History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Congress of Berlin 1878

The Prince and the Pauper

Illustration of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in the Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere of 12 July 1914

Preceding Post: Adolf Hitler in Munich 1913/14 before the war …

“Even assuming the case that nobody else interferes: what should we gain from it? Only another pack of thieves and murderers and scoundrels and a few plum trees.”

Archduke Francis Ferdinand on war against Serbia

They only met once.

The prince was Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the oldest son of Francis Joseph’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig – hence the Emperor’s nephew. A few years after the suicide of the Emperor’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889, he was named Heir Apparent to the Habsburg thrones in Austria and Hungary. His youth was unexceptional except for concerns about his health; growing up, he spent much time at the court of Archduke Friedrich and Archduchess Isabella in Bratislava, whose daughter – Archduchess Maria Christina, his cousin – he was believed to marry one day. But then it was found out that his amorous chivalry was directed to one of Isabella’s ladies in waiting, the Bohemian Countess Sophie Chotek, and the fat was in the fire. Frau Chotek, the descendant of an ancient yet impoverished Bohemian family, was not an acceptable match according to the Habsburg family code, and the Emperor forbade the marriage.

Yet in this matter the young prince showed tenacity – or stubbornness. He began to solicit support for his choice of bride and was able to mobilize, among others, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pope Leo XIII, under whose concerted salvos Francis Joseph eventually declared his capitulation. He would allow the marriage under the conditions of a morganatic union, that is, neither the wife nor eventual children had claims to Habsburg titles, privileges or possessions, and that the children were excluded from the royal and imperial succession. The Archduke had to swear a public oath and sign a deed of quitclaim, on June 28, 1900 – fourteen years, to the very day, before the couple met their death at Sarajevo.

Francis Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi) and their children - Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduchess Marie Valerie, Archduchess Gisela and her husband, Prince Leopold of Bavaria and their grandchildren
Francis Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi) and their children – Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduchess Marie Valerie, Archduchess Gisela and her husband, Prince Leopold of Bavaria and their grandchildren

The debacle of the marriage was not the sole reason for the increasing tension between Emperor and Prince. The Emperor was conciliative, the Prince abrasive, and, on top of it, sought “to exercise an influence on the policy of the Monarchy which the Emperor could ill brook. Their frequent sharp discussions resulted in mutual feelings of fear and hatred.” Despite his official status, the Prince was excluded from the business of the imperial administration as much as possible, and in his military capacity, despite having been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, was entrusted only with decorative tasks. His character, Luigi Albertini writes …

… was complex and full of contradictions. He hated flattery and was wont to say of anyone who cringed to him: “He is no good, he is a toady.” But on the other hand – writes Brosch [1] – “he could never bear direct contradiction”, yet demanded the unvarnished truth and those around him had the difficult task of presenting the truth which he demanded in a tactful form acceptable to his pride.”[1] Colonel A. Brosch was Head of Franz Ferdinand’s Chancery and Aide-de-camp.

But he had comprehension of and a talent for politics, and understood the principal challenge for the Dual Monarchy – the question of nationalities. For his – shocking – habit of asking people of lower status questions and contemplate their answers, he was held to know more than the Emperor of the true situation of the realm; more than what Albertini called the “official opinion.”

His political outlook was in essence anti-Hungarian, and this – mutual – hostility formed his opinion on the treatment of the southern Slavs and his conviction that, in the long run, the monarchy could survive only as a trialist or federal state, in which Germans, Magyars and Slavs possessed their own statehood. His disapproval of the “Ausgleich“, in which the Magyars had taken, as he saw it, the whole nation hostage, brought him into sharp conflict with the Emperor, who was the founder and guarantor of the system. The Prince remained a vocal opponent of the Hungarian travesty of parliamentary procedure, in which “the eight million non-Magyars (not counting the Croats) were represented by 21 deputies and the eight and a half million Magyars by 392.”

Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand at manoeuvres in 1908
Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand at manoeuvres in 1908

Being marked as a potential reformer, he was the natural nemesis of Pan-Slavism, which, by the second half of the nineteenth century, had pervaded the monarchy internally as well as outside of her, and found a political basis in the small kingdom of Serbia, which had been proclaimed by Prince Milan Obrenović in 1882, four years after the Congress of Berlin had made it a newly independent nation.

When the juvenile kingdom responded quickly to the native paraphernalia of modern politics – parties, committees, newspapers – King Milan tried autocracy, unsuccessfully enough that he had to abdicate formally in 1889, which, however, did not enjoin him from keeping the reins during the regency of his son Alexandar – in a burlesque dual kingship that ran from 1897 to 1900 – to the ministrations of whom Queen Mother Nathalie added her own corruptive skills. When the just as autocratic-minded son married the notorious courtesan Draga Masin, a former maid of honour to his mother who was also ten years older than the groom – the news of their engagement “alone was enough to trigger the resignation of the entire cabinet,” including that of Minister of the Interior Djordje Gencit, who had his own, personal and intimate memories of the new queen.

Old King Milan was horrified at his son’s family plans and reposed to exile in Austria, where he died in 1901. The son continued a very personal reign -­ interpreting and, if he found it necessary, changing the constitution according to his whims, closing critical newspapers, throwing personal enemies into prison and naming schools, villages and, as Christopher Clark notes, even regiments of the army after his queen. The rumour that the king – in lieu of a natural heir, for the queen remained childless – planned “to designate Queen Draga’s brother Nikodije Lunjevica as successor to the Serbian throne”, finally provoked the military, which was complaining about arrears of pay and insufficient promotions – the royal couple was following the Balkan tradition of promoting friends and relatives to the main posts – ­to take action.

A talented lieutenant of the army, Dragutin Dimitriević, became the nerve centre of the military conspiracy that formed itself in the summer of 1901 with the aim of replacing the royal couple. The young officer’s abilities had been early recognized by the military leadership, and he had been given a post on the Serbian General Staff a week after his graduation from the military academy. Professor Stanoje Stanojević, Dean of the University of Belgrade, revealed to the world in a 1922 essay on the murder of the Archduke the responsibility of this man and his organization, Ujedinjenje ili smrt! [Union or Death!), also called the “Black Hand”, for the murders of Sarajevo, which the initial Austrian investigation, discussed below, had erroneously blamed on Narodna Odbrana, the Serbian Defence Organization, that had sprung up in the aftermath of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; both organizations, however, overlapped. In his pamphlet, Stanojević gave the following brief summary of the activities of this officer, who eventually was to become Chief of the Serbian Military Intelligence Service:

Dimitriević around 1900

“A restless character full of the spirit of adventure, Dimitriević was continually planning conspiracies and outrages. In 1903, he was one of the chief organizers of the conspiracy against King Alexander, in 1911 he sent an emissary to assassinate either the Austrian Emperor or the Heir Apparent. In February 1914 he conceited with a Bulgarian secret revolutionary committee to assassinate the Bulgarian King Ferdinand.

He took over and organized the outrage against the Austrian Heir Apparent in 1914. In 1916 from Corfu he sent an emissary to attempt the assassination of the Greek King Constantine and in the same year he seems to have sought contact with the enemy and organized an outrage against the Serbian Heir Apparent, Prince Alexander. It was for this reason that he was condemned to death and shot on the Salonika front in June 1917.”

Dragutin Dimitriević, right, with two assistants
Dragutin Dimitriević, right, with two assistants

Luigi Albertini was able to entertain a correspondence with a few high-ranking former members of the Black Hand after the war. The membership total had been wildly exaggerated, as Colonel Cedomilj Popović, one of the organization’s founders, told him. It was not more than 2,500 but…

“Union or Death found wide approval and membership would have been much higher if the doors had been open to all. Those who were admitted had to be tested of loyalty and capable of rendering practical services.”

What about the organization’s objectives? Popović explained that…

“Union or Death had for its object the unification of all the Southern Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in a national unity. The Belgrade Central Committee comprised, in addition to the members from the Kingdom of Serbia, delegates representing all unredeemed Yugoslav territories: i.e. one for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was Gaftnović, one for Old Serbia and Macedonia, one for Montenegro, one for Croatia, one for Slovenia and Sytmia, one for the Voivodina, one for Dalmatia, who was Oskar Tartaglia. It is affirmed that Dragutin Dimitriević, in 1917, died shouting: ‘Long live Yugoslavia!'”

Professor Stanojević was fascinated by the personality of his subject and describes Dimitriević as a born conspirator, a mixture of Fouché and Mazarin, perhaps.

“Gifted and cultured, honourable, a convincing speaker, a sincere patriot, personally courageous, filled with ambition, energy and the capacity for work, Dragutin Dimitriević exercised exceptional influence on those around him, in particular on his associates and on junior officers, who were all his inferiors in qualities of mind and character.

He had the characteristics which cast a spell on men. His arguments were always striking and convincing. He could represent the most intractable matters as mere trifles, the most hazardous enterprises as innocent and harmless. Withal he was in every respect a remarkable organizer. He kept all the threads in his own hand and even his most intimate friends only knew what was their own immediate concern.

