Wilhelm II inspecting troops

WWI—Part Two: On the Brink of the Abyss

Read Part One here.

Self-styled philosophers of the post-modernist kind deny the possibility of finding any rational explanations for human history. It is alleged that there are no general laws, no objective factors that lie behind the conduct of individuals and determine their psychology and behavior. From this standpoint—the standpoint of extreme subjectivity—all history is determined by individuals acting according to their own free will. To attempt to find some inner logic in this turbulent and lawless sea would be as futile an exercise as to try to predict the precise momentum and position of an individual subatomic particle.

When the leaders speak of peace the common people know that war is coming.” (Bertolt Brecht)

The individual in history

Despite a certain superficial attractiveness, this subjective approach to history is quite empty. It signifies a complete abandonment of any attempt to discover the laws whereby human society has evolved, since it denies the very existence of any such laws. Now this is a very extraordinary thing. Modern science teaches us that everything in the universe, from the smallest molecules and atoms to the biggest galaxies are governed by laws, and it is precisely the discovery of such laws that is the main task and content of science.

We can confidently explain the origin and development of every species – including our own – by means of the laws of evolution through natural selection discovered by Charles Darwin, which has received a powerful boost from the most recent discoveries in the field of genetics. We can understand the development of the earth and the continents on the basis of plate tectonics and predict the movements of distant galaxies. Yet when it comes to our own social development, we are suddenly informed that we cannot find any rational explanation for it, since human beings are considered to be far too complex to be understood.

That human beings are complex both on an individual and collective level hardly needs to be stated. Yet it is patently untrue that human behaviour cannot be understood. Engels pointed out long ago that whereas it is impossible to predict when an individual man or woman will die, it is perfectly possible to make such a prediction in the aggregate, a fact out of which insurance companies make very acceptable profits. In the same way, while it is not possible to determine with sufficient accuracy the position and momentum of a single subatomic particle, it is possible to make very precise predictions when dealing with a very large quantity of such particles.

To say that human history is a purely random affair flies in the face of the facts. Even the most superficial observer of history will immediately see the existence of definite patterns. Certain processes are constantly repeated: the rise and fall of certain socio-economic formations, societies and civilizations, economic crises, wars and revolutions. Just as in evolution, long periods of stasis are followed by sudden explosions that can impel development or lead to reversals and decline.

The Kaiser’s arm

Wilhelm II in 1905In all the mass of material – some good, much bad, and some frankly absurd – that has flooded onto the scene on the anniversary of what they used to call The Great War (which I prefer to call The Great Slaughter) the attempts to explain the causes of the War border on the comic. Some historians, delving into the murky depths of the subconscious in their effort to find a suitably subjective (that is, mystical) explanation, think it was all due to the traumatic effects on Kaiser Wilhelm’s mind caused by an accident of birth that broke his left arm.

We are asked to believe that the Kaiser’s withered left arm, which he tried to hide from public view by the artful use of military cloaks and other dodges, so marked Wilhelm’s psyche that that it turned him into a warped and aggressive psychopath. Other historians point out that the poor man had a very difficult childhood. None of his royal cousins in England, Denmark or Russia wanted to play with the sullen, resentful boy. As a result, he became a bully, determined to take revenge on those who had humiliated him in his tender years, resulting in the outbreak of war. Here is just one example of this kind of “history”:

“He believed in force and the ‘survival of the fittest’ in domestic as well as foreign politics… William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics… William’s personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives, as had been the case with Bismarck, as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century.” (Langer, William L; et al. (1968), Western Civilization, p. 528)

It must be freely admitted that the individual character traits and personalities of the dramatis personae of history must play a role in shaping events, and even a determining one. But they can only do so to the extent that they correspond in some way to the demands of the situation. Doubtless the character of the German Kaiser was difficult and this was partly the result of the above-mentioned factors. But the resentfulness of the Kaiser, his aggressive and bullying tendencies and explosive temper cannot serve as the cause of millions of dead and the devastation of an entire continent. That must be looked for in powerful objective trends, without which Wilhelm’s personality defects would have remained merely a source of irritation to his friends and immediate family.

