Historical analogies that rely for strength upon generally-held assumptions – often exemplified by a folksy appeal to authority in the form of the phrase, "they say" – carry with them both advantage and disadvantage. The recognition of human nature ("power tends to corrupt...") does make for convenient shorthand, but as with all generalizations, these little chestnuts also run the risk of imprecision when the discussion goes beyond the super-broad. "They" say, for example, that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, which for an historioranter raises a few interesting questions: What if the circumstances of the times have few, if any, precedent? What if leaders of narrow vision had at their disposal technology that could kill on a scale that had theretofore been unimaginable? What if ideology replaced common sense as a guiding political force?
Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where tonight we'll look at the origins of the last war to be called "Great." Along the way, we'll encounter nations which based policy around the concept of their peoples' historical destiny, some guys with great facial hair, and analogies that may fall apart on the micro scale, but get damn scary when looked at through a wider-angle lens.
Today, only three Americans who fought in the First World War are still alive (worldwide, the number is around 20), but already their stories feel nearly as historically remote as the founding of the United States or Napoleon's mad dash across Europe. It seems almost impossible that someone who fought on the gas-enshrouded no-man's-lands of
But, as Rimjob reminded us in this week's snoutful of Totally Irrelevant Crap (specifically, in the excellent Battlestar Galactica update and theorizing), "This has all happened before; it will all happen again." Indeed, the stage was set for the Great War in the late 19th century, and yours truly isn't exactly the first person to note the stronger-than-faint whiff of the Gilded Age that's settled recently over our great nation – but as I mentioned above, analogies can be tricky things. It would be both inappropriate and incorrect to assert that Bush is "just like" Emperor Franz Josef, but conversely, not inaccurate to state that it was Austria-Hungary's arrogance-based policies that foolishly ignited a conflict both global in scope and vastly out of proportion to the issues that started it.
Geography in a Realpolitck World
You can look at the map of
And here's another:
Of the two, the latter is probably more reflective of the actual state of affairs than the placid timelessness of the more standard view. At the time,
Strong believers in a Dickensian industrial and economic model – and in letting unfettered capitalism achieve its equilibrium as an unevenly stratified social pyramid – the leaders of
And yet, despite the occasional native uprising and Partition of Bengal, the major problems facing the European powers lay in their own back yard – with two major exceptions: Spain, which found itself colony-jacked by an upstart Western Hemispheric power that shall remain nameless, and
And in the end, of course, the words of Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany from 1862 to 1890, proved prophetic:
"If there is ever another war in
Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans"
That Bismarck should have such an Edgar Cayceish pulse on fighting in Europe makes sense, given that his philosophy of realpolitik is defined by Dictionary.com as Governmental policies based on hard, practical considerations rather than on moral or idealistic concerns. Realpolitik is German for “the politics of reality” and is often applied to the policies of nations that consider only their own interests in dealing with other countries.
Not that any of that has any relevance today, of course.
Historiorant: For all his offensiveness – in both the military and philosophical sense – one has to tip one's pointy helmet to Otto von Bismarck's mastery of the soundbite, especially given that he uttered most of these bumper-sticker pearls a decade or two before the car was invented:
"The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night."
"Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied."
"People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election."
"When you say you agree to a thing in principle, you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice."
A Blood- and Iron-based Foreign Policy
Otto von Bismarck was in a good position to know the value of unburdening a nation's policies of moral concerns, since he'd been pursuing such ends-justifying means since the time of the American Civil War. Throughout the 1860s, his conflicts centered around turning a collection of German states nominally under Austrian control into a single German nation under his own king's thumb – and he used everything from unjustified wars to faked telegrams to achieve it. Since Bismarck was both a Prussian and a member of the aristocratic, warlike Junkers class, it stood to reason (at least in his Rovelike mind) that this new Germany should be unified behind/beneath Prussian leadership, so he first set about collecting up a few north-German states at Austrian expense.
