THE LAST DAYS OF PEACE 1914
By William Urban
Fifty years ago I met a young German who soon became a close friend. This past Christmas he sent me a copy of The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went To War in 1914. I was very familiar with Christopher Clark’s earlier work on Prussia, so I started in on the 695 pages, reading a few pages each evening and finishing on June 28, the day of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the event that set everything in motion.
For many years this event had seemed far away, but when the centennial of that assassination came, I realized that my meeting Peter in Berlin in 1964 was almost exactly half-way between the marching of armies into the Great War and the tumultuous events of today.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas we were trying to understand how binding alliances had led to the First World War and the inability make alliances which could stand up to tyrants had brought on the Second. The only common link seemed to be that some very bright people made some very bad decisions.
As it happened, my first dissertation topic was on the outbreak of war in 1914. When my professor moved to Rice University, I ended up with another dissertation topic, but the reading I had done was good preparation for following Clark’s book and several others that have appeared recently. Most importantly, I could see that Clark knew much more about the diplomacy of that July than could have been known earlier.
Britons and Frenchmen blamed Germany for starting the war — logically so, because it was the German invasion of Belgium that began the slaughter of a generation of their young men; consequently, they made War Guilt a central point in the Versailles Treaty. With the blockade having created starvation in Germany, they knew the new Republic’s government would sign anything, no matter how disgusting; besides, the army had surrendered its weapons in return for an armistice. The German people, who knew that there was plenty of blame to spread around, were outraged. That falsity of the War Guilt clause and the requirement to pay reparations for war damages combined with the Great Depression to help Hitler to power.
It’s not that Germans were passive onlookers to the outbreak of war. Certainly the Kaiser’s boasting and posturing had created a hostile environment. Then there was Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War (a more accurate translation of the German title was The Grasp for World Power), which appeared in 1964 just before I enrolled in the University of Hamburg. (I was unaware that Fischer taught there.) This demonstrated that many influential Germans looked forward to war as a means of winning land, profits and fame. Fischer very sensibly left the country for a while, so I never heard him lecture. His ideas have since been cooled down, but they are not forgotten.
Clark reports that the German government felt trapped. Once the Russian army mobilized, the Kaiser’s ministers could not wait — they had to defeat France before the Russian armies could attack. Nothing new in that.
The war had actually begun in the East. When Austria demanded that Serbia arrest the men behind the assassination, the Serbs put an investigation off, then denied everything. They were encouraged in this by Russia and France, so the situation was much like that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And the results were the same — the Serbs, who almost agreed to a joint inquiry, were at the last moment persuaded to say no. War followed.
The British, who had dithered throughout all the complicated last-minute diplomacy, came to the aid of France once German troops entered Belgium on their way toward Paris. There was little celebration, Clark said. This was important, since historians have long stressed the public excitement at the end of the long building war tensions — there is a famous picture of the crowd in Vienna, with Hitler celebrating with everyone else. The arms race, the repeated crises, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, had prepared every public for the likelihood of war.
However, what underlay the screaming headlines of newspapers and patriotic speeches was more important: the Russians had persuaded themselves that the Germans were out to destroy their empire; the Austrians, with more reason, felt that neighbors (Serbia, Rumania, Italy) were ready to seize territories, and the Hungarians and Czechs wanted independence; the French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back; and the Germans believed that time was running out — if they let their enemies get stronger, the chances were that their new Second Empire would become a memory. As for the British, until this moment they had seen Russia as the national enemy; also, if fifteen years earlier Germany had not foolishly built a high seas fleet, Britain would have never have moved toward an understanding with colonial rival France.
Fear, paranoia and hatred persuaded the political and military leaders that they had no choices left; only their enemies did; and when the enemies stood firm in their positions, the only option left was war. When the Austrians prepared to declare war on Serbia, the Russians mobilized, and there was no turning back for anyone.
Clark dismisses several silly ideas that have arisen recently, like Britain having angered Germany by trying to force free trade on the continent. Or the Kaiser having plotted the war, when the worst that can be said is that he ended Bismarck’s policies that discouraged either Russia or Austria-Hungary from starting a war.
Serbia, an expanding power that encouraged terrorists, was inept rather than malicious; Was Serbia wrong to want to bring all Serbs into the kingdom? Clark goes farther, to say that the search for a villain is to assume that people knew what they were doing. To the contrary, they were sleepwalking.
Americans don’t remember much of this. In fact, they never knew it. When I had students in Sarajevo in 1986, most had never heard of the assassination that led to the war. The same was true of Americans in 1914, but 116,000 would perish in what Wilson called the War to End All Wars. Many more were maimed or gassed or mentally injured. That is much less than any other major participant — I remember the simple memorial in downtown Hamburg: “40,000 sons of this city sacrificed their lives for you.”
That is why there is commemoration of the war, but no celebration.
Review Atlas (July 31, 2014), 4.