WWI—Part Three: The Strange Story of the Kaiser and the Tsar

Read Part Two here.

The Austrian attack on Serbia did not lead immediately to war with Russia. In St. Petersburg the generals were impatient to take action. However, Russian foreign minister Sazonov seems not to have shared the blind confidence of his generals. He feared the effects of war on the unstable political situation in Russia and was not convinced that the Russian army could win in a conflict with the formidable German military machine.

german-revolution-ends-horror-of-war-2Instead, he favoured a partial mobilization aimed at putting pressure on Austria to make her abandon the idea of war with Serbia. But the result was exactly the opposite. The threat posed by a Russian mobilization only pushed Germany further towards Austria and to encourage the latter to hasten its aggressive plans.

In Berlin all eyes were now directed to the East. Reports were reaching the German government from Russia indicating outrage at Austria’s bad faith in ignoring the extremely compliant Serbian reply to the Austrian note and declaring war on Serbia. But Russia had already performed a humiliating retreat over the Austrian annexation of Bosnia during the crisis of 1908-9. Why should one believe that she would fight now? The Germans and their Austrian satellites were prepared to gamble. But it was a very risky move.

To abandon the Serbs once more would have been a mortal blow to Russia’s prestige. And prestige can play a very important part in world affairs. This assertion may strike one as strange. What is the value of prestige? It may be said to resemble the word honour, of which Falstaff says: “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air.” Yet on closer inspection there is more content to it than it would seem. In everyday life one finds people who try to gain personal prestige by dressing in the latest fashion and wearing expensive watches and jewellery. Many would regard this as cheap ostentation, mere appearance. Yet such appearances can have a material base. It may increase one’s chances of obtaining credit or even a wealthy spouse. Prestige can carry a price tag, just like honour. How many young boys have been murdered for their designer trainers? Prestige can also kill you.

In the case of nations prestige can be measured in many ways: financial, industrial, cultural and so on and so forth. But ultimately, particularly in the case of what we call the Great Powers, prestige is measured by the size of your army, navy and air force. The US Marines have an interesting motto: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Soft words may sometimes be effective, but they are infinitely more effective if the listener’s attention is drawn to the presence of the big stick. Diplomacy tends to be most effective when it is backed up by the threat of military action. A Great Power that did not carry a very big stick would soon cease to be a Great Power. This may be a sad reflection on the current state of humankind, but it is undoubtedly true. Devout believers may object to this, but all history shows that Napoleon had a point when he said: “God is on the side of the big battalions”.

Having been humiliated by Austria during the Bosnian crisis of 1908, Russia’s ruling class could not tolerate a new and even more shameful humiliation by leaving Serbia in the lurch. Such a surrender would have completely undermined Russia’s status as a great imperial and military power in Europe. It would have laid her open to further and even more insolent demands from both Austria and Germany. The Russian General Staff would never have tolerated it.

Before Austria had commenced hostilities, the German ambassador in St. Petersburg requested an interview with Sazonov. In the course of this amiable conversation, the purpose of which is clearly for the Germans to get a clear idea of Russia’s intentions, Sazonov admitted to the ambassador that “certain military preparations had already been taken to avoid surprises” but that mobilization would not be ordered until Austria had crossed the Serb frontier.

Berlin was duly informed that Russia was preparing to mobilize its army. In vain the German government was advised that “no aggressive intention exists on the part of Russia towards Germany.” Few people in Berlin were fooled by such tranquilising statements. The partial mobilization of the Russian army (i.e., against Austria only) ordered in the wake of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia only confirmed Berlin’s suspicions.

Divisions in St. Petersburg

The Russian ruling clique was divided, vacillating between Germany and the Entente. The ambitions of Tsarist Russia in Asia provoked a lengthy conflict with the British Empire, leading to clashes over Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia and ultimately posing a threat to British rule in India. But Russian policy in Europe depended on an alliance with France, and the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France meant that in order to preserve its alliance with France, Russia would have to move closer to Britain, despite their continued rivalry in Asia. British imperialism and tsarist Russia both wanted to halt the rise of German power in Europe. To that extent their interests coincided.

The inevitable outbreak of hostilities was preceded by the usual diplomatic manoeuvres. One of the most singular, not to say bizarre episodes of this period was the exchange of telegrams between the Kaiser and his cousin the Russian Tsar, who he called “Nicky”, urging him to “do what you can to stop your ally from going too far.” The correspondence between the German Kaiser and the Russian tsar reads like a throwback to the days of the 18th and 19th centuries, when diplomacy could be conducted by the crowned heads of state, most of whom were related to each other by blood or marriage or both.

