A MURDER OF CROWS

from “THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY”, Chapter XII


The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

(Christopher Clark, on the perception of pre-1914 politics.)


Europe after the Franco-German War of 1870/71
Europe after the Franco-German War of 1870/71

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remain the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review what happened.

I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars“, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war” – as Clausewitz had famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without any idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.

II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic government option, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.

III. Due to erroneous lessons drawn from the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance“, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.

IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power” [1] Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden“.

Animated GIF – Colonization 1492 – 2008 (Click to enlarge)
Spiridone Roma “The East offering its Riches to Britannia” (1781), commissioned by the East India Company – this is how Imperialism saw itself …

[1] In 1961, Professor Fritz Fischer of Hamburg University published “Griff nach der Weltmacht” (which translates as ‘A Grip for World Power’ but was titled in its 1967 English translation “Germany’s Aims in the First World War”). The book unveils the abyss of a German conspiracy for world supremacy, which apparently was undertaken by all sorts of influential people, from generals to newspaper owners, by their dreaming up nasty plans for world domination after they had won the war. The introduction by Hajo Holborn of Yale argues that Germany strove to become “a ‘world power’, equal to Britain and Russia and that her citizens “displayed a shocking disregard for the rights of other nations, especially of the small states.” (5) While examples for these assertions can be found without difficulty, they seem to be beside the point: all these arguments can be reciprocated by “to quoque”; for why should Germany not strive to world power if Great Britain, France, the United States or Russia did? In regard to the freedom of other nations, Indians, Boers or Chinese could teach lessons about British concern for their rights and Cubans or Philippines comment on American charity. One may speculate what kind of social order Tsarist Russia or the Ottomans of Turkey would have imposed over conquered territories. Mutatis mutandis, none of these German plans ever saw the lights of factuality, while French revanchism ran rampant after 1918 and in its inflexibility much aided the demise of the German Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. What Griff nach der Weltmacht provided was an ex post facto argument that Germany’s sinister plans justified the war; that the victors saved humanity from eternal Teutonic overlordship. This is pure utilitarianism, entelechial adjudication a posteriori, and thus of little significance in this investigation.

Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914
Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914 (Click to enlarge)

But to some degree, colonization was a game, a show; while the gold and diamonds of the Cape provinces and the copper, ores and minerals from the Ugandan mines unquestionably were great economic boons for Great Britain, and other possessions could at least serve as strategic bases or coaling stations, there were just as many places which were useless, or, worse, a drain on resources. Most of the German possessions fell into this category. Yet psychological contemplations counted just as much, sometimes more, than profit or strategy. There was a theory that many statesmen subscribed to; the thesis that the riches of the globe would ultimately be divided between a very small number of contenders. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies and pro-German Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain believed that “the tendency of the time is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires, and the minor kingdoms – those which are non- progressive – seem to fall into a secondary and subordinate place ….” (2) The French politician Darcy opined that “… those who do not advance go backwards and who goes back goes under.” (3)

Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914
British Empire map of 1914 (Click to enlarge)

Because of her fragile inner condition, Germany depended, in a sense, on success in her foreign policy, which included some more exotic colonialist adventures. Paul Kennedy observed:

There remained the danger that failure to achieve diplomatic or territorial successes would affect the delicate internal politics of Wilhelmine Germany, whose Junker elite worried about the (relative) decline of the agricultural interest, the rise of organized labour, and the growing influence of Social Democracy in a period of industrial boom.

It was true that after 1897 the pursuit of Weltpolitik was motivated to a considerable extent by the calculation that this would be politically popular and divert attention from Germany’s domestic-political fissures.

But the regime in Berlin always ran the dual risk that if it backed down from a confrontation with a “foreign Jupiter” [2], German nationalist opinion might revile and denounce the Kaiser and his aides; whereas, if the country became engaged in an all-out war, it was not clear whether the natural patriotism of the masses of workers, soldiers, and sailors would outweigh their dislike of the archconservative Prusso-German state.  While some observers felt that a war would unite the nation behind the emperor, others feared it would further strain the German socio-political fabric. (4)

[2] Here Kennedy relates to a famous speech of Bernhard von Bülow, then Foreign Minister, who complained in 1899: “We cannot allow any foreign power, any foreign Jupiter to tell us: ‘What can be done? The world is already partitioned.'”

Yet at the same time, Kennedy argues, the overall vexations of Germany were not too dissimilar from those experienced by other nations, for all of them, whether more liberal England or more authoritative Russia, felt the need for the establishment – and retention – of a “place in the sun“, which ought to deflect the public attention from the increasing social conflicts of the industrial age.

It has been argued by many historians that imperial Germany was a “special case,” following a ‘Sonderweg’ (“special path”), which would one day culminate in the excesses of National Socialism. Viewed solely in terms of political culture and rhetoric around 1900, this is a hard claim to detect:

Russian and Austrian anti-Semitism was at least as strong as German [the French Dreyfus affair might compete as well, ¶], French chauvinism as marked as the German, Japan’s sense of cultural uniqueness and destiny as broadly held as Germany’s. Each of these powers examined here was “special,” and in the age of imperialism was all too eager to assert its specialness. (7) [3]

[3] Paul Kennedy adds: “In this age of the ‘new imperialism,’ similar calls [as in Germany] could be heard in every other Great Power; as Gilbert Murray wickedly observed in 1900, each country seemed to be asserting, ‘We are the pick and flower of nations … above all things qualified for governing others.'” (9)

Cecil Rhodes (Punch Magazine)

The psychological factors of the ongoing imperialist competition, however, were of a nature that the governments in question could not simply mollify by a new treaty with power X or the establishment of one more army corps. They had a life of their own, and in retrospect, it would seem that what the continental powers crucially lacked were reliable crisis-control mechanisms.

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

At the Congress of Berlin 1878, Bismarck had reached the first settlement of open questions regarding the Balkan countries, which, however, remained the powder keg of international relations. But nobody was truly pleased with the outcome and the rivalries continued.

The feudal inheritance, the proximity of power and influence near the respective imperial or royal courts, made sure that there was always more than a single foreign policy; too often, there were as many shades of foreign policy as there were important courtiers. The evil effects of compartmentalization added to the frequent befuddlements of the administrative processes: the general staffs tended to treat the foreign offices as handmaidens; competition between the different military services was often vicious, and in some countries, even intra-service turf wars were ferocious enough to paralyse communications. Norman Stone reports an example from Russia:

The affairs of the North-Western Front were also bedevilled by an element of mistrust among senior officers that, in this first, confused, phase of the war mattered more than it did later. The leading personnel had been chosen from different cliques of the army — friends and enemies of Sukhomlinov [the Russian War Minister, ¶), plebeian infantrymen on one side, aristocratic cavalrymen on the other. Lord and peasant stared resentfully at each other across the staff-maps. As Grand Duke Nicholas’s STAVKA [the nominal Supreme Command, only appointed at the outbreak of war, ¶] came into existence, it could insist on key appointments, to cancel those made by the War Ministry. Zhilinsky, commanding the front against Germany, was a Sukhomlinovite; but Rennenkampf, commanding I Army, was a notorious enemy. Samsonov, commanding II Army, was a Sukhomlinovite appointment, but their chiefs of staff, Mileant and Postovski, reversed the pattern — Rennenkampf communicated with Mileant only in writing throughout the East Prussia campaign, and refused to act on information given first to Mileant.
For IX Army command in Warsaw, Sukhomlinov had named “the coarse Siberian”, Lechitski; Grand Duke
Nicholas appointed as chief of staff one of his favourites, the “gentleman”, Guliewicz, an aristocratic Pole. The two men ended by addressing not a word to each other, after Lechitski refused permission for Madame Guliewicz to live in headquarters.
Communications, particularly between Zhilinsky and Rennenkampf, were confused to the point where Zhilinsky, nominally commander of the front, sometimes barely knew what was happening. The communications from I Army were so insultingly laconic and infrequent that Zhilinsky had to ask STAVKA to intervene. Five messages were sent to Rennenkampf and an adjutant of the Grand Duke himself – Kochubey – to remind him that he should let his seniors know what the army was doing.

Stone, Norman, The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917, Penguin Books 1998, ISBN 978-0-140-26725-9 (pbk.), P. 58

Thus, in retrospect, the horrendous defeat at Tannenberg came not as a true surprise.

Germany did not do necessarily better. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was only briefed about the principal German War Plan 4 in December 1912, during his fourth year in office, and then received only platitudes. About the most risqué and controversial element of the plan, the thrust to Liège, he was not informed until July 31, 1914, the day before war was declared. (10) Each country showed idiosyncrasies: during the war, the French chief of the general staff Joffre forbade even President Poincaré to set foot into the war zone, which he regarded as his personal fief, while Austria had to issue her mobilization order in fifteen languages. Bureaucracies reined the continent supremely.

The multiplication of government agencies was only exacerbated by the protocolary detours that remained in place everywhere; on behalf of the nobility’s sense of decorum and the respect it thought proper to command, or the layered defence rings of the public service hierarchies: no provisions existed to expedite communications in a time of crisis. While Wilhelm II and Nicholas II were in touch, personally, via telegram, in the last days of July 1914, the chancellors, prime ministers and presidents of the European nations were not – neither their generals nor their foreign offices and ambassadors would allow it.

Thus, we must recognize a complete lack of crisis-control mechanisms as one of the crucial factors on the road to war. The Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph, for example, did not even convene the Crown Council or any other formal conference before declaring war …


Among the important stations on this road, which broke out in 1914 as a consequence of these vanities of European policy-making, the author likes to present the following articles in detail:

I. The Formation of the Triple Alliance

II. Franco-Russian Détente and the Entente Cordiale

III. The Russian Strategy for the War of 1914

IV. Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 – The Assassination of Francis Ferdinand

V. The Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia

VI. The Austrian Declaration of War

VII. The Situation at the Brink of War, July 29 – 31, 1914

VIII. The German Declaration of War

IX. The Schlieffen Plan of 1905/06

X. The Real German War Plan 1914


In this context, our German sister site features an article on the mismanagement of Austrian foreign policy leading to the Ultimatum to Serbia and the Declaration of War (Translation button available).


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19 – To Be Continued – Edited from original text here, footnotes and bibliography here)

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