Katharina Mathilde Krüger was born either November 9, 1912 in Cologne-Kalk or, as other sources claim, September 11, 1914 in Berlin, and went on to become an actress. Her best-known pre-war German movie showed her starring in the anti-Semitic UFA film Don’t lose Heart, Suzanne!, whereupon Joseph Goebbels, the “Buck of Babelsberg” (the studio town) became her patron and/or lover – Old Joe was not a believer in the accurate separation of business and personal affairs, as we know.
Although she acted in about a dozen other UFA productions, she went to Hollywood in 1940, living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel , where, as the gossip had it, her first American lover, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, paid the bills. Getty was married five times and known as a ladies’ man, and Nazi sympathizer, too.
But the acting bombed. Her English left a lot to be desired, her acting perhaps as well. She quickly substituted Getty with Gert von Gontard, who, as heir to the Budweiser brewery, was suitably rich, and lived with him for a year.
We do not know what exactly happened thereafter – maybe the pair was bothered too much by the clumsy plots of the American police or perhaps there were relationship problems – but at some point in 1940, Hilde was recruited by the German “Abwehr” (Military Intelligence) and sent to Mexico, which was an interesting target for the German war economy because of its oil. Since Mexico’s President Lazaro Cardenas had nationalized all foreign oil companies in 1938 and the former owners, England, the USA and the Netherlands had subsequently imposed an embargo on Mexican crude oil, two-thirds of its production went to Germany.
So it came that Mrs. Krüger pulled up on February 9, 1941, at the border crossing Nuevo Laredo, in her luggage carrying a letter of recommendation from her good friend Mr. Getty. In no time she had settled in the high-society of Mexico-City and generals, business leaders and politicians in the country fell for the peroxide-blonde Nazi bombshell. Her first conquest was Ramón Beteta, Under-Secretary of the Treasury, but she became rather quickly the mistress of the Secretary of the Interior and subsequent Mexican President, Miguel Aleman. The besotted Mr. Alemán rented a love nest and visited her almost every night, as noted carefully by the FBI. Apparently, Hilde also snuggled with influential General Juán Almazán and Foreign Minister Ezekiel Padilla – the whole Mexican government had fallen hook, line and sinker. As a quid pro quo, her patrons arranged a few roles for her in several Mexican films (excerpt here).
After being in business for a year, she was arrested at the instigation of the USA, but soon was released by the intercession of her patrons. To avoid deportation, she quickly married a Mr. Nacho de la Torre, the grandson of former President Porfirio Díaz.
The spy business was great. The Secretary of the Interior issued about three hundred visa to German spies; mercury – important for the German war effort – was loaded on German submarines at the port of Veracruz and as much oil smuggled through Panama as the pumps could carry.
Until 1946 she lived with her playboy husband in the lap of luxury, but soon after her old friend Alemán became president, she exchanged Mr. Torre for a heavier calibre, the Venezuelan Julio Lobo Olavarría, sugar king of Cuba, with whom she went to Spain. But the subsequent marriage lasted only a year. In 1958, she appeared once again in German cinemas, in the Swiss comedy “Eine Rheinfahrt, die ist lustig.”
There is a documentation of Nazi espionage in Mexico on YouTube, “La red nazi en México” by Sebastián Gamba, Mexico in 2010, unfortunately only in the Spanish original (link).
She died in 1991 during a visit at home or 2008 in New York, no one knows for sure. Overall, she made fourteen films in Germany, four in Mexico and one in Switzerland.
Despite the deteriorating situation at the home front – over a million workers had participated in strikes as early as in January 1918, and hundreds of women and children succumbed each day to malnutrition – the German army regained much of its spirit in the late summer of 1918, and the subsequent Allied offensives launched in late September proceeded, “to Foch’s irritation,” (29) rather slowly. In the centre of the front, a combined Franco-British offensive advanced past the Hindenburg Line by the second week of October, but the attack in Flanders, around Ypres, struggled mightily against continuing resistance of Rupprecht’s Bavarians and it took three weeks to capture Lille, only ten miles behind the front. The American offensives around Verdun and the Argonne Forest remained inconsequential for the outcome of the war: while the First U.S. Army was able to make good a few miles in the direction of Sedan, without ever reaching it, the Second U.S. Army made practically no gains at all east of the Meuse against Army Group Gallwitz.
But whatever defensive successes the German army achieved, they could only delay the loss of the war, not avoid it. The numerical strength of the defenders had shrunk to less than 2.5 million men by October, and few replacements were available although the German army continued to draft in fresh recruits until November 6. (30) It seems that on September 28, Ludendorff could no longer defy reality. After a tormented philippic against the Kaiser, the government, the army, the navy, and the universe that conspired against him, he informed Hindenburg that the war was lost and an armistice had to be secured forthwith. On the next day, a second conference was called at Spa; present were Wilhelm, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Hertling and the new Foreign Secretary Paul von Hintze.
After protracted discussion, it was resolved that, in the face of the virtually unlimited American resources of men and materiel, the war could not be won. Germany’s allies were at the brink of disintegration – Bulgaria had already capitulated and Austro-Hungarian as well as Turkish troops refused to fight – and no hope remained to avoid defeat. In these circumstances, the conclave set out to go on a little fishing expedition, to identify the most desirable peace terms that might be obtained. It was remembered that, on January 8, 1918, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had illustrated his ideas of peace and a new world order to the U.S. Congress and the world press in the famous “Fourteen Points”.
The points essentially propounded an international order in which relations between nations must be transparent, colonial peoples should determine how and by whom they would be ruled, the seas would be open, free trade was to prevail, and a world government, a league of nations, would be formed. The Fourteen Points also set the price Germany must pay for peace. It must give up every inch of territory taken in this war as well as Alsace-Lorraine, seized from France nearly half a century before. (31)
The participants of the conference perused with alacrity Wilson’s words regarding the most decisive issues, those of financial consequences and of loss or gain of territories.
There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages. … National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self-determination” is … an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. (32)
Wilson’s suggestions were deemed quite acceptable, but the Kaiser and the generals still entertained the hope that Alsace-Lorraine and Poland could be retained. However, as a public demonstration of Germany’s instant peacefulness, the Kaiser accepted the resignation of seventy-five years old chancellor Hertling and, on October 3, appointed in his stead his fifty-one year old cousin, Prince Max von Baden.
Most histories depict the new chancellor as a “liberal” because Ludendorff called him that; but Prince Max was a liberal only in the sense that Nero and Caligula were liberals if compared to Attila the Hun. He was, of course, a staunch monarchist and had zero sympathies for liberal or, worse, socialist reforms, but he was not, like his brother-in-law Wilhelm, ignorant of reality. (33) He had, it was true, once served on the committee of the German Red Cross and in 1917 publicly mentioned the possibility of a negotiated peace, and thus he was far less compromised when contacting Wilson than, say, Ludendorff or Wilhelm himself would have been.
Prince Max understood the urgency of decorating the German government with a few democratic faces; by yesterday, if possible. He approached the major parties of the Reichstag, and, by appealing to their patriotism, secured the support of the Liberals, the Catholic Centre and, for the first time in history, the SPD, two of whose deputies joined the Baden government. (34) The new administration set out to work on minor democratic changes to the old Imperial constitution and on October 5, von Baden notified the American government, via Switzerland, that Germany sought an armistice based on the Fourteen Points.
The first reply was received on October 8 from Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who imposed, on his president’s behalf, the immediate withdrawal of German troops from the occupied parts of Belgium and France as an initial condition for an eventual armistice. Baden promised to fulfil the demand in his reply of October 12, and German evacuations began the very next day.
On October 14, a second note, this time by Wilson, demanded the end of the “illegal and inhuman practices,” (35) of the German submarines, and Baden managed to shut down the U-boats by October 20, against the bitter resistance of the admiralty. It must be noted, however, that neither Wilson nor any other U.S. representative ever demanded to shut down the, apparently legal and humane, continental blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.
A third note was received on October 16, and it did put the new chancellor into a quandary. Since it seemed to imply his cousin Wilhelm, Prince Max faced an awkward predicament. The memorandum demanded that the “arbitrary powers” which threatened the “peace of the world” were to be disposed of before formal negotiations could be initiated, which von Baden and his cabinet interpreted as demanding the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm at the very least, perhaps even the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a German republic. This diagnosis was supported by another missive that reached Berlin on October 23, and explained that if the United States “must deal with the military masters and monarchical autocrats of Germany, it must demand, not peace negotiations, but surrender.” (36)
This clumsy message, quite unprecedented in diplomatic custom, was a political bomb of the biggest magnitude and occasioned consequences greater than perhaps any other diplomatic document of the 20th Century. At the time Wilson penned his note, diplomatic convention regarded the inner affairs of a sovereign country as a taboo which might be commented on, perhaps, in private whispers from ambassador to ambassador at informal functions, but not become the subject of an official note to the head of a government. For every German monarchist or nationalist, and there were still lots of them around, Wilson’s note was an insult of epic proportion, an affront to the country’s sovereignty and a pique to all those who had lost loved ones in the war. It was, literally, unheard-of.
The catastrophic consequences of the note can hardly be exaggerated. Whether President Wilson had composed the missive in blissful American naiveté or in an ill-starred miscue, perhaps merely intending to strengthen the liberal and democratic elements in Germany cannot now be ascertained, but the results of his note provided, as we will see, a fantastic pretext and absolution to the guilty while the future German republic was fatefully tainted from her inception by having to shoulder the burden of a lost war she was not in the least responsible for.
The outcome of Wilson’s note, without which the republic could not have been born in the same confused way, facilitated the creation of the two most resilient phantoms of subsequent nationalist, right-wing and finally Nazi propaganda, the myths of the “Stab in the Back” and the legend of the “November Criminals”. As soon as the armistice was signed, the men responsible for the disaster disappeared: Wilhelm went to exile in the Netherlands, Ludendorff fled to Denmark, disguised in mufti and a false beard, and Hindenburg and the other prominent generals took to diving stations. The innocent representatives of the new republic which signed the armistice and, eventually, the peace treaty, were vilified as traitors and some of them subsequently murdered.
The unfortunate consequences of Wilson’s note not only proved that the USA were “not quite as magnanimous as they had promised,” (37) they created arguments which were to lead from the First directly to the Second War. It was uncalled-for one state to dictate policy to another: we have seen how much the trifling matter of allowing a few Austrian detectives or not into Serbia to investigate Francis Ferdinand’s assassination had become a raison de guerre. To make it worse, Wilson’s procedures were deceptive and might be called extortionate – certainly not an auspicious start into his golden age of peace, love and understanding. His tactic of negotiation was mala fide from the beginning: designed to get the opponent’s most important concessions right from the start, and to get cheaply what otherwise would have to be obtained at great cost: the withdrawal of the German army from France and Belgium and the cessation of the U-boat campaign.
