The clerk at the Wiesloch city pharmacy seriously doubted the sanity of his customer, a woman in her late thirties in a dress as soiled as to make her appearance unacceptable amongst the good burghers of the town. Perhaps she was dangerous. Wiesloch was only ten miles south of Heidelberg, which had a university, and the good doctor was informed that some women had recently attempted to join the chemistry faculty. But the nature of the lady’s request was something he never had to consider before.
“You want ten litres of Ligroin?”, he stammered. Then he looked at the lady’s dress and noticed the stains. Ligroin was basically petroleum, and perhaps the lady wanted to improve her scandalous appearance. “I understand, Ma’am. But for these stains half a litre will do nicely, perhaps one litre.”
The lady insisted. The apothecary, unable to imagine what one might do with ten litres of petroleum except, perhaps, burn down a forest, asked for the reason of the peculiar order. “It’s for my automobile,” the fruitcake explained, and lead the man outside. There stood one contraption of a kind the good doctor had not seen before in his life. It was ridiculous. It looked as if someone had wanted to build a horse carriage, but had forgotten most of the top structure and the horses. It looked like this:
The doctor, a good catholic like all the citizens of the town, looked suspiciously around for the presence of Satan and only very hesitantly touched the outer-wordly apparition. He felt wood, rubber and iron – hence the physical existence of the visitation could no longer be denied. He asked for an explanation, and the lady told him a story plainly out of a Jules Verne novel, of which the apothecary, it must be admitted, had read a few in his youth.
This car, the lady told him, has not been mankind’s first attempt at constructing an automobile, but earlier designs failed at the dearth of a reliable engine, until from the 1870s on, Nikolaus Otto and Gottfried Daimler succeeded in building reliable four-stroke-engines, which are, to this day, called Ottomotoren – Otto engines.
Her name was Cäcilie Bertha Benz, she said, and was the wife and unofficial (because illegal) business partner of the inventor and engineer Karl Benz. Their company, Benz & Cie., had constructed and patented the present Benz-Patent-Motorwagen, a horseless carriage with a water-cooled petroleum engine. It had been awarded the German patent number 37435, for which her husband had applied on 29 January 1886. Unfortunately, the fancy invention was ignored by the public, and although Karl improved Model I with II and III, disinterest persisted.
The novelty in Karl Benz’ concept was that, from the beginning, the car was designed to become, one day, the world’s first “production” car, of which great numbers could be built. Many tinkerers worked on cars, but hardly anybody except Benz in such a systematic way. Horseless carriages could be, and would be built, but would they work in everyday use? They were extremely fault-prone, hence every driver had to double as mechanic, there were no roads, where could one get gasoline except in a pharmacy – which stocked only small amounts of it anyway?
Thus, on this morning of August 5, 1888, Bertha set out to show the world what her husband’s work could do. She was a practical woman and knew that people tend to covet something only when they are aware of its existence. It was a question of marketing, she realized. The car had previously never been driven more than a few hundred yards around the workshop and few people had seen it. She did not tell her husband or anyone else, did not inform authorities (why anyway – there were no such things as driving licences), but took her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old, and set out to visit her mother, who lived in Pforzheim, starting from her own house in Mannheim.
As it was to be expected, the enterprise turned out no mean feat. She had to clean a blocked fuel line with her hair pin and use her garter as insulation for the overheating engine. The 4,5 litres of petroleum in the carburator ran out quickly, forcing her to the aforementioned fuel stop at Wiesloch, where the apothecary thus became owner and attendant of the world’s first service station. A broken chain necessitated another stop, to have it fixed by a local blacksmith. When the brakes – made of wood – began to evidence abnormal tear and wear, she visited a nearby cobbler and had leather pads fixed on it, thereby inventing the world’s first pair of brake pads. The engine was cooled by an evaporative cooling system, which was responsible for further filling-up stops.
But she persisted. She reached Pforzheim after dusk and reported home by telegram. A few days later, she made the journey back successfully. The rest, as they say, is history.
The trip was an instant success. First local, then national and finally the international press picked up the story. It became the key event in the practical invention of the automobile as means of private transport.
” … 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.
The court of the Sun King Louis XIV was known as a gallant place where beautiful ladies with flexible morals were able to calculate chances of promotion quite the way up to the most exalted beds in the country. Competition, however, was fierce and various ladies with respectable charms but little patience turned to strategies destined to improve their pecuniary as well as social conditions in the shortest possible time.
One of these hungry ladies was Marie Madeleine Marguerite d’Aubray, from an equally rich and famous noble family. At the age of 21 (1651), she married the Marquis Antoine Gobelin de Brinvilliers, a wealthy Flemish wool merchant, with whom she had five children. Through her husband she met the flimsy, but charming – and permanently mired in financial difficulties – scoundrel Monsieur Godin de Sainte-Croix, with whom she began a prolonged affair.
Marie’s father considered the affair, did not like it, and managed to send the friend of the family for a year to the Bastille prison, where the hobby alchemist Sainte-Croix obviously met an inmate colleague who taught him various skills on toxicology. At liberty again, Sainte-Croix returned straight back to his lover, with specific proposals on how the sweetheart could take possession of the family heritage quickly. In the way, unfortunately, stood her father and two brothers and a sister with whom she would have to share the heritage.
The brothers expired mysteriously in the course of the summer of 1670 , but the suspicious Sister Thérèse d’Aubray now developed a strong interest in checking her food and thus remained alive, although she died before the subsequent trial and condemnation of her dear sister, probably due to natural causes. Although the autopsies of the brothers evidenced certain indications of poisoning, Marie always had an alibi and the servant of the brothers in question, a certain Jean Stamelin called La Chaussee ( “the Way”), was above suspicion.
It came out by accident only. Sainte-Croix died in a failed experiment in his laboratory, probably by inhaling toxic gases. Since he, as always, was heavily in debt, his estate had to be executed at the local court, where a cassette was noticed and opened, which divulged not only his promissory notes, but also a variety of poisons as well as the lovers‘ full correspondence.
The subsequent investigation quickly led to the arrest of the servant, his trial, torture and execution, while Marie fled abroad, first to England, then to Liège – into a convent. After her extradition, she was subjected to the water torture (see cover photo), then various other gymnastic exercises and finally sentenced to death on the scaffold on July 16, 1676 . So far so good.
Meanwhile, a series of strange deaths of rich nobleman – or at least gossip about it – had aroused the idle suspicion of the court. What advanced the subject to the favourite theme of the courtiers’ natter was the strange fact that Louis Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin , Marquis de Montespan, began to complain publicly about his wife Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, who – under her artist or bed name Athénaïs – had replaced Louise de La Valliere, the official mistress of Louis XIV, in the royal four-poster bed. Even more shocking, he accused the First Lady-in-Waiting of Queen Marie Therese, Mme. Julie d’Angennes to have arranged the connection for selfish motives.
The problem was that – usually – the husbands of the royally selected ladies did not complain about matters they could not change, but tried to draw from the circumstances given the best possible benefits for their own careers. But Montespan was so angry that he not only publicly demanded a duel with the king but also decorated Louis‘ coach with antlers, for which he was promptly jailed. He was subsequently exiled, but did not give up. Although prohibited by order of the king, he travelled not only to Paris each summer from 1670 to 1686, but also paid for an annual requiem mass for his (quite lively) wife, and forced the two children to participate in a phony funeral.He also announced publicly and repeatedly that his wife had swayed the king with love potions and black masses.
A Catholic monarch could – of course – not sit out such accusations, whether Mme. Montespan had born him seven children or not. Thus, the Marquis fell even deeper in disgrace and the irritated King sent his bloodhounds out for him.
But Louis needed a pretext to make it not look like a personal pursuit – which of course it was. Because in the wake of sensational trial of Mme. Brinvilliers, all the hallways of the court echoed with rumours of poisonings anyway, he created an official commission and special court, a renewed Chambre Ardente, which had already served his blessed colleagues Francis I, Henry II and Francis II so well in the pursuit of heretics. Fittingly, this time it was called Cour de Poison ( “Poison Court”).
For a change, the official task of the court this time was combating
the suspected circles of Satanism – the popular assumption was that the cult urged
his followers to commit the suspected murders by poison (financial interests
were officially taboo). The usual suspects were mostly women – but not
only; psychics, spiritualists, pharmacists, poisoners and manufacturers of
The French police prefect Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie was commissioned to destroy the satanic conspiracy. About four hundred suspects were interrogated and by the enthusiastic use of torture numerous enjoyable confessions were obtained. Everyone accused everybody else, it was a lark.
But suddenly there was a true lead. A thin trail of the king‘s mistress to a suspected mass murderess and poisoner could be established, the famous La Voisin (also called “Monvoisin” or “Montvoisin”), a person Reynie had noticed before. In the case of Mme. Montespan who was, after all, the official royal mistress, the chief of police suspected not really poison, but the acquisition of love potions to ensure the king’s favour, he thought quite possible – Black Masses might be required for their production – who knew?
In the course of his investigation Reynie had busted two soothsayers, who accused Mme. Monvoisin. The lady turned out to be a winner. It could be determined – reasonably reliable – that she had a customer base that actually reached into high nobility.
Inquiries in the vicinity of the bustling dame rendered quickly that she was perceived to provide horoscopes and black magic, actually sold poisons and love spells and performed abortions as well. In her garden stood a chapel in which demons like Astaroth and Asmodeus were worshiped. These black masses were visited by an illustrious clientele of courtiers and princesses – even the executioner of Paris himself belonged to the circle. Embarrassingly, one of the carriages waiting outside bore the coat of arms of the royal mistress and soon the police could prove visits by Mme. Montespan all the way back to 1665.
Claimed by several witnesses in the subsequent interrogations was that in these ceremonies Madame de Montespan had lain naked on an altar while her petitions for the king’s continuing favour were passed on to the Christian God and the gods of the underworld. She had allowed the priest Guibourg to introduce a host in her vagina and to have intercourse with her while praying. [ Description of the exhibition ] [ PDF ] The daughter of Monvoisin confirmed both the masses and the sales of love potions, but these statements were immediately relegated to the secret archives.
It became worse soon. Excavations on the site of La Monvoisin unearthed the remains of more than 2,500 aborted, dead-, early- or newborn babies.
That Mme Monvoisin was due, was clear – but first royal generosity had to protect the innocent, that is noble, attendees of the masses – their names were removed from the lists, and they were advised to take extensive vacations – preferably abroad.
Madame de Sevigne witnessed the execution of La Voisin and wrote in her letters: “At Notre Dame she refused to apologize, and fought tooth and nail at the Place de la Greve. They brought her to the pile of wood, tied her up in a sitting position with iron chains and covered her with straw. She cursed without pause and repulsed the straw five or six times, but eventually the fires flared up, and she was never seen again. Her ashes are now flying around in the air. Thus died Mrs Voisin, famous for her crimes and pagan unbelief. “[ Source ]
Another mistress of Louis and rival of Montespan, the beautiful Marie Angélique de Scoraille de Roussille (see above), also died suddenly. Rumours concentrated on Mme. De Montespan and Reynie actually investigated her. But several influential courtiers prevented an indictment, including Françoise d’Aubigné,Marquise de Maintenon, usually called Madame de Maintenon, the governess of the royal children (with whom Ludwig later entered into a secret, morganatic marriage),. But after the death of the beautiful Angélique, Montespan quickly fell out of favour.
