Published on 20 Nov 2014
The commanders of the German army blame each other for the missing victories. Falkenhayn and Hindenburg both believe that they have the only solution to the problems. The German emperor feels more and more excluded when it comes to military decisions. His soldiers become pieces on a chessboard and the war of the 20th century also takes it’s toll on some of the best commanders. The situation at the Western Front stays unaltered: the French and Germans fight each other between the trenches. On the contrary, at the Eastern Front the Russians and the Germans are battling in a heavy fight.
November 21, 2014
November 15, 2014
Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.
In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance). For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government, and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair.
Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation. For example, if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sara bat rivka), and they had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), the child would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Sora.
Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted the new last names, which were essential as Jews sought to advance within the broader society and as the shtetles were transformed or Jews left them for big cities.
November 10, 2014
Published on 6 Nov 2014
Three months after the outbreak of the war, another world power enters the conflict: The Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman war minister Enver Pasha, a supporter of a new Turkish self confidence, wants to gain advantages for a future Turkey by declaring war. Meanwhile, another ship of the German East Asian Squadron is surprising the Royal Navy by sinking two of their ships near Coronel, Chile. Regardless, the battles on the Eastern, Western Front and in Serbia are continuing.
August 27, 2014
In my ongoing origins of World War 1 series, I took a bit of time to discuss the Congress of Vienna and the diplomatic and political system it created for nearly one hundred years of (by European standards) peaceful co-existence. Not that it completely prevented wars (see the rest of the series for a partial accounting of them), but that it provided a framework within which the great powers could attempt to order affairs without needing to go to war quite as often. In the current issue of History Today, Stella Ghervas goes into more detail about the congress itself and the system it gave birth to:
Emperor Napoleon was defeated in May 1814 and Cossacks marched along the Champs-Elysées into Paris. The victorious Great Powers (Russia, Great Britain, Austria and Prussia) invited the other states of Europe to send plenipotentiaries to Vienna for a peace conference. At the end of the summer, emperors, kings, princes, ministers and representatives converged on the Austrian capital, crowding the walled city. The first priority of the Congress of Vienna was to deal with territorial issues: a new configuration of German states, the reorganisation of central Europe, the borders of central Italy and territorial transfers in Scandinavia. Though the allies came close to blows over the partition of Poland, by February 1815 they had averted a new war thanks to a series of adroit compromises. There had been other pressing matters to settle: the rights of German Jews, the abolition of the slave trade and navigation on European rivers, not to mention the restoration of the Bourbon royal family in France, Spain and Naples, the constitution of Switzerland, issues of diplomatic precedence and, last but not least, the foundation of a new German confederation to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire.
Surprisingly, the Russian view on peace in Europe proved by far the most elaborate. Three months after the final act of the Congress, Tsar Alexander proposed a treaty to his partners, the Holy Alliance. This short and unusual document, with Christian overtones, was signed in Paris on September 1815 by the monarchs of Austria, Prussia and Russia. There is a polarised interpretation, especially in France, that the ‘Holy Alliance’ (in a broad sense) had only been a regression, both social and political. Castlereagh joked that it was a ‘piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’, even though he recommended Britain to undersign it. Correctly interpreting this document is key to understanding the European order after 1815.
While there was undoubtedly a mystical air to the zeitgeist, we should not stop at the religious resonances of the treaty of the Holy Alliance, because it also contained some realpolitik. The three signatory monarchs (the tsar of Russia, the emperor of Austria and the king of Prussia) were putting their respective Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic faiths on an equal footing. This was nothing short of a backstage revolution, since they relieved de facto the pope from his political role of arbiter of the Continent, which he had held since the Middle Ages. It is thus ironic that the ‘religious’ treaty of the Holy Alliance liberated European politics from ecclesiastical influence, making it a founding act of the secular era of ‘international relations’.
There was, furthermore, a second twist to the idea of ‘Christian’ Europe. Since the sultan of the Ottoman Empire was a Muslim, the tsar could conveniently have it both ways: either he could consider the sultan as a legitimate monarch and be his friend; or else think of him as a non-Christian and become his enemy. As a matter of course, Russia still had territorial ambitions south, in the direction of Constantinople. In this ambiguity lies the prelude to the Eastern Question, the struggle between the Great Powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire (the ‘sick man of Europe’), as well as the control of the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Much to his credit, Tsar Alexander did not profit from that ambiguity, but his brother and successor Nicholas soon started a new Russo-Turkish war (1828-29).
August 24, 2014
You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):
- Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
- Looking back to 1814
- Bismarck, his life and works
- France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
- Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
- The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
- War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
- The First Balkan War
- The Second Balkan War
- The Entente Cordiale, Moroccan crises, and the influence of public opinion
- The Bosnian crisis of 1908
Who’s at the wheel? The less-than-transparent-or-unified governments of 1914
A common reaction (among both modern historians and lay readers) to the apparent incoherence of the decision-making process in the various great powers’ capitals is to ask just who exactly was in command when such-and-such a decision was taken. This reflects on our modern day belief that power has an identifiable source, and that actors had clear direction from a central authority. As Christopher Clark takes pains to outline in The Sleepwalkers this was not true even of the more centralized great powers:
… even a very cursory look at the governments of early twentieth-century Europe reveals that the executive structures from which policies emerged were far from unified. Policy-making was not the prerogative of single sovereign individuals. Initiatives with a bearing on the course of a country’s policy could and did emanate from quite peripheral locations in the political structure. Factional alignments, functional frictions within government, economic or financial constraints and the volatile chemistry of public opinion all exerted a constantly varying pressure on decision-making processes. As the power to shape decisions shifted from one node in the executive structure to another, there were corresponding oscillations in the tone and orientation of policy. This chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitation of the European system during the last pre-war years. It also helps to explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most complex and opaque political crisis of modern times.