But at the same time he was extraordinarily conceited and thoroughly affected. Ambitious as he was, he had a taste for working in secret, but he liked it to be known that he was doing secret work and that he kept all the threads in his own hand. He was incapable of distinguishing what was possible from what was not and perceiving the limits of responsibility and power. He had no clear conception of civil and political life and its requirements. He saw only his own aims and pursued them ruthlessly and without scruple. He loved adventure and danger and secret meetings and mysterious activities. How far his private ambition reached is hard to say. His political ideas were dim and confused, but he was extraordinarily resolute in carrying out anything that he had set his mind on. Dimitriević was convinced that his own ideas were the right ones on all matters, events and circumstances. He believed that his opinions and activities enjoyed the monopoly of patriotism. Hence, anyone who did not agree with him could not in his eyes be either honourable or wise or a patriot. He, without a doubt, was all this, but he found it hard to acknowledge it in others, apart from those who obeyed his orders. It was for him to plan, organize and command, for others to obey and carry out his orders without questioning.”

The origins of “Union or Death!” date back to the conspiracy of Serbian officers to murder the royal couple and other enemies of the people. The young lieutenant, already a leader, fixed the date for the first attempt on September 11, 1901, at the occasion of the royal ball held on the queen’s birthday. Christopher Clark remarks:

“In a plan that seems lifted from the pages of an Ian Fleming novel, two officers were assigned to mount an attack on the Danube power plant that supplied Belgrade with electricity, while another was to disable the smaller station serving the building where the ball was in progress. Once the lights were shut off, the four assassins in attendance at the ball planned to set fire to the curtains, sound the fire alarms and liquidate the king and his wife by forcing them to ingest poison (this method was chosen in order to circumvent a possible search for firearms). The poison was successfully tested on a cat, but in every other respect the plan was a failure. The power plant turned out to be too heavily guarded and the queen decided in any case not to attend the ball. Undeterred by this and other failed attempts, the conspirators worked hard over the next two years at expanding the scope of the coup. Over one hundred officers were recruited, including many younger military men.”

It was eventually decided to attempt the assassination at the royal palace, where the couple’s presence could be guaranteed. Aware of conspiracies – which were even acknowledged by the London Times on April 27, 1903 – the king had beefed up security and it took the conspirators a long time and great trouble to circumvent or penetrate the successive layers of royal guards. The event itself became a legend for its outrageous cruelty. In the early morning of June 11, 1903, twenty-eight conspirators – all army officers – breached the palace doors and made for the royal bedchamber, the entry to which they entrusted to a box of dynamite. The huge blast that ensued short-circuited the supply of electricity and delayed the posse until they had acquired candles. The royal couple – barely dressed – was hiding in a tiny service room and it took nearly two hours until they were discovered. While the search was underway, death squads dispatched into town murdered the Queen’s two brothers as well as the Prime Minister and the Minister of War.

A second search of the royal apartment eventually discovered the quarry, and, after assuring the king of their oath and peaceful intentions – to draw him out – the schemers aimed at the royal couple a cloud of pistol shots.

“An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially disembowelled and hacked with an axe until they were mutilated beyond recognition, according to the later testimony of the king’s traumatized Italian barber, who was ordered to collect the bodies and dress them for burial. The body of the queen was hoisted to the railing of the bedroom window and tossed, virtually naked and slimy with gore, into the gardens. It was reported that as the assassins attempted to do the same with Alexandar, one of his hands closed momentarily around the railing. An officer hacked through the fist with a sabre and the body fell, with a sprinkle of severed digits, to the earth. By the time the assassins had gathered in the garden to have a smoke and inspect the results of their handiwork, it had begun to rain.”

Subsequently, the conspirators replaced the Obrenović dynasty with the current head of the Karadjordjević clan, Petar, whom they recalled from Swiss exile. The great-grandfather of the new king had been the “swarthy former cattle herd ‘Black George’ (Serbian: ‘Kara Djordje’) Petrović, who “had led an uprising in 1804 that succeeded for some years in driving the Ottomans out of Serbia, but fled into Austrian exile in 1813 when the Ottomans mounted a counteroffensive.” In 1815,  another insurrection led by one certain Milos Obrenović had more success; the Ottomans accepted Serbian home rule as a principality under Turkish suzerainty, and Milos’ first order of business was to kill Black George upon his return from exile, enabling the Obrenović family to rule Serbia until the slaughter of June 1903.

Quite surprisingly, the new King Petar I appeared to have learned from his studies of politics and history – he translated John Stuart Mill’sOn Liberty” into Serbian – ­the duties of a constitutional monarch, who “reigned but did not govern“, and did actually become one – within the bounds that the conspirators, who never disbanded, allowed. But they changed their outlook, and perhaps their inclinations – although we cannot be sure that they abandoned assassination as a political means, given what Stanojević says about Dimitriević’s subsequent career- from regicide to Pan­-Slavist. The conspiracy, however, continued to be a force outside the authority of king, parliament or civil government, which was led between 1904 and 1918 chiefly by Nicolas Pasić, chairman of the Radical Party, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The conspirators had infiltrated the government already in the preparation of the coup; in its wake they were able to “secure for themselves the most desirable military and government posts.” Yet they did face opposition.

Within the army itself, a military “counter-conspiracy” concentrated in the fortress town of Nis emerged under the leadership of Captain Milan Novaković, who produced a manifesto calling for the dismissal from the service of sixty-eight named prominent regicides. Novaković was swiftly arrested and after a spirited defence of his actions, he and his accomplices were tried, found guilty and sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment by a military court. When he left prison two years later, Novaković resumed his public attacks on the regicides and was incarcerated again. In September 1907, he and a male relative perished in mysterious circumstances during an alleged escape attempt, a scandal that triggered outrage in parliament and the liberal press. The question of the relationship between the army and the civilian authorities thus remained unresolved after the assassinations of 1903, a state of affairs that would shape Serbia’s handling of events in 1914.

The Radical Party was a specific Serbian political product, combining run-of-the-mill liberalism à la late Nineteenth Century with fervid nationalism that sought the unity of all Serbs, or perhaps all Southern Slavs, in a Greater Serbia, whose future borders, however, depended on the person one asked. The fundamental, semi-official map of Serbian nationalism, Christopher Clark explains …

… was a secret memorandum drawn up by the Serbian interior minister Ilija Garasanin for Prince Alexandar Karadjordjević in 1844. Known after its publication in 1906 as Nacertanije (from the Old Serbian nhcrt,”draft”), Garasanin’s proposal sketched out a “Program for the National and Foreign Policy of Serbia”.

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of this document on generations of Serb politicians and patriots; in time it became the Magna Carta of Serb nationalism. Garasanin opened his memorandum with the observation that Serbia is “small, but must not remain in this condition”. The first commandment of Serbian policy, he argued, must be the “principle of national unity”; by which he meant the unification of all Serbs within the boundaries of a Serbian state: “Where a Serb dwells, that is Serbia.”

The historical template for this expansive vision of Serbian statehood was the medieval empire of Stepan Dusan, a vast swath of territory encompassing most of the present-day Serbian republic, along with the entirety of present-day Albania, most of Macedonia, and all of Central and Northern Greece, but not Bosnia, interestingly enough.

French Map of 'Greater Serbia'
French Map of ‘Greater Serbia’

Tsar Dusan’s empire had supposedly collapsed after a defeat at the hands of the Turks on Kosovo Field on 28 June 1389. But this setback, Garasanin argued, had not undermined the Serbian state’s legitimacy; it had merely interrupted its historical existence. The “restoration” of a Greater Serbia unifying all Serbs was thus no innovation, but the expression of an ancient historical right.

“They cannot accuse usof seeking something new, unfounded, of constituting a revolution or an upheaval, but rather everyone must acknowledge that it [Greater Serbia] is politically necessary, that it was founded in very ancient times and has its roots in the former political and national life of the Serbs.

Garasanin’s argument thus exhibited that dramatic foreshortening of historical time that can sometimes be observed in the discourses of integral nationalism; it rested, moreover, upon the fiction that Tsar Dusan’s sprawling, multi-ethnic, composite, medieval polity could be conflated with the modern idea of a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation-state. Serb patriots saw no inconsistency here, since they argued that virtually all the inhabitants of these lands were essentially Serbs. Vuk Karadzić, the architect of the modern Serbo-Croat literary language and author of a famous nationalist tract, “Srbi svi i svuda” (‘Serbs all and everywhere’, published in 1836), spoke of a nation of 5 million Serbs speaking the “Serbian language” and scattered from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Banat of Temesvar (eastern Hungary, now in western Romania), the Backa (a region extending from northern Serbia into southern Hungary), Croatia, Dalmatia and the Adriatic coast from Trieste to northern Albania. Of course there were some in these lands, Karadzić conceded (he was referring in particular to the Croats), “who still find it difficult to call themselves Serbs, but it seems likely that they will gradually become used to it.”

The obvious problem was how to convince Turks, Greek and Austrians to “acknowledge” the history-born necessity of a Greater Serbia, so that they might evacuate the provinces indicated by the Serbs as their future possessions and whose indigenous populations longed to be awarded Serbian ethnicity, nationality and citizenship. Because some of the intended beneficiaries were not yet aware of the good fortune the future held in stock, the liberalization project needed to proceed somewhat clandestinely, and no one was better suited to this task than conspirator and regicide Dimitriević who was then a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.

