Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Prelude to the Great War: Germany

Jack Beatty examines the internal political situation in each of the major belligerent countries of the Great War, offering evidence that the war was not inevitable as any one of a number of other events held the potential to derail one or more of the belligerents from engaging in this most destructive war.

He first examines Germany.  The German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) was a loose league of 39 sovereign states, founded at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 after Napoleon’s fall.  The further consolidation came in the wake of several wars beginning in 1864 and culminating in 1871, under King Wilhelm I.  These campaigns…

…forged Imperial Germany (1871 – 1918) from four kingdoms, six grand duchies, seven principalities, three free cities, and two imperial provinces.

Germany went from a relatively decentralized society into a militarized and very centralized society.

Beatty explains the militarization of German society – in his view not nearly as militarized as the United States is today despite being protected only by rivers and not by vast oceans.  After all: it was France and its ally Russia joined together that surrounded Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary, and not the other way around.

With sound reason George F. Kennan, the American diplomat and historian, traced the fuse of the war behind Prussian militarism to its geostrategic justification – the Franco-Russian military alliance of the early 1890s.

Despite the obvious need for a strong land-based military, Germany diverted significant resources to the navy (the Tirpitz Plan), “a fatal enthusiasm of the German emperor” (Wilhelm II), according to Beatty.  This left the army relatively weaker and simultaneously antagonized Britain – neither a good outcome.

As to the relatively weakened army, following the German retreat from the River Marne east of Paris, General von Falkenhayn “exploded at Tirpitz”:

“If we did not have the Navy, we would have had two more army corps and would not have lost the Marne battle!”  He was undoubtedly right…. In losing that battle, Falkenhayn told a Reichstag deputy, Germany had lost the war.

Driven partly, at least, by this build-up of a German navy, Britain – a sea power and dependent on oceanic trade – would be driven to alliance with France and Russia against Germany.  In the meantime, during the war Germany’s fleet either ran from the British or spent time collecting rust in port.

Several preludes to war can be found in the German story.  The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine (a region in regular dispute since the days of Lothar, Charlemagne’s grandson) by Germany in 1871 is one; the challenge to Britain’s naval superiority is another; a third can be found in Russia’s Balkan rivalry with Austria (backed by Germany’s blank check to Austria regarding attacking Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand).

The most interesting observation, however, regards Germany’s internal situation – one that made war desirable as a means to pull together disparate groups within the country.  Beatty spends considerable time reviewing the Zabern Affair, a series of incidents in Zabern in the aforementioned and forever-disputed Alsace-Lorraine.  It was a test of wills: on the one side, the military as supreme no matter the issue or cause; on the other, free speech and peaceful protest. 

Although this event was in one corner of the empire, it raised the voices of and otherwise united the opposition throughout Germany – especially Social Democrats.  They gained power in the Reichstag – with Bismarck writing “These questions – like that of Social Democracy and that of the relationship between Parliament and the separate states – will not be solved without a blood-bath, just as the question of German unity was not.”

When a Conservative deputy, Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, declared, “The King of Prussia and the German Emperor must always be in a position to say to any lieutenant: ‘Take ten men and shoot the Reichstag!’” his fellow Conservatives in the Reichstag gave him a standing ovation.

If this is not enough to demonstrate the internal situation, how about this – from the Kaiser?

“Because of our Social Democrats we cannot send a single man out of the country without running the gravest risk to the life and property of the citizenry.  First the socialists must be gunned down, decapitated and rendered harmless, in a blood-bath if necessary, and then war abroad!”

The military as supreme.  War used to expand empire and subdue internal enemies.  This was the German story leading up to the war.


  1. Great post. The militarization of Europe leading up to WWI certainly didn't go unnoticed. My favorite author, Leo Tolstoy, even foresaw it. In "The Kingdom of God is Within You" (first published in 1894 in, of all places, Germany) Tolstoy notes the militarization by quoting an Italian named Enrico Ferri:

    "Modern Europe keeps under arms an active army of nine millions of men, besides fifteen millions of reserve, with an outlay of four hundred millions of francs per annum. By continual increase of the armed force, the sources of social and individual prosperity are paralyzed, and the state of the modern world may be compared to that of a man who condemns himself to wasting from lack of nutrition in order to provide himself with arms, losing thereby the strength to use the arms he provides, under the weight of which he will at last succumb."

    Tolstoy goes on to address his fellow Russians:

    "We, who have a simple love for men of foreign nationalities, Frenchmen, Germans, Americans, and Englishmen, who respect their qualities, are glad to meet them and make them so warmly welcome, cannot regard war with them as anything heroic. We cannot even imagine without horror the possibility of a disagreement between these people and ourselves which would call for reciprocal murder. Yet we are all bound to take a hand in this slaughter which is bound to come to pass."

    He finishes with this (wonderfully libertarian) sentiment:


    1. If the people would spend 5% of their energy against the political leaders who send them to war (in a peaceful manner) as they spend fighting wars against others (strangers, who never did them no harm) and cheering on their so-called warriors, this would virtually all come to an end.

    2. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke.

  2. You know it's a good site when the comments are as good as the articles.