July 30, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part three of a series)

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Over the last couple of days, I’ve posted some entries on the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two). We’re just now getting to the point where the plots start twisting around one another like amorous snakes … this gets somewhat confusing from this point onwards (assuming you’re not already confused, that is).

Bismarck provides a masterclass in realpolitik

Otto von Bismarck looms large in the story of the origins of the First World War, although he died several years before it broke out: he was the pre-eminent architect of the German Reich, and a brilliant (and ruthless) diplomatic engineer. Despite a common belief that Bismarck as a warmonger, Eric Hobsbawm wrote that Bismarck “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, devot[ing] himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers” (The Age of Empire: 1875–1914).

While Bismarck became Chancellor of the new Reich in 1871, he had already held a series of important and powerful posts in the Prussian government, including Minister President of Prussia and Foreign Minister from 1861. In 1862, he made his long-range intentions quite plain in a speech to the Budget Committee:

Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia’s boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions — that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.

In his long and impressive political career, he guided the creation of the unified German state while fending off the political demands of the liberals and socialists by conceding just enough to socialist pet causes to keep them working within the system (state pensions, for example, were a Bismarckian innovation calculated to just barely satisfy the left, but not to cost the state much if any actual revenue due to the high retirement age it set). He was emphatically not a fan of democracy: at one point, he finagled a “legal” way for the Prussian government’s revenues to continue for four years without a hint of democratic interference from the squabbling politicians in the Reichstag.

The editors of Bismarck’s Wikipedia entry seem to think he was first and foremost a benefactor to the working class, but I think they’re projecting — Reichskanzler Prince Otto von Bismarck was never particularly concerned with the welfare of the poor, except where that welfare contributed to the construction of a greater German empire. If that meant pandering to the Socialists, he’d pander with the best of them:

Bismarck implemented the world’s first welfare state in the 1880s. He worked closely with large industry and aimed to stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security. A secondary concern was trumping the Socialists, who had no welfare proposals of their own and opposed Bismarck’s. Bismarck especially listened to Hermann Wagener and Theodor Lohmann, advisers who persuaded him to give workers a corporate status in the legal and political structures of the new German state.

The wars he did fight were each calculated to advance the cause of German unification … under Prussian guidance and control, of course. Denmark lost the provinces of Schleswig (to Prussia) and Holstein (to Austria) in 1864, then Austria in turn lost Holstein (to Prussia) and Lombardy-Venetia (to Italy) two years later. His public moment of triumph was the proclamation of Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany:

The proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner. The first two versions were destroyed in the Second World War. This version was commissioned by the Prussian royal family for chancellor Bismarck's 70th birthday.

The proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (Bismarck is at centre-right in the white uniform), by Anton von Werner. This version was commissioned by the Prussian royal family for chancellor Bismarck’s 70th birthday. (via Wikipedia)

Bismarck was not a fan of colonial adventures — he believed they were a distraction from more important issues in Europe and that the cost to obtain and run them was greater than the benefits derived from having them. Despite that, he allowed some colonies to be accumulated as game pieces to further his own priorities domestically. One of the European policies Bismarck implemented to great effect was the diplomatic isolation of France — on the quite reasonable basis that the French would take revenge on Germany for the humiliation of 1870 if they felt powerful enough to try it. The French Third Republic, which succeeded the Second Empire, was left without allies (and more galling: without the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine), due to Bismarck’s diligent efforts to bind the other great powers in alliances with one another and Bismarck managed to keep the French in that vulnerable position for the rest of his time in office.

Bismarck’s attempted solution to the Austro-Russian tensions in the Balkans was the Dreikaiserbund (The League of the Three Emperors) in 1873. This “meeting of the minds” was intended to dampen the risk of conflict by giving the Austrians a free hand in the Western area of the Balkans and the Russians a free hand in the East. The plan didn’t work as well as Bismarck had hoped, and the league was dissolved in 1887, as both of the other signatories felt too hampered by the terms of the agreement for too little benefit in return.

Bismarck’s next move was to create the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria. The alliance was ostensibly defensive in nature, calling for each party to aid the other in the case of an attack by a third country (if the attacker was Russia, the alliance called for both parties to declare war, if it was another country — France — the non-attacked party was to remain neutral). In 1882, the Italians were added to the arrangement, but the terms of the Triple Alliance were not as defensive: requiring the other parties to actively assist an allied nation that was attacked, not just to remain neutral. Italy negotiated one clause in the agreement to ensure that they didn’t have to fight against Britain (which they activated in 1914).

The Turkish Straits (Bosporus Strait in red, Dardanelles Strait in yellow) (via Wikipedia)

The Turkish Straits (Bosporus Strait highlighted in red, and the Dardanelles Strait in yellow) (via Wikipedia)

One of Bismarck’s last diplomatic initiatives was to negotiate the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887, fully in line with the continued emphasis of ensuring that Russia would not ally with France. The terms obligated the two nations to remain neutral in any conflict if the other party was attacked (except if Russia attacked Austria or if Germany attacked France). It also guaranteed German neutrality if Russia took action against the Ottomans, specifically in the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straits — the two waterways connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. It’s clear why the Russians were interested … this was one of their generations-long geopolitical goals, but from the German point of view it ran the risk of provoking a struggle with Britain should it come to light (the treaty did come to public attention in 1896, as the Hamburger Nachrichten published the secret-but-now-expired details, triggering some degree of public alarm (and probably some tightened sphincters in London)).

