The business of the Civil Service is the orderly management of decline.
In the Year of the Lord 1889, the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday and forty-first anniversary of his reign over the vast Empire of Austria and Hungary; when he died, in 1916, he had ruled the state for sixty-eight years. The realm was huge – covering over 180,000 square miles or about 450,000 square kilometres. The emperor’s domains stretched, in the east-west axis, from Czernowitz on the Prut River in today’s Ukraine to Vorarlberg near the Swiss border, and, in the north-south axis, from the lower Elbe River near Aussig to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, two-thirds down the eastern Adriatic coast.
Ethnically and thus politically, however, these territories were hopelessly divided. The racial diversity of the Imperial population included Germans in Austria, Hungary and the Sudetenland; Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia; Slovaks to their east; Poles in western Galicia and Ruthenians, Catholic Ukrainians, in the eastern part of it; Magyars in Hungary and Transylvania interspersed with some more Germans and Romanians; Slovenes, Friulians and Italians south of the Julian Alps; and finally Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Montenegrinos and Serbs in and around the Balkan mountains.
these groups fought incessant but mostly inconclusive battles over
appointments, representation and influence
in the empire and its court, while a
laborious civil administration struggled with the actual governance of the
multitudes. The exceptionally long reign of Francis Joseph had much aided the
ossification of the Imperial
structures, which, given the Habsburgs’ reverence for tradition, were
conservative, to say the least; pre-modern, and reactionary.
Yet on the outside things appeared fit for eternity. Stefan Zweig, one of Vienna’s famous sons, describes the peculiar atmosphere of town and country:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-years-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanence, and the state itself was the chief guarantor of this stability. The rights which it granted to its citizens were duly confirmed by parliament, the freely elected representatives of the people, and every duty was exactly prescribed.
Our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in bright gold pieces, as assurance of its immutability. Everyone knew how much he possessed or what he was entitled to, what was permitted and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned.
family had its fixed budget, and knew how much could be spent for rent and
food, for holidays and entertainment; and what is more, invariably a small sum
was carefully laid aside for sickness and the doctor’s bills, for the
Whoever owned a house looked upon it as a secure domicile for his children and grandchildren; estates and businesses were handed down from generation to generation. When the babe was still in its cradle, its first mite was put in its little bank, or deposited in the savings’ bank, as a “reserve” for the future. In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovable in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed), another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence seemed impossible in an age of reason.
feeling of security was the most
eagerly sought-after possession of millions, the common ideal of life. Only the
possession of this security made life seem worthwhile, and constant widening
circles desired their share of this costly treasure.
At first, it was only the prosperous who enjoyed this advantage, but gradually the great masses forced their way toward it. The century of security became the golden age of insurance. One’s house was insured against fire or theft, one’s field against hail and storm, one’s person against accident or sickness. Annuities were purchased for one’s old age, and a policy was laid in a girl’s cradle for her future dowry. Finally, even the workers organized, and won standard wages and workman’s compensation. Servants saved for old-age insurance and paid in advance into a burial fund for their own interment. Only the man who could look into the future without worry could thoroughly enjoy the present. (1)
This peaceful state of bliss, however, did not necessarily embrace the whole empire; a new age has brought forth anarchists and socialists. Neither was the status of the rural poor much to write home about. Yet law and order were generally held in high regard for the safety and continuity of society they implied. Into this world of order, a son, whom she named Alois, was born, on the morning of June 7, 1837, out of wedlock, to the peasant maid Maria Anna Schicklgruber in the hamlet of Strones in the Austrian Waldviertel.
The Waldviertel, which literally translates as the “Wooden Quarter” or “Forest Quarter”, was one of the Austrian monarchy’s backwaters, a hilly “country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by.” (2) It is located slightly north-east of Linz, respectively north-west of Vienna, between the Danube River and the Czech border in the direction of Brno. It is a borderland and has seen its shares of marauding armies over the centuries. German tribes on the way to the treasures and temptations of the Roman Empire had crossed through the land which the Romans called “Noricum”, followed by the Huns, various tribes of Goths, the Hungarians and finally the Turks. It had seen armies in the Thirty-Years-War and the Napoleonic Wars; only after the Congress of Vienna a century of peace graced its gently rolling hills.
The name “Hitler”, variably spelled “Hidler”, “Hiedler”, “Hüttler”, “Hietler”, “Hytler” or “Hittler” was one of the more common names in the district. It is documented as early as 1435, when the Abbot of the Herzogenburg Monastery drew up a deed granting to Hannsen Hydler and his wife property near Raabs, on the Thaya River. (3) The etymology of the name indicates a possible derivation from the German word “Heide” [in English “heather”, relating to a meadow], of which the Waldviertel was full. All of Alois’ life occurred within a radius of one hundred miles of Linz, then as now the capital of the province of Oberösterreich, Upper Austria.
Little is known about Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandmother Maria Schicklgruber. The tiny village of Strones where she lived was far too small to be a parish of its own, and thus baby Alois had to be registered in the slightly bigger village of Döllersheim, a couple of miles to the north-west. It was generally known that the baby was born out of wedlock and therefore was, strictly speaking, “illegitimate”. Many theories have been spun and explanations offered in which this circumstance supposedly played the one or other role in Alois Hitler’s life or in that of his son Adolf, and they are all bunkum. The reality of the Waldviertel dictated that “legitimacy” was a concept the peasants simply could not afford to pay heed to, and which occasioned no advantages in their daily lives. “Illegitimacy” might have been a significant problem for the heir of a throne or the prospective owner of land, a shop or business, but not to farmhands and share croppers. It was a common occurrence, and there is not the slightest indication that Alois ever suffered from an imagined stigma attached to it. There were no empires to bestow on Alois, and his son took them regardless of a court’s permission.
Another disparaging theory was circulated in the early 1930s regarding Adolf Hitler’s parental grandfather. Alois, the rumours held, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish merchant from Graz named Frankenberger or Frankenreither, who had seduced Maria, who was working as a maid in his household – in a variation of the theme, the merchant’s son was the debaucher, and his father paid for the girl’s discretion.
Such a story, if true, would naturally be a feast for Hitler’s political enemies. After a few Austrian newspapers had come up with it during the German general election campaign of 1930, the allegations resurfaced when Hitler ran for German president against Hindenburg in 1932. At length, Hitler dispatched his legal counsellor Hans Frank to investigate. The lawyer was told that the nineteen-year-old son of a Mr. Frankenberger from Graz was the culprit, whose father had allegedly paid alimonies to Fräulein Schicklgruber for fourteen years; a variance of the story had Mr. Frankenberger and his lecherous son in Linz, not Graz. There was, however, not a shred of evidence available in either town, no trace of payments, and hence the story slowly died. Research in the Austrian and Jewish records of Graz and Linz undertaken after 1945 established conclusively that no Jewish families had been allowed to settle in either town before the 1860s, twenty years after Alois’ birth. Neither were there any Frankenbergers or Frankenreiters at all, and thus the bottom fell out of the story for good.
The first five years of Alois Schicklgruber’s life were spent in Strones with his mother, who married, in 1842, a seldom employed millworker named Johann Georg Hiedler from the nearby hamlet of Spital near Weitra. [FN1] The marriage seems not to have changed much: the couple lived in abject poverty, and after Maria died five years later of tuberculosis and Johann Georg re-entered the vagrant lifestyle, the child passed into the wardship of Johann Georg Hiedler’s brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler of Spital, House # 36. This wardship gave rise to a fair amount of village gossip: rumour control asserted that Johann Nepomuk was, in fact, the biological father of the boy.
[FN1] The name “Spital” is a common name for Austrian villages and towns, and the village of Spital in Lower Austria, which plays a role here, must not be confused with the town of Spital in Carinthia, whither, for example, historian Marlis Steinert puts Johann Nepomuk Hüttler.
knows who Alois’ father truly was, and it is possible that Maria did not know
herself. In this time and place, sexual relations among farmhands were
essentially unregulated, babies born out of wedlock numerous and considered
welcome additions to the work force if they survived early childhood.
More interesting than idle speculation about the identity of Adolf Hitler’s grandfather is the question of why Alois’ original birth certificate underwent rewriting, tampering and forgery in the summer of 1876, when he was already thirty- nine years old. What had happened in the meantime that could explain such an act?
In 1850, at the age of thirteen, Alois ran away from home, a fact that allows an inference or two about the circumstances or happiness of his childhood. He fled to Vienna, where he quickly found employment as apprentice to a cobbler. He finished, as far as we know, the four years standard apprenticeship and became a shoemaker, but soon quit this profession and enlisted in the Austrian civil service. He passed the entrance examination, which seems quite an achievement since he had enjoyed little schooling at home, and was accepted to serve in the Customs division of the Austrian financial administration. In “Mein Kampf“, son Adolf described his father’s arrival in the Austrian capital as follows:
the son of a poor cottager, he [Alois] could not even in those early days bear
to stay at home. Before he was thirteen, the youngster laced his tiny knapsack
and fled from his homeland, the Waldviertel. Despite all the attempts of “experienced”
villagers to dissuade him, he made his own way to Vienna in order to learn a
This was in the fifties of the last century. It was a bitter decision to take the road and plunge into the unknown with only three Gulden for travel money. But by the time the thirteen-year-old had grown to seventeen, he had passed his apprentice’s examination [as a cobbler], but was not yet content with his lot – quite to the contrary. The long period of hardship, the endless poverty and misery he had suffered, strengthened his determination to give up the trade in order to become something “better”.
Once the village priest had seemed to the poor boy the embodiment of all humanly attainable heights, so now, in the great city, which had so powerfully widened his perspective, it was the rank of civil servant. With all the tenacity of a young man, who had grown “old” in suffering and sorrow while still half a child, the seventeen-year-old clung to his new decision – and he became a civil servant.” (4)
These words must be read with the knowledge that Adolf Hitler was on the record to regard his father with feelings closer to hate than love, but here he attempts to draw a picture of success, which was to contrast sharply to the opinions he shared in private, or at his headquarters’ dinner tables in the Second World War. More than from the laundered account of his father in “Mein Kampf” we can infer, regarding the happiness of the family Adolf grew up in, from the fact that Alois’ first son Alois Jr., Adolf’s half-brother, left this home at the same age of thirteen as his father had, never to return.
Meanwhile, the stations of Alois Schicklgruber’s rise to a somewhat respectable position in the Customs department – the highest to which he could aspire, given his limited education – followed the predictable patterns of civil service careers; that is, moving through the ranks and around the country. Originally attached as a most junior servant to the Austrian Ministry of Finance in 1855, he was relatively quickly promoted. In the year 1861 we find him as a supervisor in Saalfelden, Tyrolia, and in 1864 as an assistant in the bigger Customs office in Linz. In 1870, he was moved again, to Mariahilf, a change that was sweetened by a promotion to assistant collector. A year later he arrived in the small border town of Braunau at the Inn River, with the rank of Senior Assistant; he grew to like the little town and stayed for almost two decades. In 1875, he was promoted to Assistant Customs Inspector. His career was not spectacular per se, but it was a decent calling for a man of his origins and, apparently, that was what his family thought when they concocted a scheme to bestow upon him a dollop of enhanced respectability.
June 6, 1876, Alois and three of his friends – Josef Romeder, who was one of
Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s sons- in-law, Johann Breiteneder and Engelbert Paukh –
paid a visit to the public notary Josef Penkner in the small town of Weitra, not far from Alois’ birthplace
Strones. The notary was paid to prepare for Alois a “LEGALISIRUNGS-PROTOCOLL“, a protocol of legitimization for his
birth. The three friends attested that Johann Georg Hiedler, he of the vagrant lifestyle (whom they had known well, they said), had
attested to them at various times that he was, in fact, the biological father of
Alois Schicklgruber, whom he planned to legitimize one day. The document was
drawn up, the witnesses signed, but for a reason that remains unexplained, the
paper featured Alois’ new family name in the form “Hitler”, not as
“Hiedler” or “Hüttler”. Beweaponed with this document, the posse made its way to the little town of
Döllersheim on the next morning, where they paid a visit to the local priest,
Father Josef Zahnschirm, upon whom they played
a “cunning peasant trick”. (5)
On the power of the notarized document, and perhaps a contribution to the church funds, Father Zahnschirm agreed to make a few changes to Alois Schicklgruber’s baptismal record. The original birth certificate featured blanks in the space for the name of the father and the field for remarks. The blanks were now filled by entering “Georg Hitler. Cat.rel., Living in Spital” as the father, and under “Remarks” that …
“The undersigned witnesses hereby confirm that Georg Hitler, who was well-known to them, acknowledged paternity of the child Alois, son of Anna Schicklgruber, and they requested that his name be entered in the baptismal register. +++ Josef Romeder, Witness, +++ Johann Breiteneder, Witness, +++ Engelbert Paukh, Witness.” (6)
Speculations about this mission abound. Some private family business may have played a role; rumours tied Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, who had been so conspicuously absent in Weitra and Döllersheim, into the drama; “There was village gossip that Alois was his natural son.” (7)
The net result of the clandestine affair was that Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler. Father Zahnschirm had clearly been lied to when he was told that Johann Georg Hiedler was still alive [“Living in Spital“], but the churchman may have had his own thoughts about the procedure from the beginning, as had, apparently, the witnesses: the priest “forgot” to date and sign for the changes, and the witnesses had turned illiterate, signing with crosses, which could be explained as errors, should the need arise. The climax of the play came when the improved birth certificate was registered at the nearest Austrian chancery in Mistelbach. [FN2]
[FN2] Marlis Steinert followed up on the Austrian government’s subsequent authentication of the fraud: “A correspondence between the priest, the communal administration and the Financial Office in Braunau confirmed the legal validation of the document per matrimonium subsequens [due to Georg’s marriage to Maria Anna five years after Alois’ birth], citing a decree of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna from September 12, 1868, in which such legitimations should be granted as far as possible.” (9)
The formerly illegitimate Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, civil servant and owner of a gold-buttoned uniform; when he, half a year after Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s death, bought a farm for the proud sum of five thousand florins in cash; the village gossip nodding – conclusions confirmed.
Alois had gone through a number of romantic entanglements in his life, and had sampled experience in holy matrimony as well. He had married for the first time on October 1873 at thirty-six years of age, although it seems that at this time he had already fathered a child in a different relation. (8) At any rate, the marriage seems to have been built on reasons superior to love alone: the bride, Anna Glassl-Hoerer, was the daughter of a high-ranking financial officer, an inspector in the Treasury’s Bureau of Tobacco, fourteen years older than her husband and of ill health. Nobody would have been surprised had status and finances played a role in the match.
Due to the frequent changes of assignment, Alois had made it a habit to lodge in Gasthäusern, inns, for the greater part of his life, and these lodgings brought him into daily contact with waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses and tobacco girls, whether he liked it or not. Apparently he did not mind, and he did possess the most important condition to warrant female attention, a steady job and hence a steady income. By the time Anna filed for separation in 1880, perhaps tired of his infidelities, he had quite openly conducted an affair with the waitress of the Gasthaus Streif, a girl named Franziska (Fanny) Matzelsberger, for some time.
Yet the relation to Fanny did not preclude Alois, as it seems, from experiencing an urgent need for another maidservant, and he soon installed another young girl of sixteen years in his mansard under the roof of the inn; a slender, attractive girl named Klara Pölzl. The idea met with the furious opposition from Franziska, who had zero doubt about the nature of the services Klara would be asked to perform for Alois, and she succeeded in having the competition thrown out quickly. In due time Franziska bore a son to Alois Hitler, who was named Alois Junior, on January 13, 1882. When Anna, who had in the meantime obtained a legal decree of separation, died in the following year of consumption, Alois was free to marry Franziska. She soon bore Alois another child, a girl named Angela.
At this time Alois officially decided to accept the paternity of the children and had Alois Jr. and Angela legitimized. It was an outward sign of his striving for recognition and respectability, which were what counted in this deeply authoritative society. He had a gratifying career and money to spend; he earned more than, for instance, the local school principal. He was in his “best years” and loved to have his photo taken, in uniform. A question remains as far as the sympathies of his colleagues at work are concerned; one source describes him as “rigid and pedantic“, yet these would be qualities his employer might favour and may explain his success. In a letter to a cousin who had inquired about a job for his son, Alois drew the following portrait of himself and his profession:
“Don’t let him think that the ‘Finanzwach’ [Fiscal Service] is a kind of game, because he will quickly be disillusioned. First, he has to show absolute obedience to his superiors at all levels. Second, there is a good deal to learn in this occupation, all the more so if he had little previous education. Topers, debtors, card players, and others who lead immoral lives cannot enlist. Finally, one has to go out on duty in all weathers, day or night.” (10)
Characteristically, Alois’ enumeration of “immoral” lifestyles did not include dubious and perhaps illicit contacts to waitresses and chambermaids, nor illegitimate babies. But a shadow soon appeared on his private horizon; a short time after giving birth to Angela, Franziska developed tuberculosis, as Anna had, and was forced to leave Braunau to seek a cure in mountain air. Alois was suddenly left alone with two small children on the top floor of the inn, and since his career as Customs official had not prepared him for the care of toddlers, he reimported Klara as soon as Franziska had left town. Klara Pölzl was actually Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s granddaughter, and therefore Alois’ niece, in the context of which the closeness of family relations in the Waldviertel may be observed again. One photo of Klara has survived. She was tall and slender, almost as tall as her husband, had very regular and attractive features framed by brown hair; not a beauty but what is called in France a “belle laide”, an interesting girl. The outstanding aspect of her face was certainly her voluminous turquoise eyes. By all accounts she was neat, simple, and loving. Her education was close to nil, but, then again, the sources agree that she behaved correctly in public and had no problems with the role of being the common-law wife of a Customs official. In private, she was known as a most efficient housekeeper, cook, organizer, and nurse to the children.
The community in Braunau accepted her without qualms, which is somewhat surprising: it was one of these little towns in which the neighbours take an interest in everything that is not their business. In the summer of 1884, Franziska died of consumption, as Anna had earlier, and Klara was already pregnant. Alois wanted to marry her, but now the manipulation of the birth certificate backfired: since the former Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, he was officially Klara’s uncle and no marriage was possible under the laws of the Austrian Catholic church unless a dispensation was granted. With the aid of the local priest, Alois composed a letter to the Bishop of Linz, which has survived:
who with most humble devotion have appended their signatures below have decided
upon marriage. But according to the enclosed family tree, they are prevented by
the canonical impediment of collateral affinity in the third degree, touching
second. They therefore make the humble request that the Most Revered Episcopate
will graciously secure for them a dispensation on the following grounds:
bridegroom has been a widower since August 10th of this year, as can be
observed from the enclosed death certificate, and he is the father of two minors, a boy of two and a half
years (Alois) and a girl of one year and two months (Angela), and they
both need the services of a nurse, all the more because he is a Customs
official away from home all day and often at night and therefore in no position
to supervise the education and upbringing of his children. The bride has been
caring for these children ever since their mother’s death, and they are very
fond of her.