In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan writes:
Old institutions and values were under attack and new ways and new attitudes were emerging. Their world was changing, perhaps too fast, and they had to attempt to make sense of it. “What were they thinking?” is a question often asked about the Europeans who went to war in 1914. The ideas that influenced their view of the world, what they took for granted without discussion (what the historian James Joll called “unspoken assumptions”), what was changing and what was not, all are important parts of the context within which war, even a general European war, became a possible option in 1914.
The uneasy state of the Serbian state
Serbia had been practically an independent state since shrugging off the last Ottoman military occupation in 1867 and that independence was formally recognized by the great powers in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin which was the peace conference called to end the Russo-Turkish War (which we briefly looked at in part two). One of the provisions of the treaty that strongly displeased the Serbs was that they were forbidden to take over Bosnia, which instead was placed in the care of the Austro-Hungarian empire: the Serbs had gone to war with the Ottomans in 1876 by proclaiming a union with Bosnia. The Austrians and the other great powers preferred a weakened Ottoman empire to retain titular possession of Bosnia than to allow an upstart principality to claim it.Serbia became a kingdom in 1882 under King Milan I. Milan had been adopted into the ruling Obrenović family after the death of his father in combat against the Ottomans. When Prince Mihailo Obrenović was assassinated in 1868, Milan was the eventual choice to succeed his adopted father. Milan remained king until he unexpectedly abdicated the throne in favour of his son Alexander in 1889. Despite having given up the throne, he returned to Serbia and eventually was appointed commander-in-chief of the Serbian army. He left that post in protest at his son’s marriage to Draga Mašin in 1900 and was banished for his pains. He died in 1901. King Alexander I did not long survive his father, being assassinated by members of an army conspiracy in 1903. The King had been ruling ever more harshly, creating much resentment through his arbitrary decrees and proclamations. The conspiracy was lead by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević (nicknamed “Apis”), who would also later found the secret organization Ujedinjenje ili smrt! known as the Black Hand. The assassinations were so gory that Quentin Tarantino might have directed the scene if it was written by George R.R. Martin (as described by Christopher Clark):
King Alexander and Queen Draga had no children and the Queen’s brother was widely assumed to be the heir-presumptive. Both of the queen’s brothers and several government officials were killed in the purge following the assassinations. These actions ended the Obrenović dynasty, as Alexander was succeeded by King Peter I, of the Karađorđević dynasty (Serbia had the misfortune of having two rival royal families from the early 1800’s to the assassination of Alexander I). King Peter’s father had been Prince of Serbia until his abdication in 1858, after which the family lived in exile. Under the pseudonym Pierre or Peter Kara, Peter had served as a junior officer on the French side in the Franco-Prussian War. Using a different pseudonym, he lead a guerilla unit against Ottoman troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1875 and 1878. In 1883, he married the eldest daughter of the King of Montenegro. Through the connection between the royal families of Russia and Montenegro, two of his sons were enrolled in the Russian military academy.
According to one account, the king, flabby, bespectacled and incongruously dressed in his red silk shirt, emerged with his arms around the queen. The couple were cut down in a hail of shots at point-blank range. Petrović [the king’s adjutant], who drew a concealed revolver in a final hopeless bid to protect his master (or so it was later claimed), was also killed. An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially dismembered and hacked with an axe until they were mutilated beyond recognition, according to the later testimony of the king’s traumatized Italian barber, who was ordered to collect the bodies and dress them for burial. The body of the queen was hoisted to the railing of the bedroom window and tossed, virtually naked and slimy with gore, into the gardens. It was reported that as the assassins attempted to do the same with Alexandar, one of his hands closed momentarily around the railing. An officer hacked through the fist with a sabre and the body fell, with a sprinkle of severed digits, to the earth. By the time the assassins had gathered in the gardens to have a smoke and inspect the results of their handiwork, it had begun to rain.
Whether through fear of suffering the same kind of violent death as his predecessor or through a genuine belief in liberalization, King Peter’s early reign was marked by a return to more democratic representation and parliamentary control of the government. The Austrian government had been on relatively good terms with the former king, and viewed the increasing democratization in Serbia as a dangerous trend (for fear it would give more impetus to demands for autonomy not only in Bosnia, but also in other Slavic areas of the empire). The Wikipedia entry for King Peter’s reign is just a tad over-enthusiastic:
The Western-educated King attempted to liberalize Serbia with the goal of creating a Western-style constitutional monarchy. King Petar I became gradually very popular for his commitment to parliamentary democracy that, in spite of certain influence of military cliques in political life, functioned properly. The 1903 Constitution was a revised version of 1888 Constitution, based on the Belgian Constitution of 1831, considered as one of the most liberal in Europe.The governments were chosen from the parliamentary majority, mostly from People’s Radical Party (Narodna radikalna stranka) led by Nikola P. Pašić and Independent Radical Party (Samostalna radikalna stranka), led by Ljubomir Stojanović. King Peter himself was in favor of a broader coalition government that would boost Serbian democracy and help pursue an independent course in foreign policy. In contrast to Austrophile Obrenović dynasty, King Peter I was relying on Russia and France, which provoked rising hostility from expansionist-minded Austria-Hungary. King Peter I of Serbia paid two solemn visits to Saint-Petersbourg and Paris in 1910 and 1911 respectively, greeted as a hero of both democracy and national independence in the troublesome Balkans.
The reign of King Peter I Karadjordjević from 1903 to 1914, is remembered as the “Golden Age of Serbia” or the “Era of Pericles in Serbia”, due to the unrestricted political freedoms, free press, and cultural ascendancy among South Slavs who finally saw in democratic Serbia a Piedmont of South Slavs. King Peter I was supportive to the movement of Yugoslav unification, hosting in Belgrade various cultural gatherings. Grand School of Belgrade was upgraded into Belgrade University in 1905, with scholars of international renown such as Jovan Cvijić, Mihailo Petrović, Slobodan Jovanović, Jovan M. Žujović, Bogdan Popović, Jovan Skerlić, Sima Lozanić, Branislav Petronijević and several others.
