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Monday, 08 November 2010


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One of the lessons of history is that Germany does well when it deals 'sensibly' with its neighbours, that is, with self-restraint, as I contend it did under Bismarck's leadership or after WWII (note that this does not mean that it does not pursue self-interest, but that it does so rationally). A pushier Germany is not only bad for the neighbours, but bad for Germany itself.

Yes, H, although I'm not sure how reasonable the Danes and the Austrians felt that Bismarck had been! But I take your point, once he had achieved his aims he turned somersaults to avoid trouble thereafter. Also, I am not suggesting that Germany will now become warlike all over again, only that, given its inherent strength it is bound to flex its muscles.

My commenter, H, (see above), obviously left this in the wrong slot so I have reprinted it here.

"Re Bismarck, I disagree. He was well aware that Germany needed peace to prosper and maintained good relations with the other great powers, as far as he could (France was always going to be tricky, admittedly). As long as he was in charge, Germany remained lukewarm on such contentious issues as naval expansion and colonies. Unfortunately, Wilhelm II did not have B's foresight."

Re Danes and Austrians, of course. But it probably wasn't entirely sensible of Denmark to attempt to hang on to a swathe of North Germany stretching down as far as the outskirts of Hamburg. The Austrians were thoroughly out-manoeuvred, both before and during the war.

Quite true, H, but, alas, how often does good sense ever enter these territorial matters?

As for Austria, they really did have their trousers taken down, von Moltke and the PGS were quite brilliant. But, was that the point when hubris entered the Prussian military soul?

Whose hubris? Kaiser Bill was an intelligent but neurotic man who encouraged aggressive but irrational policies, such as the naval build-up and the colonial ambitions. These were irrational because they were likely to antagonise Germany's rivals without securing material advantages. Perhaps he and some others had indeed fallen prey to hubris. But the fact that Europe remained at peace (outside the Balkans of course) from 1871 to 1914 - coupled with a lack of German build up for land war (I've just been rereading the Norman Stone book on the Eastern Front) - seems to me reasonable evidence that the German establishment recognised it had by and large achieved what it wanted. Still, a degree of hubris would have been understandable given Prussia's recovery from flat on its back during the Napoleonic wars to victory over Austria and France.

Sorry, can't go along with that, H, I mean, the Kaiser couldn't have been that "intelligent" if indeed he did encourage "aggressive but irrational policies"!

Nor do I quite understand your reference to a German failure to build up for a land war. Admittedly, it was diffucult to get the necessary laws passed to extend national service and thus to build up sufficient reserve divisions - but the leadership managed it in the end and caught everyone by surprise when war broke out.

Everything I have read concerning the attitudes of the German General Staff leads me to believe that they were imbued with a mixture of fear and arrogance, and a belief that they were unbeatable. Sorry, but I think it was hubris and Molke the Elder's astonishing victories were the cause of it.

It is surely possible to combine high intelligence with poor judgement, and that I think the Kaiser - a most disagreeable character by all accounts - did. And perhaps indeed he was hubristic. "Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf" as they say in German (the fish rots from the head).

As for the failure to prepare thoroughly for a protracted war, my source is the Stone book - he claims that the army failed to take much over 50% of the conscripts it was notionally entitled too, largely as a result of underfunding, making any extension to compulsory national service largely moot. Although either way (underfunding or lack of national service extension), the difficulty could be laid at the door of the civilian politicians.

The GGS? Maybe you're right. They certainly didn't leap to warn the politicians that war would at the very least be risky, which it was surely their duty to do. Whether they leap out as being the worst of the lot is unknowable now, I should say - certainly the Russians and the Austrians seem to have had their fair share and more than their fair share of nutters and loonies.

