Sunday, 16 March 2014

Great Myths of the Great War Part 2: The Question of Guilt

As I discussed in Part 1, for the longest time I believed that some desperation to secure British power meant that, fundamentally, the war was all Britain’s fault. Others have said simply that “everyone was to blame”. Here, however, I’m going to argue that Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles was essentially correct: through its supremely-belligerent war plans, capricious Kaiser, and inept diplomacy, Germany bore the bulk of responsibility for the war.

Following the Carthaginian Peace they had inflicted upon France after the Franco-Prussian War, the German government was well aware of the deep French desire for revanche. By 1890, however, the skilful diplomacy of Otto von Bismarck had managed to isolate France through the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. In that year it was up for renewal, and it seemed likely that peace would endure. In a monumental fit of pique, however, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the experienced Bismarck over a dispute on labour policy. Believing he could play all sides, Wilhelm refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty in the hopes of improving relations with Britain, which at that point was embroiled in “the Great Game” with Russia in Southwest Asia.

Wilhelm believed his own friendship with Tsar Alexander III would be enough to ensure warm diplomatic relations. However, Bismarck’s dismissal convinced the Russians that a change in policy was at hand, and alarmed that they might lose a powerful ally in Germany; they instead sought an alliance with France. Germany’s sole allies were now the uncertain Italy and the shambolic Austria-Hungary. Bismarck’s delicate balance of power had been shattered by the caprice of the inexperienced young Kaiser.

By the time Alfred von Schlieffen began formulating his first plan to violate Belgian neutrality to defeat France in 1899, the Germans, and the General Staff in particular, had convinced themselves that a two-front war with France and Russia was inevitable. I will discuss the aims and failings of the Schlieffen Plan at a later date, but its mere existence is proof of the fact that the German leadership was planning for an aggressive war, and as Helmuth von Moltke the Younger put it in 1912, they hoped that this war should happen “the sooner the better.” While the same argument may be made for the existence of the joint British-French plans I referred to in my last blog, the point is that these were defensive plans contingent on Germany making the first move. Germany, in contrast, had been planning to make the first move for years.

Kaiser Wilhelm and his Generals were obsessed with breaking their perceived encirclement, and constantly sought opportunities to launch a war with France: the prospect of being able to fight France without Russia at its side led Germany to provoke the First Moroccan Crisis, which nearly brought both to war until the cool head of the French Prime Minister prevailed over the hotter one of his Foreign Minister. As the Russian Empire scrambled to rearm after its defeat by Japan in 1905, the Germans’ attempts at provocation became ever more blatant.

The provocation in Tangier was just one of many ham-fisted German attempts to break the Anglo-French Entente. Germany saw this agreement between Britain and France as a threat and the makings of a military alliance against them, when in fact, as I explained in my last blog, it was a purely informal arrangement that in its original conception had never actually intended to reflect on European politics: the Entente began in 1904 not as an alliance against Germany but as a means of resolving Britain and France’s colonial rivalries in Africa. Britain guaranteed France a free hand in Morocco. Believing it to be a sign that Britain and France were starting to work against him, Kaiser Wilhelm made his visit to Tangiers in 1905. As well as trying to provoke a war with France, the Kaiser’s declaration of support for Moroccan independence was intended to force Britain into choosing between Germany and France. Wilhelm and his advisors believed that Britain would choose Protestant Germany, the monarch of which was a blood relation to King George V, over Catholic, Republican France.

The heavy-handedness of Germany’s conduct in the First Moroccan Crisis had precisely the opposite effect. The German Empire was now seen by Britain’s politicians as a potential threat to European and colonial security. The staff talks between Britain and France that I referred to in my last blog began. The situation was not helped by Wilhelm’s desire to build up his war fleet, a challenge to Britain’s naval supremacy that could only be met by Britain reciprocating. As an aside, this was an incalculably stupid strategic move by Germany: Wilhelmshaven is her only significant port on the North Sea coast, thus German naval movements could be easily impeded by the Royal Navy by blockading only this port and the approaches from the Baltic Sea, as actually happened in the first months of World War I. Germany’s cruiser squadrons already at sea were dealt with by the Entente by December 1914, and from then on the Imperial German Navy’s greatest strategic impact came from U-boat warfare. Germany could match Britain in production of ships, but the cruelties of geography prevented them from being used decisively.

Through a provocative foreign policy and an unnecessary arms race, therefore, Germany progressively alienated itself further from Britain and only compounded the isolation it was so determined to break. Germany’s intentions became transparently obvious when in 1912 the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, offered to end the dreadnought race and accept Britain’s naval supremacy in exchange for British neutrality in a future war. Britain refused: as I will explain in a later blog, not just honour but the interest of both the British state and the British people depended on preserving both the neutrality of the Low Countries (which by now it was realised Germany would use as an invasion corridor to France) and the balance of power in Europe as a whole.

Other German actions went well beyond mere contingency planning. In 1904, Wilhelm invited the King of the Belgians, Leopold II, to Berlin to extort from him the complicity of his country in the German invasion of France. In exchange for turning his country into a road, Leopold would be offered the French Ardennes, Artois, and French Flanders to reconstruct the Duchy of Burgundy, territory that Leopold’s family had not possessed since the 15th Century. Leopold was an extravagantly cruel and avaricious ruler. The atrocities done for his profit alone in the Belgian Congo are comparable to the most ghastly genocides that continue there to this day. It cannot be said that he did many things that are to his credit, yet in this case, he made the right decision: astonished and dumbfounded at the implications of what Wilhelm suggested, he refused.

Despite Leopold’s defiance, German planning and provocation continued apace. In February 1911, Moltke the Younger, the Chief of the General Staff, sent a memorandum marked “Secret” to the War Ministry.”In the war,” it reads. “We shall need rapid and decisive victories... If we prepare for the attack on the French fortresses we shall be ready for the attack on the Russian also...”

Moltke says “in the war.” Not “if war comes.” Not “if it is necessary to begin offensive operations.” He explicitly refers to a planned conflict against both France and Russia that Germany was certain was about to begin. This memorandum and Germany’s conduct leading up to 1914 are all deeply incriminating.

The “blank cheque” presented by Germany to Austria-Hungary in 1914 has long been considered the point when it became inevitable that a Balkan war would become a general European war. On June 29th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of Austria Hungary, was assassinated along with his wife in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princep. It is undeniable that Princep and his fellow conspirators were assisted and abetted by elements within the Serbian Army and intelligence services: the desire to free fellow Slavs from Austrian rule ran strong among Serbia’s younger officers, but the Serbian government’s hands were clean. The Austrian government vacillated over what course of action to take, and fearing Russian intervention in support of the Slavs in Serbia, German support was sought. On July 5th, the Austrian cabinet minister the Graf von Hoyos was personally promised by Kaiser Wilhelm German support for whatever action Austria saw fit to take.

Apologists would of course see this simply as Germany extending its support to a country that was assaulted by a terrorist group backed by a rogue state. Surely she could not have known of the formidable ultimatum that Austria would present to Serbia? Surely she cannot be blamed for the Russian reaction to an Austro-Serb war that arguably dragged France into the conflict, thereby forcing Germany to enact the Schlieffen Plan as a means of self-defence?

In fact, Germany was thoroughly aware of the terms of Austria’s ultimatum. What is more, the German government and Army felt that it was in their best interests to fight a war as soon as possible, as I have already demonstrated. The decision to support Austria-Hungary unconditionally in any future crisis had in fact been made as early as December 1912: at that point the First Balkan War, the short sharp land-grab by Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and of course, Serbia against the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions, was at its height. Austria-Hungary, looking to find a Mediterranean port outside the confines of the Adriatic Sea, regarded the Balkans as a prize to be snaffled up as the Ottoman Empire decayed and was utterly opposed to any other nation’s expansion in the area. For its part, Germany regarded the Balkan League as a Russian proxy designed to expand its influence in the area.

The Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, addressed the Reichstag on December 2nd, declaring German support for Austria-Hungary if it was attacked by a third party while pursuing its interests in the Balkans. Britain responded sternly, voicing her fears that a Russo-Austrian war would drag France into the conflict as Russia’s ally. The German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, wrote to the Kaiser warning that in this event Britain “could under no circumstance tolerate France being crushed.” Enraged, the Kaiser scribbled in the margin of the report “she will have to.”

Wilhelm summoned his army and navy chiefs to a council of war on December 8th, and the decisions made would bear an awful fruit in July 1914: if Russia were to come to Serbia’s aid in an Austro-Serb war, Germany would fight. Wilhelm and Moltke the Younger were determined that Austria-Hungary should attack Serbia then and there, clearly hoping that the result would be their great, victorious, encirclement-breaking war. Only the protests of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who insisted that the navy was not yet ready to fight, forestalled the decision, yet the scenario outlined at the conference was so similar to the July Crisis that it has been called a “dress rehearsal” for the crisis of 1914.

Thus, it was far from an act of principle that Germany supported Austria-Hungary against Serbia in July 1914. It knew the terms of the Austrian ultimatum, and even insisted that Austria include harsher terms against Serbia. The resulting ten demands were such an assault upon Serbian sovereignty that it was impossible for the Serbian government to fulfil them all, though their response went far further than any observing diplomats thought possible, agreeing to eight of Austria’s demands. With German backing guaranteed, Austria rejected Serbia’s response. Serbia mobilised on July 25th. Austria mobilised on the 26th and declared war on Serbia on July 28th.

The deciding power as July ended was the Russian Empire. It could not afford to stand by and acquiesce to Serbia being conquered by Austria: too much of its foreign policy credibility was built on its portrayal as the protector of the Slavs, and in any case it viewed the Slavic areas of the Balkans as being within the Russian sphere of influence. Russia ordered partial mobilisation on July 29th, and then general mobilisation against Austria on July 30th.

Up to this point, the problem may still have been isolated to the Balkans or an Austro-Russian war, but the high-handedness of German diplomacy further exacerbated tensions. Proposals by Sir Edward Grey for a peace conference were ignored. On July 31st, Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia demanding that they demobilise. Of course there was no prospect of demobilisation, and Germany had to know this. The longer they allowed Russia to mobilise was less time for Germany to defeat France before the “Russian steamroller” could bear down on East Prussia. Making it appear that Russia had mobilised first was the fig leaf with which Germany concealed the golden opportunity that they had long sought and engineered: they now had their chance to split the Entente, break their encirclement, and stifle the growing power of socialism at home. General mobilisation was ordered and Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st.

International covenants required that France intervene in support of Russia. Though the Kaiser vainly hoped that he could perhaps encourage France to remain neutral, the German Army in particular was determined to see the Schlieffen Plan implemented in full. As if to ensure that the possibility of France considering neutrality was fully eliminated, the Germans demanded that France surrender its border fortresses “as a gesture of sincerity”, if Germany was to accept her neutrality. This transparent attempt to compromise France’s security as preparation for a future war was of course ignored by France. Germany declared war on France on August 3rd.

In conclusion, we cannot escape the fact that Germany bears the greatest responsibility for beginning the First World War. Its government considered war the only means of ensuring its continental supremacy, and had sought that short, victorious war for years prior to 1914. Inept diplomacy isolated Germany in Europe, and so belligerent diplomacy and all means short of war were brought to bear to cause the conflict the Kaiser and his Generals so desired. The result was the end of Germany and Europe as they – and anyone – knew them.

Works consulted

Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock
Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914
John Keegan, The First World War
Simkins, Jukes and Hickey, The First World War: The War to End all Wars
Hew Strachan, The First World War
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

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