In a speech to the Reichstag in 1888, Bismarck predicted the bloody outcome if a localized Balkan War were to trigger a continental one (from Emil Ludwig’s 1927 work, Wilhelm Hohenzollern: The last of the Kaisers):

He warned of the imminent possibility that Germany will have to fight on two fronts; he spoke of the desire for peace; then he set forth the Balkan case for war and demonstrates its futility: “Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.”

Dropping the Pilot. Caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), first published in the British magazine Punch, March 1890. Showing German Emperor Wilhelm II and the leaving Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Dropping the Pilot, a caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), first published in the British magazine Punch, March 1890. (via Wikipedia)

It is perhaps fortunate for our current world that Bismarck and Wilhelm II could not co-exist, and Wilhelm “dropped the pilot” in 1890. Even in his later years, Bismarck was the best at the diplomatic trade: certainly better than any of the men who followed him. In Bismarck’s absence, the balance of power he had so carefully maintained disintegrated bit by bit.

One of the first critical pieces of diplomatic plumbing to go was the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia: the Russian government asked to renew the agreement, but Chancellor Caprivi (Bismarck’s successor) and Kaiser Wilhelm II thought they could do better by working the personal relationship between Wilhelm and Tsar Alexander III (and later, his “dear cousin Nicky” — Tsar Nicholas II). This worked so well that the French and Russian governments were already extending tentative diplomatic feelers toward one another by 1891.

Willliam L. Langer wrote of the end of Bismarck’s career:

Whatever else may be said of the intricate alliance system evolved by the German Chancellor, it must be admitted that it worked and that it tided Europe over a period of several critical years without a rupture. … there was, as Bismarck himself said, a premium upon the maintenance of peace.


His had been a great career, beginning with three wars in eight years and ending with a period of 20 years during which he worked for the peace of Europe, despite countless opportunities to embark on further enterprises with more than even chance of success. … No other statesman of his standing had ever before shown the same great moderation and sound political sense of the possible and desirable. … Bismarck at least deserves full credit for having steered European politics through this dangerous transitional period without serious conflict between the great powers.”

The third post in the series and we still haven’t left the nineteenth century! More to follow in the next few days.

July 29, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part two of a series)

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:25

Yesterday, I posted the first part of this series. Today, I’m dragging you a lot further back in time than you probably expected, because it’s difficult to understand why Europe went to war in 1914 without knowing how and why the alliances were created. It’s not immediately clear why the two alliance blocks formed, as the interests of the various nations had converged and diverged several times over the preceding hundred years.

Let me take you back…

Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (map via amitm.com)

Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (map via amitm.com)

To start sorting out why the great powers of Europe went to war in what looks remarkably like a joint-suicide pact at the distance of a century, you need to go back another century in time. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the great powers of Europe were Russia, Prussia, Austria, Britain, and (despite the outcome of Waterloo) France. Britain had come out of the war in by far the best economic shape, as the overseas empire was relatively untroubled by conflict with the other European powers (with one exception), and the Royal Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world. France was an economic and demographic disaster area, having lost so many young men to Napoleon’s recruiting sergeants and the bureaucratic demands of the state to subordinate so much of the economy to the support of the armies over more than two decades of war, recovery from war, and preparation for yet more war. In spite of that, France recovered quickly and soon was able to reclaim its “rightful” position as a great power.

Dateline: Vienna, 1814

The closest thing to a supranational organization two hundred years ago was the Concert of Europe (also known as the Congress System), which generally referred to the allied anti-Napoleonic powers. They met in Vienna in 1814 to settle issues arising from the end of Napoleon’s reign (interrupted briefly but dramatically when Napoleon escaped from exile and reclaimed his throne in 1815). It worked well enough, at least from the point of view of the conservative monarchies:

The age of the Concert is sometimes known as the Age of Metternich, due to the influence of the Austrian chancellor’s conservatism and the dominance of Austria within the German Confederation, or as the European Restoration, because of the reactionary efforts of the Congress of Vienna to restore Europe to its state before the French Revolution. It is known in German as the Pentarchie (pentarchy) and in Russian as the Vienna System (Венская система, Venskaya sistema).

The Concert was not a formal body in the sense of the League of Nations or the United Nations with permanent offices and staff, but it provided a framework within which the former anti-Bonapartist allies could work together and eventually included the restored French Bourbon monarchy (itself soon to be replaced by a different monarch, then a brief republic and then by Napoleon III’s Second Empire). Britain after 1818 became a peripheral player in the Concert, only becoming active when issues that directly touched British interests were being considered.

