. His military career proceeded timely and peaked in the command of the private guards of prince Justinian. When the prince was elevated to the royal dignity, the soldier was promoted to general.
When Justinian sought a commander whom he could entrust with the first step in rebuilding the glory of the Empire, he was unable to find a suitable candidate. At length, perhaps for the intimate counsel Belisar’s wife Antonina retained with the empress Theodora, her husband was chosen to lead the glorious enterprise. Due to his sovereign’s unwillingness to spend substantial sums upon the renovation of the Empire, Belisar was given only a small fleet and a few legions, yet, nonetheless, commanded to wrest Africa from the Vandals.
Against the odds, the mission succeeded: it was the first occasion in which Belisarius proved exceptional generalship. But to replace the money in the imperial treasury that had been spent on Belisar’s army, a “rapacious minister of the finances closely pursued the footsteps of Belisarius” and the unhappy province not only had to pay the regular dues but a special liberation tax.
The Vandals had destroyed the old tax registers, and when new ones were created, the quaestors did not forget to add another fee, to secure a just compensation for their own labours. Financial ruin was followed by depopulation, and Edward Gibbon cites Procopius, who, upon his first landing in Africa with Belisar in AD 534 “admired the populousness of the cities and country, strenously exercised in the labours of commerce and agriculture. In less than twenty years, that busy scene was converted into a silent solitude; the wealthy citizens escaped to Sicily and Constantinople; and the secret historian [Procopius, ¶] has confidently affirmed that five millions of Africans were consumed by the wars and government of the emperor Justinian.”
Although Procopius was not above the common tendency of antiquity’s historians to exaggerate his numbers, the fact remains that the wealth of Africa Provincia from then on constantly declined and the area lost its former status as the empire’s grain chamber. Belisar was not a politician, and it may be doubted whether he was even aware of the dangerous side effects of his conquest. He had to contemplate a different distraction.
That a victory afar, in particular if not necessarily expected, may induce a measure of suspicion at the court of a doubting monarch is, perhaps, a quite common occurrence. Hardly had the news of the triumph over the Vandals reached Byzantium when the subaltern officers who had preferred to remain in the safety of the capital instead of courting the danger or the glory of the battlefield, informed the emperor that the reliable rumour had arrived that Belisarius was about to declare himself King of Africa.
When the distrustful monarch inquired of his general whether he was to return to Constantinople soon or whether urgent business would keep him in Africa, the general understood his master’s voice and recognized the portents of Justinian’s vindictiveness. He appeared in Constantinople tout de suite, where a grateful and elated Justinian sponsored a triumph for Belisar, the first for a non-emperor since the days of Tiberius.
An optimistic Justinian then planned his next stroke, and a somewhat bigger fleet and army were prepared for Belisar’s subsequent task: to deliver Italia and Dalmatia from the hands of the Arian, that is, heretic, Ostrogoths. That his predecessor Zeno had personally invited the Goths to Italy, well aware of their beliefs, Justinian resolved to overlook.
Indeed, it is hard to say, and the opinions of historians have clashed on the question whether the restoration of the Western Empire per se was Justinian’s aim or the destruction of the heretics, or whether both points of view happened to coincide. He had theological problems in his own house, for Theodora was a fervent Monophysite, and the emperor was driven to allow her, and hence her community, the license that his strong Catholic convictions would not have granted otherwise. A glimpse into these complications of Christian doctrine is here provided by Tom Holland:
In 451, a year after the death of Theodosius II, the largest ecumenical council that the Church had ever seen, attended by a full six hundred bishops, was held at Chalcedon, directly across the straits from the imperial palace, in a conscious effort to rein in this tendency [of Christian communities’ theological independence, ¶]. The new regime’s aim – just as Constantine’s had been at Nicaea – was to muzzle a taste for bickering that had come to threaten, in the opinion of the authorities, not only the unity of the Church but the very security of the Roman people.