Slowly the poison affair fizzled out – the last execution took place in 1683. Reynie was urged to complete his investigation – he probably got too close to some folks dear to the royal well-being. What remained was a new law regulating the marketing of poisons, which became a model worldwide. Divination and soothsaying was banned in France and a decree of 1682 ended witch trials.
on Ludwig was rather busied by the formation of the League of Augsburg , and through the wars
of the Palatinate – and later the Spanish Succession , and the affairs of the
court lost importance. The King spent his subsequent years more and more
with the Marquise de Maintenon and in the bosom of his family.
Header and above: The famous painting at the town hall of Landshut, Lower Bavaria, depicting scenes of the “Wedding of Landshut” in 1475 between the Bavarian Duke Georg der Reiche (George the Rich) and Hedwig Jagiellonica, daughter of the Polish King Kasimir IV. Andreas. The wedding is quadrennially re-enacted as a magnificent spectacle (last in 2017). Painted by August Spieß, Rudolf Seitz, Ludwig Löfftz and Konrad Weigand.
The two basic tools of statecraft for the Kings of Eastern Franconia after the division of Charlemagne’s Empire were war and marriage, and both influenced the royal exchequer. If the annual campaign was successful, the lion’s share of the newly acquired territories was the king’s to bestow upon a faithful liege, perhaps with some cash as well. If a war was lost, the hand of a royal daughter might mitigate the conditions of peace. At length the more or less classical feudal system developed, wherein liege lord and vassal were bound to mutual assistance by the bilateral oath of fealty; yet in reality an often incessant series of battles, marriages, exchange, barter and trade obscured the lines and enhanced the volatility of the political landscape. War was ubiquitous and unremitting, miring states in feuds that lasted, sometimes, for centuries: England and France fought three hundred years, with intermissions, over the erstwhile Normannic possessions in western and northern France. …
By the end of the ninth century AD, the centre of political gravity in the East moved to Bavaria, where Arnulf of Carinthia [r.AD 887-899] and his, rather ineffective, son Louis the Child [r.AD 900-911] represented the last of the Carolingians. Between AD 896, when Arnulf fell seriously ill, and AD 911, there was “a power vacuum in the Eastern kingdom. It was filled by new regional rulers, called “‘Dukes’ – of Bavaria … of Alemannia (now increasingly called Swabia) … of Saxony … of Lotharingia … and even of the East Frankish heartland, which seems to have crystallized as a duchy under Gebhard’s nephew Conrad around 906.” (16)
There is a temptation to see the emergence of these regional princes as the beginning of German particularism, but for the time being these were only transient structures, albeit developing their own political consciousness. They could be relatively mature, as in Bavaria, or chaotic, as in Saxony, but it “is a sign of the power of the duchy as a political concept that they too had more or less hegemonic dukes by Louis the Child’s death. The Frank Conrad, ruler of the most ‘royal’ duchy, was a natural successor to Louis, as Conrad I (911-18), but he failed to gain the respect from his ducal ex-peers that he hoped for,” and “when he died, the magnates of ‘Francia et Saxonia’ chose Henry of Saxony as the new king (Henry I, “the Fowler”, 919- 36).” (17)
It was a momentous occasion, and a risk, too: for the first time since Chlodwig, a man was king of the Franks who was not a Frank himself. It was perhaps an accidental bout of wisdom that had influenced the decision, for the Saxonian dukes and their armies were the leading edge in the border wars in the East, against the Slays and in particular against the Magyars or Hungarians, the latest semi-nomadic issue from the Asian steppe. Henry defeated them in 933, to his credit and popularity. (18) The basis for the wealth of Henry’s family, the Liudolfingians, later called the Ottonians, was slave trade, a most profitable business which benefited from the Saxons’ proximity to the border. They sent grab commandos on kidnapping sprees into the East, to abduct the children of the Slavs [the name “Slav” indeed comes from this business], and to sell them, especially young boys, blondes at a premium, into the Turkish and Arabian brothels of the Levant.
The hazard of Henry’s election for the Franks was that the Saxons well remembered Charlemagne’s slaughter of 4,500 of their kin, and no one would have been surprised had they sought revenge. But Henry publicly announced to forego retribution, and this message gave rise to the hope that the vicious circle of intertribal slaughter and retribution might be broken. At the occasion of the succession of his father and his formal coronation and anointment as emperor at Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital, Henry’s son Otto [Otto I, r.AD 936-973] promoted equality between the tribes, by inviting all the eastern dukes and being publicly supported by them, in an attempt to strengthen the governmental consensus he hoped to establish.
In some respects it was easier for the aristocracy to entertain notions of collegiality than it was for the peasants; for the Aleman farmer or Saxonian shepherd, fancies of being a “German” were still part of a distant future. The annals kept in churches describe fiendish prejudices: chronicles portray the Swabians as stupid, the Hessians as overbold, and call the Saxons simply “wild”. Awful was the reputation of the Bavarians; rapists and robbers, gluttons and drunkards.
[* The terminology of the age was volatile; the summary below is provided by Chris Wickham: “The separate concepts “France” and “Germany” did not yet exist; nor even, except occasionally, did “West” and “East” Francia, the terminology historians currently use; both were normally just Francia, or Francia et Saxonia in the case of the eastern kingdom, to reflect the Saxon origins and political base of the Ottonians. (‘France” is of course simply the French for Francia; by contrast in the German lands, the Frankish heartland was only one region among the old ethnic territories of Saxony, Alemannia, Bavaria, and so a new inclusive name eventually appeared, the regnum Teutonicum, though not until the eleventh century.) But the lack of interest of the historians reflects a slow cultural separation. For Flodoard and Richer, Francia was „really“ (northern) France; the East Franks were Transrhenenses, from over the Rhine, or else the inhabitants of Germania, the old Roman geographic term. For Widukind, similarly, West Francia was Gallia, proto-French the Gallic lingua, and Francia was seen as “really” being in the East.”] (19)
Yet the instruments of civil governance, as opposed to war, remained few and crude, hampered by the sluggishness of communications. For the most part, Otto and his successors still governed ambulatory: they moved, with a long trek of wagons and horses, counsellors and courtiers, bodyguards and jesters, ladies chaste and not so chaste, through the country. Wherever the trek halted, royal duties were performed as long as circumstances permitted it: when the local host ran out of victuals, the wagons moved on. Many parts of the realm would not behold the king ever; the royal visits concentrated upon the old Roman settlements and the newer Imperial towns, mostly sees of bishops: Mainz, Speyer, Cologne, Trier, Worms, Nuremberg and Regensburg, the former “Castra Regina”, i.e. “Fortress by the Regen River”.
All in all it was a somewhat haphazard affair Otto found himself king of, when, by a stroke of luck or fate, in AD 951, the opportunity arose to marry the widow of the king of the Lombardy, and thus to secure the Lombardian succession, which included most of northern Italy, for his family, their successors, and the Regnum Teutonicum. In the pursuit of this lucky break Otto happened to set his eyes on Rome as well. The former capital of the world had sunken deeply; the times of her grandeur were a fading memory. Economically and militarily without importance, the city, at perhaps a tenth of her former one million inhabitants, managed a meagre subsistence on a diminished flow of pilgrims visiting the seat of St. Peter. One possibility, however, attracted Otto’s attention, regarding the city’s most venerable resident, Pope John XII. In compensation for a contribution to the bishop’s stressed finances, the king as well as his successors would like to propose their ideas on the future bearers of the greatest Catholic dignity to the people of Rome, and would expect the wisdom of their choice to be honoured in perpetuity. Edward Gibbon reports on another shady deal:
Otho [Otto] the First imposed a treaty on the senate and the people [of Rome], who engaged to prefer the candidate most acceptable to his majesty: his successors anticipated or prevented their choice: they bestowed the Roman benefice, like the bishoprics of Cologne or Bamberg, on their chancellors or preceptors; and whatever might be the merit of a Frank or Saxon, his name sufficiently attests the interposition of foreign power.
Such mutual compliments also caused difficulties in cooperative warfare, for in the meetings of the presumed allies, it could happen too easily that jokes were told, catcalls flew, one word gave the other, and in a minute the hypothetical confederates went at each other’s throats. Only when the kingdom was confronted with a true danger, the wild hordes of the Hungarians, did the amalgamated troops display a semblance of orderly conduct. When the intruders were beaten by Henry in AD 933, and later, decisively, by Otto in AD 955, and thus ceased to remain a threat to the lives and possessions of the tribes, it was probably the first time that a collective “German”* sigh of relief swept through the land.
These acts of prerogative were most speciously excused by the vices of a popular election. The competitor who had been excluded by the cardinals appealed to the passions or avarice of the multitude; the Vatican and the Lateran were stained with blood; and the most powerful senators, the marquises of Tuscany and the counts of Tusculum, held the apostolic see in a long and disgraceful servitude. The Roman pontiffs of the ninth and tenth centuries were insulted, imprisoned, and murdered by their tyrants; and such was their indigence, after the loss and usurpation of the ecclesiastical patrimonies, that they could neither support the state of a prince nor exercise the charity of a priest.
The influence of two sister prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues: the most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre, and their reign may have suggested to the darker ages the fable of a female pope. The bastard son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter, and it was at the age of nineteen years that the second of these became the head of the Latin Church. …
[But] we read with some surprise that the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter lest in the devout act they should be violated by his successor. The Protestants have dwelt with malicious pleasure on these characters of Antichrist; but to a philosophical eye, the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues. (20)
Otto’s Italian job had not only secured him the possession of the Lombardy and the connubial attentions of the widow, but his financial health as well. A number of prosecutions for treason which notably reduced the number of John’s creditors, had removed much of the pope’s secular distress, and, in a solemn ceremony, the grateful bishop decorated Otto with the crown and the royal insignia of Charlemagne; since this day Otto referred to himself as Augustus, Caesar, and Emperor. The good-neighbourly relations, once established, persuaded John and Otto to adjudicate two future principles of Imperial ballots: that the candidate who was elected emperor by the German princes would thereby obtain, instantly, the kingdom of Italy as his personal domain, but he was not to assume the Imperial titles until he was crowned in Rome, by the pope himself. The vacant Roman titles were resurrected by the sword of the Barbarians and the authority of a religion; and it was the claim of the new dignity that it bestowed superiority over all the other monarchs of the West.
With so many labours of love and duty on his hands, Otto did not find much time to tend to his “German” affairs. He could have returned over the Alps and collected affirmations of his new rank from the dukes, but the new possessions, and perhaps the widow’s attentions, required his continued presence in the newly acquired territories. It was the Italians, who now had the frequent opportunity to host the new emperor’s court, who were the first to come up with a single appellation covering all the pale folks from the north: they called them “Teutonici”, in remembrance of Gaius Marius’s victory over the Teutones a millennium ago. The Italians thought that all these tribes whose tongues they could not understand, could understand each other, which was, unfortunately, not the case. But since one Germanic dialect sounded just as unintelligible to them as the next one, they were all called “Teutonic”, ‘German’.