The Concert was weakened significantly by the 1848-49 revolutionary movements across Europe, and its usefulness faded as the interests of the great powers became more focused on national issues and less concerned with maintaining the long-standing balance of power.

The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, but within a year, reactionary forces had regained control, and the revolutions collapsed.


The uprisings were led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, which did not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and many more forced into exile. The only significant lasting reforms were the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the definitive end of the Capetian monarchy in France. The revolutions were most important in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire, but did not reach Russia, Sweden, Great Britain, and most of southern Europe (Spain, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire).

The 1859 unification of Italy created new problems for Austria (not least the encouragement of agitation among ethnic and linguistic minorities within the empire), while the rise of Prussia usurped the traditional place of Austria as the pre-eminent Germanic power (the Austro-Prussian War). The 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War destroyed Napoleon III’s Second Empire and allowed the King of Prussia to become the Emperor (Kaiser) of a unified German state.

Russia’s search for a warm water port

Russia’s not-so-secret desire to capture or control Constantinople and the access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean was one of the political and military constants of the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe”, and few expected it to last much longer (yet it took a world war to finally topple it). The other great powers, however, were not keen to see Russia expand beyond its already extensive borders, so the Ottomans were propped up where necessary. The unlikely pairing of British and French interests in this regard led to the 1853-6 Crimean War where the two former enemies allied with the Ottomans and the Kingdom of Sardinia to keep the Russians from expanding into Ottoman territory, and to de-militarize the Black Sea.

The Black Sea in 1856 with the territorial adjustments of the Congress of Paris marked (via Wikipedia)

The Black Sea in 1856 with the territorial adjustments of the Congress of Paris marked (via Wikipedia)

Otto von Bismarck talks with the captive Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck talks with the captive Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

Russia managed to get revenge on the French for their part in the Crimean War, by striking an agreement with Prussia to stay neutral in any conflict between the Prussians and the French, in exchange for a free hand in the Balkans (or, at least, free from Prussian interference). Bismarck then took the next opportunity to goad the French into declaring war. At the Battle of Sedan, the French army was utterly defeated and Napoleon III himself was captured. When the news of his defeat got to Paris, the Imperial government fell and a new republic was proclaimed.

In the wake of Napoleon III’s fall, France declared that they were no longer willing to oppose the re-introduction of Russian forces on and around the Black Sea. Britain did not feel it could enforce the terms of the 1856 treaty unaided, so Russia happily embarked on building a new Black Sea fleet and reconstructing Sebastopol as a fortified fleet base.

Twenty years after the Crimean War, the Russians found more success against the Ottomans, driving them out of almost all of their remaining European holdings and establishing independent or quasi-independent states including Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, with at least some affiliation with the Russians. A British naval squadron was dispatched to ensure the Russians did not capture Constantinople, and the Russians accepted an Ottoman truce offer, followed eventually by the Treaty of San Stefano to end the war. The terms of the treaty were later reworked at the Congress of Berlin.

The campaigns and major battles of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 (via Wikipedia)

The campaigns and major battles of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 (via Wikipedia)

Other territorial changes resulting from the war was the restoration of the regions of Thrace and Macedonia to Ottoman control, the acquisition by Russia of new territories in the Caucasus and on the Romanian border, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia, Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novi Pazar (but not yet annexed to the empire), and British possession of Cyprus. The new states and provinces addressed a few of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic issues, but left many more either no better or worse than before:

An ethnographic map of the Balkans published in Carte Ethnographique de la Turquie d'Europe par A. Synvet, Lith. E Olivier, Constantinople 1877. (via Wikipedia)

An ethnographic map of the Balkans published in Carte Ethnographique de la Turquie d’Europe par A. Synvet, Lith. E Olivier, Constantinople 1877. (via Wikipedia)

The end of the second post and we’re still in the 1870s … more to come over the next few days.

QotD: Austria’s post-1867 parliament

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Nowhere were the frictions generated by nationalist politics more in evidence than in the Cisleithanian [the non-Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary] parliament, which met from 1883 in a handsome neo-classical building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. In this 516-seat legislature, the largest in Europe, the familiar spectrum of political ideological diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations producing a panoply of splinter groups and grouplets. Among the thirty-odd parties that held mandates after the 1907 elections, for example, were twenty-eight Czech Agrarians, eighteen Young Czechs (Radical nationalists), seventeen Czech Conservatives, seven Old Czechs (moderate nationalists), two Czech-Progressives (Realist tendency), one ‘wild’ (independent) Czech and nine Czech National Socialists. The Poles, the Germans, the Italians and even the Slovenes and the Ruthenes were similarly divided along ideological lines.

