H/T to Roger Henry for the link.
October 15, 2014
October 11, 2014
The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the reception Gérard Depardieu received from a “conservative” Russian politician:
Gérard Depardieu’s move to Russia had the effect of making the actor repent sexual activities conducted in Europe, a conservative Kremlin politician has said.
Reacting to the publication of Ça s’est fait comme ça, Depardieu’s memoir in which he discusses stints of employment as a grave robber and a male prostitute, Vitaly Milonov expressed sympathy for the actor.
“It wasn’t easy for him in France,” he told Russian newspaper MK. “There, society is corrupted and doesn’t have any moral principles.”
“I view Gérard’s book as sort of repentance, confession of old sins. Now that he breathed in the purifying air of Mordovia, all that filth left him. He sincerely repents what he was forced to do in his youth in France. He wants to live in a new way, without all that filth.”
October 10, 2014
In the Guardian, Ariane Chemin reports from the Saint Nazaire dockyard where the Mistral-class helicopter assault ships Vladivostok and Sebastopol are still being readied for transfer to Russian control:
The contract to built the ships was signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011, long before Putin showed any signs of attacking Ukraine, annexing Crimea or encouraging secession by the predominantly Russian-speaking self-styled republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, well before a ground-to-air missile brought down a Malaysia Airlines plane in July. But Hollande has no wish to go back on a contract worth €1.2bn ($1.5bn). At the beginning of September, on the eve of the Nato summit in Wales, Hollande announced France could not go ahead with the Vladivostok’s delivery to Russia, citing Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine. However the partial ceasefire in mid-September meant the French permitted the ship to begin its sea trials.
At the Nato headquarters in Brussels, member states are flabbergasted that France should be selling warships to a country that is threatening their security. In Washington Barack Obama is furious too.
Only in Saint Nazaire, Brittany, do they seem happy about the presence of the “Sebass” and “Vladi”, nicknames that reflect the locals’ attachment to their cumbersome guests. Russian sailors arrived at the end of June. They boarded the Smolny, their training ship, at Kronstadt, and it remains moored near the lock gates. Prefabricated huts on the quayside serve as classrooms for the cadets. Nets have been strung along the port side of the Smolny, to stop divers coming too close to the old ship, built in Szczecin, Poland, in 1976. “That thing wouldn’t be seaworthy in a gale,” says a naval veteran on the port.
In town, the cadets stand out on account of their extreme youth, blond hair and unbranded T-shirts. They buy cigarettes, have a couple of beers in a bar, pick up a six-pack at the supermarket near the shipyard, but avoid anything stronger. “Vodka here is an outrageous price,” says Mykola, a Ukrainian boilermaker building a cruise liner. At Le Skipper, the nearest brasserie, the sailors go online and Skype their girlfriends back home. Krystof, the Polish proprietor, speaks Russian. He acts friendly but there is “never any mention of the boats”. Even over a drink the Sebass and the Vladi are no-go areas when talk in Saint Nazaire turns to politics. The priority is jobs. “Without the shipyard, Saint Nazaire would just be a dilapidated suburb of [nearby seaside resort] La Baule,” says Jean Rolin, a local writer.
One Sunday in September, a small crowd of about 50 demonstrators gathered on the quay at the stern of the Vladivostok, waving Ukrainian flags and sporting badges marked “#No Mistral for Putin”. They were led by Bernard Grua, a businessman from Nantes, who has been campaigning, almost single-handed, against the sale of the assault ships to Moscow. His supporters know the capabilities of the vessel off by heart. A Mistral can carry 750 soldiers, 16 helicopters, Leclerc tanks, amphibious assault and landing craft, they recite. With Google maps they explore, one by one, Ukraine’s strategic ports. “The Germans flattened your town,” says Grua, for the benefit of the people of Saint Nazaire. “But when the Mistrals attack Mariupol, with Made in France written all over them, the people who didn’t protest will count as collaborators.”
October 9, 2014
Markus Krajewski writes about the formation of a multinational industrial cartel shortly after the First World War that helped create the very concept of “planned obsolescence” for (no) fun and (their) profit:
On 23 December 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. As revelers hung Christmas lights elsewhere in the city, the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.
The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.
How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.
