Quotulatiousness

September 19, 2014

When Royal Navy submarines fly the “Jolly Roger”

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

Ali Kefford on the origins of a colourful naval tradition:

Members of the crew of HMS Utmost with their "Jolly Roger" success flag, photographed alongside HMS Forth in Holy Loch, on their return from a year's service in the Mediterranean, 6 February 1942. (via Wikipedia)

Members of the crew of HMS Utmost with their “Jolly Roger” success flag, photographed alongside HMS Forth in Holy Loch, on their return from a year’s service in the Mediterranean, 6 February 1942. (via Wikipedia)

Sir Arthur Wilson was infamous within the Royal Navy for being an admiral with a tetchy temper. His nickname – Old ’Ard ’Art – was a bad joke about his uncaring nature.

Yet a verbal broadside he delivered in 1901 was to spawn one of the Submarine Service’s most loved and deeply ingrained traditions – the flying of the Jolly Roger flag to mark the victorious return from a successful patrol.

Wilson, later a hugely unpopular First Sea Lord, is said to have blasted the innovation of submarines, dubbing the covert way they operated as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”.

He even went so far as to say: “They’ll never be any use in war and I’ll tell you why. I’m going to get the First Lord to announce that we intend to treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and that we’ll hang all the crews.”

[...]

One hundred years ago this week, shortly after the start of the Great War, British submarine HMS E9 despatched two torpedoes at close range at Germany’s SMS Hela in a skirmish off Heligoland.

Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, had to dive immediately to avoid return fire, so he did not see the cruiser sink.

But the 13-year-old Silent Service had notched up its very first kill, confirming the deadly effectiveness of sneaking around in the deep then launching a surprise attack on an enemy.

Horton, recalling Admiral Wilson’s words, told his signaller to sew a piratical Jolly Roger flag, which flew proudly from his boat’s periscope as she sailed into Harwich, Essex.

A naval tradition was born, as the skull and crossbones went on to be the Royal Navy Submarine Service’s official emblem.

The tradition continues to today:

September 14, 2014

Latest Snowden revelation – NSA and GCHQ have full access to German telecom systems

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:21

In The Register, Kelly Fiveash sums up the latest information from Edward Snowden:

An NSA and GCHQ surveillance programme — dubbed Treasure Map — grants US and British spooks access to the networks of German telcos such as Deutsche Telekom, according to a new stash of leaked documents from Edward Snowden.

Der Spiegel published the latest revelations today. However, Deutsche Telekom reportedly said it had found no evidence of such tampering on its system.

“We are looking into every indication of possible manipulations but have not yet found any hint of that in our investigations so far,” a spokesman at the company told Reuters.

He added: “We’re working closely with IT specialists and have also contacted German security authorities. It would be completely unacceptable if a foreign intelligence agency were to gain access to our network.”

The Register sought comment from the telco, but it hadn’t immediately got back to us at time of writing.

The Treasure Map programme was described by Snowden as “a 300,000 foot view of the internet” in a New York Times story published in November last year.

August 31, 2014

NATO’s assistance for the Kurds – the spirit may be willing, but the military is weak

Filed under: Europe, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:29

Strategy Page explains why NATO aid for the Kurds in northern Iraq may not be sufficient or even timely:

The recent ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) misbehavior (mass murder and so on) in Syria and Iraq has caused a public uproar in Europe and generated demands that NATO send forces to try and stop all the killing. The German government responded on August 20th with a pledge to send weapons to the Kurds who are fighting ISIL in northern Iraq. But Germany was reluctant to send warplanes or troops. A few days later a German Defense Ministry readiness report was leaked and it made it clear why even getting weapons to the Kurds would be difficult. The report showed that only 8 percent of 109 Eurofighter (similar to the U.S. F-15), 11 percent of 67 CH-53 transport helicopters, and 10 percent of 33 NH90 helicopters were fully operational (not sidelined for upgrades, repairs or other problems.) However 38 percent of 56 C-160 twin turboprop transports were available. This made it possible to fly some weapons into northern Iraq, but not much else. Normally a combat ready military has at least half, and more normally over 70 percent of its warplanes ready to go. While this situation shocked many, those who have followed European military trends since the 1980s were not surprised.

The problem is that the European NATO members never spent as heavily on their armed forces as did the United States and Russia, especially after 1991. Britain and France are still heavy spenders, but not enough to make up for what the rest of European NATO members are not doing. European NATO members are aware of this problem, but it has never been a high enough national priority to actually fix.

