Follow by Email

What is it about nice people that attract total idiots?Nice people are martyrs. Idiots are evangelists.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

This week in WWI- analysis

In wrapping up this portion of our story,  I did a little biographical digging into the question, 'Why did these men start WWI'- in the end, more important than the endless debate on who is to blame.  On that count, what we get in school doesn't take us a lot farther than what New Zealand farmer George Adkin wrote in his diary on the 4th:

"Europe. About a week ago Austria attacked Servia. Russia joined in to help the latter + then Germany declared war on Russia + also invaded France. Today we got news that if Germany bombards French ports + shipping from the Channel, England will assist France."

But the truth lies a little deeper, and today we're going to explore some of that.


Count Alexander Petrovich Izvolski; President Raymond Poincare

To tell the tale of how it all began, we must start with Izvolski, who in 1908 was Russia's Foreign Minister.  He was of the school that said that to make Russia stronger, to withstand defeat and revolution as in 1905, Russia must control the Turkish straits.  Not a new thought; in 1878 they fought their latest war with the Ottomans for that purpose (under the guise of protecting Christians in Turkish Bulgaria), but got slapped down diplomatically- mainly because Britain and Russia were playing "the Great Game" in Persia and Turkestan and Britain had no use for Russian warships in striking distance of Egypt.  So in 1908 he and His eventual successor, Sergey Sazonov, tried to cut a deal with the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Arenthal.  Russia would not object to Austria finally annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina (which it had "administered" for the Turks since said diplomatic slapdown) if Austria would not object to Russia's acquisition of Constantinople and the straits- provided he could get France and Britain to sign on.  But Arenthal cheated him- realizing Russia was still in no position to fight over it, he announced the annexation while Izvolski was still on the "drum up support" tour.

This was a big humiliation, and his bitter rival Nicholas Hartwig took full advantage.  Hartwig was a pan-Slav who was working (sometimes independently) to build Serbia into a Russian link to the Adriatic.  He had also been a contender for the FM job that Izvolski had won.  So he screamed outrage that Izvolski would so screw their Serb "brothers", and Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin removed Izvolski- but instead of promoting Hartwig, he promoted Sazonov- who just happened to be A) someone not likely to go rogue like the other two, and B) Stolypin's son-in-law.  Izvolski finagled the position of ambassador to Paris, and that set the stage for 1914.

Izvolski vowed revenge on Austria- and Hartwig- and looked for a third way to the straits.  This time he would deal with France, who longed for the return of Alsace-Lorraine, and knew they'd get clobbered trying to get them back.  Izvolski made friends with the like minded Raymond Poincare.  Now a quick look at the lists of Third Republic presidents and premiers tells you that French politics was a revolving door, no-job-security proposition.  But Izvolski had a plan.  If Poincare ran for President- the weaker of the two titles, but with a 7-year term- and put in weak Premiers (for example, Viviani), he could control the direction of french diplomacy long term.  The two of them could then work towards their mutual goal- which would obviously at some point require a major European war.  So Izvolski poured tons of Russian gold into Poincare's campaign; at least six major Paris and National newspapers were in his "employ"- and Poincare was elected in 1914.  And Poincare made Viviani Premier, and Foreign Minister (a job he was hopelessly out of his league in- but lasted long enough to get the war started.  Socialists in opposition to Poincare and war screamed, "Has France no other glory than to serve the rancors of M. Izvolski?"  Poincare installed Maurice Paleologue, a like minded individual, into the ambassadorship in St Petersburg, and all that remained was to carefully manage British opinion until the day that Izvolski exclaimed with delight, "C'est ma Guerre!"  (This is MY war!")

I also found it interesting that the string of "weak Premiers" ended with the ascension again of Georges Clemenceau (who'd already had the job in 1906-09) in November 1917- AKA the exact same time Izvolski lost his job due to the Bolshevik Revolution.  Coincidence?


Sir Edward Grey and King George V

One of the themes I've seen in studying the start of the war was the debate on Sir Edward- was he a cautious, calculating man, holding his cards tight to the vest to the very end; or was he a prevaricating, wishy-washy mess that stumbled into all he accomplished?  In my opinion, his lack of firm leadership- especially when the military wing of the Entente knew Britain would fight as early as 1912- only encouraged those who eventually got blamed for the war- Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser.  Do I have any proof?  Well, I tumbled onto a story that originally came from Sir Edward's nephew, Sir Cecil Graves, in 1933.  The story told of a meeting at Buckingham Palace on August 2nd between Grey and the King.

