09 October 2011

'Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare'

I've recently finished reading British historian Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History, which I can recommend as an excellent refresher for those who haven't read about the Great War, or for someone looking for a succinct yet rigorous sample of all the various historical controversies that have arisen since 1914.

WW1 was perhaps the sixth most deadly conflict in human history, with nine million combatants losing their lives. Looking back from the 21st century we now see the train of events that led to war as having a grim sense of inevitability about them. The strictures of great power alliances, growing bellicosity and a willingness both at the heads of government and amongst the wider populace to 'sort out' differences on the battlefield rather than through the muddled world of diplomacy, and the implacable influence of military mobilisation schedules meant that once tensions passed a certain threshold, war was a certainty.

It was both a certainty and in many ways a desired outcome, particularly for the German leadership from the Kaiser down. As the BBC points out:


Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany moved from a policy of maintaining the status quo to a more aggressive stance. He decided against renewing a treaty with Russia, effectively opting for the Austrian alliance. Germany's western and eastern neighbours, France and Russia, signed an alliance in 1894 united by fear and resentment of Berlin. In 1898, Germany began to build up its navy, although this could only alarm the world's most powerful maritime nation, Britain. Recognising a major threat to her security, Britain abandoned the policy of holding aloof from entanglements with continental powers. Within ten years, Britain had concluded agreements, albeit limited, with her two major colonial rivals, France and Russia. Europe was divided into two armed camps: the Entente Powers and the Central Powers, and their populations began to see war not merely as inevitable but even welcome.
In the summer of 1914 the Germans were prepared, at the very least, to run the risk of causing a large-scale war. The crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire decided, after the assassination on 28 June, to take action against Serbia, which was suspected of being behind the murder. The German government issued the so-called 'blank cheque' on 5-6 July, offering unconditional support to the Austrians, despite the risk of war with Russia. Germany, painted into a diplomatic corner by Wilhelm's bellicosity, saw this as a way of breaking up the Entente, for France and Britain might refuse to support Russia. Moreover, a wish to unite the nation behind the government may have been a motive. So might desire to strike against Russia before it had finished rebuilding its military strength after its defeat by Japan in 1905.


Stone looks at the clamour for war from the German side, and highlights the morbid fascination with national survival that beset senior figures at the time:

After the War had been lost, nearly all of the men involved destroyed their private papers - the German Chancellor, the Austo-Hungarian foreign minister, almost the whole of the German military. We really know what happened in Berlin in 1914 only from the contents of trunks, forgotten in attics, and an extraordinary document, the diary of Kurt Riezler, who was the (Jewish) secretary of Bethmann Hollweg. In the diary there is a devastating entry for 7 July 1914. In the evening the young man sits with the grey-bearded Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg. They commune, and Riezler knows, as he listens, that he is catching the hem of fate. The key line is: 'Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare'. The generals, says Bethmann Hollweg, all say that there must be a war before it is too late. Now, there is a good chance that it will all work out. By 1917, Germany has no hope. Therefore, now: if the Russians go to war, better 1914 than later. But the western Powers might let Russia down, in which case the Entente will split apart, and, either way, Germany will be the winner. 
- Norman Stone, World War One: A Short History, London, 2007, p.20.
That evening discussion took place during the July Crisis, slightly more than a week after Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June. Within a month of the assassination, which warmongers in the German military and political hierarchy leapt upon as a vital casus belli, Austria-Hungary had declared war on neighbouring Serbia, accusing it of being behind the assassination. Serbia was Russia's ally, and the Germans knew that defending the Serbians would bring Russia into conflict with its Austrian allies. The stage was set for the vast and bloody conflict that paralysed Europe, killed millions, and brought about the downfall of three imperial reigns.  

See also:

Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds
The Western Front



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