There was some hope in the decade after September 11, 2001 as the need to deal with international Islamic terrorism changed the armed forces of Europe in unexpected ways. More money was spent on the military and many of the troops got some combat experience. Now the Europeans have more capable and professional forces than they have had for many decades. None of this was expected. But in the last few years these changes have begun to fade. Thus the shocking readiness numbers for German aircraft.

[...]

For example, in 2008 the German parliament was in an uproar over a report depicting German soldiers as physically unfit for military service. It was found that 40 percent of the troops were overweight, compared to 35 percent of their civilian counterparts (of the same gender and age). The investigation also found that the troops exercised less (including participation in sports), and smoked more (70 percent of them) than their civilian counterparts. The military now encourages sports and physical fitness, and discourages smoking, but those efforts did not appear to be working.

When other Europeans looked around they found that it was not just a German problem. It was worse than that. Most European military organizations were basically make-work programs. It’s long been known that many European soldiers are not really fit for action. They are mainly uniformed civil servants. One reason many are not ready for combat, or even peacekeeping, operations, is that they don’t have the equipment or the training. And that’s because up-to-date gear, and training, are expensive. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on payroll. That keeps the unemployment rate down more effectively than buying needed equipment, or paying for the fuel and spare parts needed to support training.

Update: Some supplies and weapons are getting to the Kurdish forces. Here’s the Operation IMPACT page at the Canadian government website:

Operation IMPACT is the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) provision of strategic airlift to assist in the delivery of critical military supplies to security forces in Iraq fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been threatened and displaced by the militants of ISIL that began seizing territory in northern Iraq earlier this year. This support will enable security forces in Iraq to provide effective protection to Iraqis faced with ISIL aggression.

Canadian Air Task Force Iraq

One Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CC-130J Hercules transport aircraft and one CC-177 Globemaster III strategic airlifter have been committed to transport military supplies donated by allies. Approximately 100 Canadian Armed Forces personnel are deployed, including air crew, ground crew and logistical support personnel.

The aircraft, along with those of contributing allies, will work from staging locations in the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe.

The CC-130 aircraft is used for a wide range of missions, including troop transport, tactical airlift and aircrew training. The CC-177 Globemaster III specializes in rapid delivery of troops and cargo for operations taking place in Canada or abroad.

Both aircraft and their personnel will remain deployed as long as the Government of Canada deems necessary.

August 27, 2014

The Congress System, the Holy Alliance and the re-ordering of Europe in the nineteenth century

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:37

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 23, 2014

Defining the “best tank of World War 2″

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:14

Nigel Davies revisits one of the perpetual debates among amateur WW2 historians:

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.

SOMUA 35 tank at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

SOMUA 35 tank at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

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).

Matilda II at Yad la-Shiryon Museum (via Wikipedia)

Matilda II at Yad la-Shiryon Museum (via Wikipedia)

The Matilda and its successor the 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.

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.

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

This is where the myth of the value of the 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.

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.

[...]

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

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 18, 2014

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

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

You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):

  1. Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
  2. Looking back to 1814
  3. Bismarck, his life and works
  4. France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
  5. Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
  6. The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
  7. War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
  8. The First Balkan War
  9. The Second Balkan War
  10. 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.

Map of South-Eastern Europe after the Congress of Berlin, 1878 (via Wikipedia)

Map of South-Eastern Europe after the Congress of Berlin, 1878 (via Wikipedia)

Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Alois von Aehrenthal (via Wikipedia)

Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Alois von Aehrenthal (via Wikipedia)

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 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.

Russian foreign minister Count Alexandr Petrovich Izvolsky (via Wikipedia)

Russian foreign minister Count Alexandr Petrovich Izvolsky (via Wikipedia)

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:

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 14, 2014

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

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

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):

  1. Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
  2. Looking back to 1814
  3. Bismarck, his life and works
  4. France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
  5. Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
  6. The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
  7. War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
  8. The First Balkan War
  9. 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.

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. That Russia must follow the reverse of guideline number two.
  4. 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”.

Anglo-Russian spheres of influence in Persia, 1907 (via Wikipedia)

Anglo-Russian spheres of influence in Persia, 1907 (via Wikipedia)

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).

