History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

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Russian Strategy 1890 – 1914

The Straits 1915/16 during the Battle of Gallipoli

This will be a very long post and take some time to finish, approximately until the summer of 2020. Please be welcome to bookmark it. Quotations will be listed after completion on the bottom of the text.

Part I: From the Conference of Berlin to the Russo-Japanese War (1878 – 1905)

Russia’s geopolitical issues are mostly of geographic nature, the inaccessibility of much of Siberia, the endless distances and the perennial problem of her ports – both for trade and military purposes. Before the construction of the port of Murmansk in 1915, there were only two Russian ports in the north-west: Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg (later renamed Petrograd). Arkhangelsk, however, was useless in the winter, and the usability of St. Petersburg was easily controlled by an eventual blockade of the Kattegat Strait by Germany. The Pacific ports suffered from transport handicaps – although the Trans-Siberian Railway was more or less functioning by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904/05, it was a single track only and its capacity was low. There were, however, ice-free ports available in the Black Sea …

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 brought two principal changes in the strategic equilibrium of the continent; one clear and immediately visible, the other latent, circumspect, and slow in its consequences. Number One was the emergence of a new, possibly dominant, power on the continent – Wilhelmine Germany – which everybody had to take note of; Number Two was the emergence of another, possibly dominant, European power – an industrialized and modernized Russian Empire – of which few took notice.

Franco-German enmity had become a predictable factor of the new European reality; revanchism was to remain the French Right’s battle cry for the foreseeable future. That France’s desire for revenge could not be fulfilled without outside aid was also clear; both her stagnant population and relative industrial underperformance – at least if compared to Germany – illustrated her weakness. She could not endanger Germany unless in concert with Russia, but this avenue Bismarck had blocked.

If Franco-German tension was the western centre of European politics after 1871, the other two were in the East, consisting of the triangles ConstantinopleSt. PetersburgVienna and Constantinople – London – St. Petersburg. These were the centres of attention of all European powers – except perhaps for Germany, which was far away and could not hope to profit from a breakup of the Ottoman Empire. They paid mindfulness to the decay of the Turkish realm and stood ready to pick up the pieces. Triangle One defined the Balkans, the scene of Austro-Russian disputes over their future inheritance, and Triangle Two incorporated Mesopotamia and Persia, the pieces over which Russia and Great Britain expected to haggle after the demise of the Ottomans.

Bismarck was only too aware of the quandaries of the situation, and thus had provided for the”Re-Insurance Treaty“, which held Russia to neutrality in the case of a new Franco-German war regardless of origin, and thus banned the spectre of Germany having to fight a two-front war. But after his retirement in 1890, the Re-Insurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire through the legendary stupidity of Wilhelm II, new Chancellor Leo von Caprivi and the new Secretary of State Bieberstein; the latter did not even inquire in St. Petersburg whether the Czar desired a prolongation of the compact. The Russian court, perplexed, could only interpret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inexplicable German hostility and began to look for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.

To discern that both the European and Asian borderlands of the Ottoman Empire were the most volatile areas of the respective international relations did not require the application of prophecy, and someone should have noticed that Russia was the attractor that figured in each possible crisis scenario, but no one did, and few care today; as Sean McMeekin notes, “as for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honour, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (12)

It is indicative of a habitual geopolitical superficiality that even general history works of the era do not enlighten the curious layman what, for example, French, British, Australian and New Zealand troops sought at the Gallipoli Peninsula, i.e. the Dardanelles, in 1915/16. There were no Germans, nor Austrians, and the landscape was not very attractive.

To prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement had been Bismarck’s priority, but as we had the opportunity to observe, the German Foreign Office was far too preoccupied after 1890 with internal strife and incompetence to notice the signs of the times; the failure was aggravated by the fact that the two decades after 1890 were the years in which the fateful system of alliances developed and petrified.

Early signs of trouble came from south-eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, the critical triangle between Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg. Slavic hotheads instigated local insurrections from the mid-1870s on; some were home-grown, as in Bulgaria, where, Luigi Albertini remarks, more than two hundred revolutionary committees could be counted in 1872, (13) and some were kindled by Serbian agents. Russian expansionism and Slavic ethnocentricity concerted, founded upon age-old Russo-Turkish and Austro-Slavic enmity; encouraged, perhaps, by the Russian generals’ impression that both Turks and Austrians were militarily inferior, “beatable“, so to say. Luigi Albertini sums up the Russian designs on the Turks as follows:

Russian ambitions in the Balkan Peninsula were of ancient date. [FN5] Eight wars at least she had waged on the Turks either to take their territory or to help Orthodox Slavs and Greeks to throw off the Turkish yoke. In the recent Crimean War Russia had come up against Austrian hostility. Forgetful of services rendered by the Tsar in 1849, when Nicholas I had saved Francis Joseph’s throne by sending Russian troops to smother the Hungarian revolt, Austria had maintained an unfriendly neutrality during this war, and at the Congress of Paris in 1856 had helped to deprive Russia of part of Bessarabia.

Having reached the Black Sea in the eighteenth century, Russia henceforward aspired to free access to the Mediterranean. But the Straits were in Turkish possession, and entry to them was regulated by international agreements unfavourable to Russia. The Black Sea was a mare clausum [FN6] and its key was in other hands. Still, older than the Russian aspiration to the Straits was the aspiration for Constantinople. [FN7] The cross was to be raised on the Church of Santa Sophia as a symbol of the protection given by Russia to the Balkan Christians and of her aid in their liberation. (14)

The Growth of Russia 1613 – 1914

[FN5] Albertini explains: “In 1833, by the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, Russia had achieved the closing of the Dardanelles to enemy fleets seeking to penetrate to the Black Sea. This clause was modified by the Treaty of London of 1840 and the Straits Convention of 1841, which denied the Straits to ships of war whether entering or leaving the Black Sea, a principle confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1856, which further forbade both Russia and Turkey to have warships in the Black Sea. After the denunciation of this clause by Russia in 1870, the Treaty of London had withdrawn the veto, but had for the first time admitted the principle that foreign warships might enter the Black Sea in time of peace, if the Sultan deemed it necessary for the safeguarding of the other clauses of the Treaty of Paris. Thus, Russia could not pass her Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean, while the Sultan could admit enemy fleets into the Black Sea, a complete reversal to the disadvantage of Russia of the principle of the closed Straits.” (16) [FN6] Latin: a “closed sea” [FN7] Sean McMeekin comments that Constantinople had been called “Tsargrad” by Russians for centuries; the town from where, after successful Reconquista from the Muslims, the Tsar would reign over a “Second Rome“, a new Orthodox Christian Empire. (17)

The Balkan after the Treaty of Berlin 1878

The development of Pan-Slavism in the 1860s added to the volatility of the region, for the enthusiasts of some imaginary ethnic unity demanded the establishment of a greater Slavic confederation, which was to include “Russia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Constantinople with the Straits, a Serb-Croat-Slovene realm corresponding approximately to Yugoslavia, and in addition Greece, Romania and Hungary.” (15) It would appear thus, that Greek, Romanians and Hungarians would become involuntary Slavs, and in addition, one might argue that there were few Slavs in Constantinople who urgently expected their liberation. But Pan-Slavism found its most enthusiastic adherents in the south: neither the Poles, who longed to have their state back, which had been divided up by Russia, Austria and Prussia in the three successive divisions of the late eighteenth century, nor the Czechs, who aspired to their own state in Bohemia and Moravia, eventually together with the Slovaks a bit further east, were keen on a union with southern Slavs, for they were only too keenly aware of the ethnic and religious divisions of the Balkan.

Ethnolinguistic Map 1910

There existed within the southern Slavs living in Austria-Hungary a quite numerous faction which would accept the recently quite liberal Habsburg reign and aspired to little more than, say, limited home rule and decent representation in the administration of the realm. The Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was essentially open to their suggestions, but the goodwill of the constructive faction came to nought because of the intransigence of the Hungarian nobility — in some respects, the Slavs were less of a problem to Austria than the Hungarians, who, by skilful negotiation, had created for themselves a very advantageous position in the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich of 1867.

Luigi Albertini summarizes the result of the bargain:

[By the Ausgleich] … the Empire was divided into two rigidly separated States; on the one hand Austria with the Hereditary Crown lands formerly belonging to the Holy Roman Empire and the later acquisitions Galicia and Dalmatia, and on the other Hungary together with Transylvania and Croatia, from which Fiume was detached and placed directly under Hungary.

Each of the two states was to have its own Constitution, Government, and Parliament. Common to both states were the Ministers for War, Foreign Affairs, and Finance, the latter in so far as he administered the revenues covering defence and diplomatic expenditure. While legislation and the budget came under the separate parliaments, their joint interests were to be dealt with by standing committees called Delegations nominated annually by the respective Parliaments. For matters concerning commerce and customs, the two governments were to conclude separate agreements every ten years.

Though the word Ausgleich means “equalization” and the compromise assured equal rights to both sides, Austria was to contribute 70% of the joint expenditure and Hungary only 30%, which, as Friedjung [Heinrich Friedjung, then Professor at the University of Vienna] observes, was equivalent to a “tribute obligation” from Austria to Hungary, of which the Hungarians were wont to boast. (18)

In his role as King of the Hungarians, Emperor Francis Joseph was bound by the resolutions of the Hungarian parliament, and thus, as the Austrian historian Viktor Bibl observed, the Magyars had the upper hand in governmental practice:

Not two sovereign Parliaments were to deal with joint business; not the King of Hungary and the Emperor were to base themselves on an agreement between the two states. Solely the Hungarian Parliament and Ministers impose their will as law on the entire Monarchy, including Austria; the King of Hungary as executor of the Hungarian national will is absolute master of Austria. (19)

Ethnicities of Austria-Hungary

And so it had come to pass that most of the southern Slavs of the Empire had come under the Hungarian thumb, from which they received little kindness. It was the small, semi-autonomous Principality of Serbia, technically a province of the Ottoman Empire, which, relying on Russian protection in the case of failure, felt elected to propel Pan-Slavic dreams toward their eventual fulfilment. After raising an insurgency against the Turkish overlords in Bosnia 1875, the Serbian ruler Prince Milan urged Constantinople to entrust his state with the governance of the errant province. When the Sultan denied the motion, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Turks on June 30, 1876. By September, they were defeated, and the Serbs asked their putative protector, Tsar Alexander II, to intercede on their behalf and to arrange an armistice. Russia eyed the possibility to have found in the Serbo-Turkish war a proper excuse to attack the Ottomans themselves, but this could not be done unless Austrian neutrality could be obtained.

Diplomatic missives were exchanged between Vienna and St. Petersburg, and despite Austrian conditions that, in Albertini’s words, were “tantamount to [Russia] fighting for the benefit of Austria-Hungary,” (20) a military convention and political agreement was signed in Budapest in early 1877, and Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24. The Convention of Budapest awarded Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austria and assured her that no greater Slavic state was to be founded in the Balkans as a result of Russia’s future endeavours.