Alexandra Fyodorovna LOC 01137uAlexandra FyodorovnaThe Tsar’s German wife, Alex of Hesse, known as Alexandra Feodorovna, was a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria. She was hated by most Russians, in the same way as Marie Antoinette (“the Austrian woman”) was hated by the people of France before the Revolution. The pro-German clique at the court of St. Petersburg attempted to push Russia towards Germany and had even used the Tsar to agree to a secret treaty with his cousin the German Kaiser. On July 23, 1905, while Russia was in the grip of Revolution, the two monarchs met secretly on board the Kaiser’s yacht, theHohenzollern to sign a defence treaty that read as follows:

Their Imperial Majesties, the Emperor of All the Russias on the one side, and the German Emperor on the other, in order to insure the peace of Europe, have placed themselves in accord on the following points of the herein treaty relative to a defensive alliance:

  • Art. I. If any European state attacks one of the two empires, the allied party engages to aid the other contracting party with all his military and naval forces.
  • Art. II. The high contracting parties engage not to conclude with any common enemy a separate peace.
  • Art. III. The present treaty will become effective from the moment of the conclusion of the peace between Russia and Japan and may be denounced with a year’s previous notification.
  • Art. IV. When this treaty has become effective, Russia will undertake the necessary steps to inform France of it and to propose to the latter to adhere to it as an ally.

[Signed] Nicholas. William.

[Countersigned] Von Tschirschky. Count Bekendorf. Naval Minister, Birilev.

Unfortunately, the document was not worth the paper it was printed on. The dominant wing of the Russian ruling class understood very well that an alliance with Germany would mean the total subjugation of Russia. And nobody understood this better than Sergei Yulyevich Witte, the foremost representative of the Liberal wing of the Russian aristocracy who was then in a commanding position in the Russian government.

The Russian Revolution of 1905-6 obliged Witte to make concessions. Feeling the ground shake under his feet, and with a heavy heart, Nicholas made Witte a Count and gave him unprecedented powers as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Witte recommended reform from the top in order to prevent Revolution from below: sensible advice for which the Tsar never forgave him. Nicholas accepted these recommendations reluctantly and issued the October 17 Manifesto which supposedly turned Russia into a constitutional monarchy. That, of course, was just a smokescreen to allow Nicholas to manoeuvre to preserve his autocratic power. Having saved the throne, six months later Witte was rewarded by ignominious dismissal from the Imperial service.

wilhelm II und zar nikolaus IIHowever, all this was the music of the future. At the time of the pretended deal between Nicholas and Wilhelm, Witte was still in a strong enough position to override the Tsar’s foreign policy. As a firm supporter of the Entente, Witte insisted that the treaty could only come into effect if it was approved by France – that is, never. His authority shaken by the revolutionary storm, the Tsar bit his lip and backed down. The Tsar’s deal with the Kaiser collapsed.

The cowardice of the Tsar threw the Kaiser into one of his frequent rages. Wilhelm, appalled, vented his fury on his Imperial cousin: “We joined hands and signed before God, who heard our vows! What is signed is signed! And God is our witness!” Wilhelm did not yet know what it was to deal with insubordinate ministers in the middle of a Revolution. That pleasure awaited him in the autumn of 1918. As for the fact that the Almighty had been present on the Kaiser’s yacht when the deal was signed and conferred His blessings upon it, that carried little weight with the Russian bourgeoisie where its material interests were concerned.

The correspondence of Willie and Nicky

In the summer of 1914 the Kaiser tried his hand at diplomacy once more. This time his goals were more modest: to induce Russia to halt the mobilization and negotiate with Austria. But what was there to negotiate? The only way to avoid war would be for Russia to accept the rape of Serbia, to look the other way and do nothing while her principal ally on the Balkans was crushed under an Austrian soldier’s jackboot.

The leading elements in the German General Staff wished to declare war on Russia immediately, before the Russians had a chance to carry out a projected reform of their armed forces that would pose a serious threat to Germany’s eastern borders. But even at his stage, Wilhelm still imagined that he could talk his imperial cousin in Petersburg into halting the mobilization of the Russian army. This is revealed in an astonishing exchange of telegrams.