But this was not the full extent of his activities. In the wake of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had led to the emergence of the Narodna Odbrana, there had remained a deep division between the official Serbian government, which had to plan and act within the boundaries of generally acknowledged political limits, and the nationalist hotheads who accepted no restriction. In early 1911, the political activist Bogdan Radenković began to contact nationalist sympathizers from all walks of life, and, in the presence of Dimitriević, four of his fellow officer-regicides and another civilian, formed on March 3 in Belgrade the secret brotherhood “Ujedinjenje ili smrt!“, Union or Death, which eventually became known as the “Black Hand”. In today’s parlance, it was a terrorist organization, adopting rituals from the Freemasons and combining them with the cell system of the underground communists. It thrived, as such clubs do, mostly on the self-aggrandizement of their founders – the conviction that they were to alter history. In their case, as we will see, they succeeded. Neophytes were inducted by meeting their hooded future brethren in a dark room and made to swear the following oath:

“I [name], in joining the organisation Union or Death, swear by the sun that warms me, by the earth that nourishes me, before God, by the blood of my ancestors, on my honour and on my life, that I will from this moment until my death be faithful to the laws of this organisation, and that I will always be ready to make any sacrifice for it.

I swear before God, on my honour and on my life, that I will execute all missions and commands without question.

I swear before God, on my honour and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organisation into my grave with me. May God and my comrades in the organisation be my judges if, knowingly or not, I should ever violate this oath.”

It was a show, but impressive and designed to make an imprint on the mostly young members-to-be which were attracted to the world of secret male bonding – Christopher Clark clearly recognized the strong homoerotic tendencies of the fraternity:

The milieu in which Dimitriević deployed these gifts [of inducing trust and imposing his will] was emphatically masculine. Women were a marginal presence in his adult life; he never showed any sexual interest in them. His natural habitat, and the scene of all his intrigues, was the smoke-filled, men-only world of the Belgrade coffee-houses — a space at once private and public, where conversations could be seen without necessarily being heard. The best-known surviving photograph of him depicts the burly moustachioed intriguer with two associates in a characteristically conspirational pose.

Given the secretive origins and character of the organization, it cannot surprise that Ujedinjenje ili smrt! subverted the civil government as easily, quickly and profoundly as it had undermined the military sphere; its members also infiltrated the various semi-official (Narodna Odbrana) and secret societies as well as the border police, spy networks and telegraph offices. Oddly enough, some party politicians and government officials mistook “Union or Death!”for an internal revolutionary committee, suspecting it to attempt domestic subversion in the furtherance of overthrowing the civil government. “This misreading,” Christopher Clark points out, “made its way into many of the diplomatic records” and “would continue to befuddle the Austrian authorities during the crisis of July 1914.”

In the wake of the Balkan Wars of 1912/13, the recently acquired provinces were admitted to the benefits of modern Serbian government. The uncertain state of security, alas, disallowed the introduction of civil liberties, and many Turkish public buildings – schools, offices, and, naturally, mosques – had to be destroyed lest they might serve as hideouts for Turkish terrorists. The latter were presumed to exist in such multitudes that the imposition of martial law and the frequent execution of suspects became a regrettable but necessary side effect on the way into a brighter future. Critical voices began to appear in international newspapers, but the Serbian Foreign Office was, fortunately, able to rely on the British Ambassador, Sir Dayrell Crackanthorpe, who, of his own volition, corrected erroneous reports of his underlings, who presumed to criticize the sort of small errors that could not be avoided in the noble task.

It seemed to be a sign of the efficiency of Austrian and, perhaps, German propagandists that the administrative reforms in the newly liberated areas did not find the undivided applause of the international observership; especially British diplomats appeared susceptible to the disinformation campaign. From Monastir on the southern border, for example, the British Vice Consul Charles Greig reported “that Moslems under Serbian rule have nothing whatsoever to expect but periodical massacre, certain exploitation and final ruin.” His colleague in Skopje related “systematic intimidation, arbitrary detentions, beatings, rapes, village-burnings and massacres by Serbs in the annexed areas.” Less than two weeks later, Mr. Greig warned that the “Bulgarian and especially the Moslem populations in the districts of Perlepe, Krchevo and Krushevo [were] in danger of extermination by the very frequent and barbarous massacres and pillage to which they are subjected by Serbian bands” and that “murder and outrage of other kinds by bands of Serbian comitaji (terror groups) and persons in league with them” created outright anarchy. His Excellency Dayrell Crackanthorpe, however, was a good friend of the Serbs and did his best to suppress the reports he believed to be entirely fabricated, and it was only “the cumulative detail of the reports emerging from the annexed areas, combined with corroborating accounts from Romanian, Swiss and French officials that persuaded the British Foreign Office that the news of Macedonian atrocities should not be dismissed as Austrian propaganda.”

While “the Serbian government showed no interest whatsoever in preventing further outrages or in instigating an investigation of those that had already occurred,” there were voices which saw the true cause of the horrors in the recently occupied areas along the borders to Greece and Bulgaria in an administrative decree that subordinated the military authorities – who considered these areas their personal playground – to the civil government (as the result of the Balkan wars, Serbia had grown from 18,650 to 33,891 square miles and acquired more than 1,500,000 new inhabitants). The officer corps mounted a protest that brought down the – once again – Pasić-led cabinet, and the spectre of a military takeover appeared upon the horizon. The Austrian Ambassador in Belgrade reported to Vienna on May 8, 1914:

“The conflict between the Government and the conspirator party (Crna Ruka,
Serb for “Black Hand) ... has become so aggravated in the last few weeks that a violent clash between the two rivals for power seems not impossible. … The King, who owes his throne to the conspirators, does not quite venture to side openly with them, but his sympathies belong to the Crna Ruka,as do those of the Crown Prince. … The Crna Ruka being probably none too fastidious in its choice of means to gain its ends, I regard the possibility of violent eruptions, even of an overthrow of the Government or a coup d’état,as not entirely inconceivable developments … unless the Government at the last moment capitulates to the military party, as it has done up to now.”

Facing enlarged political instability, Belgrade’s sponsors, Russia and France -­ the latter of whom had given her yet another credit (which amounted to twice the national budget of 1912) in 1914 – resorted to the somewhat unusual step that the Russian Ambassador Hartwig, by some believed the country’s true suzerain, “declared publicly that Russia’s Balkan policies required Pasić’s retention in office,” and Paris made it known that no other government than the present could hope to receive further loans. These were clear messages, but still, no one knows what might have transpired had not the beginning of the Great War – only a few weeks later – given the Serbian army plenty of concern.

Again, in the continent’s opposite corner, improvement in Anglo-German relations persisted; Winston Churchill mused that “the spring and summer of 1914 were marked in Europe by an exceptional tranquillity. … Naval rivalry had at the moment ceased to be a cause of friction, it was certain that we could not be overtaken as far as capital ships were concerned,” and a professor of economy noted that “Germany, from 1911, was the best market of all [for British exports].” This caused fear in St. Petersburg that the coalition for the war against Germany – which would remove the true obstacle to the possession of the Black Sea Straits – might fall apart at late notice. Even Paris seemed to falter. The former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux – “suspected of softness towards Germany” and thus “hounded from office” in 1912 – rejoined the French government as Minister of Finance in December 1913 and it was thought possible that he might emerge as the Prime Minister of a coalition of Radicals and Socialists, which many believed would choose a more constructive, peaceful policy towards Germany than the revanchism impersonated by President Poincaré. The Belgian Ambassador Guillaume reported to Brussels in early 1914:

“I feel certain that Europe would profit from the policies of M. Caillaux, the Radicals and the Radical-Socialists. As I have already told you, MM. Poincaré, Delcassé, Millerand and their friends have created and pushed the current policies of nationalism, militarism and chauvinism. … I see in them the greatest threat to the peace of Europe today.”

Beginning with the annual General Staff conference of 1911, France and Russia reworked their strategy. Poincaré’s bellicosity ended France’s earlier reluctance to come to Russia’s aid over some Balkan issue – which had accounted for France’s caution during the Bosnian annexation crisis – yet it was not him alone who developed a more military orientation: “the pacifist and anti-military popular mood that had prevailed in 1905 made way for a more belligerent attitude,” and “by the autumn of 1912, Poincaré was firmly supporting a Russian armed intervention in the Balkans.” Yet this would necessarily lead to war: Austria would have to match a Russian mobilization – no way around it – which would bring in Germany, under the terms of the Dual Alliance, which would, in turn, bring in France and Great Britain on the side of Russia. Hostilities would open with a simultaneous attack of both France and Russia into Germany. Christopher Clark remarks on Franco-Russian war planning:

The question of how fast and how many men Russia would mobilize in the event of the cases foederis, and in what direction it would deploy them, dominated the Franco-Russian inter-staff discussions in the summers of 1912 and 1913. In the conversations of July 1912, the French CGS, Joseph Joffre, requested that the Russians double-track all their railway lines to the East Prussian and Galician frontiers. Some strategically important lines were even to be quadrupled to allow faster transit of large troop numbers.

The Franco-Russian Naval Convention of July 1912, which provided for closer cooperation and coordination of the two navies, was another fruit of these efforts. And there was a gradual improvement in the Russian assurances – whereas Zhilinsky promised in 1912 to attack Germany with 800,000 men by day 15 after mobilization, in the following year he felt able, once the improvements were put in place, to shave a further two days off the schedule.

