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by Stephen  Yellin

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie in Sarajevo by a Bosnian terrorist – the spark that led to World War I and the horrific repercussions of that conflict (Hitler, Stalin, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, Middle East instability and more). I greatly appreciate the warm reception of my article on Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.  Inspired by this I've written today’s story: for today marks the 100th anniversary of another pivotal point leading to the “Great War”: Germany’s decision to give Austria-Hungary free reign to invade Serbia in retaliation for the killings – the infamous “blank check”.

While the impact of Germany’s decision is well known, the events that led to the “check” being issued are much less so. Who were the prime movers and why did they act as they did? Was the “blank check” truly as open-ended as it suggests? And could a wider European war been averted had events turned out differently?

(Note: my sources include 2 recent books on the run up to World War I - Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan)

An Unequal Alliance

Everyone who’s had to read a world history textbook in school probably remembers that there were 2 groups of “alliances” in pre-1914 Europe: the “Triple Entente” of France, Russia and (reluctantly) the United Kingdom, and the “Triple Alliance” of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Yet these rival blocs were less united that history shows; Italy wriggled its way out of the Triple Alliance when war came in August 1914 while the UK was frequently at loggerheads with Russia over imperial control of Iran and the fate of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet not even the so-called “Dual Alliance” of Germany Austria-Hungary was free of tension and conflict. The 2 nations had gone to war over the future of Germany in 1866 with the then-Prussian Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck masterminding a swift, decisive triumph. Yet the “Iron Chancellor” had wisely chosen not to seize any Austrian territory following the victory as he sensed that Germany would need an ally against the enmity of France and (after 1890) Russia.

Thus was born the “Dual Alliance” of 1879, but it was hardly an alliance of equals. Germany’s industrial, economic and scientific power surged forward in the years following unification in 1871; by 1914 Germany had passed every European power economically and was producing technological breakthroughs on a regular basis. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand became increasingly weighed down by a backward economy and its highly fractious, multi-national politics. This affected each country’s military, too: Germany expanded and upgraded its army while creating a Navy from scratch (more on this in a bit), while the Hapsburg monarchy’s forces lagged behind in both quality and quantity.

While Germany threatened to dominate the European continent, its ally threatened to go the way of the decaying Ottoman Empire. This imbalance between an increasingly powerful Germany and the increasingly weakening monarchy on the Danube was a major factor in explaining why Vienna acted as it did in July 1914.

Vienna’s Dilemma

General Franz Conrad von Hotzenberg, commander of Austrian-Hungarian army.
A fool for love: General Conrad of Austria-Hungary
Count Leopold Berchtold, Imperial Foreign Secretary and chief minister, Austro-Hungarian empire.
Count Leopold Berchtold, chief minister for Austria-Hungary.
Those who read my article last week will recall that Franz Ferdinand repeatedly stopped efforts by Austria-Hungary’s military chief, Count Franz Conrad Von Hotzendorf to launch a preemptive attack on its increasingly troublesome neighbor Serbia. The Archduke’s murder gave Conrad the pretext he needed to get his wish – a war he hoped would enable his lover to divorce her husband and marry him. (Yes, that really was a motivating force for committing his empire to potential destruction; yes, he got to marry his lover.) The fact that Vienna soon determined that the assassins were clearly linked to Serbia to some degree bolstered Conrad’s case further (the “Black Hand” terrorists were supported by major forces within Serbian government). Yet Imperial chief minister, Leopold Berchtold reported to Conrad that the will to war was not there yet. Emperor Franz Joseph preferred to wait until the investigation into the murders was complete while Hungary’s Prime Minister Istvan Tisza was opposed to war at all. As a “dual monarchy” all national decisions had to be approved by both the Austrian and Hungarian wings of the government thus giving Tisza veto power over going to war.

Conrad was less concerned about Tisza’s veto than a much more powerful one – Germany’s. An Austrian attack on Serbia threatened to bring in Russia to defend their “Slav brothers”; without German support Vienna would be outnumbered and fighting on 2 fronts. Up to 1914 the Dual Alliance had counted on Romania as a Balkan ally to counter Serbia but the Romanians were increasingly moving into the Russian orbit, too. Berchtold, agreeing with Conrad, decided to reach out to Berlin and see where Germany would stand if Austria attacked Serbia. German support would in the worst-case scenario bolster Austria-Hungary’s eastern flank against Russia; in the best-case scenario it would deter Russia from going to war leaving Vienna free to crush the Serbians.