At stake for the delegates, however, was no longer the relationship of the Son to the Father, an issue long since triumphantly resolved, but a no less awesome mystery: the identity of the Son Himself. How, Christians wanted to know, had His divine and human natures coexisted? Had they been wholly intermingled, like water and wine in a goblet, to constitute a mone physis – a “single nature”? Or had the two natures of Christ in fact coexisted within His earthly body as quite distinct entities, like water and oil? Had both His human and His divine essence experienced birth, suffering and death, or was it the most repugnant blasphemy to declare, as some bishops did, that God Himself “was crucified for us”? Knotty questions – nor easily unpicked. The Council of Chalcedon, nevertheless, did its level best. A determinedly middle road was steered. Due weight was given to both the divine and the human elements of Christ: “the same truly God and truly man.” This formula, devised by a bishop of Rome and graced with the approval of the emperor himself, struck the Christians of both the West and Constantinople as eminently reasonable – so much so that never again would they attempt to revise or reverse it.
In practice, the result of the council worked against the Monophysites and in favour of a Catholic Church that, with the emperor’s support, intensified the prosecution of apostates. While the privacy of his palace allowed Justinian religious tolerance and urged him moderation in the matter of the Monophysite error, the public Arianism of the Goths and Vandals challenged not only his Catholic beliefs but, indirectly, his profane authority as well. Belisar was summoned and given a second command: not only to regain Italia, the glory of the Empire, and Rome, its seed, but to liberate millions of souls from religious oppression by their errant masters.
The target of the renewed offensive, Ostrogothic Italy plus its appendices, had suffered from dynastic complications since the great king’s death, and “infighting between Theoderic’s heirs in 526 – 36 led to a more serious alienation of some of the aristocratic elite from the Ostrogothic regime, many of whom ended up in Constantinople.” Belisar’s second western campaign, begun in AD 536, was another success, it would appear: the Gothic arms were defeated at three different occasions and their authority diminished quickly, although they remained in possession of a few strongholds.
The news of Belisarius´ recapture of Italy spread swiftly through the realm, and fed Justinian’s suspicions again. The hero was recalled a second time but brought with him, as his captives or guests, the royal pair of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to sign a comprehensive treaty [Vitiges, a military man and his wife Matasuntha, Theodorich’s Granddaughter]. The agreement emphasized the Goths’ future and unconditional obedience to the emperor and introduced a great number of their youth to service in the legions. A delivery of Gothic hostages substantiated, as usual, the validity of the compact.
But since “the jealousy of the Byzantine Court had not permitted Belisarius to achieve the [complete] conquest of Italy … his abrupt departure revived the courage of the Goths [AD 540].” What happened next was much to Justinian’s chagrin. One thousand or so Gothic warriors, who had held the town of Pavia, received word from another small garrison, that still held Verona, and from another one that still controlled Teriolis (Tyrolia). The Byzantine army had been left, at the departure of Belisar, to the command of eleven equal-ranked generals, and the disaster this policy caused may easily be imagined.
Messengers from the Gothic garrisons remaining in Italy meanwhile had met, undisturbed, with their comrades that still guarded the northern borders of the Danube and the Alps, and before long the war the empire believed won was rekindled. The banner of the Gothic monarchy was resurrected by the young Baduila, called Totila, and the cause of the Goths profited greatly from the avarice and the appalling methods of Justinian’s fiscus. Edward Gibbon compares valour and corruption, in the tradition of Tacitus:
The rapid success of Totila may be partly ascribed to the revolution which three years’ experience had produced in the sentiments of the Italians. At the command, or at least in the name, of a Catholic emperor, the pope [Silverius], their spiritual father, had been torn from the Roman church and either starved or murdered on a desolate island.
The virtues of Belisarius
were replaced by the various or uniform vices of eleven chiefs, at Rome,
Ravenna, Florence, Perugia, Spoleto, etc., who abused their authority for the
indulgence of lust and avarice. The improvement of the revenue was committed to
Alexander, a subtle scribe long practiced in the fraud and oppression of the
Byzantine schools, and whose name of Psalliction, the Scissors, was drawn from the
dexterous artifice with which he reduced the size without defacing the figure
of the gold coin. Instead of expecting the restoration of peace and industry,
he imposed a heavy assessment on the fortunes of the Italians.
The subjects of Justinian
who escaped these partial vexations were oppressed by the irregular maintenance
of the soldiers, whom Alexander defrauded and despised; and their hasty sallies
in quest of wealth or subsistence provoked the inhabitants of the country to
await or implore their deliverance from the virtues of a Barbarian.