The direction of mobilization was another area of concern. The protocols of the inter-staff discussions record the tireless efforts of the French staff officers to keep the Russians focused on Germany rather than Austria as the principal opponent. For while the French were willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Balkan casus belli, [1] the entire military purpose of the alliance (from France’s perspective) would be defeated if the Russians deployed the bulk of their military might against the Habsburg Empire and left the French to deal on their own with a massive German attack in the west.When this issue was raised at the 1912 meeting, [the Russian Chief of Staff] Zhilinsky objected that the Russians also had other threats to think about … [Sweden and Turkey] … but Joffre insisted that the “destruction of Germany’s forces” ( ‘l’aneantissement des forces de l’Allemagne’) -would in effect resolve all the other problems facing the alliance; it was essential to concentrate on this objective “at any price”.

[1] This was the original sin, so to say, of the change in the Franco-Russian Military Convention – now other than defensive scenarios, i.e. a direct attack of Austria or Germany on Russia, might invoke the casus foederis and lead to war.

Peace on the continent now rested on the slender shoulders of the pauper. His name was Gavrilo Princip; he had been born in a Bosnian village in 1894, and attended “irregular schooling in various places.” A somewhat sickly youth – he was to die in 1918 of tuberculosis – he arrived in Belgrade in 1912 to report for the last grade of high school, yet immediately felt driven to spend most of his time in the Serbian nationalist coffee-house scene. His exalted pro-Serbism had motivated him to memorize the entirety of “The Mountain Wreath“, an epos about the self-sacrificing Serbian tyrannicide Milos Obilić, composed and published in 1847 by the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro. That the supreme expression of Serbian nationalism was tyrannicide, the young patriot, whose apprehension of Serbian history was that of a continuing enterprise in idealism and sacrifice, readily accepted. In reality, Serbian patriotism had lately expressed itself more in murder, theft and rape. Luigi Albertini explains:

To understand the atmosphere in which this young generation lived, one must bear in mind the Serbian Comitaji movement after the Second Balkan War. For ten years, from 1902 to 1912, Comitajism was the leading element in all Balkan turbulence.

The first Comitajism was of Bulgaro-Macedonian origins. In 1902 armed bands were formed in Macedonia, subsidized by the Bulgarian Government, for the purpose of causing disorders which would focus the attention of Europe on the Balkans and lead to European intervention such as would end Ottoman domination in Macedonia. This province was either to become autonomous or be annexed to Bulgaria.

Alarmed by the claims which these bands were staking out for Bulgaria in Macedonia, Serb and Greek revolutionary circles, in touch with their respective governments, recruited armed bands in Serbia and Greece. In Serbia, they arose as early as 1905.

The Comitaji crossed into Macedonia provoking disorders, blowing up bridges, attacking small bodies of gendarmes, committing murders, acting not only against the Turkish authorities but also against the private property of Moslems. When Turkish troops intervened they disappeared over the frontiers into their respective states, from whose governments they received arms and money. In the Balkan wars, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian Comitaji had moved in advance and in support of their respective armies, fighting without regard for the rules of warfare and often indulging in arson and massacre.

Vojislav Tankosić

One of these battalions of Comitaji fighters was commanded by Major Vojislav Tankosić, who in 1903 had taken part in the plot against the
Obrenović royal pair and had ordered the shooting of Queen Draga’s brothers. It mainly consisted of young Serbs who were Austro-Hungarian subjects. After the war, the Serbian Government was unable to get rid of them. Crowded in Belgrade, they spent time in cafés, bragging of their exploits and dilating plans for more wars and conspiracies. … After the defeat of Turkey and then of Bulgaria, their plots for wars and outrages took Austria-Hungary as their objective.

Here were young patriots, if one can call them so, that Dragutin Dimitriević, now Colonel and, under the code name “Apis”, head of the Serbian Military Intelligence Service, could put to good use. He ordered his assistant Tankosić to select a few of the young men for a special job. The former Comitaji leader recruited three nineteen year-old Bosnian kids, Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinović and Gavrilo Princip, all of them from “poor families and unhappy households.” Cabrinović and Grabez “had suffered under and rebelled against the male authority figures in their own early lives,” which draws an interesting parallel to Hitler’s troubles with his father. As Christopher Clark remarks, these young men were classic prey for conspirators:

These boys had little in the way of bad habits. They were made of that sombre, youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon. Alcohol was not to their taste. Although they were heterosexual by romantic inclination, they did not seek the society of young women. They read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets. The boys dwelt at length on the suffering of the Serbian nation, for which they blamed everyone but the Serbs themselves, and felt the slights and humiliations of the least of their countrymen as if they were their own.

Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip
Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip

The man whom Gavrilo Princip approached for patriotic guidance was, apparently by sheer accident, an old terror hand himself and a former subaltern of Major Tankosić, Milan Ciganović, who, by virtue of his being a titular employee of the Serbian State Railway was ideally placed for the intelligence and terror business. The story goes that Princip asked him outright whether he knew how to get bombs. Ciganović did, and informed his old boss Tankosić about Princip and his acquaintances. At this early opportunity, in 1912, Tankosić rejected Princip as too young and frail, but in early 1914 changed his mind and reported Princip to Dimitriević. Since the boys had no experience whatsoever with conspiracies, Ciganović was assigned as their handler. On May 27, he provided them with four revolvers and six 22 pound (ca. 10 kg) bombs, courtesy of the Serbian State Arsenal at Kragujevac, and took them to Belgrade’s Topcider Park for weapon training. In addition, Ciganović supplied 150 dinars in cash, a map of Bosnia, cyanide ampoules – with which the assassins were to commit suicide after the attempt, to frustrate investigations – and a letter for Major Rade Popović [1] of the Border Guards, who was a member of Ujedinjenje iii smrt!as well as a contact for Narodna Odbrana. The boys were then smuggled into Bosnia – Cabrinović by members of the underground railway established and used by the Black Hand and the military, and Princip and Grabez, it would seem, by the border police themselves – to Tuzla, where they met Cabrinović. While there will be a word or two, below, to the topic of the Serbian and Russian government’s possible foreknowledge of the Sarajevo plot, the local Bosnian patriots were easily trusted with the Big Secret. A schoolteacher working for the smugglers, who took Princip and Grabez over the border to Tuzla, was reported to have told the Kerovićs [2], the family to whom he delivered his charges for the night: “Do you know who these people are? They’re going to Sarajevo to throw bombs and kill the Archduke who is going to come there.” Princip then showed his hosts the weapons.

[1] The name Popović is common, and one should not confuse Major Rade Popović, the Border Guards officer, with the more famous Colonel Cedomilj Popović, a co-founder, Central Committee member and future secretary of the Black Hand, or with the young Cvijetko Popović, member of the Sarajevo cut-out cell.
[2] The Kerovićs subsequently came to grief. The Austrians tried them for supporting terrorists, and Nedjo Kerović, who had given the boys a lift on his cart, received a death sentence – eventually commuted to twenty years imprisonment. His father Mitar received a sentence of imprisonment for life.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand inspecting his troops during a military manoeuvre, on June 27, 1914 in Sarajevo, the day before his assassination.

When the boys arrived in Sarajevo by train from Tuzla, they were expected by a second group of operatives, four men strong and led by Black Hand member Danilo Ilić. Ilić had recruited three more youngsters: a Muslim carpenter from Herzegovina, Muhamed Mehmetbasić, and two local schoolboys, one Cvijetko Popović and the seventeen year-old Vaso Cubrilović, brother of the aforementioned loquacious schoolteacher. That the latter had never met Ilić before that day, and that the three would not meet Princip and the others until after the coup shows that the second cell was devised, ab initio, as a cut-out. “In this connection,” as Christopher Clark points out, “Mehmedbasić was an inspired choice, because he was a willing, if incompetent, assassin, and thus useful backup for the Belgrade cell, but not a Serb. As Black Hand members, Ilić and Princip could be depended upon (in theory) to take their own lives, or at least remain silent after the event. The Sarajevo boys would be unable to testify, for the simple reason that they knew nothing about the larger background to the plot. The impression would thus emerge that this was a purely local undertaking, with no links to Belgrade.”

Leaving the train …

While there are small details in which the accounts of what happened at Sarajevo on that morning of June 28, 1914 differ, the main outlines are clear. A motorcade of four cars (some sources say six) waited for the royal visitors, who arrived around 10 a.m., at the train station, to take them down Appel Quay, the promenade that runs along the Miljacka River to the town hall where the official welcome ceremony was to take place.

Leaving the City Hall
Leaving the City Hall

It was a sunny day but an ominous date. On June 28, St. Vitus’ Day in Austria, Vidov Dan in Bosnia, 525 years ago, in AD 1389, the Ottoman Turks had defeated the troops of Tsar Stepan Dusan’s – fictitious – Serbian Empire at the legendary Battle on Kosovo Field, and consequently this day had become the Serbian National Anniversary day; more important than ever in the present year, for the celebrations of 1914 were to be the first after the “liberation” of Kosovo and Macedonia – resulting from the Second Balkan War – in the previous year.

On a more positive note, this June 28 was also the royal couple’s fourteenth wedding anniversary, and a welcome side effect of visiting the provinces was that Sophie could spend the day on the side of her husband without, as in Vienna, being relegated to a background role by the Habsburg court protocol.