From the Daily Telegraph:

George V had summoned Sir Cecil – a future director-general of the BBC - to the Palace, where he offered his condolences before recalling the events of 1914.
The King “told me of the interview he had with Uncle Edward two days before the outbreak of war. It lasted for one and a half hours,” Sir Cecil wrote.
“He told me that Uncle Edward had said that he could not possibly see what justifiable reason we could find for going to war.
“HM said in reply, ‘You have got to find a reason, Grey.’”

The King told Grey "that, if we didn’t go to war, Germany would mop up France and having dealt with the European situation would proceed to obtain complete domination of this country.
“For that reason," Sir Ceci wrote, "he felt that it was absolutely essential that whatever happened we had got to find a reason for entering the War at once…
“The next day he had a private letter from Poincar√© [the French President] urging our participation in the War, and almost at the same time a telegram arrived from King Albert [of Belgium] about the violation of Belgium.
“He sent this straight across to Uncle Edward with a note to the effect that here was the reason and there was no need for him to try and think of anything.” 

Small wonder then, that the supposed last minute deal between the Kaiser and King George broke down.

And what about the equally inept ambassador to St Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan?  Sir George after the war wrote a scholarly volume claiming that all his attempts at peace were brought to naught by the war party in Russia.  He also basically said that the Tsar would have made a fine constitutional monarch, but was a hot mess as an autocrat.  Which is true, but as he goes on, you find that he thinks of himself as a friend and advisor to the Tsar, who whispers wisdom in his ear which is drowned out by his Germanophile wife Alexandra.  That is not the job of an ambassador- he was more interested in the good of the Tsar than the good of his own nation.


The Kaiser, Bethmann, and Berchtold

Two bits of literature are the pillars of the Germany at fault school.  The first was the memoir of sorts of Prince Lichnowsky, the Anglophile ambassador of Germany to London.  In 1916 he wrote a pamphlet- which I recently read some of- complaining that the military and Bethmann kept the Kaiser in the dark and thwarted Lichnowsky's own attempts at keeping England neutral.  As to the first accusation, guilty as charged.  The Kaiser was known for explosions in the heat of anger, explosions at which he was, ironically, his most prescient; followed by calming-down periods were the courage of his convictions failed him, and he began to back down.  However, Willie proved pretty resourceful in getting around the sandbagging of Bethmann and Jagow.  To the second, if Lichnowsky wasn't so lost in self-delusion, he'd have realized his diplomatic attempts were non-starters right from the start.  Britain was NOT going to let Germany smash France again, and that was that.  All in all, Lichnosky's pamphlet was an exercise in CYA- something that most of the German leadership waited until after the war to get to.

The second is the so-called Fischer thesis, from Fritz Fischer's 1961 book on the causes of WWI.  He starts his premise with the discovery of the "Septemberprogramm", a war-aims statement commissioned from the Chancellor's office and put together by Kurt Reisler, Bethmann's best buddy and staff advisor.  This was, like the attack-the-USA plans I wrote about early in the series, a muddle of pie-in-the-sky thinking that included making Belgium a vassal state, setting up a series of similar states along the Russian border, including Poland, Annexing some French steel areas and coastline, basically swallowing Luxembourg, and creating a Mittleafrika by claiming the Belgian Congo and some French colonies, and making Holland a "hush-hush" German dependency.  Of course, the Brest-Litvosk Treaty in 1917 that Germany forced on the Bolsheviks does little to dispel this.  But Fischer builds it into a vast economic conspiracy and claims it is German business interests that launched the war.  Take it as you will; but what I turned up on Izvolski sure seems to put that one down and turn the "Septemberprogramm" into yet another example of that "crude and childlike German diplomacy" we,ve come to know and love.

In Austria, we have in Berchtold, the successor to the wiley Count Arenthal, another man who was a bit out of his depth; almost every description of the man I read mentioned some version of, " He was inexperienced as a Foreign Minister, but was great in Court Etiquette."  His partner in stupidity, Conrad von Hotzendorf, was said to be an OCD who sent his mistress- a married woman whom he told he would have no reason to live if she rejected him-  well, here, see what I read:

None of this is the crazy, insane part. (Though it probably is stalking.) The crazy part is the 3000 letters! AFTER his death in 1925 at age 73, and completely unbeknownst to his inamorata, some 3000 letters addressed to her were found in his study after his death in 1925. Some were 60 pages long; sometimes he wrote several times a day.