Totila was chaste and temperate; and none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith and clemency. To the husbandmen of Italy the Gothic king issued a welcome proclamation, enjoining them to pursue their important labours and to rest assured that, on the payment of the ordinary taxes, they should be defended by his valour and discipline from the injuries of war. … The Roman captives and deserters were tempted to enlist in the service of a liberal and courteous adversary; the slaves were attracted to the firm and faithful promise that they should never be delivered to their masters; and from the thousand warriors of Pavia, a new people, under the same appellation of Goths, was insensibly formed in the camp of Totila.
It is obvious where Gibbon’s sympathies lay, but indeed, “most of the non-Gothic Italians were at best neutral about Justinian’s armies.” The emperor now faced the pro-Belisar faction of the court, who argued that only the recall of the hero had made the renewed Gothic insurrection possible. There was not really a way to counter the postulation, and at length Justinian had no choice but to send Belisar back to Italy. The imperial frugality, however, restricted the general to such troops as he could support by his own means. Thus Belisar arrived at Ravenna with his personal guards, but little else. Procopius relates a letter the fettered hero wrote to his master:
prince, we are arrived in Italy, destitute of all the necessary implements of
war, men, horses, arms, and money. In our late circuit through the villages of
Thrace and Illyricum, we have collected with extreme difficulty about four
thousand recruits, naked and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises
of the camp.
The soldiers already
stationed in the province are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound
of an enemy, they dismiss their horses and cast their arms on the ground. No
taxes can be raised since Italy is in the hands of the Barbarians; the failure
of payment has deprived us of the right to command, or even of admonition. Be
assured, dread Sir, that the greater part of your troops have already deserted
to the Goths.
If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a military force, the title of general is an empty name.It would be expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards. Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money you can procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the Huns.”
Belisar’s own words reveal that, almost ninety years after the general retreat of the Huns following Attila’s death in AD 453, large bodies of their mercenaries still infested the continent. At length, the hero gathered some troops and supplies on the opposite coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Dalmatia, and launched an expedition to deliver Rome from the Goths. Rome and Ravenna were the last two places in Italy still held by Justinian’s troops and had consequently been blockaded and beleaguered for years. The Byzantine fleet landed at the port of Ostia, five leagues from Rome, but the news of Belisar’s reappearance reached the town too late to prevent the famished garrison’s release of Rome to the charity of the king of the Goths [December 17, AD 546j.
Totila’s soldiers requested permission to raze the walls and houses of the sinful city to the ground, but, swayed by a message from Belisar, who appealed, on Procopius’s counsel, to the king’s mercy for the eternal town, Totila spared Rome from devastation, on the condition of her future neutrality in the war and obedience to his and his successors’ directives, as a part of the new Romano-Gothic kingdom. The clemency of Totila forewent the institution of a garrison within the city: a single regiment of guards was stationed in a camp, perhaps five leagues away, epitomizing a protection of the town against pirates or meandering mercenaries rather than against a regular army.
The king’s leniency was ill rewarded, and Totila’s generosity became the cause of his downfall. The Gothic army had barely left Latium when Belisar assaulted and annihilated the Gothic sentinels and moved into Rome for the second time [February, AD 547]. Totila returned post-haste, but three successive attempts to take the city by storm failed and the newly formed Gothic and Italian army lost the flower of their men. Eventually, exhaustion paralyzed both sides, until Belisar was, once again, recalled to Byzantium and Totila, once again, conquered Rome in AD 459. During the Gothic wars, the town changed hands five times.
It had been Justinian’s policy to deny the Goths a formal peace, but not to burden the treasury with the expenses of war either, and for years the Gothic war boiled on a small flame. But his resolve was injured when Gothic raids invaded the provinces of Epirus and Macedonia, in the Balkans, and Constantinople itself seemed in the reach of the Barbarians. Justinian realized the urgency of the situation, and, belatedly, the treasury was opened, but not to Belisar’s support.
The emperor was not a father, but he had a niece, who had married the young prince Germanus, a nobleman of whom public opinion held that this marriage was his sole accomplishment.
[This is the way the story used to be told, somewhat of a cliché – and I repeated it for Edward Gibbos’s sake – in actuality Germanus was a nephew of Justin I and hence a cousin of Justinian. He was magister militum in various campaigns, with varying success, and before setting out to Italy had the amorously as well as politically most excellent idea of taking for his second wife – with Justinian’s blessing – the fabled beauty Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theoderich and now widow of Totila’s predecesssor Vitiges – a match that sought to entice Goth and Italians alike to switch sides).
