Kaiser Wilhelm II (at the left) and his helpmates were eager to go to war against France and Russia. In the summer of 1914, they did everything to put an end to any chance of peace. Berlin planned to establish its hegemony over the continent of Europe.
John C. G. Röhl is one of the leading experts on Kaiser William II. He has studied the period of Wilhelmine Germany for more than 50 years. In a three-volume biography Röhl developed the theory of William II’s ‘personal rule’. According to Röhl, the Kaiser and his closest circle of advisors and aides were primarily responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. In the following essay for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Röhl describes how the Kaiser and his men decided to go to war and why Britian had no choice but to fight against Germany subsequently.
Our commemoration of the great European catastrophe of 1914 seems to be getting off to a fitful start, with even the Prime Minister now feeling obliged to enter the controversy over Britain’s participation in the Great War with his statement to The Mail on Sunday on 19 January 2014: “We should be clear that World War One was fought in a just cause [and] that our ancestors thought it would be bad to have a Prussian-dominated Europe.” So far the public debate in this country is being trivialised by controversy over the suitability or otherwise of TV programmes such as Blackadder as teaching materials in the classroom, or sidetracked by discussions on whether Britain entered the war to save democracy, which of course she did not, any more than the Second World War was fought to save the Jews. The important debate to be had is not one between Left and Right interpretations of the past but one to establish the truth on the basis of the authentic evidence. It is certainly not – and must not be allowed to become again – a conflict between British and German narratives of how and why the war began.
German historians have in fact led the field over the past 50 years in uncovering the truth behind the intentions and policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his closest advisers in July 1914 – no more than about twenty generals and admirals alongside a handful of civilians in the Wilhelmstrasse, all of them appointed by the Kaiser, were actually party to the plot. The international scholarly quest to discover through painstaking archival research the real causes of the conflict was made more difficult by the fact that from the outset it was the foremost aim of the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg in 1914 to trick world opinion and not least his own people into seeing Russia as the aggressor if, as seemed likely, Austria-Hungary’s planned attack on Serbia were to lead to a major war. This myth of Berlin’s innocence in the July Crisis was maintained and indeed reinforced after Germany’s defeat in 1918 by the widespread rejection of the punitive and humiliating “war guilt” clause in the Treaty of Versailles, which led to the suppression and in some cases falsification of key documents. The difficulty any German historian would have encountered had he tried to unearth the truth in the inter-war years can be gauged from the fact that in 1930 the Nazi party actually tried to introduce a Bill in the Reichstag calling for the death penalty (!) for anyone asserting Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914.
Since the controversy of the 1960s over Fritz Fischer’s book Griff nach der Weltmacht which broke the taboo and revealed the breathtaking extent of Imperial Germany’s war aims from the very beginning of the First World War, all this has changed. Germany has become a model federal democracy, well-ordered, stable and prosperous, living within undisputed borders in peace and harmony with all its neighbours. The substantial responsibility of the Kaiser, Bethmann Hollweg, of militarists such as Helmuth von Moltke and Erich von Falkenhayn and navalists such as Grand Admiral von Tirpitz for the disaster of 1914 is barely disputed either by the German political establishment or the general public, and certainly not by any professional historian.
Though differences of emphasis will always exist, and rightly so, between enquiring scholarly minds, the consensus view is that once the German lands had been unified under the hegemony of the Prussian military monarchy in Bismarck’s three wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71, the dynamic new Reich at the heart of Europe was almost bound to present a challenge to its hitherto dominant neighbours France and Russia and ultimately to Great Britain too. So long as Bismarck was at the helm, that challenge remained latent, but with an erratic and vainglorious king-emperor besotted with notions of divine right and the Frederician myth of onward and upward Prussian military expansion, Bismarckian restraint was soon thrown to the winds. Imperial Germany surged ahead economically and demographically, and her bid, under the young Kaiser Wilhelm II, to become a “world power” inevitably brought her into conflict with the “concert of Europe” – the European states system underpinned by Britain’s balance of power policy.