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard: a celebration of the signing of the Entente Cordiale. (via Wikipedia)

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard: a celebration of the signing of the Entente Cordiale. (via Wikipedia)

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 5, 2014

More thoughts on the origins of the Great War

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:50

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 4, 2014

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

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

Over the last week, 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, part five). And yes, to be honest, I didn’t think it would take quite this many entries to begin to explain how the world catastrophe of August 1914 came about — putting together this series of blog posts has been educational for me, and I hope it’s been at least of interest to you. The previous post examined the history of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in some detail (yes, it matters). Today, we finally clear the Victorian era altogether and begin to look at the last decade-or-so before the outbreak of the war.

The Anglo-German naval race

Even after the creation of the German Reich in 1871, Germany was not seen (by the British government) to be a major threat to British interests: Germany had no significant presence beyond Europe to worry the Colonial Office, and instead was seen as a potentially useful balancing factor in the European theatre. That all changed with the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II as explained by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers:

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

In the mid-1890s, after a long period of stagnation and relative decline, naval construction and strategy came to occupy a central place in German security and foreign policy. Public opinion played a role here — in Germany, as in Britain, big ships were the fetish of the quality press and its educated middle-class readers. The immensely fashionable “navalism” of the American writer Alfred Thayer Mahan also played a part. Mahan foretold in The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783 (1890) a struggle for global power that would be decided by vast fleets of heavy battleships and cruisers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported the naval programme, was a keen nautical hobbyist and an avid reader of Mahan; in the sketchbooks of the young Wilhelm we find many battleships — lovingly pencilled floating fortresses bristling with enormous guns. But the international dimension was also crucial: it was above all the sequence of peripheral clashes with Britain that triggered the decision to acquire a more formidable naval weapon. After the Transvaal episode, the Kaiser became obsessed with the need for ships, to the point where he began to see virtually every international crisis as a lesson in the primacy of naval power.

The Royal Navy (RN) had been Britain’s most obvious sign of global dominance, and Britain’s fleets had gone through many technological changes over the century since Waterloo. What had been for centuries a slow, steady process of gradual improvement and incremental change suddenly became the white-hot centre of rapid, even revolutionary, change:

At the same time that you need to add armour to protect the ship, you also need to mount heavier, larger guns. Between placing your order with the shipyard for a new ship, the metallurgical wizards may have (and frequently did) come up with bigger, better guns that could defeat the armour on your not-yet-launched ship. Oh, and you now needed to revise the design of the ship to carry the newer, heavier guns, too.

The ship designers were in a race with the gun designers to see who could defeat the latest design by the other group. It’s no wonder that ships could become obsolete between ordering and coming into service: sometimes, they could become obsolete before launch.

The weapons themselves were undergoing change at a relatively unprecedented rate. As late as the mid-1870′s, a good case could be made for muzzle-loading cannon being mounted on warships: until the gas seal of the breech-loader could be made safe, muzzle-loaders had an advantage of not killing their own crews at distressingly high frequency. Once that technological handicap had been overcome, then the argument came down to the best way to mount the weapons: turrets or barbettes.

The RN’s international prestige invited envious imitators (like Wilhelm) and challengers (the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy), but the RN was the supreme naval power against which all other nations measured themselves. In 1889, parliament passed the Naval Defence Act, which specified that the Royal Navy would be maintained at the “two-power standard”: that the RN’s fleet of capital ships would be at least equal to the number of battleships maintained by the next two largest navies (at that time, the French and Russian navies). The increased spending allowed ten battleships plus cruisers and torpedo boats to be added to the fleet … but the French and Russian navies added twelve battleships between them over the same period of time. “Another British expansion, known as the Spencer Programme, followed in 1894 aimed to match foreign naval growth at a cost of over £31 million. Instead of deterring the naval expansion of foreign powers, Britain’s Naval Defence Act contributed to a naval arms race. Other powers including Germany and the United States bolstered their navies in the following years as Britain continued to increase its own naval expenditures.”