Since there was no official language in Cisleithania (by contrast with the Kingdom of Hungary), there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German,Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of the speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy in question himself chose to supply the house with a translated text of his speech. Deputies from even the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a language that only a handful of their colleagues understood. Whether they were actually addressing the issues raised by the current motion, or simply reciting long poems in their own national idiom, was difficult to ascertain. The Czechs in particular were renowned for the baroque extravagance of their filibustering. The Cisleithanian parliament became a celebrated tourist attraction, especially in winter, when Viennese pleasure-seekers crowded into the heated visitors’ galleries. By contrast with the city’s theatres and opera houses, a Berlin journalist wrily observed, entry to parliamentary sessions was free.*

    * Among those who came to watch the antics of the deputies was the young drifter Adolf Hitler. Between February 1908 and the summer of 1909, when Czech obstructionism was at its height, he was often to be found in the visitors’ gallery. He would later claim that the experience had ‘cured’ him of his youthful admiration for the parliamentary system.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

July 28, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

It’s an easy question to ask, but a very hard one to answer. Traditionally, most people would answer “Germany”, with greater or lesser intensity as the years have passed (for example, here’s Boris Johnson making this particular case). More realistically, you might say Germany, Serbia, Austria, and Russia. Or just Serbia. Or just Russia. Or Britain (according to Niall Ferguson). Or France. Or the inflexible railway timetables for mobilization (Barbara Tuchman and others). Lots of candidates, none of whom can be clearly identified as the prime villain, because you can’t look at the situation in Europe in 1914 as anything other than complexity compounded.

Two recent works (both highly recommended) discuss the origins of the war in great detail and I’ve drawn on them for much of these posts:

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

There have been so many books written about the origins of the First World War because the origins are many, diverse, interconnected, and hard to weigh against one another in any rational fashion. The assassinations in Sarajevo turned out to be the triggering event, but the war could easily have broken out at any of several other potential flash points in the preceding decade — and even then, war could still have been prevented from breaking out in the summer of 1914. In some ways, it’s surprising that the alternative history folks haven’t been more active in exploring that era: the possibilities are quite fascinating (on second thought, having put this post together, the degree of confusion may account for the novelists wisely avoiding the topic after all).

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Although many authors refer to the various monarchs as active participants in the diplomatic and political spheres, this is not always an accurate way to consider their roles. The Tsar enjoyed the equivalent of a presidential veto and could start or stop government activity with a word … but most matters, even high-level military and diplomatic issues, would only come to his attention quite late in the process. This meant the Tsar might want to change his government’s course but because the situation was already well advanced, the costs to do so might well be insurmountable. Tsar Nicholas II was perhaps the worst-equipped of all the leaders of Europe for the task facing him, emotionally and intellectually (and he was aware of his weaknesses). Even Kaiser Wilhelm, who was well-known for his quixotic interference in military and diplomatic matters, was not the sole autocrat of German policy. The chancellor and the foreign secretary could (and did) overrule the Kaiser’s whims on many occasions. On the other hand, King George V was the least directly involved of all the rulers in the actions of his empire, but his public stance may have been somewhat at variance with his private communications with crown ministers (for example, this recent article in the Telegraph claims that the King pushed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to “find a reason” to declare war on Germany).

A common misconception of the state of Europe in early 1914 was that the preceding century had been a golden age, peaceful and calm (think of all the discussions of the idyllic Edwardian era when contrasted with the chaos and disorder of 1914-1945 and beyond). Europe was only peaceful between 1815 and 1914 by contrast with previous centuries … there were many wars and the map of Europe was redrawn several times in that century. As Christopher Clark wrote:

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

Margaret MacMillan shows how easily the calculations could go so wrong, so easily:

As we try to make sense of the events of the summer of 1914, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived a century ago before we rush to lay blame. We cannot now ask the decision-makers what they were thinking about as they took those steps along that path to destruction, but we can get a pretty good idea from the records of that time and the memoirs written later. One thing that becomes clear is that those who made the choices had very much in mind previous crises and earlier moments when decisions were made or avoided.

Russia’s leaders, for example, had never forgotten or forgiven Austria-Hungary’s annexations of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Moreover, Russia had failed to back its protégé Serbia when it confronted Austria-Hungary then and again in the Balkan wars in 1912-13. Now Austria-Hungary was threatening to destroy Serbia. What would it mean for Russia and its prestige if it stood by yet again and did nothing? Germany had not fully backed its ally Austria-Hungary in those earlier confrontations; if it did nothing this time, would it lose its only sure ally? The fact that earlier and quite serious crises among the powers, over colonies or in the Balkans, had been settled peacefully added another factor to the calculations of 1914. The threat of war had been used but in the end pressures had been brought to bear by third parties, concessions had been made, and conferences had been summoned, with success, to sort out dangerous issues. Brinksmanship had paid off.