Wilhelm II (on the left) und Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, in 1888
War was not the only way the breakthrough to German hegemony on the continent could have been achieved – the Tirpitz battleship programme and strong-arm diplomacy were also being tried as a form of blackmail. But ever since the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, a lightning strike against France and if needs be a naval war against Britain – on the assumption that Tsarist Russia would remain at least neutral – were under active consideration by the Kaiser and his generals, admirals and statesmen in Berlin. Neither in 1905 nor in 1911 were the circumstances deemed to be quite right for an attack on France.
With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars in autumn 1912, German war planning then shifted from envisaging an attack on France and Britain on the assumption that Russia would remain neutral, to an attack on France and Russia in the hope that Britain would remain neutral. “If I am to march on Moscow I must first take Paris”, the Kaiser announced in November 1912. In that month the German ruling elite actually decided to go to war against France and Russia if, as expected, a planned Austrian attack on Serbia proved unacceptable to Russia, and only pulled back from the brink on 8 December 1912, in the much-debated “war council” at the Berlin Schloss, when the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky reported from London that Britain would not after all stay neutral as she could never allow France to be “crushed” to find herself alone facing a German-dominated continent.
On numerous occasions in the 18 months between the “war council” of December 1912 and the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, top-level conversations took place between Berlin and Vienna on how and when to begin a war, not just against Serbia but against France and Russia as well. After a meeting between the German Chief of General Staff von Moltke and his Austrian counterpart Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf at Karlsbad in May 1914 the German Quartermaster-General Count Georg von Waldersee reported that both military leaders “were united in their view that at present things were still in our favour and one should therefore not hesitate to take energetic action and if necessary begin the war.” However, the generals agreed, the civilian statesmen and not least the two monarchs would need to be brought into line. At the end of May 1914 Moltke urged the German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow “to pursue a policy designed to bring about war in the near future”. Shortly before his death in 1916 Moltke prided himself on having “prepared and initiated […] this war”. Jagow on the other hand was haunted by guilt for what he had done, confessing to a lady friend that he was no longer able to sleep because Germany had “wanted the war”.
On 4 July 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s marginal comment “Now or never” gave the impetus for the sequence of events which, like a line of tottering dominos, were to lead to the implementation of the carefully-prepared Schlieffen-Moltke plan and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. The next day the Kaiser as Supreme War Lord issued his notorious blank cheque promising Austria-Hungary Germany’s unequivocal support in the event that her attack on Serbia should lead to a continental war, considered by the officials in the Wilhelmstrasse to be a 90% probability. The Kaiser then received the chancellor and the leaders of the army and navy, asking each in turn whether they were really ready for war and ordering the Fleet to mobilise secretly.
In Berlin, only a handful of men were party to the reckless, cack-handed conspiracy which brought about the global catastrophe of 1914. Whatever the differences between them, they were united in the conviction that the future rightfully belonged to Germany and that the actual status of the Reich as a second-rate continental power, as Tirpitz put it, was undignified and unacceptable in the longer term. The only German leader to try to avert the disaster was the ambassador in London, Prince Karl Max von Lichnowsky, but his efforts were foiled by his superiors, whom he later called “gangsters”.
The central element of the German plot was to make Germany “appear as the attacked”. If Russia could be made to seem the aggressor in a conflict originating in the Balkans, so Bethmann Hollweg’s calculation went, four vital aims would be achieved to give the Reich an advantage in the coming struggle, which the military expected to be over in two or three months: Austria-Hungary would be committed to fight from the first, the German people – nearly half of whom were social democrats – would be willing to take up arms in a purportedly “defensive” war against Russian “tyranny”, Germany’s other allies Italy and Romania would be obliged by treaty to enter the war, and – this would be the greatest prize – Britain would abandon her Entente partners and stay neutral at least initially, that is until it was too late to stop the fall of France, confidently expected within 4 to 5 weeks.
Wilhelm II (on the left) and Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of the General Staff of the armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy, in 1915. According to the original caption of the picture, it shows the two men on on the Balkans, while fighting the Serbs.
In order to lull the Great Powers into believing that the Sarajevo assassination would pass without further ramifications, the German leaders all went on holiday, later asserting that they had no foreknowledge of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia – a claim that can be demonstrated to be a barefaced lie. The Kaiser was sent off on his annual Norwegian cruise, but tellingly the Hohenzollern anchored in the Sognefjord just north of Bergen, from where the Supreme War Lord could be back in Kiel within 2 days if need be to sign the mobilisation order. His Foreign Secretary even suggested that as the critical moment approached the imperial yacht might sail around in circles in the Baltic Sea so as to be even closer to home.