The details of this effort have been very slow to emerge. Some facts came to light in the 1940s, when the U.S. government investigated GE and a number of its business partners for anticompetitive practices. Others were uncovered more recently, when I and the German journalist Helmut Höge delved into the corporate archives of Osram in Berlin. Jointly founded in 1920 by three German companies, Osram remains one of the world’s leading makers of all kinds of lighting, including state-of-the-art LEDs. In the archives, we found meticulous correspondence between the cartel’s factories and laboratories, which were researching how to modify the filament and other measures to shorten the life span of their bulbs.
The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine.
Companies were also fined for exceeding their sales quotas, which were constantly being adjusted. In 1927, for example, Tokyo Electric noted in a memo to the cartel that after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs, sales had jumped fivefold. “But if the increase in our business resulting from such endeavors directly mean[s] a heavy penalty, it must be a thing out of reason and shall quite discourage us,” the memo stated.
The great Adam Smith, of course, saw this coming in 1776: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Some things never change.
October 5, 2014
Here we should pause and ask an important question: What happened to France? To that savoir faire? And to French culture? To the country that we all loved enough to make allowances to put up with the casual hauteur and the studied rudeness? Because, after all, this was la belle France, and they could teach us a thing or two. They had something worth sharing.
But when was that? When was the last time you enjoyed, say, a contemporary French film? How many must-see French actors are there? Their most famous actor has now taken out Russian citizenship (and moved to Belgium). Name a living French painter worth the wall space. Name a great French musician. A novelist, apart from Michel Houellebecq — and the French hate him. Their vaunted cuisine has become a moribund tourist performance. Unable to change, terrified of innovation, France has become the Bourbons, who famously forgot nothing and learned nothing.
The language that committees of old academics protect, like maids fussing over a cabinet of bone china, has been ransacked, seduced, and impregnated with bastard usages by movies, pop music, the Internet, and the global need to speak English. And now even some French universities have begun teaching science and computing classes in English, because no one wants to come to France to study them in French.
The pre-eminence of French culture has evaporated, before our very eyes, within a generation. The fear that innovation might damage or detract from their weighty heritage has left it like an angry child, with its eyes closed and its hands over its ears, la-la-la-ing “Je ne regrette rien.” French civilization went from the brilliant clamor of the streets to the musty hush of the museum. Instead of creating, they have dusting.
A. A. Gill, “Liberté! Egalité! Fatigué!“, Vanity Fair, 2014-04
September 30, 2014
Tim Harford on the recent French government attempt to “fix” the declining quality of food served in restaurants:
“Each time I visit the city the food gets worse and worse.” Tyler Cowen, economics professor, foodie and author of An Economist Gets Lunch, despairs of Paris. Cowen isn’t the only person to lament the state of French cuisine. This may be why — in a quintessentially French move — the nation’s government has introduced a new law in an attempt to improve standards.
The quixotic law in question is public decree No. 2014-797, more popularly known as the “fait maison” rule, in which restaurants may use a new saucepan-with-a-roof-and-chimney logo on the menu beside any dish that is made on the premises. More accurately, the restaurants must use the saucepan-with-a-roof symbol to denote house-made dishes, but the definition of house-made is rather whimsical, thanks to French legislators.
The entire affair seems unlikely to improve French cuisine but it does provide a nice lesson in practical economics: regulation is a superficially appealing answer to life’s problems but often fails to provide real solutions.
A third problem is that the regulation may produce unintended consequences. Consider a chef who offers a fresh fruit crumble alongside a selection of factory-made cakes and puddings. By law, he or she must display the fait maison logo beside the crumble, implicitly damning all his or her other dishes. Such chefs might decide to offer no house-made dishes at all, rather than bring unwelcome questions to the forefront of their customers’ minds.
Policymaking is flawed and crude while the world is subtle and unpredictable. That is why regulations are often rigged from the start, are only peripherally related to the real matter of concern and have a tendency to backfire.
September 22, 2014
A few months back, the French amphibious assault ship Mistral took part in joint exercises with Canadian troops from the Royal 22e Régiment (the “Van Doos”). I wondered at the time if it might be an opportunity for the RCN to “kick the tires” of the Mistral with an eye to eventually adding that to their theoretical shopping list (if they ever manage to get anything built this decade). At USNI News an opinion piece by Jim Dorschner looks at the benefits to NATO if the RCN leased one of the Mistrals being built for Russia while NATO itself took on the other one:
The September decision by France to withhold delivery of two Mistral-class Landing Platforms Helicopter (LPH) building for Russia is an opportunity for NATO, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and for the French shipbuilding industry and economy. France should not suffer economically for taking a stand against Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Rather, NATO, France and Canada can benefit if a little mutually beneficial creativity is applied.