The young man was promoted to the post of general-in-chief of the Gothic war, and put on a ship to Sicily, where he was to muster the troops assembling for the glorious enterprise of subduing Italy again. The solemn inspection, however, had to be postponed when the youth suddenly expired.
The empire awaited, naturally, the return of the Gothic command to Belisar, when “the nations were provoked to a smile by the strange intelligence that the command of the Roman armies was given to a eunuch,” the domestic Narses, who “is probably the sole representative of his peculiar sex in the annals of military history.” Narses was the complete opposite of Belisarius: weak of body and unfamiliar with the use of weapons, he was probably the only man, so to say, at the court of Constantinople, who dared to speak his mind.
He declined to accept a command without the means to enforce it, and “Justinian granted the favourite what he might have denied to the hero: the Gothic war was rekindled from its ashes, and the preparations were not unworthy of the ancient majesty of the empire. The key of the public treasure was put into his hand, to collect magazines, to levy soldiers, to purchase arms and horses, to discharge the arrears of pay, and to tempt the fidelity of the fugitives and deserters.”
The expedition of Narses [AD 552-554]
was the last military effort of the Empire that stood up in comparison with the
distinguished past. It is said that the Romans numbered 80,000 or more, mostly
mercenaries, against which Totila, after the bloody losses at Rome between AD
546 and 549, could field probably less than twenty thousand.
At length, the Gothic arms were defeated: Totila died on the Battlefield of Taginae in July 552 and his successor Teja lead the remnant of the troops to a last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius on Mons Vesuvius. The remainder of the Goths from the northern garrisons retired past the Alps, where they reorganized and, with the assistance of a few mercenaries, attempted a return to Italy [AD 533]. They were defeated a second time by Narses, who, after a timely visit to Constantinople, was dispatched back to Italy to govern her, as Exarch, or lieutenant of the emperor, for the next about fifteen years [AD 554-568].
Yet something worse than the Vandal and Gothic wars was inflicted on the people around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A horrific attack of bubonic plague was reported in Alexandria in the fall of AD 541, and the grain ships that emerged from its harbours in the spring of AD 542 spread the disease over the world. Constantinople was ravaged by the epidemic through which, as Procopius wrote, “the whole of humanity came close to annihilation.”
The emperor, too, was caught by Yersinia pestisbut recovered. The disease travelled from Constantinople, over the Bosporus, to Asia Minor, and from there to Syria and Palestine. There it reversed direction westward, and by AD 543 it had spread over the provinces of the West, Africa, Italy, Gaul and Spain. Two years later, it struck the Far East, and devastated the Persian Empire: large parts of Mesopotamia, Media and Persia were depopulated.
Overall, the results of Justinian’s anachronistic efforts to rebuild the empire were not only short-lived, but, for the worse, a financial catastrophe.
The destruction of Africa’s and Italy’s tax base in the wake of the military occupations meant that the monarchy never even recovered its expenses. And since the Eastern Empire could not make the step to replace an army paid for by taxes to that paid by a landed gentry, losses of revenue implied losses of military power. Justinian’s escapades had almost bankrupted the realm and the net result of Emperor Heraclius‘ [r.AD 610-641] war against the Persians between AD 610 and 628 was that, a decade later, he lost everything he had gained and more to the assault of the recent Islamic Caliphate, which, ironically enough, “was itself built on Roman foundations (as also Sassanian Persian foundations),” and “it arguably preserved the parameters of imperial Roman society more completely than any other part of the post-Roman world, at least in the period up to 750.”
Soon after Narses’ death Italy was taken over by the Lombards, who had, under their original name of Langobards, dwelt around the lower Elbe, near today’s Hamburg, before they joined the southward migration of the Germanic tribes. They had been employed, among other mercenaries, by Narses against the Goths, but in the aftermath of the Gothic war conquered most of rural Italy between AD 568 and 570, without encountering much resistance from the exhausted locals.
But the Gothic Wars were over.
 It was the effect of the plague of the 540s and its reoccurrence in much of Syria, Palestine, and Upper Mesopotamia from AD 600 on, and the eternal Romano-Persian border wars, that reduced the populations around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent (and hence the availability of soldiers) to a degree which permitted the eventual expansion of the Arabian Caliphate in the seventh century.
In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.