Now that the Regnum Teutonicum also included Italy and a new Imperial dignity, the question was what would happen at the founder’s death. Yet, surprisingly enough, the Ottonians were able to form a relatively stable dynasty, despite some smaller emergencies, and after the deaths of Otto II [r.AD 973-983] and Otto III [r.AD 98310021, the German dukes elected “Henry IV of Bavaria (Henry II, 1002-24), who was Otto I’s brother’s grandson and Otto III’s male line heir. There was no doubt at any of these royal accessions that East Francia was a single political system, which by now included Italy as well.” (21)
When trouble arose, it came from an unanticipated direction. It had been early recognized by Otto and his successors that the princes of the Church were relatively more eager to support Imperial business than the secular nobility, whose interests were dominated by dynastic issues. Ever since the harmonious understanding between Pope John and Otto I, the bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church could be counted on to be found on the side of the emperor, until the cosy relations suffered a setback over the right of investiture.
Conflicts over the authority to appoint bishops were as old as the Church, dating back to AD 337, when Emperor Constantine (on his deathbed, not a minute earlier) accepted Christianity as one permissible religion of the Imperium Romanum and his own. Six centuries later, Otto and his successors claimed the right of investiture as an Imperial prerogative, and for a hundred years or so the popes were too weak to challenge the emperor’s licence. Under the auspices of Pope Gregor VII, however, a reform movement usurped the clerical hierarchy and reclaimed the privilege for the Holy See. After prolonged arguments and a few rounds of cross-excommunications, the Church won, and the current emperor Heinrich IV had to undertake a journey to Canossa and beg forgiveness from the pope.
The crown was thus forced to abandon the former Imperial privileges in clerical affairs, but the triumph of the Church had consequences that far outreached the rather limited issue of investiture. Since Canossa, the Holy Roman Emperor was a lay Christian like any of his subjects, and this transition of power the Church promptly used to claim the secular authority, that is, the political control, over her properties. The number of administrative entities in the Regnum Teutonicum was much augmented by the addition of clerical domains; three hundred years later approximately ninety German bishops and cardinals, with all the rights of secular lords, joined the thirty or forty leaders of the nobility in the actual governance of the realm.
The main consequence of the tug-of-war between clergy and nobility was that it further hampered the emergence of a “German” consciousness, compared with, say, France. The French ethnogenesis developed more rapidly not only because central governance was instituted earlier, it was also centred on an all-important capital. In a perfect antithesis, the possessions of secular and clerical princes in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was called from the fourteenth century on, were divided and subdivided again, and a quilt of dozens of tiny-to-medium-sized dominions alongside the great duchies emerged, and existed until the early nineteenth century. The absence of a great capital contributed to the maturative sluggishness; great towns reflect culture and culture reflects identity.
Without the benefits of a unified language or political centre, the German national birth pangs continued, for attractors of social cohesiveness, a “national” consciousness, were disfavoured by the princes, who saw them as threats to their sovereignty. Otto’s Imperial claim of superiority over the rest of the continental princes, whether they called themselves kings or not, remained a theoretical exercise; de facto, the medieval emperor was not more than primus inter pares. Not that the Imperial designs ever were too modest: one of Otto’s eventual successors from the House of Hohenstaufen [flor. AD 1138-1254], Heinrich IV, allowed his modesty to claim all the lands in Africa and the Levant, between Gibraltar and the Hellespont, as his personal domain, on the argument that they, as former provinces of the Imperium Romanum, be restored to his authority as the universal heir of Romulus and Hadrian. He also proclaimed his desire to conquer Baghdad and the Caliphate.
It probably saved the Regnum Teutonicum respectively Holy Roman Empire a lot of needless slaughter, when the good man died in AD 1197, at only thirty-three, and his extensive plans remained stillborn. Perhaps it was a family trait: his father, Friedrich I, called “Barbarossa” for his prodigious red facial hairdo, had not allowed the pages of the family book to remain unturned, either: to combine the useful with the sacred, he partook in the Third Crusade but had the misfortune to fall off his horse into a Turkish river and, for his armour, drowned on the road to glory [AD 1190). At least he did not need to witness the subsequent slaughter of his army by the heathen Saracens. Crusades were much in fashion at the time, and in the family, and Barbarossa’s grandson Friedrich II experienced a good amount of the Holy Quest when he became, successively, the pupil, an enemy, and a victim of the Church. (22)
In his minority, Friedrich had been a ward of Pope Innocent III and had been married, as quickly as it might appear proper, to the heiress of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem, thereby to instil in the young emperor a desire for the reacquisition of the Holy City. Friedrich dutifully delivered the town once again from Arab occupation [AD 1229] but soon tired of the essential stupidity of religious fanaticism. Being a man of religious tolerance, he began to negotiate with the sultan, to establish actual freedom of worship. The scandalous undertaking did not meet with the pope’s applause, as Edward Gibbon assures us:
The enemy of the church [Friedrich) is accused of maintaining with the miscreants an intercourse of hospitality and friendship unworthy of a Christian; of despising the barrenness of the land, and of indulging a profane thought, that if Jehovah had seen the kingdom of Naples he never would have selected Palestine for the inheritance of his chosen people.
Yet Friedrich obtained from the sultan the restitution of Jerusalem, of Bethlehem and Nazareth, of Tyre and Sidon; the Latins [Europeans] were allowed to inhabit and fortify the city; an equal code of civil and religious freedom was ratified for the sectaries of Jesus and those of Mohammed; and while the former worshipped at the holy sepulchre, the latter might pray and preach in the mosque of the temple whence the prophet undertook his nocturnal journey to Heaven.
The clergy deplored this scandalous toleration; and the weaker Moslems were gradually expelled; but every rational object of the crusades was accomplished without bloodshed; the churches were restored, the monasteries were replenished; and in the space of fifteen years, the Latins of Jerusalem exceeded the number of six thousand. (23)
Peaceful coexistence was not a fashion of life the Catholic Church was prepared to tolerate, and in a short time the natural passions of hatred and ferocity were restored to the treasure of Christian virtues. Friedrich was excommunicated not only once but twice, and at length retired to his beloved refuge of Sicily. The island had inherited, over the last two millennia, a veritable melting pot of Mediterranean cultures: Greek, Phoenician and Roman influences had existed in fruitful competition for centuries, and the results pleased the emperor’s eyes. Sicily became Friedrich’s pet project of a “modern state”, and on account of his good relations to the sultan, he obtained the assistance of Arabian scientists, civil servants, doctors and clerks; his court was the most developed institution in contemporary Europe.
Germany was of lesser importance to him, and he only crossed the Alps twice to inspect his titular possessions. He had surrendered a few of the old Imperial privileges, the imposition of tariffs or duties, for example, to the major German princes, in return for their electoral support of his son’s succession to the Imperial dignity. Such deals were common and the most compelling factor in the gradual diminishment of the Imperial authority. They were called Capitulations, and the name correctly describes their contents. Perhaps comparable to the way the English aristocracy had gained, in the development of the four centuries between the Magna Charta of AD 1215 and the Bill of Rights in AD 1689, more and broader limitations of the powers of the crown, the capitulations of the German emperors decreased their executive powers. Friedrich’s attempt to secure his son’s succession was the last effort to establish a hereditary line on the thrown of the Occident until the usurpation of the office by the House of Habsburg three centuries later.
The form of the actual Imperial election was reformed in AD 1356 with the publication of the “Golden Bull”, which delegated the franchise upon the shoulders of the seven Electors, whose majority vote would ennoble the successful candidate. The original bull named three men of the cloth and four members of the nobility: the three clerical electors were the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, of whom the gentleman from Mainz officiated as Imperial Arch Chancellor and primus inter pares: he was the chairman of the election board, voted last, and supervised the coronation ceremonies. The four secular electors were the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Marquis of Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria, replaced later by the King of Bohemia.
The convoluted design effectively prevented the establishment of dynasties for more than two centuries; no single family was permitted to accumulate undue influence by too long a reign. Therefore, at a time when England was ruled by the Plantagenets and their descendants, the Yorks and Lancasters, and France governed by a succession of Capets, Orleans, Valois and Bourbons, no German dynasty was allowed to leverage a unifying influence upon the German people. This absence explained, to a degree, the differences between the national consciousness of France and Germany: the French perspective was early formed by territorial, that is, increasingly possessive motivations, while the German outlook was restricted to the vagaries of ever-changing and frequently shifting political coalitions.
(16) (17) (18) (19) (21) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 430, 431, 431, 429
(20) (22) (23) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3 , pp. 1043 (889), 1276 (1088), 1278 (1090) [First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4]
The Iron Chancellor had retired – quite against his will – on March 18, 1890. He has always considered his highest duty to ensure friendly relations with all nations surrounding Germany, if possible. That France, irate over the defeat of 1871 but momentarily impotent, would remain the perpetual enemy was clear. What had to be avoided, under all circumstances, was that she found continental allies, in particular in the East, i.e. Russia, to aid her in conducting a retaliatory war. Bismarck’s antidote for this particular venom was to develop the best diplomatic relations with the other two large reactionary monarchies, Russia and Austria. These two nations and Germany signed a compact called the Dreikaiserbund, the League of the Three Emperors, in which the monarchs agreed to mutual neutrality in the case that one of them were attacked by France or the Ottoman Empire.
Aware that tensions developing between Russia and Austria over the Balkans might eventually exert a negative impact on this treaty, Bismarck conducted an additional pact with the Czar, the so-called “Rückversicherungsvertrag” or “Reinsurance 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. Bismarck’s fundamental doctrine was, obviously enough, to keep France diplomatically isolated as much as possible.
To undertake this neutralization of French diplomacy, the Second Empire, one is tempted to say “naturally”, relied on a Foreign Office staff composed chiefly of the nobility and not responsible to the parliament.
No statistical information about the diplomatic corps in the Kaiserreich is as striking as the share of nobles. Of the 548 diplomats in service in the period 1871-1914, no fewer than 377, i.e. 69 per cent, were noble. The percentage of nobles was higher if we count only the foreign missions and not the Auswärtiges Amt [Foreign Office] itself. The ambassadors of Imperial Germany were noble to a man. The most important department in the Auswärtiges Amt was the Political Department IA, which in the period from 1871 to 1914 was 61 per cent noble.
It is true that there was a constant increase in the share of middle-class members of the diplomatic service in this period and beyond it. But during the Kaiserreich such commoners were deployed almost exclusively either in the less important departments of the Auswärtiges Amt, namely in the Trade, Legal or Colonial Departments, or else in the Consular Service. If middle-class people entered the diplomatic missions abroad at all, then during the Wilhelmine period [1888-1918] they were on the whole sent to South Africa or the Middle or Far East, areas which were important commercially but where aristocrats were unwilling to serve.
Not only was the execution of the Reich’s foreign policy in the hands of the nobility, it was, with few exceptions, the northern, Protestant, that is, “Prussian” aristocracy, which occupied the lion’s share of the available posts; Catholics were far less represented.
The exclusive esprit de corps of the German diplomatic service was also promoted by a degree of confessional discrimination. Until 1945 the ratio of Catholics among the diplomats was significantly lower than the national ratio. This situation can only partially be explained by the fact that until 1918 the German middle states maintained their own diplomatic service.