While France desperately wants to complete the two amphibious warships — and get paid for them — NATO and Canada need the capabilities these ships can provide.
For Canada, an LPH would help buttress logistic support for the upcoming Canadian Joint Support Ship (JSS). The replacement to Canada’s fleet oilers originally required a level of expeditionary capabilities which were ultimately not included in the final ship design.
Furthermore, while one of the Russian Mistrals is already undertaking sea trials and the second is scheduled for completion in 2016, the first of three new Queenston-class JSS for the RCN will not even begin building in Vancouver until 2017 or 2018 at best, with delivery by 2019 or 2020.
It was just announced that one of the two the current support ships HMCS Protecteur and the three Tribal-class destroyers HMCS Algonquin, HMCS Athabaskan, and HMCS Iroquois will be withdrawn from service immediately, and the Queenston-class are not going to be built any sooner.
A RCN Mistral could operate the full range Canadian helicopters, including CH-148 Cyclones and CH-147F Chinooks. Ideally, Canada should obtain 6-8 additional Cyclones configured for the Commando Helicopter role as part of a financial settlement with Sikorsky over the Maritime Helicopter Program (MHP). Commando Cyclones would be optimized for Special Operations, tactical assault, medical evacuation and utility missions, with troop seats in place of maritime sensors, though retaining the CH-148’s FLIR system.
The make-up of a Tailored Air Group (TAG) for the RCN LPH would depend on the mission. A mix of Commando Cyclones, Griffons and Chinooks for amphibious, SOF, Arctic support and humanitarian operations. Cyclones for maritime security and ASW task forces. Exchange aircrew from the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force and the Royal Danish and Norwegian Air Forces should be embedded within the Cyclone squadron forming the core of the TAG. This is critical for building expertise and interoperability among Arctic and NATO partners. By way of building a more direct partnership, Resolute could regularly embark RDAF EH-101 Merlin tactical helicopters and MH-60S Seahawk maritime helicopters.
Not least of the challenges facing the RCN would be manning. Fortunately, Mistral was designed from the beginning to operate with a small crew – just 20 officers, 80 petty officers and 60 sailors.
The foremost challenge for Canada may be convincing the government and the public that obtaining a Mistral LPH for the RCN is sensible and affordable, despite being outside the NSPS construct. Given the challenges now emerging for NATO member states and for Canada itself, the answer is surely a resounding ‘Yes’.
Given the current government’s allergy to spending actual money on military priorities (as opposed to nice-but-cheap uniform changes for photo ops), this grand notion is probably dead in the water with no hopes of success … but it’d be a nice boost for the RCN, and nearly as useful for the Canadian Army and RCAF. But it wouldn’t win key voting blocks in Halifax or Vancouver.
September 10, 2014
In Maclean’s, Patricia Treble reviews a new book by Jonathan Beckman, called How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair:
Three years before revolutionaries toppled Louis XVI and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, France was mesmerized with a different tumult. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, scion of one of the nation’s grandest families, was in court, accused of stealing a famously expensive necklace from jewellers who’d created it. He claimed he’d acted at the behest of the queen, who then reneged on paying for the gaudy 2,800-carat piece. The resultant scandal solidiﬁed Marie Antoinette’s reputation for unbounded extravagance.
Yet, as Jonathan Beckman, explains in a masterful new account of the diamond necklace affair, nothing is as it appeared. There are fake royals, forged letters and disappearing gems as well as kidnappings, trysts and even a duel involving poisoned pigs. If the tale was fictional, it would be dismissed as an overwrought fantasy, yet in Beckman’s hands, its machinations unfold as an audacious caper that will enthrall readers much as the original events captivated Europe.
August 23, 2014
Nigel Davies revisits one of the perpetual debates among amateur WW2 historians:
It’s relatively easy to do a quick measurables test comparing one tank against another: thickness and location of the armour, size and muzzle velocity of the main gun, engine horsepower, road speed, etc., but the very best tank on all of those measurements could still be beaten by an enemy using better combat tactics: the French SOMUA 35 and the British Matilda II were the best tanks in the world in 1939 and 1940 respectively (according to Davies). In spite of the superior measurables, the SOMUA 35 was incredibly limited by having the tank commander also be the gunner and loader and it lacked a radio for communication (and even if they had been so equipped, the already overworked tank commander would have had to be the radio operator, too). The Matilda was designed as an infantry tank, so it was very heavily armoured, but relatively slow and somewhat undergunned (the 40mm main gun only had solid shot for anti-armour use: there was no high explosive round for softer targets).
