Sunday, March 16, 2014

The great mystery of how noble Emperors managed to start the First World War

British historian Christopher Clark has attracted a lot of attention around the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War with his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013). The title fits into the image, politically convenient for those who don't wish to emphasize the more venal and destructive motives that the statesmen of the time displayed in going to war.

Clark's 2000 biography, Kaiser Wilhelm II, certainly encourages that view in relation to the German monarch. He seems to be as convinced as the prewar German Social Democrats were that Kaiser Bill had the most pacific intentions going into the declaration of war in 1914.

I'm certainly no specialist in the causes of the First World War, a multifaceted and much-discussed topic in history. But you don't have to have read a thousand books on the topic to recognize the problem with Clark's treatment of Kaiser Bill leading up to the Second World War. He privileges the Kaiser's public pronouncements over his privates notes (marginalia) and reports of private meetings. This is obviously a questionable approach when dealing with the buildup to a war. Even in those days, heads of state and government were expected to pretend in public that they wanted to avoid war and that the other side was the aggressor or at least on the verge of becoming the aggressor.

Clark isn't consistent in this, though. When the Kaiser's public pronouncements were obviously, blatantly warlike and belligerent, Clark explains repeatedly that, shoot, that was just ole Bill shooting off his mouth, he prob'ly didn't mean nothin' by it.

Here's an example. He devotes a chapter to examples of the Kaiser saying hair-raising things in public and how his officials tried relentless to get him to cool it. In a 1900 speech that came to be known as the Hunnenrede (Hun's Speech), he spoke to a group of German troops about to embark to participate in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China and said, in the translation Clark uses, "When you come before the enemy, let him be struck down; there will be no mercy, prisoners will not be taken. Just as the Huns one thousand years ago ... made a name for themselves in which their greatness still resounds, so let the name Germany be known in China in such a way that a Chinese will never again dare even to look askance at a German." (p. 169)

That seems pretty clear to me. But Clark excuses the crass sentiments ole Bill expressed there in much the same way political spin-doctors try to put their bosses' more embarrassing statements into "context," a word Clark uses a lot in this connection. Here is part of his spin on that speech:

The contrasts and logical inconsistencies within the text suggest that Wilhelm may, in standard fashion, have departed from a more anodyne prepared text to improvise on a matter that had preoccupied him over recent weeks, namely the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Boxer assault on the European legations in China - which had prompted a wave of atrocity stories in the European press - and the need for exemplary punitive action. However, his references to 'mercy' and 'prisoners' [as in have none and take none {BM}] also reflected a broader preoccupation with the problem of managing encounters between a modern 'civilised' army and the fanaticised mass that many contemporaries saw in the insurrectionary movements of what is now known as the 'third world'. [my emphasis] (p. 170)
And this explanation he apparently meant to be exculpatory! Though what he's really saying there is pretty much: yeah, Kaiser Bill was right, that's the only way you can deal with Those People. Wow!

Clark also seems to be playing a game when he writes about the Kaiser's assumptions during the immediate run-up to war in 1914. He hardly discusses Germany's specific concerns about France or the tensions among the great powers arising from their potentially conflicting colonial ambitions. As he discusses the period in which Austria-Hungary was preparing to attack Serbia and the German Kaiser was assuring the Habsburg Emperor that he could count on "the full support of Germany" (from the report of a July 5 meeting of the Austrian Ambassador to Germany, Count Ladislaus von Szögyényi-Marich) in its actions against Serbia, Clark cites evidence that Germany was not expecting an attack by Russia as evidence that Kaiser Bill wasn't expecting a war.

Of course German officials hoped that Russia wouldn't attack them under their treaty alliance with France. But misjudging Russia's likely course isn't the same that as hoping to avoid war with France. The German assumption was that Austria-Hungary would be able to mount a sufficient force against Russia in the event of an attack that Germany wouldn't have to devote large military resources to holding off Russia.

Clark's brief for the German Kaiser's peaceful intentions seems to be disingenuous on this point.

Clark describes the Imperial sleepwalkers about to go to world war this way:

What general conclusions can we draw from Wilhelm's actions during the July crisis [of 1914]? We could begin with the banal observation that Wilhelm, while reluctant to entangle Germany in a continental war, nevertheless made some of the decisions that helped to bring it about. But it should be noted that the same can be said of his two imperial colleagues, Emperor Franz Joseph and Tsar Nicholas II. Alexander Margutti, aide-de-camp to Franz Joseph, reported that the Austrian emperor regarded the ultimatum to Serbia as a diplomatic bluff and was deeply shaken when he realised that the Serbian reply was unacceptable. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was slow to accept the need for military measures and - in a move analogous to Wilhelm's last-minute efforts to avoid continental war - actually rescinded an order for general mobilisation on 29 July after receiving what he took to be a conciliatory message from his German cousin. During a further protracted discussion with Foreign Minister Sazonov on 30 July, the tsar displayed an 'extreme loathing' for war and could only be persuaded with the greatest difficulty of the need for an immediate general mobilisation. (p. 214)
One is left to wonder how, with such pacifist minded Emperors determined not to let a conflict break out, how the war managed to start at all!

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