Count Alexander of Hoyos
Count Alexander Hoyos, special emissary from Austria-Hungary to Berlin, July 1914
Berchtold had already received indications that Berlin was sympathetic with Vienna’s plight from the German Ambassador and a confidant of Germany’s Foreign Secretary (the US equivalent of Secretary of State). There was no guarantee Germany would back up its words with actions, however; the lack of German support in Balkan crises in 1908, 1912 and 1913 had helped Franz Ferdinand scuttle preemptive Austrian attacks. Now Berchtold sent his chief of staff, Count Alexander of Hoyos to Berlin. Hoyos carried 2 documents with him: a memorandum urging Germany to switch its Balkan alliance from Romania to Bulgaria and a letter from Franz Joseph with the same request. Hoyos had another, much more urgent verbal message to take to Austria’s ambassador to Germany, Count László Szőgyény-Marich: it would be Szőgyény’s job to convince Berlin to support its ally.  

The All-Highest Warlord?
Perhaps the real blame for World War I and the ensuing calamities of the 20th century can be laid to the doctor who presided over the birth of Queen Victoria’s first grandchild. When “Vicky”, the Princess Royal gave birth to her first child by Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia on January 27, 1859 it was only after a terrible ordeal that saw the child nearly die. Using forceps the doctor managed to pull the baby out by its left arm and safely delivered it but in the process permanently damaged the limb. The future Kaiser Wilhelm II was left with a withered arm 6 inches shorter than the other as the result of Erb’s palsy and (quite possibly) brain damage from lack of oxygen during the ordeal.

Photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Notice that he is posed in such a way that his withered left arm appears the same size as his right one.
Kaiser Wilhelm II prior to World War I. Notice that he is posed so that his withered left arm appears the same size as his right.
The Kaiser is popularly remembered as a bellicose, arrogant uber-hawk who commandeered Bismarck’s ship of state and ran it aground. The reality is somewhat different. Several recent books on the origins of World War I and biographies of Wilhelm agree that the Kaiser’s public persona was actually a façade to cover an insecure, emotionally instable man whose gut instinct was for peace. Yet his desire to be seen as a vigorous leader – the German Empire’s “All-Highest Warlord” as his role as Commander-in-Chief was described – resulted in several rash decisions and faux pas that harmed his country’s foreign policy and prestige. His love/hate relationship with his beloved Grandmother, Queen Victoria’s Britain spurred him to splurge on an Imperial Navy to rival the British, spurring London in turn to look for allies in Europe.  Wilhelm’s predilection for inserting his foot in mouth, especially in a disastrous interview to the British newspaper Daily Telegraph where he blamed the British for the new Anglo-German rivalry did not help matters. "You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares” he declared in the interview which also saw him insult the French, Russians and Japanese. Disastrous public pronouncements like these helped convince the British public that Germany was more to be feared than imperial rivals Russia and France.  

All this meant that Wilhelm’s Chancellors and senior Imperial officials frequently had to “manage” their autocrat master to not only keep the Reich running but essentially govern it in his stead. Wilhelmine Germany resembled a sailing ship whose drunken captain frequently loses control of the wheel but insists on staying at his post. The Daily Telegraph affair resulted in Imperial Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg increasingly taking over foreign policy matters.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of Imperial Germany
Yet Bethmann-Hollweg was hardly the only figure of importance in Imperial Germany. Bismarck’s semi-federal, semi-autocratic system had left Germany’s military with a free hand to draw up plans and spend money on the army with no responsibility for the political consequences. The army, led from 1906 by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, nephew and namesake of the brilliant Prussian commander of Bismarck’s armies, derided the Kaiser as “Wilhelm the Timid”: when opportunities for Germany to go to war presented themselves in 1908, 1911 and 1912 the Kaiser shied away from the prospect of actual conflict when it reared its head. All this helps to explain Wilhelm’s reaction when informed of his friend Franz Ferdinand’s murder on June 28th, 1914: he immediately returned to Berlin “to take things in hand and preserve the peace in Europe”. It also explains his determination not to be seen as “weak” in the face of another European crisis; as he said to a close colleague, “This time I shall not give in.”

A Commitment Over Coffee

Hoyos, the emissary from Austria-Hungary’s Berchtold arrived in Berlin on July 4th, 1914. He promptly went to Ambassador Szőgyény and gave him his instructions. The next day Szőgyény went to have lunch with the Kaiser at his palace at Potsdam outside Berlin. (The same palace would be used 31 years later to accommodate another alliance – the “Big 3” of World War II during their postwar discussions.) Szőgyény described what happened in a secret report to Vienna later that day:

I presented His Majesty [Wilhelm] with [Franz Joseph’s] letter and the attached memorandum. The Kaiser read both papers quite carefully in my presence. First, His Majesty assured me that he had expected us to take firm action against Serbia, but he had to concede that, as a result of the conflicts facing [Franz Joseph], he needed to take into account a serious complication in Europe, which is why he did not wish to give any definite answer prior to consultations with the chancellor.
Wilhelm, in other words would wait for Bethmann-Hollweg to weigh in – which in effect meant the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary Jagow would get their turn to “manage” the Kaiser’s decision for him. Szőgyény was not about to give up so easily, however. He waited until coffee was served and pressed the case for Austrian action anew:
When, after our déjeuner, I once again emphasized the gravity of the situation, His Majesty authorized me to report to [Franz Joseph] that in this case, too, we could count on Germany’s full support. As mentioned, he first had to consult with the chancellor, but he did not have the slightest doubt that Herr von Bethmann Hollweg would fully agree with him, particularly with regard to action on our part against Serbia. In his [Wilhelm’s] opinion, though, there was no need to wait patiently before taking action.
The Kaiser said that Russia’s stance would always be a hostile one, but he had been prepared for this for many years, and even if war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Russia, we could rest assured that Germany would take our side, in line with its customary loyalty. According to the Kaiser, as things stood now, Russia was not at all ready for war. It would certainly have to think hard before making a call to arms.
Here then was issued the “blank check” of historical infamy: an off-the-cuff statement made over a cup of coffee by a man infamous for backing away when the chips were down. Wilhelm had made similar bellicose statements in the past – the Algericas Crisis in 1905/6, the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, the second Morocco Crisis of 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 – only to emerge as “Wilhelm the Timid” when the crisis was over. Nor was the decision his alone as Bethmann-Hollweg would still need to give his assent. Finally Wilhelm felt Russia, led by his cousin Tsar Nicholas II would not intervene if Austria-Hungary acted quickly: the Kaiser could not imagine the Tsar approving of regicide (the killing of Franz Ferdinand) any more than he had. It is clear that Wilhelm's anger over his friend's murder convinced him of the need for a military response (this wouldn't last as we shall see in a future article).

Nevertheless the commitment had been made.

Now Or Never
Szőgyény and Hoyos then met with Bethmann-Hollweg and the German Foreign Undersecretary, Arthur Zimmermann (he of the “Zimmermann Telegram” that proved the casus belli for America’s entry into the war in 1917). Just as the Kaiser predicted his Chancellor likewise gave the green light to Vienna.

[After discussing Bulgaria and Romania]… Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, [Wilhelm], of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.
The Emperor Franz Joseph may, however, rest assured that [Wilhelm] will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.
Why did Bethmann-Hollweg do this? Part of the explanation lies with the unfortunate state of mind that possessed German government leaders in 1914: it not only saw itself as “encircled” by the Entente but forced to rely on an increasingly weakened ally in Austria-Hungary.German military planners knew that the Russian army was rapidly recovering from the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War a decade ago with the help of massive French loans; they estimated that by the year 1916 the Russian army would be sufficiently strong that Germany could no longer defeat it.  “Now or never” was the attitude of Germany’s military and its powerful political influence reflected that assumption.
Personal tragedy played a part, too: Bethmann-Hollweg’s wife had just passed away after a long illness and he was deeply depressed from her loss. An air of fatalism thus infected the makers of German policy both military and civilian. Whether Germany’s military eagerly sought a European war prior to 1914 (“the sooner the better” in Moltke’s infamous words) is still being hotly debated but there is little question they were mentally as well as militarily prepared for it.

Yet the German “blank check” came with an assumption: Berlin expected Vienna to attack immediately and settle the matter before Russia and its allies could react. A fait accompli would make Russia “think hard before making a call to arms”, to use Wilhelm’s words. It was the same strategy Vienna had used when annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; the Russians had protested and threatened war, but ultimately backed down. In short Berlin had written a check they did not anticipate cashing but were willing to do if called on to pay up.

All awaited the immediate assault by Austria-Hungary on Belgrade. The assault was not forthcoming. Why a 3-week delay occurred and what else was going on in Europe in the interval will be the subject of next week’s article.

Thanks for reading!

Originally posted to stephenyellin on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 07:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Let me know what YOU think (23+ / 0-)

    I intend to write a weekly article from now through the beginning of August (the centenary of when war broke out) covering some parts of the "march to war" that Kossacks may not be aware of. I hope you'll like them!

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 07:20:01 AM PDT

  •  yep (11+ / 0-)

    germany was counting on quick action and a fait accompli before russia would have time to think much less act. but the austrian military was on summer leave (a necessary tradition because so many austrians were still farmers), and tisza's approval would take time. germany didn't want a wider war, but there were so many disastrous miscalculations by so many during that disastrous summer.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 07:58:51 AM PDT

  •  Mr L thanks for the articles. (4+ / 0-)

    Next month, (8/15), will mark the 100th year of the opening of the Panama Canal. It would be interesting to know how the U.S. manage to complete to the canal and prep for the coming involvement in a European war at the same time, assuming any prep happened.