The seven conspirators had positioned themselves strategically along the honoured guests’ travel route, which was the same one used at every state visit. Official security was conspicuously absent: “The espalier of troops who usually lined the kerbs on such occasions was nowhere to be seen, so that the motorcade passed virtually unprotected in front of the dense crowds. Even the special security detail was missing – its chief had mistakenly climbed into one of the cars with three local Bosnian officers, leaving the rest of his men behind at the railway station.”


Three bridges span the river along the part of the Appel Quay the motorcade was to follow. At the first one, Cumurija Bridge, Mehmedbasić, Cubrilović and Cabrinović had posted themselves, on the riverside; opposite, on the landward side, waited Cvijetko Popović and Danilo Ilić – the latter, unarmed, seemed to rehearse the role of maitre d’honneurs. At the second bridge, the Latin Bridge, Gavrilo Princip waited alone; Trifko Grabez was posted on the third, the Imperial Bridge. It seems that the attempt was to take place at Cumurija Bridge, and Princip and Grabez were the reserve or backups, should unexpected developments occur.

The motorcade rolled in the direction of Cumurija Bridge. In the first car were the town’s mayor, Fehim Effendi Curcić and Dr. Edmund Gerde, the superintendent of the police. In the second car’s landaulet backseats rode the royal guests, facing them, on the flip seat, was General Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia. On the front seat, aside the chauffeur sat Lieutenant-Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, bodyguard and the car’s owner. They were followed by cars filled with local police, lower honoraries and retainers.

The cavalcade moved towards Mehmedbasić, who – alas – at the point of its closest proximity found himself paralysed, struck by dread and terror, as he had been five months earlier at an aborted attempt of his own at Potiorek. Next in line was Cabrinović, who took out his bomb and armed it by breaking the detonator – a percussion cap — against the next lamppost. It reported with a loud crack, alarming Harrach and the driver. They turned around, perhaps thinking that a tire had exploded, yet when the chauffeur saw a dark shape flying towards the limousine, he immediately accelerated. The bomb fell short – some say the archduke himself deflected it; others maintain it simply bounced off the back. It hit the street and exploded below the following car, wounding a few of its passengers. Only later was it determined that the detonator – in exploding – had caused a small wound on the Duchess’s neck. When the archduke saw the wreck of the third car, he ordered the motorcade to stop so that the injured – among then Potiorek’s aide-de-camp Colonel Merizzi – might receive first aid and be brought to the hospital. Then the cavalcade proceeded to the Town Hall, where an abbreviated ceremony was to be held after whose completion the royal couple planned to visit the victims in the infirmary.

Stop after first attempt, Cabrinović's bomb
Stop after the first attempt, Cabrinović’s bomb

Cabrinović had meanwhile been fished out of the – almost dry – riverbed whither he had jumped to get time to swallow the small cyanide wrapper. The poison failed to work, for some unexplained reason, and, after being beaten up for a minute, he was taken to the police station. Cubrilović watched him, paralysed – like Mehmedbasić -­ and Popović, overcome with dread, hid away his bomb in the nearest building. Only Princip retained his composure; initially he had assumed that the explosion of Cabrinović’s bomb reported success, but when he saw Cabrinović arrested and the royal carriage resume motion in his direction, he thought of firing. The car’s speed denied him a clear shot, yet he remained calm enough to take up a new position, on the way the cavalcade was to use on its return. There he waited.

Meanwhile, the procession had arrived at the Town Hall, and the mayor had begun to read his prepared lines, which included the assertion that “all the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness, and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highness’s most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes ….” The archduke was not convinced, it seems – he had kept almost quiet since the explosion but now urgently inquired whether bombs were indeed part of the cordial welcome. “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous. Now you may speak.” The mayor’s address was over mercifully quick, and Franz Ferdinand asked Governor Potiorek whether one had to expect further attempts. The general did not think so, but advised to skip the rest of the official program. The party should either drive back straight to Ilidze, the small resort town where the royal couple had stayed the last three days, or return, via the Governor’s mansion, to the railway station.

Change of route
Change of route

Luigi Albertini’s collaborator and amanuensis Luciano Magrini was able to talk to two of the conspirators, Vaso Cubrilović and Mohamed Mehmedbasić, during a visit in Serbia in the autumn of 1937, and we shall follow the resulting account:

“The Archduke objected that he must first visit Colonel Merizzi at the garrison hospital, although his wound was known to be slight. Potiorek then suggested that they should go there avoiding the town and once more passing along the Appel Quay where – he said – no one expected the procession to pass. This was not true; because the press had published that on the return from the Town Hall the procession was to pass again along the Appel Quay as far as the Latin bridge. In any case, this was the plan followed.

At the trial Princip stated that when he heard the explosion of Cabrinović’s bomb he moved with the crowd in that direction and saw that the procession had come to a standstill. Thinking that ‘all was over’, i.e. that the attempt was successful, and seeing Cabrinović taken away by the police, he thought of shooting him to prevent his talking and then committing suicide himself. But he gave up the idea when he perceived that the procession had moved off again. …

The cars again took the route via the Appel Quay. The Duchess, who from the Town Hall was to have proceeded straight to the Konak [the Governor’s mansion], decided to accompany her husband and again took her seat beside him, while Harrach took up position on the running board on the left side of the car, so as to cover the Archduke with his body. But Potiorek and the chief of police, who did not expect a second attempt, not only failed to realize the danger of passing along the first part of the Quay again, but also omitted the essential precaution of giving clear instructions to the chauffeurs, particularly to the driver of the Archduke’s car. What happened was that the front car containing the chief of police drove along the Appel Quay, but at the Latin Bridge took a right-hand turn into the narrow Francis Joseph Street, the Archduke’s car naturally following suit.”

It was at this moment that the confusion over the correct route to be taken proved fatal. Harrach’s sleek sports car had no reverse gear, which meant that the car had first to be stopped, the engine disengaged, and the vehicle was pushed slowly back out of Franz Joseph Street, to Appel Quay, by hand. This delay of perhaps twenty seconds gave Princip relatively much time to draw and steady his weapon, while the fact that the procession was essentially standing instead of moving made his aim much more certain and accurate.

Princip was not more than a few feet away from his target, at point-blank distance, and fired a round each at the archduke and the duchess with Harrach looking on – in horror – from the wrong, the opposite side of the car. The count later reported to one of Francis Ferdinand’s biographers:

“While with one hand I drew out my handkerchief to wipe the blood from the Archduke’s lips, Her Highness cried: ‘For God’s sake! What has happened to you?’ Then she sank down from her seat with her face between the Archduke’s knees. I had no idea that she had been hit and thought that she had fainted from shock. Then His Royal Highness said: ‘Soferl, Soferl! Don’t die. Live for my children!’

Thereupon I seized the Archduke by the coat-collar to prevent his head from sinking forwards and asked him: ‘Is Your Royal Highness in great pain?’ To which he clearly replied: ‘It is nothing.’ Now his expression changed, and he repeated six or seven times: ‘It is nothing,’ more and more losing consciousness and with a fading voice. Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in the throat, caused by the loss of blood, which ceased on the arrival at the Konak. The two unconscious forms were carried into the Konak where death soon supervened.”

This photograph has often been claimed to show the actucal arrest of Gavrilo Princip but has been established to show the detention of innocent bystander Ferdinand Behr
This photograph has often been claimed to show the actual arrest of Gavrilo Princip but has been established to show the detention of innocent bystander Ferdinand Behr
Francis Ferdinand’s bloodied uniform

The gun was secured and the car preserved, both on display in the Austrian Army Museum.

Another wave of urgent telegrams spewed forth from the Sarajevo postal station. After the first attempt, the archduke himself had directed a telegram to his uncle, the Emperor, asserting the couple’s well-being, while the local reporters filed their stories. Now, at just past 11 a.m. local time, the news had changed in such dramatic fashion that at first many people refused to believe it. A moment was frozen in history; as acknowledged in the words of Christopher Clark, “the Sarajevo murders, like the murder of President John F. Kennedy at Dallas in 1963, were an event whose hot light captured the people and places of a moment and burned them into memory. People recalled exactly where they were and whom they were with when the news reached them.”

What was yet to be determined was the event’s impact on the world. Technically, a prince had been assassinated – worse had happened in the history of the continent -­ but it soon became painfully clear that a whole age had come to an end on the streets of Sarajevo – the age of liberalism, civil government, and the belief in the possible, nay, imminent augmentation of the human condition by technological and philosophical progress. It turned out that what had been murdered at the crossing of Appel Quay and Franz Joseph Street was nothing less than the pride and optimism of the rational age – the foundations of the “Proud Tower” – rejected by irrationalism, nationalism, vanity and hate. When the consequences of Sarajevo had played out, thirty-one respectively seventy-six years later, in 1945 or 1990, depending on one’s point of view, Europe had lost power over the globe. Sarajevo marked the beginning of the end.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

The investigation and trial will be the subject of a later post – tentatively named “À la recherche du temps perdu” – In Search of the Lost Time.

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian Soldiers
Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian Soldiers
An undated picture from the historical archives of Sarajevo shows Gavrilo Princip (first row-C) and other members of the “Mlada Bosna” (“Young Bosnia”) revolutionary group in court, as they stand trial for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Born a peasant boy in 1894 in the remote mountain village of Obljaj, Princip was a passionate Serb and Slav nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 100 years ago this June 28, is widely considered to have sparked World War I.

