(EUROPE'S SLIDE to WAR – continued)

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EUROPE'S SLIDE to WAR (5 of 6)

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Into the Abyss

Germany's chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was a hawk. He rejected Grey's conference, stating that he opposed Austria-Hungary being humiliated by being "summoned" before a European court of justice. Bethmann-Hollweg was for Austria taking advantage of the assassination by decidedly crushing Serbia and moving before Russia and France had time to consider going to war. Chief of the German General Staff, von Moltke, agreed with him and he called on Austria to take military action quickly, before diplomatic pressure could be mustered to oppose it. Bethmann-Hollweg and von Moltke appear to have been in a hurry also from fear of an effort at peace that Kaiser Wilhelm might make when arriving from his vacation.

On July 27, four days after Austria sent its ultimatum, France ordered a standby for mobilizing its military. The French premier, Viviani, was obvious in not wanting war. And Poincaré – stronger than Viviani in foreign affairs – was to claim that he also did not want war. But there was the belief in France that if their nation refused to back Russia their alliance with Russia would amount to nothing, making France vulnerable to the power of Germany. With British and German relations improving recently, some among the French feared that within a few years Britain might abandon its ties with France.

Kaiser Wilhelm was back in Germany on the 27th, and he asked Bethmann-Hollweg what went wrong in his absence, and he announced that if he could he would prevent war. But it was too late. At 11 in the morning on the 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Russia and Britain remained frustrated over what they saw as Germany's unwillingness to control Austria. The Russian tsar and his ministers believed that backing down in their support for Serbia would be a humiliation that Russia could not now afford. Russian strategists, including military leaders, were afraid of Russia appearing weak and vulnerable, especially against the Germans.

Selling by worried investors brought a drop in prices on Austria's stock exchange, but the prospect of war had brought joy to great numbers of people in Vienna and in Hungary's capital, Budapest. For days people in Vienna paraded, carrying flags and portraits of Franz Joseph and singing patriotic songs. People chanted "God protect our king, our land!" People chanted "death to Serbs" and "Serb dogs must die!" The archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Piffl, gave voice to what many saw as a holy crusade. He proclaimed that it was the voice of God that spoke through the roar of Austria-Hungary's guns. He called on his flock to go forward in happiness and in confidence to attack the enemies of God. It was different however with Pope Pius X, who was disheartened by events. When asked to bless the Habsburg armies he refused and said he blessed peace.

The same day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Wilhelm received a copy of Serbia's reply to Austria's ultimatum. He wired his cousin Tsar Nicholas expressing hope that the tsar would smooth over difficulties as he, Wilhelm, was trying to do. At 1:45 AM on the 29th, the tsar sent a friendly telegram back to Wilhelm asking him to do what he could to prevent his ally, Austria, from going "too far."

On the 29th, Austrian troops began shelling Belgrade, just across the river Danube from Hungary. That same day, Russia began a partial mobilization of its armies, and Germany and Britain began taking military precautions: Germany began to mobilize its navy, and Britain's navy in the North Sea went to its battle stations.

Nicholas II

Nicholas II. He was afraid of appearing weak.

Also on the 29th, Wilhelm received word from his brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, that Britain's King George had told him that Britain would remain neutral. In France, Viviani wished to counsel Russia to restrain itself, to give Germany no pretext for going to war. On the 30th, Germany's Admiral Tirpitz expressed doubt that Britain would remain neutral, and Wilhelm contradicted him, saying that he, Wilhelm, had "the word of a king" and that this was good enough for him.

In Russia there was opinion around the tsar that this was the time for an all-out showdown war because French support for Russia might be withdrawn sometime in the future with a rapprochement between France and Germany. But Tsar Nicholas favored mobilizing his armies against Austria-Hungary only. Nicholas' war ministers wanted full mobilization, pointing out that partial mobilization would tie up train schedules making full mobilization impossible should Germany go to war alongside Austria. In the afternoon on the 30th the indecisive tsar was pushed into choosing full mobilization – directed against Germany as well as Austria-Hungary. His ability to make a decision had been questioned and he responded with a show of decisiveness. He did so believing that peace with Germany could still be maintained, as had happened after Russia had mobilized in 1913.

News of Russia's mobilization reached Germany on the morning of the 31st. Bethmann-Hollweg was now ashen with fear of a European-wide war, and he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Bethmann-Hollweg wired Austria's foreign minister urging the Austrians to refrain from mobilizing against the Russians. Germany's military command in the person of von Moltke was giving priority to measures of national defense and he wired a message to Austria insisting that Austria do its part by countering Russia. Austria's foreign minister followed the wishes of von Moltke and ignored Bethmann-Hollweg.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II. He gave his military rein to defend his realm. The best he could have done for that defense – and survival of his family's rule – would have been to reject the adage that the best defense in a good offense. He ordered preparations for an offensive against France and then stopped it, believing that would not be going to war against his realm. On learning otherwise, he ordered the offensive against France to continue.

Germany's military command insisted that it was time for Germany to mobilize its armies. Mobilization meant calling up reservists. It was a move against letting belligerent powers acquire an advantage in speed – similar to a fast-draw duel in the American West but in slow motion. Wilhelm acquiesced for the sake of defending Germany. At 1 PM on the 31st Germany began mobilizing. Germany sent to Russia an ultimatum that it cease every war measure against Germany within twelve hours, and it sent a query to France asking whether it intended to stay neutral.