Let us start with the issue of tanks from the perspective of propaganda. More rubbish has been written about who had the best tanks during the Second World War than about any other topic to do with that war. Again and again you get supposedly serious historians talking about how the Germans started the Second World War with overwhelming tank superiority; that the Allies were only brought back into the race by the arrival of the Sherman tank; and how German technology leapt ahead again at the end of the Second World War to give them unrivalled vehicles. All these statements are of course completely incorrect.
One of the problems of course, is ‘best tank when, and for what?’
Comparing what was available in 1939/40 to what was being produced in 1945 (say a Panzer III or Matilda II with a Centurion or Stalin), is worse than useless. There is no comparison. Only the Panzer IV was actually produced throughout the war: and the heavily armoured final version of the tank — with a long barrelled 75mm gun capable of taking on almost every tank yet operational in mid 1945 — bore only a passing resemblance to the lightly armoured tank with a short barrelled infantry support gun — of with minimal ability to do more than scratch the paint of a CharB in 1939/40.
Valentine would probably still the best Allied tanks in the world in early 1941, when they swept Italian forces before them, and several times fought the German African corps to a standstill. The German response to their shocking failures in 1940, had been to upgrade the Panzer III and IV with slightly improved armour, and the short barreled 50 mm gun. But they were still on a losing wicket engaging the British infantry tanks in any sort of close terrain, such as in the siege of Tobruk. Fortunately for Rommel, out in the open terrain of the desert he could deploy his tanks behind screens of high-powered anti-tank guns, which the British tanks lacked the long-range high explosive shells to engage effectively.The Matilda and its successor the
It also helped that too many British cavalry officers in the desert war still had a “tally ho!” attitude and were frequently drawn into unsupported tank charges against German or Italian tanks who were able to draw the fast but lightly armoured British cruisers into easy killing range of their anti-tank guns.
Sherman tank comes from. The Sherman arrived at a time when it’s armour and weapon were on a par with the Panzer III and IV tanks that it was facing. Despite the fact that its 75 mm gun was greatly inferior as an anti-tank weapon to the new British six pounder guns that were starting to equip British tanks, the high explosive shell that the Sherman could fire was incredibly useful for engaging Rommel’s 88 mm guns at long-distance in the flat desert terrain.This is where the myth of the value of the
For several months, it seemed as though the mechanically reliable Sherman would be a war winner, despite its notable tendency to explode in flames whenever it was hit. (Allied troops refer to it as a Ronson — “lights first time every time”. German troops just referred to it as a “Tommy Cooker”.) But this concept was fantasy, which could be easily demonstrated within a few months, though it took the US government another two years to admit it.
[...]In all of this so far, I have barely mentioned the Russians at all. Their T34 tank was possibly the single most effective of the war, and was the breakthrough that forced everyone else to rethink their designs. So we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the T34 was the best tank of the war for almost two years — from the time of Barbarossa (June 22, 1941) until the appearance of the Panther at Kursk (July 5, 1943). It certainly held this title unchallenged by the Sherman and Churchill tanks that appeared during its reign, and probably by the Tiger as well.
The Tiger is a problem for this sort of discussion, because it re-introduces the concept of ‘what for’ into the debate. The Tiger was a far superior heavy infantry support or assault tank to the T34, but a far inferior battlefield manoeuvre or pursuit tank. In fact the Tiger was so slow and limited in cross country ability, that it was actually more effective as a defensive weapon once the Germans were thrown back on that approach, than it had been for re-igniting their Blitzkreig glory days.
He sums up the post with a league table of “best tanks” for given years and purposes:
Having noted the necessary division between medium cruisers and heavy assault/infantry support tanks however, we can still make a fair summary.