Against the wishes of King Wilhelm I,
Bismarck did this by doctoring up a telegram known as the Ems Dispatch, an actual communiqué between Wilhelm I and Bismarck that he'd reworded in such a way as to insult both France and the Germans. Though the original document concerned the slightly-more-esoteric matter of the placement of a Hohenzollern prince on the throne of
The Franco-Prussian War lasted only a few months longer than had the war for
Having taken what they wanted – namely, the coal-rich border regions of Alsace and "quiche" Lorraine and promises of enormous reparations to be paid by France – the Germans departed, leaving a new French president to try to bring his own capital city back under control.
When Looking in a Mirror is Difficult: The Ascendancy of the Facially Hirsute
Given the similarities in their worldviews, it's a wonder George W. Bush doesn't look more like this guy of the left, but then again, your resident historiorantologist could well be off-base in suggesting that the reason King Leopold II had a distinct aversion to the shaving razor was because he couldn't look at himself in a mirror due to guilt over the way he was running the Congo Free State. Perhaps the King of Belgium was as unconcerned about the atrocities being visited upon the Congolese in the name of "civilizing" them as The Decider is about torture being committed under the U.S. flag – or perhaps wearing elaborate arrangements of thick, virile facial hair was nothing more than the fashion of the age.
Whatever the reason, the treaty tables of the time were surrounded by bristling mustaches, imposing beards, and an pomposity in uniform design that put our own Old Fuss n' Feathers (from back in 1852) to shame. Together and separately, these men put together an elaborate and fatally flawed system of interlocking and countermanding alliances that obligated nations to certain actions that, once embarked upon, proved unable to be stopped.
Self-centered foreign policies were at the heart of the precarious balance of power.
The Dual Alliance technically did have another member, but
Bismarck tried to ensure Russian neutrality and avoid the possibility of a two-front war by arranging the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887, but the document was allowed to lapse by Tsar Nicholas II three years later, around the same time Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended the throne and informed Bismarck that his services were no longer required. With Russo-German relations chilling, the tsar started negotiating in earnest with the French, and in 1892 concluded a treaty in which the signatories promised to come to one another's aid if any member of the Triple Alliance so much as mobilized against either
Weird Historical Sidenote: Once upon a time, nations did not raise or maintain enormous armies unless they had actually declared war. This quaint convention kept countries from having to pay for militaries standing on war footings during peacetime and compelled leaders to avoid the temptation to use force as an extension of diplomacy, but was deemed absurd in the mid-20th century.
From Splendidly Isolated to Dreading Nought
His massive expansion of the German fleet also served to light a fire under some British shipbuilding butts. In 1902,
In 1904 and 1907,
War and More War
Presiding over a nation whose armed forces are getting their asses kicked is never easy, and Tsar Nicholas II was no exception. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had a lot to do with frustration at battlefield losses, as well as with an antiquated economic system, but it did provide a few tangible results. Nicholas was obligated to establish a legislative assembly called the Duma, but as things turned out, he had about as much patience for listening to the people's representatives as does George W. Bush, and his autocratic rule continued unabated after a brief flirtation with semi-democracy.
Other results of the failed revolt took the form of the 50 or so worker's soviets that were established in
Italy decided Libya was ripe for the picking in 1911, and engage the Ottomans in a short, sharp war that saw the world's first bombardment by aircraft and cost the sultan possession of Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese Islands.
9. Every citizen will enjoy complete liberty and equality, regardless of nationality or religion, and be submitted to the same obligations. All Ottomans, being equal before the law as regards rights and duties relative to the State, are eligible for government posts, according to their individual capacity and their education. Non-Muslims will be equally liable to the military law.
10. The free exercise of the religious privileges which have been accorded to different nationalities will remain intact.
11. The reorganization and distribution of the State forces, on land as well as on sea, will be undertaken in accordance with the political and geographical situation of the country, taking into account the integrity of the other European powers.
14. Provided that the property rights of landholders are not infringed upon (for such rights must be respected and must remain intact, according to law), it will be proposed that peasants be permitted to acquire land, and they will be accorded means to borrow money at a moderate rate.