Eventually, Russia won a confused campaign, and in March 1878 exacted from Turkey the Treaty of San Stefano. The agreement established a geographically generous, supposedly independent Bulgaria on Turkey’s doorstep, which, however, could fool no one as to its being a “Russian outpost towards Constantinople“. (21) In addition, the compact not only bestowed full independence on Serbia, Montenegro and Romania but also provided autonomy, under Austro-Russian “supervision“, to Bosnia and Hercegovina.

All that, of course, directly violated the Convention of Budapest and also was far more than Great Britain was willing to tolerate – for it turned out that Russia and Austria had clandestinely agreed to “liberate” Constantinople, which would become a “Free City“. Now an Anglo-Russian conflict threatened over the San Stefano Treaty, and Austria espied an opportunity to renegotiate her terms with Russia. For her benevolent neutrality, she now demanded not only Bosnia and the Hercegovina, again, but added parts of Montenegro and of the large Bulgarian state which the San Stefano Treaty had just created. It was all too obvious to suspect that Austria envisioned a road for herself all the way down to Salonika and the Aegean Sea; on August 6, 1878, Count Julius Andrassy, then Austria’s Foreign Minister, admitted in a letter to the King of Wuerttemberg that the possession of these lands “enables us in the event of a collapse of Turkey to be as near as possible to the scene, to safeguard our interests.” (22)

With Austria entering the race for the Straits – for a naval base in Salonika, furnished with the proper ships, could easily close the Straits independently of Turks or Russians or the British – the situation became opaque, impenetrable, while the stakes increased. Great Britain’s new Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury realized this, and, assisted by Bismarck, whose back channels in St. Petersburg had informed him about the Austro-Russian collusion, invited the European powers to a continental congress to adjudicate all pending matters, which opened in Berlin on June 13, 1878.

Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli

After a lot of horse-trading and pressure brought to bear by Bismarck and Lord Beaconsfield, i.e. Benjamin Disraeli, the congress eventually entrusted Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austrian occupation, while upholding titular Turkish suzerainty over these provinces. In addition, Austria reserved the right to intercede in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the strip of territory separating Serbia and Montenegro, if the Ottomans were unable to guarantee a competent administration of the province, which remained under their sovereignty.

The problem of the Straits, however, could not be addressed satisfactorily; for England and Russia could not find a compromise. (23) Statehood and independence were granted to Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, the latter two receiving additional territories. Russia appropriated Armenia and reoccupied Bessarabia. The island of Cyprus Great Britain had secured from Turkey on June 4, ten days before the Congress began; that she attempted to keep the acquisition secret – in vain, when the news went around the world on July 8 – was only more water on the mills of those who were wont to complain about “Perfidious Albion” and her hypocrisy. The bottom line, however, was that everybody had profited “at the expense of Turkey, to which up to 1878 had belonged Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bessarabia, Armenia, and Cyprus, and under whose sovereignty till then had stood Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.” (24)

This short description of the events giving rise to the Congress of Berlin has been chosen to serve as an impression of the manner in which European diplomacy was customarily handled; in the best case, its double and triple layers of deceit could be repaired by the efforts of reasonable and skilful men like Disraeli and Bismarck; under the aegis of lesser diplomatic talents, accidents happened galore, as may be read in detail in Luigi Albertini’s magnum opus.

We shall now attempt to concentrate the next twenty-five years or so of European power politics, each of them as complicated and deceptive as the events that led to the Congress of Berlin – and some worse – in a form that hopefully allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. Essentially, we shall follow the interplay of the Great Powers, mindful that the rapid sociological and economic changes of the industrial age exerted limitations on governmental options than had been unknown only decades earlier – fear of socialism, for one.

The Congress of Berlin had not only addressed questions of the Balkans but many other points of interest and one of its results had been that Bismarck and Disraeli had granted France “a free hand in Tunis,” (25) for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Mediterranean instead of courting Russia. Licence for France, however, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new possessions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather underdeveloped and would be expected to do her homework first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the aforementioned psychological desiderata of successful imperialism.

In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and established a protectorate over the region, but because at this time Gladstone and the conservatives were in power in England, far more sceptical to French acquisitions in Africa than Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had been, Italy thought she might enlist British aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But England was loath to replace a French threat to her Mediterranean position with a potentially worse Italian one and Rome got nowhere. Having arrived there, only an understanding with Germany could help, but then Bismarck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pursuing a “jackal policy”. (26) Thus it took another eighteen months of horse-trading before, on May 20, 1882, Germany, Austria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alliance”, valid for five years.

Black and white photo of the signatures to the treaty of the Triple Alliance, 1882, Gustav Kálnoky, Austria-Hungary, Heinrich von Reuss, Germany, and Carlo di Robilant, Italy

The contract began with the solemn assurance that the parties “have agreed to conclude a Treaty which by its essentially conservative and defensive nature pursues only the aim of forestalling the dangers that might threaten the security of their States and the Peace of Europe.” (27) Because it was exactly such conservative, peaceful and defensive agreements that proved unable to stop the conflagration of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, summarized by Luigi Albertini:

The High Contracting Parties mutually promised peace and friendship, pledged themselves to enter into no alliance or engagement directed against one of their States and to exchange views on political and economic questions of a general nature that might arise, [and] promised mutual support within the limits of their own interests (Article I).

Austria and Germany undertook in the case of an unprovoked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same obligation was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggression by France on Germany without direct provocation (Article II).

If one or two of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not signatories of the treaty, the casus foederis would arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties (Article III).

In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a signatory to the Treaty, which threatened its security, the two others would maintain benevolent neutrality, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Article IV). (28)

Propaganda poster

The attentive reader will have readily identified two problems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the signatories is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the question under which conditions this might be the case. Second, some scenarios were left out; for example, the contract would not apply if Austria would be attacked by Russia alone. The alliance was, of course, directed against France; Bismarck, whose opinion of the Italians had not much improved, saw the purpose of the Triple Alliance less in winning Italy but in preventing her from associating with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”]. By 1888, Romania had essentially joined the Triple Alliance, and the situation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, continental equilibrium: France was isolated, and Bismarck himself would ensure that the interests of Russia and Austria on the Balkan would not collide. Great Britain’s interests would profit from a stabilization of the continent as well and Russia’s aspirations on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.

After some mending of socks, the Triple Alliance was renewed on February 20, 1887, on identical terms, except for the addition of an Austro-Italian protocol that attempted to regulate the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a German-Italian agreement in which Italy reassured herself of German assistance in the case of a clash with France in central or western North Africa. (29)

Bismarck saw room for a further improvement of the status quo if Great Britain and Italy were to come to an understanding against France, and when Franco-British relations in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Minister Freycinet publicly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass permanently under English rule because ‘he who is master of Egypt is in large part master of the Mediterranean,'” Lord Salisbury began to make overtures to Italy. (30) Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” (31) In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Britain signed an agreement regarding the retention of the status quo and pledging mutual support in Africa, an understanding Austria joined in late March 1887 to the chagrin of the aggressive Hungarian faction. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s attention that her planned occupation of Tripoli, which belonged to the Ottomans, might constitute a change of this status quo, and when the Italian Foreign Minister Crispi wrote to Salisbury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anticipate a similar French plan, Salisbury made clear that British support would not extend to such adventures. He wrote back:

“The interests of Great Britain as also those of Italy do not permit that Tripolitania should have a fate similar to that of Tunisia. We must absolutely guard against such an eventuality when it threatens us. … If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France having taken any aggressive measure, she would expose herself to the reproach of having revived the Near Eastern question in very disadvantageous conditions.” (32)

On the eastern side of the Triple Alliance, Austria seemed to contemplate war with Russia over Serbia and Bulgaria. Kalnoky, the new Austrian Foreign Minister, approached Bismarck with his generals’ wish to clarify the exact conditions under which the casus foederis under the Austro-German Alliance of 1879 would arise. The problem was that the Reinsurance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bismarck had to prevaricate. The Austro-German Alliance, he replied, provided for German assistance in the case of a Russian attack on Austria, but not for an Austrian attack on Russia, as he thought to have made clear to the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin in January 1886:

“If Russia attacks Austria-Hungary, Germany will come to her assistance with all her forces, but it is not possible to let Germany play the role of auxiliary army to increase Austro-Hungarian influence on the Danube. Not a member of parliament would be found to vote even a single mark for such a purpose.” (33)

In a speech to the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, Bismarck had publicly clarified, with an eye on the Hungarian hotheads that:

“Our relations with Austria-Hungary are based on the consciousness of each one of us that the whole existence of each as a Great Power is a necessity to the other in the interests of European equilibrium; but these relations do not, as they are interpreted at times in the Hungarian Parliament, rest on the principle that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy completely at the service of the other.

This is an utter impossibility. There exist specifically Austrian interests which we cannot undertake to defend, and there are specifically German interests which Austria cannot undertake to defend. We cannot each adopt the other’s special interests.” (34)

Austria had become the problem in both the Triple Alliance – for perpetual Austro-Italian tensions – and the Dreikaiserbund, due to her frequent spats and spars with Russia. In the winged words of Norman Stone, “Austria-Hungary was trying to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rank one.” (35) It was a sign of the respect Bismarck commanded in all European capitals that he was able to balance the diverging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was in office. But, as Luigi Albertini commented, “Bismarck’s resignation in March 1890 produced a sense of dismay all over Europe. His authority and prestige, the veneration which surrounded him, the fear he inspired, were beyond compare,” and observed that “the youthful sovereign who had dropped him [Wilhelm II] had no policy of his own, and a sinister influence on German foreign relations was exercised by the tortuous Holstein who, in his hatred for Bismarck, reversed all the latter’s directives.” (36)


Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another six years but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St. Petersburg when her new Prime Minister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance “in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.” (37)

This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties, one could not check whether it was true or not. Thus, Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in an invitation to the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace.

A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government sanctioned a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassador in Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:

“1. With the aim of defining and consecrating the “Entente Cordiale” which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.

2. In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.” (38)

Elementary scrutiny, however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, that blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus, it took an additional twenty months of haggling and bickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was a reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:

“1. If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.

2. In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.” (39)

Bismarck’s nightmare had become reality.

The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between 700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coordination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed. (40)

Czar Nicholas II at Franco-Russian Manoeuvres 1901

Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make any military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could not stand aside.” (41)

This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche for 1870/71 would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date. [FN1] What was true in 1894 became more true twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.” (42)

[FN1] The present author, however, disputes Luigi Albertini’s subsequent opinion that “it would be wrong to imagine that the Franco-Russian Alliance was concluded by the French with a view to an impending revanche or by the Russians to realize their aspirations in the Balkans and the Far East. What both sought was to end their isolation.” (44) In reality, France was not isolated any more than Great Britain, which saw no need to engage in questionable alliances then; both had extensive colonial interests that guaranteed them a major voice in global politics independent of alliances. In addition, French Republicans were much more sympathetic to liberal England than to reactionary Russia. Russia was assured of non-intervention by the powers that counted – which did not include Austria-Hungary, which could not threaten Russia on her own – and protected by her vastness that had defeated even Napoleon – as long as she did not attempt to go for Constantinople and the Straits. Yet by exposing Germany to a potentially immobilizing two-front war, she might gain the opportunity to fight and decide in her favour what Sean McMeekin called the “War of the Ottoman Succession“. (45)

Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time. The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.