The Black Hand: Serbia’s “plausibly deniable” interference in Bosnian affairs
The leader of the 1903 coup d’etat, former Captain, now Colonel Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević was in a key position indeed — he was the head of the Serbian Military Intelligence service in 1914. From that important post, he was able to conduct covert operations against the neighbouring empires with an eye to destabilization and eventual military action. In 1911, Apis established Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (the Black Hand) to enable him to conduct operations separate from — but with goals aligned with — the formal state organization. Another semi-secret pan-Slavic organization set up a few years earlier became a very valuable tool in the hands of Apis: Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia).
Margaret MacMillan in The War That Ended Peace describes the kind of operations “Apis” set up and operated against Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans:
Within Serbia itself there was considerable support for the Young Bosnians and their activities. For a decade or more, parts of the Serbian government had encouraged the activities of quasi-military and conspiratorial organizations on the soil of Serbia’s enemies, whether the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. The army provided money and weapons for armed Serbian bands in Macedonia and smuggled weapons into Bosnia much as Iran does today with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Margaret MacMillan describes the typical members of the Young Bosnians, who were of a type that we probably recognize more readily now than at any time since 1914:
[They] were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse. They hated Austria-Hungary in part because they blamed it for corrupting its South Slav subjects. Few of the Young Bosnians had regular jobs. Rather they depended on handouts from their families, with whom they had usually quarreled. They shared their few possessions, slept on each other’s floors, and spent hours over a single cup of coffee in cheap cafés arguing about life and politics. They were idealistic, and passionately committed to liberating Bosnia from foreign rule and to building a new and fairer world. Strongly influenced by the great Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, the Young Bosnians believed that they could only achieve their goals through violence and, if necessary, the sacrifice of their own lives.
Apis and his Bosnian operators were determined to take advantage of the announced visit by Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in June, 1914. The Archduke was the heir-presumptive to the throne of the Dual Monarchy and (contrary to what a lot of people believed at the time) a moderate who hoped to use his visit to reduce tension between the monarchy and the Slavic people in the southern fringe of the empire. He had already spoken against the empire taking military action against Serbia on more than one occasion after provocation … if he were not on the scene, Apis calculated, the chances of war went up significantly.
The stage is set, the pieces are starting to fall into place, and the curtain is about to go up.
August 18, 2014
You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):
- Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
- Looking back to 1814
- Bismarck, his life and works
- France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
- Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
- The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
- War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
- The First Balkan War
- The Second Balkan War
- The Entente Cordiale, Moroccan crises, and the influence of public opinion
We left the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a state of ferment back in part five, having undergone a near-death constitutional stroke in 1867, resulting in a bi-polar domestic and even world outlook to accommodate the newly redefined Dual Monarchy, and dangerously inconsistent treatment of their respective ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities in the Cisleithanic (Austrian) and Transleithanic (Hungarian) “halves” of the empire. This might not have mattered much in the long run if the empire hadn’t been summarily extended in 1908 with the addition of new territory on the southern border of the empire.
Administration turns into annexation
Under the terms of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Austria-Hungary had been administering the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the provision that they would be returned at some future date when the stability of the occupied territories had been re-established. In 1908, however, something happened which drove the Austro-Hungarians into a panic: the somnolent Ottoman government was faced with a revolutionary movement called the Young Turks.
Since 1878, the Sultan had ruled without a parliament, having suspended the General Assembly and ending the short-lived First Constitutional Era. The Young Turks were an unlikely alliance of Turkish nationalists, reformers, pro-Western modernizers, and certain national minorities including Armenians and Greeks: in short, anyone with a grievance against the Sultan, the administration, or the general state of life in the empire. The Young Turks forced the Sultan to restore the 1876 constitution and recall the general assembly. They also announced plans to call elections throughout the empire, including the Austrian-occupied territories.Bosnia and Herzegovina had no existing representation of any sort — with the Ottomans or with the Austrians — and it was feared that the Young Turks, having created representation in the two vilayets would then demand their return to Ottoman control. Austria’s foreign minister, Count Alois von Aehrenthal began to make urgent plans to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark outlines Aehrenthal’s actions:
In 1908, having successfully negotiated Russian support for the move, Austria-Hungary swallowed the two provinces and added them to the empire. Then things went horribly, horribly wrong for Aehrenthal and Austria-Hungary. The reaction to annexation was far more angry and widespread than Aehrenthal had expected, the other Treaty signatories demanded answers … and Izvolsky bolted for cover:
In order to forestall any such complications [a push by the Young Turks to reclaim the provinces], Aehrenthal moved quickly to prepare the ground for annexation. The Ottomans were bought out of their nominal sovereignty with a handsome indemnity. Much more important were the Russians, upon whose acquiescence the whole project depended. Aehrenthal was a firm believer in the importance of good relations with Russia — as Austrian ambassador in St. Petersburg during the years 1899-1906, he had helped to consolidate the Austro-Russian rapprochement. Securing the agreement of the Russian foreign minister, Alexandr Izvolsky, was easy. The Russians had no objection to the formalization of Austria-Hungary’s status in Bosnia-Herzegovina, provided St. Petersburg received something in return. Indeed it was Izvolsky, with the support of Tsar Nicholas II, who proposed that the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina be exchanged for Austrian support for improved Russian access to the Turkish Straits.