The problem was that Wilson’s demands later allowed nationalists, monarchists and militarists alike to claim that the war had not really been lost: that the German army had “never been defeated in the field”, since no foreign soldier, with the exception of Rennenkampf’s and Samsonov’s Russians in East Prussia 1914, had ever set foot on the Fatherland’s soil. Hence, the armistice was unnecessary and treasonous, as was the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, signed by the “November Criminals”, i.e. the government of the German Republic that had stepped in after Wilhelm and his cronies had absquatulated themselves. Thus, the right-wing clamoured, the republic had signed away the nation’s honour.
Prince Baden realized that the dismissal of Ludendorff, who, despite his deceptively spurious rank of First Quartermaster General was the real military dictator of the country, was priority number one, especially since the general had brazenly overstepped his authority. The day after Baden received Wilson’s calamitous message, Ludendorff sensed an opportunity to prolong the war and hence his own authority. Since, against expectations, the German front had not collapsed after the “Black Day” at Amiens and the military situation had somewhat improved in the meantime, Ludendorff took the opportunity to address his troops in an order of the day. The bulletin defined the Fourteen Points and Baden’s request for an armistice based thereon as a hidden “demand for unconditional surrender. It is thus unacceptable to us soldiers. It proves that our enemy’s desire for our destruction, which let loose the war in 1914, still exists undiminished. It can thus be nothing for us soldiers but a challenge to continue our resistance with all our strength.” (38)
An unknown staff officer moved quickly to suppress the circular, but one copy escaped destruction to reach OBEROST, the Eastern command, where the signal officer on duty, a Social Democrat, secured it and forwarded it to the party’s headquarter in Berlin, whence it found its way to the press. Ludendorff’s unauthorized note was foul play at the very least, perhaps outright treason, and von Baden realized that any basis for peace negotiations would be compromised as long as the quasi-dictator remained in office. The broad support Baden enjoyed in the Reichstag enabled him to call upon the Kaiser and to make it clear that it was either Ludendorff or himself. On October 26, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were ordered to Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where Ludendorff was forced to tender his resignation, which the emperor thanklessly accepted. Baden, who knew a double-dealer when he saw one, had prior to the meeting elicited Ludendorff’s written admission that no chance remained to win the war by military means and hence could avoid the simultaneous firing of both the leading generals. When Hindenburg offered his own withdrawal from command, Wilhelm ordered him to remain. (39) The story goes, perhaps apocryphal, that when Ludendorff returned to his hotel room in the evening, he told his wife that: “In a fortnight we shall have no Empire and no Emperor left, you will see.” (40)
He was right. It took exactly fourteen days.
(29) (38) (40) Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 413, 414, 414
(30) (32) (34) (37) Weitz, Eric, Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5, pp. 16, 15, 15, 16
(31) Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 290
(33) Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 26
(35) (36) (39) Massie,Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003 ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 772, 772, 773
The cardinal difference between the Great War of 1914 and earlier European wars lay in its objective, which in turn changed its scale. For no longer were wars waged for the gain of a slice of territory somewhere, or like Bismarck’s, for specific aims and with limited means: the war of 1914 was for “all or nothing.” Germany, it was alleged, challenged Great Britain’s status as the dominant power in the world save the Americas, and there was no consolation prize. The totality of a country’s resources had to be subordinated to the goal of eventual victory, and in this sense the war of 1914 was the first “Total War”, although the phrase itself would not be coined until twenty-nine years later. The winner-takes-all approach also accounts for the extensive lists of “war aims” that the contenders put together for the sake of convincing the public that the prize was worth the slaughter.
The final chapter of the cataclysm began with the German offensives of Spring 1918. Read PDF …
In early January 1918, a few industrial workers in Berlin began to strike for an end of the war, and their protest forced the SPD (the Social Democrats) to reconsider her position somewhat. In the initial enthusiasm of August 1914, the party had accepted Kaiser Wilhelm’s appeal for national unity in times of peril and voted for war credits, but the rigours of rationing, the vicissitudes of war production and the growing inflation gnawed at their supporters’ loyalty. In many factories, work days of twelve to fourteen hours were the norm, seven days a week. Had the wages been adequate, or, rather, had there been goods to be purchased in the first place, the hardships might have been obliged with more tolerance, but under the trauma of a fourth winter at war, even moderate socialists felt a need for action. Their displeasure at the economic conditions, which were largely the consequence of Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s neglect of the agricultural sector, was shared by the liberal bourgeois parties, which also objected to the arrogance with which the generals ran the country. A mood of protest slowly emanated from the trenches of France and Belgium but soon…
… spread to Germany itself, which had been under a virtual military dictatorship for several months, and on Monday, January 28, 1918, workers throughout Germany went on strike. Peace was their main demand but they also insisted on workers’ representation in negotiations with the Allies, increased food rations, the abolition of martial law, and a democratic government throughout Germany. In Munich and Nuremberg only a few thousand workers marched through the streets petitioning for immediate peace without annexation, but in Berlin 400,000 workers walked out of their shops to organize a strike committee.
Within a week they were forced back to work but a spirit of rebellion had come alive in the capital and it seemed only a question of time before full-scale revolution would break out. News of the general strike was received with mixed feelings at the front. Many of the soldiers were as war-weary and disgusted as those back at home but almost as many felt they had been betrayed by their own civilians.
Hitler called it “the biggest piece of chicanery in the whole war.” He was incensed at the “slackers and Reds.” What was the army fighting for if the homeland itself no longer wanted victory? For whom the immense sacrifices and privations? “The soldier is expected to fight for victory and the homeland goes on strike against it.” [John Toland, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6, p. 69]
Hitler’s first visit to Berlin had occurred a few weeks before the strike, and when he paced through the capital for the second time, on November 19, 1918, the commotion of the previous week had already subsided, but the massacre of December 6 was more than two weeks in the future. In this incident, a demonstration by Spartacists turning around a street corner suddenly faced a line of machine guns manned by soldiers from the Maybug barracks , who fired at everything that moved for five minutes before retreating to the safety and anonymity of the garrison and leaving the dead, wounded and dying to their fate. It was never found out who the killers were. Between these revolutionary hiccups, Hitler returned safely to Munich in but found, to his astonishment, that much had changed since December 7.
 “Maybugs” was the name for the Garde-Füsilier-Regiment, the marksmen regiment of the Prussian Guards, for their insignia.
During the war, the Bavarian socialist movement had split, as in most other German states, into a large moderate wing which retained the name of SPD and a smaller radical group, the USPD (“U” for unabhängig, i.e. independent). In Bavaria, this split had occurred under the orchestration of a Bavarian delegate to the SPD convention at Gotha in April 1917, Kurt Eisner. At this convention, arguments over the support of the war resulted in schism and when Eisner returned to München, he was elected chairman of the Bavarian USPD. Both parties were represented in the Bavarian Diet, which existed since 1819 but lacked effective legislative authority, which remained with the king. Bavaria was a mostly rural country in the first half of the 19th Century, but with the flourishing of the German industry in the next sixty years, and especially when munitions, vehicle and ironware factories multiplied during the war, so did the influence of the socialist parties. More daringly than their comrades in Berlin, the Bavarian Socialists introduced a reform bill proposing wide-reaching demands in September 1917: the abolition of the Senate, the parliamentary playground of the nobility, and of nobility itself, the introduction of general suffrage, legislative emancipation of the Diet and the separation of Church and State.
The bill died quick by royal veto, but in the country-wide strikes of January 1918, the Bavarian USPD was able to mobilize the streets to a degree the government judged far too dangerous. The USPD’s public faces were subsequently arrested, among them the free spirit of Kurt Eisner.
For most of his working life Eisner had been a drama critic. During the war he founded the Independent Socialist Party in Bavaria, and in January 1918, he took a leading role in the strikes that plagued München. Arrested and thrown into prison, he was released during the last days of the war. His friend Ernst Toller [the playwright,¶] described him as a man who had been poor, self-sufficient, and detached throughout his life. He was small and slight; grey hair that had once been fair fell in a confused tangle to his coat collar, and an untidy beard straggled over his chest; short-sighted eyes looked out calmly from his deeply lined face. He had a sense of drama, a caustic wit, and was totally without arrogance. [Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72-92891, p. 122]
He was accused of being a Bolshevik, which he certainly was not. He was what his party card stated, an independent socialist: less of a follower of stringent doctrine than a man perceiving the incompetent rule of the nobility and a system breaking apart under social injustice and the privations of four years of war. When the right-wing press denounced him of being a Bolshevik activist who had received ten million gold roubles, from Lenin himself, in furtherance of the German revolution, he took the reporters to his bank and presented a copy of his expense account: his out-of-pocket disbursals for the “Bavarian Revolution” amounted to seventeen marks. The annals of man know not a cheaper revolution.
King Ludwig III had been aware of the portents of turmoil in the dying days of the war. In a belated attempt to save the monarchy, the king consented to a reform bill which brought a few liberal but largely cosmetic changes. Five days later, on December 7, representatives of the SPD, the Catholic Farmers and the Democratic Party joined the Royal Bavarian government for the first time.
Although the Bavarian police had warned of revolutionary conspiracies, the Munich magistrate permitted, on the same afternoon, a joint demonstration of SPD and USPD (the Independent Social Democrats) on the Theresienwiese, the great expanse which accommodates the annual Oktoberfest. The numerous troops of the Munich garrison were believed to be reliably monarchist and patriotic enough so that public safety seemed assured. The event began at 3 pm and soon more than 80,000 listeners filled the great oval. At the conclusion of the occasion, two hours later, the moderates left the grounds to march to the city centre, while the more extreme elements, in particular Kurt Eisner’s USPD, remained, joined by many radical soldiers and sailors who had already dumped their imperial cockades.
Eisner recognized an opportunity. His followers were at the northern end of the venue, in proximity to the garrison barracks in the north-west of the town, whither he headed, followed by perhaps 2,000 men. It soon became a revolutionary lindworm, more and more soldiers joining along the way to the major army depots. There was a minute of confusion and shooting at the big casern at the Türkenstraße, but when the majority of the troops stationed there declared for the revolution, Eisner had won. The throng he led back to the town centre was by now perhaps 5,000 men strong.
Around 7 pm, revolutionary soldiers appeared at the plaza of the Residence, the Wittelsbach town palace, and an anxious royal family was informed by the War Minister, Philipp von Hellingrath, that, since a large majority, perhaps all, of the Munich garrison troops had declared for the rebellion, no loyal units were available to protect the throne. The Palace Guard had mysteriously disappeared in the early evening, and the King’s Own Guard Regiment lingered passively in their barracks despite having been urgently alarmed. At around 10 pm, the king, his family and trusted retainers left the capital, on the advice of Court Minister Ritter von Dandl, to seek refuge at the family castle of Wildenwart at the Chiemsee Lake. A few miles south of the city, the king’s car slid off the road and mired itself in a potato field. It was a fitting end for the House of Wittelsbach.
Meanwhile, delegations of revolutionary soldiers proceeded to seize the city’s strategic assets without encountering resistance: by late evening the central railway station, the telegraph office, the Bavarian army command and other important military and municipal buildings as well as the parliament and the newspaper bureaus were in Red hands. Those units of army and police that had not gone over to the rebels remained passive and allowed the revolution to organize itself by means of mass meetings in the late hours of the day. A preliminary gathering of rebels was held in the Franziskaner beer cellar, but the second, more decisive meeting took place, in the heart of the city, at the gigantic Mathäserbräu tavern that could seat five thousand guests easily but in this night perhaps saw more than twice that number.