Is it possible to relate the characters of individuals to the broader historical picture? It is quite extraordinary how similar social conditions produce similar kinds of individual. A comparison between the character of Charles the First of England, Louis XXVI of France and Tsar Nicolas the Second will provide much food for thought for both sociologists and psychologists, as would a comparative study of Cromwell, Robespierre and Lenin. A comparison of the English, French and Russian Revolutions will reveal some important differences, since the class character of these great historical events was different. But it will also reveal very striking similarities.

It would even be possible to draw three graphs that show that, in essence, all three Revolutions followed a very similar trajectory – both in their period of ascent and descent. And each stage of the Revolution called forth people whose characters corresponded more or less closely to the demands of the period. In making this point, I am very far from denying the importance of the role of the individual in history. On the contrary, in a given concatenation of circumstances, the actions of a relatively small group, or even a single individual, may be of decisive importance. Marx said: “Man makes his own history”, but he added that the men and women who make history do not do so as entirely free agents but are limited by the objective conditions that produced them and which impose strict limits upon their field of action.

In many ways the Kaiser’s character and psychology were admirably suited to the interests of the German ruling clique at that time. Wilhelm was a reactionary and had a militarist Prussian mindset. He believed in nationalism, military dominance and the Divine Right of Kings. To compensate for his disability he went out of his way to act the part of the Prussian militarist and to sound as powerful and aggressive as possible.

Wilhelm only seemed comfortable in the company of his army officers and reviewing army parades, dressing up in uniform and going out on manoeuvres. “In the Guards,” he said, “I really found my family, my friends, my interests–everything of which I had up to that time had to do without.” Dressed up in the fancy uniform of a Prussian officer, he began to strut about and speak in the brusque tone of command that brooked no contradiction. A nephew of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm’s attitude to the vast British Empire was a contradictory mix of admiration and envy. He wanted Germany to have colonies and a powerful navy to match that of Britain’s.

Wilhelm II inspecting troopsIt has been alleged that Germany had been actively planning an aggressive war. Some historians believe that the decisive moment was not July 1914 but December 1912, when the Kaiser held a meeting at which, it is alleged, he decided to go to war in approximately 18 months. The aggressive stance of Wilhelm and some of his generals adds some weight to this argument, although there was always an element of bluff in the swaggering conduct of the Kaiser, who vacillated continually over the war question, to the desperation of his ministers and, in particular, his generals who displayed their impatience and frustration at his indecision.

Despite all his play-acting, Wilhelm never fought a real war until 1914 and even then he irritated his generals by constantly changing his mind. The General Staff looked on the Kaiser with a mixture of disciplined deference for the imperial office and contempt for the man who held it. In his memoirs former German chancellor von Bulow says of the Kaiser: “…he never led an army in the field… He was well aware that he was neurasthenic, without real capacity as a general, and still less able, in spite of his naval hobby, to have led a squadron or even captained a ship.”

Material causes of war

With due respect to these amateur psychologists, one must look a bit further than the Kaiser’s neuroses if we are to find the causes of one of the most momentous conflicts of modern times. There were many factors behind the conflicts between the great powers over the previous four decades, all of them closely concerning material interests. The most powerful states of Europe were engaged in a scramble for colonies and markets. By the end of the 19th century the world was already pretty well divided up between them. Great Britain, the country where capitalism developed faster and was more deeply rooted than in any other country, had conquered the lion’s share. France had established a colonial empire in North Africa and parts of Asia. What was later known as “poor little Belgium” had brutally enslaved and looted the people of the Congo and the Dutch possessed the riches of Java.

Colonial division of Africa in 1913. French colonies in blue, British in red, German in turquoiseBy contrast, Germany, which had only succeeded in uniting itself some fifty years earlier, had arrived too late and had only a few of the poorer African colonies in its grip. But it showed its military might by inflicting a humiliating defeat on France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 in compensation for which it had seized two French provinces with a partly German-speaking population: Alsace and Lorraine. This fact alone provided sufficient grounds for a future war between Germany and France.