Both the Tsar and the Kaiser had to constantly look over their shoulders to interpret what their respective generals were thinking, for by now it was the General Staff that decided everything. The Russian generals believed, mistakenly, that Germany had begun her own mobilization. The tsar therefore had to obey the military and issued the order for a general mobilization to come into effect the following day, thus making a general war almost inevitable.

The Tsar admitted that Russian secret military preparations had begun on July 24. Cousin Willy expressed his displeasure. Cousin Nicky tried to justify the move:

29 July 1914, 1am

Peter’s Court Palais, 29 July 1914

Sa Majesté l’Empereur
Neues Palais

“Am glad you are back. In this serious moment, I appeal to you to help me. An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country [Serbia]. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.”

29 July 1914, 1.45am (this and the previous telegraph crossed)

28 July 1914

“It is with the gravest concern that I hear of the impression which the action of Austria against Serbia is creating in your country.

“The unscrupulous agitation that has been going on in Serbia for years has resulted in the outrageous crime, to which Archduke Francis Ferdinand fell a victim. The spirit that led Serbians to murder their own king and his wife still dominates the country.

“You will doubtless agree with me that we both, you and me, have a common interest as well as all Sovereigns to insist that all the persons morally responsible for the dastardly murder should receive their deserved punishment. In this case politics plays no part at all.

“On the other hand, I fully understand how difficult it is for you and your Government to face the drift of your public opinion. Therefore, with regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you. I confidently hope that you will help me in my efforts to smooth over difficulties that may still arise.

“Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin,


Wilhelm here attempts to use psychology to influence his cousin by playing on the theme of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Russian tsar was painfully aware of the risk posed to monarchs by revolutionary anarchists and terrorists who had already succeeded in sending his grandfather Alexander II to an early grave. Did the Hapsburg monarchy not have a sacred duty to protect itself against the forces of anarchy and inflict upon the Serbs a well-deserved chastisement? And was it really worth risking an all-out European war to defend the wretched Serbs who, after all, had only themselves to blame for supporting terrorists?

29 July 1914, 6.30p.m.

Berlin, 29 July 1914

“I received your telegram and share your wish that peace should be maintained.

“But as I told you in my first telegram, I cannot consider Austria’s action against Serbia an ‘ignoble’ war. Austria knows by experience that Serbian promises on paper are wholly unreliable. I understand its action must be judged as trending to get full guarantee that the Serbian promises shall become real facts. This, my reasoning, is borne out by the statement of the Austrian cabinet that Austria does not want to make any territorial conquests at the expense of Serbia.

“I therefore suggest that it would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro-Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed. I think a direct understanding between your Government and Vienna possible and desirable, and as I already telegraphed to you, my Government is continuing its exercises to promote it.

“Of course military measures on the part of Russia would be looked upon by Austria as a calamity we both wish to avoid and jeopardize my position as mediator which I readily accepted on your appeal to my friendship and my help.


Diplomacy always functions at two different levels. On the official level every attempt is made to sooth public opinion and deceive the other side concerning one’s real intentions. On another level preparations are being made for war. While the Kaiser whispers soothing words of peace in the ears of his beloved cousin in order to prevent a general mobilization of the Russian armed forces, his generals are furiously speeding up plans for war with Russia and its ally, France. The Germans are actually stepping up their encouragement to Austria and become ever more insolent. The Tsar, who is well informed about German duplicity, writes to his cousin in indignant tones:

29 July 1914, 8.20p.m.

Peter’s Court Palace, 29 July 1914

“Thanks for your telegram conciliatory and friendly. Whereas official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. Beg you to explain this divergence! It would be right to give over the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship.

“Your loving Nicky”

Despite its tone of hurt innocence, the Tsar’s reply is conciliatory. Like a drowning man clinging to a rotten plank, he proposes that the disputed questions be referred for arbitration at the International Court at The Hague. This proposal is regarded (correctly) as “nonsense” by the Kaiser. On July 30 the Russian proposal is rejected. Austria will not cease her military operations as long as Russia is mobilized, while Russia will not cease hers while Austria is at war with Serbia. Compared to this, the Gordian knot was a very simple matter! The Tsar writes again in even more anxious tones:

30 July 1914, 1.20am

Peter’s Court Palais, 30 July 1914

“Thank you heartily for your quick answer. Am sending Tatischev this evening with instructions.

“The military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago for reasons of defence on account of Austria’s preparations.

“I hope from all my heart that these measures won’t in any way interfere with your part as mediator which I greatly value. We need your strong pressure on Austria to come to an understanding with us.