Part one of a series of posts (I’m still digging deeper, so I’m not sure how many parts there will be…)

QotD: Absinthe

Filed under: Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

True absinthe (the name is from a Greek word meaning “undrinkable”) has been illegal in most places for a long time. It is, or was, flavoured with the herb wormwood, which, as the French authorities noticed after years of using absinthe in their army to combat fever, “acts powerfully on the nerve-centres, and causes delirium and hallucinations, followed in some cases by idiocy” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The perfectly wholesome successors to absinthe are flavoured with anise, or aniseed. The result always reminds me, not unpleasantly, of those paregoric cough-sweets children ate before the war, and I see that paregoric does contain aniseed, but throws in opium, camphor and benzoic acid as well, so I am probably just being nostalgic. Anyway, when recipes call for absinthe, as they can still do if their compilers and revisers have been too ignorant or lazy to make the change, use Pernod or Ricard instead.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

July 25, 2014

The eternal refugee problem

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:19

Mark Steyn quotes himself extensively about the Palestinian refugees:

I’m often asked why I don’t write more about the Palestinian situation, and the reason I don’t is because the central fact of the dispute — the Palestinians’ Jew hatred — never changes. So I said what I had to say about it many years ago, and there’s very little to add. For example, in The National Post on April 18th 2002 I quoted an old Colonial Office hand:

    “All British officials tend to become pro-Arab, or, perhaps, more accurately anti-Jew,” wrote Sir John Hope-Simpson in the 1920s wrapping up a stint in the British Mandate of Palestine. “Personally, I can quite well understand this trait. The helplessness of the fellah appeals to the British official. The offensive assertion of the Jewish immigrant is, on the other hand, repellent.” Progressive humanitarianism, as much as old-school colonialism, prefers its clientele “helpless,” and, despite Iranian weaponry and Iraqi money and the human sacrifice of its schoolchildren, the Palestinians have been masters at selling their “helplessness” to the West.

In Europe, colonialism may be over, but colonialist condescension endures as progressive activism, and the Palestinians are the perfect cause. Everywhere else, from Nigeria to Nauru, at some point the natives say to the paternalist Europeans, “Thanks very much, but we’ll take it from here.” But the Palestinians? Can you think of any other “people” who’d be content to live as UN “refugees” for four generations? They’re the only “people” with their own dedicated UN agency, and its regime has lasted almost three times as long as Britain’s Palestine mandate did. To quote again from that 2002 Post column:

    This is only the most extreme example of how the less sense the Arabs make the more the debate is framed in their terms. For all the tedious bleating of the Euroninnies, what Israel is doing is perfectly legal. Even if you sincerely believe that “Chairman” Arafat is entirely blameless when it comes to the suicide bombers, when a neighbouring jurisdiction is the base for hostile incursions, a sovereign state has the right of hot pursuit. Britain has certainly availed herself of this internationally recognized principle: In the 19th century, when the Fenians launched raids on Canada from upstate New York, the British thought nothing of infringing American sovereignty to hit back — and Washington accepted they were entitled to do so. But the rights every other sovereign state takes for granted are denied to Israel. “The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews,” wrote America’s great longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer after the 1967 war. “Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem … But everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab … Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace. Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.”

    Thus, the massive population displacements in Europe at the end of the Second World War are forever, but those in Palestine a mere three years later must be corrected and reversed. On the Continent, losing wars comes with a territorial price: The Germans aren’t going to be back in Danzig any time soon. But, in the Middle East, no matter how often the Arabs attack Israel and lose, their claims to their lost territory manage to be both inviolable but endlessly transferable.

And so land won in battle from Jordan and Egypt somehow has to be ceded to Fatah and Hamas.

As I said, this is all the stuff that never changes, and the likelihood that it will change lessens with every passing half-decade. I wrote the above column at the time Jenin and the other Palestinian “refugee camps” were celebrating their Golden Jubilee. That’s to say, the “UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees” is older than most African, Caribbean or Pacific states. What sort of human capital do you wind up with after four generations have been born as “refugees”? If you’ve ever met a charming, urbane Palestinian doctor or lawyer in London or Paris, you’ll know that anyone who isn’t a total idiot — ie, the kind of people you need to build a nation — got out long ago. The nominal control of the land has passed from Jordan and Egypt to Israel to Arafat to Abbas to Hamas, but the UNRWA is forever, runnning its Mister Magoo ground operation and, during the periodic flare-ups, issuing its usual befuddled statements professing complete shock at discovering that Hamas is operating rocket launchers from the local kindergarten.

July 23, 2014

The Yom Kippur War of October 1973

Filed under: History, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

In History Today, Colin Shindler reviews a recent collection of essays on the initially successful surprise attack on Israeli forces by Egypt, Syria, and a token brigade from Jordan in early October, 1973.

During the early afternoon of October 6th, 1973 the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Israeli Bar-Lev line on the eastern bank. This assault on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was designed to reverse Israel’s conquest of the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Six Day War.

Six hundred Syrian tanks, outnumbering Israel’s 178, also advanced to reclaim the Golan Heights and to threaten a penetration of Israel’s heartland. The mehdal (blunder) indicated a profound intelligence failure and cost 2,691 Israeli lives. Forty years on, Asaf Siniver has gathered his colleagues to dissect this war in a series of essays.

The October or Ramadan War – as it is known in Egypt – is celebrated as a holiday even though Arab losses were around 18,000. The Yom Kippur war – as it is known in Israel – is regarded more as an enforced stalemate, even though Israeli forces crossed back over the canal, encircled the Egyptian Third Army and were 60 miles from Cairo. The Syrians, too, were pushed back and the Israelis shelled the outer suburbs of Damascus. Soviet threats to involve the USSR directly in the conflict forced President Nixon to stop the Israelis in their tracks.