What was perhaps more important was that the majority of south German aristocratic families loathed the idea of state service under the detested Hohenzollerns and that until the turn of the century they saw the real focus of their social aspirations in the Hofburg of Vienna rather than in Potsdam and Berlin. Whoever reads the extensive private correspondence of German diplomats of the imperial period will be astounded at the almost pathological fear of so-called “Ultramontanism” [the idea that German Catholics and the Centre Party were remote-controlled by the pope], which prevailed among even the highest and apparently most open-minded diplomats and statesmen in Berlin.
There was a widespread conviction that any softness towards “Ultramontanism” would have as a logical consequence the disintegration of the Reich. Catholics could therefore only be recruited into the service of the Reich if they had taken a firm and unequivocal stand against Rome and against the Centre Party. (36)
Quite contrary to the impression of strength and unity that the Reich government attempted to project to the outside, the formulation and execution of her foreign policy required from the chancellor an intimate understanding of the matters at hand and the ability and willpower to impose them, should the need arise, even against the ideas of the monarch. Bismarck possessed the required abilities and was able to handle Wilhelm I, who could be stubborn at times. But when Wilhelm’s successor Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III succumbed to throat cancer in 1888 after less than a hundred days in office, the third Kaiser of the year, Wilhelm II, took over.
Things at the Foreign Office began to change soon thereafter. The young emperor did not trust Bismarck implicitly, the way his grandfather had, perhaps because he considered himself a natural talent in foreign affairs. In 1890, Bismarck was retired against his will, to be replaced by Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, whom the old chancellor mocked by calling him a “ministre étrange aux affairs”,* and Chancellor Count Leo Caprivi, who had neither knowledge of nor experience in foreign matters and openly admitted that he desired none. By all appearances, the new staff of the office did not understand Bismarck’s security system or thought it expendable. German foreign policy freed itself from the fetters of reality. (* It was a word play on “foreign” and “estranged”: a “ministre aux affairs étranges” is a foreign minister, but a “ministre étrangè aux affairs” is a minister “estranged from”, that is, “clueless about” his affairs.)
Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire; the new secretary of state 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 looked for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.
The next diplomatic catastrophe befell the relations with Great Britain. Ever since the Seven Years’ War, which had seen the allies emerging as victors, Anglo-Prussian relations had been amicable, for the greatest part, and the shared victory over Napoleon at Waterloo had forged a special bond. From the 1890s on, however, Wilhelmine Germany embarked upon an unnecessary and rather harebrained naval armaments race with England, which directly threatened the British Empire’s dependence on open sea lines for commerce, communication, and the administration of her possessions.
With the exception of the medieval Hanseatic League, Germany had no extensive history as a naval power, for her geographical position in the middle of the continent mostly obviated this need. The expansion of the French and British colonial empires in the nineteenth century, however, fatally ignited, in certain German circles, a desire for competition. The new Reich subsequently embarked upon colonizing the leftovers; those parts of the globe that other powers had judged too poor to be desired. Eventually, four African territories were identified, occupied and colonized with drum rolls and fanfare: today’s Togo,Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania. In addition, a part of New Guinea, Samoa, Tsing-Tao in China and a few island archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean were obtained.
These appropriations were, alas, no fertile lands which could feed the multitudes at home; to be honest, they were not very useful at all, unless one wanted to study exotic bacteria in fever-infested Cameroon. But there are cases in which beauty is measured by the cost or effort to achieve it, and such was the case with the fledgling German colonial empire. History teachers delivered a continuous stream of lectures and homilies to high school students in regard to the [technically Austrian, but never mind] Empire of Charles V in the sixteenth century, in which the sun, proverbially, never set, and many obedient German pupils – and their parents – developed the desire to keep the “place in the sun” their emperor had publicly claimed for the country at all cost. Logically, the newly acquired German territories had to be defended against thievish hands, which included all the foreign navies that might anchor near the coast at any moment to rob Germany of north-eastern New Guinea and its cannibal villages, who could say?
With the explicit consent of the Kaiser, the German Secretary of the Navy, Tirpitz, had brought a huge navy bill through parliament which enabled the launch, at a feverish pace, of an ever-increasing number of battleships and lesser vessels for the protection of the colonies. New shipyards had to be built to accommodate the program, to the bewilderment of the British who could not in the world imagine a reason why Germany needed a fleet of battleships, unless to challenge the Royal Navy. Great Britain, consequentially, sought aid against possible German liberties, and by 1912, two decades later, France, Russia and Great Britain were allied, at least defensively, in the Triple Entente, a treaty against Wilhelmine Germany and its valorous allies Austria-Hungary and Italy, the “Dreibund” or Triple Alliance.
The Foreign Office in Berlin clearly did not understand the realities it created, and its callous recklessness allowed France to play the “German Domination of Europe!” card against the Teutonic menace with great success. While Germany had advanced her industrial production and consumption faster than any other continental country and had become the world’s second-biggest industrial nation, after the British Empire but before the USA, her political culture had remained essentially pre-modern, which was made worse by the young emperor’s rashness.
Wilhelm II had been born with a crippled left arm and developed a crippled self-esteem; his cousin Nicholas II, the Russian Tsar, once called him a “shameless exhibitionist.” The young monarch had a propensity to evoke the most unfortunate impressions wherever he appeared; his constant demands of greater power for Germany failed to make him popular anywhere, and, to make it worse, these exhortations were often delivered with poor charm and a complete lack of diplomatic sensitivity.
Hence, by 1914, the efforts of Wilhelm’s noble diplomats had resulted in the enmity of Great Britain, France and Russia, unpopularity in the world – perhaps with the exception of the Ottomans – and an arms race of the like the globe had never seen before.
As I have said before, 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. They did on August 1, 1914.
With Austria relegated to the sidelines of German politics after the loss of 1866, Prussia took over the leadership of the German states, which still numbered in excess of a dozen. On the map, the changes were slight; the geography of the “German Confederation” was little altered by the disappearance of Austria’s unfortunate allies. More important changes occurred in the economic cooperation of the German states, especially in the critical sector of customs and tariffs. Despite industrialization and the rising importance of direct taxes, they remained a major part of every state’s income.
The Deutscher Zollverein, the German Customs Union, had been steadily expanding in the nineteenth century from its profane origins as the Common Prussian Customs Tariff of 1828: soon it included the southern German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, and in 1867 – Austria having been knocked out of the picture – most of the remaining German states joined up; the Duchies of Schleswig,Holstein and Mecklenburg and the Kingdom of Hanover. By 1869, the Zollverein’s and the German Confederation’s geographical borders were virtually identical. Following a slight update of the political structure, the German Confederation was renamed the “North German Confederation“, the only significant difference being the introduction of the universal male suffrage at twenty-one years of age.
Funnily enough, the first election results under the new terms caught Bismarck in a rare miscalculation: he had assumed that the victory over Austria would benefit his conservative parliamentary allies most, yet, in the event, the majority of the seats went to his enemies, the Liberals, and a few even to his nemeses, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Zentrum (Centre), party. Due to this unexpected failure of the German voters, Bismarck’s further plans hit a few parliamentary snags, but the Iron Chancellor proved himself fit to overcome mere human challenges.
His reasoning in regard to a possible German unification was that the passions of war might overcome the political impediments again – as they had done in 1866. If the southern states, in particular the outspokenly independent Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, were reluctant to follow his lead, the fervour of war might tip the scales. A suitable opponent and bogeyman was readily identified in the person of Napoleon III, Emperor of France.
It was true that, since 1815, open hostilities had not occurred between France and Prussia, but Bismarck, an experienced French hand on account of his tour of duty as Prussian ambassador in Paris in the 1850s, had a clear idea which buttons to press to inflame France with patriotic belligerence.
Napoleon III, nephew and successor of the great Corsican, who had proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1852, was in dire need of military, or any other, glory. His Mexican war in support of Emperor Maximilian had been an unmitigated disaster [AD 1861-1867], and the military grandeur of the empire was in sore need of restoration. He had viewed with distaste the emergence of Prussia as the new German power; not so much as a matter of principle, of which he had none, but because he had cast a longing eye upon the Duchy of Luxemburg as the price for his neutrality in the Prusso-Austrian war of 1866. He was furious when Bismarck explained, after the victory, that, since Luxembourg did not belong to Prussia, it could not be ceded to France.
Bismarck interviewed Graf Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, on the chances of a Prusso-French war. Moltke indicated that success seemed likely, and Bismarck went on to seek a suitable opportunity for war, a casus belli. He did not have to wait too long.
In 1869, the Spanish throne had been left without issue, once again, and after protracted discussion the Spanish crown council decided to offer the crown to Wilhelm’s cousin, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. When the news of the Spanish offer and the prince’s eventual acceptance reached Paris, Emperor Napoleon as well as his loyal subjects interpreted the message from Madrid as proof of a renewed German conspiracy to encircle France. Proper vigilance demanded to exert the necessary precautions at once; to nip the planned crime in the bud.
The French ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti, was urgently dispatched to the spa town of Bad Ems, where Wilhelm was taking the waters. Benedetti’s orders comprised two objectives: in the first instant, to demand that Leopold’s acceptance be withdrawn, and, for seconds, to demand Wilhelm’s public affirmation, in his capacity as the head of the Hohenzollern family, that under no circumstances any prince of the house was to accept a Spanish offer should one be renewed.
The demands were quite unusual, to say the least, for Napoleon III certainly lacked cause as well as authority in the matter. Wilhelm responded that nothing kept the Emperor of France from discussing the topic with Prince Leopold himself, who was a grown man, and he, Wilhelm, was not his mother. As far as the second demand was concerned, Wilhelm pointed out his lack of authority to speak for future Hohenzollern generations. Benedetti cabled to Paris, reported Wilhelm’s answers, and was advised to ask for a second audience, to repeat Napoleon’s requests. Such reiterated inquiries were not exactly good diplomatic style. Wilhelm’s secretary, Heinrich Abeken, summarized the second interview as follows in a telegram to Bismarck:
His Majesty the King has written to me:
Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me, in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature.
I rejected this demand somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally, I told him that I had not yet received any news and, since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter.
[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers], decided, in view of the above-mentioned demands, not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed, by an adjutant, that His Majesty had now received [from Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.
His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency, that Benedetti’s new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press. (29)
Bismarck changed the text a bit and leaked it to the French press bureau HAVAS:
After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature.
His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the Adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador. (30)
Bismarck had given the message a new edge.
He cut out Wilhelm’s conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue. The French had made certain demands under threat of war; and Wilhelm had refused them. This was no forgery; it was a clear statement of the facts. Certainly the edit of the telegram, released on the evening of the same day (13 July) to the media and foreign embassies, gave the impression both that Benedetti was rather more demanding and that the King was exceedingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted Count Benedetti; likewise, the Germans interpreted the modified dispatch as the Count insulting the King. …
The French translation by the agency Havas altered the ambassador’s demand (“il a exigé” – ‘he has demanded’) to a question . It also did not translate “Adjutant”, which in German refers to a high-ranked Aide-de-camp, but in French describes only a non-commissioned officer (adjutant), so implying that the King had deliberately insulted the ambassador by choosing a low-ranked soldier to carry the message to him. This was the version published by most newspapers the following day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), setting the tone and letting the French believe that the King had insulted their ambassador, before the ambassador could tell his story. …
France’s mistaken attitude of her own position carried matters far beyond what was necessary and France mobilized. Following further improper translations and misinterpretations of the dispatch in the press, excited crowds in Paris demanded war, just as Bismarck had anticipated. The Ems Dispatch had also rallied German national feeling. It was no longer Prussia alone; South German particularism was now cast aside.
