History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

At the Brink of War – August 1, 1914

Ethnic Map Europe 1914
Eth­nic Map Europe 1914

Eth­nic­ally, Europe was a com­plic­ated affair. Eth­ni­city had not been a primary polit­ic­al cri­terion in the Middle Ages with­in the ori­gin­al feud­al sys­tem – espe­cially in Cent­ral Europe – as the het­ero­gen­eity of not only the Holy Roman Empire, but also of Itali­an city-states and Turk­ish suzer­ainty over the frag­men­ted Balkan lands ante­ceded the rise of nation­al­ism.

This changed in the second half of the 19th Cen­tury. After the defeat of lib­er­al hopes and the failed revolu­tions of 1848, a leth­al scourge of nation­al­ism, chau­vin­ism and anti-Semit­ism swept the con­tin­ent.

Not only Ger­mans real­ized after 1848 and 1871 that the polit­ic­al status quo had not truly changed. The princes remained in con­trol of Europe, the bour­geois­ie con­cen­trated on eco­nom­ic pro­gress and the devel­op­ing social­ist move­ment sought con­sol­id­a­tion. The Con­gress of Ber­lin 1878 had attemp­ted to set the remain­ing issues of European dis­har­mony.

Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli
Ant­on von Wern­er, Con­gress of Ber­lin (1881): Final meet­ing at the Reich Chan­cellery on 13 July 1878, Bis­mar­ck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Ala­jos Káro­lyi, Alex­an­der Gorchakov (seated) and Ben­jamin Dis­raeli

Nation­al­ism had ori­gin­ally been a left­ist cause – against the princes – but it was skil­fully turned against the burgh­ers and the evolving work­ing class and most effect­ively rein­forced by a strange new ideo­lo­gic­al con­coc­tion – anti-Semit­ism.

While xeno­pho­bia remains one of the appar­ently inerad­ic­able hob­bies of man, and per­se­cu­tion of Jews has happened in his­tory along­side the per­se­cu­tion of every oth­er minor­ity one can ima­gine, anti-Semit­ism as a concept is of quite recent ori­gin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, not­ably in an essay Richard Wag­n­er pub­lished anonym­ously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jew­ish­ness in Music), but only found gen­er­al atten­tion after 1879, when the Ger­man agit­at­or Wil­helm Marr pub­lished a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Ger­man­enthum. Vom nicht con­fes­sion­el­len Stand­punkt aus betrachtet (The Vic­tory of the Jew­ish Spir­it over the Ger­man­ic Spir­it. Observed from a non-reli­gious per­spect­ive)” [Ger­man text] – the same year in which he also foun­ded the “Anti­semiten-Liga” (League of Anti­semites).

Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 - Moments before the Assassination
Sara­jevo, June 28, 1914 – Moments before the Assas­sin­a­tion

Anti-Semit­ism found a num­ber of prom­in­ent pros­elytes – Emper­or Wil­helm II, the influ­en­tial polit­ic­al author Hein­rich Claß and vari­ous men of the cloth, but was by far not con­fined to Ger­many. France struggled fif­teen years under the Drey­fus-Affair and in Imper­i­al Rus­sia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favour­ite enter­tain­ment of the masses.

Whole books have been writ­ten on the “Pro­to­cols of the Eld­ers of Zion”, an asin­ine fab­ric­a­tion cobbled togeth­er and first pub­lished in Rus­sia in 1903 – a ludicrous con­spir­acy the­ory on Jew­ish world dom­in­a­tion – how­ever, the quack­book was taken as holy writ by such usu­al sus­pects as Wil­helm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 cop­ies prin­ted and dis­trib­uted.

Nation­al­ism and anti-Semit­ism were the two major ful­crums of aris­to­crat­ic dom­in­a­tion of polit­ic­al Europe in the second half of the 19th Cen­tury until the rise of the social­ist move­ment cre­ated an even more suit­able bogey­man. Hence, the burgh­ers need not only to fear eco­nom­ic ruin by Jew­ish shylocks and rapine by illoy­al bor­der-dwell­ers – indeed their phys­ic­al exist­ence was now jeop­ard­ized by the threat of revolu­tion by the masses of unwashed labour­ers who failed to prop­erly pro­fess their grat­it­ude for the star­va­tion wages they were receiv­ing.