Despite these preparations, Aehrenthal’s announcement of the annexation on 5 October 1908 triggered a major European crisis. Izvolsky denied having reached any agreement with Aehrenthal. He subsequently even denied that he had been advised in advance of Aehrenthal’s intentions, and demanded that an international conference be convened to clarify the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In his recent article in History Today, Vernon Bogdanor explains the reaction to this less-than-legal Austro-Hungarian swallowing act:
The annexation […] was a breach of the treaty and of international law. It would have significant consequences. The first was that it made non-Slav rule in Bosnia appear permanent, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire was far more durable than the Ottoman Empire. The annexation was a particular blow to the independent south Slav state of Serbia, which objected. Second, the annexation made the southern Slav issue an international problem, since it involved Serbia’s ally, Russia, which saw itself as the protector of the Slavs. In March 1909 Austria demanded, under threat of war, that Serbia accept the annexation, while Germany told Russia that, in case of war, it would take Austria’s side.
Britain helped persuade Serbia and Russia to back down. The great powers accepted the annexation. The Kaiser, unwisely perhaps, boasted in Vienna in 1910 that he had come to Austria’s side as a ‘knight in shining armour’.
The deciding factor in settling the issue of annexation turned out to be the active involvement of the German government in providing diplomatic pressure on Russia, as Christopher Clark explains:
The issue was resolved only by the “St. Petersburg note” of March 1909, in which the Germans demanded that the Russians at last recognize the annexation and urge Serbia to do likewise. If they did not, Chancellor Bülow warned, then things would “take their course”. This formulation hinted not just at the possibility of an Austrian war on Serbia, but, more importantly, at the possibility that the Germans would release the documents proving Izvolsky’s complicity in the original annexation deal. Izvolsky immediately backed down.
At the time, Aehrenthal took the blame for this fiasco, at least to some degree for his preference for secret deals and understandings. He may have been correct that there was no chance that the other signatories to the Treaty of Berlin would accept the Austrian proposal, but when it all became public, it tarnished his reputation directly and Austria-Hungary’s reputation generally.
Russia hardly came out improved in standing either. As Christopher Clark put it, “the evidence suggests that the crisis took the course that it did because Izvolsky lied in the most extravagant fashion in order to save his job and reputation.” This embarrassing incident at least partially explains why Russia became far more concerned about the fate of the south Slavic populations — having signally failed them once in 1908, Russia could not afford to look like they were going to fail them in future conflicts without forfeiting any influence or control over events in the Balkans. Clark explains the toxic combination of official misinformation, rising political awareness of the Russian middle classes, and the indirect power of the newspapers:
Intense public emotions were invested in Russia’s status as protector of the lesser Slavic peoples, and underlying these in the minds of the key decision-makers was a deepening preoccupation with the question of access to the Turkish Straits. Misled by Izvolksy and fired up by chauvinist popular emotion, the Russian government and public opinion interpreted the annexation as a brutal betrayal of the understanding between the two powers, an unforgivable humiliation and an unacceptable provocation in a sphere of vital interest. In the years that followed the Bosnian crisis, the Russians launched a programme of military investment so substantial that it triggered a European arms race.
Another important question in the wake of the annexation crisis was how Austria-Hungary would placate Serbia. Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace outlines the rather small pickings Serbia was offered:
The most difficult issue to settle in the aftermath of the annexation was the question of compensation for Serbia, complicated by the fact that Russia was backing Serbia’s demands and Germany was supporting Austria-Hungary. The most Aehrenthal was prepared to offer Serbia was some economic concessions such as access to a port on the Adriatic, but only if Serbia recognized the annexation and agreed to live on peaceful terms with Austria-Hungary. The Serbian government remained intransigent and, as spring melted the snows in the Balkans, the talk of war mounted again around Europe’s capitals. […] In St. Petersburg, Stolypin, who remained opposed to war, told the British ambassador at the start of March that Russian public opinion was so firmly in support of Serbia that the government would not be able to resist coming to its defense: “Russia would have, in that case, to mobilise, and a general conflagration would then be imminent.”
War was averted in 1908, but the issues that arose (or were exacerbated) during the Bosnian crisis were almost all still significant in 1914. As a dress rehearsal, 1908 went down fairly well: only diplomatic force was exerted, but it showed some of the limits of mere diplomacy and foreshadowed the crisis of July 1914.
August 10, 2014
The “Balkan powder keg”. Is there a more over-used description from writers trying to describe the origins of World War One? Like most clichés, there’s more than just a hint of truth to it. Part eight of this (long, long) series discussed the start of a series of “small wars” that ended up being very significant as escalators leading towards the beginning of the Great War. You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven and part eight. The Balkans are picturesque as heck, a tangled mass of ethnic, religious, and national interests, and a ready source of trouble for the rest of Europe. But right up to the end of July, 1914, most sensible people thought the most recent set of troubles would be resolved soon. After all, this was the age of reason, and nobody wanted to go to war over silly tribal differences…
Second Balkan War – The falling-out of the thieves
Shortly after the amazing success of the Balkan League’s fight against the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Balkan powers fell out over the spoils and went at it again, this time redrawing the borders to Bulgaria’s severe disadvantage (thanks in part to Romania joining in the fun). The war wasn’t inevitable, but the seeds were planted almost from the start of the fighting during the First Balkan War: secret agreements between the League allies to partition the yet-to-be-conquered lands were rapidly made obsolete by the facts on the ground: Serbia and Greece faced weaker opposition and therefore took lands promised beforehand to Bulgaria. Bulgaria anticipated its allies would live up to the terms of their agreements, but both Serbia and Greece coveted the territory each had gained (that had been secretly promised to Bulgaria before hostilities commenced) more than they valued the continued goodwill of the Bulgarians.
Having active grievances — and much more significantly, an active and recently victorious army — the Bulgarians decided to take by force what their former allies were denying them diplomatically. Unfortunately for Bulgaria, the Greeks and Serbians also had active and recently victorious armies … and the advantage of already occupying the disputed territories. In addition, the Ottoman Empire noticed a great opportunity to rectify some of the unfortunate mistakes made during the first war, and joined in the melee. Perhaps even more importantly, the Rumanians noticed that they had a golden-but-fleeting chance to re-arrange their border with Bulgaria in a more pleasing fashion, and also entered the lists.