    •  They weren't in 1914 (10+ / 0-)

      Good question and thanks for reading.

      The US, while taking the lead as an economic powerhouse was still highly isolated from European politics at this point and its army was pitifully small compared to the other "Great Powers" of 1914. The public and the military were more concerned about the instability in Mexico (including Pancho Villa's guerrilla warfare on the border). 1914 saw President Wilson order US Marines to Vera Cruz to protect US businesses there, and the army would continue to concentrate on Mexico up until the eve of World War I.

      Nor was there any precedent for the US to get involved in a European war. George Washington had famously urged Americans not to get tangled up in "Old World" wars, and up to World War I his advice was heeded. The Western Hemisphere on the other hand was under our wing per the Monroe Doctrine, leading to occasional threats to the Great Powers if they tried to recolonize Latin or South America. As late as 1896 the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over control of Venezuela, for example.

      It wasn't until WWI broke out that the American people - Woodrow Wilson included - began to seriously consider what America's role might be on the international stage. A few far-sighted individuals like Theodore Roosevelt anticipated that America's new-found power both enabled and required it to play an international role but it took the war to bring that to the fore.

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 09:38:48 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Neutrality traditions (4+ / 0-)

        It is easy to forget that 1914 was 50 years after the end of the Civil War. Amongst other matters that earlier conflict severely tested traditional US  concepts of 'neutrality'.  The US administration in 1914 was in the hands of heirs to the Confederacy. Different memories of trading with belligerants, blocade, whatever.  I suspect that for some Americans there was a bit of schadenfreude seeing Europe, so recently (then) a bystander in an American tragedy, getting into a lethal tangle.

        Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

        by saugatojas on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 10:57:56 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary! (11+ / 0-)

    Most people concentrate on the events and the timeline, and are completely aghast at how things went so badly so quickly.

    Part of that was the almost continuous friction between the Powers, extending as far back as the Crimean War; another part was the fulfillment of Bismarck's prediction that "some damn-fool thing in the Balkans" would start a general war.

    A most important part, that you touch on here, has to be the personalities involved.  

    •  Given that the Ottoman Empire was the "Sick Man (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      PrahaPartizan, MrLiberal

      of Europe" for so long before its fall, it's not surprising that Bismarck would have said so (especially given the two Balkan Wars, which left things more unsettled than when they began, I think).

      •  Quite right. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Whamadoodle

        The emergent nationalist feelings among the Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, Bulgars, etc. made the place a bit crazy.  

        Of course, Bismarck could be very wounding, as when he described the Serbs as "sheep-stealers," something that didn't endear him to the ruling family there.

        He did the best he could at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, but his successors weren't as good at juggling as he was.

        •  Heh--central European sensitivity for you :) (0+ / 0-)

          "Words are like punches," didn't someone sing that?

          Yes, I think the whole "Bismarck was more astute than Kaiser Wilhelm II" thing was an apt judgment, except for the Kulturkampf, which was an awful idea.

    •  US and Crimean war aftermaths (0+ / 0-)
      continuous friction between the Powers, extending as far back as the Crimean War
      One little-known point about the Crimean War.  The USA was seen by some European powers to be markedly friendly to Imperial Russia - American medical teams went to Russia for example. Russia still controlled Alaska at that date of course.  The Russian navy paid courtesy visits to the east coast of the USA after that war and was very warmly welcomed.

      Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

      by saugatojas on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 11:27:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Have you ever watched (8+ / 0-)

    "Fall of Eagles?"  It's a thirteen-part BBC series that covers Austro-Hungarian, Russian and German history (very much a condensed version, with a bit of dramatic license tossed in) from 1848 to 1918.  There's a few excellent portrayals, notably the fellows who play Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nikolai.

    And they have Patrick Stewart as Lenin.  

  •  A couple of points worth noting (7+ / 0-)

    Much of Bismarck's declining to annex Austrian territory in 1866 can be attributed to his problems with Catholics. He aimed to create a Germany that was essentially Greater Prussia & fundamentally Protestant. One of his first major efforts after the Franco-Prussian War was the Kulturkampf aimed at reducing the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the newly founded Reich--which even without any of the heavily Catholic territories of German Austria was 36.5% Catholic. Bluntly, he just didn't want any more Catholics in what would eventually become Germany.

    Moreover, the result of the Austro-Prussian War had already weakened the Hapsburgs sufficiently that they felt compelled to institute a power-sharing arrangement with the Hungarians (the Ausgleich of 1867). I don't think Bismarck was keen to contemplate what might happen to Austria if it had also lost territory.