In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan describes the implicit power of the RN in peacetime:

In August 1902 another great naval review took place at Spithead in the sheltered waters between Britain’s great south coast port of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, this time to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. Because he had suddenly come down with appendicitis earlier in the summer, the coronation itself and all festivities surrounding it had been postponed. As a result, most of the ships from foreign navies (except those of Britain’s new ally Japan) as well as those from the overseas squadrons of the British navy had been obliged to leave. The resulting smaller review was, nevertheless, The Times said proudly, a potent display of Britain’s naval might. The ships displayed at Spithead were all in active service and all from the fleets already in place to guard Britain’s home waters. “The display may be less magnificent than the wonderful manifestation of our sea-power witnessed in the same waters five years ago. But it will demonstrate no less plainly what that power is, to those who remember that we have a larger number of ships in commission on foreign stations now than we had then, and that we have not moved a single ship from Reserve.” “Some of our rivals,” The Times warned, “have worked with feverish activity in the interval, and they are steadily increasing their efforts. They should know that Britain remained vigilant and on guard, and prepared to spend whatever funds were necessary to maintain its sovereignty of the seas.”

Admiral Fisher’s new broom

Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher (via Wikipedia)

Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher (via Wikipedia)

In 1904, Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher was appointed as First Sea Lord (the professional head of the RN, reporting to the First Lord of the Admiralty, a cabinet minister). Fisher was a full-steam-ahead reformer, with vast notions of modernizing and reforming the navy. He was brilliant, argumentative, abrasive, tactless, and aggressive but could also be charming and persuasive. “When addressing someone he could become carried away with the point he was seeking to make, and on one occasion, the king asked him to stop shaking his fist in his face.” (Fortunately for Fisher, the king was a personal friend, so this did not hinder his career.)

Margaret MacMillan describes him in The War That Ended Peace:

Jacky Fisher, as he was always known, shoots through the history of the British navy and of the prewar years like a runaway Catharine wheel, showering sparks in all directions and making some onlookers scatter in alarm and others gasp with admiration. He shook the British navy from top to bottom in the years before the Great War, bombarding his civilian superiors with demands until they usually gave way and steamrollering over his opponents in the navy. He spoke his mind freely in his own inimitable language. His enemies were “skunks”, “pimps”, “fossils”, or “frightened rabbits”. Fisher was tough, dogged and largely immune to criticism, not surprising perhaps in someone from a relatively modest background who had made his own way in the navy since he was a boy. He was also supremely self-confident. Edward VII once complained that Fisher did not look at different aspects of an issue. “Why should I waste my time,” the admiral replied, “looking at all sides when I know my side is the right side?”

Fisher had been a maverick throughout his career (which makes it even more amazing that he eventually did rise to become First Sea Lord), as his actions when he took command of the Mediterranean Fleet clearly illustrate:

A programme of realistic exercises was adopted including simulated French raids, defensive manoeuvres, night attacks and blockades, all carried out at maximum speed. He introduced a gold cup for the ship which performed best at gunnery, and insisted upon shooting at greater range and from battle formations. He found that he too was learning some of the complications and difficulties of controlling a large fleet in complex situations, and immensely enjoyed it.

Notes from his lectures indicate that, at the start of his time in the Mediterranean, useful working ranges for heavy guns without telescopic sights were considered to be only 2000 yards, or 3000-4000 yards with such sights, whereas by the end of his time discussion centred on how to shoot effectively at 5000 yards. This was driven by the increasing range of the torpedo, which had now risen to 3000-4000 yards, necessitating ships fighting effectively at greater ranges. At this time he advocated relatively small main armaments on capital ships (some had 15 inch or greater), because the improved technical design of the relatively small (10 inch) modern guns allowed a much greater firing rate and greater overall weight of broadside. The potentially much greater ranges of large guns was not an issue, because no one knew how to aim them effectively at such ranges. He argued that “the design of fighting ships must follow the mode of fighting instead of fighting being subsidiary to and dependent on the design of ships.” As regards how officers needed to behave, he commented, “‘Think and act for yourself’ is the motto for the future, not ‘Let us wait for orders’.”

Lord Hankey, then a marine serving under Fisher, later commented, “It is difficult for anyone who had not lived under the previous regime to realize what a change Fisher brought about in the Mediterranean fleet. … Before his arrival, the topics and arguments of the officers messes … were mainly confined to such matters as the cleaning of paint and brasswork. … These were forgotten and replaced by incessant controversies on tactics, strategy, gunnery, torpedo warfare, blockade, etc. It was a veritable renaissance and affected every officer in the navy.” Charles Beresford, later to become a severe critic of Fisher, gave up a plan to return to Britain and enter parliament, because he had “learnt more in the last week than in the last forty years”.