The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, which was deliberately designed to be unacceptable, caught the Russian, French, British and Italian governments totally unawares, and their reaction was one of fury and disbelief at the German claim to have had no inkling of Vienna’s intentions. The Italian government declared that it did not consider itself bound by its treaty obligations to support its Triple Alliance partners since the impending conflict was not a defensive war.
As if on cue, on 25 July 1914, Bethmann Hollweg, Moltke, the War Minister von Falkenhayn and Grand Admiral von Tirpitz all returned to their posts in Berlin for the final phase of the crisis. Prematurely, in the view of Bethmann, who was concerned that this might send alarm signals to London, Kaiser Wilhelm also set sail for home on that day, ordering the Fleet to bombard the Russian naval bases in Estonia and Latvia and to blockade the eastern Baltic Sea – commands which were for the time being ignored.
For a brief moment on 28 July 1914, the Kaiser, back in Potsdam, panicked on reading a dispatch from Lichnowsky warning that the British regarded the Serbian reply to the ultimatum as acceptable and were unlikely to stay neutral if Germany invaded France, but these fears were thrown to the winds when the Kaiser’s brother Prince Heinrich, who had been sent to London to sound out the British stand in the event of a continental war, reported that King George V had assured him at a brief meeting in Buckingham Palace on Sunday morning, 26 July: “We shall try & keep out of it, we shall probably remain neutral.” With this the Kaiser was on message again, declaring inanely “I have the word of a king, that is enough for me.”
Late on 29 July, in a bid to keep Britain out of the impending war, the chancellor, after conferring with the Kaiser and the generals in Potsdam, put proposals to the British ambassador Sir Edward Goschen which gave away Germany’s intention to invade France and occupy Belgium: Provided that Britain remained neutral (but only then), Germany promised to respect France’s territorial integrity (but not her sovereignty) in Europe (but not overseas) and to restore Belgium’s territory (again not her sovereignty) after the war was over. Bethmann’s offer provided an early hint of what Germany’s war aims would be in the west.
Her leaders now waited on tenterhooks for Russia to put herself in the wrong by mobilising first. They set themselves the deadline of noon on 31 July for taking the irrevocable step to war and were jubilant when news of the Russian mobilisation arrived with just 20 minutes to spare. “Beaming faces everywhere” was how one observer described the mood of the German generals. France was issued with an ultimatum to declare itself within 18 hours, though in truth since 1913 the General Staff only had the one plan – to eliminate France first before turning on her eastern ally. The officers were delighted at the Kaiser’s fortitude: “His attitude and language are worthy of a German emperor! worthy of a Prussian king!”, the War Minister von Falkenhayn recorded.
Up to this point, the German stratagem seemed to be working. “The mood is brilliant”, Admiral von Müller, the head of the Kaiser’s Naval Cabinet, noted in his diary on 31 July. “The government has succeeded very well in making us appear as the attacked.” On the following day, with tears of triumph in his eyes, the Kaiser signed the mobilisation order on a table carved from the wood of Nelson’s flagship Victory. Momentarily, things appeared to get better still when a telegram arrived from Lichnowsky holding out the promise not only of British neutrality but of France backing out as well. “What a marvellous turn of events”, cried von Müller. The Kaiser called for champagne all round and commanded Moltke, whose carefully-laid plans now seemed to be in tatters, to halt the attack in the west and send his armies against Russia instead.
When Lichnowsky’s telegram turned out to be based on a misunderstanding and it became clear that all three Entente powers would be Germany’s foes, the disappointment in the Schloss was palpable. “Now you can do what you like”, the Kaiser, who had gone to bed, told Moltke, who was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And the Kaiserin added: “Now there’s nothing for it but war and my husband and my 6 sons will be in the thick of it.”
When the American ambassador in London, Walter Page, called at the German embassy in Carlton House Terrace on 4 August 1914 to take over the affairs of the Kaiserreich for the duration of hostilities, he found a distraught and sleepless Prince Lichnowsky wandering about in his pyjamas. As Page reported to President Wilson in the White House, Princess Mechthild Lichnowsky, the ambassador’s wife, swept the Kaiser’s portrait from her husband’s desk and cried out: “That is the swine who did this!” The Austrian ambassador, too, sat around dumbfounded for days close to tears. And when the US ambassador spoke to the King, George V cried out in despair: “My God, Mr. Page, what else could we do?”