Infatuated by the rise of her industrial and military power, Germany’s industrialists, politicians, and the Kaiser himself, were increasingly inclined to an aggressive expansionist policy. They saw the creation of Mitteleuropa, a German-dominated customs union, as a first step to achieving German economic hegemony over Europe. French power would be broken, Belgium reduced to the position of a German vassal state, and a German colonial empire established in Africa and the East. Later, in 1917-18, having defeated Russia, Germany actually began to carve out an empire on the ruins of the Tsarist Empire: in the Baltic States and Ukraine.

In 1898, Germany began to build up its navy; a move that could not fail to start the alarm bells ringing in London. Unlike other powers on the European mainland, Britain’s condition as an island nation meant it did not have to maintain a huge standing army. Its shores being protected by the sea, it relied militarily on the strength of its navy. The world’s most powerful maritime nation had a policy that its navy must always be stronger than the combined fleets of the next two most powerful nations, for example, France and Germany.

London saw the build-up of the German fleet as a major threat to the security of Britain. The Entente Cordiale (Cordial Agreement) signalled a major shift in British policy towards Europe. Previously, the key element in British policy towards Europe was the maintenance of the balance of power, which aimed to prevent any one nation from achieving a dominance that would threaten its position. While carefully avoiding entanglements with continental powers, the British skilfully played one off against another. But the rise of German power compelled the British ruling class to conclude a series of agreements, albeit of a limited character, with her two main colonial rivals, France and Russia.

The contradiction between the rival imperialist powers was expressed by the formation of military blocs and alliances. When Kaiser Wilhelm II decided against renewing a treaty with Russia, it inevitably propelled Germany into an alliance with the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire with its geriatric monarch, antiquated manners and Balkan problems. This alliance was later joined by Italy, which was also anxious to acquire territory and colonies. In response to this move in 1894, France and Russia, which bordered Germany to the West and East, formed an alliance based on fear of Berlin’s expansionist ambitions.

In the case of France, this fear was combined with bitter resentment after its national humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when Germany seized two French provinces (with a partly German-speaking population), Alsace and Loraine. The French burned with a spirit of revenge and a desire to recover the lost territories and remove German troops from French soil. That was the immediate aim, but in addition the General Staff were determined to achieve the crushing of German power. They aimed to seize the Rhineland for France with the pretext of strengthening her defences. The voracious intentions of the French ruling class were subsequently revealed in the predatory Treaty of Versailles.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1914, the prospects for an all-European war seemed a remote possibility. All the leaders of the Great Powers spoke of peace, their abhorrence of war and violence. Even in late June of that year relations between Britain and Germany were sufficiently cordial for the Royal Navy to pay a courtesy visit to the German fleet in the port of Kiel. The London government was far more concerned with the Irish problem, which threatened to turn into civil war, than affairs in the Balkans.

In Russia the government was preoccupied with an upsurge of workers’ strikes and demonstrations, which was one reason why the German Kaiser thought it unlikely that Russia would go to war over the invasion of Serbia. All the governments solemnly swore allegiance to the sacred principles of international law. But this was all on the surface. As Solon of Athens truly remarked, “the law is like a spider’s web; the small are caught and the great tear it up.”

Not everyone was surprised. The General Staffs of the main belligerents had long predicted the inevitability of such a conflict – some with eager anticipation, others with fear and trembling. But their fatalistic predictions were usually ignored by the politicians and diplomats who knew only too well that it was in the interests of the military elite to exaggerate the danger of war as a convenient means of extracting large sums of money from the government.

Even as the politicians made speeches about peace, their governments were all busy building ever more formidable machines of war. The period leading up to 1914 witnessed a European arms race that dwarfed anything that had been seen before. Germany and Britain vied with each other to see who could build bigger and better battleships. The French were spending huge sums of money on frontier defences that turned out to be as useless in 1914 as they were in 1940. Even the smallest states in the Balkans were arming to the teeth. The astonishing speed with which events unfolded after the assassination in Sarajevo revealed the falsity of the soothing mirage of serenity and peace. Within five weeks, Europe was at war.