These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.
to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit
itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as
the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the
king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for
pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to
income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain
plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and
employing straw men.
ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one
hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of
the republic the membership swelled to 300, and
in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it
took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist
club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for
its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily
circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a
decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to
enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian
opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of
the treasury or fiscus, foreign affairs,
including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.
The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.
This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.
Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.
The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom, and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.
The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.
The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.
The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.
Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.
In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.
The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.
The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.
The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.
The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.
There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.
The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.
The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.
Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.
The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.
The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two, and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.
The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.
were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was
the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against
the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a
political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs
alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and
thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the
assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their
representatives with their own lives.
The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].
Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.
That nations cling to the chimera of glory and disremember failure is altogether human in its fallibility. In the same league, perhaps, is man’s perpetual underestimation of the amount of knowledge required before becoming able to judge on a subject. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss, as in Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fussell, historian and veteran of WW II, who was wounded 1945 in France, found numerous reasons to mistrust the victors’ polished platitudes and observed so many occasions of intentional misrepresentation in the treatment of the Second World War in American media that he felt compelled to conclude that “the allied part of the war of 1939-45 has been sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”
Naturally, such groups derive their redactional liberty from the fact that their side won the war and hence is able to evade moral ambiguity. Nearly everybody agrees that the industrial killing of Jews, or Gypsies, with cyanide was a crime nearly without precedence in history, but so were other inventions of the twentieth century: area-bombing civilians with conventional explosives as in, say, Dresden or Tokyo, or with nuclear fire as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the war had been lost, who could have explained the moral propriety of these undertakings?
Although almost seventy years have passed since the Second War‘s conclusion, misapprehensions and inaccuracies – intended or not – retain an eerie popularity. Norman Davies (No Simple Victory, Penguin Books 2006 – ISBN 978-0-14-311409-3) has written on the wilful misconceptions that are the consequences of political correctness and national myth-making. He notes that:
Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. And most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long ago. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals.Countless memoirs of participants’ great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep up the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add. At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said, and what is not said. [Emphases in original]
When Professor Davis set out to visit the various galas, celebrations and festivities that commemorated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of the War in 2005, he chanced upon mysterious perceptions …
… the new United States World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., bore, as its main inscription: “World War II 1941 – 1945”. The monument failed to inform the visitor that the United States did have allies, and seems to conclude that the United States fought and won the war alone, and in five years instead of seven …
… the British
celebrations somehow forgot to invite delegations from, among many other former
colonial allies, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand or Australia, all of
whom had participated in the war on the side of Great Britain…
… the Russian celebration on Red Square in Moscow forgot to mention, among other little sins, that the Soviet Union in the six years between 1940 and 1945 invaded and annexed the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only once but twice, in the process deporting and/or murdering land owners and intelligentsia. In addition, nobody thought it prudent to recall that the Soviet Union, allied with Germany in 1939, had invaded Poland and Finland only weeks later…
… none of these celebrations recalled the sufferings of the non-Jewish victims of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, nor the fate of the millions who were misplaced by the war or forcibly ejected from their homelands: over ten million Germans, five millions Ukrainians and about the same number of Poles, and millions of Byelorussians and Caucasian minorities. The Soviet Union in particular
relocated national groups, uprooting millions in the process. In the immediate
pre-war period they had forcibly removed some 500,000 Poles from the western
borders and resettled them in closed districts on the Chinese frontier in
In 1939-41 massive deportations took place from all the lands annexed by the USSR; and, once the Great Patriotic War started, strategic deportations began with an order to remove all Finns from the vicinity of Leningrad. Later in 1941, a long-standing plan (first mooted in 1915) was activated to deport the entire population of the Autonomous German Republic of the Volga. Some 2.5 million Germans were either sent to the labour armies or to Kazakhstan to join the exiled Poles. Within a decade over half of them were dead. The forced deportation and resettlement of seven Muslim nations in 1943-4 was especially brutal.
Mindful of the spectre of selective memory, Professor Davies subsequently felt the need to take a few precautions before discussing the war:
prelude to various talks and lectures on the Second World War, therefore, I
have often chosen to raise some of these problems by presenting the audience
with four or five simple questions:
Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Or, better
still, the ten biggest battles?
Can you name the main political ideologies that were
contending for supremacy during the war in Europe?