    The problem with Baby Wilhelm's delivery are well known, but the real tragedy may have been that his grandfather lived so long (dying at age 90 in 1888) and his father so short a time afterwards (dying aged 56 after only 99 days as Kaiser Friedrich III of laryngeal cancer). Friedrich & his wife, the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria, had decidedly progressive notions of how Germany should be run...& a fair piece of "Wilhelm the Timid"'s posturing can be laid at the feet of rebellion against his mother.

    The bumpersticker I want: THE LEFT IS RIGHT! THE RIGHT IS WRONG! THE FAR RIGHT IS FAR WRONG!

    by Uncle Cosmo on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 12:54:32 PM PDT

  •  republished to "History for Kossacks" (7+ / 0-)

    :)

    The history of WW1 is sadly neglected by most, even though the Great War set the framework for the entire 20th century.

    Thanks for the diary.  :)

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 01:18:50 PM PDT

  •  I think one of the pieces that also (3+ / 0-)

    added to the push to go to war was what the ruling class ,( to borrow from Dickens), saw a surplus population. With new tech machines putting people out of work there was major labor unrest.

    I feel that that attitude also influenced the actions of the General staffs of all sides.

    If I am wrong on either point, I would be interested in leaning why. Thanx

  •  Thanks for the rec Liz, (0+ / 0-)

    I asked the same question of my comment last week. Mr. L did not reply.

    I really respect the work put into these diaries, Mr L ROCKS.

    I would just like to see this series expand a bit to another small part of the reason the 3 Royal Cousins acted like the Honey Badgers of their time, "they just don't give a shit".

  •  Great Article. Nice to see some history buffs.. (3+ / 0-)

    out there.  Lots of "what ifs" for the run up to basically a century of human misery and suffering, still manifesting itself in the Middle East and the Ukraine.  I collect stamps, paper money and letters/ephemera, and do note, and I tell people, how radically the quality of paper "products" (especially stamps), was adversely affected by the war.  Letters were pretty much the way of communicating back then, like for today's world, texting, emails, tweets, etc.etc.  Lots of nations hade some very intricately designed stamps to "advertise" their empire.  Britain, France, Russia, Italy, the US, list is endless.  During the war when it was raging, the quality and detail began to noticeably suffer.

    I know it bores people when I talk about this, but it is fascinating, the absolute loss of quality of those items.  Things like going from engraved printing, to offset printing (in the US).  or cheapening watermarks, colored inks and papers (Germany, Italy, Russia, France and England did this).  List is endless...

  •  The Pan-Slavism of Nicholas II's grandfather (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Whamadoodle

    Alexander II also played a significant part in the uprisings and wars between Imperial Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary and the various breakaway Balkan states. If it wasn't for the constant threat of war between Russia and Germany/Austria-Hungary over the threat to Russia's Southern flank, the assassination of Franz Ferdinanad and the subsequent issuance of the  Prussian "blank check," would have been highly unlikely.

    The Russian sensitivity to its Southern flank has arisen again in the face of American and EU policy toward the Ukraine. We could be just as intemperate and foolish as the  imperial rulers of 1914.

    "Intelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are..." George Santayana

    by KJG52 on Sat Jul 05, 2014 at 07:14:48 PM PDT

  •  and not to forget (0+ / 0-)

    that the Crowns of Germany, England and Germany were cousins -- related to Queen Victoria. And all believed in that ridiculous (to us) theory of the 'divine right of kings'.

       MacMillan also wrote 1919 which covers the re-drawing of country borders after the war. Two things I remember from reading 1919: a petitioner from VietNam asked to be heard by the powers-that-be then. And that Rupert Murdoch's father was there as a newspaper owner from Australia. How weird to think of those two topics as WW1 era.
       Thanks for a great read!

  •  Here is another documentary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrLiberal

    from Universal (1964) based on Barbara Tuchmans book. It's interesting to see film of the actual people involved.

  •  I do like the article very much; however, I can't (0+ / 0-)

    agree that "Perhaps the real blame for World War I" lies with the German "Blank Check." This is a commonly-held and, I think, completely incorrect belief, based at first on the fact that

    1) the victorious World War One allies wrote what came to be known as the "War Guilt Clause" of the Versailles Treaty, which laid blame for the war largely at Germany's feet; and

    2) the fact that Germany actually WAS plainly guilty of starting the SECOND World War, and this entire war was such a horror and an atrocity that its shadow reached back in time to encompass (fallaciously, in the case of the war guilt clause) World War One, as well as reaching forward.

    As to 1), however, another reason for the especial persistence of this idea is obvious: that the other two empires that were Germany's co-belligerents, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, disintegrated completely after World War One, leaving rump states incapable of aggressive warmaking, with completely different systems of government; there was hardly anyone left standing to assign the blame TO in those other two empires. Germany, however, had leaders like Admiral Tirpitz or August von Mackensen, who the allies occasionally talked about prosecuting at war crimes trials, to the fury of German military men.