Thus, it may be justifiably assumed that they will be well brought up and the marriage will be a happy one. Moreover, the bride is without means, and it is unlikely that she will ever have another opportunity to make a good marriage. For these reasons the undersigned repeat their humble petition for a gracious procurement of dispensation from the impediment of affinity.
Enclosed was a version of the family tree, which presented Alois Hitler as the son of Johann Georg Hiedler, the vagrant, whose brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler was the grandfather of Klara Pölzl, the bride. We will have the opportunity to encounter a letter or two written by the young Adolf, Alois’ son, in a later post, and they will sound oddly similar in diction and style to the epistle above. Alois’ petition for a dispensation reeks of the same sort of not very sublime deception that he had employed in the “improvement” of his original birth certificate; what John Toland had called the “cunning peasant trick“. The son was to employ similar tactics in his own time.
The addressee, the Bishop of Linz, hesitated, and decided, following proper bureaucratic procedure, to call upon a higher authority. A short summary of the case, including the original letter, family tree and a “testimonium paupertatis“, an instrument of declaring poverty which waived the payment of the usual fees, was forwarded to the Sacra Rota, the department of the Holy See that deals with matrimonial issues. The Vatican apparently cared as much or little about a wee bit of incest in Braunau as the peasants of the Waldviertel cared about legitimacy, and the release was granted three weeks later.
Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl were married on January 7, 1885. The ceremony took place in the morning, in a hurry, it seems: Klara complained that before noon, “my husband was already on duty again.” (12) Later in the evening, a small banquet in the company of Alois’ Customs colleagues followed at the Gasthaus Pommer.
Marriage hardly changed anything in their lives. The pair had known each other for years, and Klara was accustomed to her duties in the household. She was a simple but quiet, modest and polite woman that never put up demands on her husband, the children, or the community. She was deeply religious and attended services regularly. The family lived without any trace of scandal, even Alois’ private investigations into the lives of the local waitresses and chambermaids seemed to abate. Money was not plenty but sufficient to afford the family a proper living standard, and they played their parts in the community without fail.
If we gaze at Klara’s photograph, taken when she was about twenty-six, we look into the face of a simple but pleasant country girl. The most impressive feature of her face are indeed her luminous, expressive eyes. Robert Payne observed:
In the photograph she looks vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. She was a spirited woman, who could, if necessary, stand up to her husband. She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her face suggests an uncommon gentleness and tenderness, an essential goodness. She was one of these women who live for their husbands, their children, and their faith. (13)
She was to bear six children to Alois, four sons and two daughters, of which one each survived childhood. The elder children Alois Jr. and Angela were joined by Adolf in April 1889 and Paula in January 1896. Four children died young: Gustav at the age of two; Ida at the same age; Otto died in the cradle, and Edmund in his sixth year. [FN3]
[FN3] It seems that the fate of the Hitler family was no exception. A boyhood friend of Adolf, August Kubizek, described the early trials of his freshly-married parents as follows: “At first the young couple lived in the house of my mother’s parents. My father’s wages were low, the work was hard, and my mother had to give up her job when she was expecting me. Thus, I was born in rather miserable circumstances. One year later my sister Maria was born, but died at a tender age. The following year, Therese appeared; she died at the age of four. My third sister, Karoline, fell desperately ill, lingered on for some years, and died when she was eight. My mother’s grief was boundless. Throughout her life she suffered from the fear of losing me, too; for I was the only one left to her of her four children.” (14)
this point in time and place, such a mortality rate was considered almost
normal. Children were born and died by the thousands, of measles, diphtheria, pneumonia
and other common childhood diseases; deadly in a time which knew not yet sulphonamides or penicillin. The
family was in the care of Dr. Eduard Bloch, a general practitioner, but the
science of microbiology was not yet invented
and the invisible agents of death prospered unhindered.
general, however, it was a respectable and orderly family which welcomed, at
six o’clock in the evening of April 20, 1889, its newest member, Adolfus.
This will be a very long post and take some time to finish, approximately until the summer of 2020. Please be welcome to bookmark it. Quotations will be listed after completion on the bottom of the text.
Part I: From the Conference of Berlin to the Russo-Japanese War (1878 – 1905)
Russia’s geopolitical issues are mostly of geographic nature, the inaccessibility of much of Siberia, the endless distances and the perennial problem of her ports – both for trade and military purposes. Before the construction of the port of Murmansk in 1915, there were only two Russian ports in the north-west: Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg (later renamed Petrograd). Arkhangelsk, however, was useless in the winter, and the usability of St. Petersburg was easily controlled by an eventual blockade of the Kattegat Strait by Germany. The Pacific ports suffered from transport handicaps – although the Trans-Siberian Railway was more or less functioning by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904/05, it was a single track only and its capacity was low. There were, however, ice-free ports available in the Black Sea …
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 brought two principal changes in the strategic equilibrium of the continent; one clear and immediately visible, the other latent, circumspect, and slow in its consequences. Number One was the emergence of a new, possibly dominant, power on the continent – Wilhelmine Germany – which everybody had to take note of; Number Two was the emergence of another, possibly dominant, European power – an industrialized and modernized Russian Empire – of which few took notice.
Franco-German enmity had become a predictable factor of the new European reality; revanchism was to remain the French Right’s battle cry for the foreseeable future. That France’s desire for revenge could not be fulfilled without outside aid was also clear; both her stagnant population and relative industrial underperformance – at least if compared to Germany – illustrated her weakness. She could not endanger Germany unless in concert with Russia, but this avenue Bismarck had blocked.
If Franco-German tension was the western centre of European politics after 1871, the other two were in the East, consisting of the triangles Constantinople – St. Petersburg – Vienna and Constantinople – London – St. Petersburg. These were the centres of attention of all European powers – except perhaps for Germany, which was far away and could not hope to profit from a breakup of the Ottoman Empire. They paid mindfulness to the decay of the Turkish realm and stood ready to pick up the pieces. Triangle One defined the Balkans, the scene of Austro-Russian disputes over their future inheritance, and Triangle Two incorporated Mesopotamia and Persia, the pieces over which Russia and Great Britain expected to haggle after the demise of the Ottomans.
Bismarck was only too aware of the quandaries of the situation, and thus had provided for the”Re-Insurance Treaty“, which held Russia to neutrality in the case of a new Franco-German war regardless of origin, and thus banned the spectre of Germany having to fight a two-front war. But after his retirement in 1890, the Re-Insurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire through the legendary stupidity of Wilhelm II, new Chancellor Leo von Caprivi and the new Secretary of State Bieberstein; the latter did not even inquire in St. Petersburg whether the Czar desired a prolongation of the compact. The Russian court, perplexed, could only interpret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inexplicable German hostility and began to look for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.
To discern that both the European and Asian borderlands of the Ottoman Empire were the most volatile areas of the respective international relations did not require the application of prophecy, and someone should have noticed that Russia was the attractor that figured in each possible crisis scenario, but no one did, and few care today; as Sean McMeekin notes, “as for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honour, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (12)
It is indicative of a habitual geopolitical superficiality that even general history works of the era do not enlighten the curious layman what, for example, French, British, Australian and New Zealand troops sought at the Gallipoli Peninsula, i.e. the Dardanelles, in 1915/16. There were no Germans, nor Austrians, and the landscape was not very attractive.
To prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement had been Bismarck’s priority, but as we had the opportunity to observe, the German Foreign Office was far too preoccupied after 1890 with internal strife and incompetence to notice the signs of the times; the failure was aggravated by the fact that the two decades after 1890 were the years in which the fateful system of alliances developed and petrified.
Early signs of trouble came from south-eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, the critical triangle between Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg. Slavic hotheads instigated local insurrections from the mid-1870s on; some were home-grown, as in Bulgaria, where, Luigi Albertini remarks, more than two hundred revolutionary committees could be counted in 1872, (13) and some were kindled by Serbian agents. Russian expansionism and Slavic ethnocentricity concerted, founded upon age-old Russo-Turkish and Austro-Slavic enmity; encouraged, perhaps, by the Russian generals’ impression that both Turks and Austrians were militarily inferior, “beatable“, so to say. Luigi Albertini sums up the Russian designs on the Turks as follows:
Russian ambitions in the Balkan Peninsula were of ancient date. [FN5] Eight wars at least she had waged on the Turks either to take their territory or to help Orthodox Slavs and Greeks to throw off the Turkish yoke. In the recent Crimean War Russia had come up against Austrian hostility. Forgetful of services rendered by the Tsar in 1849, when Nicholas I had saved Francis Joseph’s throne by sending Russian troops to smother the Hungarian revolt, Austria had maintained an unfriendly neutrality during this war, and at the Congress of Paris in 1856 had helped to deprive Russia of part of Bessarabia.
Having reached the Black Sea in the eighteenth century, Russia henceforward aspired to free access to the Mediterranean. But the Straits were in Turkish possession, and entry to them was regulated by international agreements unfavourable to Russia. The Black Sea was a mare clausum [FN6] and its key was in other hands. Still, older than the Russian aspiration to the Straits was the aspiration for Constantinople. [FN7] The cross was to be raised on the Church of Santa Sophia as a symbol of the protection given by Russia to the Balkan Christians and of her aid in their liberation. (14)
[FN5] Albertini explains: “In 1833, by the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, Russia had achieved the closing of the Dardanelles to enemy fleets seeking to penetrate to the Black Sea. This clause was modified by the Treaty of London of 1840 and the Straits Convention of 1841, which denied the Straits to ships of war whether entering or leaving the Black Sea, a principle confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1856, which further forbade both Russia and Turkey to have warships in the Black Sea. After the denunciation of this clause by Russia in 1870, the Treaty of London had withdrawn the veto, but had for the first time admitted the principle that foreign warships might enter the Black Sea in time of peace, if the Sultan deemed it necessary for the safeguarding of the other clauses of the Treaty of Paris. Thus, Russia could not pass her Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean, while the Sultan could admit enemy fleets into the Black Sea, a complete reversal to the disadvantage of Russia of the principle of the closed Straits.” (16) [FN6] Latin: a “closed sea” [FN7] Sean McMeekin comments that Constantinople had been called “Tsargrad” by Russians for centuries; the town from where, after successful Reconquista from the Muslims, the Tsar would reign over a “Second Rome“, a new Orthodox Christian Empire. (17)
The development of Pan-Slavism in the 1860s added to the volatility of the region, for the enthusiasts of some imaginary ethnic unity demanded the establishment of a greater Slavic confederation, which was to include “Russia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Constantinople with the Straits, a Serb-Croat-Slovene realm corresponding approximately to Yugoslavia, and in addition Greece, Romania and Hungary.” (15) It would appear thus, that Greek, Romanians and Hungarians would become involuntary Slavs, and in addition, one might argue that there were few Slavs in Constantinople who urgently expected their liberation. But Pan-Slavism found its most enthusiastic adherents in the south: neither the Poles, who longed to have their state back, which had been divided up by Russia, Austria and Prussia in the three successive divisions of the late eighteenth century, nor the Czechs, who aspired to their own state in Bohemia and Moravia, eventually together with the Slovaks a bit further east, were keen on a union with southern Slavs, for they were only too keenly aware of the ethnic and religious divisions of the Balkan.
There existed within the southern Slavs living in Austria-Hungary a quite numerous faction which would accept the recently quite liberal Habsburg reign and aspired to little more than, say, limited home rule and decent representation in the administration of the realm. The Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was essentially open to their suggestions, but the goodwill of the constructive faction came to nought because of the intransigence of the Hungarian nobility — in some respects, the Slavs were less of a problem to Austria than the Hungarians, who, by skilful negotiation, had created for themselves a very advantageous position in the Austro-Hungarian “Ausgleich“ of 1867.
Luigi Albertini summarizes the result of the bargain:
[By the Ausgleich] … the Empire was divided into two rigidly separated States; on the one hand Austria with the Hereditary Crown lands formerly belonging to the Holy Roman Empire and the later acquisitions Galicia and Dalmatia, and on the other Hungary together with Transylvania and Croatia, from which Fiume was detached and placed directly under Hungary.
Each of the two states was to have its own Constitution, Government, and Parliament. Common to both states were the Ministers for War, Foreign Affairs, and Finance, the latter in so far as he administered the revenues covering defence and diplomatic expenditure. While legislation and the budget came under the separate parliaments, their joint interests were to be dealt with by standing committees called Delegations nominated annually by the respective Parliaments. For matters concerning commerce and customs, the two governments were to conclude separate agreements every ten years.
Though the word Ausgleich means “equalization” and the compromise assured equal rights to both sides, Austria was to contribute 70% of the joint expenditure and Hungary only 30%, which, as Friedjung [Heinrich Friedjung, then Professor at the University of Vienna] observes, was equivalent to a “tribute obligation” from Austria to Hungary, of which the Hungarians were wont to boast. (18)
In his role as King of the Hungarians, Emperor Francis Joseph was bound by the resolutions of the Hungarian parliament, and thus, as the Austrian historian Viktor Bibl observed, the Magyars had the upper hand in governmental practice:
Not two sovereign Parliaments were to deal with joint business; not the King of Hungary and the Emperor were to base themselves on an agreement between the two states. Solely the Hungarian Parliament and Ministers impose their will as law on the entire Monarchy, including Austria; the King of Hungary as executor of the Hungarian national will is absolute master of Austria. (19)
And so it had come to pass that most of the southern Slavs of the Empire had come under the Hungarian thumb, from which they received little kindness. It was the small, semi-autonomous Principality of Serbia, technically a province of the Ottoman Empire, which, relying on Russian protection in the case of failure, felt elected to propel Pan-Slavic dreams toward their eventual fulfilment. After raising an insurgency against the Turkish overlords in Bosnia 1875, the Serbian ruler Prince Milan urged Constantinople to entrust his state with the governance of the errant province. When the Sultan denied the motion, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Turks on June 30, 1876. By September, they were defeated, and the Serbs asked their putative protector, Tsar Alexander II, to intercede on their behalf and to arrange an armistice. Russia eyed the possibility to have found in the Serbo-Turkish war a proper excuse to attack the Ottomans themselves, but this could not be done unless Austrian neutrality could be obtained.
Diplomatic missives were exchanged between Vienna and St. Petersburg, and despite Austrian conditions that, in Albertini’s words, were “tantamount to [Russia] fighting for the benefit of Austria-Hungary,” (20) a military convention and political agreement was signed in Budapest in early 1877, and Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24. The Convention of Budapest awarded Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austria and assured her that no greater Slavic state was to be founded in the Balkans as a result of Russia’s future endeavours.
Eventually, Russia won a confused campaign, and in March 1878 exacted from Turkey the Treaty of San Stefano. The agreement established a geographically generous, supposedly independent Bulgaria on Turkey’s doorstep, which, however, could fool no one as to its being a “Russian outpost towards Constantinople“. (21) In addition, the compact not only bestowed full independence on Serbia, Montenegro and Romania but also provided autonomy, under Austro-Russian “supervision“, to Bosnia and Hercegovina.
All that, of course, directly violated the Convention of Budapest and also was far more than Great Britain was willing to tolerate – for it turned out that Russia and Austria had clandestinely agreed to “liberate” Constantinople, which would become a “Free City“. Now an Anglo-Russian conflict threatened over the San Stefano Treaty, and Austria espied an opportunity to renegotiate her terms with Russia. For her benevolent neutrality, she now demanded not only Bosnia and the Hercegovina, again, but added parts of Montenegro and of the large Bulgarian state which the San Stefano Treaty had just created. It was all too obvious to suspect that Austria envisioned a road for herself all the way down to Salonika and the Aegean Sea; on August 6, 1878, Count Julius Andrassy, then Austria’s Foreign Minister, admitted in a letter to the King of Wuerttemberg that the possession of these lands “enables us in the event of a collapse of Turkey to be as near as possible to the scene, to safeguard our interests.” (22)
With Austria entering the race for the Straits – for a naval base in Salonika, furnished with the proper ships, could easily close the Straits independently of Turks or Russians or the British – the situation became opaque, impenetrable, while the stakes increased. Great Britain’s new Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury realized this, and, assisted by Bismarck, whose back channels in St. Petersburg had informed him about the Austro-Russian collusion, invited the European powers to a continental congress to adjudicate all pending matters, which opened in Berlin on June 13, 1878.
After a lot of horse-trading and pressure brought to bear by Bismarck and Lord Beaconsfield, i.e. Benjamin Disraeli, the congress eventually entrusted Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austrian occupation, while upholding titular Turkish suzerainty over these provinces. In addition, Austria reserved the right to intercede in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the strip of territory separating Serbia and Montenegro, if the Ottomans were unable to guarantee a competent administration of the province, which remained under their sovereignty.
The problem of the Straits, however, could not be addressed satisfactorily; for England and Russia could not find a compromise. (23) Statehood and independence were granted to Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, the latter two receiving additional territories. Russia appropriated Armenia and reoccupied Bessarabia. The island of Cyprus Great Britain had secured from Turkey on June 4, ten days before the Congress began; that she attempted to keep the acquisition secret – in vain, when the news went around the world on July 8 – was only more water on the mills of those who were wont to complain about “Perfidious Albion” and her hypocrisy. The bottom line, however, was that everybody had profited “at the expense of Turkey, to which up to 1878 had belonged Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bessarabia, Armenia, and Cyprus, and under whose sovereignty till then had stood Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.” (24)
This short description of the events giving rise to the Congress of Berlin has been chosen to serve as an impression of the manner in which European diplomacy was customarily handled; in the best case, its double and triple layers of deceit could be repaired by the efforts of reasonable and skilful men like Disraeli and Bismarck; under the aegis of lesser diplomatic talents, accidents happened galore, as may be read in detail in Luigi Albertini’s magnum opus.
We shall now attempt to concentrate the next twenty-five years or so of European power politics, each of them as complicated and deceptive as the events that led to the Congress of Berlin – and some worse – in a form that hopefully allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. Essentially, we shall follow the interplay of the Great Powers, mindful that the rapid sociological and economic changes of the industrial age exerted limitations on governmental options than had been unknown only decades earlier – fear of socialism, for one.
The Congress of Berlin had not only addressed questions of the Balkans but many other points of interest and one of its results had been that Bismarck and Disraeli had granted France “a free hand in Tunis,” (25) for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Mediterranean instead of courting Russia. Licence for France, however, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new possessions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather underdeveloped and would be expected to do her homework first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the aforementioned psychological desiderata of successful imperialism.
In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and established a protectorate over the region, but because at this time Gladstone and the conservatives were in power in England, far more sceptical to French acquisitions in Africa than Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had been, Italy thought she might enlist British aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But England was loath to replace a French threat to her Mediterranean position with a potentially worse Italian one and Rome got nowhere. Having arrived there, only an understanding with Germany could help, but then Bismarck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pursuing a “jackal policy”. (26) Thus it took another eighteen months of horse-trading before, on May 20, 1882, Germany, Austria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alliance”, valid for five years.