It is thor­oughly under­stand­able that so much exist­en­tial per­il left the burgh­ers of the con­tin­ent in grave and present fear – which might best be mit­ig­ated by expand­ing self-defense. What were the num­bers on which the glor­i­ous under­tak­ing of arm­ing the nation might be based on?

Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Lionel Wyllie - The fixed idea of British Naval Tradition
Pan­or­ama of the Battle of Tra­fal­gar by Wil­li­am Lionel Wyl­lie – The fixed idea of Brit­ish Nav­al Tra­di­tion

The fol­low­ing stat­ist­ics, which give us an idea of Germany’s indus­tri­al and polit­ic­al devel­op­ments versus her com­pet­it­ors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vin­tage Books 1989, ISBN 0−679−72019−7 , pp. 200 ff.):

Kennedy1 Population

It is imme­di­ately vis­ible that France is the odd man out in regards to her pop­u­la­tion growth; while the United States increased its pop­u­la­tion between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Rus­sia by 48.6%, Ger­many by almost 36% and Great Bri­tain by a some­what more mod­est 23%, the French pop­u­la­tion remained almost con­stant, grow­ing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Anoth­er indic­at­or for eco­nom­ic and indus­tri­al devel­op­ment is the per­cent­age of urb­an versus rur­al pop­u­la­tion:

Kennedy 2 Urban Population


Great Bri­tain, whose indus­tri­al­iz­a­tion had star­ted some fifty years earli­er than that of any oth­er coun­try, not sur­pris­ingly leads the world, although per­cent­age­wise, her urb­an pop­u­la­tion grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by 85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks bet­ter here, with 26.5% growth, while Japan more than doubles its urb­an pop­u­la­tion. Italy, Aus­tria and Rus­sia are in between as far as per­cent­age change goes, but their low abso­lute shares of around or under 10% depict them as under­in­dus­tri­al­ized as of yet.

The fol­low­ing view centres on the sine-qua-non of early indus­tri­al devel­op­ment, the pro­duc­tion of steel:

Kennedy 3 Raw Steel Production

These num­bers depict the state of the respect­ive country’s indus­tri­al­iz­a­tion most con­sequen­tially, for without steel neither con­sumer goods nor arms could be built. Tak­ing France’s small pop­u­la­tion growth into con­sid­er­a­tion, her increase of steel pro­duc­tion between 1900 and 1913 is, per­cent­age­wise, an impress­ive 307%, although her total pro­duc­tion of 4.6 mil­lion tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 mil­lion tons. Trend­wise, both Great Bri­tain and France lag behind them in indus­tri­al expan­sion, while Rus­si­an steel pro­duc­tion is begin­ning to take off. It approx­im­ately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in abso­lute num­bers, the 1913 out­put of 4.8 mil­lion tons was still mea­gre if com­pared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy con­sump­tion:

Kennedy 4 Energy Consumption

If one were to com­bine the data above, and add a few oth­er para­met­ers, the res­ult would describe the changes in rel­at­ive indus­tri­al strength of the Great Powers:

Kennedy 5 Industrial Potential

This pic­ture depicts the rel­at­ive change in the poten­tials of the powers, which must be taken in their eco­nom­ic, as related to size and pop­u­la­tion, and geo­stra­tegic con­texts, that is, related to their loc­a­tion. Italy and Japan remain strug­gling to catch up, while Rus­sia is han­di­capped by her lack of infra­struc­ture and Aus­tria-Hun­gary by intern­al ten­sion. If one com­pares the change of per­cent­age over time, the USA expan­ded its capa­city by 635%, Ger­many by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s indus­tri­al power only grew 173%, an indic­a­tion that her imper­i­al splend­our was begin­ning to fade even before 1914. We now shall com­pare the abso­lute mar­ket shares, which, over time, indic­ate rel­at­ive ascent or decline:

Kennedy 6 Manufacturing Output

This table strik­ingly reveals the weak­en­ing of West­ern Europe, Great Bri­tain and France, com­pared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Ger­many, in the middle of the con­tin­ent. England’s por­tion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit bet­ter but still loses 27% of her world mar­ket per­cent­age of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Ger­many by 74.1%. The quota of Rus­sia, Aus­tria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s con­tin­ent­al enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell fur­ther back. Speak­ing of war, we now shall turn our atten­tion to the mil­it­ary:

Berlin - Unter den Linden 1914
Ber­lin – Unter den Linden 1914
Kennedy 7 Military Personnel
Army Strength 1914
Con­tem­por­ary Com­par­is­on of Army Strength at the Out­break of WW I

Even a curs­ory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the buri­al of a few cher­ished pre­ju­dices. Not only is the Ger­man army, the pre­sumptive men­ace of the con­tin­ent, much smal­ler than Russia’s, which one might take for gran­ted giv­en the latter’s vast­ness, it is smal­ler than France’s, too. In the case of Aus­tria-Hun­gary, her men, who are dis­persed to cov­er a hos­tile bor­der of some 1500 miles length, num­ber only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a bor­der of far less than a hun­dred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hos­tile coali­tions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 mil­lion men under arms, more than twice the num­ber of the Cent­ral Powers’ 1,335 mil­lion men. All these num­bers and many more will, of course, be dis­cussed at length in “The Little Drum­mer Boy”, in the sec­tion on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.

A com­par­is­on of the great powers’ total mil­it­ary per­son­nel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter cen­tury, the num­ber of ser­vice­men increased from 2,9 mil­lion to almost 5 mil­lion, by more than two thirds. How does this com­pare to the much-made-of nav­al races of these years?

Kennedy 8 Warship Tonnages
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Har­bour

It would seem almost bey­ond belief, but the nav­al ton­nage of the great powers more than quin­tupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – grow­ing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claus­tro­phobic. As the fig­ures for Japan and the USA make clear, the nav­al race was not lim­ited to the North Atlantic and the Medi­ter­ranean Sea; the lat­ter found it neces­sary to almost triple the size of her navy in the four­teen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Span­ish-Amer­ic­an War and the annex­a­tions of the Phil­ip­pine, Cuban and Hawaii­an islands, not before it.

As it would be expec­ted, the dif­fer­ent geo­stra­tegic loc­a­tions of the powers decided which ser­vice was to become the primary bene­fi­ciary of the increas­ing budgets: the nav­al power Great Bri­tain had little use for much infantry; her tem­por­ary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a res­ult of the ongo­ing Boer War, not of a sus­tained increase in army spend­ing. Her seni­or ser­vice, the Roy­al Navy, primary power instru­ment and con­di­tio-sine-qua-non of her imper­i­al grandeur, launched into a pro­trac­ted build­ing spree against the Ger­man and Amer­ic­an navies (1812 was by no means for­got­ten) that res­ul­ted in a quad­rupling of her size between 1880 and 1914. 

There is a rule of thumb in his­tory which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each oth­er the great­er the prob­ab­il­ity that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out dur­ing the Cold War, to our all sur­viv­al, but this was more the res­ult of the imprac­tic­ab­il­ity of nuc­le­ar war­fare than of a sud­den increase in human wis­dom. In the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, how­ever, the focus of our inquiry, every new battle­ship launched and each new army corps estab­lished pre­cari­ously chal­lenged the bal­ance of power – and one day, on August 1, 1914, the rule of thumb became real­ity.

German Mobilisation 1914
Ger­man Mobil­isa­tion 1914

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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1 Comment

  1. Richard Wag­n­er and most of the rad­ic­al anti-Semites were men of the rad­ic­al LEFT – this included Bri­tain (with such anti-Semites as the far left “lib­er­al” Hob­son). They were hos­tile to “cap­it­al­ism” and to “the rich” – indeed that was at the core of their anti­semit­ism Kais­er Wil­helm II was him­self a col­lect­iv­ist – and Gen­er­al “War Social­ism” Ludendorff even more so.

    As for the size of armies – the French and Rus­si­ans were in the middle of mil­it­ary reor­gan­isa­tions in 1914, their mil­it­ary forces were large but very badly organ­ised and equipped. The Ger­mans were ready for war in 1914 and their oppon­ents were NOT. That is why the Ger­mans Declared War on Rus­sia and France in 1914 – because they knew their oppon­ents were hor­ribly dis­or­gan­ised (not ready for war).

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