General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea, the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary, it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to the Tsar: “Mobilization is a declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of the following suit is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore on July 25, 1914, when Russia was to be the first Power to order mobilization. (43)

Franco-Russian Manoeuvre at Chalons 1906

Now Great Britain found herself the odd man out, but her traditional equanimity, or indecisiveness, had preserved her so far from having to jeopardize her global aims by continental obligations. But she had to protect the Mediterranean lifeline that connected her to Egypt and the Near East and for this reason, was interested in opposing French influence in the western part of the Mediterranean by friendship with Italy that would bring the necessary authority to bear in Her Majesty’s name; yet, alas, her aversion to make binding commitments won the day, and Italy declined free services. But England might be left in a dubious position if, for instance, France and Russia were to cooperate in seizing Constantinople and the Straits. Such a scenario seemed possible after their alliance had become known, but Great Britain declined to join the Triple Alliance pre-emptively over this scenario, although her Prime Minister Rosebery acknowledged that “in such a case we should require the assistance of the Triple Alliance to hold France in check.” (46)

When Great Britain extended feelers to Germany over such a scenario, she was rebuffed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, from traditional friendship to Russia as well as antipathy to England made it clear that a Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Straits would, in his opinion, not constitute a casus belli for Germany; the interest of Austria could be maintained by giving her Salonika as a compensation. It was the remainder of Bismarck’s old policy of dividing the Balkans into two spheres of influence for Russia and Austria, and presiding over them as arbitrator. But Wilhelm was not Bismarck and thus the nostalgic endeavour tanked.

When tensions increased in South Africa between Boers and Britishers in 1895, Wilhelm II easily managed to upset Great Britain with his ill-advised Kruger telegram of January 3, 1896, in which he congratulated the Boer President to his accomplishments in driving out English raiders (“I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without.“). A few months earlier he had demanded in a conversation with the British Military Attaché in Berlin that England “take up a clear position either with the Triple Alliance or against it“, adding that “the former alternative would require a formal undertaking such as was customary between continental Powers, i.e. sealed and signed guarantees.'” (49) The same invitation he extended in writing to the new Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in London on December 20, 1895, who, however, failed to acknowledge receipt. Given that Wilhelm knew Britain’s disinclination to formal alliances perfectly well, one is left to wonder about his state of mind.

Meanwhile, Italy’s Prime Minister Francesco Crispi complained to Bülow, then Ambassador in Rome, that “France makes war on us everywhere. Whatever may be said about the Triple Alliance being concluded to maintain peace, for us it has been the opposite. For us the Triple Alliance is war. Our position is intolerable. And I repeat, for us, this state of affairs is worse than war.” (50) There was, of course, no true war going on, except for a few ruffled feathers in Italy’s excitable nature, but Crispi’s complaint depicts the psychological afflictions of the imperial age. In reply, Chancellor Hohenlohe pointed out that the alliance was a defensive league to maintain peace, not a clique of robbers. (51) Italy’s frustration continued, although she was able to come to an agreement with France over Tunisia in late 1896.

In the Balkan, Austria continued the attempts to enlarge her domain of influence further east than Bismarck’s old division of influence spheres had suggested, chiefly driven by her State Department that was occupied by a Russophobe Hungarian camarilla; the result, increasing tensions with Russia, irritated Berlin, which made clear that it would not support an Austrian strike at Constantinople. Austria then attempted to enlist England’s aid, but, again, Salisbury replied in the name of Her Majesty’s government that “it was impossible to take any engagement involving an obligation to go to war” and Vienna got nowhere.” (52)

Bernhard von Bülow

A change in the German government brought the replacement of Foreign Minister Marschall von Bieberstein by Bülow and the appointment of Alfred von Tirpitz to the post of Secretary for the Navy in June 1897. These substitutions would prove fatefully important, for not only were here the origins of Germany’s naval race with England but the notorious Pan-German League, founded in 1893, began to exert political influence as well.


Alike many naval officers of the time, Tirpitz had become a follower of Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval captain, whose book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” had become a military bestseller. It argued that, as England’s example proved, it was necessary for an empire to maintain sea power, that is, a battle fleet superior to her competitors, to project global influence and protect its economic interests. Tirpitz relished the idea very much, not in the least because it would much improve the prestige of the German navy, that is, his own office, which up to then had been a small department for coastal defence. Tirpitz had Mahan’s book translated and distributed to everybody he knew.

He was anti-British, too, which put him in the emperor’s good graces; a feeling that was largely reciprocated in England. Luigi Albertini cites the “Saturday Review” of September 11, 1897, which argued that “in all parts of the earth English and Germans jostle each other. Were every German to be wiped out tomorrow, there is no English trade, no English pursuit, that would not immediately expand”, and recommended that “Germania est delenda“. (53)

Numerous Italian, Austrian and German appeals to England in the last decade or so, inviting her to the Triple Alliance, had failed to impress her much, but from 1898 on the situation reversed itself; now Whitehall sought German attention. At the same time, renewed Russian scepticism over the Entente with France led the Tsar to propose a continental alliance of all powers against “the ambition, the implacable egoism, and the avidity of England.” (54) A Bismarck might have been able to square this diplomatic circle; Wilhelm, the old Chancellor von Hohenlohe and Bülow were not.

Suddenly China appeared in the German focus. When General Obruchev arrived from St. Petersburg with some anti- England proposals in the autumn of 1897, Bülow succeeded, while stalling Obruchev’s original mission, to win the Tsar over to assist Germany in the acquisition of a combined port, trading post and coaling station on the Pacific Coast. With the Tsar’s connivance, taking advantage of the weakness of the Chinese government, German troops landed at Jiao Xian in China’s Shandong peninsula, over which they acquired a ninety-nine-year concession in March 1898 (Tsingtao). The Russians, meanwhile, had obtained their own Pacific harbour in Port Arthur, which became the principal port for their Far Eastern fleet after they had thrown out some nosy Britishers. Russian admirals had read Mahan’s book as well.

German Tsingtao, Postcard, about 1910

In the eyes of Her Majesty’s government, the Russian activities were quite close to poaching in England’s own back garden, for Great Britain controlled more than eighty per cent of the Chinese trade. She was not likely to allow Russian expansion – the German colony was too small to matter. In the Mediterranean, Austria-Hungary and Italy, to a degree, counteracted the spread of Russian influence, but who could aid Britannia against Russia in the Far East?

In the opinion of Joseph Chamberlain, head of the British Liberal Unionists and Secretary for the Colonies, it might be Germany. Unlike Salisbury, he saw dangers in England’s isolation. Already French expeditions probed the White Nile from the south and had established a base near Fashoda (today’s Kodok in Sudan). Chamberlain used Salisbury’s absence from the Foreign Office on account of a spa visit to Europe after March 25, 1989, to advance his ideas, but, not being a diplomat, it would seem that he approached his pleadings to Germany, as Luigi Albertini commented, “in the manner of a business deal.” (55) Strangely enough, after all the earlier German overtures to England, now it was Bülow who prevaricated, citing concerns over Germany’s relation to Russia, which might suffer from a flirt with her mortal enemy. Bülow summarized his position in writing to Wilhelm that we “must hold ourselves independent between the two; be the pointer on the scales, not the pendulum swinging from left to right.” (56)

When Salisbury returned to Whitehall in late April 1898, he had to find out that Chamberlain had meanwhile made his demand of an alliance with Germany public, for instance in a speech on May 13 in Birmingham. Chamberlain’s reasoning, however, failed to convince Salisbury and the issue remained open. Suddenly Wilhelm took action, when …

… on 30 May 1898, the Kaiser took the step of writing to the Tsar telling him that three times in the last few weeks England had talked of an alliance, the last time requiring the answer within a brief time limit. As the Triple Alliance, Japan, and the United States were all to be included, the alliance could only be directed against Russia.

“I beg you to tell me what you can offer and what you will do if I refuse.”

Before answering, the Kaiser wanted to know the Tsar’s proposals. Let the latter not hesitate on account of France which could enter into any combination he desired. By this indiscretion, the Kaiser offered the prospect of reviving the old Continental league against England. The Tsar, however, did not rise to the bait but answered on 3 June that a few months earlier England had made attractive proposals to him too and that he was not in a position to answer the question whether or not it was advantageous to Germany to accept these repeated English offers. (57)

Wilhelm II

At this point, the reader might be excused if the suspicion arose that any system that depended on puerile aristocrats who habitually engaged in pissing contests was doomed to end in a global war. Wilhelm and his advisors concluded that “any agreement with England would appear directed against Russia and would lessen the security of Germany to east and west, while any agreement with Russia would appear directed against England and would lessen the chance of colonial acquisitions.” (58) The compulsiveness of imperialist reasoning reared its head again; had Bismarck been in office, he would have counselled that, in the worst case, a treaty with Russia might cost a few thousand square miles of torrid African steppe, but would prevent the annihilation of the Fatherland.

In the autumn of 1898, through Lascelles, her Ambassador in Berlin, England put the quite unheard-of proposition on the table – apparently secured by Chamberlain in a cabinet vote – that the two countries could reach agreement on mutual assistance if either one were attacked by two other Powers, but Bülow again prevailed in counselling against it by writing to Wilhelm, in a variation of his old theme, that, by declining any alliance with England or Russia, “Your Majesty can be present as Arbiter Mundi at the eightieth birthday celebrations of H.M. Queen Victoria.” (59) That no one would ask notoriously unreliable Wilhelm to assume this role never entered Bülow’s mind.

Meanwhile, trouble brewed in Sudan. Lord Kitchener had massacred the followers of the Mahdi at Omdurman and hoisted the Union Jack in Khartoum. Then he embarked on Fashoda with a small party, to challenge the French under Captain Marchand who had established a camp there. No one yielded, and both British and French flags flew in Fashoda while the diplomats in Paris and London ministrated on the matter. Escalation followed, to a degree at which war seemed to become a distinct possibility, until, on November 4, 1898, the French Foreign Minister Delcassé informed London that the French troops had been ordered to leave Fashoda.

Book on Marchand’s Expedition

France’s giving way may have been influenced by the liberal Dreyfusard movement, which deplored the reactionary leanings of the Tsar and the Kaiser and advocated rapprochement with Albion. On the other hand, the French Right, convinced that the Dreyfus scandal was a British machination to weaken her eternal enemy, inflamed the patriots. The journalist Cassagnac wrote that “if Germany is an object of hatred, it is for a definite past which can be wiped out. … But England’s hatred against us is inextinguishable; England is the enemy of yesterday, tomorrow, and forever.” (60)

On December 11, 1898, the Tricolore was lowered at Fashoda but the crisis was not yet over. (61) To bring it to a negotiated end, Paul Cambon became the new French Ambassador at the Court of St. James, a post he would hold until 1920. Eventually, a treaty was signed that recognized England’s claims on Egypt and the Upper Nile valleys yet allowed France expansion toward the west and south. That, however, seemed to infringe an earlier Anglo-Italian agreement over the latter’s right in the Tripolitanian hinterlands and the problem was not resolved until two years later, when by mutual declaration, France signalized disinterest in Tripolitania while Italy admitted the same for Morocco. That the Italians completely managed to botch their eventual invasion in Libya twelve years later is a different story, and will be related below.