The contract began with the solemn assurance that the parties “have agreed to conclude a Treaty which by its essentially conservative and defensive nature pursues only the aim of forestalling the dangers that might threaten the security of their States and the Peace of Europe.” (27) Because it was exactly such conservative, peaceful and defensive agreements that proved unable to stop the conflagration of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, summarized by Luigi Albertini:
The High Contracting Parties mutually promised peace and friendship, pledged themselves to enter into no alliance or engagement directed against one of their States and to exchange views on political and economic questions of a general nature that might arise, [and] promised mutual support within the limits of their own interests (Article I).
Austria and Germany undertook in the case of an unprovoked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same obligation was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggression by France on Germany without direct provocation (Article II).
If one or two of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not signatories of the treaty, the casus foederis would arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties (Article III).
In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a signatory to the Treaty, which threatened its security, the two others would maintain benevolent neutrality, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Article IV). (28)
The attentive reader will have readily identified two problems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the signatories is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the question under which conditions this might be the case. Second, some scenarios were left out; for example, the contract would not apply if Austria would be attacked by Russia alone. The alliance was, of course, directed against France; Bismarck, whose opinion of the Italians had not much improved, saw the purpose of the Triple Alliance less in winning Italy but in preventing her from associating with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”]. By 1888, Romania had essentially joined the Triple Alliance, and the situation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, continental equilibrium: France was isolated, and Bismarck himself would ensure that the interests of Russia and Austria on the Balkan would not collide. Great Britain’s interests would profit from a stabilization of the continent as well and Russia’s aspirations on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.
After some mending of socks, the Triple Alliance was renewed on February 20, 1887, on identical terms, except for the addition of an Austro-Italian protocol that attempted to regulate the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a German-Italian agreement in which Italy reassured herself of German assistance in the case of a clash with France in central or western North Africa. (29)
Bismarck saw room for a further improvement of the status quo if Great Britain and Italy were to come to an understanding against France, and when Franco-British relations in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Minister Freycinet publicly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass permanently under English rule because ‘he who is master of Egypt is in large part master of the Mediterranean,'” Lord Salisbury began to make overtures to Italy. (30) Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” (31) In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Britain signed an agreement regarding the retention of the status quo and pledging mutual support in Africa, an understanding Austria joined in late March 1887 to the chagrin of the aggressive Hungarian faction. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s attention that her planned occupation of Tripoli, which belonged to the Ottomans, might constitute a change of this status quo, and when the Italian Foreign Minister Crispi wrote to Salisbury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anticipate a similar French plan, Salisbury made clear that British support would not extend to such adventures. He wrote back:
“The interests of Great Britain as also those of Italy do not permit that Tripolitania should have a fate similar to that of Tunisia. We must absolutely guard against such an eventuality when it threatens us. … If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France having taken any aggressive measure, she would expose herself to the reproach of having revived the Near Eastern question in very disadvantageous conditions.” (32)
On the eastern side of the Triple Alliance, Austria seemed to contemplate war with Russia over Serbia and Bulgaria. Kalnoky, the new Austrian Foreign Minister, approached Bismarck with his generals’ wish to clarify the exact conditions under which the casus foederis under the Austro-German Alliance of 1879 would arise. The problem was that the Reinsurance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bismarck had to prevaricate. The Austro-German Alliance, he replied, provided for German assistance in the case of a Russian attack on Austria, but not for an Austrian attack on Russia, as he thought to have made clear to the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin in January 1886:
“If Russia attacks Austria-Hungary, Germany will come to her assistance with all her forces, but it is not possible to let Germany play the role of auxiliary army to increase Austro-Hungarian influence on the Danube. Not a member of parliament would be found to vote even a single mark for such a purpose.” (33)
In a speech to the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, Bismarck had publicly clarified, with an eye on the Hungarian hotheads that:
“Our relations with Austria-Hungary are based on the consciousness of each one of us that the whole existence of each as a Great Power is a necessity to the other in the interests of European equilibrium; but these relations do not, as they are interpreted at times in the Hungarian Parliament, rest on the principle that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy completely at the service of the other.
This is an utter impossibility. There exist specifically Austrian interests which we cannot undertake to defend, and there are specifically German interests which Austria cannot undertake to defend. We cannot each adopt the other’s special interests.” (34)
Austria had become the problem in both the Triple Alliance – for perpetual Austro-Italian tensions – and the Dreikaiserbund, due to her frequent spats and spars with Russia. In the winged words of Norman Stone, “Austria-Hungary was trying to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rank one.” (35) It was a sign of the respect Bismarck commanded in all European capitals that he was able to balance the diverging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was in office. But, as Luigi Albertini commented, “Bismarck’s resignation in March 1890 produced a sense of dismay all over Europe. His authority and prestige, the veneration which surrounded him, the fear he inspired, were beyond compare,” and observed that “the youthful sovereign who had dropped him [Wilhelm II] had no policy of his own, and a sinister influence on German foreign relations was exercised by the tortuous Holstein who, in his hatred for Bismarck, reversed all the latter’s directives.” (36)
Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another six years but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St. Petersburg when her new Prime Minister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance “in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.” (37)
This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties, one could not check whether it was true or not. Thus, Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in an invitation to the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace.
A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government sanctioned a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassador in Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:
“1. With the aim of defining and consecrating the “Entente Cordiale” which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.
2. In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.” (38)
Elementary scrutiny, however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, that blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus, it took an additional twenty months of haggling and bickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was a reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:
“1. If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.
2. In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.” (39)
Bismarck’s nightmare had become reality.
The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between 700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coordination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed. (40)
Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make any military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could not stand aside.” (41)
This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche for 1870/71 would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date. [FN1] What was true in 1894 became more true twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.” (42)
[FN1] The present author, however, disputes Luigi Albertini’s subsequent opinion that “it would be wrong to imagine that the Franco-Russian Alliance was concluded by the French with a view to an impending revanche or by the Russians to realize their aspirations in the Balkans and the Far East. What both sought was to end their isolation.” (44) In reality, France was not isolated any more than Great Britain, which saw no need to engage in questionable alliances then; both had extensive colonial interests that guaranteed them a major voice in global politics independent of alliances. In addition, French Republicans were much more sympathetic to liberal England than to reactionary Russia. Russia was assured of non-intervention by the powers that counted – which did not include Austria-Hungary, which could not threaten Russia on her own – and protected by her vastness that had defeated even Napoleon – as long as she did not attempt to go for Constantinople and the Straits. Yet by exposing Germany to a potentially immobilizing two-front war, she might gain the opportunity to fight and decide in her favour what Sean McMeekin called the “War of the Ottoman Succession“. (45)
Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time. The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.
General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea, the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary, it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to the Tsar: “Mobilization is a declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of the following suit is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore on July 25, 1914, when Russia was to be the first Power to order mobilization. (43)
Now Great Britain found herself the odd man out, but her traditional equanimity, or indecisiveness, had preserved her so far from having to jeopardize her global aims by continental obligations. But she had to protect the Mediterranean lifeline that connected her to Egypt and the Near East and for this reason, was interested in opposing French influence in the western part of the Mediterranean by friendship with Italy that would bring the necessary authority to bear in Her Majesty’s name; yet, alas, her aversion to make binding commitments won the day, and Italy declined free services. But England might be left in a dubious position if, for instance, France and Russia were to cooperate in seizing Constantinople and the Straits. Such a scenario seemed possible after their alliance had become known, but Great Britain declined to join the Triple Alliance pre-emptively over this scenario, although her Prime Minister Rosebery acknowledged that “in such a case we should require the assistance of the Triple Alliance to hold France in check.” (46)
When Great Britain extended feelers to Germany over such a scenario, she was rebuffed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, from traditional friendship to Russia as well as antipathy to England made it clear that a Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Straits would, in his opinion, not constitute a casus belli for Germany; the interest of Austria could be maintained by giving her Salonika as a compensation. It was the remainder of Bismarck’s old policy of dividing the Balkans into two spheres of influence for Russia and Austria, and presiding over them as arbitrator. But Wilhelm was not Bismarck and thus the nostalgic endeavour tanked.
When tensions increased in South Africa between Boers and Britishers in 1895, Wilhelm II easily managed to upset Great Britain with his ill-advised Kruger telegram of January 3, 1896, in which he congratulated the Boer President to his accomplishments in driving out English raiders (“I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without.“). A few months earlier he had demanded in a conversation with the British Military Attaché in Berlin that England “take up a clear position either with the Triple Alliance or against it“, adding that “the former alternative would require a formal undertaking such as was customary between continental Powers, i.e. sealed and signed guarantees.'” (49) The same invitation he extended in writing to the new Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in London on December 20, 1895, who, however, failed to acknowledge receipt. Given that Wilhelm knew Britain’s disinclination to formal alliances perfectly well, one is left to wonder about his state of mind.
Meanwhile, Italy’s Prime Minister Francesco Crispi complained to Bülow, then Ambassador in Rome, that “France makes war on us everywhere. Whatever may be said about the Triple Alliance being concluded to maintain peace, for us it has been the opposite. For us the Triple Alliance is war. Our position is intolerable. And I repeat, for us, this state of affairs is worse than war.” (50) There was, of course, no true war going on, except for a few ruffled feathers in Italy’s excitable nature, but Crispi’s complaint depicts the psychological afflictions of the imperial age. In reply, Chancellor Hohenlohe pointed out that the alliance was a defensive league to maintain peace, not a clique of robbers. (51) Italy’s frustration continued, although she was able to come to an agreement with France over Tunisia in late 1896.
In the Balkan, Austria continued the attempts to enlarge her domain of influence further east than Bismarck’s old division of influence spheres had suggested, chiefly driven by her State Department that was occupied by a Russophobe Hungarian camarilla; the result, increasing tensions with Russia, irritated Berlin, which made clear that it would not support an Austrian strike at Constantinople. Austria then attempted to enlist England’s aid, but, again, Salisbury replied in the name of Her Majesty’s government that “it was impossible to take any engagement involving an obligation to go to war” and Vienna got nowhere.” (52)
A change in the German government brought the replacement of Foreign Minister Marschall von Bieberstein by Bülow and the appointment of Alfred von Tirpitz to the post of Secretary for the Navy in June 1897. These substitutions would prove fatefully important, for not only were here the origins of Germany’s naval race with England but the notorious Pan-German League, founded in 1893, began to exert political influence as well.
Alike many naval officers of the time, Tirpitz had become a follower of Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval captain, whose book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” had become a military bestseller. It argued that, as England’s example proved, it was necessary for an empire to maintain sea power, that is, a battle fleet superior to her competitors, to project global influence and protect its economic interests. Tirpitz relished the idea very much, not in the least because it would much improve the prestige of the German navy, that is, his own office, which up to then had been a small department for coastal defence. Tirpitz had Mahan’s book translated and distributed to everybody he knew.
He was anti-British, too, which put him in the emperor’s good graces; a feeling that was largely reciprocated in England. Luigi Albertini cites the “Saturday Review” of September 11, 1897, which argued that “in all parts of the earth English and Germans jostle each other. Were every German to be wiped out tomorrow, there is no English trade, no English pursuit, that would not immediately expand”, and recommended that “Germania est delenda“. (53)
Numerous Italian, Austrian and German appeals to England in the last decade or so, inviting her to the Triple Alliance, had failed to impress her much, but from 1898 on the situation reversed itself; now Whitehall sought German attention. At the same time, renewed Russian scepticism over the Entente with France led the Tsar to propose a continental alliance of all powers against “the ambition, the implacable egoism, and the avidity of England.” (54) A Bismarck might have been able to square this diplomatic circle; Wilhelm, the old Chancellor von Hohenlohe and Bülow were not.
Suddenly China appeared in the German focus. When General Obruchev arrived from St. Petersburg with some anti- England proposals in the autumn of 1897, Bülow succeeded, while stalling Obruchev’s original mission, to win the Tsar over to assist Germany in the acquisition of a combined port, trading post and coaling station on the Pacific Coast. With the Tsar’s connivance, taking advantage of the weakness of the Chinese government, German troops landed at Jiao Xian in China’s Shandong peninsula, over which they acquired a ninety-nine-year concession in March 1898 (Tsingtao). The Russians, meanwhile, had obtained their own Pacific harbour in Port Arthur, which became the principal port for their Far Eastern fleet after they had thrown out some nosy Britishers. Russian admirals had read Mahan’s book as well.
In the eyes of Her Majesty’s government, the Russian activities were quite close to poaching in England’s own back garden, for Great Britain controlled more than eighty per cent of the Chinese trade. She was not likely to allow Russian expansion – the German colony was too small to matter. In the Mediterranean, Austria-Hungary and Italy, to a degree, counteracted the spread of Russian influence, but who could aid Britannia against Russia in the Far East?
In the opinion of Joseph Chamberlain, head of the British Liberal Unionists and Secretary for the Colonies, it might be Germany. Unlike Salisbury, he saw dangers in England’s isolation. Already French expeditions probed the White Nile from the south and had established a base near Fashoda (today’s Kodok in Sudan). Chamberlain used Salisbury’s absence from the Foreign Office on account of a spa visit to Europe after March 25, 1989, to advance his ideas, but, not being a diplomat, it would seem that he approached his pleadings to Germany, as Luigi Albertini commented, “in the manner of a business deal.” (55) Strangely enough, after all the earlier German overtures to England, now it was Bülow who prevaricated, citing concerns over Germany’s relation to Russia, which might suffer from a flirt with her mortal enemy. Bülow summarized his position in writing to Wilhelm that we “must hold ourselves independent between the two; be the pointer on the scales, not the pendulum swinging from left to right.” (56)
When Salisbury returned to Whitehall in late April 1898, he had to find out that Chamberlain had meanwhile made his demand of an alliance with Germany public, for instance in a speech on May 13 in Birmingham. Chamberlain’s reasoning, however, failed to convince Salisbury and the issue remained open. Suddenly Wilhelm took action, when …
… on 30 May 1898, the Kaiser took the step of writing to the Tsar telling him that three times in the last few weeks England had talked of an alliance, the last time requiring the answer within a brief time limit. As the Triple Alliance, Japan, and the United States were all to be included, the alliance could only be directed against Russia.
“I beg you to tell me what you can offer and what you will do if I refuse.”
Before answering, the Kaiser wanted to know the Tsar’s proposals. Let the latter not hesitate on account of France which could enter into any combination he desired. By this indiscretion, the Kaiser offered the prospect of reviving the old Continental league against England. The Tsar, however, did not rise to the bait but answered on 3 June that a few months earlier England had made attractive proposals to him too and that he was not in a position to answer the question whether or not it was advantageous to Germany to accept these repeated English offers. (57)
At this point, the reader might be excused if the suspicion arose that any system that depended on puerile aristocrats who habitually engaged in pissing contests was doomed to end in a global war. Wilhelm and his advisors concluded that “any agreement with England would appear directed against Russia and would lessen the security of Germany to east and west, while any agreement with Russia would appear directed against England and would lessen the chance of colonial acquisitions.” (58) The compulsiveness of imperialist reasoning reared its head again; had Bismarck been in office, he would have counselled that, in the worst case, a treaty with Russia might cost a few thousand square miles of torrid African steppe, but would prevent the annihilation of the Fatherland.
In the autumn of 1898, through Lascelles, her Ambassador in Berlin, England put the quite unheard-of proposition on the table – apparently secured by Chamberlain in a cabinet vote – that the two countries could reach agreement on mutual assistance if either one were attacked by two other Powers, but Bülow again prevailed in counselling against it by writing to Wilhelm, in a variation of his old theme, that, by declining any alliance with England or Russia, “Your Majesty can be present as Arbiter Mundi at the eightieth birthday celebrations of H.M. Queen Victoria.” (59) That no one would ask notoriously unreliable Wilhelm to assume this role never entered Bülow’s mind.
Meanwhile, trouble brewed in Sudan. Lord Kitchener had massacred the followers of the Mahdi at Omdurman and hoisted the Union Jack in Khartoum. Then he embarked on Fashoda with a small party, to challenge the French under Captain Marchand who had established a camp there. No one yielded, and both British and French flags flew in Fashoda while the diplomats in Paris and London ministrated on the matter. Escalation followed, to a degree at which war seemed to become a distinct possibility, until, on November 4, 1898, the French Foreign Minister Delcassé informed London that the French troops had been ordered to leave Fashoda.
France’s giving way may have been influenced by the liberal Dreyfusard movement, which deplored the reactionary leanings of the Tsar and the Kaiser and advocated rapprochement with Albion. On the other hand, the French Right, convinced that the Dreyfus scandal was a British machination to weaken her eternal enemy, inflamed the patriots. The journalist Cassagnac wrote that “if Germany is an object of hatred, it is for a definite past which can be wiped out. … But England’s hatred against us is inextinguishable; England is the enemy of yesterday, tomorrow, and forever.” (60)
On December 11, 1898, the Tricolore was lowered at Fashoda but the crisis was not yet over. (61) To bring it to a negotiated end, Paul Cambon became the new French Ambassador at the Court of St. James, a post he would hold until 1920. Eventually, a treaty was signed that recognized England’s claims on Egypt and the Upper Nile valleys yet allowed France expansion toward the west and south. That, however, seemed to infringe an earlier Anglo-Italian agreement over the latter’s right in the Tripolitanian hinterlands and the problem was not resolved until two years later, when by mutual declaration, France signalized disinterest in Tripolitania while Italy admitted the same for Morocco. That the Italians completely managed to botch their eventual invasion in Libya twelve years later is a different story, and will be related below.
Meanwhile, in August 1898, the new Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, had proposed an international conference to discuss “the most effective means of assuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace and in particular to put an end to the progressive development of existing armaments.” (62) Although rumours held, perhaps truthfully, that all that Russia wanted was a temporary slowing down of the armaments race for the purpose of rebuilding and modernizing her own artillery, (63) the conference eventually took place at The Hague, in the Netherlands, from May 18 to July 29, 1899. The first instance of discussion was a Russian proposal to freeze conscription numbers for five years, which was easily shot down by Germany and Italy. The second proposal was to introduce international arbitration to conflicts, but, again, German opposition could not be overcome until the final version of the arbitration agreement amounted to making the process voluntary. Although a few innocent formulations were eventually developed, which graced the final deposition of the conference, the occasion had not accomplished much.