    As to what WERE the true causes of the war, there were several, working in concert, chief of which (in my opinion) was a power vacuum, left by several of the decaying European empires, and their modes of habit. More to follow (since this post is long, I'm breaking it into two).

    •  What WERE the causes of World War One? (0+ / 0-)

      (Again, sorry this is long--don't mean to be self-indulgent, I just have a lot to say :) )

      I stress again, I blame Hitler entirely and unreservedly for World War TWO, of course; I am not an apologist for Imperial German missteps, of which there were many, or (certainly not) for Kaiser Wilhelm.

      So, for sure, Kaiser Wilhelm made all the rash, thoughtless moves for which he's famous, and the "blank check" was ONE--I say ONE, of many--contributing factor to the start of the war.

      The idea of assigning this ONE contributing factor and its author(s) all the war guilt, though, is a nonsense. So NO responsibility accrues to:
      1) French loans to Russia (mentioned above in the diary);
      2) French loans for arms to Serbia (see Christopher Clark's fine history "The Sleepwalkers";
      3) pan-Serbian nationalism and its furious drive to unite Serbia with Serbs outside of Serbia, at the cost of assassination or even war, which, er... was exactly the group that perpetrated the Archduke's assassination;
      4) French, English and Russian Germanophobe factions in government (also see "The Sleepwalkers" for this), and their campaigns in the press and in government to raise alarm at any German "provocations," sometimes inventing them out of whole cloth;
      5) most importantly of all (in my opinion), the simple fact that Austria-Hungary was decaying (as the diary mentions) and the Ottoman Empire was too, and that everyone knew this, and that the Ottomans had been losing huge swaths of territory for the last century, leaving a power vacuum?

      None of these things deserves equal billing with Kaiser Wilhelm's Blank Check?

      None of these things went on (in fact, all of them did) for YEARS before the Blank Check was ever conceived? And this slow, long buildup didn't ratchet up tensions to a breaking point, for which not even the most inept politician or monarch (though Kaiser Wilhelm certainly was inept) could be solely charged?

      It's a simplistic charge, the Blank Check as being The Thing that Caused the War. (I don't mean to slam the diary; this is a great diary, and that is only one small sentence from it, and it hasn't had enough challenges from historians to blame this diary for it. But I disagree with the implication!) The power vacuum, and warlike habits among empires and nationalist movements alike, led to the war, in my opinion.

      •  But The Schlieffen Plan Did (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MrLiberal, Whamadoodle

        We tend to forget that the Treaty of Versailles settled the war between the Western Allies and Associated Powers and Germany only.  From the Western Allies stand-point, Germany did cause and start the war for one very significant reason - Germany' Schlieffen Plan.

        Until 1905, the German war plans had emphasized acting in the east first while holding in the west.  Then the new plan was introduced, which threw most of Germany's might at the French.  That plan depended immediately on the violation of the neutrality treaty signed with Belgium, whose rejection of the German diktat for movement across its territory bewildered the German high command and frustrated them badly.  The entire German war plan was thrown immediately off schedule by Belgium's denial of free passage and the Germans bascially took revenge as the crossed Belgium.  So, with Germany immediately threatening the Low Countries, always a casus belli for the British, and committing war atrocities by attacking neutral Belgium and a France which had not participated in the exchange of notes much that summer, the Western Allies could easily feel that Germany caused the war.

        The Great Powers had been building the structure for starting a war for the two decades before it actually happened.  Think of it as putting together a bon fire.  One needs kindling, some smaller twigs to get the fire going and nice logs to provide for a roaring blaze.  By August 1914 the Great Powers had assembled it.  Then somebody threw away the match after lighting their cigarette and it landed in wrong place.  What amazes is that the societies all expressed surprise and relief at the same time when it started.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 05:48:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Germany was attempting a controlled burn (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          PrahaPartizan

          I did make my post in awareness that the Versailles Treaty only dealt with Germany. I think the reason there wasn't so much historical contention about Austria-Hungary or Ottoman Turkey's "war guilt" was that in addition to being so fully dismembered that there was hardly an object to be found for such contention, so there was also hardly anyone to DEFEND against "war guilt" accusations.

          As to the Schlieffen Plan connection, remember that Germany didn't concoct any of this in a vacuum.  1905 was several years after France had begun to sabotage 1890's Anglo-German Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty (you can read about this in Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers," mentioned earlier, around p. 129).