Meanwhile, in August 1898, the new Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, had proposed an international conference to discuss “the most effective means of assuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace and in particular to put an end to the progressive development of existing armaments.” (62) Although rumours held, perhaps truthfully, that all that Russia wanted was a temporary slowing down of the armaments race for the purpose of rebuilding and modernizing her own artillery, (63) the conference eventually took place at The Hague, in the Netherlands, from May 18 to July 29, 1899. The first instance of discussion was a Russian proposal to freeze conscription numbers for five years, which was easily shot down by Germany and Italy. The second proposal was to introduce international arbitration to conflicts, but, again, German opposition could not be overcome until the final version of the arbitration agreement amounted to making the process voluntary. Although a few innocent formulations were eventually developed, which graced the final deposition of the conference, the occasion had not accomplished much.

Hague Conference 1899

Perhaps as a reaction of Wilhelm’s unyielding opposition to the conference aims, Delcassé travelled to St. Petersburg a week after its conclusion, to renegotiate, if possible, the terms of the Entente Cordiale. He was received favourably and proposed to correct the political agreement of August 27, 1891, in that now not only the maintenance of peace but also “the equilibrium among the European forces” (64) became its objective. This was agreed on, and the French government’s unofficial propagandist Pierre Renouvin, a historian by trade, had no problem to recognize that the formula about the equilibrium “is a device to make Russia take into account the question of Alsace-Lorraine, which she affects to ignore …. It is thus accurate to say that the spirit of the Franco-Russian alliance is changed. “(65) It had changed indeed, for now, it could be interpreted to cover an attack as well, and the subsequent modifications in the Military Convention took this into account. Luigi Albertini tallies them up:

The [old] military convention of 1892 did not create obligations for France in case of a war of Russia against England. But the possibility of such a war was discussed at a meeting held in July 1900 between the Russian and French Chiefs of Staff, who drew up a protocol in which it was stated that if England attacked France, Russia would create a diversion against India with 300,000 men, when the construction of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway was completed; if on the other hand, England attacked Russia, the French General Staff would concentrate 150,000 men on the Channel coasts and threaten a landing in the British Isles.

For several months these terms remained a simple proposal of the two General Staffs; after a fresh visit of Delcassé to St. Petersburg in April 1901, it was laid down in an exchange of letters between Delcassé and
Lamsdorf [the new Russian Foreign Minister] on 16-17 May that the two Governments agreed to them in case of a war “imposed on Russia and France by England alone or by England supported by the Triple Alliance”. The agreement even began to be implemented when the French Government authorized a loan to Russia of 425,000,000 gold francs destined for the construction of strategic railways, in particular, the one from Orenburg to Tashkent. (66)

There was no doubt that the two general staffs also discussed other scenarios, say, a war with Germany or Austria. Meanwhile, on the British Islands, Chamberlain resumed his efforts to bring about an Anglo-German understanding. The occasion of his renewed attempt was the aforementioned birthday celebration of Queen Victoria, where, alas, no one yet had asked Wilhelm to arbitrate anything. Apparently, there was a conference at Windsor Castle, in which Wilhelm, Bülow, Asquith and Chamberlain participated and laid out a road map. It was resolved that Chamberlain would smooth the way, which he attempted to do in a speech at Leicester on November 30, 1899. He opined that:

“I cannot conceive any point which can arise in the immediate future, which would bring ourselves and the Germans into antagonism of interests. On the contrary, I can see many things which must be a cause of anxiety to the statesmen of Europe, but in which our interests are clearly the same as the interests of Germany and in which that understanding of which I have spoken [previously] in the case of America might, if extended to Germany, do more, perhaps, than any combination of arms in order to preserve the peace of the world.

If the union between England and America is a powerful factor in the cause of peace, a new Triple Alliance between the Teutonic race and the two branches of the Anglo-Saxon race will be a still more potent influence in the future of the world. I have used the word ‘alliance’, but again I desire to make it clear that to me it seems to matter little whether you have an alliance which is committed to paper, or whether you have an understanding in the minds of the statesmen of the respective countries.” (67)

That was frank, perhaps too frank, and the proposal was received in neither country on its merits. In England, the affair over the Kruger telegram was not forgotten, and the papers had a field day; in Germany, the speech caused an unprecedented storm of indignation. The influential journalist Theodor Wolff of the Berliner Tagblatt vowed that Germany “was not going to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for England” (69); the Navy League fulminated that the offer was only directed at diverting money from the German fleet program to Albion’s sole benefit. Hastily, Bülow repented, and when laying before the Reichstag the Second Navy Law, he avowed that “in the coming century Germany will be either hammer or anvil,” (70) as if he had not been present at Windsor Castle.

The naval bill was truly enormous: it provided for the building of thirty-four battleships, fourteen heavy and thirty-eight light cruisers and eighty torpedo boats within sixteen years, (71) and necessitated the construction of three new harbour facilities to service all these ships. William explained to the world that he had never been to England in the first place, but if he had been, he would have been misunderstood. Not only had he never known of any English proposals, but he was also sure that, as he told the Russian Ambassador in Berlin, “‘Russia alone could paralyse English power and deal her, if need be, the mortal blow. Should the Tsar send his army against India, he [Wilhelm] would personally guarantee that nobody in Europe should move. He would mount guard along the French frontiers. … In England, they well know this. I have never concealed that in the Far East I shall never be on their side.” The astonished Ambassador asked if he were to report this conversation. “Certainly“, replied the Kaiser.” (72) It would seem that Wilhelm’s megalomania was doing well.

After Bülow and Holstein repeatedly disavowed an English alliance, the renewed, tacit advances of new Foreign Minister Lansdowne and Lord Salisbury – now Prime Minister – found no positive reply. Finally, the latter stated the long and short of his government’s refusal to enter alliances in the memorandum of May 29, 1901.

“The British Government cannot undertake to declare war, for any purpose, unless it is a purpose of which the electors of this country would approve. If the Government promised to declare war for an object which did not commend itself to public opinion, the promise would be repudiated, and the Government would be turned out.

I do not see how, in common honesty, we could invite other nations to rely upon our aid in a struggle, which must be formidable and probably supreme, when we have no means, whatever, of knowing what may be the humour of our people in circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” (73)

When Lansdowne talked to the new German Ambassador Metternich on January 19, 1902, whether, despite the basic inability of Whitehall to enter in a military treaty, other mutual problems could be resolved, the new Ambassador replied that they could not; England would have to choose between all and nothing. We may reflect here on the words of the German historian Erich Brandenburg:

“In trying, by means of carefully balanced paragraphs to escape the danger of being exploited by England and then left in the lurch, our political leaders conjured the far greater peril of driving our natural allies into the arms of our opponents and leaving ourselves isolated. Yet they constantly cherished the conviction that they had acted wisely because England must and would eventually return. The English never came back to us. They went instead to our enemies.” (74)

Anglo-German talks largely ceased, and the attention of Wilhelmstrasse turned to the important matter of the renewal of the Triple Alliance, on the calendar for summer 1902. Italy had experienced another change of government and under the aegis of the new Foreign Minister Prinetti and the influence of King Victor Emmanuel III, whose anti-Austrian and anti- Wilhelmine feelings were well-known, plus the sympathies of new Prime Minister Zanardelli for the Irredentists [FN 11], the country seemed to lean more and more on France, especially since Prinetti was a Lombard, who were traditionally friendly towards France. In one of his earliest interviews, with the “New York Herald”, Zanardelli explained that “if the treaties [FN 12] are renewed, they can have no other aim than peace. We shall have to divest them of all suspicion, which unfortunately has several times arisen, of animosity toward France. It is our duty to work in that sense, because Italy and France must remain friends.” (75)

[FN 11] The Irredentists demanded the return to Italy of all Italian-speaking provinces, essentially those remaining with Austria, i.e. Friuli, Trentino and Trieste. [FN 12] That is, including the commercial adjuncts to the Triple Alliance.

Such talk was not suited to mollify either Berlin or Vienna, and when an Italian navy squadron visited Toulon, the principal French warship base in the Mediterranean, Bülow was reported to have told his Italian mother-in-law that “Italy will have to decide soon to make her choice between matrimony and concubinage.” (76) Most surprisingly, Italy subsequently decided to reveal her agreement with France over Tripolitania, which had been concluded in the aftermath of the Fashoda affair but had been kept secret.

In Bülow’s parlance, Italy’s tried the squaring of the circle; to retain matrimony to the Triple Alliance but to lust, perhaps, for an extended French affair. Italian politicians routinely disavowed such notions but were unable to convince their allies. To these vexations was added the problem of the Pope, who sought to be given back a secular state. While the overall situation was that Italy could not really afford not to prolong the alliance, differences with Germany arose over the question of eventual changes which were advocated by Prinetti.

He envisioned three modifications. The first regarded Italy’s desire for the conquest of Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica; a new Article XI should be inserted in the treaty, in which “the allies of Italy [Austria-Hungary and Germany] declare their disinterestedness towards any action which she [Italy] might undertake at her own risk and peril in Tripolitania or in Cyrenaica.” (77) Demand number two was that the members of the alliance should guarantee the status quo in the Balkans, for if Russia were to come into possession of Constantinople and the Straits, Italy would be reduced to the level of a second rate power in the Mediterranean, “helplessly wedged in between France and Russia.” (78) The last demand was that, without a previous agreement on the commercial issues, the Alliance would not be prolonged.

Bülow prevaricated, and nothing moved until Austria proposed that, once the treaty was renewed in the original form, she would promise Italy not to interfere in “Italian action in Tripoli or in Cyrenaica, in the event that the existing status quo in this region should, as the result of particular circumstances, undergo a change, and Italy were to find herself forced to resort to such measures as her own interest might dictate.” (79)

This Prinetti appreciated, but insisted on the primary importance of the commercial treaty, a matter which Bülow, however, refused to discuss. On April 26, 1902, Bülow told Lanza, the Italian Ambassador in Berlin, that it would have to be yes or no – like he had instructed Metternich to cold-shoulder Lansdowne in London. The Italians had to give in, and, on June 28, 1902, the unchanged contract was signed, although an annex incorporated the declaration in the matter of Tripoli that Austria had promised.