Yom Kippur War - Sinai front 6 October -15 October (via Wikipedia)

Yom Kippur War – Sinai front 6-15 October, 1973 (via Wikipedia)

Yom Kippur War - Sinai front 15-23 October, 1973 (via Wikipedia)

Yom Kippur War – Sinai front 15-23 October, 1973 (via Wikipedia)

Yom Kippur War - Golan Heights front (via Wikipedia)

Yom Kippur War – Golan Heights front (via Wikipedia)

July 22, 2014

What happened to the top universities outside the Anglosphere?

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:29

Steve Sailer has an interesting take on the rise of the top universities in the Anglosphere:

The reality is that the top U.S. (and British) universities have been winning the global competition for talent since the middle of the 20th Century. Look at Nobel Prizes. It wasn’t always like this. Go back to the summer of 1914 and the best research universities tended to be German, with other Continental countries in competition.

What happened to bring about Anglo-American dominance of universities?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but I want to fixate on just two. Namely, we won the Big Ones: WWI and WWII. In the postwar era, the losers, such as Germany and Austria (1918 and 1945), Italy (1943) and France (1940) smashed up their great colleges for being epitomizations of anti-democratic elitism.

The Continentals converted their famous universities to open admissions with virtually no tuition: giant lecture halls with a few thousand students taking notes or dozing.

The French government, not being stupid, kept some small, low profile, ultra-elitist Écoles to train the people who actually run France, while trashing grand old names like the Sorbonne. Piketty, for example, did his undergrad at the École normale supérieure, which is immensely prestigious in the right circles in France, but us big dumb Americans hardly know about it because it only has 600 undergrads. And few Tiger Moms in Seoul, Shanghai, or Mumbai care about it either.

For a French culture that believes itself normally superior, this is annoying.

In contrast, the winning Americans poured even more money into Harvard and Yale. When 1968 happened, only CCNY in the U.S. was dumb enough to fall for the reigning ideology rather than just give it lip service. Instead, Harvard devoted ample resources to modeling admissions and perfected a system of affirmative action for buying off complainers (see Robert Klitgaard’s 1985 book Choosing Elites) without damaging Harvard as the prime pipeline to Wall Street.

Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge survived the Socialist governments with elitist prestige largely intact, mostly because Britain, though almost ruined by the expense, was on the winning side in WW I/II. And winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

The Erie Canal and the canal boom it created

Filed under: Economics, History, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:13

Last week, Chris Edwards posted a short article at the Cato@Liberty blog, discussing the long history of government malinvestment in infrastructure projects:

Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.

The Erie Canal was a misleading outlier: it was a major infrastructure project that actually succeeded in turning a profit, and it set off a string of copycat government initiatives … most of which quickly turned into expensive mistakes for state governments:

Chapter 3 of the book [Uncle Sam Can’t Count by Burton and Anita Folsom]looks at the orgy of state government canal building from the 1820s to the 1840s. Here is the basic story:

  • New York State funds construction of the Erie Canal, which opens in 1825.
  • The Erie Canal is a big success, which spurs canal fever across the nation and encourages other state governments to hand out subsidies. Government canal schemes are launched in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois. There is particular excitement about subsidized “internal improvements” among Whig politicians, including Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, politicians overestimate the demand for canals in their states and underestimate the costs and difficulty of construction. They do not recognize that the Erie Canal is uniquely practical and economic as it traverses relatively flat land and connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic.
  • Some of the state-sponsored canals are huge boondoggles and are abandoned. And other than the Erie Canal, all of the state canals sustain heavy losses, including other subsidized canals in New York.
  • After the failures, numerous states privatize their infrastructure and change their constitutions to prevent politicians from wasting further money on such schemes.

July 21, 2014

The science of ballistics, the art of war, and the birth of the assault rifle

Filed under: History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 15:47

Defence With A “C” summarizes the tale of how we got to the current suite of modern military small arms. It’s a long story, but if you’re interested in firearms, it’s a fascinating one.

To understand why we’ve arrived where we are now with the NATO standard 5.56mm calibre round you have to go all the way back to the war of 1939-1945. Much study of this conflict would later inform decision making surrounding the adoption of the 5.56, but for now there was one major change that took place which would set the course for the future.

The German Sturmgewehr 44 is widely accepted as the worlds first true assault rifle. Combining the ability to hit targets out to around 500 yards with individual shots in a semi-automatic mode, as well as the ability to fire rapidly in fully automatic mode (almost 600 rounds per minute) the StG 44 represented a bridge between short ranged sub-machine guns and longer ranged bolt action rifles.


After the second world war the US army began conducting research to help it learn the lessons of its previous campaigns, as well as preparing it for potential future threats. As part of this effort it began to contract the services of the Operations Research Office (ORO) of the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for help in conducting the scientific analysis of various aspects of ground warfare.

On October 1st, 1948, the ORO began Project ALCLAD, a study into the means of protecting soldiers from the “casualty producing hazards of warfare“. In order to determine how best to protect soldiers from harm, it was first necessary to investigate the major causes of casualties in war.