          There was, as mentioned, a concerted effort by France to keep Russia and the UK from aligning with Germany. This was completely understandable, given the Franco-Prussian War; several political leaders in France viewed Germany as a chief enemy after that. They would have been negligent if they hadn't been mindful of such a military threat. However, when their statesmen convince Russia to break with Germany, and take other actions to isolate Germany, it is also natural that this will lead Germany to make a contingency plan for eventual war, as well.

          Germany was REACTING to the ratcheting up of tensions, they weren't simply causing them to ratchet up. This went on for years before the Schlieffen Plan was ever conceived. The bonfire analogy is apt--the hackneyed analogy is the "powder keg." Well, it WAS a powder keg. But SEVERAL actors were not only bringing powder, but lighting matches next to it. Germany was merely attempting a controlled burn. Given that they'd already gone to war against France and won, and that Russia had recently lost to Japan, without it turning into a wider war, this was only senseless in hindsight.

    •  So "The Time Machine" Really Existed (0+ / 0-)
      2) the fact that Germany actually WAS plainly guilty of starting the SECOND World War, and this entire war was such a horror and an atrocity that its shadow reached back in time to encompass (fallaciously, in the case of the war guilt clause) World War One, as well as reaching forward.
      So the British, knowing what they did in 1939 were able to use H.G.Wells' Time Machine to go back to 1919 to inform their counter-parts on Germany's responsibilty in starting WW2 as justification for imposing the Versailles' reparations on 1919 Germany?  I guess Wells' fabrication was more real than most of us realized.

      "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

      by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 07:44:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No--I mean that was why historians didn't correct (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        PrahaPartizan

        the record later. As to historians working from 1919 to 1939, of course THEY wouldn't have worked hard to correct the "war guilt" idea, but historians AFTER the Second World War should have. The reason they took so long to do so was that Hitler's shadow prevented them from doing so. You misread my post, I think.

        (The atmosphere after World War Two was understandably enraged at Germany. This is proper. However, when Time magazine referred to a historian like AJP Taylor as "scrubbing up Hitler"--something he wasn't even SLIGHTLY doing, intentionally or otherwise--simply because he saw some continuity between Imperial Germany and Hitler's Germany, tells you how much historical inquiry was distorted.

        Of COURSE there was continuity between them, though--Hitler's war on the Jews surely took a lesson from Bismarck's Kulturkampf, and his massacres had a predecessor in the Herero Massacres, and even all his symbolism, from the Iron Cross, to the death's head, to the "Gott mit Uns" on the Wehrmacht's belt buckles, were used in the Kaiser era. Yet to say so was "scrubbing up Hitler," according to the 1960s Time Magazine, which was then highly thought of.)

  •  We took sides in the war to end all wars. (0+ / 0-)

    It didn't.

    What did the 'Allies' do with their victory in WW1?  They forced terms on Germany meant to eliminate them as an international power while invading Russia in order to restore Imperial Russia.

    The 'Allies' laid the seeds of WWII.  Wilson feared it, but was powerless to stop it.  England and France blindly went forth into the night.  France was receding as a world power, though they still never admit it.  It was England calling the shots.  They were brutal in their terms but cowered when Germany rallied against them.

    Millions of people died in WWII due to the sheer arrogance, animosity, and stupidity of the British Empire.  "Peace for our time"?  England allowed Germany to take more than the foreskin Of Czechoslovakia.  Hitler took their industrial force.

    All because a bunch of inbred gentry and their Machiavellian puppets pretended at power.  The Real power came out:  the military-industrial complex.  Corporations geared for war sucking the tit of the taxpayer.  They even learned to overthrow governments.

    Look where we are now.

    Thanks Royals.

    The business of Nations is never morality. Moral stories live only through people.

    by tecampbell on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 01:40:16 AM PDT

    •  Interesting to think (0+ / 0-)

      What would have happened had the French and British vigorously opposed Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 when he had only been in power for three years? Had he been forced to back down, it would likely been a serious political setback for him and the Nazi party. We tend to think of Nazi Germany as a monolithic, totalitarian state, but Hitler was evidently always leery of losing the support of the German populace. Thus, I've read that Germany didn't go to a full war economy until well into WWII.  

      The all knowing ... knows all

      by hypernaught on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 05:45:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I wonder who wrote that? (0+ / 0-)

        "Full" war economy is a relative term, so I'd have to see the context, but several years before the start of the war, Goering was already complaining that state control of raw materials was causing a "hamsterpsychose" (Hamster Psychosis), as industrialists stuffed their cheeks, so to speak, with all the raw materials they could get. This happened, according to the Vierteljahrshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, since the command economy in preparation for war had led to such shortages of raw materials.

        Also, I have read elsewhere that Minister for Economics von Schacht was highly alarmed, before his dismissal before the war, at the unsustainable deficit spending Hitler was embarked upon (which is, as previous American administrations have shown, a good way of camouflaging the deleterious effects of war economies on the general public).