Soldiers and sailors convened on the first floor and elected a council, while the workers met on the ground floor and elected their own representatives. The delegates of both councils then merged and formed a general “Workers’, Soldiers’ and Farmers’ Council,” initially chaired by Franz Schmitt of the SPD. At around 10 pm, Eisner, Schmitt and the councillors plus a small armed guard moved over the Isar River to the parliament building. Chairing the improvised meeting, and without formal ado, Eisner took the office of Minister President of Bavaria, and, in the wee hours of the morning of November 8, 1918, proclaimed the Free Bavarian Socialist Soviet Republic. A few hours later, the burghers of Munich, who had gone to bed in a kingdom, awoke in a republic, and a socialist one to boot.
In the afternoon of the same day, December 8th, the parliament building hosted the first session of the temporary National Council, which was to establish a provisional government. The assembly included the councillors, the former members of parliament of the SPD and the Bavarian Farmer Party and three former liberal deputies. The plenum faced initial objections from the delegates of the SPD. The Social Democrats had been loyal, to a degree, to the Ancien Régime and favoured reforms, not revolution; a protracted debate was necessary to convince their members to join and support the provisional government. On the next day, Minister President Eisner and his newly minted ministers took over the executive power in Bavaria. Not a single act of insubordination occurred: all state servants, government employees, police and military acquiesced to the orders of the new government without reserve.
Munich set the standard for the country.
The flames of orderly revolution were igniting spontaneously throughout Germany. In Friedrichshafen workers at the Zeppelin plant formed a council. The factory workers in the Stuttgart area, including the vast Daimler motor works, struck and, led by socialists with views similar to Eisner’s, made similar demands. Sailors engineered revolt in Frankfurt am Main. At Kassel, the entire garrison, including a commanding officer, revolted without the benefit of bullets.
There were a few shots fired in Cologne when the garrison of 45,000 went Red, but order quickly settled over the city. A civilian revolt in Hanover succeeded even though authorities ordered troops to use force; instead the soldiers joined the rebels. It was the same in Düsseldorf, Leipzig and Magdeburg. Government after government throughout Germany collapsed as workers’ and soldiers’ councils took control. [Toland, p. 72]
Eventually, the eyes of the nation turned to Berlin, in the anticipation that the success or failure of a German socialist republic would be decided there. Unlike in Russia, where Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had split over the question of reform vs. revolution well ahead of the war, the German socialists had not separated until 1917, when the revolutionary wing split off and formed the USPD. Still, even if counting in their cousins of the Spartacus League, they represented probably less than ten per cent of the socialist spectrum, but their clamour portended a schism of the socialist government in Berlin. Potentially worse, countrywide elections giving the women of the nation full suffrage for the first time were scheduled for January 19, 1919, and the radical wing had no illusions of the possible outcome. No, if they wanted power, they had to try the coup d’état.
But things were not quite there yet. In these November and December days, most of the workers, soldiers and sailors were less interested in dogmatic quarrels but in the end of war and hunger, reunion with families and loved ones, and the vagaries of getting a job. Since the Imperial government had collapsed, self-organization was the motto of the moment, and so it came that …
Berlin remained in a state of confusion … with various groups all claiming authority: Friedrich Ebert’s Council of People’s Commissars in the Chancellery [the government recognized by the Allies,¶], the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the Reichstag, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Berlin in the Prussian Landtag building, Eichhorn’s [the self-proclaimed (USPD) police commissioner of Berlin,¶] 3,000 strong “Security Service” in police headquarters on Alexanderplatz, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and, of course, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s alternative Spartacist government in the Royal Palace, supported by a volunteer force of about 2,000 Red sailors based in the Royal Stables and calling themselves the Peoples’ Naval Division.
There were daily street demonstrations, mass meetings and spasmodic gunfights, and virtually every day until Christmas another returning division from the regular army marched back through the Brandenburg Gate and up the Unter den Linden before dissolving into the crowds. [Anthony Read, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 47]
Irrespectively of the political transience of the times, the majority of these bodies went on to implement socialist aspirations they had demanded in vain from the German princes. The workday was limited to eight hours, labour unions were granted unrestricted rights of organization and bargaining, workplace accident coverage was raised, retirement plans expanded, sickness and unemployment insurance premiums lowered or services augmented. Many of these programs were still in their toddler stages, but they became the stepping stones of proletarian emancipation. Political prisoners were released and the censorship of press and theatre abolished. Against the warnings of capitalist Cassandras, of which there were quite a few, it turned out that this could all be paid for, once normality was restored, by enforcing the existing tax code with the proviso that the tax privileges of the Junkers and the nobility were to be revoked. German social legislation became the envy of the workers of the world.
Hitler confessed later that he respected the social reforms, which he considered inevitable in the long run, and some of his ensuing dicta leave us with the strong suspicion that he sympathized considerably with the Social Democrats in these days. “For what I am grateful to the Social Democrats,” he said, “is that they got rid of the interests of court and nobility.” [Anton Joachimsthaler, Korrektur einer Biographie, Langen Müller 1989, ISBN 3-7766-1575-3, p. 181]
But the confused but largely harmless designs of the various socialist governments-to-be and their committees and councils could flourish only as long as true revolutionary groups could be held at bay. Ebert understood that the executive power of his government remained questionable without armed support, and he knew his former comrades who had gone over to the Spartacists too well to believe they would relinquish the revolutionary option, given that they could not hope to win the election. But they had guns, and if they attempted the coup d’état against unarmed opponents, by whom could they be stopped? The only apparent alternative was support from the regular army.
The Social Democrats had always maintained a critical distance to the military, which, after all, had often enough been used in their suppression. Now, that the war had been lost instead of ending in the expected triumph, the mood of the army and their sympathy for socialists could not be hoped to have improved. On December 10, the first returning army units arrived in Berlin, welcomed by Ebert, who had the difficult obligation to explain to the soldiers the changes that had transpired in the meantime. Demobilization in Berlin was the same haphazard affair as everywhere else, perhaps sloppier: many soldiers forgot to turn their guns in, some units even forgot to turn in their machine – or even field guns, or claimed they had been lost in transit. There was no shortage of weapons anywhere in the new republic but the supply in the capital was by far the richest and the Spartacists had been collecting ever since: Ebert was outgunned.
On the second day of his chancellorship, November 10, he received a telephone call on the direct line from the General staff building. His summoner was Wilhelm Groener, the new Quartermaster General and successor of Ludendorff: in effect the military supremo of the day-old republic. The general knew exactly what was at stake, and offered Ebert that “the Army would put itself at the disposal of his regime, in return for the regime’s support for the Field Marshal [Hindenburg,¶] and the officer corps, through the maintenance of order and discipline in the Army.” (Read, p. 43) In civil parlance, it meant that the army would support Ebert and the Republic – quite unexpectedly – for the price of keeping the army, in the Prussian tradition, out of politics and to let it govern itself. There was one more condition: “The officer corps demands of the régime a battle against Bolshevism, and is ready for such an engagement.” [Read, p. 43]
Ebert was in a bind, caught between the Spartacist left and the reactionary, military right like Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis. In the end, he went with Groener, perhaps somewhat duped by a very clever manoeuvre of the general, who had his own plan how to control the councils. Groener knew that loyal troops and officers returning from the front would begin to trickle in from the second week of December, and thus he had to survive the rule of the councils for only about a month. His plan was to give the councils licence enough to hang themselves: he ordered that every unit was to elect a council: every platoon, company, battalion, regiment and so forth, a procedure that created the instant chaos that gave Groener the time he needed. Soon the bulk of the army was to return, and while most of the units would demobilize on their own recognizance, some would not. Some men, Groener knew, could not go back to civil life, for the experience of war had forever deformed their souls. Such men formed the “Freikorps”, the ‘Free Corps’.
Before the war, the Imperial draft boards had preferably conscripted farm boys, for they were held less infused with socialism than the sons of the city workers. Thus, the draftees chiefly represented the pastoral element of the German society, in contrast to the city backgrounds of many NCOs and regimental officers. They were by and large men of petty or middlebrow bourgeois descent, better educated, and hopelessly romantic. They formed the pool from which the Freikorps were to draw their wolves.
The sudden end of the war prompted withdrawal symptoms – civilian life appeared drab, lacklustre, and trivial. Moreover, nothing had prepared this deeply romantic and passionately patriotic brotherhood to find the Fatherland imperilled by a Bolshevik revolution. They had become eternal warriors, in search of a duty to fulfil, and none could be more glorious or important than to recoup the strangely altered homeland from a communist abyss.
The Freikorps of 1918 and 1919 were … freebooting private armies of embittered ex-servicemen, mainly composed of former officers and NCOs who refused to disband, determined to maintain military discipline and organisation in the face of what they saw as the disorder of the soldiers’ councils. Steeped in the harsh traditions of the Prussian army, they were fiercely nationalist and violently anti-Bolshevik.
Their formation was encouraged if not actually initiated by Groener, both as a means of keeping alive the ethos of the officer corps during those uncertain times and of providing tough, trained units of loyal troops who could be relied on to fight the revolutionary forces of the extreme left. Their relationship with the army was kept deliberately vague, but they were equipped by it with machine guns, mortars and even field guns as well as rifles and pistols, and there is little doubt that their pay came from army funds. Many of their commanders were regular serving officers.
The Freikorps’ first function was to police Germany’s eastern frontiers with the new Baltic States and the newly independent and deeply hostile Poland, which after centuries of German, Russian and Austrian oppression could be expected to try to grab as much territory as it could get away with.
Protection against Bolshevism spreading from the east was a secondary consideration in this area, but nonetheless it was a real consideration, especially when Russia went to war with Poland in 1919. In Berlin and the rest of Germany, however, the battle with Bolshevism in all its forms was the Freikorps’ very raison d’être. [Read, p. 45 – 46]
When making his offer to Ebert, Groener had recommended that the political supervision of the armed forces should be entrusted to the former SPD MP Gustav Noske, the same man who had shown during the naval revolt in Kiel that he could deal with a mob. It was high time to organize troops loyal to Ebert’s Council of Peoples’ Commissars, because the Spartacists were already mobilizing their own forces in anticipation of the first session of the national Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. This body, comprising representatives from all parts of the country, was to meet at the Reichstag building beginning Monday, December 16. In support for the confidently expected revolution, Liebknecht and Luxemburg organized a mass demonstration the same day on the plaza in front of the building, and when that failed to impress the delegates, dispatched a crash commando three days later with instructions to hijack the building and take the deputies hostage; a plan that was thwarted in the nick of time by one of Noske’s local guard platoons.