Can you name the largest concentration camp that was
operating in Europe in the years 1939- 1945?
Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic
group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war?
Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss
of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?
These have usually been followed by a deathly silence, and then a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I then offer my audience an opinion:”Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters,” I say, “we are not properly equipped to pass judgement on the wider issues.”
What are your answers to these five questions? Read Part II …
If we survey the map of the Carolingian Europe around AD 800, the evidence of Charles’s magnificence is plain to see. The Empire of the Franks extends from the Spanish Mark, north of the Ebro River, to the Channel at Calais, although the Bretagne could never be truly claimed; from the Gascogne and Aquitaine at the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the lands of the Saxons and the Bavarians and even to Pannonia, the plains of today’s Hungary; and from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea south through Thuringia, Alemannia and today’s Austria, the Alps up to Lower Italy. But, behold, from Ferrara in the delta of the PoRiver to Ancona on the western piedmont of the Apennines, and on the eastern side of the mountains, between the Duchies of Tuscia in the north and Spoleto and Beneventum in the south, embracing Rome, a new entity presents itself, the result of Charles’s pious donation: the Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, by which the bishop of Rome became a prince in his own profane right.
[The “Donation of Constantine” which bestowed these lands on the pope, was a forged document, allegedly composed on behalf of Emperor Constantine, awarding Latium in the east and the Emilia in the west, plus neighbouring areas, to the pope as eternal secular possessions. It appeared out of thin air, mysteriously, around AD 750. The problem was to explain why the document had been found only 450 years later. Pope Hadrian I came up with some good excuses, and then petitioned Charlemagne to effect the donation, which the grateful emperor did. The Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, existed well into the nineteenth century. [Article in the Britannica] [Latin Text from the Bibliotheca Augustana, Augsburg]
Yet some designs do not survive the architect for long, and such was the case with Charlemagne’s pride: on June 25, AD 841, twenty-seven years after the emperor’s death, his three grandsons and their respective armies met at a battlefield near Fontenoy, one hundred fifty miles southeast of Paris. One may argue, with caution, that the day of this battle may serve as the beginning of a history of the future “Germans”, although neither the name nor the country were to appear for centuries to come.
The day of Fontenoy saw Emperor Lothar, the eldest of the siblings, fight his brothers Ludwig, King of Bavaria, and Karl, King of what used to be called Neustria, western Franconia. Myth has it that 100,000 men perished on the field, although a figure of some 20,000 to 30,000 appears more realistic. The outcome of the melee was a strategic stalemate; no clear winner could be established.
Yet its consequences were enormous, a few years down the line : Charles’s empire broke apart, irreparably, the grandsons proceeding to divide the realm among themselves (which was not truly a surprise, for their fathers had done so as well) (Treaty of Verdun, 843, see Map above, Lothair receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine) .
Ludwig held on the eastern parts of the Franks’ dominions, which soon became known as the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, the precursor of what much later would be called “Germany”. Technically, one might argue that the establishment of the kingdom was the first step in the direction of a “German” state, little though its people were aware of it. In this respect, the German ethnogenesis followed an inverted path. On most occasions, people form communities which slowly widen in scope, from the village of the clan to the town of the tribe to the capital of the nation; from counties to duchies to kingdoms. In the case of “Germany”, however, the political entity, the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, existed first, while the notion of belonging to it as a fixed body politic evolved much later. Ludwig’s subjects would have been perplexed, or might have strongly objected, if one were to call them “Germans”: they thought of themselves as Franks [“Free Men”, ¶], Alemans [“All Men”, ¶], or Bavarians [“Bohemian Men”, ¶].
The word “Deutsch” for “German”, as in “Deutschland”, did only slowly emerge as a linguistic classification, in a process that required centuries. Its root, “theodiscus”, latinized from the Frankish “theoda”, for “volk”, i.e. “people”, was used to refer to any other language than Latin, the language of the church, the court and of diplomacy. “Theodiscus” was used to denote any vernacular language, Frankish, Thuringian, Bavarian, or even Normannic.
After a few decades of reposing in the bosom of the Eastern Franconian polity, the various tribes began to notice that they had, at least, one thing in common: the royal court, which was initially, as mentioned above, a moving affair. The court not only served as the primary legal institution, creating and employing, in due time, an Imperial, as opposed to Frankish or Saxonian, bureaucracy, it also was the centre of society and the arts; factors in creating the consciousness of belonging to a common culture. The second barrier-permeating institution of medieval life, in particular under Frankish hegemony, was the Catholic Church, which acted beyond the confines of tribal identities.