So, in contrast to what many history books and documentaries will tell you, the French had the best tanks in 1939, and the British had the best tanks of 1940 and 1945. Also in contrast to what many history books will tell you, the Shermans effective front-line role can best be defined as the few months between the battle of Alamein, and the arrival of Tiger tanks in Tunisia. All attempts to use it after that in Italy or northern France just demonstrated how pathetic it was in modern engagements. Even the British Firefly version with the 17 pounder, was extremely vulnerable to any German tank. In fact it is amusing to note, that they came into their own for the blitzkrieg across open country in pursuit of the defeated German armies across France; which has a direct parallel to the inferior German tanks pursuing the defeated French in 1940. (The equally inadequate British Cromwell tanks, being significantly faster, were actually still better at this pursuit than the Shermans.) The best tank of the Sherman’s period of functional use, of course being the T34.
So our list of ‘best tanks’ could go something like this.
1939 — Best cruiser – Somua 35, Best support – CharB.
1940 — Best support becomes Matilda II.
1941 — Best cruiser initially Panzer III/IV with short 50mm guns, becomes T34 when Russia enters the war.
1942 — Best support is Tiger.
1943 — Best cruiser is Panther.
1944 — Best support is Tiger II.
1945 — Best ‘all purpose’ is Centurion.
August 19, 2014
It was a bloody shambles, but we still remember the bravery and sacrifice of the troops who went ashore at Dieppe in 1942:
On August 19, 1942, nearly 5,000 Canadian troops, along with British and American Allies, undertook a raid on Dieppe to test new equipment, probe the strength of German defences and gain the experience necessary for a larger amphibious assault.
The majority of the forces that attacked that day at five different points along the 16 km front encountered stiff resistance, unexpected obstacles, and a well-entrenched, well-prepared enemy. The Canadians fought on, through machine gun fire, mortar barrages, and sniper and air attacks.
The lessons learned at Dieppe and subsequent landings proved invaluable for the D-Day invasion and were instrumental in saving countless lives on June 6, 1944. Sadly, the Raid on Dieppe came at a steep price for Canadian participants, with 916 making the ultimate sacrifice and 1,900 taken as prisoners of war.
On this solemn day, let us remember the courage and sacrifice of the thousands of Canadians who fought with bravery and determination at Dieppe to free Europe from Nazi tyranny and ensure the peace and freedom that we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.
August 14, 2014
We’re edging ever close to the start of the Great War (no, I don’t know exactly how many more parts this will take … but we’re more than halfway there, I think). 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 Balkans were the setting for two major wars among the regional powers (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, and the Ottoman Empire), but the wars had not spread to the rest of the continent. This run of good luck was not going to last much longer. We turn our attention to Britain, France, and Russia … as unlikely a set of allies as you’d find in the 1880s, now in the process of discovering a common threat in Europe.
Sir Edward Grey and Britain’s progress from “splendid isolation” to official ambivalence
The British government had spent most of the previous century staying out of continental disputes, only rarely becoming politically or militarily involved. Late in the nineteenth century, this began to change, and Britain started paying closer attention to what was happening on the continent and moving slowly toward re-engagement. While the British and the French had spent more time as enemies or as mutually distrustful neutrals, France was now looking across the Channel for much more than mere neutrality.A key figure in negotiating Britain’s relationship with France was Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 onwards (despite the minor difficulty of speaking no other languages and having no interest in visiting other countries). In retrospect, the degree of freedom he was allowed in this role is amazing, especially as he didn’t seem to think he was required to let the prime minister, the cabinet, or parliament know what he was doing until he’d arranged things largely to his own satisfaction. Huw Strachan assigns most of the responsibility for the deepening relationship with France to Grey:
Sir Edward Grey had become foreign secretary on the formation of the Liberal government in December 1905, and remained in post until the end of 1916, so becoming the longest-serving holder of the post. Sir Edward brought diplomatic gravitas to his work in 1914. He had already convened the meeting of ambassadors that had contained and concluded the two Balkan wars of 1912-13. When the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28 prompted a third Balkan crisis, it seemed unlikely to have any direct effect on British interests, but Sir Edward might still prove central to its resolution. If the “concert of Europe”, the international order created in 1814-15 after the Napoleonic wars, still had life, the foreign secretary was the person best placed to animate it.
Sir Edward’s qualifications for such responsibility were of recent coinage. Notoriously idle as a young man, he had been sent down from Oxford, but returned to get a third in jurisprudence. He entered politics as much through Whig inheritance as ambition. He spoke no foreign language and, when foreign secretary, never travelled abroad – or at least not until he had to accompany King George V to Paris in April 1914. He seemed happier as a country gentleman, enjoying his enthusiasms of fishing and ornithology. His first wife increasingly refused to come to London, remaining at Fallodon, the family seat in Northumberland. Their life together was chaste and childless, but not unaffectionate.
Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary, Grey was careful to assure Russian ambassador Count Alexander Benckendorff that he wanted a closer and less fraught relationship with St. Petersburg. Britain’s long-running dispute with the expanding Russian Empire in Asia stood in the way of any co-operation between the two great powers: the “Great Game” across central Asia had been in progress for nearly a century and neither side trusted the other. British concerns that any advance of Russian interests across that vast swathe of land were part of long term plans to destabilize the Indian frontier and eventually to absorb India. Whether these fears were realistic is beside the point: they had driven Raj policy in India despite the low chance of them turning into actual dangers. The disagreements were partially settled with the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, where both Russian and British regional interests were codified:
Formally signed by Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, and Sir Arthur Nicolson, the British Ambassador to Russia, the British-Russian Convention of 1907 stipulated the following:
- That Persia would be split into three zones: A Russian zone in the north, a British zone in the southeast, and a neutral “buffer” zone in the remaining land.
- That Britain may not seek concessions “beyond a line starting from Qasr-e Shirin, passing through Isfahan, Yezd (Yazd), Kakhk, and ending at a point on the Persian frontier at the intersection of the Russian and Afghan frontiers.”
- That Russia must follow the reverse of guideline number two.
- That Afghanistan was a British protectorate and for Russia to cease any communication with the Emir.
A separate treaty was drawn up to resolve disputes regarding Tibet. However, these terms eventually proved problematic, as they “drew attention to a whole range of minor issues that remained unsolved”.
While the convention did not resolve every outstanding issue between the two imperial powers, it smoothed the path to further negotiations on European issues. One of the things the two had to consider was the expansion of German activity in Ottoman territory, especially the Baghdad Railway project, which threatened to extend German influence deep into the oil producing regions of Mesopotamia just as Britain was contemplating switching the Royal Navy from coal to oil. German engineers and financiers had already proven their worth to the Ottomans by building the Anatolian Railway in the 1890s, connecting Constantinople with Ankara and Konya.
Vernon Bogdanor’s recent History Today article explains Grey’s role in bringing Britain into the war alongside the French and Russians:
The growth of German power posed a challenge to an international system based on the Concert of Europe, developed at the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon, whereby members could call a conference to resolve diplomatic issues, a system Britain, and particularly the Liberals in government in 1914, were committed to defend. Sir Edward Grey had been foreign secretary since 1905, a position he retained until 1916, the longest continuous tenure in modern times. He was a right-leaning Liberal who found himself subject to more criticism from his own backbenchers than from Conservative opponents. In his handling of foreign policy his critics alleged that Grey had abandoned the idea of the Concert of Europe and was worshipping what John Bright had called ‘the foul idol’ of the balance of power. They suggested that he was making Britain part of an alliance system, the Triple Entente, with France and Russia and that he was concealing his policies from Parliament, the public and even from Cabinet colleagues. By helping to divide Europe into two armed camps he was increasing the likelihood of war.
On his appointment in December 1905 Grey had indeed maintained the loose Anglo-French entente of 1904, which the Conservatives of the previous government had negotiated. He extended that policy by negotiating an entente with France’s ally, Russia, in 1907. In 1905 France was embroiled in a conflict with Germany over rival claims in Morocco. The French had essentially said to Lord Lansdowne, Grey’s Conservative predecessor: ‘Suppose this conflict leads to war – if you are to support us, let us consult together on naval matters to consider how your support can be made effective.’ The Conservatives had responded that, while they would discuss contingency plans, they could not make any commitments.
Grey continued the naval conversations and extended them to include military dialogue. He informed the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, and two senior ministers of these talks, but not the rest of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, Britain could not be committed to military action without the approval of both Cabinet and Parliament. In November 1912, at the insistence of the Cabinet, there was an exchange of letters between Grey and the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, making it explicit that Britain was under no commitment, except to consult, were France to be threatened. In 1914, furthermore, the French never suggested that Britain was under any sort of obligation to support them, only that it would be the honourable course of action.