The decisions of the congress, clearly wishing to establish a semblance of order as soon as possible, much disappointed the radical Left: for not only did the delegates fail to transfer “all power to the soviets” as per the Spartacists’ request, but also confirmed the legitimacy of Ebert’s government and resolved to phase out the councils in favour of transferring all further legislative and executive authority to the new National Assembly, the election of which was fixed for January 19, 1919, four weeks in the future. [Read, p. 47]
These setbacks at least gave the Spartacists a deadline, for they needed to seize power before Election Day – for win could they not. On December 23, under the pretext of seeking a Christmas bonus, their Naval Division stormed and occupied the Arsenal (the military HQ) and the chancellery, where they arrested the cabinet. In this situation “Ebert decided that the time had come to call in Groener’s promise.” [Read, p. 48]
Army HQ in Potsdam sent a battalion of troops as pledged, and on the morning of December 24, a strange hybrid of military and propaganda battles developed around the Royal Palace and the stables. Actual fighting was sporadic if emphatic but was frequently interrupted by negotiations, or Liebknecht’s exhortations for revolution addressed to the thousands of spectators, who, after watching the action, proceeded on to the Christmas market or the nearby shopping district where business went on as usual. It was perhaps the lack of attention that lead to the battle ending, in early afternoon, by the disappearance of both sides’ troops in the Christmas crowds. An irate Groener, however, decided that he needed more dependable troops next time and sent the word to the leaders of the nascent Freikorps. [Read, p. 48]
Christmas Day brought the regular Spartacus League demonstration, whose activists seized the building where the SPD-owned newspaper VORWÄRTS was printed and created their own Christmas issue, naturally on red paper. After the police had arrived and the occupiers expelled, VORWÄRTS gave up all remnants of socialist solidarity it had kept until that day and became decisively anti-Spartacist.
Undeterred, Liebknecht ended the year by inviting about a hundred Spartacists to a conference starting on 29 December in the banqueting hall of the Prussian Landtag. After two days of typically fractious argument, they voted to make a complete break with Social Democracy and align themselves unequivocally with Soviet Russia, renaming themselves the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Among the guests was Karl Radek, who had been smuggled into Germany to help foment the civil war that was an essential part of a Bolshevik revolution. In a long speech, he denied that the regime in Russia was a reign of terror, and asserted that civil war was not as awful as was sometimes thought: a whole year of civil war in Russia, he claimed, had killed fewer people and destroyed less property than a single day of international war.
“What we are now carrying out in Russia,” he declared, “is nothing but the great unperverted teaching of German Communism. The Council of Peoples’ Commissars of Europe will yet meet in Berlin. Spartacus will conquer. It is destined to seize power in Germany.” Liebknecht responded enthusiastically with a call to arms: “We do not want a lemonade revolution. We have to hasten the internationalisation of civil war.” [Read, p.49]
Groener’s and Ebert’s spies reported the results immediately to their masters, and, during the eclipse of the year, both sides prepared for the clash they knew was to occur before Election Day, January 19.
The persistent enmity between social democratic, i.e. reformist, and communist parties all over the world in the seventy years between 1919 and 1989, resulted from this split in Berlin 1918 and the happenings shortly thereafter. From 1914 to 1918, the SPD had supported the Ancien Régime by approving Wilhelm’s war credits in the Reichstag, with the sole exception of Liebknecht, while an outer-parliamentary, grass roots opposition of pacifists shaped up, broadened and finally broke off the mother party in 1917. The offshoot, the USPD, appealed to the international solidarity of the working class, which could render war impossible simply by refusing to produce armaments, and was the only faction in Germany to speak out publicly against the war.
They accused the moderates of treason, of being corrupted by capitalist interests, and when Ebert called in the reactionary Freikorps, he was accused of fratricide and of betraying the legacy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From this day on communist parties were to regard social democrats as the worst enemy: while the resistance of capitalists was expected and could be understood, the poison of moderation had destroyed the solidarity of the brotherhood of workmen. In remembrance of the Jacobins, there could be no quarter for the enemies of the revolution.
Meanwhile, the government of the Bavarian Socialist Republic was consolidating its power and began to organize the post-war economy. It was perhaps the greatest surprise for Minister President Eisner that the regular Bavarian Army cooperated without too much ado; while clearly disliking the confusion of council policies, the military realized that order was the demand of the day and the senior officer, General Max Freiherr von Speidel appealed to the troops “to serve the people’s state.” (Joachimsthaler, p. 183) On November 13, King Ludwig’s written declaration of abdication was received in the council, and the same day saw the investiture of Albert Rosshaupter (SPD) as the first-ever civilian Minister of Defence in the history of the country.
Thus, the Bavarian Soviet Republic developed in a much less revolutionary way than it had begun. To a degree, Eisner’s government regarded itself only as a provisional administration and delayed decisive reforms for the time after the January 12 elections, which they hoped would give them a parliamentary majority and hence an indisputable mandate for the creation of a true socialist state. Hence, Eisner’s public address on November 15 by and large avoided revolutionary rhetoric: the essential demand of socialization of industry was postponed. There were a few modifications in unemployment aid and the introduction of the eight-hour work day, but nothing was done to replace the employees and functionaries of the state, who continued to administrate the country in the old-fashioned, monarchical ways. Neither was the economy reformed: industry, banks, and insurances operated as usual. The sole notable change was the secularization of the schools by the abolition of the Catholic Church’s supervisory authority.
The election turned out a catastrophe for the Radical Socialists. Winners were the Bavarian People’s Party, the successor of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP, 35%, 66 seats) and the SPD (33%, 61 seats). More or less in the expected range came in results for the liberals, the DVP [DPP in the Palatinate], which carried 14% and 25 seats and the right-wing German National People’s Party [DNVP, as “Mittelpartei” in the Palatinate], which received 6% of the vote and 9 seats.
The losers were the parties of the revolution. The Bavarian Bauernbund, something akin to Russia’s Social Revolutionaries, received 9% of the vote and 16 seats, but the results for the USPD were pitiful: 2.5% and three seats. Eisner, however, was not easily persuaded to give up his governmental responsibilities, since, as he pointed out, he was still the president of the Council of Soldiers, Workers and Peasants, which he regarded as the true government of socialist Bavaria. Alas, he had not exactly increased his popularity in recent weeks.
Everyone had a reason to hate him – they said he was a Galician Jew, a Berliner, a café intellectual, a left-wing Socialist, a betrayer of true Socialism, too radical, not radical enough, he was ineffectual and incompetent, the list seemed endless. Above all, he was blamed for the collapse of the economy – Bavaria was virtually bankrupt, suffering like so many other places from a huge loss of jobs as ammunition production ceased and soldiers were demobilized, and yet he had vastly increased spending on unemployment benefits.
Eisner finally managed to infuriate just about everybody in Bavaria when he attended the first post-war conference of the Second Socialist International in Berne. As the only head of government there, he was held in great respect and listened to with some reverence, particularly when he publicly acknowledged German responsibility for the Great War and named Wilhelm Hohenzollern, the former Kaiser, as the one man most to blame for four and a half year of carnage. Speaking calmly and quietly, he lambasted all aspects of Prussianism, condemned Germany’s harsh treatment of French civilians and Allied prisoners of war, and appealed to German prisoners to help rebuild the devastated regions of France and Belgium. All this was well-received by the comrades in Berne, but in Munich it was regarded as treason, and he was branded a traitor. [Read, p. 113 – 114]
Meanwhile, in Bavaria the rift between revolutionaries and reformers broadened, and SPD leader Erhard Auer used his authority as Eisner’s deputy and Eisner’s absence to summon the Landtag, the Bavarian parliament, for a constituent session on February 21, 1919, in which a new government backed by a parliamentary majority was to be elected. In expectation of counteraction from the radical wing, Auer had Max Levien, leader of the KPD in Schwabing, arrested, and urged Defense Minister Rosshaupter to do everything possible to form a quasi-military Home Defense Army loyal to the future government, which was expected to be the one or other coalition of the SPD with the Catholics and liberals and would easily enjoy the backing of 70% or more of the Landtag deputies.
The Left struck back on February 15, with the ad-hoc creation of the “Revolutionary Workers’ Council”, an eccentric body composed of the most radical members of USPD, Spartacists and Bolsheviks under the leadership of the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam. The august body’s first resolution directed a mass demonstration of workers and soldiers to occur on the Theresienwiese the very next day, and it is rather likely that Corporal Hitler marched on this day in the ranks of the socialists. His 2nd Infantry Regiment’s Order of the Day for February 15 read:
“Tomorrow, Sunday, February 16, 1919, a demonstration of the whole workforce and all garrison units will take place. The Regiment, including the Demobilization Battalion, will assemble at 12:15 noon in the casern square of 1st Battalion, on the Oberwiesenfeld. Council members will blanket the troops to insure discipline and order. The company commanders will verify that all off-duty personnel participate in the gathering.” [Joachimsthaler, p. 197 – 198]
Hence, around noon on February 16, about 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Munich. Eisner, back from Berne, Mühsam and Levien, the latter released from jail, addressed the public with demands to establish a Soviet, i.e. Councils’ Republic. It turned out that very few Munichers shared this desire, but only three days later, Eisner delivered a defiant gesture. In what became the last session of the Congress of Bavarian Councils, he demanded a second revolution.
“The second revolution will not be plundering and street fighting. The new revolution is the assembling of the masses in city and countryside to carry out what the first revolution has started. … The bourgeois majority is now to implement bourgeois politics. We shall see whether they are capable of ruling. In the meantime the Councils should do their job: to build the new democracy. Then perhaps the new spirit will also arrive in Bavaria. Tomorrow the Landtag begins – tomorrow the activities of the Councils should also begin anew. Then we shall see where are to be found the force and vitality of a society consecrated by death.” [Read, p. 115]
Eisner then secured the assembly’s declaration that they would not disband or otherwise renounce their authority unless the future Bavarian Constitution expressly acknowledged their prerogatives. This was an obvious attempt to block the formation of the parliamentary government the Landtag was poised to enact the next day. For his cryptic insinuations regarding a Second Revolution, the cabinet later demanded Eisner’s resignation.
The basic difficulty for Eisner proved the management of essential services and the cooperation of the countryside, in particular the regular supply of food. He was criticized by members of his own cabinet for organizational shortcomings – one of his ministers told him: “You are an anarchist … You are no statesman, you are a fool … We are being ruined by bad management.” [Richard J. Evans, “The Coming of the Third Reich”, Penguin, NY, 2003, ISBN 0-14-303469-3, p. 158 ff.]
Having lost parliamentary support, Kurt Eisner had composed, on the morning of February 21, a notice of resignation and a short accompanying speech in his office and made his way, on foot, to deliver his message at the Landtag’s opening session. He dismissed his aides and the two armed guards and set out alone.
Typically, he refused to take a different route from his regular one, dismissing his aides’ concerns for his safety with a blithe: “They can only shoot me dead once.” As he turned the corner into the Promenadenstraße, a young man in a trench coat ran up behind him, pulled out a pistol and shot him at point-blank range in the head and back. The first shot smashed his skull, the second pierced a lung. He fell to the ground dead, amid a spreading pool of blood.