I cannot pretend to Stone's expertise, obviously, but everything I have read about the Kaiser indicates to me that he was verging on the psychotic, not least in his love/hate relationship with England and the English. His virulent dislike of his English mother and the transfer of his affections past his father who had, in Wilhelm's view, fallen under his wife's English spell, and on to his old-fashioned Prussian grandfather is indicative, I think. On the other hand, you have his fawning sycophancy to all things English, especially the Royal Navy, as evidenced by his behaviour on royal visits here which verged on the embarrassing. On top of all this was the mixture of fear and arrogance to almost everyone, but Russia in particular. Bismarck was truly intelligent and bent every effort to keep Russia sweet at all times. Within a couple of years following his departure the Kaiser succeeded in upsetting the Russians and in the end driving them into the welcoming arms of La France. As this developed, fears arose in the Kaiser which the GGS were quick to seize upon, and so the dreadful roundabout began with each German provocation causing Russia (and France) to re-act thus feeding German paranoia even more.

Also, I would suggest that you discount fairly heavily any influence by the German civilian government. Unlike our system, in Germany all ministers were appointed by, and served at the pleasure of, the Kaiser not their parliament. Also it cannot be stressed too strongly how the military influence spread to every nook and cranny of German society. For example every railway station had a permanent staff of army officers attached who actually controlled all operations on the rail lines years before war was declared.

Actually, most of the leading Germans from the Kaiser down ran around like headless chickens as 'der Tag' approached - and that includes von Moltke, the CGGS. Only Falkenheyn remained steady and committed to 'The Plan' and eventually he had his way. Of course, the whole point 'The Plan' was to ensure that the war was kept short, 6 weeks to anihilate the French army, and then all resources could be sent east to work together with the Austrians and deal with the Russians.

Oddly enough, the only man who understood what had been unleashed was Kitchener who told the disbelieving British war cabinet that it would take millions of men and several years to fight the war. Von Moltke, I think, had his doubts about a 'quick war' but then he was psychologically a pessimist.

Can I recommend a very good book on the subject which you might be able to pick up cheap from abebooks:
called 'Helmuth Von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War' by Annika Mombauer. If you google her name you will be able to enter into the frontline of historian warfare over this complex subject. The way these academics have a go at each other makes WWI seem like a picnic! Cheers!

Well, this little exchange has probably run its course. I'm happy to agree that Kaiser Wilhelm rubbed everyone, pretty well, up the wrong way. You note above that he succeeded in alienating the Russians - true, no doubt, and this despite his best efforts to suck up to them - sure evidence that he was utterly unable to see himself as others did, a true hallmark of a loony if ever there was one. He couldn't even retain the loyalty of his soldiers; they managed to scupper his efforts to stay on as King of Prussia when he was abdicating as Kaiser and, when he mentioned their oath, he got short shrift (NB compare and contrast with the soldiers who kept saying that their oath to Hitler meant they couldn't lift a finger against him!).

I do indeed discount the civilian leaders, but note only that the German people did not elect a Reichstag which was able to agree on substantial increases in military funding or length of national service (yes, of course, one should set against that the existence of substantial patriotic organisations and the willingness to enter into naval arms races with Britain).

Yes, too, Germany's attitude to the military was very different from Britain's - but not so very different, I suggest, from that of other continentals, making Britain the odd man out as usual. The habit of reserving jobs in the civil service, railways, police etc. for former military men of course had the effect of colouring attitudes across the whole of government (incidentally, I quite like the idea of reserving jobs for former servicemen in the here and now, but that's another matter...).

The GGS? Well, snappily uniformed and possibly hubristic too. But equally, headless chickens who ended up panicking by e.g. deviating from the Schlieffen plan and wasn't it Moltke's thoughts of reinforcing the Eastern Front that got him the sack? I should have thought that Conrad over in Austria was much more deluded about the capacity of the forces he commanded. Thanks for the book tip! Got a few to work my way throught first, however!

Was Kitchener the only one? Grey made his remark about the lights going out over Europe, or so we are told.

Well, it's a fascinating subject which never ceases to interest me, so thank you for your contribution.

On the budgets, of course, it was the practice of the military, von Tirpitz springs to mind, to inveigle the Reichstag into 7-year financing thus removing constant haggles.

The history of the GGS provides a lesson for us all in how to approach 'experts'. There has, I believe, never been such a collection of impeccably, learnedly, scholastically knowledgeable 'experts' as the GGS. And yet they were hopelessly and haplessly wrong. Mind you, I still have a sneaky suspicion that if von Schlieffen had been around they might, just, have pulled it off!

Ah, the never-ending ifs, buts and maybes of history!

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