Perhaps as a reaction of Wilhelm’s unyielding opposition to the conference aims, Delcassé travelled to St. Petersburg a week after its conclusion, to renegotiate, if possible, the terms of the Entente Cordiale. He was received favourably and proposed to correct the political agreement of August 27, 1891, in that now not only the maintenance of peace but also “the equilibrium among the European forces” (64) became its objective. This was agreed on, and the French government’s unofficial propagandist Pierre Renouvin, a historian by trade, had no problem to recognize that the formula about the equilibrium “is a device to make Russia take into account the question of Alsace-Lorraine, which she affects to ignore …. It is thus accurate to say that the spirit of the Franco-Russian alliance is changed. “(65) It had changed indeed, for now, it could be interpreted to cover an attack as well, and the subsequent modifications in the Military Convention took this into account. Luigi Albertini tallies them up:
The [old] military convention of 1892 did not create obligations for France in case of a war of Russia against England. But the possibility of such a war was discussed at a meeting held in July 1900 between the Russian and French Chiefs of Staff, who drew up a protocol in which it was stated that if England attacked France, Russia would create a diversion against India with 300,000 men, when the construction of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway was completed; if on the other hand, England attacked Russia, the French General Staff would concentrate 150,000 men on the Channel coasts and threaten a landing in the British Isles.
For several months these terms remained a simple proposal of the two General Staffs; after a fresh visit of Delcassé to St. Petersburg in April 1901, it was laid down in an exchange of letters between Delcassé and Lamsdorf [the new Russian Foreign Minister] on 16-17 May that the two Governments agreed to them in case of a war “imposed on Russia and France by England alone or by England supported by the Triple Alliance”. The agreement even began to be implemented when the French Government authorized a loan to Russia of 425,000,000 gold francs destined for the construction of strategic railways, in particular, the one from Orenburg to Tashkent. (66)
There was no doubt that the two general staffs also discussed other scenarios, say, a war with Germany or Austria. Meanwhile, on the British Islands, Chamberlain resumed his efforts to bring about an Anglo-German understanding. The occasion of his renewed attempt was the aforementioned birthday celebration of Queen Victoria, where, alas, no one yet had asked Wilhelm to arbitrate anything. Apparently, there was a conference at Windsor Castle, in which Wilhelm, Bülow, Asquith and Chamberlain participated and laid out a road map. It was resolved that Chamberlain would smooth the way, which he attempted to do in a speech at Leicester on November 30, 1899. He opined that:
“I cannot conceive any point which can arise in the immediate future, which would bring ourselves and the Germans into antagonism of interests. On the contrary, I can see many things which must be a cause of anxiety to the statesmen of Europe, but in which our interests are clearly the same as the interests of Germany and in which that understanding of which I have spoken [previously] in the case of America might, if extended to Germany, do more, perhaps, than any combination of arms in order to preserve the peace of the world.
If the union between England and America is a powerful factor in the cause of peace, a new Triple Alliance between the Teutonic race and the two branches of the Anglo-Saxon race will be a still more potent influence in the future of the world. I have used the word ‘alliance’, but again I desire to make it clear that to me it seems to matter little whether you have an alliance which is committed to paper, or whether you have an understanding in the minds of the statesmen of the respective countries.” (67)
That was frank, perhaps too frank, and the proposal was received in neither country on its merits. In England, the affair over the Kruger telegram was not forgotten, and the papers had a field day; in Germany, the speech caused an unprecedented storm of indignation. The influential journalist Theodor Wolff of the Berliner Tagblatt vowed that Germany “was not going to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for England” (69); the Navy League fulminated that the offer was only directed at diverting money from the German fleet program to Albion’s sole benefit. Hastily, Bülow repented, and when laying before the Reichstag the Second Navy Law, he avowed that “in the coming century Germany will be either hammer or anvil,” (70) as if he had not been present at Windsor Castle.
The naval bill was truly enormous: it provided for the building of thirty-four battleships, fourteen heavy and thirty-eight light cruisers and eighty torpedo boats within sixteen years, (71) and necessitated the construction of three new harbour facilities to service all these ships. William explained to the world that he had never been to England in the first place, but if he had been, he would have been misunderstood. Not only had he never known of any English proposals, but he was also sure that, as he told the Russian Ambassador in Berlin, “‘Russia alone could paralyse English power and deal her, if need be, the mortal blow. Should the Tsar send his army against India, he [Wilhelm] would personally guarantee that nobody in Europe should move. He would mount guard along the French frontiers. … In England, they well know this. I have never concealed that in the Far East I shall never be on their side.” The astonished Ambassador asked if he were to report this conversation. “Certainly“, replied the Kaiser.” (72) It would seem that Wilhelm’s megalomania was doing well.
After Bülow and Holstein repeatedly disavowed an English alliance, the renewed, tacit advances of new Foreign Minister Lansdowne and Lord Salisbury – now Prime Minister – found no positive reply. Finally, the latter stated the long and short of his government’s refusal to enter alliances in the memorandum of May 29, 1901.
“The British Government cannot undertake to declare war, for any purpose, unless it is a purpose of which the electors of this country would approve. If the Government promised to declare war for an object which did not commend itself to public opinion, the promise would be repudiated, and the Government would be turned out.
I do not see how, in common honesty, we could invite other nations to rely upon our aid in a struggle, which must be formidable and probably supreme, when we have no means, whatever, of knowing what may be the humour of our people in circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” (73)
When Lansdowne talked to the new German Ambassador Metternich on January 19, 1902, whether, despite the basic inability of Whitehall to enter in a military treaty, other mutual problems could be resolved, the new Ambassador replied that they could not; England would have to choose between all and nothing. We may reflect here on the words of the German historian Erich Brandenburg:
“In trying, by means of carefully balanced paragraphs to escape the danger of being exploited by England and then left in the lurch, our political leaders conjured the far greater peril of driving our natural allies into the arms of our opponents and leaving ourselves isolated. Yet they constantly cherished the conviction that they had acted wisely because England must and would eventually return. The English never came back to us. They went instead to our enemies.” (74)
Anglo-German talks largely ceased, and the attention of Wilhelmstrasse turned to the important matter of the renewal of the Triple Alliance, on the calendar for summer 1902. Italy had experienced another change of government and under the aegis of the new Foreign Minister Prinetti and the influence of King Victor Emmanuel III, whose anti-Austrian and anti- Wilhelmine feelings were well-known, plus the sympathies of new Prime Minister Zanardelli for the Irredentists [FN 11], the country seemed to lean more and more on France, especially since Prinetti was a Lombard, who were traditionally friendly towards France. In one of his earliest interviews, with the “New York Herald”, Zanardelli explained that “if the treaties [FN 12] are renewed, they can have no other aim than peace. We shall have to divest them of all suspicion, which unfortunately has several times arisen, of animosity toward France. It is our duty to work in that sense, because Italy and France must remain friends.” (75)
[FN 11] The Irredentists demanded the return to Italy of all Italian-speaking provinces, essentially those remaining with Austria, i.e. Friuli, Trentino and Trieste. [FN 12] That is, including the commercial adjuncts to the Triple Alliance.
Such talk was not suited to mollify either Berlin or Vienna, and when an Italian navy squadron visited Toulon, the principal French warship base in the Mediterranean, Bülow was reported to have told his Italian mother-in-law that “Italy will have to decide soon to make her choice between matrimony and concubinage.” (76) Most surprisingly, Italy subsequently decided to reveal her agreement with France over Tripolitania, which had been concluded in the aftermath of the Fashoda affair but had been kept secret.
In Bülow’s parlance, Italy’s tried the squaring of the circle; to retain matrimony to the Triple Alliance but to lust, perhaps, for an extended French affair. Italian politicians routinely disavowed such notions but were unable to convince their allies. To these vexations was added the problem of the Pope, who sought to be given back a secular state. While the overall situation was that Italy could not really afford not to prolong the alliance, differences with Germany arose over the question of eventual changes which were advocated by Prinetti.
He envisioned three modifications. The first regarded Italy’s desire for the conquest of Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica; a new Article XI should be inserted in the treaty, in which “the allies of Italy [Austria-Hungary and Germany] declare their disinterestedness towards any action which she [Italy] might undertake at her own risk and peril in Tripolitania or in Cyrenaica.” (77) Demand number two was that the members of the alliance should guarantee the status quo in the Balkans, for if Russia were to come into possession of Constantinople and the Straits, Italy would be reduced to the level of a second rate power in the Mediterranean, “helplessly wedged in between France and Russia.” (78) The last demand was that, without a previous agreement on the commercial issues, the Alliance would not be prolonged.
Bülow prevaricated, and nothing moved until Austria proposed that, once the treaty was renewed in the original form, she would promise Italy not to interfere in “Italian action in Tripoli or in Cyrenaica, in the event that the existing status quo in this region should, as the result of particular circumstances, undergo a change, and Italy were to find herself forced to resort to such measures as her own interest might dictate.” (79)
This Prinetti appreciated, but insisted on the primary importance of the commercial treaty, a matter which Bülow, however, refused to discuss. On April 26, 1902, Bülow told Lanza, the Italian Ambassador in Berlin, that it would have to be yes or no – like he had instructed Metternich to cold-shoulder Lansdowne in London. The Italians had to give in, and, on June 28, 1902, the unchanged contract was signed, although an annex incorporated the declaration in the matter of Tripoli that Austria had promised.
Earlier in the year, an indiscretion of Prinetti had led France on the track of a secret agreement outside of the treaty itself, concluded in January 1888 between the General Staffs of Germany and Italy, which stipulated that in the case of a war of the Alliance against France and Russia, Italy was to send six army corps and three cavalry divisions to Germany’s assistance at the Rhine front. Later, the obligation was reduced to five army corps and two cavalry divisions. (80)
In 1901, this military convention had become a matter of bilateral talks, initially separate from the more political issues, and the German Military Attaché in Rome, Major von Chelius, was told at an audience with the King that His Majesty had reservations against the dispatch of so many of Italy’s best troops north, where they could not protect the Italian borders and coast. It was clear that, between the lines, Italy sought to slip out of the potentially dangerous obligation, and Chelius reported the matter to Bülow, who gave Chelius’ report to the German Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, for evaluation.
Schlieffen knew his Italians well and had to calculate whether the retention of the obligation would actually strengthen Germany or not, or might further estrange the Italians from the Alliance. They even might defect to the enemy. If they did, France could throw the approximately 150,000 men who guarded the Italian border to the Rhine Front, and Austria would have to spare troops from her eastern borders vis-a-vis Russia and send them south to guard the Italian frontier in the Alps.
Overall, Schlieffen decided that he could do without the Italians and Chelius informed Saletta, the Italian Chief of Staff, that Germany regarded the obligation as repealed. But the incident renewed doubts in the German and Austrian General Staffs whether Italy would fulfil any military obligations in the event of the casus foederis, and these doubts, as it will turn out, were all but unjustified.
Prinetti, who was a businessman and industrialist by trade, not a politician – and a diplomat much less – seems to have taken Bülow’s refusals of his proposed modifications to the heart. Albertini, a fellow Italian, commented that “having before one’s eyes the vision of the man with his outbursts, his rages, his wild utterances, one can measure the resentment that must have remained in his spirit after being obliged to bow to refusals, so intolerable to him, inflicted by Bülow and Goluchowski [Kalnoky’s successor as Austrian Foreign Minister].” These refusals played into the hands of Barrère [French Ambassador in Rome], the tempter standing by his side, who had acquired a considerable ascendancy over the Italian Minister and took advantage of it at a favourable moment to induce Prinetti to sign an “agreement of great scope and gravity.” (81)
Barrère’s original idea was to neutralize the parts of the Triple Alliance that regarded France. “In other words,” says Albertini, “that the casus foederis should occur for Italy if Germany were attacked from two sides, i.e. by France and Russia, but not if she were attacked by France alone; in this case, Germany was to content herself with Italian neutrality.” (82) We note here that this would be a provision favouring a French offensive on Germany under exclusion of Italy, exactly what the Triple Alliance was conceived to prevent. Prinetti declined the first proposal, but on June 30, 1902, two days after the renewal of the Triple Alliance, exchanged letters with Paris in which he avowed that:
“In the case that France were to be the object of a direct or indirect aggression on the part of one or more Powers, Italy will maintain strict neutrality.
The same will happen if France, in consequence of direct provocation, should find herself compelled in defence of her honour and her security to take the initiative in the declaration of war. …
To remain faithful to the spirit of friendship which has inspired the present declaration, I am further authorized to confirm that there does not exist on the part of Italy and will not concluded by her any protocol or military international disposition such as would be in disaccord with the present declaration.” (83)
In other words, Italy invalidated the Triple Alliance unilaterally, gave it up, as far as France was concerned – without telling her allies. Pressed by Barrère to define “direct provocation“, Prinetti gave examples of casi belli that included, for example, Wilhelm I’s refusal to receive Benedetti in Bad Ems in 1870. Diplomatic slights, real or imagined, could thus become sufficient grounds for war.
The advantages for France were obvious, for she had removed a potential opponent in her pursuit of revanche against Germany, but it was less clear what Italy won in the trade, except that France now promised not to hinder Italian expansion into Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica. This was nice enough but did not change the fact that all other Powers still objected to Rome’s intentions in North Africa. Thus overall, the Franco-Italian understanding lessened, not improved, the chances of peace.
Meanwhile, in the East, a thaw seemed to have taken place in the Austro-Russian relations. In the autumn of 1902, one of the more effective Balkan conspiracies, undertaken by Bulgaria to come into the possession of Macedonia had played out, and a Bulgaro-Macedonian cohort of irregulars succeeded in cutting off northern Macedonia temporarily from the outside. It was less the activities of these bands that Austria, its northern neighbour, feared, than that Italy would use the opportunity to invade and occupy Albania, west of Macedonia, via the Adriatic Sea. To forestall such a development, Goluchowski alerted St. Petersburg about the danger both nations faced from possible Italian interference and Austria and Russia concluded an agreement that reaffirmed both countries’ intentions in the Balkan: trilateral consultations including the Ottomans were agreed on and outside influences, i.e. Italy’s, rejected. Germany, France and Great Britain were notified of the understanding without delay and accepted it on the same day; Italian assent trundled in a day later.
On February 23, 1903, the Russian government gazette “Messenger” published a communiqué that assured the Slavic Balkan states of unyielding Russian assistance but also warned them that they …
“… must not lose sight of the fact that Russia would not sacrifice a drop of blood of her own sons nor the smallest fraction of the possessions of the Russian people if the Slav States, in defiance of the counsels of wisdom given them beforehand, were to seek, by revolutionary and violent means, to change the established order of things in the Balkan peninsula.” (84)
That was clear enough, one would think, but in celebration of Slavic stubbornness the Macedonian revolt not only resumed but branched out to Turkey in early 1903. A Turkish bank in Salonika was blown up by Bulgarian terrorists on April 29, 1903, and soon Austrian and Russian troops, as well as Austrian and Italian warships, resumed stations near the borders of Bulgaria and Turkey, who might go to war any moment, for they were already calling up reservists. A concerted démarche by Austria and Russia eventually stopped the Bulgarian mobilization, but the Macedonians continued, and by August 1903 about 30,000 of their irregulars took to the field yet were beaten, in a nasty three-month campaign, by superior Turkish regulars.
At the occasion of Wilhelm II visiting Vienna on September 18 and 19, 1903, Goluchowski reiterated to Bülow Austria’s position that she would never allow an effective partition of the Balkan peninsula between her and Russia, because claiming the eastern Balkan would give Russia a common border with Turkey and might tempt her to go for Constantinople and the Straits; neither was Austria able to allow the formation of a big Slavic state on the Balkans, for the Slavic people of Austria-Hungary could not be kept from attempting to join it and the monarchy would have to resort to arms to suppress such a desire, which, in turn, might lead to war with Russia and general conflagration. For these reasons, Austria’s policy would remain to maintain the status quo on the Balkan and allow changes only in the smallest of increments. Finally, Italy was to abstain from the annexation of Albania, for this would bottle up the Habsburg realm’s entry to the Mediterranean via the Adriatic Sea and would constitute a casus belli. (85) These Austro-Italian tensions raised the question whether the Triple Alliance could be preserved at all, and if it were to break up, it should quickly be replaced by a renewed form of the Dreikaiserbund, as far as Goluchowski was concerned.
On October 4, 1903, Nicholas II, Francis Joseph and their Foreign Ministers met at Mürzsteg in the Alps to prepare suggestions for the aforementioned trilateral consultations with the Porte, i.e. a program for Turkey’s internal reforms, and the result of the meeting, the so-called “Mürzsteg Punctuation”, was officially transmitted to the Turks and the governments who had signed the underlying provisions for the arbitration of Balkan affairs in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 on October 24,
The contents advocated government reform, especially of the police, to re-establish peace in the Turkish possessions in Europe, a redrawing of the internal borders of Macedonia was envisioned “in the direction of a more regular grouping of the various nationalities,” (86) other frontiers might be redrawn as necessary, careers in the public service should be made available to Christians and international committees would observe and, if the need arose, improve local measures. Commissions of inquiry, containing equal numbers of Christian and Muslim, were to be set up to investigate and prosecute the numerous political crimes that had been committed during the last thirty years of trouble.
All this was perfectly in the spirit of the Treaty of Berlin, except that Italy, again, felt slighted by the prominent role played by Austria and Russia in the convention; her indignation, as one would expect, only motivated Austria and Russia to improve their cooperation in regard to Turkey. This found expression in a secret agreement between Austria and Russia, signed on October 15, 1904, in St. Petersburg:
“… the two Powers have come to an agreement to observe a loyal and absolute neutrality in case one of the two parties signatory to this declaration should find itself alone and without provocation on its part in a state of war with a third Power which sought to endanger its security or the status quo; the maintenance of which constitutes the basis of their understanding, as pacific as it is conservative.
The engagement between Austria-Hungary and Russia stipulated in the above naturally does not apply to the Balkan countries whose destinies are obviously closely attached to the agreement established by the two neighbouring Empires. The said engagement is understood to remain valid as long as these two Great Powers shall pursue their policy of an understanding in the affairs of Turkey; it shall be kept secret and cannot be communicated to any other Government, except after a previous understanding between the Cabinets of Vienna and of St. Petersburg.” (87)
The parties agreed to let Berlin know about this essentially anti-Italian agreement but, naturally, not Rome; for in the case of war with Italy, the contract would secure Austria’s back, her Russian border.
Fifteen months earlier, in June 1903, events in Serbia had permeated the headlines of the international press. King Alexander, son of King Milan – whom we have met last in his unsuccessful war against Turkey in 1876, which gave rise to the Congress of Berlin two years later – had followed his father on the throne in 1889, but in the first years of the new millennium made several decisions that estranged him from his subjects. In 1900, he “married his mistress, Draga Masin, a widow of doubtful reputation, much older than himself,” and in “1903 he suspended the Constitution granted by himself in 1901, and nominated a military Cabinet.” (88) His reign grew erratic and authoritarian, until one more conspiracy, featuring the same Dragutin Dimitrijevic who would become the organizer of the assassination of Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo 1914, succeeded in murdering the royal couple, the queen’s brother and various ministers, and installed on the throne one Peter Karageorgevic, great-grandson of the Serbian liberation hero Karageorge, who had obtained for his country limited autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in the Napoleonic era.