Given the forces aligned against Bulgaria, it should be no surprise that despite having the advantage of launching the initial attacks, the end results (as documented in the August 1913 Treaty of Bucharest and the September 1913 Treaty of Constantinople) were not what Bulgarian leaders had hoped for.
Bulgarian defeat at the hands of the Serbs and the other powers was not pre-ordained: the one thing that could have changed the course of the Balkan Wars was the direct intervention of Russia. Both Bulgaria and Serbia were clients of the string-pullers in St. Petersburg, but at some point the Russians had to make a clear choice between their “little brothers” in Sofia or those in Belgrade. In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark describes that point of decision:
There was one strategic choice that Sazonov and his colleagues would eventually be forced to confront. Should Russia support Bulgaria or Serbia? Of the two countries, Bulgaria was clearly the more strategically important. Its location on the Black Sea and Bosphorus coasts made it an important partner. The defeat of Ottoman forces in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 had created the conditions for the emergence, under Russian custodianship, of a self-governing Bulgarian state under the nominal suzerainty of the Ottoman Porte. Bulgaria was thus historically a client state of St. Petersburg. But Sofia never became the obedient satellite that the Russians had wished for. Russophile and “western” political factions competed for control of foreign policy (as indeed they still do today) and the leadership exploited the country’s strategically sensitive location by transferring their allegiances from one power to another.
In March 1910, delegations from Sofia and Belgrade visited St. Petersburg within two weeks of each other for high-level talks. The Bulgarians pressed their Russian interlocutors to abandon Serbia and commit clearly to Sofia — only on this basis would a stable coalition of Balkan states emerge. It was impossible, the Bulgarian premier Malinov told Izvolsky, for the Russians to create a Great Bulgaria and a Great Serbia at the same time:
Once you decide to go with us for the sake of your own interests, we will easily settle the Macedonian question with the Serbs. As soon as this is understood in Belgrade — and you must make it clear in order to be understood — the Serbs will become more conciliatory.
The Serbs, however, were more successful in securing Russian support for their aims. Alexander Izvolsky (the Russian Foreign Minister) assured King Peter that, when push came to shove, Serbia enjoyed Russia’s complete confidence and support. This had the temporary advantages of satisfying the Serbs and the Russian domestic press: although the decision was not formally announced, the press were pushing continuously for Russian support for Serbia and the Russian government understood the strength of this opinion among the rising Russian middle class (small, but influential).
As we get closer to the actual outbreak of World War One, the individual conflicts and events gain a greater share of the attention: what might have been a minor issue a few years earlier now attracted the interest and (sometimes) the involvement of the great powers, who in turn were finding it harder to stay aloof from “trivia”. Russia’s deliberate pot-stirring in the Balkans may at the time have seemed a cheap and easy way to divert press attention away from legitimate domestic issues and onto “safer” foreign concerns. But such activities had a way of perpetuating themselves, and Russia of all the great powers, could least afford to risk its remaining prestige in battles and disputes well beyond the reach of their own military power. The easy option of making the Balkans seem more important lead to the understanding among the “chattering classes” of Moscow and St. Petersburg that any setback to Serbian aspirations somehow directly affronted Russia and therefore required direct Russian involvement.
An easy way to redirect the newspapers to foreign affairs somehow became a lever with which Serbian extremists could move Russia (against her own best interests) into positions of confrontation with Austria (and Germany). I’m not trying to imply that editorial writers in Russia controlled Russian foreign policy, but that the evidence is that after the 1905 revolution, Russian leaders were dangerously aware of and willing to risk much to channel the power of the press (but lacked the skill to do so in ways that were not in the end catastrophic).
August 5, 2014
No, not another part in the continuing series … still working on those. Over at Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson has been following that series and kindly allows that I’ve (so far) managed to be “about as succinct as you can get with this period of European history”. Thanks! (Richard is a tough marker when it comes to history: this is relatively high praise … at least I think it is…)
He also amplifies a few things to which I may not have given enough emphasis:
Flow charting these events isn’t easy. The take away from all this isn’t the details, it’s how finely balanced global politics was a hundred years ago. By contrast the Cold War, for all its implied terror, was remarkably static. At least if you were a North American or European. The Soviet Bloc gave a tremendous illusion of permanence that fooled so many otherwise intelligent and educated people. The bi-polar nature of global politics between 1945 and 1990 made the rules fairly clear for everyone involved. In 1914 nothing was especially clear and so much could have turned out differently had one leader, one diplomat, made a different decision at a crucial moment. Here are some of the terrible ifs:
If a statesman of the skill and stature of Bismarck had been at the helm of Germany, would there have been a war?
If Britain had made a firm commitment to France, backed by a sizable army, would Germany have taken the risk of expanding the war westward?
If Russia’s railways had been anywhere near as efficient as those of Germany, would the German General Staff have been so confident in the von Schlieffen plan?
If Austria-Hungary had been a more stable polity would it have acted so aggressively against Serbia?
If there had been no Austria-Hungary would Eastern Europe have been such a tripwire?
What the hell was Bethmann-Hollweg thinking when he issued the blank cheque?
Unlike in the sciences there is no control group in history. What if is a traditional parlour game for both professional and amateur historians. It cannot be answered definitely because there is no way to re-run events. Even if time travel were possible we’re still confronted with the problem of complexity. In changing one variable all the others are changed, to more degree or another, at the same time. That applies to the life of nations as much as of individuals and small groups. One small mistake at just the right moment and everything changes forever.