That’s not the crazy part, either: maybe it was how he journaled: "Dear Diary," or those journals addressing someone dead you see in epistolary novels. But nope, the author of “Sleepwalkers” thought of that and ascertained that there was very little news in these letters: they were repetitive, obsessive claims of adoration forever, over and over, with emphasis on his depression and despair and dependency on her for any relief from all this. 

Combine this with a man who called for preventative war with Serbia 23 times between January 1913 and January 1914 ( and then when he got his war, needed two weeks to get ready), and I think you see where this is going.


For years we were taught that Germany was the aggressor in WWI.  It was an easy sell.  Germany had two very unfortunate traits at the time.  One was the Prussian arrogance, the "Place in the sun" mentality, that would eventually fester into Hitler's "master race".  Not that the Aryan garbage hadn't already started as early as 1861, but it didn't become a political force until Hitler.  In 1914, it was a feeling of superiority- certainly exaggerated in Germany, but they were far from the only ones to feel it.

The second was the diplo-paranoia of being surrounded by enemies.  Of course, if Willie hadn't undone most of the things Otto von Bismark did to prevent this, it wouldn't be a problem.  But, he did, and now equally-paranoid France had joined with the greatest land power (Russia) and the greatest sea power (England), and it was Germany and the Seven Dwarves against the world.  On this was built German Naval expansion that alienated Britain; on this was built the colonial disputes with France, and eventually England.  And, finally, on this was built the "blank checks" that Bethmann and Willie issued Austria.

But does this cause the war itself?  Sazonov was no Pan-Slav, and when Hartwig dropped dead just when it was getting fun, he had all the opportunity he wanted to talk his way out of a confrontation.  But instead he got insurance of back-up from Paleologue and Buchanan, and began to mobilize.  Sir Edward had certainly put England into a good washing-of-hands position, yet the King was eager to help France, and Churchill certainly was ready to end the naval race by force if necessary. Bethmann and Berchtold put together a record that certainly looked more like two blind men in a bag than two men designing to tear the world asunder.  In the end, the only players who showed the least evidence of willful actions towards war were Poincare and Sazonov.  France and Russia.

One site I read claimed Sazonov was innocent because "he didn't know the war plan of Germany involved attacking France first".  Excuse me, but even BELGIUM knew what was coming.  I hardly think Sazonov was that ignorant.  And Poincare from the first put pressure on Russia to attack swiftly, so that the coming German blow on France would be lessened.

Every writer out there has an agenda.  You have to look at the people involved and ask, "Why did they do that?"  Once you do this, the Blame Game is no longer black and white.  Remember Princep saying, if it hadn't been me, the Germans would have found another reason?  He looked at the Germans because Germans (Austria) were his enemy.  But in reality, he could have said it about any of the players.


  1. Chris:
    Well now, that answers some of my comment from th last installment...very well done.
    And I do find the Fischer explanation more plausible that anything previously written.
    It wasn't ALL about the Germans...but with SO MANY other "players" in the mix, all wanting to toss their political testosterone around, Germany would seem to be a fine scapegoat for everyone else.

    Nicely explained.

    Stay safe.

    1. You like Fischer's? I found it a bit far fetched- because the Germans were meticuluous planners, they probably had contingency plans for invading Antarctica. Finding those plans and building a conspiracy around them seems to me like naming David Hartman the greatest Apostle on the basis of him always saying, "Go out and make it a good day." Everything I've uncovered to me puts it squarely in the laps of the Russians.

  2. I love that you summarize it all for me. :) I admit, while I do find history interesting, sometimes I get lost in the details. I saw on TV that there is an interesting movement among history teachers to teach the curriculum backwards. That is, start at the most current wars and work our way back. The thought process is that knowledge of current events will make more sense if we utilize the concept of "how did we get here?" vs "The base in which the country was built that doesn't really apply anymore." Interesting thoughts anyway.

    1. Your first comment sounds a lot like Laurie! As to the show you watched, IDK but I'd prefer to present what happened before and let the young minds paint the analogy with today's world. But if it works...