Benedetti, the messenger for the Duke de Gramont’s demands for pointless guarantees (the Hohenzollern family had withdrawn Prince Leopold’s candidature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm’s “entire and unreserved approval”), became an unseen bit-player; his own dispatches to Paris no longer mattered. In the legislative chamber, by an overwhelming majority, the votes for war credits were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870. (31)
Which was exactly what Bismarck had expected. In a series of clandestine treaties with the southern and central German states since 1866, he had laid the foundation for the eventuality which now had occurred – war with France. In the case that France declared war on Prussia, as it had transpired, the German states had pledged their support to Prussia. Two more agreements Bismarck had negotiated sub rosa, with Russia and Austria, secured their neutrality in the events that now were unfolding. Napoleon could not find a single ally, and the German countries he had hoped to win to his cause now appeared on the side of Prussia, to defeat the third Bonaparte as they had defeated the first.
For the first time since the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in the seventeenth century, a concerted German army took to the field. The campaign of 1870 subsequently became the apotheosis of modern military staff planning, because it largely went as scheduled. For the first time in a substantial European war, the railway lines became the principal means of troop transportation and the coordination of train movements the decisive factor for the appropriate deployment and subsequent supply of the forces. The opening skirmishes along the borders were mostly won, as Moltke had expected, and followed up by a large-scale thrust into the Lorraine. The main axis of the approach aimed at the Meuse River, the crossing of which the French had to deny the enemy at all cost, because it was the last natural defence line on the way to Paris. Napoleon III had come to Sedan in person, where the French troops were chiefly deployed. Moltke’s plan was to encircle the French army, by the simultaneous forward movement of two pincers north and south of their defensive position, and to use the river to block their retreat. The operation succeeded, and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III and the French army were forced to surrender. In numerical terms, the Battle of Sedan became the largest victory of modern times achieved in a single encounter: over 100,000 French soldiers had to march into captivity. The emperor’s capitulation vaticinated the eventual success, even if mopping-up operations and a protracted siege of Paris kept the German soldiers busy for a few more months.
On January 18, 1871, in the great Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the assembled German princes declared the establishment of a new “German Empire”, and unanimously elected Wilhelm I, King in Prussia, to the dignity of “German Emperor” [not ‘Emperor of Germany’]. Since the new entity was technically only an “eternal” federation – as the treaty said – of sovereign princes, who remained independent to various degrees, the Second Empire was not and never became a centralized state like France or Russia.
Yet soon flaws appeared in Bismarck’s grand design, which was appropriately called a “revolution from above”. Unification was not a result of the will of the German people but a covenant of thirty-six German princes, who agreed on elevating one of their number to emperor but little else. The German bourgeoisie had been unable to achieve the same political emancipation the citizens of the United States, England or France had secured: not for a lack of trying, but for the bloody repulsion of the reform movement of 1848. The German peoples’ efforts had collapsed in the horror of soldiers that fired upon their own families, and suffocated in the subsequent terror of the political police. These dreadful experiences must not be underestimated: together with the horrors of the Thirty-Years-War still alive in the folkish subconsciousness, they explain much of the political apathy that abounded in Germany before 1871. For the bourgeoisie, Bismarck’s “top-down” revolution only amplified the feeling of being excluded from political decisions. Peter Watson explains:
In a real sense, and as Gordon Craig has pointed out, the people of Germany played no part in the creation of the Reich. “The new state was a ‘gift’ to the nation on which the recipient had not been consulted.” Its constitution had not been earned; it was a contract among the princes of the existing German states, who retained their crowns until 1918.
To our modern way of thinking, this had some extraordinary consequences. One result was that the Reich had a parliament without power, political parties without access to governmental responsibility, and elections whose outcome did not determine the composition of the government. This was quite unlike – and much more backward than – anything that existed among Germany’s competitors in the West. Matters of state remained in the hands of the landed aristocracy, although Germany had become an industrial power. As more and more people joined in Germany’s industrial, scientific, and intellectual successes, the more it was run by a small coterie of traditional figures – landed aristocrats and military leaders, at the head of which was the emperor himself. This dislocation was fundamental to “Germanness” in the run-up to the First World War.
It was one of the greatest anachronisms of history and had two effects that concern us. One, the middle class, excluded politically and yet eager to achieve some measure of equality, fell back on education and “Kultur” as key areas where success could be achieved – equality with the aristocracy, and superiority in comparison with foreigners in a competitive, nationalistic world. “High culture” was thus always more important in imperial Germany than elsewhere and this is one reason why … it flourished so well in the 1871-1933 period. But this gave culture a certain tone: freedom, equality, and personal distinctiveness tended to be located in the “inner sanctum” of the individual, whereas society was portrayed as an “arbitrary, external and frequently hostile world.”
The second effect, which overlapped with the first, was a retreat into nationalism, but a class-based nationalism that turned against the newly created industrial working class (and the stirrings of socialism), Jews, and non-German minorities. “Nationalism was seen as social progress, with utopian possibilities.”
Against the background of a developing mass society, the educated middle class looked to culture as a stable set of values that uplifted their lives, set them apart from the “rabble” (Freud’s word) and, in particular, enhanced their nationalist orientation. The “Volk,” a semi-mystical, nostalgic ideal of how ordinary Germans had once been – a contented, talented, apolitical, “pure” people – became a popular stereotype within Germany. (32)
Needless to say, such “contented, apolitical, pure’ people” had never existed outside of the imagination of overzealous history professors and racist journalists. But the “popular stereotype” worked, and resulted in a sort of anti-Socialist and anti-ultramontane nationalism, not truly directed against other nations, rather against the “enemy within” – liberals, democrats, socialists, Catholic, Jews, and so forth – against whose “internationalist” designs Prussian secular and Protestant clerical authorities never tired to warn the burghers. It was essentially a nationalism of the upper strata of society, who attempted to ensnare the support of the bourgeois middle class against the assorted enemies of Kultur. The Second Empire’s nationalism almost amounted to a negation of the effects of industrialization, of modernity, in some ways even of the enlightenment. Its character remained medieval.
The core of this “internal” nationalism was formed more or less, during the years following the foundation of the Empire, by the nucleus of the “Folkish Movement“(‚Völkische Bewegung‘), to whom we – and the world – more or less owe the First and Second World Wars. It absorbed the “bloody romanticism” of the Napoleonic era [see the article by Elke Schäfer] and was later perceived and used as useful spectre by the elite. Not without reason did the idealized depictions of the “Germania”, below two by Philip Veit, always held swords in their hands.
When a “Deutsche Arbeiter Partei”, a ‘German Workers’ Party’ was founded in Bohemia (i.e. technically Austria) before World War I, its agenda was not to advance the cause the working class, as one naively might assume, but to protect the interest of German workers over Czech or Moravian workers. The German people, meanwhile, remained the political wards of the old elites, which were absolutely unwilling to give up the precious authority they had barely regained after the shocks of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the Napoleonic wars. The constitution, which the nobility tailored according to its fears and needs, could truthfully be called anachronistic in its obvious fear of democracy and liberalism.
For the “satisfied, apolitical and pure” Germans, whose picture was frequently summoned by the officials of the empire, did not do too well, unless they were born as nobles. German industrialization went over their dead bodies – Bismarck’s social legislation was not born of his passion for the suffering of the working class, but were his minimum concessions to prevent the socialist revolution. There was unofficial slavery – the Schwabenkinder – and living, working and living conditions in the cities were horrible. 3,279,021 Germans emigrated to the USA alone between 1870 and 1919.
The constitutional framework of the German Reich did … differ sharply in key respects from that of Britain or France, whose diversely structured but relatively flexible parliamentary democracies offered better potential to cope with the social and political demands arising from rapid economic change.
In Germany, the growth of party-political pluralism, which found its representation in the Reichstag, had not been translated into parliamentary democracy. Powerful vested interests – big landholders … the officer corps of the army, the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, even most of the Reichstag parties – continued to block this.
The Chancellor of the Reich remained the appointee of the Kaiser, who could make or break him whatever the respective strength of the Reichstag parties. The government itself stood over the Reichstag, independent (at least in theory) of party politics. Whole tracts of policy, especially on foreign and military matters, lay outside parliamentary control.
Power was jealously guarded, in the face of mounting pressure for radical change, by the beleaguered forces of the old order. Some of these, increasingly fearful of revolution, were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism. (33)
This willingness, however, was not restricted to Germany: most of the more reactionary monarchies of the continent, in particular Russia but also Italy, Spain or some Balkan countries, feared socialists much more than the armies of their fellow princes, with whom they could always find some arrangement. The foundation of the Socialist International [SI] (International Workingmen’s Association) in London 1864 spirited the spectre of communism worldwide. Yet whatever the real threat of socialism or any other modern development might truly signify, in certain respects, chiefly in its inner relations, the Second Reich showed a distinctly pre-modern character by design – as if nothing had changed since 1806. It could be seen most clearly in …
… the Reich’s federal structure, which was designed to take account of the special rights and sensitivities of the south German states in particular. The establishment of a Baden Legation in Berlin and a Prussian one in Karlsruhe [Baden’s capital] is an indication in itself of the remarkably “unfinished” character of the Reich’s structure – it is as if the development towards a modern, unitary constitutional structure had stopped at the half-way mark.
But the federal system of the Kaiserreich went further: in 1894 Baden Legations were also opened in Munich and Stuttgart, and a little later Russia even suggested that a Russian military attaché should be stationed in Bavaria. These legations were not merely courtesy institutions but represented an important component of the political structure of the Reich, and they were a pointer to the fact … that the Lesser German Reich, forged by war and diplomacy, in many respects continued to be governed by foreign policy methods even after its so-called unification.
A related problem, frequently reported on by the Baden envoys, was the continued existence and indeed the constant growth of particularism, especially in Bavaria. The perceptive Baden envoy in Munich, Baron Ferdinand von Bodman, reported in December 1895 from the Bavarian capital that “under the influence of the all-dominating court and of the Austrian-clerical [Catholic] party, all measures … are directed at building up Bavaria as a self-sufficient … state”. Above all in the two Bavarian army corps, according to Bodman, “the Reich and its head, the Kaiser, are being eliminated to the furthest possible extent.”