Earlier in the year, an indiscretion of Prinetti had led France on the track of a secret agreement outside of the treaty itself, concluded in January 1888 between the General Staffs of Germany and Italy, which stipulated that in the case of a war of the Alliance against France and Russia, Italy was to send six army corps and three cavalry divisions to Germany’s assistance at the Rhine front. Later, the obligation was reduced to five army corps and two cavalry divisions. (80)

In 1901, this military convention had become a matter of bilateral talks, initially separate from the more political issues, and the German Military Attaché in Rome, Major von Chelius, was told at an audience with the King that His Majesty had reservations against the dispatch of so many of Italy’s best troops north, where they could not protect the Italian borders and coast. It was clear that, between the lines, Italy sought to slip out of the potentially dangerous obligation, and Chelius reported the matter to Bülow, who gave Chelius’ report to the German Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, for evaluation.

Schlieffen knew his Italians well and had to calculate whether the retention of the obligation would actually strengthen Germany or not, or might further estrange the Italians from the Alliance. They even might defect to the enemy. If they did, France could throw the approximately 150,000 men who guarded the Italian border to the Rhine Front, and Austria would have to spare troops from her eastern borders vis-a-vis Russia and send them south to guard the Italian frontier in the Alps.

Overall, Schlieffen decided that he could do without the Italians and Chelius informed Saletta, the Italian Chief of Staff, that Germany regarded the obligation as repealed. But the incident renewed doubts in the German and Austrian General Staffs whether Italy would fulfil any military obligations in the event of the casus foederis, and these doubts, as it will turn out, were all but unjustified.

Prinetti, who was a businessman and industrialist by trade, not a politician – and a diplomat much less – seems to have taken Bülow’s refusals of his proposed modifications to the heart. Albertini, a fellow Italian, commented that “having before one’s eyes the vision of the man with his outbursts, his rages, his wild utterances, one can measure the resentment that must have remained in his spirit after being obliged to bow to refusals, so intolerable to him, inflicted by Bülow and Goluchowski [Kalnoky’s successor as Austrian Foreign Minister].” These refusals played into the hands of Barrère [French
Ambassador in Rome], the tempter standing by his side, who had acquired a considerable ascendancy over the Italian Minister and took advantage of it at a favourable moment to induce Prinetti to sign an “agreement of great scope and gravity.” (81)

Barrère’s original idea was to neutralize the parts of the Triple Alliance that regarded France. “In other words,” says Albertini, “that the casus foederis should occur for Italy if Germany were attacked from two sides, i.e. by France and Russia, but not if she were attacked by France alone; in this case, Germany was to content herself with Italian neutrality.” (82) We note here that this would be a provision favouring a French offensive on Germany under exclusion of Italy, exactly what the Triple Alliance was conceived to prevent. Prinetti declined the first proposal, but on June 30, 1902, two days after the renewal of the Triple Alliance, exchanged letters with Paris in which he avowed that:

“In the case that France were to be the object of a direct or indirect aggression on the part of one or more Powers, Italy will maintain strict neutrality.

The same will happen if France, in consequence of direct provocation, should find herself compelled in defence of her honour and her security to take the initiative in the declaration of war. …

To remain faithful to the spirit of friendship which has inspired the present declaration, I am further authorized to confirm that there does not exist on the part of Italy and will not concluded by her any protocol or military international disposition such as would be in disaccord with the present declaration.” (83)

In other words, Italy invalidated the Triple Alliance unilaterally, gave it up, as far as France was concerned – without telling her allies. Pressed by Barrère to define “direct provocation“, Prinetti gave examples of casi belli that included, for example, Wilhelm I’s refusal to receive Benedetti in Bad Ems in 1870. Diplomatic slights, real or imagined, could thus become sufficient grounds for war.

The advantages for France were obvious, for she had removed a potential opponent in her pursuit of revanche against Germany, but it was less clear what Italy won in the trade, except that France now promised not to hinder Italian expansion into Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica. This was nice enough but did not change the fact that all other Powers still objected to Rome’s intentions in North Africa. Thus overall, the Franco-Italian understanding lessened, not improved, the chances of peace.

Meanwhile, in the East, a thaw seemed to have taken place in the Austro-Russian relations. In the autumn of 1902, one of the more effective Balkan conspiracies, undertaken by Bulgaria to come into the possession of Macedonia had played out, and a Bulgaro-Macedonian cohort of irregulars succeeded in cutting off northern Macedonia temporarily from the outside. It was less the activities of these bands that Austria, its northern neighbour, feared, than that Italy would use the opportunity to invade and occupy Albania, west of Macedonia, via the Adriatic Sea. To forestall such a development,
Goluchowski alerted St. Petersburg about the danger both nations faced from possible Italian interference and Austria and Russia concluded an agreement that reaffirmed both countries’ intentions in the Balkan: trilateral consultations including the Ottomans were agreed on and outside influences, i.e. Italy’s, rejected. Germany, France and Great Britain were notified of the understanding without delay and accepted it on the same day; Italian assent trundled in a day later.

On February 23, 1903, the Russian government gazette “Messenger” published a communiqué that assured the Slavic Balkan states of unyielding Russian assistance but also warned them that they …

“… must not lose sight of the fact that Russia would not sacrifice a drop of blood of her own sons nor the smallest fraction of the possessions of the Russian people if the Slav States, in defiance of the counsels of wisdom given them beforehand, were to seek, by revolutionary and violent means, to change the established order of things in the Balkan peninsula.” (84)

THe little drummer boy, p. 309

That was clear enough, one would think, but in celebration of Slavic stubbornness the Macedonian revolt not only resumed but branched out to Turkey in early 1903. A Turkish bank in Salonika was blown up by Bulgarian terrorists on April 29, 1903, and soon Austrian and Russian troops, as well as Austrian and Italian warships, resumed stations near the borders of
Bulgaria and Turkey, who might go to war any moment, for they were already calling up reservists. A concerted démarche by Austria and Russia eventually stopped the Bulgarian mobilization, but the Macedonians continued, and by August 1903 about 30,000 of their irregulars took to the field yet were beaten, in a nasty three-month campaign, by superior Turkish regulars.

At the occasion of Wilhelm II visiting Vienna on September 18 and 19, 1903, Goluchowski reiterated to Bülow Austria’s position that she would never allow an effective partition of the Balkan peninsula between her and Russia, because claiming the eastern Balkan would give Russia a common border with Turkey and might tempt her to go for Constantinople and the Straits; neither was Austria able to allow the formation of a big Slavic state on the Balkans, for the Slavic people of Austria-Hungary could not be kept from attempting to join it and the monarchy would have to resort to arms to suppress such a desire, which, in turn, might lead to war with Russia and general conflagration. For these reasons, Austria’s policy would remain to maintain the status quo on the Balkan and allow changes only in the smallest of increments. Finally, Italy was to abstain from the annexation of Albania, for this would bottle up the Habsburg realm’s entry to the Mediterranean via the Adriatic Sea and would constitute a casus belli. (85) These Austro-Italian tensions raised the question whether the Triple Alliance could be preserved at all, and if it were to break up, it should quickly be replaced by a renewed form of the Dreikaiserbund, as far as Goluchowski was concerned.

On October 4, 1903, Nicholas II, Francis Joseph and their Foreign Ministers met at Mürzsteg in the Alps to prepare suggestions for the aforementioned trilateral consultations with the Porte, i.e. a program for Turkey’s internal reforms, and the result of the meeting, the so-called “Mürzsteg Punctuation”, was officially transmitted to the Turks and the governments who had signed the underlying provisions for the arbitration of Balkan affairs in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 on October 24,

The contents advocated government reform, especially of the police, to re-establish peace in the Turkish possessions in Europe, a redrawing of the internal borders of Macedonia was envisioned “in the direction of a more regular grouping of the various nationalities,” (86) other frontiers might be redrawn as necessary, careers in the public service should be made available to Christians and international committees would observe and, if the need arose, improve local measures. Commissions of inquiry, containing equal numbers of Christian and Muslim, were to be set up to investigate and prosecute the numerous political crimes that had been committed during the last thirty years of trouble.

All this was perfectly in the spirit of the Treaty of Berlin, except that Italy, again, felt slighted by the prominent role played by Austria and Russia in the convention; her indignation, as one would expect, only motivated Austria and Russia to improve their cooperation in regard to Turkey. This found expression in a secret agreement between Austria and Russia, signed on October 15, 1904, in St. Petersburg:

“… the two Powers have come to an agreement to observe a loyal and absolute neutrality in case one of the two parties signatory to this declaration should find itself alone and without provocation on its part in a state of war with a third Power which sought to endanger its security or the status quo; the maintenance of which constitutes the basis of their understanding, as pacific as it is conservative.

The engagement between Austria-Hungary and Russia stipulated in the above naturally does not apply to the Balkan countries whose destinies are obviously closely attached to the agreement established by the two neighbouring Empires. The said engagement is understood to remain valid as long as these two Great Powers shall pursue their policy of an understanding in the affairs of Turkey; it shall be kept secret and cannot be communicated to any other Government, except after a previous understanding between the Cabinets of
Vienna and of St. Petersburg.” (87)

The parties agreed to let Berlin know about this essentially anti-Italian agreement but, naturally, not Rome; for in the case of war with Italy, the contract would secure Austria’s back, her Russian border.

Fifteen months earlier, in June 1903, events in Serbia had permeated the headlines of the international press. King Alexander, son of King Milan – whom we have met last in his unsuccessful war against Turkey in 1876, which gave rise to the Congress of Berlin two years later – had followed his father on the throne in 1889, but in the first years of the new millennium made several decisions that estranged him from his subjects. In 1900, he “married his mistress, Draga Masin, a widow of doubtful reputation, much older than himself,” and in “1903 he suspended the Constitution granted by himself in
1901, and nominated a military Cabinet
.” (88) His reign grew erratic and authoritarian, until one more conspiracy, featuring the same Dragutin Dimitrijevic who would become the organizer of the assassination of Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo 1914, succeeded in murdering the royal couple, the queen’s brother and various ministers, and installed on the throne one Peter
Karageorgevic, great-grandson of the Serbian liberation hero Karageorge, who had obtained for his country limited autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in the Napoleonic era.

The new king was readily acknowledged in both Austria and Russia, which had led contemporaries and historians alike to speculate that both governments had been aware of the Dimitrijevic plot; on the other hand, Great Britain and the Netherlands broke off diplomatic relations with Serbia over the incident. After a period of adjustment, the Pan-Slavic Radical Party dominated the government and initiated pro-Russian, anti-Austrian policies, seeking to create a Greater Serbia by liberating, and then absorbing, their fellow Slavs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Turkish provinces, but not allowing into the fold Croats and Slovenes, that is, refusing a complete Yugoslavian solution*.
What was Austria’s response to these Serbian plans? Much as the Hungarians wanted to neutralize all supposedly traitorous Slavic organizations in the realm, the more cautious Austrians were aware that suppression might only provoke insurrection. The parties were thus much at odds, which added to the political instability of the Dual Monarchy. In late 1905, the Hungarians undertook an about-face and tried to enlist, by promises of eventual recognition of their claims, the aid of the southern Slavs against Vienna, towards which they tried to present a united front. When the Slavs pledged their support but the Hungarians subsequently “forgot” their earlier assertions, the Slavs further distanced themselves from the cause of the Habsburgs.