A perfunctory reply came back on 30 July 1914, 1.20am:


Berlin, 30. July 1914

“Best thanks for telegram. It is quite out of the question that my ambassador’s language could have been in contradiction with the tenor of my telegram. Count Pourtalès was instructed to draw the attention of your government to the danger & grave consequences involved by a mobilisation; I said the same in my telegram to you. Austria has only mobilised against Serbia & only a part of her army. If, as it is now the case, according to the communication by you & your Government, Russia mobilises against Austria, my role as mediator you kindly entrusted me with, & which I accepted at you[r] express prayer, will be endangered if not ruined. The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you[r] shoulders now, who have to bear the responsibility for Peace or War.


If the Russian army is mobilised, there is very little point in asking Wilhelm to mediate anything. The only mediation now possible is that of bombs, shells and bayonets. The language of the Kaiser could not be clearer. Russia must immediately demobilise, or accept sole responsibility for the war that must inevitably ensue. Evidently the sacred bonds of family and friendship have their limits, a point that is made painfully clear in the following telegram:

31 July 1914

Berlin, 31 July 1914

“On your appeal to my friendship and your call for assistance began to mediate between you and the Austro-Hungarian Government. While this action was proceeding your troops were mobilised against Austro-Hungary, my ally. Thereby, as I have already pointed out to you, my mediation has been made almost illusory.

“I have nevertheless continued my action.

“I now receive authentic news of serious preparations for war on my Eastern frontier. Responsibility for the safety of my empire forces preventive measures of defence upon me. In my endeavours to maintain the peace of the world I have gone to the utmost limit possible. The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it. Nobody is threatening the honour or power of Russia who can well afford to await the result of my mediation. My friendship for you and your empire, transmitted to me by my grandfather on his deathbed has always been sacred to me and I have honestly often backed up Russia when she was in serious trouble especially in her last war.

“The peace of Europe may still be maintained by you, if Russia will agree to stop the milit[ary] measures which must threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary.


Here the friendly forms of address are dispensed with altogether. In place of “Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin” we have the dry language of an official communiqué, which, however, stands far closer to reality than the previous hypocritical protestations of love and friendship. The smiling mask has slipped to reveal the cruel and rapacious face of power politics. In reply, the Russian Tsar displays a pathetic weakness that only serves to make his cousin even more implacable, for weakness always invites aggression:

31 July 1914 (this and the previous telegram crossed)

Petersburg, Palace, 31 July 1914

“Sa Majesté l’Empereur, Neues Palais

“I thank you heartily for your mediation which begins to give one hope that all may yet end peacefully.

“It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilisation. We are far from wishing war. As long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia’s account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in God’s mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe.

“Your affectionate


The appeals to the tender mercies of the Almighty have, of course, no effect. Far more important than Divine Intervention are the remarks about thetechnical impossibility of halting “military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilisation”. The difficulty was not at all of a technical but rather of a political character. The Tsar simply could not go against his generals who had acted on military grounds. Translated into plain language, the Tsar is saying: “I cannot halt a mobilization that was decided by my generals as a response to the activities of your Austrian friends.” To which the Kaiser might well have replied: “Don’t talk to me about your generals: I have generals of my own.”

1 August 1914

“Peter’s Court, Palace, 1 August 1914

Sa Majesté l’Empereur

“I received your telegram. Understand you are obliged to mobilise but wish to have the same guarantee from you as I gave you, that these measures do not mean war and that we shall continue negotiating for the benefit of our countries and universal peace deal to all our hearts. Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God’s help, in avoiding bloodshed. Anxiously, full of confidence await your answer.


Once again the Tsar appeals to the Almighty and once more the Kaiser answers in the driest and most imperious tones:

1 August, 1914

“Berlin, 1 August 1914

“Thanks for your telegram. I yesterday pointed out to your government the way by which alone war may be avoided.

“Although I requested an answer for noon today, no telegram from my ambassador conveying an answer from your Government has reached me as yet. I therefore have been obliged to mobilise my army.

“Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediately [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.


Wilhelm’s excursion in the realm of diplomacy yielded no results. The Kaiser, sensing bad faith on the part of the Russians, broke off his attempts at mediation, which, in any case were probably no more than a ploy to have Russia later branded as an aggressor. Following to the telegram the insistent demands of the German High Command, Wilhelm demanded the impossible of his imperial cousin in St. Petersburg: immediate withdrawal of the Russian mobilization order, a demand that would  have signified a humiliating surrender that would have seriously undermine Russia’s status as a great power.