Count Anton Monts, the Prussian envoy in Munich, was convinced that “a process of detachment [by Bavaria] from the Reich was taking place,” Bodman reported. Similarly, the astute Arthur von Brauer, who had served for many years under Bismarck, observed in May 1893 that Bavarian particularism was making enormous advances. He wrote to the Grand Duke: “Under the influence of the Old-Bavarian party the monstrous idea is gaining more and more ground that south Germany should be placed under the special hegemony of Bavaria just as north Germany is under Prussia.” In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden himself felt obliged to warn the Reich’s government against moving too close to the Catholic Centre party because the aim of this party was “to destroy the present Reich in order to create a new federal constitution with a Catholic head.“…
Whether they were based on a sober assessment of the objective circumstances or are ultimately explicable only in psychological terms, these anxiety complexes are of absolutely crucial importance in evaluating the political culture of Wilhelmine Germany. (34)
John Röhl‘s analysis above identifies one psychological factor in the new empire’s policies, but there was another, unspoken, psychological implication. What Bismarck had ultimately “superimposed over a highly fragmented society” (35) was a formula hatched to take account of the specific German situation, that is, foremost, its political particularism; thus nationalism had to be instilled and cohesion created from the outside, and top-down, instead of bottom-up, and by the people. Yet the decisive factor why Bismarck chose this strategy was that, unlike the crown of 1849, the result would be acceptable to his king. Essentially, an emperor’s new clothes were hung upon ye olde authoritarian Prussian regime.
Footnotes:    Heinrich Abeken, Otto von Bismarck – The Ems Dispatch, see Wikipedia
 Watson, Peter,The German Genius, Harper Collins 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-076022-9, pp. 112 – 113
  Röhl, John C.G., The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56504-9, pp. 112 – 113 and 153 – 154
If one can say – in a reasonable first approximation – that the world between 1945 and 1991 was the result of the Second World War, the Cold War and the race of the superpowers, the changes which occurred in the 1990s were not possible without the end of the East-West dichotomy, the end of what was called the “East Bloc” or, as some had it, the “Evil Empire”.
“… What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
We know better by now, in a world in which some measures of states which were once described as monsters have become the normal means of statecraft – surveillance of every citizen. I forego here an analysis of how the champion of democracy and freedom of thought, the USA, have changed beyond recognition and everybody else in its wake.
Nonetheless, the new German “Ostpolitik” or ‘Eastern Policy’ of the 1960s has indeed paved the way for the end of the Cold War – which is perhaps its greatest accomplishment (that in many countries recently old-fashion-minded leaders have come to prominence and leadership will be a matter, perhaps, for another post).
In the 1890s, the German Empire might have felt fortunate enough – industrialization progressed, early social legislation was initiated, and the Congress of Berlin in 1878 had settled the major political tensions in Europe. German was the language of science worldwide and after the victory of 1870/71 the empire was also militarily secure. But a huge problem appeared in her political and constitutional reality, i.e. her leadership.
The old-fashioned, almost medieval, monarch-centred constitutional provisions under which the Imperial government of the recently unified nation operated, lingered far behind the modernism of her economy. Friedrich Stampfer, chief editor of “Vorwärts”, the (still existing) national Social Democratic newspaper, famously opined that Wilhelmine Germany was the most successfully industrialized and most effectively administered, but, sadly, the worst governed nation in pre-war Europe. Max Weber thought the nation governed by a herd of lunatics. The fish stank from the head, and the head, of course, was the Kaiser himself, Wilhelm II, King in Prussia and German Emperor.
He had been born in Berlin on January 27, 1859, the first child of the crown prince and future emperor Friedrich III and the Princess Royal Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England, two of Queen Victoria’s other grandchildren, were his cousins, and he was related by blood to almost every other reigning house of the continent. Unfortunately, he suffered from a birth defect that had a huge impact on his nascent personality. John C.G. Röhl, who examines Wilhelm in his book “The Kaiser and His Court” [Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521-56504-9], may introduce us here to mother and child:
It is well-known that Wilhelm suffered organic damage at birth, although the full extent of the damage is still not fully appreciated. Apart from his useless left arm, which was eventually about fifteen centimetres too short, he also suffered from the alarming growths and inflammations in the inner ear already referred to. As a result of his condition he underwent a serious operation in 1896 which left him deaf in the right ear. The possibility that he also suffered brain damage at the time of his birth cannot be ruled out. In Germany in 1859, the year in which Wilhelm was born, no fewer than 98 per cent of babies in the breech position were stillborn. The danger was of course greatest in young mothers having their first child, and it stemmed above all from the possibility of suffocation as the baby’s head squeezed the umbilical cord running up alongside it. If the air supply was cut off for longer than, say, eight minutes, the baby was sure to die. And indeed, the royal baby with which we are concerned was “seemingly dead to a high degree”, as the doctor’s report put it, when he came into the world on the afternoon of 27 January 1859, over ten hours after the waters had broken. Whatever damage was done to Wilhelm’s brain in those hours, it is certain that the left arm was crippled not locally, as the doctors assumed, but rather as a result of damage to the brachial plexus, that is to say the nerves which ensure the innervation of the shoulder, arm and hand muscles were torn from the vertebral column in the neck during the final stages of the delivery.
The entire experience was a ghastly one for Vicky, the Princess Royal. Despite the fact that she had inhaled chloroform for hours on end, the birth was extremely painful. She had married only a year before at the age of seventeen. During the long, complicated birth of her first child, “poor Dr. Martin” had to work under her long flannel skirt so that royal decency prevailed. Vicky’s response to giving birth to a crippled boy was, it would seem, ambivalent. If she had been male, as the first child of Queen Victoria, she would have been able to stay in her beloved England and in due course become its sovereign. As things stood, however, all that was open to her was to bear a son, and through him to do what she could to remodel the country into which she had married along the lines of the country of her birth. But this son had a crippled arm, he was not particularly talented, and he exhibited from a very early age a stormy, hyperactive temperament which gave growing cause for concern. Sigmund Freud himself put the finger on Vicky’s sense of narcissistic injury as one of the root-causes of Wilhelm’s later psychological disturbance. In 1932, he wrote:
“It is usual for mothers whom Fate has presented with a child who is sickly or otherwise at a disadvantage to try to compensate him for his unfair handicap by a super-abundance of love. In the instant before us, the proud mother behaved otherwise; she withdrew her love from the child on account of its infirmity. When he had grown up into a man of great power, he proved unambiguously by his actions that he had never forgiven his mother.”
Once the doctors were set loose on the young Wilhelm with their “animal baths”, their electric-shock treatment and their metal contraptions and leather straps for stretching his arm and his neck, once his education was placed in the hands of the unsmiling, never-praising Calvinist Hinzpeter, whatever slender hope there still remained for his emotional and mental stability lay in his mother’s hands. But she was unable to establish that bond of unconditional love and trust which he so desperately needed. Small wonder, then, that he felt drawn precisely to those elements who depreciated his mother above all else – to Bismarck, to the “kind nice young men” of the Potsdam guards regiments, to the Byzantine “Liebenberg Round Table“; small wonder that he felt one could not have enough hatred for England. When he came to the throne, at the age of twenty-nine, Wilhelm could use the whole apparatus of the army, the navy and the state, the whole arena of world politics to prove his worth. (Röhl, p. 25 – 26)
And here the flip side of Bismarck’s monarchical constitution came up: nobody could reign in the imperial chatterbox when he travelled through the world, informing everybody who asked, and all who did not, of his personal and his country’s power. It seemed that Germany had become a hermaphroditic affair with a top-notch industry, a relatively free press, an impotent parliament, and a governmental mixture out of Don Juan and medieval brigand, right out of “The Prisoner of Zenda”; on top, it was, as John Röhl noted, as if the country’s “development towards a modern unitary constitutional state had stopped at the half-way mark.” (24) The perception of Germany in the world depended too much upon the asinine opinions Wilhelm gave out freely, and Foreign Office and diplomatic service were frequently unable to correct the unfavourable impressions the Kaiser left behind wherever he journeyed and to whomever he spoke.
In addition to his capricious politics, his private pleasures aroused suspicion and received publicity; for example in the juicy scandals of the “Liebenberg Trials“:
Even before his accession, Wilhelm had announced his intention to do “battle against vice, high living, gambling, betting etc.”, against “all the doings of our so-called ‘good society'”. This battle was not particular successful, however. Soon after he came to the throne, hundreds of obscene anonymous letters began to circulate around the court, and although this went on for years the author was never discovered, even though (or perhaps precisely because?) the culprit must have been a member of the close circle surrounding Wilhelm and the empress. A decade later the Wilhelmine court experienced its greatest scandal when Philipp Eulenburg [Wilhelm’s best friend] and his “Liebenberg Round Table” were publicly attacked on the grounds of their homosexuality [which was technically a criminal offence] and finally had to be banned from the court. [Dozens of court and administration officials turned out to be involved in the scandal] Embarrassing questions were asked – even about the Kaiser. The German system of government, already inefficient, suffered an immediate collapse into “complete disequilibrium at the top”.
Nationalist circles inclined to the view that they must press either for an external war or else for the abdication of Wilhelm II. “To clear ourselves of shame and ridicule,” wrote Maximilian Harden [newspaper editor and the driving force behind the prosecution] in November 1908, “we will have to go to war, soon, or face the sad necessity of making a change of imperial personnel on our own account, even if the strongest personal pressure had to be brought to bear.” As Maurice Baumont has rightly remarked in his study of L’Affair Eulenburg, “la réalité pathologique des scandales Eulenburg doit prendre parmi les causes complexes de la guerre mondiale”. (Röhl, p. 100)
Certainly, many other countries had had monarchs in their history who had provided topics for satire or salacious jokes, but the German classes that profited most from Wilhelm’s government, the Prussian Junker and the high civil and military bureaucracy, all of them noble, showed not only an astounding ability to forgive and forget, but outdid themselves in applauding the Kaiser’s putative designs on the globe. John Röhl narrates the story of a Prussian officer in Brazil who, at the important news of the outbreak of war, wrote to a friend that, finally, the German people could see that the Kaiser impersonated “more greatness than Bismarck and Moltke put together, a higher destiny than Napoleon I“; that Wilhelm, indeed, was the Weltgestalter, the “shaper of the world.” (Röhl, p. 9) He wrote:
“Who is this Kaiser, whose peacetime rule was so full of vexation and tiresome compromise, whose temperament would flare up wildly, only to die away again? … Who is this Kaiser who now suddenly throws caution to the wind, who tears open his visor to bare his Titanic head and take on the world? … I have misunderstood this Kaiser; I have thought him a waverer. He is a Jupiter, standing on the Olympus of his iron-studded might, the lightning-bolts in his grasp. At this moment he is God and master of the world.” (Röhl, p.9)
Salutations of this kind contrasted sharply to the reality of the Emperor’s foreign politics in the post-Bismarck era, which caused war to become a possibility that could not be ruled out. Wilhelm fired the old chancellor in 1890, and the latter’s system of treaties quickly fell apart. Luigi Albertini comments on the significance of this falling-out between the old practical hand and a green monarch:
Bismarck’s position became critical when, on 9 March 1888, the death took place of the nonagenarian Emperor Wilhelm I, whose support he had always enjoyed, and when, three months after the untimely decease of Wilhelm’s son Frederick III, his grandson Wilhelm II mounted the throne. The latter had at first been pro-Russian and anti-British; but under the influence of General Waldersee he had been won over to the view of the General Staff that Germany must stand solidly with Austria and wage a preventive war on Russia.