* The “Yugoslav”, i.e. ‘Southern Slav’ concept was the idea to unify Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in a single federation, but to exclude Bulgaria, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and the Hercegovina.

Meanwhile, the new Serb government had reached the beginnings of a rapprochement with Bulgaria, which was met with sympathy by Italy – which counted on the negative effect this would have on Austria. Yet Russia’s opposition, which, in doubt, valued the status quo over aiding her fellow Slavs, could not be overcome until Russia’s subsequent weakening in the aftermath of the lost Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. When Serbia’s prime minister Pasic secured a French loan and began to order weapons from France and Germany instead of the Austrian Skoda works, and Bulgaria agreed to a limited Customs Union with Serbia in June 1905, the country’s fortunes were on a high, and she went with optimism into the scheduled negotiations with Austria for a new commercial treaty in November 1905.

Yet when an indiscretion revealed the Bulgaro-Serbian customs agreement to Austria, she closed all negotiations, and the borders, and the two countries engaged in a commercial war, known as the “pig-war”* of 1907/08, before reason prevailed and a new treaty was agreed on. Yet Austro-Serbian relations remained struck with mistrust and suspicion and became one of the kindlings for the great conflagration of 1914.

*Like Hungary’s, Serbian agriculture was renowned for her pigs, who were the providers of meat for the goulashes, sausages and salami the Austro-Hungarian cuisine was famous for. Closing the border to pigs was, obviously, Austria’s way of hurting Serbia economically, but the latter eventually marketed them through Bulgaria and found different buyers.

Part II: The Russo-Japanese War and the Beginning of the Naval Race

to be continued …

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Adolf Hitler in Munich before the War (1913/14)

Preceding Post: Down and out in Vienna


“Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”, L. 119

Then as now, the town of München is the capital of Bavaria, one of the oldest German self-governing states – first a duchy, then a kingdom. As European states go, she is of fair to middling size, about 27,000 square miles or 70,000 square kilometres big, slightly smaller than modern Austria or South Carolina but larger than Belgium, Switzerland or West Virginia, and forms the southeastern part of modern Germany. She shares borders with the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland, and reaches, in the north-west, close to Frankfurt in Hesse. In the south, she harbours a part of the great central European mountain range, the Bavarian Alps, with the Zugspitze peak, at 9270 ft. or 2960 metres her highest elevation (Germany’s too), where, as the saying goes, only eagles dare to fly. . . .

The 19th Century bestowed on the somewhat sleepy town a protracted period of modernization, a side effect of the industrialisation that much accelerated from the 1830s on. The land changed within two generations from its former almost exclusively rural character into a modern industrial state. The first German railway line had been opened between the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and Fürth in 1835, and only half a century later, in Baden and Württemberg, slightly to the west, Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz worked on building horseless carriages. The company founded by the latter two, Daimler-Benz, is still one of the finest names in automobile manufacture; Bavaria, of course, is home to the fast cars of BMW and Audi.

Munich around the turn of the century … sheep grazing at the Theresienwiese, place of the annual Oktoberfest …

Cultural cross-fertilization and a strong artistic inheritance from the Italian Renaissance gave München an almost Italian charm: compared to Prussia, Bavaria was almost an anarchy (the royal family was proof enough, as we will see), but a lovely one and people from near and far came to settle there. The Bavarians still pursue an almost southern tradition of easiness of living, a very un-Prussian flair of dolce far niente. The country prides herself, reminiscent of her tradition, as the purveyor of Libertas Bavariae, Bavarian Liberty; and the land honoured her commitment when, although staunchly Catholic, she provided refuge to over ten thousand French Huguenot, i.e. Calvinist, families, who fled France and the wrath of Catharina de Medici in the seventeenth century after the Edict of Nantes – guaranteeing freedom of worship – had been revoked. The industrious newcomers were an important gain for Bavaria in general and München in particular; a number of streets named after prominent Huguenot families remind of the benefits they brought to town.

In the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, the early reign of Ludwig I, the town began to lose her provincial character; before he had met and fallen for Lola Montez, the King had sponsored a public building program in neoclassical style – the results can still be seen on the boulevards of Ludwig Street and Maximilian Street. The genius of architects Leo von Klenze and Friedrich von Gärtner remains visible in the great number of their designs adorning the town which we all rebuilt according to the original plans after the bombing damage of the Second World War.

With Bavarian charm and a much more gregarious social climate than stiff-necked Prussia, provincial Berlin or mercantile Hamburg, München became a centre of international art and culture by the end of the nineteenth century, second only to Paris; leaving Vienna’s imperial fatigue and London’s faux Westminster grandeur easily behind. . . .

Second only to Paris, München, then harbouring about 600,000 inhabitants, attracted artists from all countries and walks of life, and became, in particular, a vortex for the avant-garde. As far as painting goes, the year 1909 alone had witnessed the establishment of four new artist groups, one of which called itself simply the ‘New Artists Association‘ and included Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky. In the Café Stephanie at Amalienstraße, one could meet, at any time of day or night, radical intellectuals like Kurt Eisner, Erich Mühsam or Ernst Toller, all of whom rose to prominence after the war. While these artists and philosophers were far too progressive for Hitler’s bourgeois taste, they brought to München artistic flair and fervour unsurpassed until, twenty fateful years later, Berlin entered into the Roaring Twenties. But in 1910 Berlin was a cultural graveyard. Ian Kershaw [Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (London, 1998), ISBN 0-393-32035-9]observed:

Schwabing, the pulsating centre of Munich’s artistic and Bohemian life, drew artists, painters, and writers from all over Germany and from other parts of Europe as well. They turned Schwabing cafés, pubs and cabarets into experimental hothouses of “the modern”. “In no city in Germany did old and new clash so forcefully as in Munich,” commented Lovis Corinth, one celebrated artist who experienced the atmosphere there at the turn of the century.

Lovis Corinth - The Three Graces
Lovis Corinth – The Three Graces

The theme of decline and renewal, the casting off of the sterile, decaying order, contempt for bourgeois convention, for the old, the stale, the traditional, the search for new expression and aesthetic values, the evocation of feeling over reason, the glorification of youth and exuberance, linked many of the disparate strands of Munich’s modernist cultural scene.

Schwabing Carnival 1900

The Stefan George circle; the scourge of bourgeois morality, playwright and cabaret balladeer Frank Wedekind; the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke; and the Mann brothers – Thomas, famous since the publication in 1901 of his epic novel of bourgeois decline, Buddenbrooks, and whose vignette of homosexual tension, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) had been published the year that Hitler arrived, and his elder, more politically radical brother Heinrich – were but some among the galaxy of literary luminaries in pre-war Munich.

In painting, too, the challenge of “the modern” characterized the era. Around the very time that Hitler was in Munich, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky, Gabriele Muenter, and August Macke were leading lights in the group Der Blaue Reiter, revolutionizing artistic composition in brilliant and exciting new forms of expressionist painting. The visual arts would never be the same.

Munich City Centre
Marienplatz – City Centre

Here revolutionaries of any ilk and calibre peddled their doctrines and, at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, moved to München in 1826 from Landshut (whither it had been moved from Ingolstadt where it had been founded in 1472), a complete spectrum of political designs was brought to the attention of students and burghers alike. The main campus happened to be in Schwabing as well, providing the students – always on the prowl for new and exotic sensations – with a stage for every imaginable and some unlikely forms of artistic impression. The light-hearted spirit in which even the most outrageous or ridiculous doctrines of art or politics found an attentive audience became the modern articulation of Libertas Bavariae. In the juxtaposition of William Blake‘s verse, Schwabing was clearly born to sweet delight, and unconventional souls from all over the globe flocked to München.

One such unconventional soul was Herr Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who was hearing law and politics at the university, where he had inscribed himself as Herr Meyer. Herr Meyer was domiciled in Schleißheimerstraße 106, only a few blocks west of the campus and was better known in his native Russia under the alias ‘Lenin’.

Another unconventional soul, Adolf Hitler, soon frequented the same cafés, pubs and beer gardens in Schwabing, reading newspapers while slowly sipping on a cup of coffee, or peddling his paintings in art shops or simply on the street. Opposite the main University building, a hundred yards past the Siegestor, a quarter-mile of the Leopoldstraße serves as the artists’ outdoor gallery, and until this day the resident painters sell their works there. Adolf was, as we will find out, a bit of a revolutionary himself, but the year 1913 saw him half-frightened and half-intoxicated by the sheer rush of the artistic scene. . . .

Munich Central Railway Station before the war …

Adolf Hitler and his friend Rudolf Häusler arrived from Vienna on Sunday, May 25, 1913, and immediately set out to find accommodation. They walked down Schleissheimer Straße, north-west of the railway station, and, in the window of a small tailor shop at # 34, noticed a small sign advertising a room to let. They went in, and quickly closed a deal with the tailor’s wife, Frau Anna Popp, to rent a tiny mansard on the third floor. On May 26 respectively 29, they registered with the Munich police, with Hitler estimating the duration of their visit at two years. In Vienna, Hitler had alerted the police to his leaving, as he was required to do, but had left no forwarding address; the police file dryly states “destination unknown”, indicating that Hitler was not keen on his whereabouts becoming known. This would concur with the fact that his earlier ‘disappearance’ in the autumn of 1909 magically coincides with the exact period in which he was obliged to report to the Austrian army. He left Vienna, Sechshauserstrasse 56, c/o Frau Antonie Oberlechner, on September 16, 1909, without providing a forwarding address, and did not re-register with the Vienna police until February 8, 1910, the day he resurfaced and moved into the men’s hostel at Meldemannstrasse. . . .

Schleissheimer Straße 34 during the Nazi Era, with a memento (Hitler’s room window marked)

Preceding Post: Down and out in Vienna

Adolf Hitler had now arrived in the town that would become his principal residence for the next twenty years; the town he was to christen later the ‘Hauptstadt der Bewegung’, the Capital of the [Nazi] Movement.” For a while, the Popps’ became his family; Robert Payne gives us a mise en scène of life at Schleißheimerstraße 34:

Many years later, when the National Socialists were in power, Frau Popp was asked what she remembered about her lodger. Naturally, she remembered many things to his advantage: he was kind to the children, Peppi and Liesel, and was modest, well-mannered, and self-effacing. He spent the day painting and drawing, and he studied every evening and every night. …

She was one of these inquisitive landladies who examine the possessions of their tenants, and she remembered that his books were “all political stuff and how to get on in Parliament.” She also remembered something that others had observed: his solitude.

He seemed to have no friends, lived completely alone [as mentioned above, for reasons unknown, nobody mentioned Rudolf Häusler before Thomas Orr investigated the neighbourhood in 1952, ¶], refused the Popps’ invitations to share their supper, rejecting all their overtures, and spent whole days in his room without stirring outside. He lived on bread and sausages and sometimes knocked politely on their kitchen door to ask for some hot water for his tea.