These first steps into the direction of a tentative communality were humbled, for a long time, by the absence of a common tongue. Many people had to learn a few words of Frankish to get by, which is the reason why we still call a trade language like, for example English in non-Anglophone countries, or Swahili in Eastern Africa, a “lingus franca”. The beginnings of what would one day become the “German” language, and its dialects (Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), were chaotic. It was only when basic communication was secured that the Germanic people realized that they had some things in common which differentiated them from, say, the Slays in the East or the far more Romanized people of the lands west of the Rhine, and from a common tongue a common cultural identity developed, albeit slowly.
Shortly after the Battle of Fontenoy, in the year AD 850 or so, about 3,5 million souls lived in the assortment of territories which was commonly referred to as the kingdom of Eastern Franconia; between and around the three great German rivers Elbe, Danube, and Father Rhine. Three quarters of the land were still forest or swamp, or swampy forest, and only a single road, a leftover from Roman times, led from the mid-Rhine to northern Germany only to lose itself after a few dozen miles. Life was short and brutish; improved by the civilizing influence of agriculture only in the former Roman areas of Bavaria and Swabia and along the western bank of the Rhine. These were the only places where roads, chapels, shops or schools existed.
King Ludwig found himself the head of a state, but not of a nation; “Germany” did not yet exist. In geographic terms, his realm was an artificial construct without any natural borders, home to a variety of tribes who could not really understand each other’s language. Leftovers of the great battles that had raged between the legions and the natives in the first and second centuries AD, the tribes who had fought Germanicus and emperor Marcus Aurelius, had migrated through the woods and swamps for decades and at length coalesced into new tribal entities: Franks, Frisians, Saxons, Alemans, Hessians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.
It was, without doubt, Ludwig’s greatest achievement that the newborn state, a strange concoction of fiercely independent clans, did not disintegrate at the first opportunity. The lands east respectively west of the Rhine developed differently: in the West, Roman customs and language at length overpowered the Germanic element, while in the East, where the Roman leverage had always been moderate, the Germanic element dominated and survived.
It was Christopher Clark who recently, in “The Sleepwalkers” [Allen Lane, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0713999426], had the beneficial idea to have a critical look at who and what exactly the people were who did, in fact, determine the fate of the continent (and much of the world) in these hot days of July 1914, respectively in the years preceding this summer.
we survey the European chancelleries in the spring and early summer of 1914, it
is impossible not to be struck by the unfortunate configuration of
personalities. From Castelnau and Joffre to Zhilinsky, Conrad von Hötzendorf,
Wilson and Moltke, the senior military men were all exponents of the strategic
offensive who wielded a fluctuating but important influence on the political
In 1913-14 first Delcassé, then Paléologue, both hardliners, represented France in St. Petersburg; Izvolsky, still determined to avenge the “humiliation” of 1909, officiated in Paris. The French minister in Sofia, Andre Panafieu, observed in December 1912 that Izvolsky was the “best ambassador in Paris,” because he had “personal interests against Germany and Austria,” and his Russian colleagues noticed that whenever he came to speak of Austrian policy vis-a-vis Belgrade his voice took on “a palpable tone of bitterness which had not left him since the time of the annexation.”The excitable Austrophobe Miroslav Spalajković was now at the Serbian ministry in St. Petersburg – his old enemy Count Forgach was helping to formulate policy in Vienna. One is reminded of a Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little. [Sleepwalkers, p. 358-9]
Yet behind the facades,
their masculinity was of the brittle sort. If we look at the photographs – as
Stefan Zweig observed, their pompousness makes us laugh – that portray their
stiff officiousness, burliness, lovingly tendered moustaches and uncomfortable
clothing, we recognize vanity – men for whom appearances were the armour of the
soul and who projected overdrawn notions of ego and honour as well as
clandestine dread of volatility and impotence upon the battlefield of
diplomacy, and when words failed they substituted blood – that of younger men.