The new king was readily acknowledged in both Austria and Russia, which had led contemporaries and historians alike to speculate that both governments had been aware of the Dimitrijevic plot; on the other hand, Great Britain and the Netherlands broke off diplomatic relations with Serbia over the incident. After a period of adjustment, the Pan-Slavic Radical Party dominated the government and initiated pro-Russian, anti-Austrian policies, seeking to create a Greater Serbia by liberating, and then absorbing, their fellow Slavs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Turkish provinces, but not allowing into the fold Croats and Slovenes, that is, refusing a complete Yugoslavian solution*. What was Austria’s response to these Serbian plans? Much as the Hungarians wanted to neutralize all supposedly traitorous Slavic organizations in the realm, the more cautious Austrians were aware that suppression might only provoke insurrection. The parties were thus much at odds, which added to the political instability of the Dual Monarchy. In late 1905, the Hungarians undertook an about-face and tried to enlist, by promises of eventual recognition of their claims, the aid of the southern Slavs against Vienna, towards which they tried to present a united front. When the Slavs pledged their support but the Hungarians subsequently “forgot” their earlier assertions, the Slavs further distanced themselves from the cause of the Habsburgs.
* The “Yugoslav”, i.e. ‘Southern Slav’ concept was the idea to unify Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in a single federation, but to exclude Bulgaria, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and the Hercegovina.
Meanwhile, the new Serb government had reached the beginnings of a rapprochement with Bulgaria, which was met with sympathy by Italy – which counted on the negative effect this would have on Austria. Yet Russia’s opposition, which, in doubt, valued the status quo over aiding her fellow Slavs, could not be overcome until Russia’s subsequent weakening in the aftermath of the lost Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. When Serbia’s prime minister Pasic secured a French loan and began to order weapons from France and Germany instead of the Austrian Skoda works, and Bulgaria agreed to a limited Customs Union with Serbia in June 1905, the country’s fortunes were on a high, and she went with optimism into the scheduled negotiations with Austria for a new commercial treaty in November 1905.
Yet when an indiscretion revealed the Bulgaro-Serbian customs agreement to Austria, she closed all negotiations, and the borders, and the two countries engaged in a commercial war, known as the “pig-war”* of 1907/08, before reason prevailed and a new treaty was agreed on. Yet Austro-Serbian relations remained struck with mistrust and suspicion and became one of the kindlings for the great conflagration of 1914.
*Like Hungary’s, Serbian agriculture was renowned for her pigs, who were the providers of meat for the goulashes, sausages and salami the Austro-Hungarian cuisine was famous for. Closing the border to pigs was, obviously, Austria’s way of hurting Serbia economically, but the latter eventually marketed them through Bulgaria and found different buyers.
Part II: The Russo-Japanese War and the Beginning of the Naval Race
STAVKA (the Russian High Command) had prepared two plans for the eventuality of war against the Central Powers, Plan G for Germany and A for Austria-Hungary. Although the mobilization of the troops stationed in Russia was somewhat delayed by G and A’s colliding railway schedules, the Russian army eventually appeared in its deployment areas faster than anticipated by the enemy.
STAVKA had established two Army Group commands for her western forces, north respectively south of the Bug – Vistula line. Army Group “Northwest” was in charge of First and Second Armies, earmarked to deploy against Germany while Army Group “Southwest” commanded Third, Fifth and Eight Armies, sharing the task of invading Galicia, the Austrian part of former Poland.
Fourth Army was the Russian version of a “swing option”: much like Joffre had originally intended for Lanrezac‘s Fifth Army in France, Fourth Army could be sent into action either at the Austrian front south of Lublin, or back up, “en echelon”, First and Second Armies on their way into Germany.
The Russian post-1905 modernization program had suffered much due to arthritic Russian bureaucracy; improvements were delayed, never implemented or simply ignored; in some respects the Russian army could not meet international standards.
[First and Second Armies deployed] … nine corps to Prittwitz‘ [the German C-in-C] four, and seven cavalry divisions, including two of the Imperial Guard, to his one. Rennenkampf, commanding First Army, and Samsonov, commanding Second, were moreover both veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, in which each had commanded a division, while Prittwitz had no experience of war at all. [Not true, see link above]
Their formations were very big, [Russian] divisions having sixteen instead of twelve battalions, with large masses of – admittedly often untrained – men to make up losses. Though they were weaker in artillery, particularly heavy artillery, than their German equivalents, it is untrue that they were much less well provided with shells; all armies had grossly underestimated the expenditure that modern battle would demand and, at an allowance of 700 shells per gun, the Russians were not much worse off than the French, fighting at the Marne. Moreover, the Russian munitions industry would respond to the requirements of war with remarkable success.
Nevertheless, Russia’s forces were beset by serious defects. The proportion of cavalry, so much greater than that in any other army, laid a burden of need for fodder on the transport service, itself inferior to the German, which the value given by mounted troops could not justify; forty trains were needed to supply both the four thousand men of a cavalry division and the sixteen thousand of an infantry division.
There were human defects as well. Russian regimental officers were unmonied by definition and often poorly educated; any aspiring young officer whose parents could support the cost went to the staff academy and was lost to regimental duty, without necessarily becoming thereby efficient at staff work. As Tolstoy so memorably depicts in his account of Borodino, the Russian officer corps united two classes which scarcely knew each other, a broad mass of company and battalion commanders that took orders from a narrow upper crust of aristocratic placemen. The qualities of the peasant soldier – brave, loyal and obedient – had traditionally compensated for the mistakes and omissions of his superiors but, face to face with the armies of countries from which illiteracy had disappeared, as in Russia it was far from doing, the Russian infantryman was at an increasing disadvantage. He was easily disheartened by setback, particularly in the face of superior artillery, and would surrender easily and without shame, en masse, if he felt abandoned or betrayed. The trinity of Tsar, Church, and Country still had power to evoke unthinking courage; but defeat, and drink, could rapidly rot devotion to the regiment’s colours and icons. (1)
To this litany a failed artillery policy and communication problems might be added. Russian artillery officers tended to view the main task of heavy guns in defending the chain of fortresses which secured the Russian border perimeter and were very much averse of schlepping big guns over a battlefield. Thus, Russian armies were chiefly equipped with small and medium calibre guns, of lesser firepower and diminished range. As in the naval gun race, lighter guns became the victims of the enemy’s heavier ones; for lack of range unable to return the fire. Radio communications suffered from a lack of trained cipher clerks, which forced the radiomen to transmit many message en clair, especially in the heat of battle.
In the event of August 1914, Fourth Army marched south, to the Austrian border, and Army Group Northwest dispatched First and Second Armies to East Prussia. The plan envisioned a two-pronged manoeuvre of enveloping 8th Army. STAVKA directed Rennenkampf to attack north of the lakes and the Angerapp River east of Königsberg and to proceed along the Baltic Sea Coast in westerly direction. Samsonov was ordered to invade from the south-east – from the direction of Warsaw – and to march in north-westerly direction until he would meet Rennenkampf, coming from the other direction, somewhere on the Vistula, perhaps in the vicinity of Marienwerder or Marienburg. The defenders would be surrounded and once the Vistula was gained, the way into West Prussia and Silesia lay open.
The plan had two weaknesses: it was obvious, as a tarantula on the cheesecake, and it depended upon close cooperation and communication of the two armies, conduct neither Rennenkampf nor Samsonov were renowned for. The German General Staff had actually based pre-war games upon the premise of such a two-pronged attack and had established that the correct counter-strategy was to delay one prong while attacking the other. Such a strategy necessitated rapid troop movements between the two sides of the Lakeland, the north-eastern part around Insterburg and Gumbinnen, and the south-western side from Allenstein in the centre of the province to Thorn on the Vistula. A direct railway was built traversing the Lakeland for this exact purpose, running along a line Gumbinnen – Insterburg – Allenstein – Osterode – Deutsch-Eylau – Thorn.
The map below shows the early stage of the East Prussian campaign. The Russians appeared three weeks earlier than anticipated, Rennenkampf’s vanguard crossing the border and reconnoitring in westerly direction on August 15. Two days later, his III, IV and XX Corps marched on Gumbinnen, eighty miles east of Königsberg. They were screened by his 1st Cavalry Division on their southern flank and the Guards Cavalry Corps on the northern one. Their counting on strategic surprise, however, was nullified as early as August 9 on account of the German 2nd Aircraft Observer Battalion and the services of two dirigibles stationed at Königsberg and Posen. They informed Prittwitz of the Russian presence, but what worked for the Germans failed, inexplicably, for the Russians: their cavalry could not find any trace of the enemy, and Rennenkampf’s aerial reconnaissance unit, consisting of a fleet of 244 aircraft, mysteriously failed to spot a single German unit.
The most important information for Prittwitz was that Second Army seemed to be late. The German staff began to believe that they might have a shot at Rennenkampf first and Samsonov later.
Geography was to disrupt the smooth onset of the Russian combined offensive in space. Less excusably, timidity and incompetence were to disjoint it in time. In short, the Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Gaugamela, by Hooker at Chancellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in detail: that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the army, then against the other, and so beat both.
The way in which geography worked to favour the Germans’ detailed achievement is the more easily explained. Though eastern East Prussia does indeed offer a relatively level path of advance to an invader from Russia, the chain of lakes that feeds the River Angerapp also poses a significant barrier. There are ways through, particularly at Lötzen, but that place was fortified in 1914.
As a result, a water barrier nearly fifty miles long from north to south confronted the inner wings of First and Second Army, so tending to drive them apart. Strategically, the easier option was to pass north and south of the Angerapp position rather than to force it frontally, and that was what the commander of the North-Western Front, General Yakov Zhilinsky, decided to direct Rennenkampf and Samsonov to do.
He was aware of the opportunity such a separation offered to the Germans and accordingly took care to provide for the protection of his two armies’ flanks. However, the measures taken enlargened the danger, since he allowed Rennenkampf to strengthen his flank on the Baltic coast, which was not at risk, and Samsonov to detach troops to protect his connection with Warsaw, equally not threatened, while arranging for one corps of Second Army [II Corps] to stand immobile in the gap separating it from First. The result of these dispositions was a diversion of effort which left both armies considerably weakened to undertake the main task. Having commenced the deployment with a superiority of nineteen divisions against nine, Rennenkampf and Samsonov actually marched to the attack with only sixteen between them.
Worse, critically worse, the two armies arrived at their start lines five days apart in time. First Army crossed the East Prussian frontier on 15 August, a very creditable achievement given that the French and Germans were then still completing their concentration in the west, but Second not until 20 August. As the two were separated in space by fifty miles of Lakeland, three days in marching time, neither would be able to come rapidly to the other’s assistance if it ran into trouble which, unbeknownst either to Rennenkampf or Samsonov, was the way they were heading. (2)
The aviators’ intelligence initially paid off for Prittwitz. When Rennenkampf began offensive operations on August 17, Prittwitz knew that Samsonov was late and thus could momentarily afford to keep most of 8th Army in the north-east. A Russian probe which showed up at the small town of Stallupoenen, ten miles east of Gumbinnen, was quickly checked, but when Prittwitz ordered a counter-attack of General Herrmann von François‘ I Corps on August 20, the Russians had already prepared an entrenched position near Gumbinnen. I Corps was, as was the whole 8th Army, composed of East Prussian men defending their homeland, and their aggressiveness in assaulting a fortified Russian position cost them dearly.
By mid-afternoon, I Corps had come to a halt. Its neighbouring corps, XVII, commanded by the famous Life Guard Hussar, von Mackensen, who was encouraged by early reports of its success, was meanwhile attacking north-eastwards into the Russians’ flank.
It did so without reconnaissance which would have revealed that, on its front as on that of von François, the Russians were entrenched. From their positions they poured a devastating fire into the advancing German infantry who, when also bombarded in error by their own artillery, broke and ran to the rear. By late afternoon the situation on the front of XVII Corps was even worse than that on the front of I Corps and the Battle of Gumbinnen was threatening to turn from a tactical reverse to a strategic catastrophe.
To the right of XVII Corps, I Reserve, under von Bülow, counter-attacked to protect Mackensen’s flank against a Russian advance. At Eight Army headquarters, however, even the news of that success could not stay the onset of panic. There Prittwitz was yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned and the whole of his army retreat beyond the Vistula. (3)
The big red arrow on the map above shows the intended retirement to the west, beyond the Vistula, that Prittwitz thought unavoidable. The bold blue arrows in squares DE 3-4 symbolize Rennenkampf’s III, IV and XX Corps, moving westward, into the direction of the fortified zone of Königsberg. At its southern flank, First Army is protected by 1st Cavalry Division and in the north by the Guard Cavalry Corps. Squares BCD 1-2 show Second Army, composed of I, XXIII, XV, XIII and VI Corps, plus 15th, 6th and 4th Cavalry Divisions. Samsonov’s II Corps is located in the geographical middle of the Lakeland, square DE 2, in the act of being transferred to Rennenkampf on August 21. It is on the way north-west, to join First Army at Angerburg.
At OHL [Supreme Command] Moltke balked at the very thought of withdrawing 8th Army behind the Vistula. But for the margins of the operational plan being too narrow, Moltke had no troops available for an immediate reinforcement. To make the situation worse, the men of 8th Army had their roots and families in East Prussia; an order to retreat might cause a revolt. Moltke decided that a new broom was needed on the Eastern front. Two brooms, actually.
Moltke decided first that a director of operations of the first quality must be sent instantly to the east to take charge. He chose Ludendorff, who had twice so brilliantly resolved crises in Belgium. He next determined to dispose of Prittwitz altogether, judging his declared intention to retire behind the Vistula, even if subsequently reconsidered, to be evidence of broken will.
In his place he promoted Paul von Beneckendorff and Hindenburg, a retired officer noted for his steadiness of character if not brilliance of mind. As a lieutenant in the 3rd Foot Guards, Hindenburg had been wounded at Königgrätz in 1866 and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He claimed kinsmen among the Teutonic Knights who had won East Prussia from the heathen in the northern crusades, had served on the Great General Staff and eventually commanded a corps.
He had left the army in 1911, aged sixty-four, but applied for reappointment at the war’s outbreak. When the call from Moltke came, he had been out of service so long that he was obliged to report for duty in the old blue uniform that had preceded the issue of field-grey. He and Ludendorff, unalike as they were, the one a backwoods worthy, the other a bourgeois technocrat, were to unite from the start in what Hindenburg himself called “a happy marriage.” Their qualities, natural authority in Hindenburg, ruthless intellect in Ludendorff, complemented each other’s perfectly and were to make them one of the most effective military partnerships in history. (4)
On August 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at Rastenburg whither the HQ of 8th Army had been moved, and summoned the staff for a conference the very next day. The discussion began with an analysis of the situation by General Scholtz, commander of XX Corps which was, at the moment, the sole German unit opposing the slowly advancing Samsonov in the south. Strategically, the newcomers in command were much aided by a resolution Prittwitz had enacted just before he was relieved of duty. During his years at the Staff Academy, Prittwitz had participated in the aforementioned war games and hence was familiar with the East Prussian counter-strategy, which called to defeat the Russians “in detail”. Prittwitz had decided that, after the tie at Gumbinnen, as he saw it, Rennenkampf could be counted as checked, and that First Army would typically need a few days to regroup and redeploy. If he acted fast, he might beat Samsonov in the south before Rennenkampf, in the east, resumed the offensive. Ably assisted by his Chief of Staff, Colonel Max Hoffmann, he ordered von François’s I Corps from Königsberg whither it had retired, and von Mackensen’s XVII Corps, at the moment south-west of Gumbinnen, to entrain southward to meet Samsonov.
These movements are indicated on the map below by the thin dashed lines and bold red arrows, showing the early stages of the German movements. I Corps retired to Königsberg in order to board the coastal railway line while XVII and I Reserve traversed first westward, then south-west, into the direction of Allenstein. Scholtz’s II Corps was already in the vicinity, around the small towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.
Thus, Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not have to design a new plan, whose development might have cost precious time but were able to adopt Prittwitz’s strategy, which they pursued at best speed. To their aid came a few monumental errors in the Russian dispositions, chiefly by Rennenkampf. When First Army’s forward reconnaissance units, after the four days of the Battle of Gumbinnen, reported that the presence of German troops facing them was thinning out, Rennenkampf assumed that 8th Army had retreated to the fortified zone of Königsberg. Such a move might be reasonable, at some level, since it would compel First Army to a lengthy siege, which might give the Germans time enough to send reinforcements from the Western Front. Thus, Rennenkampf stopped the pursuit of I and XVII Corps, consolidated his territorial gains, and initiated preparations for the upcoming siege.
He reported his decision to STAVKA and asked for assistance with the investment of Königsberg, for which his troops, lacking heavy artillery, were ill prepared. But since the delay meant that he was, for the time being, incapable of keeping touch with the rest of the German army, he proposed to Zhilinsky to send Samsonov in the direction of the Vistula, i.e. north-west. Once First Army had reduced Königsberg, the planned envelopment of 8th Army could be reactivated. Army Group Northwest followed Rennenkampf’s suggestion and Samsonov was ordered to proceed in north-western direction, to the Vistula, but away from First Army.
Rennenkampf’s proposition was risky in itself – what if the siege failed? But what transpired in the event was worse. On the morning of August 25, First Army’s radio traffic with STAVKA and Army Group Northwest, which included the siege plan, was intercepted and deciphered by Ludendorff’s radio monitors. Moreover, the messages yielded the priceless information that First Army would halt and thus be unable to support Second Army in case it headed into trouble.
Rennenkampf’s decision to halt allowed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to concentrate against Second Army. They could afford to leave Königsberg essentially unprotected except for its entrenched garrison and a weak screen of 1st Cavalry Division [see map above, the red dots, C 3-4, west of Rennenkampf]. Now the railways came into play. The existence of two lines allowed 8th Army to route parts of XVII and I Reserve Corps southward, via the Insterburg-Allenstein line traversing East Prussia, and to convey I Corps by the coastal railway to Elbing, and then route them via Marienburg and Deutsch-Eylau to Seeben, into a position opposite the left flank of Samsonov’s I Corps which stood between Soldau and Usdau. Ludendorff even ordered the small Vistula garrison from Thorn to meet François’s I Corps near Lautenburg [Map above, square B 1]. By August 26, XVII Corps stood at Bischofstein [Map above, C 3], and I Reserve between Allenstein and Seeburg [Map above, C 2-3], opposing Samsonov’s northernmost unit, VI Corps at Bartelsdorf. The main body of Second Army still stood south of Allenstein [XIII, XV and XXIII Corps, Map above, BC 1-2].