Romancing the bear, romancing the lion: France breaks out of imposed isolation
As I discussed back in part four of this series, the French had been left diplomatically isolated in Europe by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, but that began to change as Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne and started imposing his will on German foreign policy. French money opened opportunities for French diplomacy, to the long-term benefit of French security. The Franco-Russian alliance was signed in 1894, signifying the end of French encirclement (Bismarck’s policy) and the start of German encirclement (Kaiser Wilhelm’s nightmare).Anglo-French diplomatic efforts took longer to come to fruition, but by 1904, the Entente Cordiale was more than just a pleasant diplomatic nicety, although it fell short of the full alliance France had hoped for. Among other things, the agreement traded French acceptance of Britain’s position in Egypt for British acceptance of France’s position in Morocco, along with some border adjustments in west Africa, fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, and other issues. The Entente also allowed the two great powers to avoid being involved in the Russo-Japanese War (discussed in part seven), where they were each allied to the opposing powers. Each side saw the agreement in rather different terms, with the French believing it was the next best thing to an alliance, but as British foreign ministry staffer Eyre Crowe expressed it: “The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”
French public opinion was still ambivalent at best about Britain — the PR and humanitarian disaster that was the Boer War had only just faded from the headlines, and there was still much resentment over the Fashoda incident — but the French government recognized the importance of gaining British support (and the British government was conscious of how low their international reputation had gone). Huw Strachan:
The previous Conservative government had in 1895 moved from “splendid isolation” to embrace the need to form alliances. But it was Sir Edward who narrowed these options by excluding the possibility of a deal with Germany. As a Liberal Imperialist, concerned by the evidence of British decline in the South African war, Sir Edward increasingly fixed Britain to France and then to Russia. The latter relationship may have looked frayed by 1914, but that with France was buttressed by military and naval talks. The result was not so much a balance of power in Europe as the isolation of Germany.
Moroccan crises and using the Kaiser as a bargaining chip
The First Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6 was a potential flashpoint between the Entente Cordiale and the German Empire. Germany was hoping to split the Entente or at least to gain territorial concessions in exchange for a resolution. Kaiser Wilhelm was on a cruise to the Mediterranean and had been intending to bypass Tangier, but the situation was manipulated by the Foreign Office in Berlin so that he eventually felt he had to put in an appearance. In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan describes the scene:
Although Bülow had repeatedly advised him to stick to polite formalities, Wilhelm got carried away in the excitement of the moment. To Kaid Maclean, the former British soldier who was the sultan’s trusted advisor, he said, “I do not acknowledge any agreement that has been come to. I come here as one Sovereign [sic] paying a visit to another perfectly independent sovereign. You can tell [the] Sultan this.” Bülow had also advised his master not to say anything at all to the French representative in Tangier, but Wilhelm was unable to resist reiterating to the Frenchman that Morocco was an independent country and that, furthermore, he expected France to recognize Germany’s legitimate interests there. “When the Minister tried to argue with me,” the Kaiser told Bülow, “I said ‘Good Morning’ and left him standing.” Wilhelm did not stay for the lavish banquet which the Moroccans had prepared for him but before he set off on his return ride to the shore, he found time to advise the sultan’s uncle that Morocco should make sure that its reforms were in accordance with the Koran. (The Kaiser, ever since his trip to the Middle East in 1898, had seen himself as the protector of all Muslims.) The Hamburg sailed on to Gibraltar, where one of its escort ships accidentally managed to ram a British cruiser.
Tension rose so high that both Germany and France were looking to their mobilization timetables (France cancelled all military leave and Germany started moving reserve units to the frontier) before the diplomats were able to agree to meet at the conference table rather than the battlefield. The Algeciras Conference lasted from January to April, 1906, and the French generally had the better of the negotiations (with support from Britain, Russia, Italy, Spain, and the United States) while the Germans found themselves supported only by the Austro-Hungarian delegation. France ended up making a few token concessions, but overall retained their position in Morocco.
The Agadir Crisis of 1911 was the second incident in Morocco, where Germany tried a little bit of literal gunboat diplomacy with the gunboat SMS Panther. The port of Agadir was closed to foreign trade, but the Panther (and later the light cruiser SMS Berlin) was sent to “protect German nationals” in southern Morocco from rebel forces. A minor problem turned out to be that there were no conveniently threatened Germans in the region. Margaret MacMillan:
The Foreign Ministry only got round to getting support for its claim that German interests and German subjects were in danger in the south of Morocco a couple of weeks before the Panther arrived off Agadir, when it asked a dozen German firms to sign a petition (which most of them did not bother to read) requesting German intervention. When the German Chancellor, Bethmann, produced this story in the Reichstag he was met with laughter. Nor were there any German nationals in Agadir itself. The local representative of the Warburg interests who was some seventy miles to the north started southwards on the evening of July 1. After a hard journey by horse along a rocky track, he arrived at Agadir on July 4 and waved his arms to no effect from the beach to attract the attention of the Panther and the Berlin. The sole representative of the Germans under threat in southern Morocco was finally spotted and picked up the next day.
France reacted to the German provocation, despite efforts by Sir Edward Grey to restrain them: eventually he recognized that “what the French contemplate doing is not wise, but we cannot under our agreement interfere”. German public opinion, on the other hand, was ecstatic:
After its setbacks earlier on in Morocco and in the race for colonies in general, with the fears of encirclement in Europe by the Entente powers, Germany was showing that it mattered. “The German dreamer awakes after sleeping for twenty years like the sleeping beauty,” said one newspaper.
In Germany, public opinion, which had been largely indifferent to colonies ten years earlier, now was seized with their importance. The German government, which was already under considerable pressure from those German businesses with interests in Morocco, felt that it had much to gain by taking a firm stand. [...] The temptation for Germany’s new Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Holweg, and his colleagues to have a good international crisis to bring all Germans together in support of their government was considerable.
Eventually, after negotiations, France and Germany signed the Treaty of Fez, which granted France Germany’s recognition of her rights in Morocco in exchange for ceded French territory in French Equatorial Africa (which was annexed to the existing German colony in Togoland), including direct access to the Congo River. In addition, Spain was granted rights to a portion of northern Morocco which became Spanish Morocco.
Not part of the treaty terms, but of rather greater significance in the near future, France and Britain agreed to share responsibility for the naval defence of France: the Royal Navy took on the responsibility for defending the north coast of France, while the French navy redeployed almost all ships to the western Mediterranean with the explicit agreement to defend British interests in the region.
I’m finding each successive part of this blog series to be taking longer to put together, and not from a lack of material! I’m hoping to have the next installment posted sometime this weekend or early next week.
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 31, 2014
History Today are nearly done digitizing their back-catalogue of articles, including this 1964 article by John Terraine on how the news got back to Britain after the Battle of Mons:
At seven o’clock in the morning of August 24th, 1914, Mr. Winston Churchill was sitting up in bed, working, at his room in the Admiralty. The door opened, and the Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, appeared.
“These were the days before he took to uniform, and my recollection is that he had a bowler hat on his head, which he took off with a hand which also held a slip of paper. He paused in the doorway and I knew in a flash and before ever he spoke that the event had gone wrong. Though his manner was quite calm, his face was different.
I had the sub-conscious feeling that it was distorted and discoloured as if it had been Punched with a fist. His eyes rolled more than ever. His voice, too, was hoarse. He looked gigantic. ‘Bad news,’ he said heavily and laid the slip of paper on my bed. I read the telegram.
It was from Sir John French: …I forget much of what passed between us. But the apparition of Kitchener Agonistes in my doorway will dwell with me as long as I live. It was like seeing old John Bull on the rack!”
Sir John French’s telegram contained the first information to the British Government of the Battle of Mons, which had taken place on the preceding day:
“My troops have been engaged all day with the enemy… we held our ground tenaciously. I have just received a message from G.O.C. 5th French Army that his troops have been driven back, that Namur has fallen… I have therefore ordered a retirement… which is being carried out now. It will prove a difficult operation, if the enemy remains in contact…”
The last sentence was electrifying:
“I think that immediate attention should be directed to the defence of Havre.”
It was the reference to Namur that produced the first shock in Churchill’s mind.
“We were evidently in the presence of new facts and of a new standard of values. If strong fortresses were to melt like wisps of vapour in a morning sun, many judgments would have to be revised. The foundations of thought were quaking…
‘Fortify Havre,’ said Sir John French. One day’s general battle and the sanguine advance and hoped-for counterstroke had been converted into ‘Fortify Havre’.”
The War was now precisely three weeks old. During those three weeks, governments, military leaders and populations had existed in a fog of ignorance and misconception. This was equally true of both sides; but the worst effects were felt by the Allies. Britain had committed her army to the direct support of the French; but almost no-one in Britain understood the nature of the operations to which the French had committed themselves.
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.
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…)