At no time was the “honour” of nations an important if imaginary quality like then, in whose pursuit tens of millions of men were slaughtered and maimed. The sizable egos of fin-de-siècle manhood, however, came with that sort of irascibility which the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had so successfully targeted. Of course, the Serbian government – well aware of its laxity towards terrorist organizations – could have taken the unruffled point of view that ten years later no one would care whether a few Austrian detectives had pursued their own investigations in Belgrade after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand or not, and it would seem that except for the rapid Russian intervention Pasić would have grudgingly submitted to the Austrian yoke. But once the honour of the Serbian nation – not always its most conspicuous characteristic – was in doubt, acquiescence was impossible – et pereat mundus.
While St. Petersburg discussed the mobilization scenarios, Bethmann Hollweg in Berlin presented Wilhelm’s idea of an Austrian “Halt in Belgrade” (that a temporary Austrian occupation of Belgrade might suffice), as the Kaiser’s proposal of the 28th came to be known, to Vienna on the evening of the same day – albeit in a watered-down form. In his initial cable, a sceptical Hollweg minimized the impact of His Master’s Voice by cautioning Tschirschky to carefully “avoid giving the impression that we wish to restrain Austria.” But on the next day, July 29, the chancellor changed his tune, perhaps cautioned by Lichnowsky’s warnings that England seemed likely to stand by the Triple Entente yet considered a demarche in the direction of a “Halt in Belgrade” solution possible, and instructed Tschirschky to:
“Please communicate the enclosed1 to Count Berchtold at once, adding that we regard such compliance on the part of Serbia as suitable basis for negotiations on condition of an occupation of Serbian territory as a guarantee.” (3) [1: A copy of Lichnowsky’s telegram from London, which laid out an Italian proposal to get the Great Powers, i.e. France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy to formulate terms under which Serbia could accept the Austrian ultimatum in toto, and cited Sir Grey’s opinion that it might be “possible to bring about an understanding as to the extent of Austrian military operations and demands,” which in turn Hollweg thought close enough to the HALT IN BELGRADE proposal that England would also support the latter.]
Initially, Hollweg had been less than pleased with Wilhelm’s
initiative for, essentially of little flexibility, he was loath to give up
his policy of ‘localization’ of the conflict, although it became more likely
with every passing day that Russia could not be neutralized. The chancellor did
not believe that Russia would resort to war, but if she threatened to do so, he
was prepared to call the bluff. It was no bluff, it turned out – Russia, sure
of France and almost sure of Great
Britain, did not blink. The prospect of unintended consequences occasioned a
change in the chancellor’s opinion – Wilhelm’s offer of mediation began
to make sense.
In the night of July 29/30, Hollweg instructed Tschirschky to tell Berchtold that:
are, of course, prepared to fulfill our duty as allies, but must decline to let
ourselves be dragged by Vienna, irresponsibly and without regard to our advice,
into a world conflagration.” (4)
Suddenly the dynamics of
Austro-German relations had exchanged their polarity – initially the German
government had urged Vienna to speedy action, so as to pre-empt all these
problems that now towered before the two, while Austria had been her usual
perfunctory self – now, as Hollweg sought to pull the emergency brake,
Berchtold turned a deaf ear. But instead of doubling his efforts, Hollweg
quickly fell back into apathy, submitting his own fate and that of the nation
to the preordained but unfathomable offices of Divine Providence. It should
have been clear by then that the best scenario available to the German chancellor
was to urge on, nay, force the Kaiser’s proposal, HALT IN BELGRADE, down Berchtold’s throat, no matter the cost.
But this Hollweg did not do – he did not correspond at all with Tschirschky on the matter on this morning of July 30. Instead, he spent the day preoccupied by the tumultuous commotion but little constructive discussion precipitated in Berlin by the Tsar’s ominous telegram of 1:20 am, July 30 – the one that mentioned the “military measures … decided five days ago,” and the delayed receipt of Pourtales’s message sent on 3 pm the day before, informing Berlin of the Russian mobilization. The bad news sparked the Kaiser’s famous comments:
that [the five days mentioned by the Tsar] is
almost a week ahead of us. And these measures are supposed to be of
defence against Austria, who is not attacking
him!!! I cannot commit myself to mediation any more, since the Tsar, who
appealed for it, has at the same time been secretly mobilizing behind my back.
is only a
manoeuvre to keep us dangling and
increase the lead
he has already gained over us.
According to this the Tsar with his appeal for my help has simply been acting a part and leading us up the garden path! That means I have got to mobilize as well!” (5)
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