The tactical situation on the map above depicts the advantage the Germans earned by the flexibility of their troop movements, which, in addition, almost completely evaded Russian detection. There were hardly any German troops left in the north-east, vis-a-vis Rennenkampf – except for the very light screen of 1st Cavalry – and the Russian II Corps, now detached to First Army’s southern flank, lingers in a completely uncontested area. Except for her cavalry, First Army remained almost stationary; by August 26 it had moved barely ten miles west – cautiously – through empty land. Second Army was still moving north-west but was spreading all over the Lakeland, from Zielun, 15th Cavalry in the south-west, to Sensburg, 4th Cavalry, in the north-east. This was when Hindenburg …
… was passed the transcript of a complete Russian First Army order for an advance to the siege of Königsberg which revealed that it would halt some distance from the city on 26 August, well short of any position from which it could come to Second Army’s assistance in the battle he planned to unleash.
Furnished with this assurance, he met von François, whose corps was just beginning to arrive at Samsonov’s flank, in confident mood. Distance was working for him, the distance separating Samsonov and Rennenkampf’s armies, and so now too was time, the self-imposed delay in Rennenkampf’s advance which, had it been pressed, would have put the First Army well behind the Lakeland zone in positions from which it could have marched south to Samsonov’s assistance. (5)
Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s plan were successive attacks into Second Army’s right flank, that is, to attack from Allenstein in south-western direction. François’s I Corps was to begin the offensive on August 25.
Then François, whose stubborn aggressiveness could take a wilfully uncooperative form, interrupted the smooth unrolling of a plan that should have brought his I Corps, XVII and XX successively into action against Samsonov’s flanks. Claiming that he was awaiting the arrival of his artillery by train, he was slow off the mark to attack on 25 August, and slow again the next day.
Ludendorff arrived to energize the offensive, with characteristic effect, but François’s hesitation had meanwhile had a desirable if unintended result. Unopposed in force to his front, Samsonov had thrust his centre forward, towards the Vistula against which he hoped to pin the Germans, thus exposing lengthening flanks both to François, now to his south, and to Mackensen and Scholtz, who were marching XVII and XX Corps down from the north. On 27 August François rediscovered his bite, and pushed his men on. Samsonov, disregarding the danger to his rear, pressed on as well. On 28 August his leading troops savaged a miscellaneous collection of German troops they found in their path and broke through almost to open country, with the Vistula beyond.
Ludendorff, seized by a fit of his nerves his stolid appearance belied, ordered François to detach a division to the broken units’ assistance. François, creatively uncooperative on this occasion, did not obey but drove every battalion he had eastward at best speed. With the weight of Samsonov’s army moving westward by different routes, there was little to oppose them. On the morning of 29 August, his leading infantry reached Willenberg, just inside East Prussia from Russian territory, and met German troops coming the other way [see map below]. They belonged to Mackensen’s XVII Corps, veterans of the fighting south of the Masurian Lakes, who had been attacking southward since the previous day. Contact between the claws of the two pincers – the units were the 151st Ermland Infantry of I Corps and the 5th Blucher Hussars of XVII – announced that Samsonov was surrounded. (6)
The map above portrays the situation on August 30. I Corps had begun its move at Seeben and marched east via Niedenburg, to Willenburg. Since Samsonov was marching in the opposite direction, north-west, none of his units encountered I Corps, and Second Army remained oblivious of the Germans’ presence in their rear. After I and XVII Corps had met at Willenburg, Scholtz’s XX Corps closed the trap on the western side. Except for VI Corps which escaped by retiring in south-eastern direction over the Russian border, the whole of Second Army was caught in a huge pocket east of the towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.
The bag amounted to approximately 50,000 Russian casualties and 92,000 prisoners, compared with losses of about 30,000 killed, wounded or missed on the German side. These numbers made the Battle of Tannenberg, as it was named according to Hindenburg’s wishes, a most particular event compared to the battles on the Western front which frequently caused wholesale destruction but so far had rarely yielded significant numbers of prisoners. For the moment, the danger to East Prussia and Silesia was averted, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff hailed as the saviours of the nation.
Rennenkampf, however, proved a tougher customer than Samsonov. When the Germans, now reinforced by the arrival of IX and the Guard Reserve Corps from France, attempted to repeat the encircling manoeuvre against First Army, Rennenkampf managed to evade the German pincers adroitly in what was called the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. On 13 September he was safely back in Russian territory, regrouped, and, reinforced by a new Russian army, the Tenth, conducted a counteroffensive which succeeded in re-establishing a Russian line near the Angerapp River, which was held until February 1915.
      Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 140-41, 142-44, 145, 145-46, 148, 148-49
The German army was still slowing down Allied progress in late October, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: something had to give. In the event, it was the Kaiser‘s favourite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.
With the German empire in its death throes, two groups in the German navy, first the admirals, then the seamen, took matters into their own hands. The submarine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a powerful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Naval Staff decided to use the surface ships in one last offensive thrust, a bold variation on earlier unsuccessful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The difference this time was that the Germans intended to fight a battle whether or not the U-boats had managed to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority. Further, the German admirals did not care whether the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy damage on the Grand Fleet. Hipper agreed with Scheer that “an honourable battle by the fleet – even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” Besides preserving honour, a battle that inflicted severe damage on the Grand Fleet might also influence the peace negotiations in Germany’s favour. (42)
Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, P. 773
Kept secret from the German government, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Royal Navy: eighteen Dreadnought-type battleships, five battlecruisers, twelve light cruisers and seventy-two destroyers. The tactical plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pursue the High Seas Fleet over a barricade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the British numerical superiority enough to allow the Germans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the British admiralty’s attention, Hipper, promoted to Fleet Admiral, envisaged raids on British ports and bombardments of coastal cities. A special group of cruisers and destroyers was to rattle the British cage by sailing into the Thames estuary and attacking the local shipping. When the Grand Fleet descended to end the nuisance, the Germans would be ready. Scheer, now naval C-in-C, and Hipper both hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender.” (43)
This was either remarkable optimism or complete delusion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on October 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unexpected presence caused ado galore. Instances of desertion had already occurred at Cuxhaven, and continued among the crews of the battleships that arrived in the bay during October 29. The concentration of all the big ships in one port could not mean anything but an operation being laid on, and the scuttlebutt soon confirmed that the next morning would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sailor had doubts as to for what purpose. The crews of the battleships “König“, “Kronprinz Wilhelm“, “Markgraf“, “Kaiserin“, “Thüringen” and “Helgoland” hoisted red flags and thus declared their insurrection; “on all these ships, seamen had no interest in ‘an honourable death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted surrender, discharge and permission to go home.” (44)
Around 10 pm on October 29, Hipper found most of his fleet inoperative, and when, on the next morning, the mutiny spread to the battleships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert“, the sortie had to be aborted. To quench further insubordination, Hipper ordered the three battleship squadrons to separate and return to their home ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. “Thüringen” and “Helgoland”, however, did not move an inch, and Hipper called on a battalion of loyal marine infantry to have their crews arrested, shackled and imprisoned. (45)
Hipper’s attempts at enforcing discipline only stoked the fire, and by dividing the battleship squadrons to three harbours he only succeeded in spreading disobedience further. When the 3rd Squadron arrived at Kiel on November 1, carrying chained seamen by the hundreds, it was greeted by four thousand rebellious mariners and dock hands that had helped themselves to arms by breaking into the well-stocked arsenals and demanded the captives’ release. The next day saw the establishment of provisional sailors’ and workers’ councils, a call for a general strike by the unions, and the taking over of port and town by November 4. A posse of mutineers set out to arrest the commanding admiral, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Wilhelm’s brother, who…
… was forced to flee for his life, hiding behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag flying on his car. Even so, the car was shot at several times, the driver was seriously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the wheel himself in a mad dash for the Danish frontier at Flensburg. (46)
Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolution, and as coastal vessels spread the message to the smaller port towns, the railways spread the germs of revolt over the country. Committees of revolting sailors and soldiers brought their demands to the burghers of any town they entered: an immediate armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the formation of a new, democratic and republican government. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chancellor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reichstag deputies to the town: his friend Conrad Haußmann and the former butcher and journalist Gustav Noske, a representative of the Social Democrats. When the emissaries arrived at the town’s railway station, they were greeted by a crowd whose apparent revolutionary resilience convinced Noske to hold an improvised speech in which he essentially promised the listeners that their demands were soon to be met. The same evening he was able to inform Berlin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elected him to the post of revolutionary governor of Schleswig-Holstein. (47)
In the meantime, suffering on the Western Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Spanish Influenza, which, despite the name, seems to have originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early outbreak of influenza in the summer, subtracting about 400,000 soldiers from the already weakened German lines and perhaps a comparable number from the Allied trenches, but the second outbreak proved both more contagious and lethal. Arriving American troop ships brought the epidemic to the great debarkation ports; the soldiers infected the French, who in turn infected the British, and both their POW’s, in turn, infected the Germans.
[FN 1] The Influenza Epidemic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer to the Wikipedia article in this context.
Oddly, the disease struck hardest at the fittest, particularly young men in their prime. Troopships laden with men packed closely together became floating pest holes. An American convoy arriving at Brest on October 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne campaign had 4,000 men disabled by the flu, with 200 already buried at sea. Two hundred of the sick carried off the “Leviathan” died within days. …
The epidemic posed a dilemma for President Wilson. Since military camps had become hothouses for spreading the infection, orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction late in September were cancelled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also cancel the embarkation of troopships? On October 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, General Peyton March, to ask his guidance. Both men accepted that to cram soldiers into the ships was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them. But Pershing was pleading desperately for replacements, especially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the president to bring about peace. Wilson and March recognized that the surest guarantee of defeating the Germans was to continue the deliveries of Americans to France, now swelling to an average of 50,000 weekly. How might the Germans react if they learned that the pressure was off because the American manpower pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troopships continued to sail. (49)
Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 304
On October 27, Prince Max signalled President Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Technically, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wilhelm, but Max had, cautiously, preferred not to inform the Kaiser of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of October 23, which seemed to demand the abolishment of the monarchy. He would cross this particular bridge when he met it. When Turkey asked for an armistice on October 30 and Austria on November 4, Germany was alone in the war. The front still held, miraculously, but in the air hung the smell of revolution. On October 29, Wilhelm left Berlin for the Supreme Command Headquarter at Spa, in the questionable belief that his presence close to the front would improve the soldiers’ panache. But it was the absence, not the presence, of the Imperial person that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebellious entelechy in the capital, causing the final, decisive, and irreparable dissipation of the Ancien Régime.
“Reds are streaming with every train from Hamburg to Berlin,” Count Harry Kessler, socialite, diplomat and Social Democrat supporter, recorded in his diary on 6 November. “An uprising is expected here tonight. This morning the Russian Embassy was raided like a disreputable pot-house and Joffe [the ambassador] with his staff, departed. That puts paid to the Bolshevik centre in Berlin. But perhaps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)
Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 28
By the first November week, the mutiny of the sailors had been followed by the insubordination of many garrisons, whose unwillingness to support the failing Prussian state eased the appearance of public uprisings. Local anarchists, Spartacists and Independent Social Democrats proposed various forms of revolution, and councils took over the administration of most big towns. In the first week of November, Red flags were carried through the streets of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Frankfurt and München. But it was a curiously silent rebellion, the reports agree, that pervaded the streets; violence, nay, even overspirited discussion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spartakusbund, German’s Bolsheviks in disguise, had quietly concentrated followers in the capital during the first week of November while their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prepared the German Revolution.
Liebknecht’s Father Wilhelm had been a personal friend of Karl Marx and achieved socialist sainthood by becoming a co-founder of the SPD and editor of its newspaper, “Vorwärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son studied law and economy in Leipzig and Berlin before becoming, essentially, a lawyer for the socialist movement. He was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole member of the socialist camp to vote against war credits in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least temporarily support the government, and hence the war, Liebknecht began to seek sympathizers outside of the party.
For this objective he founded the “Spartakusbund“, the League of Spartacists, named, of course, for the Thracian slave Spartacus who had led the uprising against Rome in 72-70 BC. The “Spartakusbriefe” (‘Spartacus Letters’), the league’s anti-war newspapers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and editor found himself at the Russian front, where he refused to fight and was consequently assigned to a burial detail. Released from service for reasons of health, he went straight back to anti-war propaganda and headed the Socialist Peace Demonstration on May Day 1916 through the streets of Berlin. This time he was charged with high treason and sent to prison for four years, but the sentence was commuted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for political prisoners of October 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his leadership of the Spartacists, in partnership with the Polish activist, Rosa Luxemburg.” (51)
Frau Luxemburg was an early apprentice in the business of insurrection; she had been active in the illegal socialist and anti-Czarist movements of pre-war Russia since she was a schoolgirl. (52) Timely escaping the attentions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzerland where an affluent lover allowed her to study at the University of Zürich and to subsidize the illegal socialist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was perhaps the most extreme socialist outside of Russia in these years, advocating global and remorseless revolution. She became a German by marriage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the radical wing. Eventually, she became known as the factotum of the world revolution and was regularly thrown in jail, rescued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Liebknecht immediately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organize the revolutionary bureaucracy of the Spartacists.
This poisonous pair, like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, saw the moderate Socialists of the SPD as their principal enemies. “The party must be recaptured from below,” Luxemburg wrote, “by mass rebellion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wingers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Spartacists. The moderate Socialists responded by sneering at them in “Vorwärts”, contrasting the “pathological instability” of Spartacus with their own “clear-headed and sensible calm.” But while the moderate Socialists were maintaining their sensible calm, the Spartacists were meeting returning troop trains at the rail termini to beg for or buy rifles, pistols and machine guns. (53)
Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 30
Meanwhile, Prince Max faced the problem of how to end the war and the monarchy without involuntary nurturing the revolution. He concentrated his final efforts on three decisive issues: the replacement of Ludendorff, the deputation of the executive power to a government able to guide the country peacefully through the many changes that were to follow and, a prerequisite for the latter, the abdication of his cousin Wilhelm. On November 9 he appointed General Wilhelm Groener, son of a NCO from Württemberg and a transportation and supply specialist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlawfully – transferred his own office and authority as chancellor of the Reich to the forty-seven-year-old former saddle maker and chairman of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remaining task was the most difficult. No civil, much less a government led by socialists, could exercise authority with the discredited emperor still in office.
At this point, Wilhelm was at Spa, the imperial head full of foolish fantasies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loyal armies back to Germany and restore order. What Prince Max back in Berlin recognized was that, far from being a solution, Wilhelm’s return was the problem. In Metz, the Allies’ next target, 10,000 German soldiers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Council, and taken over the city. Similar overthrows of the old order were erupting all over Germany. … Peace seekers inside Germany accepted that the only act that would prevent the masses from swinging over to the radicals was the removal of the country’s discredited monarch. (54)
Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 315-16
In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wilhelm had successfully managed to avoid the intrusions of reality and maintained that abdication was out of the question. Not quite used to being contradicted, the Kaiser refused to listen to the explanations of Prince Max’s messenger Drews, Prussian Minister of the Interior. He had “no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin.” (55)
Baden recognized that he had to talk to his cousin in person. On the evening of November 8, he called Wilhelm on the telephone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstinacy by making clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdication, civil war was to ravage the country. The emperor did not believe a word. It was inconceivable, he riposted, that the army would refuse to follow him. In addition, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wilhelm himself, he felt quite unconcerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the conditions.” (56) On the next morning, November 9, the leadership of the army, Hindenburg and Groener, called at the Hotel Britannique in Spa to pay their sovereign a final, necessary visit.
In Spa, on 9 November, the Emperor met the leaders of his army, the institution through which the Hohenzollern dynasty had risen to power, and to which it had always looked to sustain its dignity and authority. Wilhelm II still believed that, whatever disloyalties were being transacted by civilian politicians in Berlin, whatever affronts to order disturbed the streets, his subjects in field-grey remained true to their oath of military obedience. Even on 9 November, he continued to delude himself that the army could be used against the people and the royal house preserved by turning German against German.
His generals knew otherwise. Hindenburg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groener, the workaday railway transport officer, son of a sergeant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from soundings taken among fifty regimental commanders, that the soldiers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earliest possible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohenzollern, was the Kaiser’s abdication. The Kaiser heard him with continuing incredulity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Allegiance, on the regimental colours, which bound every German soldier to die rather than disobey? Groener uttered the unutterable. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Allegiance is only a few meaningless words.” (57)
In the chancellery in Berlin, unable to follow events in distant Spa, von Baden consulted Ebert on the situation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdication could be effected with speed, a coup d ‘état by Spartacists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the monarchy was finished willy-nilly, he dictated, in antecedence of actuality, to an employee of the Wolff Telegraph Office in Berlin a message stating that “The Kaiser and King has resolved to renounce the throne.” (58)
When the sensational cable was brought to the attention of the party in Spa within minutes, Wilhelm exploded in a diatribe against all traitors, civilian or military, but was forced to realize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Saturday, November 9, 1918, he relinquished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-seven years and ten months after its inception in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wilhelm left for exile in the early morning hours of November 10, to Castle Amerongen in the Netherlands, the seat of Count Godard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)
Meanwhile, events in the capital precipitated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chairman of the SPD, had rushed from the chancellery to the Reichstag to inform his colleagues of Ebert’s appointment. Having a well-deserved lunch in the cafeteria, he was informed that Spartakus and USPD had summoned their followers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostensibly for the proclamation of the revolution and the launch of the German Socialist Soviet Republic. Speed was of the essence.
Scheidemann stormed to the terrace outside the Reichstag library where he was cheered by a crowd vacillating between hope and apprehension. Improvising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appointment and the creation of a new, republican and democratic government, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rotten old monarchy has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!” (60) Meanwhile, Spartacist delegations had appeared in factories, barracks and caserns and mobilized a crowd of thousands of supporters, who were marched to meet at the Royal Palace. Liebknecht greeted the revolutionary assembly from the balcony of the building, whence formerly the Kaiser had addressed his subjects:
“Comrades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Berlin! The proletariat is marching. The reign of capitalism which has turned Europe into a graveyard is over. We must summon our strength to build a new government of workers and peasants, to create a new order of peace and happiness and freedom not merely for our brothers in Germany but for the whole world. Whoever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Socialist Republic and the world revolution shall be realized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Liebknecht was two hours too late. (61)
Ebert had acted quickly and already persuaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole possible supporters, to enter into a coalition with the SPD by offering the smaller party an equal share, three of six posts, in the provisional government. The new executive power was named Council of People’s Commissars and was expected to share the administration with the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of the capital until a national assembly could enact a constitution and subsequently install a legitimate government. Ebert’s cautious manoeuvring also persuaded the liberal and Catholic interests in the capital and much of the country to support the formerly dreaded SPD as a mainstay of the new republic, and thus the government had at least the legitimacy of the popular backing.