One of his first changes was to sell nearly one hundred elderly ships and move dozens of less capable vessels from the active list to the reserve fleet, to free up the crews (and the maintenance budget) for more modern vessels, describing the ships as “too weak to fight and too slow to run away”, and “a miser’s hoard of useless junk”. Between his reforms as Third Sea Lord (where he had championed the development of the modern destroyer and vastly increased the efficiency and productivity of the shipyards) and his new role as First Sea Lord, Fisher was able to get more done even on a budget that dropped nearly 10% in the year of his appointment than his predecessor had managed.

HMS Dreadnought and the naval revolution

Fisher was not a naval designer, but he knew how to push new ideas to the front and get them adopted. The one thing that most people remember him for is the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought, the first all big gun, fast steam turbine powered battleship, and when she went into commission, she signified the obsolescence of every other capital ship in every navy from that moment onwards.

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

Dreadnought was the platonic ideal of a battleship: she was faster than any other capital ship in any other navy, her guns were at least the equivalent in range, rate of fire, and throw of shot, and her armour was sufficient to allow her to take punishment from opposing ships and still deal out damage herself. She was the first British ship to be equipped with electrical controls allowing the entire main armament to be fired from a central location. Thanks to Fisher’s earlier efforts with the shipyards, Dreadnought took just a year to build — far faster than any other battleship had been built.

The “entirely crazy Dreadnought policy of Sir J. Fisher and His Majesty”

The Kaiser was not happy with the new British battleship, as it had been German policy since his accession to build up the German navy to at least provide a tool for pressuring Britain (if not for actually confronting the Royal Navy in battle). Now his entire naval plan had been upset by the Dreadnought revolution. Margaret MacMillan:

As far as the Kaiser and [Admiral] Tirpitz were concerned the responsibility for taking the naval race to a new level rested with what Wilhelm called the “entirely crazy Dreadnought policy of Sir J. Fisher and His Majesty”. The Germans were prone to see Edward VII as bent on a policy of encircling Germany. The British had made a mistake in building dreadnoughts and heavy cruisers, in Tirpitz’s view, and they were angry about it: “This annoyance will increase as they see that we follow them immediately.” [...] Who could tell what the British might do? Did their history not show them to by hypocritical, devious and ruthless? Fears of a “Kopenhagen”, a sudden British attack just like the one in 1807 when the British navy had bombarded Copenhagen and seized the Danish fleet, were never far from the thoughts of the German leadership once the naval race had started.

German fears of British attack increased almost in lockstep with British fears of German attack (William Le Queux had his equivalents among the German press and popular novelists). The thought had actually occurred to Fisher himself, who outlined a possible coup de main against the German fleet. The king responded “My God, Fisher, you must be mad!” and the suggestion was ignored, thankfully.

The popular worries about an attack from Britain fed the support for the German Navy laws, which funded dreadnought and battlecruiser building programs. In direct proportion, the increased German support for their naval expansion worked to the advantage of British politicians who wanted to build more dreadnoughts of their own. And, in fairness, Britain risked far more by allowing an enlarged German navy than Germany risked by stopping their building program … but in either case, the fear of popular unrest kept the shipyards humming anyway. As Churchill later wrote, “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

There we go, finally getting within striking distance of the triggering events of the First World War … and I’m still not sure how many more posts it will take to get us there! More to come this week.

August 3, 2014

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

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

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:

Austria-Hungary in 1914 (via NZHistory)

Austria-Hungary in 1914 (via NZHistory)

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:

The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910. Based on "Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary" by William R. Shepherd, 1911. City names changed to those in use since 1945. (via Wikipedia)

The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910. Based on Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary by William R. Shepherd, 1911. City names have been changed to those in use since 1945. (via Wikipedia)

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).

Austria 1815-1866

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 Austria

Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 (via Wikipedia)

Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 (via Wikipedia)

The 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.

The contending forces in the Austro-Prussian War, 1866 (via Wikipedia)

The contending forces in the Austro-Prussian War, 1866 (via Wikipedia)

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.

North German Confederation 1867-1871Initially, 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.”

Austria’s economy

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

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

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

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.

The British Empire in 1914 (via antiquaprintgallery.com)

The British Empire in 1914 (via antiquaprintgallery.com)

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:

The Great War In England In 1897In 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

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

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

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

Bismarck provides a masterclass in realpolitik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

July 29, 2014

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

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

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

Let me take you back…

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

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

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

Dateline: Vienna, 1814

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

Russia’s search for a warm water port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 22, 2014

What happened to the top universities outside the Anglosphere?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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