The German government summarized its views on the crisis in a circular to its foreign ambassadors: “The final object of the Pan-Slavic [i.e., Greater Serbia] agitations carried on against Austria-Hungary is… the destruction of the Danube Monarchy [i.e., the Austro-Hungarian empire], the breaking-up or weakening of the Triple Alliance (of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), and, as a result, the complete isolation of the German empire. Accordingly, our own self-interest summons us to the side of Austria-Hungary.”

Italy breaks ranks

Europe was now clearly divided into two armed camps: the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy with Romania as a subsidiary ally) and the Entente (France and Russia with the subsidiary support of Serbia and Montenegro). Britain, as usual, adopted an ambiguous position in an attempt to keep out of the war, a position it maintained right up to the eleventh hour.

While Germany was stiffening Austria’s resolve and secretly urging her on to war, the French army chief was promising the Russian military attaché in Paris France’s “full and active readiness faithfully to execute her responsibilities as an ally.” It seems that both Germany and Austria believed that their combined strength would induce the other powers to back off. This was a grave miscalculation, and one that was further exposed when Italy suddenly broke away from the Central Powers.

The attitude of Italy, which until now had been an ally of both Germany and Austria, underwent a sudden change when she declined to act together with Austria whose “ultimatum was so aggressive and inept as to be unacceptable to Italian and European public opinion”. The Italian diplomats – those worthy descendants of Machiavelli – were pursuing their trade with commendable vigour. It was one thing to attach oneself to an Alliance in time of peace, when it did not imply any kind of sacrifice or loss. It was quite another to continue in such an alliance in time of war, when very serious sacrifices were required.

Like Germany, Italy only achieved national independence in the last part of the 19th century. But the Italian bourgeoisie was not lacking in imperial ambition. It cast an envious glance at the empires of Britain and France and seemed to have harboured grandiose dreams of recreating the Roman Empire. For the time being, however, it satisfied itself with diplomatic manoeuvres and more modest schemes to seize bits of the Balkans and dominate the Adriatic Sea.

The weak Italian bourgeoisie was obliged to express its grandiose imperial ambitions in a series of diplomatic intrigues and manoeuvres, now sidling up to one Great Power, now to another, bartering its support in exchange for the promise of territorial expansion like an impecunious pimp importuning a wealthy client for custom. What the impotent Italian bourgeoisie lacked in power it made up for with cunning. Like the good, practical, hard-headed men of business that all real diplomats are at heart, the Italians promptly upped the price of their membership of the Central Powers, in accordance with the new market conditions.

Not receiving a satisfactory reply from their old allies, they naturally went to look for new customers who would offer them a more satisfactory price for their most valuable friendship. Being met in Paris and London with broad smiles, open arms and the most mouth-watering promises of rewards to come, they immediately broke off all relations with the tight-fisted and overbearing Austrians and Germans and rapidly drifted towards the camp of the Entente. The content of these conversations was revealed one year later, when Italy signed the secret Treaty of London. In this treaty Britain offered Italy large sections of territory in the Adriatic Sea region – parts of the Austrian Tyrol, Dalmatia and Istria. In the immortal words of the Godfather, they made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

The nationalists, with their dreams of a Greater Italy, were horrified at the government‘s decision to stay out of the war in 1914. But Mussolini, who at that time was a member of the Italian Socialist Party, came out in favour. In July 1914, when he reflected the general anti-war mood of the ranks of the party, he had written: “Down with the war. Down with arms and up with humanity.” However, by October 1914, he had changed his mind and referred to the war as “a great drama”: “Do you want to be spectators in this great drama? Or do you want to be its fighters?” Mussolini was consequently expelled from the Socialist Party and began moving in the direction of fascism.

Mussolini and the Italian chauvinists did not have long to wait to participate in the “great drama”. On April 26th 1915, faithfully carrying out the orders of their masters in London and Paris, Italy entered the war. However, as so often happens in deals between Mafiosi, the Italian robbers never got all the rewards they had been promised. At Versailles the big robbers cheated the small ones. And as always, the ordinary people paid the price for the avarice of the ruling class.

By the end of the war in 1918, 600,000 Italians were dead, 950,000 were wounded and 250,000 were crippled for life. The war cost more than the government had spent in the previous 50 years. Italy had only been in the war for three years but the country was ruined. With soaring inflation and mass unemployment, Italy was in the grip of mass strikes and factory occupations. In Italy too, war was only a preparatory school for revolution – and counterrevolution.

Read Part Four here.

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