        However, most of the sources I've read do agree with you that Hitler was worried about losing the support of the German public, and I do agree that the Rhineland reoccupation was the moment for the showdown (incidentally, this was also the very moment when British defense spending started to rise, until it was growing hugely by the time of the Munich conference).

  •  Harder Look At Austro-Hungarian Role in Starting (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrLiberal

    I would recommend that anyone trying to understand better just how WW1 started the way it did to take a look at Geoffrey Wawro's new book A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.  Wawro addresses the stresses troubling the Habsburg regime and how its governance in part led to its inability to respond to the outrage committed against it.  It focuses on more miliary history than many might enjoy, but it contains enough diplomatic and political history, often with new information for American readers, to make it a worthwhile read.  The author's thesis that Austro-Hungary was more culpable for the war than originally entertained certainly takes aim at the war guilt issues which have beleaguered the German's responsibility over the years.

    "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

    by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 07:16:45 AM PDT

  •  Wow! Thanks for the feedback everyone! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    saugatojas, Whamadoodle

    I hadn't realized how many more of you responded/recommended this since I logged off yesterday afternoon (World Cup + going to see a play). I greatly appreciate it and hope not to let you down with the rest of the series.

    On the question of "war guilt" that's been raised in the thread (and since 1914, for that matter): it's fair to say that there were a number of underlying causes - the arms race, imperial rivalries, the close Franco-Russian alliance, economic tensions, the socialist threat to the military establishment and  the post-Ottoman Balkan tinderbox, to name a few - the fact remains is that World War I would not have happened without a "trigger" to set it off.

    In July 1914 that trigger was pulled by Austro-Hungarian officials desperate to reassert their empire's position as a "Great Power" despite the risk of an aggressive war leading to its destruction. That Germany was willing to take that risk in order to avoid losing its ally - however peaceful the real intentions of men like the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg were - leaves Berlin responsible for triggering a wider European war. That their "defensive" response to Russian mobilization saw them blatantly violate the neutrality of Belgium, a country they'd sworn to protect, in order to attack France shows that the German military (at the least) bears significant blame for the war.

    There were some who saw the abyss for what it was and tried to stop Europe plunging into it, as I'll write about later on. That some of the more powerful of this group in July 1914 were either dead (Franz Ferdinand) or  temporarily out of the way (Rasputin, for one) helped ensure that the march to war wasn't halted.

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 08:45:49 AM PDT

    •  Why 1914 (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MrLiberal

      One question about 1914 is why general war did not break out several years earlier. There were a number of heated moments, for example the imperial head-butting over Morocco, and two wars in the Balkans (in 1912 and 1913), in the first of which the Bulgarians came very close to capturing Constantinople.

      An earlier continent-wide war was avoided in part by the back-stairs discussions of senior diplomats working what was called 'the Concert of Europe'. Having survived these really bloody shocks  there was some expectation that the apparently less disruptive 1914 crisis would be similarly navigated. Certainly the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey acted on the assumption that the 'Concert Of Europe' was still functioning.

      One military factor that might have influenced Germany was the opening of the Kiel canal at the end of July 1914. This greatly increased the effectiveness of the Imperial Navy as battleships could pass to and from the Baltic to the North Sea without having to go round Denmark.

      Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

      by saugatojas on Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 11:50:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Hm--still disagree that WWI wouldn't have happened (0+ / 0-)

      without Germany or Austria-Hungary pulling the trigger. Given the very warlike, and territory-hungry, rise of Serbian nationalism, and the mutually hostile trajectories of Russia, Serbia, France, and Britain on the one hand, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (along with several other Balkan states who also went to war in the First and Second Balkan Wars), some showdown was inevitable, and the other great powers were not defusing tension in the rush to such a showdown.

      The great powers were all engaged in policies of ever-increasing tension, and ever-tightening, mutually hostile alliances were all headed in a certain direction, and that direction was war.

      Singling out the "blank check" seems to me like blaming only one last-second turn of the wheel by only one drag racer for causing a traffic pile-up, when in fact it was the policies of a large number of actors, SEVERAL drag racers going 200 mph, that led naturally to it. For it to be the work of only one great power, all the other great powers would have had to have defused the tension soberly, instead of ratcheting it up, but in fact every last one of them did, and would have continued to do so until war resulted, in every conceivable scenario.

    •  Looking forward to the next diary though! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MrLiberal

      This is fun!

  •  What about Germany's internal politics (0+ / 0-)

    The Socialists had won a big electoral victory in Germany's 1912 national election and were the largest party in the Reichstag. In an ordinary parliamentary system it would have been able to form a center left coalition. What happened?

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