History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Royal Navy

Our Place in the Sun – German Foreign Diplomacy before the War

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

Header, left to right: German Secretaries of the Foreign Office after Otto von Bismarck: Herbert von Bismarck, his son (in office October 24, 1885 until March 26, 1890), Bernhard von Bülow, later Chancellor (October 20, 1897 until October 23, 1900), Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (January 24, 1906 until October 25, 1907), Wilhelm von Schoen (October 26,1907 until June 27, 1910), Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter (June 27, 1910 until December 30, 1912) and Gottlieb von Jagow (January 11, 1913 until November 22, 1916).

The Iron Chancellor had retired – quite against his will – on March 18, 1890. He has always considered his highest duty to ensure friendly relations with all nations surrounding Germany, if possible. That France, irate over the defeat of 1871 but momentarily impotent, would remain the perpetual enemy was clear. What had to be avoided, under all circumstances, was that she found continental allies, in particular in the East, i.e. Russia, to aid her in conducting a retaliatory war. Bismarck’s antidote for this particular venom was to develop the best diplomatic relations with the other two large reactionary monarchies, Russia and Austria. These two nations and Germany signed a
compact called the Dreikaiserbund, the League of the Three Emperors, in which the monarchs agreed to mutual neutrality in the case that one of them were attacked by France or the Ottoman Empire.

Aware that tensions developing between Russia and Austria over the Balkans might eventually exert a negative impact on this treaty, Bismarck conducted an additional pact with the Czar, the so-called “Rückversicherungsvertrag”
or “Reinsurance Treaty”, which held Russia to neutrality in the case of a new Franco-German war regardless of origin, and thus banned the spectre of Germany having to fight a two-front war. Bismarck’s fundamental doctrine was, obviously enough, to keep France diplomatically isolated as much as possible.

To undertake this neutralization of French diplomacy, the Second Empire, one is tempted to say “naturally”, relied on a Foreign Office staff composed chiefly of the nobility and not responsible to the parliament.

No statistical information about the diplomatic corps in the Kaiserreich is as striking as the share of nobles. Of the 548 diplomats in service in the period 1871-1914, no fewer than 377, i.e. 69 per cent, were noble. The percentage of nobles was higher if we count only the foreign missions and not the Auswärtiges Amt [Foreign Office] itself. The ambassadors of Imperial Germany were noble to a man. The most important department in the Auswärtiges Amt was the Political Department IA, which in the period from 1871 to 1914 was 61 per cent noble.

It is true that there was a constant increase in the share of middle-class members of the diplomatic service in this period and beyond it. But during the Kaiserreich such commoners were deployed almost exclusively either in the less important departments of the Auswärtiges Amt, namely in the Trade, Legal or Colonial Departments, or else in the Consular Service. If middle-class people entered the diplomatic missions abroad at all, then during the Wilhelmine period [1888-1918] they were on the whole sent to South Africa or the Middle or Far East, areas which were important commercially but where aristocrats were unwilling to serve.

Not only was the execution of the Reich’s foreign policy in the hands of the nobility, it was, with few exceptions, the northern, Protestant, that is, “Prussian” aristocracy, which occupied the lion’s share of the available posts; Catholics were far less represented.

The exclusive esprit de corps of the German diplomatic service was also promoted by a degree of confessional discrimination. Until 1945 the ratio of Catholics among the diplomats was significantly lower than the national ratio. This situation can only partially be explained by the fact that until 1918 the German middle states maintained their own diplomatic service.

What was perhaps more important was that the majority of south German aristocratic families loathed the idea of state service under the detested Hohenzollerns and that until the turn of the century they saw the real
focus of their social aspirations in the Hofburg of Vienna rather than in Potsdam and Berlin. Whoever reads the extensive private correspondence of German diplomats of the imperial period will be astounded at the almost pathological fear of so-called “Ultramontanism” [the idea that German Catholics and the Centre Party were remote-controlled by the pope], which prevailed among even the highest and apparently most open-minded diplomats and statesmen in Berlin.

There was a widespread conviction that any softness towards “Ultramontanism” would have as a logical consequence the disintegration of the Reich. Catholics could therefore only be recruited into the service of the
Reich if they had taken a firm and unequivocal stand against Rome and against the Centre Party. (36)

Quite contrary to the impression of strength and unity that the Reich government attempted to project to the outside, the formulation and execution of her foreign policy required from the chancellor an intimate understanding of the matters at hand and the ability and willpower to impose them, should the need arise, even against the ideas of the monarch. Bismarck possessed the required abilities and was able to handle Wilhelm I, who could be stubborn at times. But when Wilhelm’s successor Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III succumbed to throat cancer in 1888 after less than a hundred days in office, the third Kaiser of the year, Wilhelm II, took over.

Things at the Foreign Office began to change soon thereafter. The young emperor did not trust Bismarck implicitly, the way his grandfather had, perhaps because he considered himself a natural talent in foreign affairs. In 1890, Bismarck was retired against his will, to be replaced by Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, whom the old chancellor mocked by calling him a “ministre étrange aux affairs”,* and Chancellor Count Leo Caprivi, who had neither knowledge of nor experience in foreign matters and openly admitted that he desired none. By all appearances, the new staff of the office did not understand Bismarck’s security system or thought it expendable. German foreign policy freed itself from the fetters of reality. (* It was a word play on “foreign” and “estranged”: a “ministre aux affairs étranges” is a foreign minister, but a “ministre étrangè aux affairs” is a minister “estranged from”, that is, “clueless about” his affairs.)

Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire; the new secretary of state did not even inquire in St. Petersburg whether the Czar desired a prolongation of the compact. The
Russian court, perplexed, could only interpret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inexplicable German hostility, and looked for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.

The next diplomatic catastrophe befell the relations with Great Britain. Ever since the Seven Years’ War, which had seen the allies emerging as victors, Anglo-Prussian relations had been amicable, for the greatest part, and the shared victory over Napoleon at Waterloo had forged a special bond. From the 1890s on, however, Wilhelmine Germany embarked upon an unnecessary and rather harebrained naval armaments race with England, which directly threatened the British Empire’s dependence on open sea lines for commerce, communication, and the administration of her possessions.

With the exception of the medieval Hanseatic League, Germany had no extensive history as a naval power, for her geographical position in the middle of the continent mostly obviated this need. The expansion of the French and British colonial empires in the nineteenth century, however, fatally ignited, in certain German circles, a desire for competition. The new Reich subsequently embarked upon colonizing the leftovers; those parts of the globe that other powers had judged too poor to be desired. Eventually, four African territories were identified, occupied and colonized with drum rolls and fanfare: today’s Togo, Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania. In addition, a part of New Guinea, Samoa, Tsing-Tao in China and a few island archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean were obtained.

These appropriations were, alas, no fertile lands which could feed the multitudes at home; to be honest, they were not very useful at all, unless one wanted to study exotic bacteria in fever-infested Cameroon. But there are cases in which beauty is measured by the cost or effort to achieve it, and such was the case with the fledgling German colonial empire. History teachers delivered a continuous stream of lectures and homilies to high school students in regard to the [technically Austrian, but never mind] Empire of Charles V in the sixteenth century, in which the sun, proverbially, never set, and many obedient German pupils – and their parents – developed the desire to keep the “place in the sun” their emperor had publicly claimed for the country at all cost. Logically, the newly acquired German territories had to be defended against thievish hands, which included all the foreign navies that might anchor near the coast at any moment to rob Germany of north-eastern New Guinea and its cannibal villages, who could say?

With the explicit consent of the Kaiser, the German Secretary of the Navy, Tirpitz, had brought a huge navy bill through parliament which enabled the launch, at a feverish pace, of an ever-increasing number of battleships and lesser vessels for the protection of the colonies. New shipyards had to be built to accommodate the program, to the
bewilderment of the British who could not in the world imagine a reason why Germany needed a fleet of battleships, unless to challenge the Royal Navy. Great Britain, consequentially, sought aid against possible German liberties, and by 1912, two decades later, France, Russia and Great Britain were allied, at least defensively, in the Triple Entente, a treaty against Wilhelmine Germany and its valorous allies Austria-Hungary and Italy, the “Dreibund” or Triple Alliance.

Alliances 1914
Alliances 1914

The Foreign Office in Berlin clearly did not understand the realities it created, and its callous recklessness allowed France to play the “German Domination of Europe!” card against the Teutonic menace with great success. While Germany
had advanced her industrial production and consumption faster than any other continental country and had become the world’s second-biggest industrial nation, after the British Empire but before the USA, her political culture had remained essentially pre-modern, which was made worse by the young emperor’s rashness.

Wilhelm II had been born with a crippled left arm and developed a crippled self-esteem; his cousin Nicholas II, the Russian Tsar, once called him a “shameless exhibitionist.” The young monarch had a propensity to evoke the most unfortunate impressions wherever he appeared; his constant demands of greater power for Germany failed to make him popular anywhere, and, to make it worse, these exhortations were often delivered with poor charm and a complete lack of diplomatic sensitivity.

Hence, by 1914, the efforts of Wilhelm’s noble diplomats had resulted in the enmity of Great Britain, France and Russia, unpopularity in the world – perhaps with the exception of the Ottomans – and an arms race of the like the globe had never seen before.

As I have said before, there is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other, the greater the probability that they will go off one day. They did on August 1, 1914.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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At the Brink of War – August 1, 1914

Ethnic Map Europe 1914
Ethnic Map Europe 1914

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kennedy1 Population

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

Kennedy 2 Urban Population

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

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

Kennedy 3 Raw Steel Production

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

Kennedy 4 Energy Consumption

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

Kennedy 5 Industrial Potential

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

Kennedy 6 Manufacturing Output

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Mobilisation 1914
German Mobilisation 1914

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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