Eisner’s assassin was Count Anton von Arco auf Valley, an aristocrat who had served as a lieutenant in the Bavarian cavalry during the war, and who had, like most returning officers in Munich, suffered the indignity of having his badges of rank torn from his uniform by revolutionaries in the street. His exact reason for killing Eisner was never made clear: he was filled with bitterness at being rejected for membership of the ultra-right Thule Society because his mother was Jewish, his girlfriend had taunted him as a weakling, and he hated the revolution. But why he should have chosen to kill Eisner, at the precise moment when he was stepping down, remains a mystery. [Reid, p. 115 – 116] (In recent years references have surfaced that a conspiracy may have been at work, see the German Wiki entry.)
This was only the start of the party. Arco-Valley was gunned down by a bodyguard, but eventually saved by a heroic operation executed by Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch, at the time the most eminent surgeon of the world. When the news reached the Landtag in its opening session, it was adjourned, and Erhard Auer, head of the Bavarian SPD, whose erstwhile friendship with Eisner went back decades, began an improvised eulogy. He had not talked five minutes when a member of the aforementioned Revolutionary Workers’ Council, the butcher Alois Lindner, broke into the plenum, revealed a rifle that he had hidden under his coat and shot Auer, at close range, in the chest. Then he fired at the BVP delegates, and after killing a guard who tried to disarm him, escaped unhampered. He was replaced by a second shooter in the gallery, who aimed at the same deputies, slaying one man and injuring a few others. The commotion was immense, and an air of South America hung over the venerable Landtag building. [Read, p. 116]
Eisner, intensely disliked by many only hours before his death, was instantly canonized a Socialist saint, and, with the Landtag out of order, the councils quickly filled the legislative and executive void, declared martial law and called in a three-day general strike which – as Anthony Read observed – “fell conveniently over the weekend”, (40) as well as a 7 pm curfew. On the following morning, a hastily convened meeting of the councils elected a supreme committee, the “Zentralrat” or “Central Council”. Its eleven members represented a miscellany of socialist beliefs from reformist to revolutionary, included representatives of rural, not only urban councils, and were to govern not only Munich but Bavaria as a whole. The chairmanship of the commission, and thus the office of quasi-Minister President fell to the twenty-eight year-old schoolteacher Ernst Niekisch, who, as a left-wing member of the SPD, was a good compromise candidate for the position.
Niekisch aimed to draw support by calling for socialist unity and the convocation of a Congress of Bavarian Councils, which was to determine the future form of the government: either parliamentary or by councils, i.e. a Soviet Republic. This congress opened on February 25, but was compelled to adjourn on the next day without having accomplished anything for the occasion of Eisner’s funeral.
Whatever the citizens of Munich had thought of the living Eisner, his funeral drew 100,000 mourners who followed the coffin as it was solemnly driven through the streets of the town in a former royal carriage. The next day, the radical Left used the public outpouring of sympathy for Eisner to call on the Congress to declare the ‘Second Revolution’ and announce the establishment of the Soviet Republic. When the motion failed by a large margin, Spartakists, USPD and anarchists left the Zentralrat in order to prepare the beneficial transformation alone. Without leadership, the Congress scattered, and for a few weeks, after so much ado, Bavaria quieted down.
Yet the memory of Kurt Eisner lives on in the Free State he founded – three memorials are to be found in Munich’s inner city and one at the Eastern Cemetery.
The opening battles of the Great War had made it plain to see that this conflict of industrialized nations had no resemblance to the short, victorious and honourable war patriots cheered for and generals had promised. Not only had the latter, in every country, gravely underestimated the expenditures of modern war in regards to ammunition, gear and victuals, it became shockingly clear that, in the age of mechanized war, infantry attacks over open fields would produce casualties in numbers never beheld before. Poison gas was soon to add one more horrific dimension to the suffering. One of the great contrasts that this war produced was that of ages. While the industrialized countries of Europe conscripted their young men by the age of twenty, in war below that age, the chief generals of the Great War were of, comparably, biblical ages.
On the German side in 1914, Moltke was 66 years old, Hindenburg 67 and Kluck and Bülow both 68. On the side of the Allies, Joffre and French were 62 and Gallieni 68. Their advanced age was not a matter of chance, but the expression of the pre-War belief in “experience”, the preeminent value in what Stefan Zweig called the ‘World of Security’ before the war.
The world about and above us, which directed all its thoughts only to the fetish of security, did not like youth; or rather it constantly mistrusted it. … Austria was an old state, dominated by an aged Emperor, ruled by old Ministers, a State without ambition, which hoped to preserve itself unharmed in the European domain solely by opposing all radical changes. … So arose the situation, incomprehensible today, that youth was a hindrance in all careers, and age alone was an advantage. Whereas today, in our changed state of affairs, those of forty seek to look thirty, and those of sixty wish to seem forty, and youth, energy, determination and self-confidence recommend and advance a man, in that age of security everyone who wished to get ahead was forced to attempt all conceivable methods of masquerading in order to appear older. The newspapers recommended preparations which hastened the growth of the beard, and twenty-four- and twenty-five-year-old doctors, who had just finished their examinations, wore mighty beards and golden spectacles even if their eyes did not need them, so that they could make an impression of “experience” upon their first patients. Men wore long black frock coats and walked at a leisurely pace, and whenever possible acquired a slight embonpoint, in order to personify the desired sedateness; and those who were ambitious strove, at least outwardly, to belie their youth, since the young were suspected of instability.
It didn’t occur to anybody’s mind that this was the first mechanized, “World War”, for any rank, corporal and general alike. But as long as the generals insisted on sending unprotected men to attack, over open fields, other men, who had the advantages of being protected in entrenched positions, secured by barbed wire and supported by rapid-fire arms, casualties were to mount. This was “the simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare.” What rankled the troopers was the Olympian aloofness shown by some of the principal commanders.
The impassive expressions that stare back at us from contemporary photographs do not speak of consciences of feelings troubled by the slaughter over which those men presided, nor do the circumstances in which they chose to live: the distant chateau, the well-polished entourage, the glittering motor cars, the cavalry escorts, the regular routine, the heavy dinners, the uninterrupted hours of sleep. Joffre’s two-hour lunch, Hindenburg’s ten-hour night, Haig’s therapeutic daily equitation along roads sanded lest his horse slip, the STAVKA’s diet of champagne and court gossip, seem and were a world away from the cold rations, wet boots, sodden uniforms, flooded trenches, ruined billets and plague of lice on, in and among which, in winter at least, their subordinates lived.
Sooner or later, inevitably, the soldier will seek responsibility for the conditions he is exposed to not only with the enemy but his own higher-ups. All of the three early C-in-C’s on the Western front of 1914 were eventually replaced, Moltke in September 1914 [his successor Falkenhayn at the end of 1916, ¶], Sir John French in December 1915, and Joffre, who was promoted to the honourable but hollow position of “Marechal de France”, in December 1916.
Alas, their replacements tended to be not much younger either of age or intellectual freshness. The British press coined the expression of describing the BEF as “Lions, led by Donkeys,” and nobody mistook the generals for the lions. War, to paraphrase Yeats, is “no country for old men”, but, over most of its duration, the Great War was.
When we are talking modern warfare, one of the words we invariably encounter is that of a “Division“. But what exactly is a “Division”? Let’s have a look at this concept in World War I:
NB: This post refers to “Division” as the word is used in land warfare. It may have very different meanings in other contexts. See Wiki:
“While the focus of this article is on army divisions, in naval usage division has a completely different meaning, referring to either an administrative/functional sub-unit of a department (e.g., fire control division of the weapons department) aboard naval and coast guard ships, shore commands, and in naval aviation units (including navy, marine corps, and coast guard aviation), to a sub-unit of several ships within a flotilla or squadron, or to two or three sections of aircraft operating under a designated division leader. Also some languages, like Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Polish, use a similar word divizion/dywizjon for a battalion-size artillery or cavalry unit.“
“The partitioning of armies into ‘divisions’ came into practice in the two French Coalition Wars (France against counter-revolutionary Austria, Russia and Prussia) in the 1790s and the subsequent Napoleonic era, in which armies had to be split up to defend against or attack more than one enemy at a given time or to fulfill tactical assignments, such as outflanking or enveloping manoeuvres.
definition of a ‘division’ is that it is the smallest sub-unit of an
army that can fulfill independent assignments, i.e., the smallest unit
that has everything to fight its own small war. Thus said, it follows
that a division must have more than soldiers, guns and ammunition: it
must have a staff, engineers, signal troops, supply troops, a medical
corps, a hospital, kitchen, laundry, map bureau and so forth.
In the First World War, a fully equipped German infantry division would contain the following troops:
4 Infantry Regiments of 3,000 men each; each Regiment composed of 3 Battalions of 1,000 men; each Battalion composed of 4 Companies of 250 men; altogether 12,000 infantrymen;
1 Artillery Regiment consisting of 12 Field Batteries of 6 135 mm guns each and 2 Heavy Batteries of 4 155 mm guns (some divisions had an additional Heavy Howitzer Battalion with 16 150 mm howitzers);
2 Brigades of Cavalry, 680 sabers each, sometimes supported by 2 Field Gun Batteries of their own and a 6 Machine-Gun Company;
1 Squadron of reconnaissance aircraft, 6 machines, pilots, mechanics;
1 Special Artillery Brigade for the discretionary use of the division commander, (54 light 77 mm guns and 18 135 mm guns);
1 Special Machine Gun Company with 6 guns, and
1 Special Artillery Battalion with 18 105 mm howitzers.
Divisional troops, staff and support:
1 Battalion Combat Engineers (Sappers, in German called ‘Pioniere’ (Pioneers);
1 Signal and Communications Detachment with 2 Companies;
1 Quartermaster Train with 2 Companies;
1 Administrative Company;
2 Kitchen Companies (Butchers, Bakers, Cooks);
1 Mail Platoon and Field Post Office;
1 Medical Corps, consisting of 2 Hospital Companies and 4 Transport and Supplies Companies;
1 Veterinary Company;
1 Divisional Staff Company with 4 Detachments: Commanding Officer, Operations Officer (Ia), Supply Officer (Ib) and Intelligence Officer (lc);
1 Map Room;
1 Music Corps, and
1 Company Field Police (MP).
complete infantry division employed therefore approximately 20,000 men,
7,000 horses and a train of 1,200 supply wagons. Yet a division that
had all these troops present and correct would have to be called lucky
indeed – for after the first battle most divisions had to do with half
of these numbers – or less. In practice – after the huge losses of the
first weeks – general staffs often commissioned whole corps take over
the independent tactical roles that divisions had been assigned to
before the melee had begun.
In terms of vertical composition, two divisions formed a corps, and two corps an army. In practice, as the war dragged on and many units had to make do with smaller numbers, corps tended to get larger, sometimes as big as four divisions. Attrition had halved divisions strengths. When whole divisions were not available or had to be broken up, infantry brigades were used, half of a division – two infantry regiments plus whatever artillery was available.
Every country deviated from the scheme in characteristic ways. French divisions were equipped with a brigade of pre-established reserves, and while their field artillery, the 75 mm gun, was excellent and outperformed the German 77 mm model, they were usually weaker in the larger artillery calibres. British divisions were of somewhat larger size and compensated for an initial dearth of machine-guns with excellent marksmanship. Russian divisions – at least in the early campaigns – were huge, on account of their having not only three but four infantry regiments per division, i.e. sixteen battalions as opposed to twelve. American divisions were truly monstrous, roughly twice as big as German divisions.”
