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

From “The Little Drummer Boy“, Chapter XIII:


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.)

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains 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 an 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”.

[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 regards 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

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 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
Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914

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)

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 a first settlement of open questions regarding the Balkan countries, which, however, remained the powder keg of international relations. But nobody was truly pleased at 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.

In Part II we will have a look at the exploits of the milites gloriosi in the Russian officer corps and the consequences for Russian policies.

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

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