August 3, 2014
Over the last several days, I’ve posted entries on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four). Up to now, we’ve been looking at the longer-term trends and policy shifts among the European great powers. Now, we’ll take a look at the most multicultural and diverse polity of the early 20th century, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
Austria becomes Austria-Hungary
Here is a map of Austria-Hungary at the start of the First World War:
A big central European empire: the second biggest empire in Europe at the time (after Russia). But that map manages to conceal nearly as much as it reveals. Here is a slightly more informative map, showing a similar map of ethnic and linguistic groups within the same geographical boundaries:
This second map shows much more of the political reality of the empire — and these are merely the largest, most homogenous groupings — and why the Emperor was so sensitive to chauvinistic and nationalistic movements that appeared to threaten the stability of the realm. If anything, that map shows the southern regions of the empire — Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina — to be more ethnically and linguistically compatible than almost any other region (which neatly illustrates some of the limitations of this form of analysis — layering on religious differences would make the map far more confusing, and yet in some ways more explanatory of what happened in 1914 … and, for that matter, from 1992 onwards).
For some reason, perhaps just common usage in history texts, I had the distinct notion that the Austrian Empire was a relatively continuous political and social structure from the Middle Ages onward. In reading a bit more on the nineteenth century, I find that the Austrian Empire was only “founded” in 1804 (according to Wikipedia, anyway). “Austria” as a concept certainly began far earlier than that! Austria was the general term for the personal holdings of the head of the Habsburgs. The title of Holy Roman Emperor had been synonymous with the Austrian head of state almost continuously since the fifteen century: that continuity was finally broken in 1806 when Emperor Francis II formally dissolved the Holy Roman Empire due to the terms of the Treaty of Pressburg, through which Napoleon stripped away many of the core holdings of the empire (including the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Kingdom of Württemberg) to create a new German proto-state called the Confederation of the Rhine.
The Confederation lasted until 1813, as Napoleon’s empire ebbed westward across the Rhine before the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies. After the Battle of Leipzig (also known as the Battle of Nations for the many different armies involved), several of the constituent parts of the Confederation defected to the allies. As part of the re-alignment of borders, treaties, and affiliations during the Congress of Vienna, both Prussia and Austria were added to the successor entity called the German Confederation, but Austria was the acknowledged leader of the organization.
The Rise of Prussia and the eclipse of AustriaThe Kingdom of Prussia was the rising power within the German Confederation, and it was likely that at some point the Prussians would attempt to challenge Austria for the leadership of Germany. That situation arose (or, if you’re a fan of the “Bismarck had a master plan” theory, was engineered) over the dispute with Denmark over the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig.
Denmark was not part of the confederation, but the two duchies were within it: the right of succession to the the two ducal titles were a point of conflict between the Kingdom of Denmark (whose monarch was also in his own person the duke of both Schleswig and Holstein) and the leading powers of the confederation, Austria and Prussia. When the King of Denmark died, by some legal views, the right of succession to each of the ducal seats was now open to dispute (because they were not formally part of Denmark, despite the King having held those titles personally).
In Denmark proper, the recently adopted constitution provided for a greater degree of democratic representation, but the political system in the two duchies was much more tailored to the interests and representation of the landowning classes (who were predominantly German-speaking) over the commoners (who were Danish-speakers). After the new Danish King signed legislation setting up a common parliament for Denmark and Schleswig, Prussia invaded as part of a confederate army, and the Danes wisely retreated north, abandoning the relatively indefensible southern portion of the debated duchies. In short, the campaign went poorly for the Danes, but quite well for the Prussians and (to a lesser degree) the Austrians. Under the terms of the resulting Treaty of Vienna, Denmark renounced all claims to the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg to the Austrians and Prussians.
Austria’s reward for the campaign was the duchy of Holstein, while Prussia got Schleswig and Lauenburg (in the form of King Wilhelm taking on the rulership of the latter duchy in his own person). The two great powers soon found themselves at odds over the administration of the duchies, and Austria appealed their side of the dispute to the Diet (parliament) of the Confederation. Prussia declared this to be a violation of the Gastein Convention, and launched an invasion of Holstein in co-operation with some of the other Confederation states.
This was the start of the Austro-Prussian War, also known as the Seven Weeks’ War. The start of the conflict triggered an existing treaty between Prussia and Italy, bringing the Italian forces in to menace Austria’s southwestern frontier (Italy was eager to take the Italian-speaking regions of the Austrian Empire into their kingdom. As the Wikipedia entry notes, the war was not unwelcome to the respective leaders of the warring powers: “In Prussia king William I was deadlocked with the liberal parliament in Berlin. In Italy, king Victor Emmanuel II, faced increasing demands for reform from the Left. In Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph saw the need to reduce growing ethnic strife, by uniting the several nationalities against a foreign enemy.”
In his essay “Bismarck and Europe” (collected in From Napoleon to the Second International), A.J.P. Taylor notes that the war took time and effort to bring to fruition, but not for reasons you might expect:
The war between Austria and Prussia had been on the horizon for sixteen years. Yet it had great difficulty in getting itself declared. Austria tried to provoke Bismarck by placing the question of the duchies before the Diet on 1 June. Bismarck retaliated by occupying Holstein. He hoped that the Austrian troops there would resist, but they got away before he could catch them. On 14 June the Austrian motion for federal mobilization against Prussia was carried in the Diet. Prussia declared the confederation at an end; and on 15 June invaded Saxony. On 21 June, when Prussian troops reached the Austrian frontier, the crown prince, who was in command, merely notified the nearest Austrian officer that “a state of war” existed. That was all. The Italians did a little better La Marmora sent a declaration of war to Albrecht, the Austrian commander-in-chief, before taking the offensive. Both Italy and Prussia were committed to programmes which could not be justified in international law, and were bound to appear as aggressors if they put their claims on paper. The would, in fact, have been hard put to it to start the war if Austria had not done the job for them.
Strategically, the Austro-Prussian war was the first European war to reflect some of the lessons of the recently concluded American Civil War: railway transportation of significant forces to the front, and the relative firepower differences between muzzle-loading weapons (Austria) and breech-loading rifles (Prussia). In the decisive Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadová), Prussian firepower and strategic movement were the key factors, allowing the numerically smaller force to triumph — Austrian casualties were more than three times greater than those of the Prussian army. This was the last major battle of the war, with an armistice followed by the Peace of Prague ending hostilities.