Although almost seventy years have passed since the Second War‘s conclusion, misapprehensions and inaccuracies – intended or not – retain an eerie popularity. Norman Davies (No Simple Victory, Penguin Books 2006 – ISBN 978-0-14-311409-3) has written on the wilful misconceptions that are the consequences of political correctness and national myth-making. He notes that:
Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. And most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long ago. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals. Countless memoirs of participants’ great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep up the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add. At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said, and what is not said. [Emphases in original]
When Professor Davis set out to visit the various galas, celebrations and festivities that commemorated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of the War in 2005, he chanced upon mysterious perceptions …
… the new United States World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., bore, as its main inscription: “World War II 1941 – 1945”. The monument failed to inform the visitor that the United States did have allies, and seems to conclude that the United States fought and won the war alone, and in five years instead of seven …
… the British
celebrations somehow forgot to invite delegations from, among many other former
colonial allies, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand or Australia, all of
whom had participated in the war on the side of Great Britain…
… the Russian celebration on Red Square in Moscow forgot to mention, among other little sins, that the Soviet Union in the six years between 1940 and 1945 invaded and annexed the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only once but twice, in the process deporting and/or murdering land owners and intelligentsia. In addition, nobody thought it prudent to recall that the Soviet Union, allied with Germany in 1939, had invaded Poland and Finland only weeks later…
… none of these celebrations recalled the sufferings of the non-Jewish victims of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, nor the fate of the millions who were misplaced by the war or forcibly ejected from their homelands: over ten million Germans, five millions Ukrainians and about the same number of Poles, and millions of Byelorussians and Caucasian minorities. The Soviet Union in particular
relocated national groups, uprooting millions in the process. In the immediate
pre-war period they had forcibly removed some 500,000 Poles from the western
borders and resettled them in closed districts on the Chinese frontier in
In 1939-41 massive deportations took place from all the lands annexed by the USSR; and, once the Great Patriotic War started, strategic deportations began with an order to remove all Finns from the vicinity of Leningrad. Later in 1941, a long-standing plan (first mooted in 1915) was activated to deport the entire population of the Autonomous German Republic of the Volga. Some 2.5 million Germans were either sent to the labour armies or to Kazakhstan to join the exiled Poles. Within a decade over half of them were dead. The forced deportation and resettlement of seven Muslim nations in 1943-4 was especially brutal.
Mindful of the spectre of selective memory, Professor Davies subsequently felt the need to take a few precautions before discussing the war:
prelude to various talks and lectures on the Second World War, therefore, I
have often chosen to raise some of these problems by presenting the audience
with four or five simple questions:
Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Or, better
still, the ten biggest battles?
Can you name the main political ideologies that were
contending for supremacy during the war in Europe?
Can you name the largest concentration camp that was
operating in Europe in the years 1939- 1945?
Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic
group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war?
Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss
of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?
These have usually been followed by a deathly silence, and then a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I then offer my audience an opinion:”Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters,” I say, “we are not properly equipped to pass judgement on the wider issues.”
That nations cling to the chimera of glory and tend to forget failure is altogether human in its fallibility. In the same league, perhaps, is man’s perpetual underestimation of the amount of knowledge required before becoming able to judge on a subject. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss, as in Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fussell, historian and veteran of World War II, who was wounded 1945 in France, found numerous reasons to mistrust the victors’ polished platitudes and observed so many occasions of intentional misrepresentation in the treatment of the Second World War in American media that he felt compelled to conclude that “the Allied part of the war of 1939-45 has been sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”
Naturally, such groups derive their redactional liberty from the fact that their side won the war and hence is able to evade moral ambiguity. Nearly everybody agrees that the industrial killing of Jews, or Gypsies, with cyanide was a crime nearly without precedent in history, but so were other inventions of the twentieth century: area-bombing civilians with conventional explosives as in, say, Dresden or Tokyo, or with nuclear fire as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the war had been lost, who could have explained the moral propriety of these undertakings?
Hence, here the answers to the questions posed above:
At 6 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, July 23, 1914, the Austrian Ambassador to Belgrade, Baron Wladimir Giesl, presented an important note from the Austrian to the Serbian government to the Serbian Minister of Finance Lazar Pacu, who was Prime Minister Nikola Pasić‘s deputy and temporary replacement.
The legate handed Pacu and Gruić, the
Secretary General of the Serbian Foreign Ministry, the Austrian demarche, two
pages of an annex, and a brief introductory note. The reply, he said, was
expected by 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 25, forty-eight hours hence, and he was
instructed, should no answer be received or were it unsatisfactory, to leave
the capital with his staff immediately and return to Vienna.
The note read:
“On 31 March 1909,
the Serbian Minister at Vienna, on the instructions of his Government, made the
following declaration to the Imperial and Royal Government:
‘Serbia recognizes that her rights have not been affected by the fait accompli created in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that consequently she will conform to such decisions as the Powers may take in conformity with Article XXV of the Treaty of Berlin. In deference to the advice of the Great Powers, Serbia undertakes henceforward to renounce the attitude of protest and opposition which she had adopted with regard to the annexation since last autumn and she further engages to modify the direction of her present policy with regard to Austria-Hungary and to live henceforward with the latter on a footing of good neighbourliness.’
The history of recent
years and in particular the painful events of 28 June have demonstrated the
existence in Serbia of a subversive movement the aim of which is to detach from
the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy certain parts of its territories. This movement,
which had its birth under the eye of the Serbian Government, has gone so far as
to manifest itself beyond the territory of the Kingdom by acts of terrorism, by
a series of outrages, and by murders.
The Royal Serbian Government, far from fulfilling the formal pledges contained in the declaration of 31 March 1909 (in a diplomatic note to Austria, Serbia had to recognize the Bosnian annexation and promise to maintain friendly relations with Austria), has done nothing to repress these movements; it has tolerated the criminal machinations of various societies and associations directed against the Monarchy, unrestrained language on the part of the press, glorifications of the perpetrators of outrages, participation of officers and officials in subversive agitation, unwholesome propaganda in public education; in short, tolerated all the manifestations of a nature to inculcate in the Serbian population hatred of the Monarchy and contempt for its institutions.
This culpable tolerance on
the part of the Royal Government of Serbia had not ceased at the moment when
the events of 28 June last revealed its disastrous consequences to the whole
It is shown by the depositions and confessions of the criminal authors of the outrage of 28 June that the Sarajevo murders were planned in Belgrade, that the arms and explosives with which the murderers were found to be provided had been given them by Serbian officers and officials belonging to the Narodna Odbrana and finally that the passage into Bosnia of the criminals and their arms was organized and effectuated by chiefs of the Serbian frontier service.
The results here mentioned
of the preliminary investigation do not permit the Imperial and Royal
Government to pursue any longer the attitude of expectant forbearance which
they have for years observed towards the machinations concentrated in Belgrade
and thence propagated in the territories of the Monarchy; the results on the
contrary impose on them the duty of putting an end to the intrigues which
constitute a permanent threat to the tranquillity of the Monarchy.
It is to achieve this end
that the Imperial and Royal Government sees itself obliged to demand from the
Serbian Government the formal assurance that it condemns the propaganda
directed against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, that is to say the aggregate of
tendencies, the ultimate aim of which is to detach from the Monarchy
territories belonging thereto, and that it undertakes to suppress by every
means this criminal and terrorist propaganda.
In order to give a formal character to this undertaking, the Royal Government of Serbia shall cause to be published on the front page of the Official Journal of the 26/13 July the following declaration:
‘The Royal Government of
Serbia condemns the propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary, i.e. the
aggregate of tendencies, the ultimate aim of which is to detach from the
Austro-Hungarian Monarchy territories which form part thereof, and it sincerely
deplores the fatal consequences of these criminal proceedings.’
‘The Royal Government regrets that Serbian officers and officials have participated in the above-mentioned propaganda and thereby compromised the good neighbourly relations to which the Royal Government had solemnly pledged itself by its declaration of 31 March 1909.’
‘The Royal Government, which disapproves and repudiates all idea or attempt of interference with the destinies of the inhabitants of any part whatsoever of Austria-Hungary, considers it its duty formally to warn the officers, officials and all the population of the Kingdom that henceforward it will proceed with the utmost rigor against all persons who may render themselves guilty of such machinations which it will use all its efforts to forestall and repress.’
This declaration shall
simultaneously be communicated to the Royal Army as an order of the day by His
Majesty the King and shall be published in the ‘Official Bulletin of the Army’.
The Royal Serbian
Government further undertakes:
1. To suppress any publication which incites to hatred
and contempt of the Monarchy and the general tendency of which is directed
against its territorial integrity;
2. To dissolve immediately the society styled Narodna
Odbrana, to confiscate all its means of propaganda, and to proceed in the same
manner against the other societies and their branches in Serbia which engage in
propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy; the Royal Government will
take the necessary measures to prevent the dissolved societies from continuing
their activities under another name and form;
3. To eliminate without delay from public instruction in
Serbia, both as regards the teaching body and the methods of instruction, all
that serves or might serve to foment the propaganda against Austria-Hungary;
4. To remove from the military service and the
administration in general all officers and officials guilty of propaganda
against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and of whom the Imperial and Royal
Government reserves to itself the right to communicate the names and deeds to
the Royal Government;
5. To accept the collaboration in Serbia of organs of the
Imperial and Royal Government in the suppression of the subversive movement
directed against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy;
6. To take judicial proceedings against the accessories
to the plot of 28 June who are on Serbian territory; Organs delegated by the
Imperial and Royal Government will take part in the investigations relating
7. To proceed without delay to the arrest of Major Voija
Tankosić and of a certain Milan Ciganović, a Serbian State employee implicated
by the findings of the preliminary investigation at Sarajevo;
8. To prevent by effective measures the cooperation of
the Serbian Authorities in the illicit traffic in arms and explosives across
the frontier; to dismiss and severely punish the officials of the Sabac and
Loznica frontier service guilty of having assisted the authors of the Sarajevo
crime by facilitating their crossing of the frontier;
9. To furnish the Imperial and Royal Government with
explanations regarding the unjustifiable utterances of high Serbian officials
both in Serbia and abroad, who, notwithstanding their official position, have
not hesitated since the outrage of 28 June to express themselves in interviews
in terms of hostility towards the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy [and] finally
10. To notify the Imperial
and Royal Government without delay of the execution of the measures comprised
under the preceding heads.
The Imperial and Royal Government expects the reply of the Royal Government at the latest by Saturday 25 of this month at 5 p.m (this was crossed out and replaced by “6”).