That was, if the revolution could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skirmishes on Saturday evening and Sunday, November 10, Berlin remained quiet, and, the issue of a German republic now advanced from the realm of possibility to actuality, the eyes of the nation returned to the Western Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Command had already scheduled the next offensive, against Metz, for November 14, and further attacks were planned far into 1915.
Pershing, now commanding close to two million doughboys, seemed to long for an augmentation of his military prestige by the conquest of Sedan, which was by far the most attractive target on the south-eastern part of the front. It was the town where the Prussian army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napoleon III and 100,000 poilus prisoners-of-war.
Meanwhile, Prince Max had dispatched a delegation for the negotiation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on November 7. The party was headed by Matthias Erzberger, chairman of the German Catholic Centre Party, which supported von Baden’s informal government. He was a known pacifist and the sole well-known face in the German deputation which, except for him, consisted of mid-level functionaries of the Foreign Service, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a railway coach in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilometres north-east of Paris, and the expected gruff treatment delivered by Foch and General Weygand. The armistice conditions were laid out as follows:
All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany, must be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometres deep; German forces must be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. She was to be stripped of heavy armament, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aeroplanes.
The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though their people already faced famine, the Allies intended to paralyse the country’s transportation by continuing the naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. Weygand droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded she pay reparations for all damage caused. (63)
The German delegation was given a seventy-two hours deadline and an opportunity to convey the Allied demands by radio to Berlin. Erzberger realized that the conditions imposed were far too acrimonious to be entrusted to the radio, which might be monitored, and only informed Prince Max that a courier was on the way. Then he asked for a preliminary suspension of combat until a reply was received, pointing out that four thousand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Pershing, who, furious that his grand design of conquering Germany was being foiled, insisted on fighting to the last minute; to the greater glory of the American Expeditionary Forces and his own command.
The Erzberger mission overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s railway coach, drafting letters of protest they hoped might have a moderating influence on the Allied conditions. At 8 pm on November 10, they received a French report of an intercepted message from Berlin which confirmed Erzberger’s plenipotentiary powers and authorized him to sign the instrument of truce.
A second message was received, from Hindenburg, verifying the authenticity of the first signal and instructing Erzberger to try to have the naval blockade lifted, for the sake of the starving women and children. At 2 am the next morning, November 11, the German deputation was led back to the railway car for a second round of discussions.
Foch, however, remained intransigent, and the sole moderation of terms Erzberger achieved was that the Allies “would contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meeting was adjourned. All that remained for the soldiers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.
That is, for everyone except the AEF, which was directed by Pershing to continue the attacks scheduled for the day without regard of the armistice taking effect at 11:00. Since Foch had informed all Allied commanders, including Pershing, in advance of the conditions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offensive would be ground the Germans were obliged to give up within two weeks anyway.
Pershing did inform his regimental and division commanders that a ceasefire was to take effect on 11:00, but directed his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advantage of the situation.” (65) Nine out of sixteen U.S. division commanders on the Western Front interpreted the absence of specific orders as an incentive to launch the scheduled attacks; seven refrained from further jeopardizing their men lives and limbs.
Thus, nine U.S. divisions attacked the enemy on the morning of November 11, and since the Germans were forced to defend themselves whether they wanted or not, almost 11,000 casualties were unnecessarily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the average daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.
Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 per cent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided. (66)
At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the Western Front. But it was only in the aftermath of the great conflict that the members of the old Imperial houses realized for how long, in truth, their relevance had diminished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties had not ended in February 1917 or November 1918, but in the summer of 1914 or even earlier – in their driving the old continent into war and pestilence they had, alas, overlooked the shadows of nationalism and socialism lingering in the rear mirror, forces eager to embrace the Imperial inheritance.
    Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776
 Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, p. 418-419
            Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, pp. 303, 304-5, 315-16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307-8, 323, 325, 378-9
    52]    Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32
Katharina Mathilde Krüger was born either November 9, 1912 in Cologne-Kalk or, as other sources claim, September 11, 1914 in Berlin, and went on to become an actress. Her best-known pre-war German movie showed her starring in the anti-Semitic UFA film Don’t lose Heart, Suzanne!, whereupon Joseph Goebbels, the “Buck of Babelsberg” (the studio town) became her patron and/or lover – Old Joe was not a believer in the accurate separation of business and personal affairs, as we know.
Although she acted in about a dozen other UFA productions, she went to Hollywood in 1940, living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel , where, as the gossip had it, her first American lover, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, paid the bills. Getty was married five times and known as a ladies’ man, and Nazi sympathizer, too.
But the acting bombed. Her English left a lot to be desired, her acting perhaps as well. She quickly substituted Getty with Gert von Gontard, who, as heir to the Budweiser brewery, was suitably rich, and lived with him for a year.
We do not know what exactly happened thereafter – maybe the pair was bothered too much by the clumsy plots of the American police or perhaps there were relationship problems – but at some point in 1940, Hilde was recruited by the German “Abwehr” (Military Intelligence) and sent to Mexico, which was an interesting target for the German war economy because of its oil. Since Mexico’s President Lazaro Cardenas had nationalized all foreign oil companies in 1938 and the former owners, England, the USA and the Netherlands had subsequently imposed an embargo on Mexican crude oil, two-thirds of its production went to Germany.
So it came that Mrs. Krüger pulled up on February 9, 1941, at the border crossing Nuevo Laredo, in her luggage carrying a letter of recommendation from her good friend Mr. Getty. In no time she had settled in the high-society of Mexico-City and generals, business leaders and politicians in the country fell for the peroxide-blonde Nazi bombshell. Her first conquest was Ramón Beteta, Under-Secretary of the Treasury, but she became rather quickly the mistress of the Secretary of the Interior and subsequent Mexican President, Miguel Aleman. The besotted Mr. Alemán rented a love nest and visited her almost every night, as noted carefully by the FBI. Apparently, Hilde also snuggled with influential General Juán Almazán and Foreign Minister Ezekiel Padilla – the whole Mexican government had fallen hook, line, and sinker. As a quid pro quo, her patrons arranged a few roles for her in several Mexican films.
After being in business for a year, she was arrested at the instigation of the USA but soon was released by the intercession of her patrons. To avoid deportation, she quickly married a Mr. Nacho de la Torre, the grandson of former President Porfirio Díaz.
The spy business was great. The Secretary of the Interior issued about three hundred visas to German spies; mercury – important for the German war effort – was loaded on German submarines at the port of Veracruz and as much oil smuggled through Panama as the pumps could carry.
Until 1946 she lived with her playboy husband in the lap of luxury, but soon after her old friend Alemán became president, she exchanged Mr. Torre for a heavier calibre, the Venezuelan Julio Lobo Olavarría, sugar king of Cuba, with whom she went to Spain. But the subsequent marriage lasted only a year. In 1958, she appeared once again in German cinemas, in the Swiss comedy “Eine Rheinfahrt, die ist lustig.”
There is a documentation of Nazi espionage in Mexico on YouTube, “La red nazi en México” by Sebastián Gamba, Mexico in 2010, unfortunately only in the Spanish original (link).
She died in 1991 during a visit at home or 2008 in New York, no one knows for sure. Overall, she made fourteen films in Germany, four in Mexico and one in Switzerland.
Despite the deteriorating situation at the home front – over a million workers had participated in strikes as early as in January 1918, and hundreds of women and children succumbed each day to malnutrition – the German army regained much of its spirit in the late summer of 1918, and the subsequent Allied offensives launched in late September proceeded, “to Foch’s irritation,” (29) rather slowly. In the centre of the front, a combined Franco-British offensive advanced past the Hindenburg Line by the second week of October, but the attack in Flanders, around Ypres, struggled mightily against continuing resistance of Rupprecht’s Bavarians and it took three weeks to capture Lille, only ten miles behind the front. The American offensives around Verdun and the Argonne Forest remained inconsequential for the outcome of the war: while the First U.S. Army was able to make good a few miles in the direction of Sedan, without ever reaching it, the Second U.S. Army made practically no gains at all east of the Meuse against Army Group Gallwitz.
But whatever defensive successes the German army achieved, they could only delay the loss of the war, not avoid it. The numerical strength of the defenders had shrunk to less than 2.5 million men by October, and few replacements were available although the German army continued to draft in fresh recruits until November 6. (30) It seems that on September 28, Ludendorff could no longer defy reality. After a tormented philippic against the Kaiser, the government, the army, the navy, and the universe that conspired against him, he informed Hindenburg that the war was lost and an armistice had to be secured forthwith. On the next day, a second conference was called at Spa; present were Wilhelm, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Hertling and the new Foreign Secretary Paul von Hintze.
After a protracted discussion, it was resolved that, in the face of the virtually unlimited American resources of men and matériel, the war could not be won. Germany’s allies were at the brink of disintegration – Bulgaria had already capitulated and Austro-Hungarian as well as Turkish troops refused to fight – and no hope remained to avoid defeat. In these circumstances, the conclave set out to go on a little fishing expedition, to identify the most desirable peace terms that might be obtained. It was remembered that, on January 8, 1918, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had illustrated his ideas of peace and a new world order to the U.S. Congress and the world press in the famous “Fourteen Points”.
The points essentially propounded an international order in which relations between nations must be transparent, colonial peoples should determine how and by whom they would be ruled, the seas would be open, free trade was to prevail, and a world government, a League of Nations, would be formed. The Fourteen Points also set the price Germany must pay for peace. It must give up every inch of territory taken in this war as well as Alsace-Lorraine, seized from France nearly half a century before. (31)
The participants of the conference perused with alacrity Wilson’s words regarding the most decisive issues, those of financial consequences and of loss or gain of territories.
There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages. … National aspirations must be respected; peoples may not be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self-determination” is … an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. (32)
Wilson’s suggestions were deemed quite acceptable, but the Kaiser and the generals still entertained the hope that Alsace-Lorraine and Poland could be retained. However, as a public demonstration of Germany’s instant peacefulness, the Kaiser accepted the resignation of seventy-five years old chancellor Hertling and, on October 3, appointed in his stead his fifty-one-year-old cousin, Prince Max von Baden.
Most histories depict the new chancellor as a “liberal” because Ludendorff called him that; but Prince Max was a liberal only in the sense that Nero and Caligula were liberals if compared to Attila the Hun. He was, of course, a staunch monarchist and had zero sympathies for liberal or, worse, socialist reforms, but he was not, like his brother-in-law Wilhelm, ignorant of reality. (33) He had, it was true, once served on the committee of the German Red Cross and in 1917 publicly mentioned the possibility of a negotiated peace, and thus he was far less compromised when contacting Wilson than, say, Ludendorff or Wilhelm himself would have been.
Prince Max understood the urgency of decorating the German government with a few democratic faces; by yesterday, if possible. He approached the major parties of the Reichstag, and, by appealing to their patriotism, secured the support of the Liberals, the Catholic Centre and, for the first time in history, the SPD, two of whose deputies joined the Baden government. (34) The new administration set out to work on minor democratic changes to the old Imperial constitution and on October 5, von Baden notified the American government, via Switzerland, that Germany sought an armistice based on the Fourteen Points.
The first reply was received on October 8 from Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who imposed, on his president’s behalf, the immediate withdrawal of German troops from the occupied parts of Belgium and France as an initial condition for an eventual armistice. Baden promised to fulfil the demand in his reply of October 12, and German evacuations began the very next day.
On October 14, a second note, this time by Wilson, demanded the end of the “illegal and inhumane practices,” (35) of the German submarines, and Baden managed to shut down the U-boats by October 20, against the bitter resistance of the admiralty. It must be noted, however, that neither Wilson nor any other U.S. representative ever demanded to shut down the, apparently legal and humane, continental blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.
A third note was received on October 16, and it did put the new chancellor into a quandary. Since it seemed to imply his cousin Wilhelm, Prince Max faced an awkward predicament. The memorandum demanded that the “arbitrary powers” which threatened the “peace of the world” were to be disposed of before formal negotiations could be initiated, which von Baden and his cabinet interpreted as demanding the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm at the very least, perhaps even the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a German republic. This diagnosis was supported by another missive that reached Berlin on October 23, and explained that if the United States “must deal with the military masters and monarchical autocrats of Germany, it must demand, not peace negotiations, but surrender.” (36)
This clumsy message, quite unprecedented in diplomatic custom, was a political bomb of the biggest magnitude and occasioned consequences greater than perhaps any other diplomatic document of the 20th Century. At the time Wilson penned his note, diplomatic convention regarded the inner affairs of a sovereign country as a taboo which might be commented on, perhaps, in private whispers from ambassador to ambassador at informal functions, but not become the subject of an official note to the head of a government. For every German monarchist or nationalist, and there were still lots of them around, Wilson’s note was an insult of epic proportion, an affront to the country’s sovereignty and a pique to all those who had lost loved ones in the war. It was, literally, unheard-of.
The catastrophic consequences of the note can hardly be exaggerated. Whether President Wilson had composed the missive in blissful American naiveté or in an ill-starred miscue, perhaps merely intending to strengthen the liberal and democratic elements in Germany cannot now be ascertained, but the results of his note provided, as we will see, a fantastic pretext and absolution to the guilty while the future German republic was fatefully tainted from her inception by having to shoulder the burden of a lost war she was not in the least responsible for.
The outcome of Wilson’s note, without which the republic could not have been born in the same confused way, facilitated the creation of the two most resilient phantoms of subsequent nationalist, right-wing and finally Nazi propaganda, the myths of the “Stab in the Back” and the legend of the “November Criminals”. As soon as the armistice was signed, the men responsible for the disaster disappeared: Wilhelm went to exile in the Netherlands, Ludendorff fled to Denmark, disguised in mufti and a false beard, and Hindenburg and the other prominent generals took to diving stations. The innocent representatives of the new republic which signed the armistice and, eventually, the peace treaty, were vilified as traitors and some of them subsequently murdered.
The unfortunate consequences of Wilson’s note not only proved that the USA were “not quite as magnanimous as they had promised,” (37) they created arguments which were to lead from the First directly to the Second War. It was uncalled-for one state to dictate policy to another: we have seen how much the trifling matter of allowing a few Austrian detectives or not into Serbia to investigate Francis Ferdinand’s assassination had become a raison de guerre. To make it worse, Wilson’s procedures were deceptive and might be called extortionate – certainly not an auspicious start into his golden age of peace, love and understanding. His tactic of negotiation was mala fide from the beginning: designed to get the opponent’s most important concessions right from the start, and to get cheaply what otherwise would have to be obtained at great cost: the withdrawal of the German army from France and Belgium and the cessation of the U-boat campaign.
The problem was that Wilson’s demands later allowed nationalists, monarchists and militarists alike to claim that the war had not really been lost: that the German army had “never been defeated in the field”, since no foreign soldier, with the exception of Rennenkampf’s and Samsonov’s Russians in East Prussia 1914, had ever set foot on the Fatherland’s soil. Hence, the armistice was unnecessary and treasonous, as was the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, signed by the “November Criminals”, i.e. the government of the German Republic that had stepped in after Wilhelm and his cronies had absquatulated themselves. Thus, the right-wing clamoured, the republic had signed away the nation’s honour.
Prince Baden realized that the dismissal of Ludendorff, who, despite his deceptively spurious rank of First Quartermaster General was the real military dictator of the country, was priority number one, especially since the general had brazenly overstepped his authority. The day after Baden received Wilson’s calamitous message, Ludendorff sensed an opportunity to prolong the war and hence his own authority. Since, against expectations, the German front had not collapsed after the “Black Day” at Amiens and the military situation had somewhat improved in the meantime, Ludendorff took the opportunity to address his troops in an order of the day. The bulletin defined the Fourteen Points and Baden’s request for an armistice based thereon as a hidden “demand for unconditional surrender. It is thus unacceptable to us soldiers. It proves that our enemy’s desire for our destruction, which let loose the war in 1914, still exists undiminished. It can thus be nothing for us soldiers but a challenge to continue our resistance with all our strength.” (38)
An unknown staff officer moved quickly to suppress the circular, but one copy escaped destruction to reach OBEROST, the Eastern command, where the signal officer on duty, a Social Democrat, secured it and forwarded it to the party’s headquarters in Berlin, whence it found its way to the press. Ludendorff’s unauthorized note was foul play at the very least, perhaps outright treason, and von Baden realized that any basis for peace negotiations would be compromised as long as the quasi-dictator remained in office. The broad support Baden enjoyed in the Reichstag enabled him to call upon the Kaiser and to make it clear that it was either Ludendorff or himself. On October 26, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were ordered to Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where Ludendorff was forced to tender his resignation, which the emperor thanklessly accepted. Baden, who knew a double-dealer when he saw one, had prior to the meeting elicited Ludendorff’s written admission that no chance remained to win the war by military means and hence could avoid the simultaneous firing of both the leading generals. When Hindenburg offered his own withdrawal from command, Wilhelm ordered him to remain. (39) The story goes, perhaps apocryphal, that when Ludendorff returned to his hotel room in the evening, he told his wife that: “In a fortnight we shall have no Empire and no Emperor left, you will see.” (40)
He was right. It took exactly fourteen days.
(29) (38) (40) Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 413, 414, 414
(30) (32) (34) (37) Weitz, Eric, Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5, pp. 16, 15, 15, 16
(31) Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 290
(33) Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 26
(35) (36) (39) Massie,Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003 ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 772, 772, 773
The cardinal difference between the Great War of 1914 and earlier European wars lay in its objective, which in turn changed its scale. For no longer were wars waged for the gain of a slice of territory somewhere, or like Bismarck’s, for specific aims and with limited means: the war of 1914 was for “all or nothing.” Germany, it was alleged, challenged Great Britain’s status as the dominant power in the world save the Americas, and there was no consolation prize. The totality of a country’s resources had to be subordinated to the goal of eventual victory, and in this sense, the war of 1914 was the first “Total War”, although the phrase itself would not be coined until twenty-nine years later. The winner-takes-all approach also accounts for the extensive lists of “war aims” that the contenders put together for the sake of convincing the public that the prize was worth the slaughter.
It was a sign of the increasing military faculties of the Franks that the victory over Attila and the Huns at Chalons had been achieved with the aid of a substantial corps of their warriors. The Franks were not one of the early tribes enumerated in Tacitus’ “Germania“, they were, it appears, part of a secondary conglomerate of smaller tribes, perhaps survivors of intra-German conflicts who banded together around AD 250 and crossed the Rhine River westwards. They followed the trail of an earlier tribal coalition which had included the original “Germani”, who crossed the Rhine in the same direction in the first century BC but seem to have been assimilated fast: Julius Caesar does not mention them in “De Bello Gallico”, his report on the campaigns in Gaul.