After studying large quantities of combat and casualty reports, ALCLAD concluded that first and foremost the main danger to combat soldiers was from high explosive weapons such as artillery shells, fragments from which accounted for the vast majority of combat casualties. It also determined that casualties inflicted by small arms fire were essentially random.

Allied troops in WW2 had been generally armed with full-sized bolt action rifles (while US troops were being issued the M1 Garand), optimized to be accurate out to 600 yards or more, yet most actual combat was at much shorter ranges than that. Accuracy is directly affected by the stress, tension, distraction, and all-around confusion of the battlefield: even at such short ranges, riflemen required many shots to be expended in hopes of inflicting a hit on an enemy. The ORO ran a series of tests to simulate battle conditions for both expert and ordinary riflemen and found some unexpected results:

A number of significant conclusions were thus drawn from these tests. Firstly, that accuracy — even for prone riflemen, some of them expert shots, shooting at large static targets — was poor beyond ranges of about 250 yards. Secondly, that under simulated conditions of combat shooting an expert level marksman was no more accurate than a regular shot. And finally that the capabilities of the individual shooters were far below the potential of the rifle itself.

This in turn — along with the analysis of missed shots caught by a screen behind the targets — led to three further conclusions.

First, that any effort to try and make the infantry’s general purpose weapon more accurate (such as expensive barrels) was largely a waste of time and money. The weapon was, and probably always would be, inherently capable of shooting much tighter groups than the human behind it.

Second, that there was a practical limit to the value of marksmanship training for regular infantry soldiers. Beyond a certain basic level of training any additional hours were of limited value*, and the number of hours required to achieve a high level of proficiency would be prohibitive. This was particularly of interest for planning in the event of another mass mobilisation for war.

NASA’s “random mode”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:55

Robert Zubrin identifies two different modes of operation practiced by NASA since 1961:

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

NASA had an overriding mission from 1961 to 1974: the moon program. Almost all of its resources were devoted to that goal, and it was achieved. Then bureausclerosis set in, politics took over, and we left the moon (so far, for good). If the future of mankind is in space, it’s unlikely that NASA will be a significant part of that future (unless you count its role in working to hold back private enterprise from getting involved on NASA’s “turf” (can I call it “astroturf” in this context?)).

A few mitigating words for the late Senator Proxmire

Filed under: Government, History, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:35

Many of you won’t even remember the heyday of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards: his personal choices for the worst public spending boondoggles each year. Most space enthusiasts remember him for his adamant opposition to NASA (for which he could never possibly be forgiven). As an early supporter of the space program, I thought Proxmire was a terrible man and that we’ve have had a much bigger, better space program without him. He left the senate in 1989 and died in 2005, so I’d almost completely forgotten about him until I saw this article in the latest Libertarian Enterprise by Jeff Fullerton:

The things I discover while googling for things. Such as in my efforts to substantiate that Senator Proxmire quote: Not a penny for this nutty fantasy for my previous article. Found an online version of the newsletter of the old L5 Society [PDF]; a space colony advocate group that was around back in the late 70s. Which was sort of a trip down Memory Lane. Remember seeing them on Phil Donahue’s show circa 1980. It’s kind of sad when you look at something like this on the boulevard of broken dreams. But also at times amusing.

Darth Proxmire?

The man space enthusiasts loved to hate like J.R. from Dallas! He was definitely the sort of villain that could grow on you!

The name Proxmire sounds Germanic — but he was no Werner Von Braun — his mindset was typical for the down to Earth culture of the Midlands and being a Wisconsin democrat, he surely had solid connections in Madison — the regional snake pit of Progressivism. Yet he was a conservative democrat — as in fiscal conservative being he gave his “Golden Fleece Awards” to many federal projects that really were an atrocious waste of tax dollars. His disdain for the space program may have stemmed in part from populist disdain for technology — I remember SF writers like Ben Bova and others calling him a Luddite — and that sort of thing was politically fashionable in those days (often referred to as a knee-jerk reaction) so part of his reason for jumping onto the anti-space bandwagon may have been a political calculation. Some of it was probably born of a zero sum mentality that was also vogue at the time. A few space advocates wrote funny editorials about converting Proxmire to supporting space exploration and colonization by finding a way to turn butter into rocket fuel — being that the Senator’s primary constituency were Wisconsin dairy farmers!


As for William Proxmire — I can’t be too hard on him anymore. Especially when you consider all that NASA has done to thwart any hope of establishing human settlements beyond Earth. At best a lack of vision being the space agency had long ago lost its mojo and is nothing like it was in its early days when could actually meet the challenge of JFK’s vision of putting boots on the moon in a decade — as opposed to shrugging and saying “maybe in three decades”? At best they are slow walking because NASA is much like the establishment of the Republican Party that sometimes talks “small government” but is in no hurry to deliver on it. And worst of all — NASA seems to have an ideological agenda aimed at preventing the colonization of space deeply entrenched within the bureaucracy and the story is the same within most other federal agencies and institutions.