“He camped in his room like a hermit with his nose stuck in these thick heavy books,” she said. It puzzled her that he should be both a painter and a voracious reader, and one day she asked him what all this reading had to do with his painting. He smiled, took her by the arm, and said: “Dear Frau Popp, does anybody know what is and what isn’t likely to be of use to him in life?” (4)

The Little drummer boy, p.279-80

The Popps liked him. He knew how to behave, which impressed them, for it seemed to imply that, in reality, beyond the mask they were sure he was wearing, he was someone different, someone better than who he professed to be. He lived on his own planet, not necessarily in the known universe, and had no contacts we know about except that a former resident of the men’s hostel claimed to have met him once in München, in a chance encounter at the railway station. [FN 1] He did paint, though, and he did sell his works; we have a good handful of reports by his customers. The physician Dr Hans Schirmer remembered:

[FN 1]: The name of the man was Josef Greiner, who seems to have been a welsher and a blackmailer. In 1939 and 1947, he published books describing his supposed friendship with Hitler in München and Vienna. Both books were banned, 1939 by the Nazis themselves and the 1947 opus by the occupation authority. Cf. Joachimsthaler (8)

… I was sitting one summer evening in the garden of the Hofbräuhaus, nursing my beer. Around 8 p.m. I noticed a very modest and somewhat coarsely clad young man, who looked to me like a poor student. The young man went from table to table, offering a small oil painting for sale.

Time lapsed, and it was around perhaps 10 p.m. when I saw him again and realized that he still had not sold the picture. When he came near me, I asked him whether I could but it, since his fate troubled me somewhat. He answered: “Yes, please,” and when I asked for the price, he put it at five Marks.

My fortunes at that time … were not great, and since I had in my pockets only the little cash one needed to buy the beer, I gave the young man three Marks and my address, on a prescription form, and asked him to come back, with the painting, to my practice the next day, where I would give him the rest.

He handed me the painting right away and told me he would see me tomorrow immediately after the transaction was finished, he went to the buffet and bought two Frankfurters and a roll, but no beer.” (5)

Munich tramway scene, by Adolf Hitler

A merchant in hats, Josef Würbser, was visited in his store.

“It was in April 1914. I was manning the cashier post, in the hat shop Zehme at Marienplatz and Dienerstraße, when a young man came in and asked me whether I would be interested in buying two of his paintings. He needed to sell them in order to buy books for his studies.

Since I dabbled in painting a bit myself, my interest was immediately aroused, and I studied the two paintings, one of which showed the “Old Mayor’s Office” and the other “The Old Courtyard”. I liked the pictures, which showed the beautiful motives in the brightest of colours and bought both of them. I cannot recall the price exactly, but it must have been between fifteen and twenty-five marks.” (6)

The jeweller Otto Paul Kerber recalled:

“A young man came into my store one day in 1912 [it must have been 1913 or early 1914, ¶] and offered me a watercolour of the Munich Residence. I liked the painting and bought this and subsequently a few more paintings of the young man, who came by regularly. As far as I remember, I paid, depending on size and quality, between 15 and 20 Marks per picture.” (7)

The “Siegestor”, Victory Arch, Munich, by Hitler

Little did they know it then, but most of his customers made the deal of their life, for, in the Third Reich, the paintings sold for up to 5,000 Mark. It remained clear, however, that the attraction was the artist, not the work. Joachim Fest remarks about Hitler’s artistic fancies and idols:

His standards had remained unchanged since his days in Vienna when he paid no heed to the artistic and intellectual upheavals of the period. Cool classicist splendour on the one hand and pompous decadence on the other – Anselm von Feuerbach, for example, and Hans Makart – were his touchstones. With the resentments of the failed candidate for the academy, he raised his own taste into an absolute.

He also admired the Italian Renaissance and early Baroque art; the majority of the pictures in the Berghof belonged to this period. His favourites were a half-length nude by Bordone, the pupil of Titian, and a large coloured sketch by Tiepolo. On the other hand, he rejected the painters of the German renaissance because of their austerity.

Paris Bordone, Venus and Amor – one of Hitler’s favourites

As the pedantic faithfulness of his own watercolours might suggest, he always favoured craftsmanlike precision. He liked the early Lovis Corinth but regarded Corinth’s brilliant later work, created in a kind of ecstasy of old age, with pronounced irritation and banned him from the museums. Significantly, he also loved sentimental genre paintings, like the winebibing monks and fat tavern keepers of Eduard Grützner. In his youth, he told his entourage, it had been his dream someday to be successful enough to be able to afford a
genuine Grützner. Later, many works by this painter hung in his Munich apartment on Prinzregentenstraße.

Alongside them, he put gentle, folksy idylls by Spitzweg, a portrait of Bismarck by Lenbach, a park scene by Anselm von Feuerbach, and one of the many variations of Sin by Franz von Stuck. In the “Plan for a German National Gallery,” which he had sketched on the first page of his 1925 sketchbook, these same painters appear, together with names like Overbeck, Moritz von Schwind, Hans von Martes, Defregger, Boecklin, Piloty, Leibl, and, finally, Adolph von Menzel, to whom he assigned no fewer than five rooms in the gallery. (9)

His business increased slowly, he obtained steady customers, and some actually ordered in advance. The chemist Dr Schnell, who had a shop at Sendlinger Straße 42 near the city centre and a chemical factory in the northern district of Milbertshofen, (10) remembered that one day a poor young painter came in…

… who apparently had been told by somebody that I had previously helped poor artists. He asked for a bit of support. “I am an architectural painter,” the young man said and offered to paint a small picture for me. On inquiry, he stated his name as Hitler, he was Austrian and in town to become a painter.

“Well then, please paint me the Asam Church next door,” Dr Schnell said. “After eight or ten days, Hitler brought a small painting of the Asam Church, which was surprisingly well done. I paid him the agreed-on Twenty Marks and bought a few more of his paintings, which he always delivered on time. I was also able to pass on further orders, which I received from my acquaintances that saw the picture of the Asam Church. … Then the First World War intervened, and Hitler and the paintings were forgotten. …

When Hitler entered the political scene after the Great War, I wanted to find out whether the politician Adolf Hitler was indeed identical with the pre-war painting student. So once I briefly went to the Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler was addressing a rally and established that he was indeed the same man whose paintings I had bought. …

Much later, after the Nazis came to power, I was once invited by Hitler to the Four Seasons Hotel. He asked how I was doing and how the paintings were, and whether he could do me a favour. One time, between 1934 and 1936, a man from the staff of the “Führer’s Deputy” Hess visited me in the office by the shop, in which Hitler’s town paintings hung, and inquired whether Hess, who was interested in the paintings, could come and see them. Hess then did show up, with two or three other gentlemen, and viewed the pictures. … Later some party office asked for my permission to make photocopies of the paintings, for the party archive, which I granted.” (11)

Maximilianstraße around 1900

Based on the testimonies of Hitler’s customers and Frau Popp, who said that he produced a painting every two or three days, Anton Joachimsthaler computed that if he sold, say, ten paintings a month, he could live rather well. In his municipal sales licence, which he needed to peddle his paintings legally and which doubled as a tax form, he entered sales of approximately one hundred Mark per month, which probably was the lowest number he could get away with. Even if he initially earned less than the fifteen or twenty marks that seem to have become the norm after a few months, he must have earned between 150 and 200 Marks per month soon. This was rather decent, compared to the wages of a normal worker, who at this time in München earned between 96 and 116 Marks but had to provide for his family, too. (12)

As in Vienna, it seems that Hitler had more money than he let on, and his professions of poverty in “Mein Kampf” ought to be taken with a large spoonful of salt. Even if it is true that he, as he later claimed, often had only one Mark for his lunch or dinner, this amount must be set in relation to the prices of the time, which were very low. A litre of beer, approximately two pints, was 30 Pfennige (pennies), one egg 7 Pfennige, a pound loaf of bread 16 Pfennige and a litre of milk 22 Pfennige. One Mark went a long way.

As far as we know, his way of life did not deviate much from that of Vienna, which may teach us caution about the tales Hitler later spun of his studies of politics, philosophy and history in pre-war München. In one of the table monologues during the Second World War, he professed art, not politics, as his reason to go to München.

“[I wanted to continue] … to keep working as an autodidact and to add on a period of practical work once I was in the Reich. I went to Munich happily: I had set my goal to learn for three more years and then, at 28 years of age, to apply as a designer at Heilmann & Littmann [a Munich construction firm, ¶].

I would have entered their first competition, and, I believed, they would realize my talent and acknowledge my faculties. I had contributed, privately, to all the current architectural competitions, and when the designs for the new Opera House in Berlin were publicized, my heart started beating, and I told myself, that they were much worse than what I had delivered. I had specialized in stage design.” (13)

None of the orderly archives of these competitions preserved any of the entries Hitler had – privately – contributed, so that, alas, we are precluded from a proper judgement of their artistic value.

His repose in München provided him with a less conspicuous benefit: that he, as he believed, has escaped being drafted into the Austrian army. It was the standard in Austria as in all other European countries, that the young men of a
certain age, twenty, in Austria, were called up for the military which kept them, after two or three years of active service, at the beck and call of the reserve units for the next twenty years or so. Hitler had been required to register in the autumn of 1909, exactly when he disappeared. Even if he had had a valid excuse, say, illness, he was required to re-register in 1910 or 1911. Given Hitler’s unfavourable opinion of the Habsburg state, it cannot surprise us that he felt no urge to serve it.

On August 11, 1913, the Linz police issued a warrant for Hitler, alleging draft-evasion. From Hitler’s remaining relatives, perhaps the Schmidts, they found out that he lived in the men’s hostel in Vienna. On inquiry, Vienna reported back to Linz that Hitler had flown out, leaving no forwarding address, but that a few occupants of the hostel remembered that Hitler had spoken of going to München.

Linz thus inquired at München, and on January 8, 1914, was notified that Hitler was indeed registered in München, c/o Popp, Tailor, Schleißheimerstraße 34/111. In the afternoon of January 18, 1914, a troop of the Munich police was sent there to serve Hitler with an Austrian summons for military inspection.

“Herr Adolf Hitler, born 1889, domiciled Linz an der Donau, presently staying in Munich, care of Popp, Schleißheimerstraße 34/111, is hereby summoned to present himself for military registration in Linz, at 30 Kaiserin Elisabeth Quay on January 20th, 1914, and in the event of his failure to comply with this summons, he will be liable to prosecution under Paragraphs 64 and 66 of the Law regarding Military Service of the Year 1912.” (14)

the little drummer boy, p. 282

This was no joke. According to the Austro-Bavarian Extradition Treaty of 1831, he could be arrested and delivered to the authorities in Linz in iron fetters if he did not heed the call. Hitler talked to the officer in charge of the delegation, Constable Herle, who demanded a signature for the receipt of the summons. For the benefit of the constable and his crew, Hitler composed an impromptu apology:

“I missed to register myself in the autumn of 1909 but corrected this oversight in February 1910. At this time I reported to the Conscription Office IB in the Mayor’s Mansion, and from there was directed to my home precinct, the XXth. I asked to report right there in Vienna [instead of Linz], signed some protocol or affidavit, paid one Krone and never heard again of the affair. It never entered my mind, however, to evade registration, neither is this the reason for my residing in Munich. I was always registered with the police in Vienna, [FN 2] as I am here in Munich.” (15)

[FN 2] This was an outright lie; we know he was not registered from September 16, 1909, to February 8, 1910. He repeated the lie in the letter to the Austrian authorities (see below), but, luckily, nobody checked the false claim.