What else indeed? What would the world have looked like if Britain had washed her hands in 1914 and left the continentals to fight it out among themselves? A document published by the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer in 1961 proved to be the tipping-point in our understanding of what was really at stake in that first global conflict, though not the last, of the twentieth century: an official memorandum penned by the Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg – not a rabid militarist or hotheaded nationalist but a civilian characterised by contemporaries as a brooding schoolmaster – as early as 9 September 1914 revealed Germany’s “general aim of the war” to have been to attain “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time”. For this purpose, the memorandum goes on, “France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.”
According to this programme, France was to lose her army, her coal and iron fields, her colonies and a “coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne”, Belgium to become a German vassal state with her ports in the hands of the German navy. The whole continent of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and from Finland to Malta would come under German economic domination, and in Africa a German colonial empire would stretch continuously from the west coast to the east to include the Belgian Congo. Fischer was able to demonstrate that these sweeping aims remained essentially unchanged throughout the war and were indeed partially implemented in the east when Lenin and Trotsky signed the Peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.
There is no doubt that Kaiser Wilhelm II shared Bethmann Hollweg’s aims wholeheartedly and in some cases pressed for even greater expansion, as did the generals. In the preamble to his 1914 September Programme Bethmann recorded that for some time he had been under pressure from the Kaiser to pursue a policy of what we would nowadays call ethnic cleansing in Belgium and northern France. “His Majesty the Kaiser keeps harping on the idea that those parts of Belgium and France which might be annexed from Belgium and France should be evacuated and settled by military colonies in the form of land grants to deserving non-commissioned officers and men”, the chancellor wrote.
Was this then, as some British historians have claimed, “the wrong war” for Britain to become involved in? Should she have left France to be crushed by the German army, Belgium to be annexed to the Reich, German veterans to be settled as farmers along the Channel coast from Antwerp and Ostend to Boulogne, the Kaiser’s battleships and U-boats to be based in Brest and Bordeaux, later perhaps in Gibraltar and the Azores, in west Africa and the Caribbean, a massive colonial Mittelafrika to be established from coast to coast, Russia to be reduced to an agrarian nonentity with German satellite states stretching from Finland through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, German troops and their Turkish allies at the gates of Egypt and India in the Middle East? What would have been the next step? Where was it all to end?
In 1917 the Kaiser warned Bethmann Hollweg’s successor that if Britain could not be defeated in the current war, as now seemed likely, then Germany would have to prepare, like ancient Rome in her life-or death struggle with Carthage, for a “Second Punic War” against this hated nation of shopkeepers, since they were Germany’s real enemies. ‘I know England and the English better than my countrymen do, certainly better than my officials and the Foreign Office!”, he railed. “England is our bitter sworn rival full of hatred and envy and as such it speculated that it would surely win this contest; if it loses, its hatred will only grow deeper still; and the struggle will continue mercilessly after the peace, economically. … England has not won the First Punic War and – God willing – has therefore lost it; but we have not defeated it either and don’t seem to be able to do so for the moment. Therefore the Second Punic War – hopefully under better conditions as far as our allies and prospects are concerned – must now be absolutely and immediately prepared for. Because it is definitely coming. Until one of the two of us has come out on top alone there will be no peace in the world!” His ravings read like a chilling prediction of Hitler’s war still to come.
Like the even more savage Second World War, the Great War of 1914-18 was a conflict between an overly powerful, autocratically-led and militaristic Germany determined to establish its hegemony over the continent of Europe and beyond by force of arms, and the other Powers, led by Great Britain, whose very existence was threatened by Germany’s drive for “Napoleonic supremacy”, as Kaiser Wilhelm described his aim shortly after his accession to the throne. The loss of life was appalling, but Britain’s sacrifice was a necessary evil and incurred for a reason, not on account of some meaningless blunder on the part of an out-of-touch elite sleepwalking to catastrophe.
(photo by Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo, Scherl / SZ Photo)