At the start of August there was a frenzy of diplomatic activity, principally caused by the anxiety of the British to avoid a European war. The rulers of Britain had no interest in a war because it was already the wealthiest country with an Empire that spanned half the world. This explains Sir Edward Grey’s fervent attachment to peace. He proposed to the German ambassador that if Austria and Russia both mobilize, the other Powers (Britain, Germany, France and Italy) should attempt to get them to negotiate before any crossing of each other’s frontiers.

Grey, now increasingly alarmed, requested an urgent interview with the German ambassador. Indicating that Britain would not remain neutral in a war involving Germany and France, he warned the German ambassador of the urgent need for mediation to prevent a European war and urged Germany to put pressure on Austria to accept the Serbian reply to the ultimatum and restrained it “from prosecuting a… foolhardy policy” of crushing Serbia that would surely escalate into an Austro-Russian conflict. To underline the point, the London government authorized the release of the necessary funds for the immediate mobilization of the fleet.

The German chancellor attempted to soothe nerves in London by promising Britain that in a general war Germany would not annex any French territory in Europe if Great Britain remained neutral in the impending conflict. But he refused to give any assurance about respecting the neutrality of Belgium (which was a main concern of Great Britain), indicating that she would have to bow to “military necessity”, and as we know necessity knows no law. This, and all other questions, would be decided not by diplomacy and treaties but by the General Staff, in accordance with the Schlieffen (war) Plan. This was correctly interpreted by Britain as a virtual “intention to violate Belgian neutrality”.

For its part, the German General Staff was under no illusion about the catastrophic implications of war. Chief of Staff General von Moltke, a nephew of the great Prussian general who led Germany to victory over France in 1870, warned that an Austrian offensive against Serbia would mean war with Russia, and Germany would be drawn in with fatal consequences. It would mean a European war “which will annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come”. This was not far from the truth. But how this war was to be avoided the general did not venture to explain. In fact, although von Moltke and his fellow generals feared war, they concluded that war was inevitable and therefore Germany’s best chance was to strike first and strike hard.

The worries about the future were not confined to London, St. Petersburg and Berlin. The diplomats hoped that the coming war could be confined to a small war on the Balkans, as had happened in the past. Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor suggested to the Austrians that they should consider acceptance of the British proposals for four-power mediation: “We must urgently and emphatically commend to the consideration of the Vienna Cabinet [i.e., the Austrian government] the acceptance of mediation,” he wrote.

German plans were seriously dented by the belated realization that Britain would most probably support Russia and France in a war. Bethmann-Hollweg therefore advised the Austrians that, in view of the opposition of Britain and likely lack of support from Italy, she should undertake only “minimal” measures against Serbia (the occupation of Belgrade, perhaps) and thus avoid a wider war among the powers.

Declaration of war by GermanyThe idea of mediation was quite attractive to Berlin because it would give Germany an important say in future arrangements in Europe. But the Austrians had other ideas and rejected Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposal. The puppets were tugging at the strings and upsetting the plans of the puppet master! The German chancellor did not conceal his irritation: “We are ready… to fulfill our obligations as an ally, but must refuse to allow ourselves to be drawn by [Austria] into a world conflagration frivolously and in disregard of our advice.”

Matters had taken a serious turn – serious enough for the Kaiser to interrupt his Scandinavian cruise and return to Berlin. Of particular concern is the position of Great Britain, which Wilhelm and his English wife were hoping would keep out of the conflict. But the Kaiser had been informed of alarming developments during his absence. Britain had decided to concentrate its fleet in the home ports (that is to say, that it must be ready for action). This was sufficient to cause a panic on the German stock exchange.

At this point Wilhelm’s nerves undergo a rapid transformation. The same man who was prodding the Austrians to take decisive action against the Serbs and crush them once and for all, now begins to have second thoughts, no doubt encouraged by the thought that Germany would have to take on the most powerful navy in the world. Having read the Serb reply to the Austrian ultimatum, the Kaiser interprets it as Serbia’s capitulation to Austria’s “wholly uncompromising attitude.”