Links: Great pics in French article: http://graphics.france24.com/assassination-sarajevo-1914-archduke-princip-photos/index.html

Die Zeit: Karten – https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article129560739/Das-Attentat-das-Europa-in-den-grossen-Krieg-trieb.html

Zum Auto: https://www.welt.de/motor/gallery129531678/Das-Auto-in-dem-Franz-Ferdinand-starb.html

Hits: 661

Wilhelm II – The Easiness of Living

Wilhelmus Ornatus

Videos: I. Christina Croft on her book about Wilhelm II. Original Footage III. Reviewing Troops IV: Colourized Photographs

Wilhelm at age 21
Wilhelm at age 21

In the 1890s, the German Empire might have felt fortunate enough – industrialization progressed, early social legislation was initiated, and the Congress of Berlin in 1878 had settled the major political tensions in Europe. German was the language of science worldwide and after the victory of 1870/71 the empire was also militarily secure. But a huge problem appeared in her political and constitutional reality, i.e. her leadership.

The old-fashioned, almost medieval, monarch-centred constitutional provisions under which the Imperial government of the recently unified nation operated, lingered far behind the modernism of her economy. Friedrich Stampfer, chief editor of “Vorwärts”, the (still existing) national Social Democratic newspaper, famously opined that Wilhelmine Germany was the most successfully industrialized and most effectively administered, but, sadly, the worst governed nation in pre-war Europe. Max Weber thought the nation governed by a herd of lunatics. The fish stank from the head, and the head, of course, was the Kaiser himself, Wilhelm II, King in Prussia and German Emperor.

He had been born in Berlin on January 27, 1859, the first child of the crown prince and future emperor Friedrich III and the Princess Royal Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England, two of Queen Victoria’s other grandchildren, were his cousins, and he was related by blood to almost every other reigning house of the continent. Unfortunately, he suffered from a birth defect that had a huge impact on his nascent personality. John C.G. Röhl, who examines Wilhelm in his book “The Kaiser and His Court” [Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521-56504-9], may introduce us here to mother and child:

It is well-known that Wilhelm suffered organic damage at birth, although the full extent of the damage is still not fully appreciated. Apart from his useless left arm, which was eventually about fifteen centimetres too short, he also suffered from the alarming growths and inflammations in the inner ear already referred to. As a result of his condition he underwent a serious operation in 1896 which left him deaf in the right ear. The possibility that he also suffered brain damage at the time of his birth cannot be ruled out. In Germany in 1859, the year in which Wilhelm was born, no fewer than 98 per cent of babies in the breech position were stillborn. The danger was of course greatest in young mothers having their first child, and it stemmed above all from the possibility of suffocation as the baby’s head squeezed the umbilical cord running up alongside it. If the air supply was cut off for longer than, say, eight minutes, the baby was sure to die. And indeed, the royal baby with which we are concerned was “seemingly dead to a high degree”, as the doctor’s report put it, when he came into the world on the afternoon of 27 January 1859, over ten hours after the waters had broken. Whatever damage was done to Wilhelm’s brain in those hours, it is certain that the left arm was crippled not locally, as the doctors assumed, but rather as a result of damage to the brachial plexus, that is to say the nerves which ensure the innervation of the shoulder, arm and hand muscles were torn from the vertebral column in the neck during the final stages of the delivery.

The entire experience was a ghastly one for Vicky, the Princess Royal. Despite the fact that she had inhaled chloroform for hours on end, the birth was extremely painful. She had married only a year before at the age of seventeen. During the long, complicated birth of her first child, “poor Dr. Martin” had to work under her long flannel skirt so that royal decency prevailed. Vicky’s response to giving birth to a crippled boy was, it would seem, ambivalent. If she had been male, as the first child of Queen Victoria, she would have been able to stay in her beloved England and in due course become its sovereign. As things stood, however, all that was open to her was to bear a son, and through him to do what she could to remodel the country into which she had married along the lines of the country of her birth. But this son had a crippled arm, he was not particularly talented, and he exhibited from a very early age a stormy, hyperactive temperament which gave growing cause for concern. Sigmund Freud himself put the finger on Vicky’s sense of narcissistic injury as one of the root-causes of Wilhelm’s later psychological disturbance. In 1932, he wrote:

“It is usual for mothers whom Fate has presented with a child who is sickly or otherwise at a disadvantage to try to compensate him for his unfair handicap by a super-abundance of love. In the instant before us, the proud mother behaved otherwise; she withdrew her love from the child on account of its infirmity. When he had grown up into a man of great power, he proved unambiguously by his actions that he had never forgiven his mother.”

Mother and Son
Mother and Son

Once the doctors were set loose on the young Wilhelm with their “animal baths”, their electric-shock treatment and their metal contraptions and leather straps for stretching his arm and his neck, once his education was placed in the hands of the unsmiling, never-praising Calvinist Hinzpeter, whatever slender hope there still remained for his emotional and mental stability lay in his mother’s hands. But she was unable to establish that bond of unconditional love and trust which he so desperately needed. Small wonder, then, that he felt drawn precisely to those elements who depreciated his mother above all else – to Bismarck, to the “kind nice young men” of the Potsdam guards regiments, to the Byzantine “Liebenberg Round Table“; small wonder that he felt one could not have enough hatred for England. When he came to the throne, at the age of twenty-nine, Wilhelm could use the whole apparatus of the army, the navy and the state, the whole arena of world politics to prove his worth. (Röhl, p. 25 – 26)

And here the flip side of Bismarck’s monarchical constitution came up: nobody could reign in the imperial chatterbox when he travelled through the world, informing everybody who asked, and all who did not, of his personal and his country’s power. It seemed that Germany had become a hermaphroditic affair with a top-notch industry, a relatively free press, an impotent parliament, and a governmental mixture out of Don Juan and medieval brigand, right out of “The Prisoner of Zenda”; on top, it was, as John Röhl noted, as if the country’s “development towards a modern unitary constitutional state had stopped at the half-way mark.” (24) The perception of Germany in the world depended too much upon the asinine opinions Wilhelm gave out freely, and Foreign Office and diplomatic service were frequently unable to correct the unfavourable impressions the Kaiser left behind wherever he journeyed and to whomever he spoke.

Opening Ceremony of the Reichstag on June 25, 1888 - Painting by Anton von Werner
Opening Ceremony of the Reichstag on June 25, 1888 – Painting by Anton von Werner

In addition to his capricious politics, his private pleasures aroused suspicion and received publicity; for example in the juicy scandals of the “Liebenberg Trials“:

Even before his accession, Wilhelm had announced his intention to do “battle against vice, high living, gambling, betting etc.”, against “all the doings of our so-called ‘good society'”. This battle was not particular successful, however. Soon after he came to the throne, hundreds of obscene anonymous letters began to circulate around the court, and although this went on for years the author was never discovered, even though (or perhaps precisely because?) the culprit must have been a member of the close circle surrounding Wilhelm and the empress.
A decade later the Wilhelmine court experienced its greatest scandal when Philipp Eulenburg [Wilhelm’s best friend] and his “Liebenberg Round Table” were publicly attacked on the grounds of their homosexuality [which was technically a criminal offence] and finally had to be banned from the court. [Dozens of court and administration officials turned out to be involved in the scandal] Embarrassing questions were asked – even about the Kaiser. The German system of government, already inefficient, suffered an immediate collapse into “complete disequilibrium at the top”.

Nationalist circles inclined to the view that they must press either for an external war or else for the abdication of Wilhelm II. “To clear ourselves of shame and ridicule,” wrote Maximilian Harden [newspaper editor and the driving force behind the prosecution] in November 1908, “we will have to go to war, soon, or face the sad necessity of making a change of imperial personnel on our own account, even if the strongest personal pressure had to be brought to bear.” As Maurice Baumont has rightly remarked in his study of L’Affair Eulenburg, “la réalité pathologique des scandales Eulenburg doit prendre parmi les causes complexes de la guerre mondiale”. (Röhl, p. 100)

Wilhelm II and King Edward VII
Wilhelm II and King Edward VII

Certainly, many other countries had had monarchs in their history who had provided topics for satire or salacious jokes, but the German classes that profited most from Wilhelm’s government, the Prussian Junker and the high civil and military bureaucracy, all of them noble, showed not only an astounding ability to forgive and forget, but outdid themselves in applauding the Kaiser’s putative designs on the globe. John Röhl narrates the story of a Prussian officer in Brazil who, at the important news of the outbreak of war, wrote to a friend that, finally, the German people could see that the Kaiser impersonated “more greatness than Bismarck and Moltke put together, a higher destiny than Napoleon I; that Wilhelm, indeed, was the Weltgestalter, the “shaper of the world.” (Röhl, p. 9) He wrote:

“Who is this Kaiser, whose peacetime rule was so full of vexation and tiresome compromise, whose temperament would flare up wildly, only to die away again? … Who is this Kaiser who now suddenly throws caution to the wind, who tears open his visor to bare his Titanic head and take on the world? … I have misunderstood this Kaiser; I have thought him a waverer. He is a Jupiter, standing on the Olympus of his iron-studded might, the lightning-bolts in his grasp. At this moment he is God and master of the world.” (Röhl, p.9)

Salutations of this kind contrasted sharply to the reality of the Emperor’s foreign politics in the post-Bismarck era, which caused war to become a possibility that could not be ruled out. Wilhelm fired the old chancellor in 1890, and the latter’s system of treaties quickly fell apart. Luigi Albertini comments on the significance of this falling-out between the old practical hand and a green monarch:

Bismarck’s position became critical when, on 9 March 1888, the death took place of the nonagenarian Emperor Wilhelm I, whose support he had always enjoyed, and when, three months after the untimely decease of Wilhelm’s son Frederick III, his grandson Wilhelm II mounted the throne. The latter had at first been pro-Russian and anti-British; but under the influence of General Waldersee he had been won over to the view of the General Staff that Germany must stand solidly with Austria and wage a preventive war on Russia.