The Chancellor sought to persuade him that, on the contrary, it would be better to seek a pretext for a war with France in which Russia would remain neutral, whereas if Germany made war on Russia, France would snatch the opportunity to attack Germany. He almost seemed to have succeeded inasmuch as Wilhelm II some days after his accession announced to the world his intention of paying a visit to the Tsar at once before visiting any other sovereign. After it, at the request of Girs [the Russian Foreign Minister] with the Tsar’s approval, he agreed to the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty* with Russia due to lapse in June 1880. But by the time the Ambassador Shuvalov presented himself armed with the necessary powers to renew it for another six years, Bismarck had resigned.
The Kaiser, having received from Baron Holstein, a high official of the Wilhelmstraße [site of the German Foreign Office], reports apparently revealing hostile preparations on the part of Russia which he thought Bismarck had withheld from him, wrote to the Chancellor that Austria should be warned and had copies of the reports sent to Vienna, disregarding Bismarck’s explanations that they had no importance. This convinced Bismarck that their differences were insurmountable and on 18 March 1890 he handed in his resignation.
Wilhelm II accepted it and Shuvalov thereupon expressed doubts whether the Tsar would be willing to renew the secret treaty with another Chancellor. Perturbed, Wilhelm II sent a message to him by night and told him he had been obliged to “retire” Bismarck for health reasons but that nothing was changed in German foreign policy and that he was ready to renew the treaty. But Holstein manoeuvred in such a way that the new Chancellor General Caprivi and the German Ambassador at St. Petersburg persuaded the Kaiser to change his mind, alleging that the treaty with Russia was incompatible with the Austrian alliance and that, if St. Petersburg divulged it to Vienna, the Triple Alliance would be broken and England estranged from Germany. The Kaiser surrendered to this advice without much resistance and the German Ambassador was instructed to inform St. Petersburg that the Reinsurance Treaty would not be renewed. (Albertini I, p. 62 – 64)
The Reinsurance Treaty was a tricky piece of Bismarckian diplomacy. Given the priority that Russia must be kept off France at all costs, Bismarck realized that the 1879 Dual Alliance Treaty between Germany and Austria might lead to a scenario in which Germany would be bound to support Austria in the case of Austro-Russian tensions in the Balkan, which were guaranteed to arise by next Wednesday or so. This might throw a wrench into Russo-German relations and in turn might draw Russia to France, which had to be avoided. Hence, a solution had to be found which gave both Russia and Germany a face-saving way out if Austria behaved badly in the Balkans, but neither Germany nor Russia wanted to let it come to war. Whatever Austria’s designs in this region, it was clear that she could never afford to attack Russia without German aid. Bismarck and Shuvalov thus developed “a formula binding the two parties [Germany and Russia] to benevolent neutrality in a war of one of them against a third Power except in the case that one of the contracting parties directly attacked Austria or France.”(Albertini I, p. 58) That was to say that as long as neither Germany nor Russia attacked Austria or France unilaterally, they would remain mutual benevolent neutrals and since Austria could not afford to attack Russia on her own, no big war because of a Slavic or Turkish issue in the Balkans could arise.
Bismarck’s policy was guided by the principle to preclude any coalition of powers that might result in a general European war. This completely rational policy, which took notice of the special requirements and individual sensitivities of Russia and England, was completely upended by a succession of four chancellors that did not understand foreign policy or, in general, didn’t care much about it – a catastrophe that was only aggravated by the monarch’s capricious personality. What, then, were the particulars of Wilhelm’s character that led to the acts of political lunacy that so much destabilized Europe from 1890 on? In his essay “Kaiser Wilhelm II: a suitable case for treatment?” John Röhl presents his observations:
Any sketch of his character must begin with the fact that he never matured. To the end of his thirty-year reign he remained the “young” emperor with the “childlike genius”. “He is a child and will always remain one,” sighed an astute court official in December 1908. Wilhelm seemed incapable of learning from experience. Philip Eulenburg, who knew him better than anyone, remarked in a letter to Bülow at the turn of the century that Wilhelm had, in the eleven years since his accession to the throne, “become very much quieter as far as his outer being is concerned. … Spiritually, however there has not been the slightest development. He is unchanged in his explosive manner. Indeed, even harsher and more sudden as his self-esteem has grown with experience – which is no experience. For his ‘individuality’ is stronger than the effect of experience.”
More than thirty years later, when both Eulenburg and Bülow were dead and the Kaiser exiled and seventy-two years old, his adjutant Sigurd von Ilsemann wrote in his diary at Doorn: “I have now almost finished reading the second volume of the Bülow memoirs and am struck over and over again by how little the Kaiser has changed since those times. Almost everything that occurred then still happens now, the only difference being that his actions, which then had grave significance and practical consequences, now do no damage. The many good qualities, too, of this strange, peculiar person, of the Kaiser’s so very complicated character, are repeatedly stressed by Bülow.” (Röhl, p. 11 – 12)
We will rediscover, almost eerily, many of Wilhelm’s other traits, perpetual travelling, the inability to listen, a penchant for monologues about topics imperfectly understood, and the constant need for company and light entertainment, in the character and habits of the young Austrian painter who, in a sense, became his heir. They express a mixture of immaturity, egocentrism and megalomania; understandable, perhaps, in a young man, but hazardous in the leader of the globe’s second-biggest industrial power who, in the bargain, had a medieval understanding of a monarch’s rights and duties.
However, another of Wilhelm’s character traits, his notorious overestimation of his own abilities, dubbed by contemporaries “Caesaromania” or “Folie D’Empereur”, similarly inhibited his responsiveness to constructive criticism. For how could the monarch learn from experience if he despised his ministers, rarely received them and seldom listened to what they had to say; if he was convinced that all his diplomats had so “filled their knickers” that “the entire Wilhelmstraße stank” to high heaven; when he addressed even the War Minister and the Chief of the Military Cabinet with the words “you old asses”; and announced to a group of admirals: “All of you know nothing; I alone know something, I alone decide.” Even before coming to the throne he had warned, “Beware the time when I shall give the orders.” Even before Bismarck’s dismissal he had threatened to “smash” all opposition to his will. He alone was master of the Reich, he said in a speech in May 1891, and he would tolerate no others. To the Prince of Wales he proclaimed at the turn of the century: “I am the sole master of German policy and my country must follow me wherever I go.” Ten years later he explained in a letter to a young Englishwoman: “As for having to sink my ideas and feelings at the bidding of the people, that is a thing unheard-of in Prussian history or traditions of my house! What the German Emperor, King of Prussia thinks right and best for his People he does.” In September 1912 he chose Prince Lichnowsky to be ambassador in London against the advice of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Foreign Office with the words: “I will only send an ambassador to London who has My trust, obeys My will and carries out My orders.” And during the First World War he exclaimed: “What the public thinks is totally immaterial to me.” [Emphases added] (Röhl, p. 12 – 13).
The “iron will” to be the master of the nation or, perhaps, the world, was assisted by his ability to contemplate reality according to the dictates of his imagination. Even in his seventies, exiled in the Netherlands, he was able to arrive at the most surprising conclusion concerning the racial identity of his enemies:
“At last I know what the future holds for the German people, what we shall still have to achieve. We shall be the leaders of the Orient against the Occident! I shall now have to alter my picture ‘Peoples of Europe’. We belong on the other side! Once we have proved to the Germans that the French and English are not Whites at all but Blacks then they will set upon this rabble.” (Röhl, p. 13)
Thus, Wilhelm had made the amazing discovery that, in fact, the French and English are Negroes. Another reason for the ongoing decay of the human race, the retired emperor maintained, was a lack of proper respect for the authorities, in particular for himself. The news of the Boxer Rebellion in China he took as a personal insult and ordered Beijing to be “razed to the ground”. In his fear of the impending socialist revolution, he dwelt in fantasies of hundreds of demonstrators “gunned down” in the streets of Berlin, and occasionally recommended as the proper treatment for prisoners of war to starve them to death. Not only did he long to inflict revenge for slights in his own lifetime, in a desire to, literally, expunge history – to undo the Second, perhaps also the First French Revolution – he thirsted to “take revenge for 1848 – revenge!!!” (Röhl, p. 14)
His sense of humour was peculiar, too.
While his left arm was weak due to damage at birth, his right hand was strong in comparison, and he found amusement in turning his rings inwards and then squeezing the hand of visiting dignitaries so hard that tears came to their eyes. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria left Berlin “white-hot with hatred” after the Kaiser had slapped him hard on the behind in public. Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia [Tsar Nicholas II’s brother] was hit over the back by Wilhelm with a field-marshal’s baton. (Röhl, p. 15)
Aware of His Majesty’s sense of humour, his friends practiced creative imagination. At the occasion of a hunting expedition at Liebenberg in 1892, General Intendant Georg von Hülsen proposed to Count Görtz [“who was on the plump side”] (Röhl, p. 16):
“You must be paraded by me as a circus poodle! – That will be a ‘hit’ like nothing else. Just think: behind shaved (tights), in front long bangs out of black or white wool, at the back under a genuine poodle tail a marked rectal opening and, when you ‘beg’, in front a fig leaf. Just think how wonderful when you bark, howl to music, shoot off a pistol or do other tricks. It is simply splendid!!” [Emphases in original] (Röhl, p. 16)
Courtiers and bureaucrats soon found out that to offer such exquisite entertainment was a tried and true way to the monarch’s good graces, but, on the flip side, it aided to the proliferation of rumours. What, then, can we say about Wilhelm’s love life? As Edward Gibbon noted about Charlemagne, the two emperors had in common that chastity was not their most conspicuous quality. Officially, Wilhelm was able to have his court reporters belabour his marital fidelity, in the furtherance of which the Empress delivered sons in regular intervals, all in all six of them. Yet Wilhelm also had a certain propensity of writing hazardous letters, some of them to a well-known procuress in Vienna, and because of his willingness to sample the offers, the further maintenance of his public virtue was entrusted to the ministrations of his privy councillors, who bought the ladies’ discretion, took care, confidentially, of royal alimonies or, perhaps, arranged abortions. But it seems that these extramarital activities were purely of biological nature, so to say; sympathy, comfort and repose the monarch found with his male friends, although it appears that he did not participate in the more intimate expressions of these friendships.
“I never feel happy, really happy at Berlin,” he wrote in his idiosyncratic English. “Only Potsdam [the station of his Guard Regiment, ¶], that is my ‘El Dorado’ … where one feels free with the beautiful nature around you and soldiers as much as you like, for I love my dear regiment very much, those such kind nice young men in it.” In his regiment, as he confided to Eulenburg, he found his family, his friends, his interests – everything which he had previously missed. Over were the “terrible years in which no-one understood my individuality“… The voluminous political correspondence of Philipp Eulenburg leaves no scope for doubt that he (Eulenburg) and the other members of the influential “Liebenberg Circle” who in the 1890s stood at the very centre of the political stage in the Kaiser’s Germany were indeed homosexual, as their destroyer, Maximilian Harden, believed. This of course raises the question of where to place the Kaiser on the “heterosexual – homosexual continuum.” If he ever did have anything approaching a homosexual experience, it almost certainly occurred in the mid-1880s, in the same period, that is, as his numerous extra-marital affairs with women. After interviewing Jakob Ernst, the Starnberg fisherman whose testimony in 1908 damaged Eulenburg’s case irreparably, Maximilian Harden became convinced that he was in possession of evidence which, if laid before the Kaiser, would suffice to cause him to abdicate. What information Harden received from Jakob Ernst, we can only guess at. In several letters written at this time, Harden linked Wilhelm II not only with Jakob Ernst but also with Eulenburg’s private secretary, Karl Kistler. But these are only straws in the wind, not proof. On the evidence presently available to us, it is probably wiser to assume, as Isabel Hull has written, that Wilhelm remained unconscious of the homoerotic basis of his friendship with Eulenburg and thus failed to recognize the homosexual aspects of his own character. (Röhl, p. 19 – 20)
In addition to these private distractions, the Kaiser’s medical afflictions gave reason for concern. From the pure medical point of view, the frequent infections of his right ear and sinus threatened to implicate the brain, and complications regarding the monarch’s moods and faculties of reasoning could not be ruled out. In 1895, the British diplomat M. Gosselin, who was employed in the British Embassy in Berlin, wrote to Lord Salisbury that the consequences for the peace of the world might be enormous “if a Sovereign who possesses a dominant voice in the foreign policy of the Empire is subject to hallucinations and influences which must in the long term warp his judgement, and render Him liable at any moment to sudden changes of opinion which no-one can anticipate or provide against.” (Röhl, p. 21)
There was general agreement. Lord Salisbury himself thought the Kaiser “not quite normal”; Prime Minister Herbert Asquith saw a “disordered brain” at work; Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Minister, regarded Wilhelm as “not quite sane, and very superficial”; Grand Duke Sergius of Russia thought the Kaiser “mentally ill”; and the doyen of the Berlin Diplomatic Corps, the Austrian Military Attaché Freiherr von Klepsch-Kloth, diagnosed that Wilhelm was “not really sane” and had, “as one says, a screw loose.” (Röhl, p. 21 – 22) John Röhl collected a few more statements of witnesses:
In 1895 Friedrich von Holstein complained that the Kaiser’s “glow-worm” character constantly reminded Germans of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whom had gone mad. Early in 1896, after a violent row with the Kaiser, the Prussian War Minister, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, said “that H.M. did not appear to be quite normal and that he [Schellendorf] was deeply concerned about the future”. In the following year Holstein wrote that the Conservative Party thought the Kaiser was “not quite normal”, that the King of Saxony had declared him to be “not quite stable” and that the Grand Duke of Baden had spoken “in a very worrying way about the psychological side of the matter, about the loss of touch with reality”. Reich Chancellor Prince Hohenlohe also once earnestly asked Bülow [his eventual successor] whether he “really believed that the Kaiser was mentally normal”. Such views became commonplace after the Kaiser’s notorious speech of February 1897, in which he referred to Bismarck and Moltke as “lackeys and pygmies”. Count Anton Monts, the Prussian Envoy to Bavaria, wrote from Munich that the emperor was clearly no longer of sane mind. “I gather from the hints of the doctors that the Kaiser can still be cured, but that the chances grow dimmer with each day.” (Röhl, p. 22)
Now the complete absence of meaningful checks and balances in the federal constitution came to harm the nation. There were no procedures for a transfer of power except for the death or the voluntary abdication of the monarch, an act Wilhelm clearly would not consider. Thus, he continued to utter the abstruse opinions the world press by now expected from him, and it was easy enough for Germany’s opponents to profit from the uninterrupted chain of public relation debacles the Kaiser left in his wake. Soon a theory developed that explained Wilhelm’s recklessness as the result of a specific German inclination towards authoritarian government, militarism, and general unfriendliness.
The young Kaiser’s less than stellar performance eventually split the nationalist Right: one faction that remained committed to the monarch and another that, as splits are wont to do, only escalated its patriotic demands to pursue a policy of maximal “German power and greatness through expansion and conquest of inferior people.” (Kershaw, p. 78) In practice, this super-nationalist cabal tended to narrow the political options of the government, which at the same time was hysterically engaged to suppress anti-Prussian socialists and Catholics as much as was legally possible. The administration’s demographic basis of support was in danger of shrinking; parts of the “old order … were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism.” (Kershaw, p. 74) The Kaiser did not publicly disagree.
For those who listened, it was quite clear from the 1890s onward that the Kaiser’s idea of war was that it was a rather normal occasion – he believed and so publicly admitted – that “war” was a “royal sport, to be indulged in by hereditary monarchs and concluded at their will”. (Röhl, p. 207) In the age of machine guns, this was an atavistic attitude. And here the Kaiser’s authority in appointments and dismissals fired back: soon no other counsels were waged than such that were sure to meet His Majesty’s approval; no one dared to oppose him, and his brown-nosed sycophants, who at length populated the upper crust of the civil and military leadership, became used to and most efficient in anticipating the monarch’s desires.
In the realm of the military, Willy remained a man of the past as well. Influenced by the victorious battles of the German unification wars of 1864 to 1871, he evidenced a propensity for cavalry attacks over open terrain – which had worked then, but in an age of quick-firing artillery and machine guns proved to come to nothing but mass suicide.
So how could anything go wrong in July 1914, when the Imperial will-o’-the-wisp was confronted with the question of world peace itself? This will be the subject of a separate post.
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.
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.
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 a recent origin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, notably in an essay Richard Wagner published anonymously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jewishness in Music), but only found general attention after 1879, when the German agitator Wilhelm Marr published a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective)” [German text] – the same year in which he also founded the “Antisemiten-Liga” (League of Antisemites).
Anti-Semitism found a number of prominent proselytes – Emperor Wilhelm II, the influential political author Heinrich Claß and various men of the cloth, but was by far not confined to Germany. France struggled fifteen years under the Dreyfus-Affair and in Imperial Russia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favourite entertainment of the masses.
Whole books have been written on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an asinine fabrication cobbled together and first published in Russia in 1903 – a ludicrous conspiracy theory on Jewish world domination – however, the quackbook was taken as holy writ by such usual suspects as Wilhelm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 copies printed and distributed.
Nationalism and anti-Semitism were the two major fulcrums of aristocratic domination of political Europe in the second half of the 19th Century until the rise of the socialist movement created an even more suitable bogeyman. Hence, the burghers need not only to fear economic ruin by Jewish shylocks and rapine by illoyal border-dwellers – indeed their physical existence was now jeopardized by the threat of revolution 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 a grave and present fear – which might best be mitigated by expanding self-defence. What were the numbers on which the glorious undertaking of arming the nation might be based on?
The following statistics, which give us an idea of Germany’s industrial and political developments versus her competitors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books 1989, ISBN 0-679-72019-7 , pp. 200 ff.):
It is immediately visible that France is the odd man out in regards to her population growth; while the United States increased its population between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Russia by 48.6%, Germany by almost 36% and Great Britain by a somewhat more modest 23%, the French population remained almost constant, growing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Another indicator for economic and industrial development is the percentage of urban versus rural population:
Great Britain, whose
industrialization had started some fifty years earlier than that of any other
country, not surprisingly leads the world, although percentagewise, her urban
population grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by
85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks better here, with 26.5%
growth, while Japan more than doubles its urban population. Italy, Austria and
Russia are in between as far as percentage change goes, but their low absolute
shares of around or under 10% depict them as underindustrialized as of yet.
The following view centres on the sine-qua-non of early industrial development, the production of steel:
These numbers depict the state of the respective country’s industrialization most consequentially, for without steel neither consumer goods nor arms could be built. Taking France’s small population growth into consideration, her increase of steel production between 1900 and 1913 is, percentagewise, an impressive 307%, although her total production of 4.6 million tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 million tons. Trendwise, both Great Britain and France lag behind them in industrial expansion, while Russian steel production is beginning to take off. It approximately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in absolute numbers, the 1913 output of 4.8 million tons was still meagre if compared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy consumption:
If one were to combine the data above, and add a few other parameters, the result would describe the changes in relative industrial strength of the Great Powers:
This picture depicts the relative change in the potentials of the powers, which must be taken in their economic, as related to size and population, and geostrategic contexts, that is, related to their location. Italy and Japan remain struggling to catch up, while Russia is handicapped by her lack of infrastructure and Austria-Hungary by internal tension. If one compares the change of percentage over time, the USA expanded its capacity by 635%, Germany by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s industrial power only grew 173%, an indication that her imperial splendour was beginning to fade even before 1914. We now shall compare the absolute market shares, which, over time, indicate relative ascent or decline:
This table strikingly reveals the weakening of Western Europe, Great Britain and France, compared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Germany, in the middle of the continent. England’s portion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit better but still loses 27% of her world market percentage of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Germany by 74.1%. The quota of Russia, Austria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s continental enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell further back. Speaking of war, we now shall turn our attention to the military:
Even a cursory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the burial of a few cherished prejudices. Not only is the German army, the presumptive menace of the continent, much smaller than Russia’s, which one might take for granted given the latter’s vastness, it is smaller than France’s, too. In the case of Austria-Hungary, her men, who are dispersed to cover a hostile border of some 1500 miles length, number only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a border of far less than a hundred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hostile coalitions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 million men under arms, more than twice the number of the Central Powers’ 1,335 million men. All these numbers and many more will, of course, be discussed at length in “The Little Drummer Boy”, in the section on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.
A comparison of the great powers’ total military personnel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter century, the number of servicemen increased from 2,9 million to almost 5 million, by more than two thirds. How does this compare to the much-made-of naval races of these years?
It would seem almost beyond belief, but the naval tonnage of the great powers more than quintupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – growing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claustrophobic. As the figures for Japan and the USA make clear, the naval race was not limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea; the latter found it necessary to almost triple the size of her navy in the fourteen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Spanish-American War and the annexations of the Philippine, Cuban and Hawaiian islands, not before it.
As it would be expected, the different geostrategic locations of the powers decided which service was to become the primary beneficiary of the increasing budgets: the naval power Great Britain had little use for much infantry; her temporary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a result of the ongoing Boer War, not of a sustained increase in army spending. Her senior service, the Royal Navy, primary power instrument and conditio-sine-qua-non of her imperial grandeur, launched into a protracted building spree against the German and American navies (1812 was by no means forgotten) that resulted in a quadrupling of her size between 1880 and 1914.
There is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other the greater the probability that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out during the Cold War, to our all survival, but this was more the result of the impracticability of nuclear warfare than of a sudden increase in human wisdom. In the early twentieth century, however, the focus of our inquiry, every new battleship launched and each new army corps established precariously challenged the balance of power – and one day, on August 1, 1914, the rule of thumb became grim reality.
After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.
The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:
International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.
Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.
had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as
represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the
support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still
thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German
army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen
(Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle,
while the French, Austrians and
Russians also expanded their horse arm.
was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in
close-order tactics and taught,
above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was
gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.
The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.
the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the
twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished.
Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the
Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain,
sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had
accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in
early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s
disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.
The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.
The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.
The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.
testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from
the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of
the state. As a young revolutionary
he pinned his hopes of that victory on the
proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he
sought to persuade himself that the
proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would
liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.
His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.
In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.
In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.
A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:
Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants – and confronting the legions in their homeland.
Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.
Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.
Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:
As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.
whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the
Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the
freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government
bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially
significant in the military realm.
The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.
They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.
And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …
schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the
sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.
As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.