The Kaiser proposed that Austria should “Halt in Belgrade,” that is, to occupy the Serb capital as a preliminary to negotiations between Austria and Serbia. However, it seems more than likely that this was just an attempt to fool international public opinion and in particular to keep Britain out of the war. While publicly talking about mediation, Bethmann-Hollweg calls Austria to take early action in the absence of full compliance from Serbia. And behind the scenes the Austrian ambassador in Germany quietly informs Vienna that the German government would not support the idea of Grey’s mediation conference:

“Here it is universally taken for granted that an eventual negative reply by Serbia will be followed by a declaration of war from [Austria]… Any delay in commencement of military operations is regarded here [i.e., by the German government] (as presenting) a great danger of the interference of other Powers. They urgently advise us to go ahead and confront the world with a fait accompli… The German government tenders the most binding assurances [to Austria] that it in no way associates itself with the (English) proposals (for mediation); is even decidedly against their being considered, and only passes them on in order to conform to the English request.” [According to the Austrian chief-of-staff, 16 days would be required before operations could begin, but, under German pressure, it is decided to declare war on July 28]

The wolf and the lamb

In the end the urgent appeals from London for a mediated settlement of the Balkan question were rejected by Berlin. The Kaiser noted: “It is futile, I will not join in.” It is doubtful whether he ever intended to. The Austrian emperor finally signs the order for mobilization. The one thing that might avoid an escalation was for the Serbs to capitulate entirely to the Austrian demands. But feeling confident of Russian support, Belgrade refused to surrender. Even if they had done so, it would not have prevented war but merely led to new Austrian claims, such as payment for the costs of mobilization. Such situations are frequently found whenever a more powerful state is looking for a pretext to attack a chosen victim.

The workings of diplomacy, which always aim to place the blame for war on the other side, were well described by old Aesop in his fable The Wolf and the lamb:

“A Wolf, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf’s right to eat him. He thus addressed him: ‘Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.’ ‘Indeed,’ bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, ‘I was not born then.’ ‘Very well,’ said the Wolf: ‘Then you are grazing in my pasture.’ ‘No, good sir,’ replied the Lamb, ‘I have not yet tasted grass.’ And the Wolf retorted: ‘You drink from my well.’ ‘No,’ exclaimed the Lamb, ‘I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother’s milk is both food and drink to me.’ Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, ‘Well! I won’t go without my supper, even though you refute every one of my accusations.”

The moral is: The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny. And so it was here. Buoyed up by the assurances from Berlin, on 28 July at 6pm Austria declared war on Serbia and the very next day Austrian artillery divisions commenced the bombardment of Belgrade across the Danube River. The war had been brought forward from the planned date of August 12, apparently under pressure from Berlin.

This seems to confirm the suspicion that Bethmann-Hollweg was playing a double game – pretending to cooperate with Russia and Great Britain for mediation while urging on Austria to commence hostilities. In this respect it may not be an accident that the Kaiser’s proposal was not forwarded to Vienna until the following day, after war had been declared. In any case, all these diplomatic comings and goings are irrelevant because Austria was going to to declare war on Serbia in any event. As always, the purpose of diplomacy is to make the other side responsible for one’s own aggression, which must always seem to be of a defensive character.

Bethmann-Hollweg gave the game away when he sent the following directive to the German ambassador in Vienna: “It is imperative that the responsibility for the eventual extension of the war among those nations not originally immediately concerned, should, under all circumstances, fall on Russia… you will have to avoid very carefully giving rise to the impression that we wish to hold Austria back. The case is solely one of finding a way to realize Austria’s desired aim, that of cutting the vital cord of the Greater Serbian propaganda, without at the same time bringing on a world war, and, if the latter cannot be avoided in the end, of improving the conditions under which we shall have to wage it…”

The Austro-Hungarian forces taught the Serbs a wonderful lesson in the values of civilization. These heroes massacred, plundered and raped to their hearts’ content, burning villages, hanging peasants and cutting the throats of men, women and children without distinction. But the same heroism was not displayed when they came face to face with the Serbian army. The Austrians thought that the invasion of Serbia would be a simple affair. But they were mistaken. They were thoroughly thrashed and driven back across the frontier as a disorganized rabble. But by now the echoes of the war were reverberating in St. Petersburg and Berlin.

Read Part Three here.

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