The early Franks were allowed to settle in the areas west of the lower Rhine: the Salian tribe settled in today’s Flanders, in the vicinity of Tournai and Arras, while the Ripuarian Franks, under the leadership of the Merovingian dukes, took up residence slightly further south-east, around the banks of the Meuse and Moselle Rivers. (Tribal identities are somewhat disputed today)
Smaller communities initially settled in the two main tribes’ vicinity. Yet these original settlements of the Franks had multiplied and spread swiftly, and resulted, in the late fifth century AD, in Frankish domination of great parts of northern and eastern Gaul. Because the possessions of the Visigoths in Gaul were concentrated south and west of the Loire and Rhone Rivers, and their acquisitive impetus, under King Euric [rex. AD 466-484], was directed upon the conquest of Spain, the Franks found ample opportunities to enlarge their domains.
Clovis, or Chlodwig, in Latin “Chlodovechus”, a duke of the Franks in the last decades of the fifth century AD, was descended in paternal line from Childeric I, a former “Roman warlord and Frankish king based at Tournai”, (1) who, in the lesser days of his luck, had been exiled to Thuringia. That was where he met Clovis’s future mother Basina, queen of the Thuringians, who accommodated the exile in ways he could not have expected; she had a child with him and left her husband to join Childeric when the latter was restored to his authority. The son succeeded the father, at the tender age of fifteen years, to the leadership of the nation, which amounted, in the estimate of contemporary observers, to approximately 5,000 warriors [Clovis, or Chlodwig, rex.AD 481-511].
The young nobleman was instructed in the business of arms, for which he showed a considerable talent: to the extent that many of the mercenary corps meandering through and marauding the country were attracted to assemble under his banner. In addition to his military abilities, he was praised for applying justice when required and employing passion when permitted. Edward Gibbon wrote that “in all his transactions with mankind, he calculated the weight of interest, of passion, and of opinion: and his measures were sometimes adapted to the sanguinary manners of the Germans and sometimes moderated by the milder genius of Rome and Christianity.” (2) In today’s words, he was – and remained – a killer and a fraud as well.
But his great chess move, and the most important benefit Clovis was able to secure for the eternal felicity of his people were not his military achievements but his uncanny decision to support that species of Christianity which would wind up the winner of the heresy wars between the fourth and seventh century: the Catholic Church of the Athanasian Creed.  This accomplishment perpetually improved the relations of the Franks with the Eastern Roman Empire, in particular so because, at the time being, all the other Germanic kingdoms followed Arianism. The Franks thus became natural allies to Byzantium.
The conversion of the Franks to the religion which institutes, as its most ethical and noble achievement, the love of mankind for each other, did not, however, impede Clovis’s acknowledgement of necessary political prudence; “his ambitious reign was a perpetual violation of moral and Christian duties: his hands were stained with blood in peace as well as in war; and as soon as Clovis had dismissed a synod of the Gallican Church, he calmly assassinated all the princes of the Merovingian race.” [… that is, all his blood relatives] (3)
A Frankish victory over the Alemanni at Tolmiac in the north-east had been followed by an extensive border dispute between Clovis and Alaric II, the young king of the Visigoths in the south-west. At length, a meeting was arranged between the two, and the rendezvous proceeded with mutual proclamations of brotherly love and assertions of eternal peace but yielded no written truce or covenant.
Thus, when the indigenous population of the great and fecund province of Aquitaine asserted, in a confidential embassy, their inclination towards a change from Gothic to Frankish overlordship, Clovis did not hesitate for long; “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 520s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” (4) Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. (Some historians believe it was not consul, but “patricius“, the same title as given later to Theodoric). But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach, although Frankish troops invaded Italy in 540 to benefit from Belisar’sGothic War. His mass murders were soon forgotten and grateful French historians made him the founder of the French empire.
His successors extended the Frankish realm in the same rapacious ways until 555 as seen in the map below (light green areas).
” … I hate my small breasts. They’re what men watch first – after looking at my face for a second, or two, if they like it, their gaze invariably moves to my breasts, as if to evaluate how much milk may be expected from that peculiar cow. They watch my buttocks too, but my breasts seem like my business card, and they leave much to be desired. That is why I always wear a gold-plated breastplate when I am dancing, as you know – and I always fear the moment when it comes off in bed. I try to deflect the dreaded moment by taking the initiative, for men are so happy to be touched. And I always loved to touch, for men were my happiness and now they are my perdition.” [* Prison letter from Mata Hari to her sister Léonide, who attended her execution]
Margareta Zelle (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), who under her stage name Mata Hari [Javanese, “Mata (Eye) Hari (of the Day) (=Sun)”)] became the superstar of erotic dance and the world’s premier enchantress in the years leading to the Great War – before Josephine Baker took the crown. She loved men, especially officers.
“I love officers. I have loved them all my life. I prefer to be the mistress of a poor officer than of a rich banker. It is my greatest pleasure to sleep with them without having to think of money. And, moreover, I like to make comparisons between the different nationalities”.
We must point out here, that our quotations of the lady are reasonably accurate and historical, for her well-developed character was evident in her words. She was a good writer with a beautiful hand and composed her own advertising copy. She was well-spoken and surprisingly educated, exceedingly charming and loved to deceive the scores of interviewers and reporters who begged for her gossip. She loved statements tongue in cheek, had a sharp wit and a gift for coining memorable phrases. [Source]
She grew up in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in a somewhat well-to-do family. That changed when her father went bankrupt when she was 13, in 1889, and a few years of confusion followed. After being found half-naked upon her school principal’s lap, schooling was done for. [Much info on these years on the German Wiki page] She grew to be a tall girl for the time, at 178 centimetres (5.84 feet), which certainly helped her to make an impression.
In 1894, she answered a marriage ad by Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928), a Captain of the Dutch Colonial Army, living in Indonesia, who sought a wife. “Officier met verlof uit Indië zoekt meisje met lief karakter met het doel een huwelijk aan te gaan” [‘Officer, on vacation from (Dutch) India, seeks a young woman of gracious character to marry’]. The less is said about the marriage, the better. She gave birth to a son and a daughter, but the son died early, perhaps poisoned by a servant. The pair returned to Amsterdam and divorced on August 30, 1902. Child support for the daughter at the sum of 100 Gulden per month was ordered by the court, but Rudolf never felt able to fulfil the obligation.
Broke, Margareta set out to Paris – dreaming of a career as mannequin or model, whatever might turn out. She failed and returned – and then had the idea. We do not really know how and why, but she invented a made-up story of being a trained mystical Indonesian dancer, to gain under this guise more attention than the scores of other attractive ladies who populated the erotically loaded stages of Paris. She invented her own Dance of the Veils, which the Paris public had recently seen in Richard Strauss‘ opera Salome, which had aroused one more big scandal when performed in Paris. The gentlemen (and ladies) of the Haute Volée, considerate about the public morals of the capital had besieged the opera houses to review the artistic permissibility of the act. Some of the gentlemen had to see the performance more than once to come to conclusions.
The problem was, of course, that the Dance of the Veils was, we would say, a “generic” dance – it had no history, no cultural background. It had been invented just at the time, notably by the American dancer Loïe Fuller, who celebrated a sensational debut on December 5, 1892, at the Folies Bergèrewith dances using light projections and special costumes, which she patented a year later in Paris and London. A few years later the Canadian Maud Allan followed in her footsteps – all of them inspired by the great Isadora Duncan.
Margareta’s difficulty was, however, that she could not afford light projectors, operators or even special costumes, and, initially, her natural talents had to suffice. Such talents she did have, and perhaps it helped that her legend as Indian respectively Indonesian temple dancer could not really be checked by the audience for the lack of expertise.
She was perky, breezy, a real flirt, and well aware of her body, which she flaunted at will. Equipped with such weapons of female mass destruction, it did not take long before she celebrated a boisterous debut at the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905, whose founder and main sponsor, millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet she immediately took on as a mistress.
Competition in erotic dancing in Paris was keen, and Margareta developed her act further. Her lover, M. Guimet, had received a government commission to study the religions of the Far East, for his museum, and her “disguise as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood thus fell on fertile grounds. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter. She brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jewelled breastplate and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was never seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a body stocking for her performances that was similar in colour to her own skin.” [Source: Wiki]
Her comments were open, frivolous and entertaining as usual:
“I took the train to Paris without money and without clothes. There, as a last resort and thanks to my female charms, I was able to survive. That I slept with other men is true; that I posed for sculptures is true; that I danced in the opera at Monte Carlo is true. It would be too far beneath me and too cowardly to defend myself against such actions I have taken. …
The dance is a poem, of which each movement is a word. … In my dancing one forgets the woman in me, so that when I offer everything and finally myself to the god–which is symbolized by the loosening of my loincloth, the last piece of clothing I have on–and stand there, albeit for only a second entirely naked, I have never yet evoked any feeling but the interest in the mood that is expressed by my dancing”.
In a way, she helped the public acceptance of exotic dancers as well. She was the first of the profession to be accepted in the high society, not only for her dancing skills (which were not so outstanding, some said) but for her persona, knowledge and use of the media, including risqué photographs – a precursor to today’s celebrities who are famous for being celebrities, not for any ability or merit.
Biographers love to cite newspaper articles of besotted reporters, who described her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms,” or as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair” and that her face “makes a strange foreign impression.”
Yet – quite naturally – copycats arose in numbers, and her act slowly lost the intrigue that had been its major forte. Apostles of the public morality accused her of cheap exhibitionism – which surprises somehow, for while exhibitionism it was, it was truly not cheap, compared to the likes of the gentlemen who were allowed to hold her arm and perhaps other parts of her anatomy.
More recently a discussion has opened in regard to her sexuality, concentrating on the mind-blowing question whether she was bisexual, which she probably was and why not? That this discussion has not arisen earlier is perhaps owed to the increasing liberty in which such questions are discussed nowadays, or still our perpetual interest in gossip.
It is known that she had a playful relation to cross-dressing in military uniforms and we have a somewhat problematic article here (for the lack of sources cited), but anyway, here it comes, from a Fandom page [Link]:
“Mata Hari’s own orientation may be of some relevance in the controversy. Mata Hari had innumerable male lovers, and she seems to have been overwhelmingly heterosexual. There is some suggestion, however, that she was not exclusively so. Many of Mata Hari’s lovers were officers, and she herself enjoyed dressing up in military uniform. Mata Hari and the Russian actress Alla Nazimova were also said to be lovers, though they may never have met.
Women, as well as men, certainly found Mata Hari attractive and were aroused by her nude dancing. Natalie Clifford Barney, a wealthy American expatriate, was a well-known hostess in Belle Epoque Paris. Barney, known as “The Amazon”, was also the centre of an artistic lesbian/bisexual circle that included the writers Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ) and Renee Vivien and the actress and prostitute Liane de Pougy. Barney had a house in Neuilly with a large garden, and she and her friends liked to stage amateur theatricals and dances with lesbian themes there. When she met Mata Hari, Barney was immediately impressed and hired her to dance at her home. Mata Hari gave at least three nude performances (one of them on horseback as Lady Godiva) at Barney’s garden parties. For one such appearance, Mata Hari herself insisted that only women be invited. Colette, who was then struggling to make her own career as a nude dancer, greatly resented Mata Hari and envied her success. Despite this, Colette went to great lengths to see Mata Hari dance, and she was impressed by her legs, buttocks, and torso.
Colette wrote that one of Mata Hari’s performances at Barney’s house “brought the male–and a good portion of the female, audience to the limit of decent attention”. The American lesbian writer Janet Flanner became a close friend of Barney’s after the war and also talked to many of Barney’s friends who had witnessed Mata Hari’s performances. Of her nude dancing, Flanner said that “The only woman who had that kind of extraordinary style was Mata Hari. “There” was a woman who was equal to any event”. Mata Hari remained part of Barney’s circle and frequently lunched with Barney and her friends. Barney wore mannish “Amazonian” style dresses, and Mata Hari often wore similar outfits while riding. According to Flanner, Mata Hari got a brand new “Amazonian” dress from Barney just before her execution and was wearing it when she was shot.
Natalie Barney had a legendary sexual appetite, and she enjoyed the challenge of seduction. Janet Flanner later denied that Barney and Mata Hari had been lovers, though Barney had so many sexual partners that neither she nor anyone else could keep track of them, and she classed the less important ones simply as “adventures”. Given her association with Barney and her friends, and given what we know of Mata Hari’s adventurous and unconventional nature, it is certainly possible that she at least experimented sexually with women. Many secondary authorities now list Mata Hari as bisexual, and she has become a popular lesbian icon. As in many such cases, however, the real evidence is far from conclusive.
After she was safely dead, Barney, Colette, and Pougy all criticized Mata Hari harshly. They even said that they had never found her attractive. This was a curious assertion indeed, since Mata Hari had performed nude for them three times. Unattractiveness would hardly have earned her two return engagements at the Barney home.”
Take it or leave it.
Anyway, due to the multiplying competition and the slow vanishing of youth (she had put on a few pounds), she danced less and less – the last time we know of on March 13, 1915 – but concentrated on her career as a top international courtesan. She was seen with bevvies of high-ranking military officers – her favourite companions – but also politicians, industrialists and the like.
She did not change much, but the atmosphere of the continent changed with the outbreak of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. We know that truth is always the first casualty of war, but an almost universal fear of foreign spies came over Europe, and a woman who had lovers in many countries and travelled – as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral – freely around countries whose inhabitants certainly had all kinds of malicious intents against peace-loving Frenchmen – she became to be viewed by many as a security risk.
The spy craze of the Great War is almost worth an article of its own. Every country – at war or not – continually arrested presumed spies, many of which were so cleverly hidden by their suspected employers that they were illiterate, did not speak their sponsor’s language and had no contact to the military.
In the spring of 1916, Russia had sent a 50.000 strong Expeditionary Corps to aid the allies on the Western Front, and one of their pilots, a 23-year-old Captain caught the eye – and the heart – of our heroine. His name was Vadim Maslov, and he had been shot down and wounded over the Western Front in the spring of 1916. Mata called him “the love of her life”. In the crash, Maslov had lost his sight in both eyes, which led Mata Hari to ask for permission to visit her wounded lover at his hospital near the front. Permission was eventually granted, and she visited him, only to be met by agents of the French Deuxième Bureau, the military intelligence service, who conditioned their approval of the visit on Madame’s future service as a military spy for France.
It was well known, and absolutely no secret, military or not, that Mata Hari had performed several times in peacetime before the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was nominally commander of the Army Group Crown Prince and specifically of the 5th Army. For an intelligence service, however, the Deuxieme Bureau was tragically uninformed – the good Crown Prince was just a figurehead for German war propaganda, an alcoholic womanizer and party drop-head that had minimal influence on anything relating to the war. Blissfully unaware of reality, the Bureau offered Frau Zelle one million francs if she were able to seduce him and milk his brain.
The fact that the Crown Prince had, before 1914, never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, and was now supposedly commanding both an army and an army group at the same time should have been a clue that his role in German decision-making was mostly nominal.
Zelle’s contact with the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Georges Ladoux, who was later to emerge as one of her principal accusers. In November 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the British port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, assistant commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain’s National Archives and was broadcast, with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron, on the independent station LBC in 1980. It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.
Apparently, the Deuxieme Bureau had her on their leash, using her relation to Maslov. She was sent to neutral Madrid in late 1916 to contact the local German military attaché, one Major Arnold Kalle, and ask for a meeting with the Crown Prince, perhaps offering French military secrets (which she certainly did not possess). While the French may still have harboured illusions about her possible capabilities of espionage, the Germans did not.
In January 1917, Major Kalle transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21, whose biography so closely matched Zelle’s that it was patently obvious that Agent H-21 could only be Mata Hari. The Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari.
The messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, suggesting that the messages were contrived to have Zelle arrested by the French. General Walter Nicolai, the chief IC (intelligence officer) of the German Army, had grown very annoyed that Mata Hari had provided him with no intelligence worthy of the name, instead selling the Germans mere Paris gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, and decided to terminate her employment by exposing her as a German spy to the French.
In December 1916, the Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.
In terms of the trade, the Germans burned her for uselessness, but the French were unable to reach this obvious conclusion – or were they? Which French military secrets could have Mrs Zelle uncovered in Spain from a low-ranking German major, and, had the major possessed such secrets, would he not have informed Berlin himself? The case of Mrs Zelle was, quite obviously, of no importance for the security of the French army, but in the psychologically desperate situation of 1917, it could serve a different, patriotic purpose.
In many regards, mid-1917 was the lowest point of the war for the country; the Great Mutinies of the French Army in the spring of 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and a wave of strikes almost paralysed the country. For the new government under Georges Clemenceau – in power since July – the case of Mata Hari seemed to be a great opportunity to blame much of what had transpired before on treason, and a nasty German spy was a god-sent scapegoat. The case was pushed to a maximum press embellishment.
On February 13, 1917, she was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Eleven days later she was put on trial, accused of espionage for Germany and thereby causing the deaths of 50,000 or more French soldiers.
Unfortunately, there existed no documents that could support the charges. Not a single document, secret or not, was presented that Miss Zelle was accused of giving the Germans. A bottle of a strange fluid had been found in her hotel room, that the prosecutor identified a secret ink, while Mrs Zelle described it as make-up. It was true that the prosecution uncovered many of the secret little lies she had used in her invention of the Mata Hari personality, the dances, cults, religion, etc., but that was not illegal and no one was surprised, except that it was very useful for the detailed character assassination the prosecution engaged in. She admitted that she had once accepted 20,000 Francs from a German officer in the Netherlands for espionage against France but pointed out that she had never been in possession of any military secrets – the prosecution could not prove otherwise.
Given the scarcity of evidence, the French government resorted to legal obstruction.
Her defence attorney, veteran international lawyer Édouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Bouchardon [the prosecutor, FN1] used the very fact that Zelle was a woman as evidence of her guilt, saying: “Without scruples, accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”
Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties. At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland. In October 2001, documents released from the archives of MI5 (British counter-intelligence) were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation, to ask the French government to exonerate Zelle as they argued that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges she was convicted of. A spokesman from the Mata Hari Foundation argued that at most Zelle was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side, stating: “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed”
[FN1] Pierre Bouchardon was a notorious prosecutor and judge, who made the identification and prosecution of German spies – whom he saw everywhere – his patriotic duty.
In the heated atmosphere of war, her conviction and the subsequent death penalty were a foregone conclusion, and she was executed by a firing squad of twelve French soldiers just before dawn on 15 October 1917 at the age of 41. She was not handcuffed, refused a blindfold, and, it is said, defiantly blew a kiss to her executors.
It remains very questionable whether she engaged in any sort of intelligence work at all. All her life, she received money from admirers, and whether the 20.000 Francs from the Germans made any difference remains more than questionable. “At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland.” (Wiki, see above)
As an untrained recruitee, she never learned information of real value. Instead, as the records that have come to light show, Hari was a scapegoat, targeted because of her brazen promiscuity, exotic allure and defiance of societal norms of the day.