Wikipedia (not traditionally staffed by fans of small government) has this to say about Proxmire’s legislative career:

He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport. Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he normally sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.


Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which identified what he considered wasteful government spending, between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel (“The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy,” reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying “the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the ‘length of the buttocks.’” Proxmire stopped numerous science and academic projects which were, in his opinion, of dubious value.

Proxmire’s critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map (though the Aspen Movie Map project did not receive the award). For example, Proxmire was criticized in 1987 for the Aspen Movie Map incident by author Stewart Brand, who accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI.


Proxmire earned the unending enmity of space advocates and science fiction fandom for his opposition to space colonization, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA’s budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven retaliated by writing the award-winning stories Death and the Senator, Fallen Angels, and The Return of William Proxmire. In a number of circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”.

QotD: Algis Budrys on Hitler’s impact on audiences

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:56

Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born in 1931 in Lithuania, but he didn’t stay there long. His father was an official in Lithuania’s diplomatic corps and while A J was still small the family was posted to Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia. A J, who had just about got a good handle on the Lithuanian language, began to learn German. His adult memories of East Prussia — which, like the rest of Germany, had been Nazified with the accession of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier — were troublesome.

He particularly recalled Hitler himself parading right past the Budrys apartment when he was five, he told Mark Williams in an interview shortly before he died. “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up.” The crowds made “indescribable” sounds. Men lost control of their bowels and had to race for the bushes or writhed and rolled on the ground.

Fred Pohl, “A J”, The Way The Future Blogs, 2010-07-26

July 20, 2014

Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary

Filed under: History, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:42

The first men walked on the moon on this day in 1969:

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin's portable life support system ("backpack"). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar "sky". The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin’s portable life support system (“backpack”). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar “sky”. The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

I didn’t realize that almost all the Apollo 11 photographs of astronauts are of Buzz Aldrin. For some reason, Neil Armstrong appears in only a few of them, and The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Rosen wonders why:

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

If there is one thing everybody knows about Neil Armstrong, it is this: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” This quotation, in my mind at least, appears illustrated, conjuring the image above of an imprint left by a human boot upon the dusty lunar surface.

Except that’s not the first step, nor was it left by Armstrong. It’s a footprint made by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.


The explanation for this paucity is murky at best, prone to the uncharitable reading that Aldrin was getting “Armstrong back by taking no photographs of him on the Moon” in retribution for Armstrong getting the honor of first to set foot on the lunar surface.

But this is speculation at best. Aldrin, at least, has always said that the lapse was inadvertant, the result of Armstrong carrying the camera most of the time, a picture of Armstrong not appearing on the bucket list of things to do while on the moon, and Armstrong never stopping to ask for one. According to Aldrin, he was about to take a picture of Armstrong at the flag ceremony when President Nixon called, distracting them from the task.


Later, Aldrin expressed regret about the oversight. “When I got back and someone said, ‘There’s not any of Neil,’ I thought, ‘What in the hell can I do now?’ I felt so bad about that. And then to have somebody say that might have been intentional…. How do you come up with a nonconfrontational argument against that? I mean, that was just such a divisive observation, and Neil and I were never in the least divisive. We really were intimidated by the situation we found ourselves in on the Moon, hesitant and with an unclear idea of what to do next.”

Hansen’s book includes a handful of divergent opinions from different NASA administrators, theorizing as to how this, what Hansen calls “one of the minor tragedies of Apollo 11,” could have happened. Was it mere oversight or petty payback? Men sticking close to the plan or men sticking too close to the plan?

H/T to Colby Cosh:

QotD: The Kaiser and the genesis of the High Seas Fleet

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The 1890s were [...] a period of deepening German isolation. A commitment from Britain remained elusive and the Franco-Russian Alliance seemed to narrow considerably the room for movement on the continent. Yet Germany’s statesmen were extraordinarily slow to see the scale of the problem, mainly because they believed that the continuing tension between the world empires was in itself a guarantee that these would never combine against Germany. Far from countering their isolation through a policy of rapprochement, German policy-makers raised the quest for self-reliance to the status of a guiding principle. The most consequential manifestation of this development was the decision to build a large navy.

In the mid-1890s, after a long period of stagnation and relative decline, naval construction and strategy came to occupy a central place in German security and foreign policy. Public opinion played a role here — in Germany, as in Britain, big ships were the fetish of the quality press and its educated middle-class readers. The immensely fashionable “navalism” of the American writer Alfred Thayer Mahan also played a part. Mahan foretold in The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) a struggle for global power that would be decided by vast fleets of heavy battleships and cruisers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported the naval programme, was a keen nautical hobbyist and an avid reader of Mahan; in the sketchbooks of the young Wilhelm we find many battleships — lovingly pencilled floating fortresses bristling with enormous guns. But the international dimension was also crucial: it was above all the sequence of peripheral clashes with Britain that triggered the decision to acquire a more formidable naval weapon. After the Transvaal episode, the Kaiser became obsessed with the need for ships, to the point where he began to see virtually every international crisis as a lesson in the primacy of naval power.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

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