16. Education will be free...
While the other Balkan states were beating back the Bulgarians –
Little Things Turn Into Big Things
Emperor Franz Josef didn't even like his heir-to-be, Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand – the guy had married a woman of insufficient nobility back around the turn of the century, leading the old Austro-Hungarian ruler to declare that the crown would not pass from Franz Ferdinand to any child he might create with his beloved wife Sofie. Still, he was going to get to be emperor himself, so he did those things that emperors-to-be did: attend suares, funerals, and reviews of troops. This last duty was what brought he and Sophie to
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 14th is worthy of a diary in its own right – as is the Rasputin-plagued intrigues of the Russian court, and a thousand other events of this era – so let us leave all talk of conspiracy theory behind, and concentrate on how the circumstances of the Archduke's death were perceived by those involved, especially Austria-Hungary. In point of fact, however, the assassination was seen as an opportunity for advancement in more capitals than just
Franz Josef's ministers thought they had enough evidence in hand to implicate the Serbian government with involvement in the assassination. Seizing upon the chance to restore some normalcy via the tried-and-true method of beating up on a neighbor,
never before seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.
is forced to admit culpability in the assassination and to admit to being behind every evil that had ever plagued Serbia , then... Austria-Hungary
The Royal Serbian Government shall further undertake:
(1) To suppress any publication which incites to hatred and contempt of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the general tendency of which is directed against its territorial integrity;
(2) To dissolve immediately the society styled "Narodna Odbrana," to confiscate all its means of propaganda, and to proceed in the same manner against other societies and their branches in
which engage in propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Royal Government shall take the necessary measures to prevent the societies dissolved from continuing their activity under another name and form; Serbia
(3) To eliminate without delay from public instruction in Serbia, both as regards the teaching body and also as regards the methods of instruction, everything that serves, or might serve, to foment the propaganda against Austria-Hungary;
(4) To remove from the military service, and from the administration in general, all officers and functionaries guilty of propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy whose names and deeds the Austro-Hungarian Government reserve to themselves the right of communicating to the Royal Government;
(5) To accept the collaboration in
of representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Government for the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy Serbia
and so on; photo is King Peter of
With the brinksmanship afoot, both sides scrambled for their moldering old treaties and started calling in their alliance-favors.
Ironically, it was the Kaiser of Germany who did. The "Willy-Nicky" Telegrams between Wilhelm II and the tsar reflect an almost jocular tone at first, then get darker as the inevitable transpires and the two leaders (who were actually closely related) find themselves bound by treaty to go to war with one another. The Germans were reasonably confident they could win a short, decisive war – they had secret plans, in place since 1905, that would ensure France would be knocked out of a two-front war early on, allowing Germany to turn its troops around in plenty of time to face the slow-mobilizing Russian juggernaut – so when Austria asked for reassurance that Germany still had her back, Berlin replied with what's often called a 'Blank Cheque'.
So it was that on
"The will to conquer is the first condition of victory."
"Offensive to the maximum!"
"Offensive without hesitation!"
"The offensive alone leads to positive results."
Enemies who through themselves at machine gun nests in the name of élan were expected, but for all the planning they'd done, what the Germans had failed to take into consideration was that Britain might be less beholden to realpolitik than they otherwise appeared. Indeed, rather than take the pragmatic course of neutrality and aloofness, the British dusted off the 1839 "scrap of paper" and committed British honor to the battlefield, declaring war on Germany shortly after "little Belgium's" neutrality had been violated. They arrived on the continent just in time to stand on the French left flank and stop the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne – a critical divergence from the Schlieffen Plan by Chief of Staff Helmut von Moltke may have played a role in this halting of the German advance, too. (a cool set of animated maps is available at PBS.org's The Great War)
The deadline approacheth, and obviously, there's a lot more to tell – guess the mechanics of first great battles of the Great War will have to wait for another bat-night. In the meantime, let's think about what analogies can be found between the years leading up to the Great War and our own current day.