The Austrians must have forgotten him, he said, for he was clearly no deserter. We do not know what Herle thought of the story, but in all probability, it was not the first time in his career that he encountered a suspect blaming an error on the authorities. The story Hitler concocted was fishy in itself, and maybe he counted upon the Bavarian officer’s ignorance of Austrian military laws and procedure; the European nations of this age very carefully kept track of their prospective recruits and did not simply “forget” them; the requirement of registering every change of address had been, in fact, created exactly for this military purpose.

Herle arrested Hitler and took him to the police headquarters. On the next morning, the prisoner was presented to the Austrian Consulate General. It appears that he was assisted there by a consular officer or perhaps a paralegal, for he was allowed to present his case in a written statement. This was not quite the normal procedure; perhaps Hitler’s sangfroid began to work.

By then he had fleshed out his tale. First, he claimed, untruthfully, that he had received the summons too late; then he contended that the problem was the fault of the Austrians, who had mistakenly looked from him in Linz when he was actually in Vienna or vice versa. Eloquent in excuse, and strangely lachrymose in tone, his statement reminds the reader of the wheedling style of his father’s letter to the bishop of Linz in the marriage affair, when it describes his toilsome life in München. Fortuna has conserved the document, which allows us a look into the young man’s vexations:

… In the summons, I am described as an artist. I bear this title by right, but it is only relatively accurate. I earn my living independently as a painter, being totally deprived of an income (my father was a civil servant), and I work only in order to further my education. Only a small portion of my time can be spent in earning a living, for I am still educating myself to become an architectural painter.

My income is therefore very modest, just enough to cover my expenses. As testimony, I refer you to my income tax statement, which is enclosed, and I would be grateful if it could be returned to me. It will be seen that my income is estimated at 1200 Marks, which is rather more than I really earn, and does not mean that I actually make 100 Marks a month. Oh no. …

With regard to my failure to report for military service in the autumn of 1909, I must say that this was for me an endlessly bitter time. I was then a young man without experience, receiving no financial assistance from anyone, and too proud to accept financial assistance from others, let alone beg for it. Without support, compelled to depend on my own efforts, I earned only a few Kronen and often only a few farthings from my labours, and this was often insufficient to pay for a night’s lodging. For two long years, I had no other mistress than sorrow and need, no other companion than eternally unsatisfied hunger. I never knew the beautiful word youth.

Even today, five years later, I am constantly reminded of these experiences, and the remainders take the form of frost blisters on my fingers, hands and feet. And, yet I cannot remember those days without a certain pleasure, now that these vexations have been surmounted. In spite of great want, amid often dubious surroundings, I nevertheless kept my name clean, had a blameless record with the law, and possessed a clear conscience – except for that one constantly remembered fact that I failed to register for military service. This is the one thing I feel responsible for. It would seem that a moderate fine would be an ample penance, and of course, I will pay the fine willingly.

I am sending this letter independently of the testimony, which I have signed today at the Consulate. I request that any further orders should be transmitted to me through the Consulate and beg you to believe that I shall fulfil them promptly.

All the declarations made by me concerning my case have been verified by the Consular authorities. They have been exceedingly generous and have given me hope that I may be able to fulfil my military duties at Salzburg. Although I cannot dare to hope for such a thing, I request that this affair may not be made unduly difficult for me.

I request that you take the present letter under consideration, and I sign myself, Very respectfully,


Schleißheimerstraße 34/111 (16)

This letter is an early and excellent insight into the mind of a person who would go on to become a professional deceiver. It is not only the sheer bending of the facts that surprises, but it is also the style of the missive; it reveals that Hitler knew exactly what to write and how.

The letter reeks of the specific style of the age, of the servile lachrymosity employed when one has a problem with the authorities. The submissive, sometimes brown-nosed and sometimes cajoling tone is, by today’s standards, an all too obvious attempt to induce sympathy for one’s pleadings in the face of a stern bureaucrat, who has the power to take drastic measures. It may well be true that bureaucrats, in general, expect Byzantine flattery, and antecedent obedience from the public they serve (and which pays their salaries), but Hitler’s letter almost sounds as if he were trying to poke fun at the addressees. The style is hither awkward and yonder familiar, eerily intimate at times, as if to beg money from a rarely-seen uncle.

Strikingly effective, however, is his argumentation: even before the judgement is cast, he appeals to a higher court, beyond the transient character of Austrian military justice. His crime is not desertion, he claims, his bane was poverty. He will be using a very similar tactic of confessing to a non-existent charge eleven years later when facing trial for the Beer Hall Putsch. As he will then, he now proclaims his guiltlessness; in the words of Robert Payne, “the higher court will pronounce him innocent, for his only crime is poverty; his name is clean, his record blameless, his conscience clear. He claims that his sole ambition in life is to serve the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and as we read the letter we know that he despises this monarchy and all its works, and has not the least intention of abiding by its orders.” (17)

In the event, his attempts to enlist the sympathies of the consular staff were successful: the consul himself agreed to forward Hitler’s letter to Linz, along with one of his own, in which he states that he personally as well as the Munich
police believe that Hitler was honest and missed the registration by mistake, not criminal intention. Furthermore, the Herr Consul recommended that Hitler should be allowed to face the military examination board in the border town of Salzburg rather than to have to travel all the way to Linz. Showing rare generosity, the consulate even paid for Hitler’s train fare.

The military command in Linz agreed, and on February 5, 1914, Hitler took a train to Salzburg. In a brief examination, the doctors found Hitler unfit for combat or auxiliary duty and dismissed him without further obligations.
That was exactly what Hitler had hoped for, and he went back to Schwabing and his books and paintings with a lighter heart. In “Mein Kampf”, he later claimed that the lively political discussions in the cafes and beer gardens trained his intellect and improved his adeptness of argument. Of paramount importance, he wrote, was his repeated study of Marxism.

“I again immersed myself in the theoretical literature of this new world, attempting to achieve clarity concerning its possible effects, and then compared it with the actual phenomena and events it brings about in political, cultural and economic life. Now for the first time, I turned my attention to master this world-plague.” (18)

Three considerations may cause us to doubt the veracity of the statement. Since Hitler had never been “employed” in the sense that a factory worker is employed, one may doubt how much he truly understood of the realities of collective bargaining, of accident insurance, workman’s compensation, health care or pension plans, the bread-and-butter tasks of labour unions. Second, at the time he supposedly “immersed” himself in the study of Marxism, the Russian October Revolution or any other communist revolution was still years in the future, and no country in the world had a socialist government yet. Thus, one may wonder how exactly Hitler formed his opinion of the “world-plague” and where the “actual phenomena and events” occurred which he said he observed. It appears much more likely that these parts of “Mein Kampf” –
written not before 1924 – represent hindsight, and that he afforded himself prescient clairvoyance of the evils of Marxism as early proof of his political genius. Thirdly, it is questionable how much free time painting and selling the pictures left him.

But he came to like Munich as much as he of late despised Vienna. The townspeople had an easy way of living, Hitler liked the Bavarian dialect, which he had picked up as a child in Passau, and the racial and lingual hodgepodge of
Vienna that he had learned to detest was completely absent. Even in the very cold winter of 1913/14, when fewer customers than usual could be found on the snow-covered streets and empty beer gardens, he was still high in spirits;
Munich continued to shine. [FN 3] Yet it is clear that he did not partake in the social or political life of the town; not a single document, no newspaper clip mentions his name. With the exception of Rudolf Häusler, we know of no other acquaintances. In the last sixty years, all likely archives have been searched: we have, for example, even a letter of a friend, Fritz Seidl, who knew Hitler during the one year at the boarding-house of Frau Sekira in Linz, when they were in first grade at the Unterrealschule; but nothing from Munich – but not a single photograph. (19) In a well-known paragraph of “Mein Kampf”, Hitler praised the town:

[FN 3] “Munich Shines!” was the title of a popular cabaret program.

“If today I am more attached to this city than to any other spot on earth in this world, it is partly due to the fact that it is and remains inseparably bound up with the development of my life; if even then I achieved the happiness of a truly inward contentment, it can be attached only to the magic which this miraculous residence of the Wittelsbachs exerts on every man who is blessed, not only with a calculating mind but with a feeling soul.” (20)

Oktoberfest 1910

But when he sat in the cafés and read the newspapers, he could not fail to become informed of the latest international tensions. The Balkans occupied the headlines again, as they had when wars had erupted there in 1912 and 1913. In one of the literary more recommendable passages of Mein Kampf, Hitler describes the peculiar atmosphere of early 1914:

“As early as my Vienna period, the Balkans were immersed in that livid sultriness which customarily announces the hurricane, and from time to time a beam of brighter light flared up, only to vanish again in the spectral darkness. But then came the Balkan War and with it, the first gust of wind swept across a Europe grown nervous. The time which now followed lay on the chests of men like a heavy nightmare, sultry as feverish tropic heat, so that due to constant anxiety the sense of the approaching catastrophe turned at last to longing: let Heaven, at last, give free rein to the fate which could no longer be thwarted. And then the first mighty lightning flash struck the earth; the storm was unleashed and with the thunder of Heaven there mingled the roar of the World War batteries.” (21)

The steady worsening of Europe’s international relations since about 1906 will properly be the subject of the following chapters. But in a strange way, all the accounts we have of June and July 1914 agree on its perfect weather, which contrasted so starkly with what was to follow. On these long summer nights, Hitler was still selling the fruits of his brush and pencil in the beer gardens unless he was busy painting the glow of the sunsets. But he was in his mansard, alone, immersed in a book, on the afternoon of June 28, 1914, when his landlady stormed up the stairs and entered his room without knocking on the door.

In tears, Frau Popp informed her lodger that earlier in the day the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Habsburg and his wife Sophie had been assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by a young man called Gavrilo Princip, an anarchist with presumed connections to Serbia.

The archduke, a nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph, had arrived in Bosnia three days earlier to inspect the annual military manoeuvres. After the conclusion of the exercise, the prince insisted on paying a visit to the Bosnian capital, although the local administration had received warnings of a plot. Half a dozen conspirators, dispersed over the town’s main thoroughfares, had been waiting for the royal couple, but it was only dumb luck that Princip met the open royal carriage backing out slowly from the wrong end of a one-way street, unguarded. He fired a pistol twice and killed both the archduke and his wife.

Hitler ran down the staircase and joined the crowds that assembled on the streets. In Vienna, a mob already beleaguered the Serbian Embassy. The news from Sarajevo was the sensation of the year.

Next post: The Assassination of the Archduke

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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