Initially, King Wilhelm had intended to utterly destroy Austrian power, possibly even to the extent of occupying significant portions of Austria, but Bismarck persuaded him that Prussia would be better served by offering a relatively lenient set of terms and working toward an alliance with the defeated Austrians than by the wholesale destruction of the balance of power. Austria lost the province of Venetia to Italy (although it was legally ceded to Napoleon III, who in turn ceded it to Italy). The German Confederation was replaced by a new North German Confederation led by Prussia’s King Wilhelm I as president, and Austria’s minor German allies were faced with a reparations bill to be paid to Prussia for their choice of allies in the war. (Liechtenstein at this time was separated from Austria and declared itself permanently neutral … I’d always wondered when that micro-state had popped into existence.)
Aftermath and constitutional change
After a humiliating defeat by Prussia, the Austrian Emperor was faced with the need to rally the empire, and the Hungarian nationalists took this opportunity to again demand special rights and privileges within the empire. Hungary had always been, legally speaking, a separate kingdom within the empire that just happened to share a monarch with the rest of the empire. In 1867, this situation was recognized in the Compromise of 1867, after which the Austrian Empire was replaced by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
The necessity of satisfying Hungarian nationalist aspirations within the empire made Austria-Hungary appear as a political basket case to those more familiar with less ethnically, socially, and linguistically diverse polities than the Austrian Empire. From a more nationalistic viewpoint the political arrangements required to keep the empire together (mainly the issues in keeping Hungary happy) created a political system that appeared better suited to an asylum Christmas concert than a modern, functioning empire. In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark explains the post-1867 government structure briefly:
Shaken by military defeat, the neo-absolutist Austrian Empire metamorphosed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the Compromise hammered out in 1867 power was shared out between the two dominant nationalities, the Germans in the west and the Hungarians in the east. What emerged was a unique polity, like an egg with two yolks, in which the Kingdom of Hungary and a territory centred on the Austrian lands and often called Cisleithania (meaning ‘the lands on this side of the River Leithe’) lived side by side within the translucent envelope of a Habsburg dual monarchy. Each of the two entities had its own parliament, but there was no common prime minister and no common cabinet. Only foreign affairs, defence and defence-related aspects of finance were handled by ‘joint ministers’ who were answerable directly to the Emperor. Matters of interest to the empire as a whole could not be discussed in common parliamentary session, because to do so would have implied that the Kingdom of Hungary was merely the subordinate part of some larger imperial entity. Instead, an exchange of views had to take place between the ‘delegations’, groups of thirty delegates from each parliament, who met alternately in Vienna and Budapest.
Along with the bifurcation between Cisleithania and Transleithania (Hungary), the two governments handled the demands of their respective majority and minority subjects quite differently: the Hungarian government actively suppressed minorities and attempted to impost Magyarization programs through the schools to stamp out as much as they could of other linguistic and ethnic communities. The Hungarian plurality (about 48 percent of the population) controlled 90 percent of the seats in parliament, and the franchise was limited to those with landholdings. The lot of minorities in Cisleithania was much easier, as the government eventually extended the franchise to almost all adult men by 1907, although this did not completely address the linguistic demands of various minority groups.
Hungary also actively prevented any kind of political move to create a Slavic entity within the empire (in effect, turning the Dual Monarchy into a Triple Monarchy), for fear that Hungarian power would be diluted and also for fear of encouraging demands among the other minority groups in the Hungarian kingdom.
Rumours of the death of Austria: mainly in hindsight, not prognostication
After World War One, many memoirs and histories made reference to the inevitability of Austrian decline. Most of these “memories” appear to have been constructed after the fact, rather than being accurate views of the reality before the war began. Christopher Clark notes:
Evalutating the condition and prospects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the First World War confronts us in an acute way with the problem of temporal perspective. The collapse of the empire amid war and defeat in 1918 impressed itself upon the retrospective view of the Habsburg lands, overshadowing the scene with auguries of imminent and ineluctable decline. The Czech national activist Edvard Beneš was a case in point. During the First World War, Beneš became the organizer of a secret Czech pro-independence movement; in 1918, he was one of the founding fathers of the new Czechoslovak nation-state. But in a study of the “Austrian Problem and the Czech Question” published in 1908, he had expressed confidence in the future of the Habsburg commonwealth. “People have spoken of the dissolution of Austria. I do not believe in it at all. The historic and economic ties which bind the Austrian nations to one another are too strong to let such a thing happen.”
Far from being an economic basket case, Austrian economic growth topped 4.8% per year before the start of WW1 (Christopher Clark):
The Habsburg lands passed during the last pre-war decade through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity — an important point of contrast with the contemporary Ottoman Empire, but also with another classic collapsing polity, the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the double monarchy meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. The salutary economic effects were particularly evident in the Kingdom of Hungary.
Okay, enough about Austria for now … remember I said that the causes of the war were complex and inter-related? By this point I hope you’ll agree that this case has been more than proven … and we’re still not into the 20th century yet!
August 1, 2014
Over the last few days, I’ve posted some entries on the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three). We’re still sorting out the end of Otto von Bismarck’s grand diplomatic juggling act, and we’ve barely dug into the fascinating ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic goulash of the Balkans.
France searches for allies
After the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War and the collapse of the Second Empire, France was left (for the second time) alone and friendless on the European stage. Having painfully rebuilt from the end of the Napoleonic wars, France faced the need to do it all again, but now with a newly unified and powerful enemy literally on the Eastern frontier.