The Chancellor sought to persuade him that, on the contrary, it would be better to seek a pretext for a war with France in which Russia would remain neutral, whereas if Germany made war on Russia, France would snatch the opportunity to attack Germany. He almost seemed to have succeeded inasmuch as Wilhelm II some days after his accession announced to the world his intention of paying a visit to the Tsar at once before visiting any other sovereign. After it, at the request of Girs [the Russian Foreign Minister] with the Tsar’s approval, he agreed to the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty* with Russia due to lapse in June 1880. But by the time the Ambassador Shuvalov presented himself armed with the necessary powers to renew it for another six years, Bismarck had resigned.

The Reinsurance Treaty [PDF]

The Kaiser, having received from Baron Holstein, a high official of the Wilhelmstraße [site of the German Foreign Office], reports apparently revealing hostile preparations on the part of Russia which he thought Bismarck had withheld from him, wrote to the Chancellor that Austria should be warned and had copies of the reports sent to Vienna, disregarding Bismarck’s explanations that they had no importance. This convinced Bismarck that their differences were insurmountable and on 18 March 1890 he handed in his resignation.

Dropping the Pilot - Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine
Dropping the Pilot – Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine

Wilhelm II accepted it and Shuvalov thereupon expressed doubts whether the Tsar would be willing to renew the secret treaty with another Chancellor. Perturbed, Wilhelm II sent a message to him by night and told him he had been obliged to “retire” Bismarck for health reasons but that nothing was changed in German foreign policy and that he was ready to renew the treaty. But Holstein manoeuvred in such a way that the new Chancellor General Caprivi and the German Ambassador at St. Petersburg persuaded the Kaiser to change his mind, alleging that the treaty with Russia was incompatible with the Austrian alliance and that, if St. Petersburg divulged it to Vienna, the Triple Alliance would be broken and England estranged from Germany. The Kaiser surrendered to this advice without much resistance and the German Ambassador was instructed to inform St. Petersburg that the Reinsurance Treaty would not be renewed. (Albertini I, p. 62 – 64)

  • The Reinsurance Treaty was a tricky piece of Bismarckian diplomacy. Given the priority that Russia must be kept off France at all costs, Bismarck realized that the 1879 Dual Alliance Treaty between Germany and Austria might lead to a scenario in which Germany would be bound to support Austria in the case of Austro-Russian tensions in the Balkan, which were guaranteed to arise by next Wednesday or so. This might throw a wrench into Russo-German relations and in turn might draw Russia to France, which had to be avoided. Hence, a solution had to be found which gave both Russia and Germany a face-saving way out if Austria behaved badly in the Balkans, but neither Germany nor Russia wanted to let it come to war. Whatever Austria’s designs in this region, it was clear that she could never afford to attack Russia without German aid. Bismarck and Shuvalov thus developed “a formula binding the two parties [Germany and Russia] to benevolent neutrality in a war of one of them against a third Power except in the case that one of the contracting parties directly attacked Austria or France.”(Albertini I, p. 58) That was to say that as long as neither Germany nor Russia attacked Austria or France unilaterally, they would remain mutual benevolent neutrals and since Austria could not afford to attack Russia on her own, no big war because of a Slavic or Turkish issue in the Balkans could arise.

Bismarck’s policy was guided by the principle to preclude any coalition of powers that might result in a general European war. This completely rational policy, which took notice of the special requirements and individual sensitivities of Russia and England, was completely upended by a succession of four chancellors that did not understand foreign policy or, in general, didn’t care much about it – a catastrophe that was only aggravated by the monarch’s capricious personality. What, then, were the particulars of Wilhelm’s character that led to the acts of political lunacy that so much destabilized Europe from 1890 on? In his essay “Kaiser Wilhelm II: a suitable case for treatment?” John Röhl presents his observations:

Any sketch of his character must begin with the fact that he never matured. To the end of his thirty-year reign he remained the “young” emperor with the “childlike genius”. “He is a child and will always remain one,” sighed an astute court official in December 1908. Wilhelm seemed incapable of learning from experience. Philip Eulenburg, who knew him better than anyone, remarked in a letter to Bülow at the turn of the century that Wilhelm had, in the eleven years since his accession to the throne, “become very much quieter as far as his outer being is concerned. … Spiritually, however there has not been the slightest development. He is unchanged in his explosive manner. Indeed, even harsher and more sudden as his self-esteem has grown with experience – which is no experience. For his ‘individuality’ is stronger than the effect of experience.”

More than thirty years later, when both Eulenburg and Bülow were dead and the Kaiser exiled and seventy-two years old, his adjutant Sigurd von Ilsemann wrote in his diary at Doorn: “I have now almost finished reading the second volume of the Bülow memoirs and am struck over and over again by how little the Kaiser has changed since those times. Almost everything that occurred then still happens now, the only difference being that his actions, which then had grave significance and practical consequences, now do no damage. The many good qualities, too, of this strange, peculiar person, of the Kaiser’s so very complicated character, are repeatedly stressed by Bülow.” (Röhl, p. 11 – 12)

We will rediscover, almost eerily, many of Wilhelm’s other traits, perpetual travelling, the inability to listen, a penchant for monologues about topics imperfectly understood, and the constant need for company and light entertainment, in the character and habits of the young Austrian painter who, in a sense, became his heir. They express a mixture of immaturity, egocentrism and megalomania; understandable, perhaps, in a young man, but hazardous in the leader of the globe’s second-biggest industrial power who, in the bargain, had a medieval understanding of a monarch’s rights and duties.

Kaiser Wilhelm and the Equilibrium of Europe
Kaiser Wilhelm and the Equilibrium of Europe

However, another of Wilhelm’s character traits, his notorious overestimation of his own abilities, dubbed by contemporaries “Caesaromania” or “Folie D’Empereur”, similarly inhibited his responsiveness to constructive criticism. For how could the monarch learn from experience if he despised his ministers, rarely received them and seldom listened to what they had to say; if he was convinced that all his diplomats had so “filled their knickers” that “the entire Wilhelmstraße stank” to high heaven; when he addressed even the War Minister and the Chief of the Military Cabinet with the words “you old asses”; and announced to a group of admirals: “All of you know nothing; I alone know something, I alone decide.” Even before coming to the throne he had warned, “Beware the time when I shall give the orders.” Even before Bismarck’s dismissal he had threatened to “smash” all opposition to his will. He alone was master of the Reich, he said in a speech in May 1891, and he would tolerate no others. To the Prince of Wales he proclaimed at the turn of the century: “I am the sole master of German policy and my country must follow me wherever I go.” Ten years later he explained in a letter to a young Englishwoman: “As for having to sink my ideas and feelings at the bidding of the people, that is a thing unheard-of in Prussian history or traditions of my house! What the German Emperor, King of Prussia thinks right and best for his People he does.” In September 1912 he chose Prince Lichnowsky to be ambassador in London against the advice of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Foreign Office with the words: “I will only send an ambassador to London who has My trust, obeys My will and carries out My orders.” And during the First World War he exclaimed: “What the public thinks is totally immaterial to me.” [Emphases added] (Röhl, p. 12 – 13).

The “iron will” to be the master of the nation or, perhaps, the world, was assisted by his ability to contemplate reality according to the dictates of his imagination. Even in his seventies, exiled in the Netherlands, he was able to arrive at the most surprising conclusion concerning the racial identity of his enemies:

“At last I know what the future holds for the German people, what we shall still have to achieve. We shall be the leaders of the Orient against the Occident! I shall now have to alter my picture ‘Peoples of Europe’. We belong on the other side! Once we have proved to the Germans that the French and English are not Whites at all but Blacks then they will set upon this rabble.” (Röhl, p. 13)

Thus, Wilhelm had made the amazing discovery that, in fact, the French and English are Negroes. Another reason for the ongoing decay of the human race, the retired emperor maintained, was a lack of proper respect for the authorities, in particular for himself. The news of the Boxer Rebellion in China he took as a personal insult and ordered Beijing to be “razed to the ground”. In his fear of the impending socialist revolution, he dwelt in fantasies of hundreds of demonstrators “gunned down” in the streets of Berlin, and occasionally recommended as the proper treatment for prisoners of war to starve them to death. Not only did he long to inflict revenge for slights in his own lifetime, in a desire to, literally, expunge history – to undo the Second, perhaps also the First French Revolution – he thirsted to “take revenge for 1848 – revenge!!!” (Röhl, p. 14)

His sense of humour was peculiar, too.

