The Kaiser


Trade competition between Britain and Germany

The inevitable war


Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina

The longing for nationhood


The Alliances

Few today are aware that, in June of 1914, the French army was larger than the German one, having for some years been aggressively rearmed and reequipped. In 1854 and '66 France had watched with alarm the swift and efficient Prussian victories in Denmark and Austria. In 1914 France remained stunned by her own defeat by the Prussians in 1871. After 1888, with Kaiser Wilhelm II on the throne determined to make the German army ever more formidable, it isn't surprising that France had felt it prudent to do the same. When they did, it alarmed the Germans. Thus began an arms race between the two nations that was independent of the one that would soon get underway between Britain and Germany. Any arms race can be said to be a cause of the war that follows it.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was a nephew of Edward the Seventh who was King of England and Emperor of India from 1901 to 1910. The Kaiser's mother was Edward's older sister. Considerably younger than his uncle, Wilhelm acceded to the thrones of Prussia and the German Empire 13 years before the aging Prince of Wales became King upon the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. That fact exacerbated the abrasive relationship between the two. The Kaiser felt that, in 1902 when Edward was crowned, his experience as a monarch made him the equal of - or superior to - his uncle, one of the shrewdest political minds in Europe. No self-delusion could have been more profound. While Prince of Wales, Edward had maneuvered behind the scenes of government and diplomacy to guide, control, avert and manipulate world events to suit Britain's several convoluted international agendas. He saw Wilhelm for what he truly was: an unstable personality unable to keep his nose out of the business of his government, his family, his people and his neighbors. Though he could be exceedingly charming, Wilhelm was the prototypical "know-it-all". Yet he was very quick to grasp the substance and implications of any subject that was presented to him as he proved countless times when expressing his views on widely diverse subjects of concern to his realm and his people. But he always went too far. He was sarcastic and overbearing, dismissive and condescending with all manner of people - his wife, his chancellors, other kings and emperors, a locomotive driver - who they were made little difference. Instead of conversing, he lectured. It was intolerable to him that anyone should know something that he didn't, partly from a deluded notion that, as their Emperor, he should know everything that his subjects knew. Everything. How to design and build a museum or a cathedral. How to build a bridge. How to plan and execute a military campaign. How to raise a garden. How to design a battleship. How to excavate ruins. How to represent Germany's foreign policy. The list is endless. But it was the last point upon which he foundered many times to the fury and exasperation of his uncle Edward together with thousands in Germany and the other nations of Europe.

Many people believe that the Kaiser started the First World War. He didn't but - he contributed to the conditions in which war became ever more likely and, though he could have stopped it before it started, he didn't. Because he was a blusterer, he too often believed the bombast he poured upon others and, having made many threatening speeches and bellicose private comments in the years between 1888 and 1914, he undoubtedly believed much if not all of what he said. The whole world was to suffer, partly because Germany had had the misfortune of a monarch calamitously unsuited to the job.   Back to top

Among his many self-delusions, the Kaiser was convinced that Germany needed a navy equal to Britain's mighty Royal Navy. His rationalizations were simple: as German exports increased - and they were increasing fast - German merchant ships would need the protection of a world-class fleet. And, of course, there was the question of the defense of Germany's expanding colonial empire - her "place in the sun". The colonies would need naval protection too. Why? Because, too often, territory claimed by Germany was also claimed by Britain or France or Japan or even Portugal. Germany was the Johnny-come-lately in the colonial game and disagreements were bound to occur - and did - as she pressed her claims in Africa and the Pacific. In other words, the Kaiser constantly appeared to be spoiling for a fight. So, for those two reasons, to say nothing of the fact that a great navy adds luster to an imperial crown, the Kaiser initiated the naval arms race that became one of the principal causes of the First World War. That race, between Britain and Germany, was, of course, exacerbated by the antagonism between Edward VII and the Kaiser. Edward saw his nephew as a posturing and irritating upstart and he would "be damned" to see the German navy come anything close to being the equal of his own. But it did.

Britain reacted to the Kaiser's announced expansion of the German fleet with amazement. The British believed that if the Kaiser built a battle-ready navy, it would "get used". They didn't ask "why on earth is he doing this?" They knew why. And everyone knew there was no love lost between Wilhelm and Edward. And so the world was to suffer immeasurably, partly because two kings didn't get along. It must be said, however, that, despite the high-handed way Wilhelm so often treated his uncle, Edward made many attempts to mend fences with the Kaiser. But, charming though he was, the British King-Emperor was unable to overcome the envy, jealousy and hostility that blighted his nephew's view of England, its power and its sovereign.

Kaiser Wilhelm II quoted Adam Smith when he contemptuously called Britain "a nation of shopkeepers." By thus belittling his mother's homeland, he sought to create for Germany a "higher purpose" as the moral defender of European Christian civilization. While the British were to be seen as focused on trivialities, Germany would be the knight in shining armor - until the Kaiser realized that Germany was becoming ever more focused on trade. Then he noticed that Germany and Britain were beginning to compete in the same markets. Then he began to understand that British products were of comparable quality to German ones; that British engineering and craftsmanship had produced the Rolls-Royce car, the White Star and Cunard ocean liners, Wedgwood porcelain, the Lee Enfield rifle and vast markets for all of them. Competition for the North Atlantic express passenger service prompted the Kaiser to form a friendship with the director of the Hamburg-Amerika shipping company even though he was a Jew and the Kaiser was anti-semitic. His Majesty wanted Germany to expand her presence on the high seas. To prove the point, the German liner "Imperator" (Latin for Emperor) was built a mere ten feet longer than the British "Aquitania" simply by means of the figurehead mounted on its bow: the German imperial eagle jutting aggressively forward. At the time of its maiden crossing of the Atlantic, "Imperator" became a worldwide symbol of Germany's brash impatience to claim its place in the sun. While commercial competition may grow fierce at times, it is seldom a causis belli. However, competition between Britain and Wilhelmine Germany exacerbated the tension felt throughout Europe from the turn-of-the-century until it was released by "the guns of August" in 1914.   Back to top

The tension referred to above can be documented from many sources. It was, almost literally, like the oppressive weather that presages a violent storm. The chillingly simple phrase used so often all over Europe during that period - "when the war comes" - all but confirmed its inevitability. Fatalism, cynicism, jingoism, socialism, imperialism - they all played their parts. Like my layout that represents the "final, suspended instant before the cataclysm", Europe itself was thus suspended. With the launching of each new warship, with the raising of each new regiment, with each new incendiary statement from the Kaiser, the European peoples knew they were being swept toward a brink. A new term, "world war", was in common use years before the first one began. Everyone who read the newspapers knew that, however the war might start, they would all be sucked into it. Yet, life went on, faster all the time. By 1914 cars were being fitted with windscreens to protect the occupants from stones and insects, a result of the cars' quickly rising speeds. Races of all kinds were being held all over Europe. At Abbazia on the Adriatic, motorboats were reaching undreamed of speeds; aeroplanes were seen almost everywhere, steadily becoming "reliable". The English Channel had been crossed by Monsieur Bleriot. An arctic expedition was no longer thought to be a walk into oblivion.

It was an age of testing, which, of course, included weapons. In 1914 the German Imperial Navy was indeed powerful enough to challenge the navy of King George the Fifth, a younger grandson of Queen Victoria and a first-cousin of the Kaiser. Machine guns made defense more efficient, more hopeful. Torpedoes had become more reliable, their explosive charges able to penetrate the thick steel hulls of warships and passenger ships alike. New steel forging techniques made gun barrels stronger, shells more accurate, more destructive at ever greater ranges. Poison gas was even discussed as a possible offensive weapon. But, of course, there were ethical - moral - issues that had yet to be worked out. Christian nations simply wouldn't employ techniques of mass murder - would they? But who would suppose that anyone would want to attack anyone else? Europe was more prosperous than it had ever been. Life was exciting, filled with all sorts of new inventions, new ideas. It was a wonderful time to be alive. The best of times. "Who would want to start a war because some madman in Bosnia has murdered a man nobody likes? It's a matter for the Austrian courts, pure and simple. Business and banking are so intertwined in Europe these days war is unthinkable. Why, imagine the money that would be lost if there were to be a war! Ridiculous. Time for dinner. I hear that cook has outdone herself."

Cook will die when a Zeppelin, one of the most spectacular of the new century's new ideas, drops a bomb on a certain house in London. The test will be a success. Eight other innocent people will die with Cook.

"Heil Dir in Siegerkranz". "God Save the King". "Vive la France". Who were the guilty? Perhaps your might like to meet some of them. They're all "decent men".    Back to top

Leopold, Count von Berchtold, Austrian Foreign Minister and architect of the infamous ultimatum handed to Serbia on the 23th of July. Berchtold hungered for revenge upon Serbia which he viewed as an insolent, third-rate nation that had had the effrontery to encourage the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Working in virtual secrecy in Vienna, through the heat of that July, Berchtold created a document that remains unique in the history of European diplomacy so outrageous are its demands. While Serbia actually accepted most of the demands contained in that ultimatum, one of them would, effectively, have deprived Serbia of her sovereignty and was therefore rejected. Even Kaiser Wilhelm felt, however, that Serbia's acceptance of most of the terms vastly reduced the danger of war, leaving room for negotiation. But Berchtold was not to be deterred; revenge would be his; indeed, he behaved as though he believed it to be required. And revenge was indeed his with the opening bombardment of Belgrade on the 29th of July. The die was cast. Despite diplomatic efforts on both sides - ever more panicked as mobilizations began - to avert the catastrophe, the "inevitable" was coming to pass.

Kaiser Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, etc. etc. A stolid man of small imagination, Franz Joseph has often been described as little more than an exalted bureaucrat. His aloof charm and the modesty of his life and personality masked his rigid defense of ancient court protocol which, in the Vienna of 1914, more closely resembled the Spanish Habsburg court of the seventeenth century than the more "modern" courts of the rest of Europe. He spent much, if not most, of his time signing the endless stream of documents requiring his signature, an activity that demanded no profound thought. When he was presented with the Austrian declaration of war upon Serbia for his signature, he said: "Also, doch." A fatalistic German phrase, it meant, in that particular context: "So ... it has come to this." If we pursue what His Majesty meant by "it", we find ourselves confronting the causes of the First World War from the points-of-view of the senior members of the Austro-Hungarian governments and the officers of the Imperial and Royal General Staff.

Franz Joseph was, certainly, a decent man but he was not a statesman, the quality that has become ever more necessary in the leaders of the modern world where new and ever more destructive technologies tempt military planners. 

Kaiser Wilhelm II You've already met him, true, but it's worth knowing that he too, like Franz Joseph and all the others, wasn't statesmanlike enough to have been able to control the irreversible "plans" - those intricate, multi-layered, most elegant preparations - that had, for years, been aching to be activated by nations ever more eager to attack one another - Austria, Russia, Germany, France. Inflexible and unwieldy, the great plans of the great Powers contributed mightily to the inevitability of the Great War. The "Schlieffen Plan", Germany's blueprint for quick and decisive victory over France, couldn't be altered once the troops were in motion. It remains today a lesson in rigidity, how not to conduct an offensive campaign. But the Kaiser and his generals believed in it. How could it fail? Many years of hard work by brilliant military minds had been spent perfecting it. And so, the Schlieffen Plan, an idea on paper in a file in the German Imperial War Ministry, can be said to have been a cause of the First World War simply because it existed, along with the other complacent certitudes that guided the thinking of the military minds of Europe in the years that led up to 1914.

Nicholas II, Tsar of All the Russias A cousin of the Kaiser, the Tsar was a shy man, overwhelmed by the crushing responsibilities of his immense empire, not an auspicious perspective for the most powerful autocrat on earth. He took refuge in the warm intimacy of his family, dominated by his wife, a largely unsmiling, neurotic German princess whom the Russian people believed to be a German spy. Neither a decisive ruler nor soldier, Nicholas was dismayed by the onrushing disaster. Mobilization of the Russian army - then and now - takes longer than any other. The numbers of men and the distances they must travel to join their units are massive. Although there was talk in St. Petersburg of rescinding the Russian mobilization order in 1914 - it was too late. The order to rescind wouldn't have reached many or even most of the units in time to keep them from marching - another, chilling expression of "inevitability". Of course the Tsar could have held his army at his frontier, but there were Austrian troops massed in Galicia and the Russian generals knew they would attack the moment they caught sight of Russian troops and so ... the "inevitable" happened, right there in Galicia. That's where it became a world war.

Franz Ferdinand von Habsburg-Este A nephew of Kaiser Franz Joseph, Archduke Franz Ferdinand became heir to the Imperial and Royal thrones upon the death of his father who was the younger brother of Franz Joseph. His father had become heir upon the death of Franz Joseph's only son, Rudolph, who shot himself at Mayerling. Franz Ferdinand was of such a disposition that few would have been surprised or saddened had he been assassinated by any one of a number of political factions - Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemian, Serbian, "left" and "right", they all had "issues" with the heir strong enough to have prompted his murder.

He was a bitter man, having been treated by his uncle, the Emperor, in a far from loving way. When Franz Ferdinand insisted upon marrying a mere countess whom he truly loved - the heir to the Habsburg crowns being expected to marry a princess of "the blood" - his wife was relegated at state occasions to an insultingly lowly position in the ranking of the Austro-Hungarian nobility. It meant that the heir to the throne and his wife could not walk side-by-side in processions nor could she dine beside him at banquets. They were also forced to renounce the succession for their children, meaning that their sons could not become emperor. Franz Ferdinand never forgave his uncle for such rigid application of the laws of the Habsburg court. Aloof and stiff, he was anything but popular. But his ideas for a federally administered empire were refreshingly progressive - even brilliant - and probably the only approach that could have held the hodge-podge Habsburg realm together had it survived the World War. Franz Ferdinand was not a cause of the war; his assassination and Austria's lust for revenge however, were prime causes.     Back to top

In 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia which she had occupied since 1878 through a mandate granted at the Congress of Berlin. That congress was convened, following the Russian victory over Turkey, to sort out the claims and counterclaims related to the war. The Austrian annexation of territory held "in trust" alarmed Europe, especially Russia. Because the Serbian people - like the Russians - were and are Eastern Orthodox Christians, Russia has long considered herself the "protector" both of Serbia and Bulgaria, a convenient excuse for warning away Austrian adventurism in the Balkans. The ploy was effective for the most part prior to 1914 but the longing for union with Serbia of the orthodox Serbs living among the Muslims of Bosnia became important enough to be one of the causes of the First World War. It was a prime motivation of "the assassins of Sarajevo". The bullets that killed Franz Ferdinand carried a simple message: "Austria go home."

The importance ascribed by Russia to the Eastern Orthodox faith as it was and is practiced in Balkan nations is fascinating to ponder in the light of Austria's well-known religious tolerance. The Habsburg monarchy was a patchwork of faiths observed without hindrance throughout the Empire. Despite widespread anti-Semitism within "the Monarchy", the Habsburgs' Jews were accepted far more readily than they were in Russia. There were Jewish officers and enlisted men in all of the "German" and "Hungarian" regiments of the Imperial and Royal Army. Muslim regiments served with distinction. Protestants of every stripe abounded without conflict with the Catholic majority. Therefore, Russia knew that the Bosnian Serbs - Orthodox and Muslim - were unlikely to be persecuted under Austrian authority. Their objection to the annexation of Bosnia was, simply enough, that it made the Austro-Hungarian Empire larger, creating the danger of an almost certain, direct Habsburg influence in the Balkans, a development that Russia had striven since Peter the Great to prevent.      Back to top

"Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" was Bismarck's offhanded yet prophetic speculation on how the great conflict would be ignited. Gavrilo Princip murdered Franz Ferdinand and his wife as a protest against Austria's annexation of Bosnia which was seen as the death knell of the hope of Bosnia's Serbs for union with Serbia, their "mother" country. Once Bosnia had been made a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it meant that Serbia would have had to battle the Imperial and Royal army to unite herself with Bosnia - not an undertaking to be viewed optimistically. Yet zealots can always be found to carry out grandiose acts of madness. In Sarajevo on the 28th of June in 1914 it was skinny, tubercular Gavrilo Princip, sponsored and trained by a Serbian colonel, mastermind of "The Black Hand", a terrorist organization dedicated to freeing Bosnia from Austrian rule.

Such longing for nationhood - the uniting under a flag of their own of scattered members of ethnic "families" - wasn't confined to the Serbs of Bosnia. The Czechs and Romanians were just as eager to change the map of Europe; the one to become independent of Austrian rule, the other to gather the Romanians living under Hungarian administration into the protection of the Romanian crown. But no one in Europe wished for independence in the way the Poles did. Divided among the German, Russian and Austrian empires, Poland had never been truly independent except at the sufferance of the great powers. It was time. Nowhere was the rejoicing quite as it was in Poland when the three vast empires were wiped off the map of Europe. The longing for nationhood didn't cause the War, but it did nothing to prolong the existence of the oppressive empires that had treated the Polish people like servants - even slaves during the worst of times.     Back to top

No one worked harder to create military alliances than Kaiser Wilhelm II. First he wooed the Russians. Then it was the British. Then the Turks. And back and forth several times. There was even a moment in the 1890s when he seriously pondered how he might forge an alliance with France, totally unable to see how ridiculous the French would think that idea was. He made a case worth considering for an Anglo-German alliance: the two nations were of the same race, honest, hardworking and, for the most part, protestant. Britain would dominate the seas, Germany the land mass of Europe. The Royal Navy and the German Imperial Army would thus assure the peace of Europe. But the Kaiser's unstable character was all too apparent to the British - Queen Victoria warned her Prime Minister against blandishments from her grand-son. No one trusted him. "No one" included Tsar Nicholas II who always appeared to be listening politely but who found the Kaiser unpleasant for all of the reasons everyone else did. There also was ancient enmity between "Teuton and Slav" that amounted to an unbridgeable gulf between the two ethnic strains embodied by Germany and Russia. When France and Russia appeared to be on the brink of an entente abetted by Britain, Wilhelm became horrified and furious. It meant encirclement or the intent to encircle Germany. When his Uncle Edward actually formalized the Entente Cordiale with France thus implying a three-way alliance that would include Russia, Wilhelm did everything he could think of to break it up. To no avail. Germany's only staunch ally was Austria-Hungary, a moribund empire heavily dependant upon Germany to guarantee its defense, to say nothing of its ability to attack anyone. In fact, so inefficient was the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal army when the First World War began, that a German general complained: "We are chained to a corpse."

Turkey - the Ottoman Empire - had benefited greatly from German interest and engineering projects - the Baghdad Railway being a conspicuous example. German officers had trained and specified the equipment of the Turkish army. Turkey, bolstered by Germany, was seen as a bulwark against Russian expansion. Small wonder that Turkey became an ally of Germany among "The Central Powers".

For centuries before the Congress of Berlin and the Treaty of San Stefano, Bulgaria had been ruled by Turkey. The royal family of the "new" Bulgaria, however, was German. Yet, because Bulgaria found itself sandwiched between Austria and Turkey, it can be said almost "naturally" to have thrown in its lot with the Central Powers, its dynastic ties to Germany having been "the clincher".

Historically, Britain had avoided alliances. "Splendid isolation" was seen by the British as a positive term that described their skill in staying out of diplomatic entanglements, especially on the European continent. As the First World War became more and more probable however, the British did enter into a tacit alliance with what must at the time have seemed a highly improbable ally - Belgium. Ah, but the British and Belgian royal families were related by blood. Their governments, along with that of France, had deduced that an effective German invasion of France would almost certainly involve violation of Belgian neutrality. And so, very quietly, Britain offered an assurance to Albert, "King of the Belgians", that, in the event, he could rely on British military support. With the Entente cordiale and that assurance, Britain's splendid isolation of the Victorian age ended.

Defensive alliances often cause their members to feel they possess greater strength than they may. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria would have seemed a most formidable alliance and it was when those nations forged it. Under the stress of actual warfare however, the weaknesses of Germany's allies proved greater than their strengths and Germany was obliged to shoulder more than the lion's share of the burden of the war.

The web of defensive alliances that ensnared the nations that went to war with one another in 1914 can be seen as an inescapable cause. The very existence of those treaties - secret and known - was based to a great extent upon ancient suspicions and hatreds that made their own sinister contributions to the inevitability of the war.

When it was over, Albert Ballin, the renowned German shipping magnate, spoke what surely must be the ultimate comment: "A man need not have been a Bismarck to prevent this most idiotic of all wars."       Back to top

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