Tuesday, 15 January 2013

1913: The Road to War

The government's official planned commemoration of the Great War has been criticised on a number of levels, not least of which is the extent to which the official interpretation avoids any negative mention of Germany's role in igniting the conflict. Robert Hardman in the Mail, a jingoist in full Horatio Bottomley mode, suggests we should upset the Germans by reminding them of their war crimes. This, I think, completely misses the point. No nation has clean hands in war, but only the losers get tried. The truth is rather more complex. Franz Ferdinand's assassination did not cause the Great War, but was 'the gift from Mars' that provided the pretext. 

In January 1914 Germany wanted a European war and was militarily ready for one. Russian military expansion in the first decade of the twentieth century had been spectacular and was estimated to reach parity with Germany by 1917; Germany was terrified of trade barriers and tariffs that would restrict her own expansion, particularly if imposed by Britain, France and Russia. Just prior to the war the first version of the EU was proposed, a vast tariff-free area uniting the Hapsburg empire, the Balkans, Germany, Italy and Belgium - and indeed this Mitteleuropa was to feature explicitly in German war aims. Supported by German business, and in particular by Germany's cleverest businessman, Walter Rathenau, Bethmann Hollweg maintained that this would be the outcome of a short, sharp 'preventative' war lasting perhaps only weeks. 

The major barrier to war throughout Europe had been seen as the opposition to it by the proletariat and the social democratic parties across the continent. No nation wanted to commit to a war that would cause a domestic revolution. By 1914 this had all changed. Across Europe the working classes clamoured for war; in Britain, far from opposing conscription, the entire working class volunteered for war - and nowhere was more jingoistic than the Rhondda. In every European nation it was the same, with volunteers overwhelming the resources available to clothe, feed and equip them. 

These pressures alone - of intense nationalism, of trade war, of colonial supremacy, of the arms race, of fear of falling behind - were dangerous enough, making Europe a powder keg. One nation was pivotal in being in a position to prevent global war - Prussian Germany. I'll save for a subsequent post how she not only failed to do so, but covertly encouraged all the measures to ensure it happened. Including the extraordinary sensitivity inside Germany to this fact, with Norman Stone's account of the subsequent cover-ups.


BrianSJ said...

Martin Armstrong seems to be holding to 2014 for war, with Putin as the key figure. http://armstrongeconomics.com/2013/01/09/the-real-threat-of-war-2014/

Anonymous said...


You've forgotten the naval race.
Britain, was rather perplexed at the rise in German sea power and battleship/Ironclad capability - something which very much vexed the Admiralty and thus, so was the British government and whole of the nation.

We understood very well then, just how important naval power is - like the Chinese do now - where they are just starting to flex their marine muscles.

G. Tingey said...

Required reading
Barbara Tuchman .....
"August 1914" ("Guns of August" in the USSA)
"The Proud Tower"

DtP said...

Not required reading:


Demetrius said...

Given that the Kaiser sometimes dressed his military chiefs in ballet tutu's and asked them to dance, why did nobody have questions about his sense of judgement?

Anonymous said...

Although the meaning of 'jingoist' has been perverted into meaning 'warmonger', it is always worth quoting its origins: "We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do.." It seems to me that few of the participants were Jingoist in the sense of being reluctantly drawn in.

William Gruff said...

Were you one of Stone's students Raedwald?

Raedwald said...

William - sadly, no; he was, however, my main defence against Hobsbawm

Anonymous said...

I recently read Patrick Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War". It was electrifying. I had no idea that the "Great War" was easily avoided or that while the whole British cabinet under Asquith was so against war except for Churchill who was excited and happy at the prospect of war. I had not appreciated that Germany was predestined by military planning to go to war in order to deal with Russia and France, ie two fronts simultaneously. I had not appreciated either just how enthusiastic the British people were to go to war.
What is clear was that the dispute between Austria and Serbia could easily have been resolved except for Austrian bloody mindedness. It is also clear that Britain was not bound to enter the war because Belgium was invaded.
As for the navy, it is clear that the British and German royal families enjoyed close relationships and the navies were friendly and intent on co-operation.

G. Tingey said...

Buchanan is talking bollocks.
However we could have avoid it IF... Imperial Germany had NOT invaded Belgium, held the French off, & turned East to wipe the floor with the Russians. Nearly happened, too - see Tuchman, again. They were prisoners of their own (von Schlieffen's) plan.
As for Belgium ... no - the guaranteed way to get the brits to fight is to have a hostile military power occupying the low countries.
Count the list of our opponents, all for the same reason ... Spain, France, France, France, France, France, Germany, Germany.
"Over the hills & over the main,
To the Netherlands, France & SPain,
Queen Anne commands, we must away,
Over the hills & far away!"

So there.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anon: you've missed the naval race, which anon 9.06 states.
That naval race was exactly like the missile race of the cold war. The Germans were building battleships that could ONLY be used against the British Home Fleet.

They were worried about the size of the British Navy, which was, as a matter of policy, twice the size of the German one.

But Britain had to defend a quarter of the globe and was an island state, dependent on trade and imports. There was no way on earth the British empire was going to allow a challenge to their sea power.

A lot of the goodwill between Imperial Britain's and Germany's navies had evaporated by 1914.

Edward Spalton said...

It infuriates Europhiles to compare the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire and its cabinet with the European Union and its Commission. Yet it is a fairly close one. The late Otto von Habsburg often did so and he was leader of Pan Europa. Certainly today's EU leaders are just as bone-headed in pursuing the disastrous euro as the Austrian Imperial cabinet was in insisting on its war.
There was also a growing anti British sentiment in Germany. My great uncle, who was a multilingual continental salesman and considerable Germanophille , said that bookshops were full of books with titles like "Weltmacht Oder Niedergang" ( World Power or Downfall)