[A memorandum dealing with
the results of the preliminary investigation at Sarajevo with regard to the
officials mentioned in Points 7 and 8 is annexed to this Note]
The criminal investigation
opened by the Sarajevo Court against Gavrilo Princip and associates on the
count of assassination and complicity therein, in respect of the crime
committed by them on 28 June, has up to the present led to the following
1. The plot having as its
object the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand on the occasion of
his visit to Sarajevo was formed at Belgrade by Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Cabrinović
and one Milan Ciganović and Trifko Grabez with the help of Commander Voija
2. The 6 bombs and 4 Browning pistols with ammunition with which the malefactors committed the outrage were delivered to Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez at Belgrade by a certain Milan Ciganović and Commander Voija Tankosić.
3. The bombs are hand grenades from the munitions depot of the Serbian Army at Kragujevac.
4. To assure the success of the outrage, Ciganović instructed Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez in the use of grenades, and, in a forest near the rifle-range at Topcider (Park), gave Princip and Grabez shooting practice with Browning pistols.
5. To enable Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez to cross the frontier of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to smuggle in clandestinely their contraband arms, a secret system of transport was organized by Ciganović. As a result of this organization the introduction into Bosnia-Herzegovina of the criminals and their arms was effected by the frontier captains of Sabac (Rade Popović) and Loznica, and the customs official Rudivoj Grbić of Loznica with the aid of various individuals.”
This document, it has been said, marked the end of the nineteenth century. Its terms were harsh, yet not entirely without precedent, and certainly more lenient than the conditions the Treaty of Versailles would impose five years hence on Germany, which empowered an Allied Control Commission to roam the length and breadth of the country in search of contraband in addition to imposing reparation payments and giving German territory to every neighbour state except Switzerland and Austria. The demands inflicted on Belgrade in 1914 might also be compared – favourably, as Christopher Clark points out – to the ultimatum of Rambouillet the NATO addressed to the Serbian government in 1999 to stop the genocide of non-Serbs in Kosovo. The Rambouillet memorandum commanded that NATO forces “shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment free and unrestricted and unimpeded access through the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, including associated airspace and territorial waters,” and gave the troops the right of manoeuvre in and the utilization “of any areas or facilities as required for support, training and operations.”
In comparison, the Austrian demands of 1914 almost appear quaint. It is true that Points 5 and 6 impeded Serbian sovereignty, but some of the evidence was unimpeachable – the hand grenades, say – and Austria had good reasons to doubt the efficiency of Serbian law-enforcement. “Vienna,” Christopher Clark diagnosed, “did not trust the Serbian authorities to press home the investigation without some form of Austrian supervision and verification. And it must be said that nothing the Serbian government did between June 28 and the presentation of the ultimatum gave them any reason to think otherwise.” Certainly the possibility of subsequent negotiations on the more intrusive points was not excluded per se, and all that Belgrade had to do in this respect would be to send a few suspected conspirators abroad or into Russian exile for some months until the affair had died down. What real harm could a few more Austrian detectives do, when Dr. Wiesner had already been in Belgrade since July 10 and the heavens had not fallen?
It is not clear, however, whether the Austrians realized that Belgrade’s problem was not the conspiracy in itself or the identity of the true conspirators – that is, the Black Hand instead of the Narodna Odbrana – but the fact that its extent reached into Belgrade’s highest places and neither Pasić’s civilian government, nor, of course, the Black Hand itself could allow their mutual relations to see the light of day. But the carefree absence of rationality in Balkan politics pretty much guaranteed that Serbia would reject the note, which was exactly the outcome Austria sought to achieve. Vanity, they knew, would prevail in Serbia, as vanity had prevailed in 1870 when Napoleon III declared war on Prussia over a telegram that seemed to infringe on France’s Imperial self-esteem. In comparison, Austria had a reasonably valid reason for war.
The naval program of Tirpitz and Wilhelm II had earned the irritation and subsequently the enmity of England’s admiralty, and the search for the proper response became a continuous issue of British politics between 1890 and 1914, second only to the Irish question. Great Britain’s survival policy was never to let any single power dominate the continent, and in particular the Channel ports, and thus the Royal Navy’s supremacy of the oceans must never be jeopardized. Hence Britannia’s wont was always to oppose the powers-that-be on the continent and side with the lesser nations. To support the “underdogs” also made for excellent political propaganda.
Great Britain was a sea power, and thus the strategic view of her admiralty upon possible conflicts with European land powers was one tied upon the evolution of naval warfare in the Belle Époque. The Royal Navy had dominated the seas since Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. The British Empire, unlike, say, Russia, depended upon the maintenance of naval pre-eminence for its economical and political survival: power over the oceans supplied cheap transport, preserved the trade and communication lines and provided the defence of the colonies and the home waters. These were the classic duties of the ships which flew the White Ensign.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, a cabal of German nationalists, history professors and other assorted lunatics convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II to build the “Hochseeflotte” or “High Seas Fleet”, a gigantic armada-at-sea which would equal or even surpass the might of the Royal Navy. Since there was simply no strategic reason for the eccentric undertaking, Great Britain could not interpret it as anything but a maritime challenge, as evidence of hostile intentions. These were all too real, considering Wilhelm’s hate for his English mother.
The equilibrium of the global battle fleets, or “ships of the line”, as they were called, had been completely upset in 1906 by the Royal Navy’s presentation, to an astonished world, of the new battleship Dreadnought, a design that immediately rendered all other capital warships obsolete. Her builders had rejected the amalgamate of small-, medium-, and large-calibre guns traditionally carried by capital ships in favour of outfitting her with only a single class of artillery, the biggest available. Thus Dreadnought’s principal armaments were ten 12-inch [305 mm, ¶] guns, in five twin turrets.
The importance of the calibre, the diameter of the gun’s bore, lies in the fact that, with identical propellants, the effective radius of a ship’s artillery depends in the first order on its calibre; the greater the calibre, all other things being equal, the further the projectile flies, and thus the greater the radius in which the ship can bring her fire to effect. In other words, the shells of a 12-inch gun fly farther than those of a 10-inch gun, and the ship with the bigger guns can sink the opponent from a safe distance without being exposed to return fire.
The second peculiarity of Dreadnought’s revolutionary design was the thickness and the distribution of her armour: by avoiding to spend armour on non-essential systems of the ship, the constructors were able to use plates up to eleven inches thick covering the most important sections, an arrangement which became known as “all-or-nothing” armoury. The drawbacks of the massive metal coverings and the colossal guns were, of course, their contribution to the ship’s immense weight and the consequent reduction of her speed. The Dreadnoughts were rather slow for modern men-of-war, their maximum speed hovering around the twenty-knot mark. The whole conception of the Dreadnought class rendered them supremely fit for the slugfests of battling other capital ships; their low speed disabled them, however, from being used in the other half of naval warfare, the economic or cruiser war.
The word “cruiser” was coined in the 18th Century and originally denoted any warship on detached duty as a commerce raider. In the second half of the 19th Century, following the improvements in steam engines and gun technology, cruisers began to be outfitted with armour: if the ship in question had an armoured deck but no side armour she was called a “protected” cruiser, if she had both, she was called an “armoured” cruiser. The importance of cruiser warfare lies, of course, in the impediment of the flow of the opponent’s war supplies; the cruisers preferred prey were fat merchants, coal ships, or oilers. Yet, the indispensable need for speed, to chase the prey but to escape superior ships, limited the weight of armour and the size of guns available in cruiser design.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Royal Navy’s engineers conceived a compromise in design which at length became the so-called “battle cruiser“. A proper battle cruiser, so the idea, was to combine the guns of a Dreadnought, albeit a lesser number of them, to save weight, with as much armour as possible while retaining high speeds. The first British battle cruiser was commissioned in 1907, only a year after Dreadnought, and, quite modestly, named “Invincible“.
Human genius has frequently attempted to combine the advantages of two types, or designs, of weapons, while simultaneously striving to avoid their peculiar weaknesses. The creation of the battle cruiser was such an exercise in genius. Robert Massie explains (Dreadnought, Ballantine Books 1992, ISBN 978-0-345-37556-8, pp. 491 ff.):
France – still the
potential enemy [pre-1890, ¶] – had provoked Admiralty concerns by suddenly
launching a series of big cruisers capable of 21 knots. These ships were the
brainchild of a school of French admirals who, despairing that France would
ever be able to match Britain battleship for battleship, concluded that the
best way to bring down the maritime colossus was to unleash a pack of swift,
deadly cruisers and torpedo boats that could attack and cripple Britain’s
vulnerable overseas merchandise trade. British admirals grasped the threat.
Their reaction was to produce the anti-cruiser cruiser, a ship even faster,
stronger and more heavily gunned, to hunt down and sink anything the French
These ships, designed to fight, not simply to shadow and report, were given more armour and called armoured cruisers. Class after class was designed, launched and sent to sea … . In all, there were thirty-five of these British armoured cruisers, some of them as big, or bigger, than the Royal Sovereign or Majestic class battleships. Yet no matter how big they got or how impressive they looked, they were never expected to fight battleships. …
This was Fisher’s understanding and purpose too, at least in the beginning. [Admiral Fisher headed the design committee of the Royal Navy which was to draw up “Dreadnought” and other ships, ¶] His first battle cruisers were intended to be the ultimate in armoured cruisers, so fast and heavily gunned that they could overtake and destroy any other cruiser in the world. … Fisher wrote to Lord Selbourne [First Sea Lord, in March 1902, ¶] that he was working with Gard, the Chief Constructor of the Malta Dockyard, on a design for an armoured cruiser which would make all existing armoured cruisers obsolete.
Fisher called the hypothetical ship H.M.S. Perfection, and at the top of the list of her design characteristics he put “Full Power Speed of 25 Knots.”… The Sea Lords’ response was not everything Fisher had hoped. They authorized the Warrior and Minotaur classes, big ships with 9.2-inch guns and a speed of 23 knots, two knots beneath that what Fisher had demanded for Perfection.
Meanwhile, other admiralties were experimenting. Towards the end of 1904, word reached London that Japan was lying down two large, 21-knot armoured cruisers, each carrying four 12-inch guns and twelve 6-inch. In Italy, four Cuniberti-designed ships carrying two 12-inch and twelve 8-inch guns and capable of 21 knots were on the way. Foreigners were creeping on Perfection.
In February 1905, once Fisher’s design committee had completed the plans for Dreadnought, Perfection appeared. No longer did Fisher have to urge his projects on the Admiralty; now he was the Admiralty. [He had become First Sea Lord in 1904, ¶] And in the Fisher era, he immediately made clear, British commerce was to be protected not by scattering armoured cruisers around the world, but by building a few, immensely fast, powerful ships which could hunt down and destroy enemy cruisers wherever they fled – if necessary, “to the world’s end.”
By then, of course, the potential threat had changed nationality; it was not French cruisers that worried the Admiralty, but German ocean liners, the huge, swift, blue-water greyhounds of the North-German Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika Lines, being constructed with a capacity to carry 6-inch guns. Designed to whisk passengers across the North Atlantic in five or six days, they could easily outrun any existing British cruiser.
Speed, then, was the preeminent requirement; speed to overtake the enemy and speed also for the new ship’s own defence: she must be able to keep out of range of battleship guns. Fisher fixed the minimum absolute margin at four knots, and, since he was building the Dreadnought to steam 21 knots, H.M.S. Perfection must be able to steam at 25 knots. Fisher also wanted maximum firepower. The biggest guns available were 12-inch, already being installed on new armoured cruisers and fast battleships by the Italians and Japanese. Having successfully argued the case for the all-big-gun battleship, Fisher now demanded an all-big-gun armoured cruiser.