While his left arm was weak due to damage at birth, his right hand was strong in comparison, and he found amusement in turning his rings inwards and then squeezing the hand of visiting dignitaries so hard that tears came to their eyes. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria left Berlin “white-hot with hatred” after the Kaiser had slapped him hard on the behind in public. Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia [Tsar Nicholas II’s brother] was hit over the back by Wilhelm with a field-marshal’s baton. (Röhl, p. 15)

Aware of His Majesty’s sense of humour, his friends practiced creative imagination. At the occasion of a hunting expedition at Liebenberg in 1892, General Intendant Georg von Hülsen proposed to Count Görtz [“who was on the plump side”] (Röhl, p. 16):

“You must be paraded by me as a circus poodle! – That will be a ‘hit’ like nothing else. Just think: behind shaved (tights), in front long bangs out of black or white wool, at the back under a genuine poodle tail a marked rectal opening and, when you ‘beg’, in front a fig leaf. Just think how wonderful when you bark, howl to music, shoot off a pistol or do other tricks. It is simply splendid!!” [Emphases in original] (Röhl, p. 16)

Courtiers and bureaucrats soon found out that to offer such exquisite entertainment was a tried and true way to the monarch’s good graces, but, on the flip side, it aided to the proliferation of rumours. What, then, can we say about Wilhelm’s love life? As Edward Gibbon noted about Charlemagne, the two emperors had in common that chastity was not their most conspicuous quality. Officially, Wilhelm was able to have his court reporters belabour his marital fidelity, in the furtherance of which the Empress delivered sons in regular intervals, all in all six of them. Yet Wilhelm also had a certain propensity of writing hazardous letters, some of them to a well-known procuress in Vienna, and because of his willingness to sample the offers, the further maintenance of his public virtue was entrusted to the ministrations of his privy councillors, who bought the ladies’ discretion, took care, confidentially, of royal alimonies or, perhaps, arranged abortions. But it seems that these extramarital activities were purely of biological nature, so to say; sympathy, comfort and repose the monarch found with his male friends, although it appears that he did not participate in the more intimate expressions of these friendships.

Wilhelm II with his wifr Auguste Victoria von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augstenburg and his seven children
Wilhelm II with his wife Augusta Victoria von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augstenburg and his seven children

“I never feel happy, really happy at Berlin,” he wrote in his idiosyncratic English. “Only Potsdam [the station of his Guard Regiment, ¶], that is my ‘El Dorado’ … where one feels free with the beautiful nature around you
and soldiers as much as you like, for I love my dear regiment very much, those such kind nice young men in it.” In his regiment, as he confided to Eulenburg, he found his family, his friends, his interests – everything which he had previously missed. Over were the “terrible years in which no-one understood my individuality“… The voluminous political correspondence of Philipp Eulenburg leaves no scope for doubt that he (Eulenburg) and the other members of the influential “Liebenberg Circle” who in the 1890s stood at the very centre of the political stage in the Kaiser’s Germany were indeed homosexual, as their destroyer, Maximilian Harden, believed.

This of course raises the question of where to place the Kaiser on the “heterosexual – homosexual continuum.” If he ever did have anything approaching a homosexual experience, it almost certainly occurred in the mid-1880s, in the same period, that is, as his numerous extra-marital affairs with women. After interviewing Jakob Ernst, the Starnberg fisherman whose testimony in 1908 damaged Eulenburg’s case irreparably, Maximilian Harden became convinced that he was in possession of evidence which, if laid before the Kaiser, would suffice to cause him to abdicate. What information Harden received from Jakob Ernst, we can only guess at. In several letters written at this time, Harden linked Wilhelm II not only with Jakob Ernst but also with Eulenburg’s private secretary, Karl Kistler. But these are only straws in the wind, not proof. On the evidence presently available to us, it is probably wiser to assume, as Isabel Hull has written, that Wilhelm remained unconscious of the homoerotic basis of his friendship with Eulenburg and thus failed to recognize the homosexual aspects of his own character. (Röhl, p. 19 – 20)

In addition to these private distractions, the Kaiser’s medical afflictions gave reason for concern. From the pure medical point of view, the frequent infections of his right ear and sinus threatened to implicate the brain, and complications regarding the monarch’s moods and faculties of reasoning could not be ruled out. In 1895, the British diplomat M. Gosselin, who was employed in the British Embassy in Berlin, wrote to Lord Salisbury that the consequences for the peace of the world might be enormous “if a Sovereign who possesses a dominant voice in the foreign policy of the Empire is subject to hallucinations and influences which must in the long term warp his judgement, and render Him liable at any moment to sudden changes of opinion which no-one can anticipate or provide against.” (Röhl, p. 21)

There was general agreement. Lord Salisbury himself thought the Kaiser “not quite normal”; Prime Minister Herbert Asquith saw a “disordered brain” at work; Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Minister, regarded Wilhelm as “not quite sane, and very superficial”; Grand Duke Sergius of Russia thought the Kaiser “mentally ill”; and the doyen of the Berlin Diplomatic Corps, the Austrian Military Attaché Freiherr von Klepsch-Kloth, diagnosed that Wilhelm was “not really sane” and had, “as one says, a screw loose.” (Röhl, p. 21 – 22) John Röhl collected a few more statements of witnesses:

In 1895 Friedrich von Holstein complained that the Kaiser’s “glow-worm” character constantly reminded Germans of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whom had gone mad. Early in 1896, after a violent row with the Kaiser, the Prussian War Minister, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, said “that H.M. did not appear to be quite normal and that he [Schellendorf] was deeply concerned about the future”. In the following year Holstein wrote that the Conservative Party thought the Kaiser was “not quite normal”, that the King of Saxony had declared him to be “not quite stable” and that the Grand Duke of Baden had spoken “in a very worrying way about the psychological side of the matter, about the loss of touch with reality”. Reich Chancellor Prince Hohenlohe also once earnestly asked Bülow [his eventual successor] whether he “really believed that the Kaiser was mentally normal”. Such views became commonplace after the Kaiser’s notorious speech of February 1897, in which he referred to Bismarck and Moltke as “lackeys and pygmies”. Count Anton Monts, the Prussian Envoy to Bavaria, wrote from Munich that the emperor was clearly no longer of sane mind. “I gather from the hints of the doctors that the Kaiser can still be cured, but that the chances grow dimmer with each day.” (Röhl, p. 22)

Wilhelm and his sons on parade ...
Wilhelm and his sons on parade …

Now the complete absence of meaningful checks and balances in the federal constitution came to harm the nation. There were no procedures for a transfer of power except for the death or the voluntary abdication of the monarch, an act Wilhelm clearly would not consider. Thus, he continued to utter the abstruse opinions the world press by now expected from him, and it was easy enough for Germany’s opponents to profit from the uninterrupted chain of public relation debacles the Kaiser left in his wake. Soon a theory developed that explained Wilhelm’s recklessness as the result of a specific German inclination towards authoritarian government, militarism, and general unfriendliness.

The young Kaiser’s less than stellar performance eventually split the nationalist Right: one faction that remained committed to the monarch and another that, as splits are wont to do, only escalated its patriotic demands to pursue a policy of maximal “German power and greatness through expansion and conquest of inferior people.” (Kershaw, p. 78) In practice, this super-nationalist cabal tended to narrow the political options of the government, which at the same time was hysterically engaged to suppress anti-Prussian socialists and Catholics as much as was legally possible. The administration’s demographic basis of support was in danger of shrinking; parts of the “old order … were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism.” (Kershaw, p. 74) The Kaiser did not publicly disagree.

For those who listened, it was quite clear from the 1890s onward that the Kaiser’s idea of war was that it was a rather normal occasion – he believed and so publicly admitted – that “war” was a “royal sport, to be indulged in by hereditary monarchs and concluded at their will”. (Röhl, p. 207) In the age of machine guns, this was an atavistic attitude. And here the Kaiser’s authority in appointments and dismissals fired back: soon no other counsels were waged than such that were sure to meet His Majesty’s approval; no one dared to oppose him, and his brown-nosed sycophants, who at length populated the upper crust of the civil and military leadership, became used to and most efficient in anticipating the monarch’s desires.

Cavalry attack at the Battle of Loigny, 1870

In the realm of the military, Willy remained a man of the past as well. Influenced by the victorious battles of the German unification wars of 1864 to 1871, he evidenced a propensity for cavalry attacks over open terrain – which had worked then, but in an age of quick-firing artillery and machine guns proved to come to nothing but mass suicide.

Such Imperial Manoeuvres as in 1913 became suicidal in 1914

So how could anything go wrong in July 1914, when the Imperial will-o’-the-wisp was confronted with the question of world peace itself? This will be the subject of a separate post.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

Hits: 403

Development of the Modern Prussian Army

Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745
Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745

After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.

Major Battles
Major Battles

The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:

International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.

Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.

Power had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen (Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle, while the French, Austrians and Russians also expanded their horse arm.

It was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in close-order tactics and taught, above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.

The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.

Among the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished. Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain, sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.

The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.

The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.

The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s  with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.

Engel’s testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the state. As a young revolutionary he pinned his hopes of that victory on the proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he sought to persuade himself that the  proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.

His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.

In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.

In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.

A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:

Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants –  and confronting the legions in their homeland.

Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.

Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.

Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:

As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.

To a whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially significant in the military realm.

The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.

They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.

And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …

Special schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.

As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the
stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Hits: 385

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén