History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Wilhelm II

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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The Vanity of Black Jack Pershing

Preceding article: Wilson and the Fourteen Points

YouTube Documentary Video

Video – Dramatization [by Innis Lake Entertainment]

American troops attacking on the order of John J. Pershing

The German army was still slowing down Allied progress in late October, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: something had to give. In the event, it was the Kaiser‘s favourite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.

With the German empire in its death throes, two groups in the German navy, first the admirals, then the seamen, took matters into their own hands. The submarine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a powerful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Naval Staff decided to use the surface ships in one last offensive thrust, a bold variation on earlier unsuccessful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The difference this time was that the Germans intended to fight a battle whether or not the U-boats had managed to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority. Further, the German admirals did not care whether the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy damage on the Grand Fleet. Hipper agreed with Scheer that “an honourable battle by the fleet – even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” Besides preserving honour, a battle that inflicted severe damage on the Grand Fleet might also influence the peace negotiations in Germany’s favour. (42)

Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, P. 773

Kept secret from the German government, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Royal Navy: eighteen Dreadnought-type battleships, five battlecruisers, twelve light cruisers and seventy-two destroyers. The tactical plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pursue the High Seas Fleet over a barricade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the British numerical superiority enough to allow the Germans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the British admiralty’s attention, Hipper, promoted to Fleet Admiral, envisaged raids on British ports and bombardments of coastal cities. A special group of cruisers and destroyers was to rattle the British cage by sailing into the Thames estuary and attacking the local shipping. When the Grand Fleet descended to end the nuisance, the Germans would be ready. Scheer, now naval C-in-C, and Hipper both hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender.” (43)

Battle Plan for October 31

This was either remarkable optimism or complete delusion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on October 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unexpected presence caused ado galore. Instances of desertion had already occurred at Cuxhaven, and continued among the crews of the battleships that arrived in the bay during October 29. The concentration of all the big ships in one port could not mean anything but an operation being laid on, and the scuttlebutt soon confirmed that the next morning would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sailor had doubts as to for what purpose. The crews of the battleships “König“, “Kronprinz Wilhelm“, “Markgraf“, “Kaiserin“, “Thüringen” and “Helgoland” hoisted red flags and thus declared their insurrection; “on all these ships, seamen had no interest in ‘an honourable death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted surrender, discharge and permission to go home.” (44)

The SMS Thüringen was one of the ships to lead the revolution …

Around 10 pm on October 29, Hipper found most of his fleet inoperative, and when, on the next morning, the mutiny spread to the battleships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert“, the sortie had to be aborted. To quench further insubordination, Hipper ordered the three battleship squadrons to separate and return to their home ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. “Thüringen” and “Helgoland”, however, did not move an inch, and Hipper called on a battalion of loyal marine infantry to have their crews arrested, shackled and imprisoned. (45)

Soldier’s Council of the “Prinzregent Luitpold”.

Hipper’s attempts at enforcing discipline only stoked the fire, and by dividing the battleship squadrons to three harbours he only succeeded in spreading disobedience further. When the 3rd Squadron arrived at Kiel on November 1, carrying chained seamen by the hundreds, it was greeted by four thousand rebellious mariners and dock hands that had helped themselves to arms by breaking into the well-stocked arsenals and demanded the captives’ release. The next day saw the establishment of provisional sailors’ and workers’ councils, a call for a general strike by the unions, and the taking over of port and town by November 4. A posse of mutineers set out to arrest the commanding admiral, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Wilhelm’s brother, who…

Sailors demonstrate in Kiel

was forced to flee for his life, hiding behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag flying on his car. Even so, the car was shot at several times, the driver was seriously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the wheel himself in a mad dash for the Danish frontier at Flensburg. (46)

Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolution, and as coastal vessels spread the message to the smaller port towns, the railways spread the germs of revolt over the country. Committees of revolting sailors and soldiers brought their demands to the burghers of any town they entered: an immediate armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the formation of a new, democratic and republican government. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chancellor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reichstag deputies to the town: his friend Conrad Haußmann and the former butcher and journalist Gustav Noske, a representative of the Social Democrats. When the emissaries arrived at the town’s railway station, they were greeted by a crowd whose apparent revolutionary resilience convinced Noske to hold an improvised speech in which he essentially promised the listeners that their demands were soon to be met. The same evening he was able to inform Berlin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elected him to the post of revolutionary governor of Schleswig-Holstein. (47)

The Revolution spread like a wildfire …

In the meantime, suffering on the Western Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Spanish Influenza, which, despite the name, seems to have originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early outbreak of influenza in the summer, subtracting about 400,000 soldiers from the already weakened German lines and perhaps a comparable number from the Allied trenches, but the second outbreak proved both more contagious and lethal. Arriving American troop ships brought the epidemic to the great debarkation ports; the soldiers infected the French, who in turn infected the British, and both their POW’s, in turn, infected the Germans.

Fort Riley soldiers at Camp Funston

[FN 1] The Influenza Epidemic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer to the Wikipedia article in this context.

Oddly, the disease struck hardest at the fittest, particularly young men in their prime. Troopships laden with men packed closely together became floating pest holes. An American convoy arriving at Brest on October 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne campaign had 4,000 men disabled by the flu, with 200 already buried at sea. Two hundred of the sick carried off the “Leviathan” died within days. …

The epidemic posed a dilemma for President Wilson. Since military camps had become hothouses for spreading the infection, orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction late in September were cancelled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also cancel the embarkation of troopships? On October 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, General Peyton March, to ask his guidance. Both men accepted that to cram soldiers into the ships was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them. But Pershing was pleading desperately for replacements, especially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the president to bring about peace. Wilson and March recognized that the surest guarantee of defeating the Germans was to continue the deliveries of Americans to France, now swelling to an average of 50,000 weekly. How might the Germans react if they learned that the pressure was off because the American manpower pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troopships continued to sail. (49)

Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 304

On October 27, Prince Max signalled President Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Technically, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wilhelm, but Max had, cautiously, preferred not to inform the Kaiser of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of October 23, which seemed to demand the abolishment of the monarchy. He would cross this particular bridge when he met it. When Turkey asked for an armistice on October 30 and Austria on November 4, Germany was alone in the war. The front still held, miraculously, but in the air hung the smell of revolution. On October 29, Wilhelm left Berlin for the Supreme Command Headquarter at Spa, in the questionable belief that his presence close to the front would improve the soldiers’ panache. But it was the absence, not the presence, of the Imperial person that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebellious entelechy in the capital, causing the final, decisive, and irreparable dissipation of the Ancien Régime.

“Reds are streaming with every train from Hamburg to Berlin,” Count Harry Kessler, socialite, diplomat and Social Democrat supporter, recorded in his diary on 6 November. “An uprising is expected here tonight. This morning the Russian Embassy was raided like a disreputable pot-house and Joffe [the ambassador] with his staff, departed. That puts paid to the Bolshevik centre in Berlin. But perhaps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)

Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 28

By the first November week, the mutiny of the sailors had been followed by the insubordination of many garrisons, whose unwillingness to support the failing Prussian state eased the appearance of public uprisings. Local anarchists, Spartacists and Independent Social Democrats proposed various forms of revolution, and councils took over the administration of most big towns. In the first week of November, Red flags were carried through the streets of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Frankfurt and München. But it was a curiously silent rebellion, the reports agree, that pervaded the streets; violence, nay, even overspirited discussion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spartakusbund, German’s Bolsheviks in disguise, had quietly concentrated followers in the capital during the first week of November while their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prepared the German Revolution.

Karl Liebknecht (1871 – 1919), a co-founder of the Spartacist League, foments revolution in Berlin

Liebknecht’s Father Wilhelm had been a personal friend of Karl Marx and achieved socialist sainthood by becoming a co-founder of the SPD and editor of its newspaper, “Vorwärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son studied law and economy in Leipzig and Berlin before becoming, essentially, a lawyer for the socialist movement. He was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole member of the socialist camp to vote against war credits in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least temporarily support the government, and hence the war, Liebknecht began to seek sympathizers outside of the party.

For this objective he founded the “Spartakusbund“, the League of Spartacists, named, of course, for the Thracian slave Spartacus who had led the uprising against Rome in 72-70 BC. The “Spartakusbriefe” (‘Spartacus Letters’), the league’s anti-war newspapers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and editor found himself at the Russian front, where he refused to fight and was consequently assigned to a burial detail. Released from service for reasons of health, he went straight back to anti-war propaganda and headed the Socialist Peace Demonstration on May Day 1916 through the streets of Berlin. This time he was charged with high treason and sent to prison for four years, but the sentence was commuted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for political prisoners of October 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his leadership of the Spartacists, in partnership with the Polish activist, Rosa Luxemburg.” (51)

Rosa Luxemburg

Frau Luxemburg was an early apprentice in the business of insurrection; she had been active in the illegal socialist and anti-Czarist movements of pre-war Russia since she was a schoolgirl. (52) Timely escaping the attentions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzerland where an affluent lover allowed her to study at the University of Zürich and to subsidize the illegal socialist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was perhaps the most extreme socialist outside of Russia in these years, advocating global and remorseless revolution. She became a German by marriage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the radical wing. Eventually, she became known as the factotum of the world revolution and was regularly thrown in jail, rescued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Liebknecht immediately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organize the revolutionary bureaucracy of the Spartacists.

This poisonous pair, like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, saw the moderate Socialists of the SPD as their principal enemies. “The party must be recaptured from below,” Luxemburg wrote, “by mass rebellion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wingers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Spartacists. The moderate Socialists responded by sneering at them in “Vorwärts”, contrasting the “pathological instability” of Spartacus with their own “clear-headed and sensible calm.” But while the moderate Socialists were maintaining their sensible calm, the Spartacists were meeting returning troop trains at the rail termini to beg for or buy rifles, pistols and machine guns. (53)

Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 30

Meanwhile, Prince Max faced the problem of how to end the war and the monarchy without involuntary nurturing the revolution. He concentrated his final efforts on three decisive issues: the replacement of Ludendorff, the deputation of the executive power to a government able to guide the country peacefully through the many changes that were to follow and, a prerequisite for the latter, the abdication of his cousin Wilhelm. On November 9 he appointed General Wilhelm Groener, son of a NCO from Württemberg and a transportation and supply specialist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlawfully – transferred his own office and authority as chancellor of the Reich to the forty-seven-year-old former saddle maker and chairman of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remaining task was the most difficult. No civil, much less a government led by socialists, could exercise authority with the discredited emperor still in office.

At this point, Wilhelm was at Spa, the imperial head full of foolish fantasies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loyal armies back to Germany and restore order. What Prince Max back in Berlin recognized was that, far from being a solution, Wilhelm’s return was the problem. In Metz, the Allies’ next target, 10,000 German soldiers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Council, and taken over the city. Similar overthrows of the old order were erupting all over Germany. … Peace seekers inside Germany accepted that the only act that would prevent the masses from swinging over to the radicals was the removal of the country’s discredited monarch. (54)

Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 315-16

In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wilhelm had successfully managed to avoid the intrusions of reality and maintained that abdication was out of the question. Not quite used to being contradicted, the Kaiser refused to listen to the explanations of Prince Max’s messenger Drews, Prussian Minister of the Interior. He had “no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin.” (55)

Baden recognized that he had to talk to his cousin in person. On the evening of November 8, he called Wilhelm on the telephone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstinacy by making clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdication, civil war was to ravage the country. The emperor did not believe a word. It was inconceivable, he riposted, that the army would refuse to follow him. In addition, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wilhelm himself, he felt quite unconcerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the conditions.” (56) On the next morning, November 9, the leadership of the army, Hindenburg and Groener, called at the Hotel Britannique in Spa to pay their sovereign a final, necessary visit.

In Spa, on 9 November, the Emperor met the leaders of his army, the institution through which the Hohenzollern dynasty had risen to power, and to which it had always looked to sustain its dignity and authority. Wilhelm II still believed that, whatever disloyalties were being transacted by civilian politicians in Berlin, whatever affronts to order disturbed the streets, his subjects in field-grey remained true to their oath of military obedience. Even on 9 November, he continued to delude himself that the army could be used against the people and the royal house preserved by turning German against German.

His generals knew otherwise. Hindenburg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groener, the workaday railway transport officer, son of a sergeant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from soundings taken among fifty regimental commanders, that the soldiers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earliest possible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohenzollern, was the Kaiser’s abdication. The Kaiser heard him with continuing incredulity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Allegiance, on the regimental colours, which bound every German soldier to die rather than disobey? Groener uttered the unutterable. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Allegiance is only a few meaningless words.” (57)

In the chancellery in Berlin, unable to follow events in distant Spa, von Baden consulted Ebert on the situation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdication could be effected with speed, a coup d ‘état by Spartacists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the monarchy was finished willy-nilly, he dictated, in antecedence of actuality, to an employee of the Wolff Telegraph Office in Berlin a message stating that “The Kaiser and King has resolved to renounce the throne.” (58)

Fireworks of the High Seas Fleet on account of the Kaiser’s Abdication
“The Kaiser has renounced the Throne” -afternoon extra by the SPD paper “Vorwärts” on November 9, 1918

When the sensational cable was brought to the attention of the party in Spa within minutes, Wilhelm exploded in a diatribe against all traitors, civilian or military, but was forced to realize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Saturday, November 9, 1918, he relinquished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-seven years and ten months after its inception in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wilhelm left for exile in the early morning hours of November 10, to Castle Amerongen in the Netherlands, the seat of Count Godard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)

Wilhelm II crossing the Dutch frontier

Meanwhile, events in the capital precipitated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chairman of the SPD, had rushed from the chancellery to the Reichstag to inform his colleagues of Ebert’s appointment. Having a well-deserved lunch in the cafeteria, he was informed that Spartakus and USPD had summoned their followers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostensibly for the proclamation of the revolution and the launch of the German Socialist Soviet Republic. Speed was of the essence.

Scheidemann proclaiming the German Republic

Scheidemann stormed to the terrace outside the Reichstag library where he was cheered by a crowd vacillating between hope and apprehension. Improvising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appointment and the creation of a new, republican and democratic government, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rotten old monarchy has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!” (60) Meanwhile, Spartacist delegations had appeared in factories, barracks and caserns and mobilized a crowd of thousands of supporters, who were marched to meet at the Royal Palace. Liebknecht greeted the revolutionary assembly from the balcony of the building, whence formerly the Kaiser had addressed his subjects:

Comrades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Berlin! The proletariat is marching. The reign of capitalism which has turned Europe into a graveyard is over. We must summon our strength to build a new government of workers and peasants, to create a new order of peace and happiness and freedom not merely for our brothers in Germany but for the whole world. Whoever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Socialist Republic and the world revolution shall be realized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Liebknecht was two hours too late. (61)

Ebert had acted quickly and already persuaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole possible supporters, to enter into a coalition with the SPD by offering the smaller party an equal share, three of six posts, in the provisional government. The new executive power was named Council of People’s Commissars and was expected to share the administration with the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of the capital until a national assembly could enact a constitution and subsequently install a legitimate government. Ebert’s cautious manoeuvring also persuaded the liberal and Catholic interests in the capital and much of the country to support the formerly dreaded SPD as a mainstay of the new republic, and thus the government had at least the legitimacy of the popular backing.

That was, if the revolution could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skirmishes on Saturday evening and Sunday, November 10, Berlin remained quiet, and, the issue of a German republic now advanced from the realm of possibility to actuality, the eyes of the nation returned to the Western Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Command had already scheduled the next offensive, against Metz, for November 14, and further attacks were planned far into 1915.

Pershing, now commanding close to two million doughboys, seemed to long for an augmentation of his military prestige by the conquest of Sedan, which was by far the most attractive target on the south-eastern part of the front. It was the town where the Prussian army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napoleon III and 100,000 poilus prisoners-of-war.

Mathias Erzberger

Meanwhile, Prince Max had dispatched a delegation for the negotiation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on November 7. The party was headed by Matthias Erzberger, chairman of the German Catholic Centre Party, which supported von Baden’s informal government. He was a known pacifist and the sole well-known face in the German deputation which, except for him, consisted of mid-level functionaries of the Foreign Service, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a railway coach in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilometres north-east of Paris, and the expected gruff treatment delivered by Foch and General Weygand. The armistice conditions were laid out as follows:

All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany, must be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometres deep; German forces must be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. She was to be stripped of heavy armament, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aeroplanes.

The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though their people already faced famine, the Allies intended to paralyse the country’s transportation by continuing the naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. Weygand droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded she pay reparations for all damage caused. (63)

The French delegation at Compiégne

The German delegation was given a seventy-two hours deadline and an opportunity to convey the Allied demands by radio to Berlin. Erzberger realized that the conditions imposed were far too acrimonious to be entrusted to the radio, which might be monitored, and only informed Prince Max that a courier was on the way. Then he asked for a preliminary suspension of combat until a reply was received, pointing out that four thousand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Pershing, who, furious that his grand design of conquering Germany was being foiled, insisted on fighting to the last minute; to the greater glory of the American Expeditionary Forces and his own command.

The Erzberger mission overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s railway coach, drafting letters of protest they hoped might have a moderating influence on the Allied conditions. At 8 pm on November 10, they received a French report of an intercepted message from Berlin which confirmed Erzberger’s plenipotentiary powers and authorized him to sign the instrument of truce.

Early French Plan for the partitioning of the Continent

A second message was received, from Hindenburg, verifying the authenticity of the first signal and instructing Erzberger to try to have the naval blockade lifted, for the sake of the starving women and children. At 2 am the next morning, November 11, the German deputation was led back to the railway car for a second round of discussions.

Foch, however, remained intransigent, and the sole moderation of terms Erzberger achieved was that the Allies “would contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meeting was adjourned. All that remained for the soldiers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.

Matthias Erzberger at the armistice at Compiegne

That is, for everyone except the AEF, which was directed by Pershing to continue the attacks scheduled for the day without regard of the armistice taking effect at 11:00. Since Foch had informed all Allied commanders, including Pershing, in advance of the conditions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offensive would be ground the Germans were obliged to give up within two weeks anyway.

Pershing did inform his regimental and division commanders that a ceasefire was to take effect on 11:00, but directed his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advantage of the situation.” (65) Nine out of sixteen U.S. division commanders on the Western Front interpreted the absence of specific orders as an incentive to launch the scheduled attacks; seven refrained from further jeopardizing their men lives and limbs.

Thus, nine U.S. divisions attacked the enemy on the morning of November 11, and since the Germans were forced to defend themselves whether they wanted or not, almost 11,000 casualties were unnecessarily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the average daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.

Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 per cent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided. (66)

At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the Western Front. But it was only in the aftermath of the great conflict that the members of the old Imperial houses realized for how long, in truth, their relevance had diminished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties had not ended in February 1917 or November 1918, but in the summer of 1914 or even earlier – in their driving the old continent into war and pestilence they had, alas, overlooked the shadows of nationalism and socialism lingering in the rear mirror, forces eager to embrace the Imperial inheritance.

[42] [43] [44] [45] Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776

[57] Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, p. 418-419

[48] [49] [54] [55] [56] [58] [59] [62] [63] [64] [65] [66] Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, pp. 303, 304-5, 315-16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307-8, 323, 325, 378-9

[46] [47] [50] [51] 52] [53] [60] [61] Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32

Next Article: Revolution in Bavaria and Germany

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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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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The Prince and the Pauper

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

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

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

Archduke Francis Ferdinand on war against Serbia

They only met once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dimitriević around 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vojislav Tankosić

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

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

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

Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip
Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip

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

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

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

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

Leaving the train …

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

Leaving the City Hall
Leaving the City Hall

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Change of route
Change of route

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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

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

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

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

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

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Wilhelm II – The Easiness of Living

Wilhelmus Ornatus

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

Wilhelm at age 21
Wilhelm at age 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother and Son
Mother and Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reinsurance Treaty [PDF]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His sense of humour was peculiar, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cavalry attack at the Battle of Loigny, 1870

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

Such Imperial Manoeuvres as in 1913 became suicidal in 1914

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

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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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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