The overriding foreign policy objectives of the Third Republic were finding ways to counteract the German Reich … even if it meant cosying up to the most autocratic regime in Europe. With Bismarck off the scene, the French were able to further pursue a dialogue with the Tsar’s government that actually began with financial aid from Paris in 1888 leading eventually to a formal alliance in 1892. The loans were intended to allow Russia to improve existing East-West railways and to build new ones with the purpose of allowing Russian troops to be more quickly concentrated on the German-Russian and (less urgently) Austrian-Russian borders. Russia had the military manpower while France had the financial means and technological know-how — both parties drew benefits from the deal (but the French needed the Russians more than vice-versa).
In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan shows that the Russians were aware of the imbalance in the needs of the allies and resented the French attitude to them:
Although the French alliance had caused difficulties initially, Russian opinion had largely come around to seeing it as a good thing, a neat matching of Russian manpower with French money and technology. Of course, there were strains over the years. France tried to use its financial leverage over Russia to shape Russian military planning to meet French needs or to insist that Russia place its orders for new weapons with French firms. The Russians resented this “blackmail”, as they sometimes called it, which was demeaning to Russia as a great power. As Vladimir Kokovtsov, Russia’s Minister of Finance for much of the decade before 1914, complained: “Russia is not Turkey; our allies should not set us an ultimatum, we can get by without these direct demands.”
The French also put pressure on Russia to avoid confrontations with Britain, as French and British diplomats had started working toward some kind of understanding, and the French felt (with some justice) that the Russians might easily do damage to that process by some mild adventurism on a distant frontier with Britain’s colonies.
Britain’s global-scale worries
Britain’s lack of direct engagement during much of the period of the Concert of Europe was rational: British interests lay away from Europe, with the burgeoning colonies providing more than enough economic, diplomatic, and military activity for British tastes. From British Imperial viewpoints, the Germans were a mere distraction — it was the Russians who seemed to be threatening the Empire at every turn.
Margaret MacMillan writes that before the popular series of sensationalist novels by William Le Queux featured German invasions of Britain, his chosen villains were the Russians:
In Britain itself, public opinion was strongly anti-Russian. In popular literature, Russia was exotic and terrifying: the land of snow and golden domes, of wolves chasing sleighs through the dark forests, of Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great. Before he made Germany the enemy in his novels, the prolific William Le Queux used Russia. In his 1894 The Great War in England in 1897, Britain was invaded by a combined French and Russian force but the Russians were by far the more brutal. British homes were burned, innocent civilians shot and babies bayoneted. “The soldiers of the Tsar, savage and inhuman, showed no mercy to the weak and unprotected. They jeered and laughed at piteous appeal, and with fiendish brutality enjoyed the destruction which everywhere they wrought.”
Aside from the role of barbarous invaders in popular fiction, there were sufficient things to offend British consciences which added to this general dislike of the Russian state:
Radicals, liberals and socialists all had many reasons to hate the regime with its secret police, censorship, lack of basic human rights, its persecution of its opponents, its crushing of ethnic minorities and its appalling record of anti-Semitism. Imperialists on the other hand hated Russia because it was a rival to the British Empire. Britain could never come to an agreement with Russia in Asia, said Curzon, who had been Salisbury’s Under-secretary at the Foreign Office before he became Viceroy in India. Russia was bound to keep expanding as long as it could get away with it. In any case the “ingrained duplicity” of Russian diplomats made negotiations futile.
In the wake of the abortive 1905 revolution, it was easy to think of Russia as being weak and unstable, but as economic growth slowly returned, the government’s efforts to extend its control over far-flung recently acquired territories led to roads and railways being built … which Britain could hardly help but view as being at least partly military in nature:
It was one of the rare occasions on which [Curzon] agreed with the chief of the Indian general staff, Lord Kitchener, who was demanding more resources from London to deal with “the menacing advance of Russia towards our frontiers.” What particularly worried the British were the new Russian railways, either built or planned, which stretched down to the borders of Afghanistan and Persia and which now made it possible for the Russians to bring more force to bear. Although the term was not to be coined for another eighty years, the British were also becoming acutely aware of what Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch”. As the War Office said in 1907, the expanded Russian railway system would make the military burden of defending India and the empire so great that “short of recasting our whole military system, it will become a question of practical politics whether or not it is worth our while to retain India.”
More to follow over the next few days. This series of blog posts has certainly ballooned past what I originally thought would be required (and I’m skipping over masses and masses of stuff already). This just reinforces my earlier point that the situation was far more complex 100 years ago than we might think.
July 30, 2014
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:
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).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):
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.
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.”
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
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…
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.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.
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:
The end of the second post and we’re still in the 1870s … more to come over the next few days.
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
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:
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).
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…)
May 26, 2014
These spectacular symptoms of dysfunctionality might appear to support the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a moribund polity whose disappearance from the political map was merely a matter of time: an argument deployed by hostile contemporaries to suggest that the empire’s efforts to defend its integrity during the last years before the outbreak of war were in some sense illegitimate. In reality, the roots of Austria-Hungary’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested. […]
The Habsburg lands passed during the last pre-war decade through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity — an important point of contrast with the contemporary Ottoman Empire, but also with another classic collapsing polity, the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the double monarchy meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. The salutary economic effects were particularly evident in the Kingdom of Hungary. In the 1840s. Hungary really had been the larder of the Austrian Empire — 90 per cent of its exports to Austria consisted of agricultural products. But by the years 1909-13, Hungarian industrial exports had risen to 44 per cent, while the constantly growing demand for cheap foodstuffs of the Austro-Bohemian industrial region ensured the Hungarian agricultural sector survived in the best of health, protected by the Habsburg common market from Romanian, Russian and American competition. For the monarchy as a whole, most economic historians agree that the period 1887-1913 saw an ‘industrial revolution’, or a take-off into self-sustaining growth, with the usual indices of expansion: pig-iron consumption increased fourfold between 1881 and 1911, railroad coverage did the same between 1870 and 1900 and infant mortality decreased, while elementary schooling figures surpassed those in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. In the last years before the war, Austria-Hungary and Hungary in particular (with an average annual growth of 4.8 per cent) was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.