Once again, the faithful and imaginative Gard gave the Admiral what he wanted. Perfection,which was to become the Invincible-class battle cruiser, came off the drawing board with eight 12-inch guns in four twin turrets. Fisher was overjoyed. With 25-knot speed and eight 12-inch guns, here was a warship capable of destroying any vessel fast enough to catch it, and fast enough to escape any vessel capable of destroying it. She could “mop up” a whole squadron of enemy cruisers with the greatest of ease, using her speed to establish her range and her long-range guns to sink the enemy without exposing herself to return fire.
She had only a single flaw: her armour was too light. Like Sleeping Beauty, for whom life was serene as long as she stayed away from spindles, the Invincible and her sisters could lead happy lives as long as they stayed away from battleships. Her speed was a precious, expensive commodity, and had been purchased at heavy price.
The three vital characteristics of a warship – guns, speed and armour – are interrelated. A designer could not have everything: if heavy guns and heavy armour were required, then speed had to be curtailed; this was the compromise built into most battleships. If a higher speed was demanded and heavy guns retained, armour had to be sacrificed. This was the case with the Invincible and her sisters. To gain four precious knots of speed, the Invincibleg ave up one turret and two twelve-inch guns of Dreadnought’s armament.
This saved two thousand tons, which could be invested in propulsion machinery. A more dangerous sacrifice was made in armour. The Dreadnought, intended to steam through a cataclysm of shell bursts, was fitted along her belt amidships with armour plate eleven inches thick, enough to stop a plunging heavy shell. Over the Invincible’s vital midship spaces, the belt armour was only seven inches thick. If the battle cruiser’s mission was to scout or to engage enemy cruisers, seven inches of armour would keep her safe. But if she were to be deliberately taken within range of enemy battleships, seven inches were not enough. … Some naval experts saw the potential danger. Brassey’s Naval Annual said: “… [The problem with] vessels of this enormous size and cost [is that] an admiral having Invincibles in his fleet will be certain to put them in the line of battle where their comparatively light protection will be a disadvantage and their high speed of no value.” In short, because she looked like a battleship and carried a battleship’s guns, sooner or later Invincible would be expected to fight like a battleship.
Since no good deed goes unpunished, the Germans adopted the hermaphroditic concept and built their own battle cruisers.
Because the two nations had built capital ships at frantic speed and with enormous cost for fifteen years, everybody expected a thunderous clash to occur within the war’s opening months. But the first two years of the conflict only saw minor engagements. On August 28, 1914, Admiral Sir David Beatty’s squadron of battle cruisers cornered a mixed German flotilla of cruisers and destroyers in the Heligoland Bight and sank three respectively one of them. In January 1915, an encounter between Beatty’s fleet and a few German battle cruisers at the Dogger Bank led to the loss of the German “Blücher” and severe damage to the “Seydlitz“, while the British “Tiger” and “Lion” suffered lesser impairments.
The Germans had scored big in October 1914 when a single mine sunk the brand-new British battleship Audacious. Somewhat smaller successes were achieved by the U-boats [“Unterseeboot”, i.e. submarines, ¶]. U 9 sank three old British cruisers, the “Aboukir“, “Hogue” and “Cressy”, in September 1914 and U 24 sank the older battleship “Formidable” on January 1, 1915.
Lack of action in the North Sea ended when the German Admiral Reinhard Scheer was invested with the command of the High Seas Fleet in January 1916. In a quest for a solution to the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy, he concentrated on Beatty’s battle cruiser division, which was by now stationed at Rosyth near Edinburgh. If he played his cards well, he thought it possible to lure Beatty’s ships into a trap and destroy them before the Home Fleet, anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, could come to their rescue. Scheer’s plan took into account that the Grand Fleet was bigger than the High Seas Fleet by about 40%, but the multitudes of duties she had to perform necessarily meant that she was spread over the oceans. If he could bring momentarily superior forces against a smaller part of the Grand Fleet, he could overcome the numerical deficit and victory might be possible.
One tactical variable in his plan remained a question mark to him as well as to his opponents on the British side: it was the uncertainty of how the battle cruisers would fare if they faced battleships. On another tactical variable he had to trust his luck, in regards to how early or late British naval intelligence would discover his sortie. In May 1916, his plans condensed in a scheme to lure Beatty’s squadron, composed of six battle cruisers and four battleships anchored in Rosyth, southward, by dangling before Beatty’s eyes a bait of a few German battle cruisers. Since these ships were too fast for the British Dreadnoughts harboured at Scapa Flow, only Beatty’s flotilla had a chance to catch them. As soon as Beatty was informed about the German vanguard and set out to intercept it, the German battle cruisers would turn south and lead the British ships into the trap, the guns of Scheer’s battleships.
In the event, the vanguard consisted of five German battle cruisers under the command of Admiral Franz von Hipper, plus assorted escorts, which sailed northward along the western coast of Denmark on the morning of May 31, 1916. Scheer followed about fifty miles further south, but his luck was not up to date. British signal intelligence had intercepted and decoded German radio transmissions regarding Scheer’s plans for a major operation as early as mid-May and informed Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet. Scheer had barely passed Heligoland when Beatty’s battle cruisers were sent on their way south, followed, at a distance of perhaps seventy miles, by the battleships from Scapa Flow. The Brits had reversed the role of trapper and bait.
In terms of tonnage and weaponry, the engagement that was to occur became the biggest of naval history yet. The High Seas Fleet had mobilized sixteen Dreadnoughts, six older battleships, five battle cruisers, eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers (99 combat ships). Jellicoe’s combined fleets comprised twenty-eight Dreadnoughts, nine battle cruisers, eight armoured cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, seventy-eight destroyers, a seaplane carrier and a minesweeper (151 combat ships).
First contact occurred at 2 p.m. when both sides’ destroyer screens chanced to investigate the same neutral merchant ship and thus ran into each other. Their radios alerted the battle cruiser fleets of Hipper and Beatty which now turned on collision course. Beatty’s five battle cruisers, sailing ahead of the battleships, sighted Hipper’s flotilla at around 4 p.m. and opened fire. In the battle cruiser duel, the shortcomings of the design were cruelly exposed. Beatty’s own flagship, “Lion”, was heavily damaged by hits from “Lützow“, Hipper’s flagship, but things got worse:
“Indefatigable“, duelling with the German “Von der Tann“, suffered an internal explosion which literally tore her asunder; only minutes later,”Queen Mary” exploded and sank after having received a salvo from “Derfflinger”. Only eight men survived. German ships showed much less vulnerability to the impact of British shells – whether it was better armour or a problem with the English fuses is still much discussed.
Post-battle investigation established that the German shells had penetrated the weak armour belt protecting the propellant store rooms, where the essentially unstable charges were stockpiled in the open, to be forwarded to the gun turrets. The explosion of the shell subsequently caused the detonation of the ship’s main magazine. Beatty’s first line was thus quickly reduced, but the elation aboard Hipper’s ships was of short duration. When the four British battleships emerged from the clouds of smoke and palls of rain, it was Hipper’s time to reverse course, Beatty in pursuit.
Half an hour later, the British vanguard recognized Scheer’s battleships coming up on the horizon as expected, and now it was their turn to reverse northwards, to lead Scheer into the direction of the ambush, Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, which closed in swiftly. The slugfest continued through all these entertaining chases, and now favoured the British, who could bring the fire of their battleships’ new 15-inch guns to bear. Several hits severely damaged “Seydlitz”, again, after her unfortunate experience at the Dogger Bank and proved at least that German battle cruisers were just as vulnerable to well-aimed shells as were the British ones. “Seydlitz”‘stroubles caused disarray in Scheer’s battle formation at the exact moment when, in a confused situation, a German salvo found “Invincible”. She blew up, and her fragments joined her younger sisters in their North Sea grave. That was, however, the last lucky pot-shot for Scheer who faced an increasing curtain of 15-inch gun shells. At around six in the evening, overpowered, he decided to pull out of the game.
There might have ended, inconclusively, an already unsatisfactory encounter [from the British point of view, ¶]. Scheer, however, then decided to turn back, perhaps to come to the assistance of the damaged light cruiser “Wiesbaden” which had been left behind, perhaps because he judged that he could pass astern of Jellicoe’s fleet as it continued its advance towards the Heligoland Bight, while he made his escape through the Skagerrak into the Baltic. Jellicoe, however, once again reduced speed, with the result that the German Dreadnoughts, heading north-east, encountered the British heading south-east, and steering to pass their rear so as to cut them off from safety.
At the moment of encounter moreover, the British were deployed in line abreast, the Germans in line ahead, a relative position, known as “crossing the enemy’s T,” that greatly favoured the British. More of their guns could be brought to bear than could those of the German fleet, ranked one ship behind the other, which thus also presented an easier target. Ten minutes of gunnery, in which the Germans suffered twenty-seven hits by large-calibre shells, the British only two, persuaded Scheer to turn away again into the dark eastern horizon, leaving his battle cruisers and lighter ships to cover his retreat in a “death ride.”
The torpedo threat they presented caused Jellicoe to turn away also – for which he has ever afterward been reproached – and, by the time he turned back, Scheer had put ten miles between his dreadnoughts and the pursuit. Many German ships remained to cover Scheer’s flight, including his squadron of vulnerable pre-Dreadnoughts, and in a series of dusk and night actions they suffered losses. So, too, did the British cruisers and destroyers that remained in contact. By the morning of 1 June, when Scheer had his fleet home, he had lost a battle cruiser, a pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Jellicoe, though remaining in command of the North Sea, had lost three battle cruisers, four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers; 6,094 British sailors had died, 2,551 German.
As far as tactical issues were concerned, the “Battle of Jutland,” as the Royal Navy called it, or “Battle of the Skagerrak”, as it became known in Germany, was a success for the young High Seas Fleet: both German armour and ammunition had proven superior to the British armaments. In terms of strategy, however, the advantage of controlling the North Sea and hence the approaches to the Atlantic Ocean remained with Great Britain; for the rest of the war the German fleet remained at anchor and ceased to be a threat to the Empire. The international press described the encounter at Jutland as an “attack on the gaoler, followed by a return to jail.” The German ships’ peaceful rusting in port was only disturbed in 1919, when a clause of the armistice commanded the fleet’s internment at Scapa Flow. The crews sailed the ships to the Orkney Islands as ordered but scuttled them after arrival, so that they would not fall into British hands.
The true casualties of Jutland were the battle cruisers which vanished from the arsenals of the modern navies as quick as they had appeared.
As we see, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, but it took her another eight days, until August 5, to declare war on Russia, on account of her obligations to Germany under the Dual Alliance treaty. But she could not get her act together: in a case of truly exceptional schlamperei, she forgot to declare war on Great Britain and France. After waiting until August 12, these two countries took it upon themselves to correct the Austrian oversight and declared war on Vienna, via telegram to her ambassador in Switzerland.