By August 1, Poincaré was convinced that war was inevitable, and he wished that it appear to the world that the French were acting defensively. The French were also mobilizing, and patriotic fervor was sweeping across their nation. French socialists were buying the notion that France was threatened and had to defend itself. Their leader Jean Juaras had been adamantly opposed to war, but he had just been assassinated by a lone right-wing nationalist youth who mistakenly saw Juaras as pro-German. The assassination was condemned across France's political spectrum, and France's socialists were siding with war, saying that Juaras was assassinated "but we will not assassinate France."

Much of France responded to the news of war with calm and resignation, while in Paris packs of young men roamed the streets, delighted at the opportunity to shout and side with valor. They smashed and looted one German shop after another. Other young men paraded with flags and shouted "Long live France!" and "Long live the army!" Crowds enthusiastically sang their national anthem, the Marseilles, and they sang the national anthems of Britain and Russia. And there were shouts of "On to Berlin!"

On August 1, with Germany 's ultimatum to Russia having passed its deadline, Germany declared war on Russia, a declaration signed by a distraught Wilhelm. News reached Wilhelm causing him to believe that France would stay neutral. He ordered a halt to the mobilization against France, which distressed his military high command and almost caused von Moltke to have a nervous breakdown. But soon Wilhelm learned that the news was false, and the mobilization against France continued.

By now, the Germans were united in support of their nation going to war. The German people believed that the French were starting a war against Germany because of jealousy and for revenge. And most frightening for the Germans was their belief that Russian armies were invading.

On August 2, while France was organizing the offensive that it had planned against Germany, German military patrols crossed the French frontier, and skirmishes occurred. The British government was concerned about living up to its commitments to France. With its navy fully mobilized it secretly reassured France that it would protect French shipping along the channel coast.

Germany's plan for war against France was to avoid the heavy fortifications that the French had built between their two countries and to march through Belgium – low land and the shortest route to Paris. On the evening of the 2nd, Germany sent Belgium a message which spoke of the friendly relations between the two nations, and in polite language the note demanded that Belgium allow Germany's armies peaceful passage. The note promised that if Belgium allowed this and remained neutral that Germany would compensate Belgium for any damages that Germany may inadvertently cause in Belgium. The politeness ended at the note's closing, which warned that if Belgium chose to resist movement of Germany's troops across its territory, Germany would consider Belgium an enemy.

Belgium refused the German demand. On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and began to force its way through Belgium. French military planners in 1912 had considered attacking Germany through Belgium, but the British had talked them out of it. Now Germany was claiming that marching through Belgium was justified on the grounds that it was a military necessity and that "necessity knew no law." But their attack through Belgium proved to have an impact that German strategists had not adequately measured. In Britain, the German invasion of Belgium swung numerous members of the Labour Party and much of the nation in favor of war. Britain and eventually the US joining France would prove a much harder circumstance for Germany's military than moving its initial assault south of Belgium to France's border.

On the 4th, Britain sent Germany an ultimatum that it cease its attack against Belgium. The deadline was 11 PM. And, with no response, Britain at that hour declared war on Germany. Wilhelm was outraged and depressed. He saw Britain as having joined with France and Russia in order to gang up on Germany. He spoke of his dear grandmother Queen Victoria and wished she were still alive. "She," he said, "would not have allowed it."

Regarding Britain's motives for going to war against Germany, Paul M Kennedy in The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914, writes that the British feared that the Germans would again smash the French – as they did in 1870 – and would gain control over northwest France and the English Channel, and that this would be catastrophic for British security. note9

In London, crowds sang "God Save the King," and "Rule Britannia." They cheered the sight of any man in military uniform. Soon one of Britain's young poets, Rupert Brooke, would capture some of the feeling common in Britain at the start of the war. He thanked God for "matching us with His hour," and he described going to war "as swimmers into cleanness leaping."

With Britain in the war, King Wilhelm was now more afraid. He believed that the war would be long because England was an obstinate nation. Meanwhile, Admiral Tirpitz, considering Britain's strength as a naval power, cried out, that "all was lost."

In Berlin, crowds paraded with flags, sang Lutheran hymns and shouted "Down with Russia!" In city centers across Germany people cheered the patriotic speeches that described Germany's neighbors as jealous of Germany's progress and as having ganged up on Germany. Among the celebrants in the main plaza in Munich was a twenty-five year-old from Austria, Adolf Hitler. He had described the war as inevitable back in 1913. He would write later that this was the greatest day in his life. He found the unity, patriotism and enthusiasm of his fellow Germans satisfying. He looked forward to Germany reaching new heights of grandeur, and he enlisted in the German army, hoping to get to the front in time for the action.

Some German aristocrats were oriented toward agrarian values and saw the war as a welcomed break with the bourgeois world of comfort, profit and security. They saw the French as corrupt, effete and as defenders of a shallow civilization. They saw Britain as a society of contractual relations and driven by commercialism and exploitation. They saw Germany as an organic community and Germans as a people with soul and united by spirit.

Wilhelm, looking white and strained, spoke to the crowd below from his balcony. "I command you now to God," he told them. "Go into the churches, kneel down and pray for help for our soldiers."

Germany's soldiers were more joyful. On trains carrying them through towns toward the front they cheered back at the crowds, and on the sides of the railway cars were optimistic messages such as "Don't worry, we will all soon be eating British beefsteak."

In Russia, the news of war also brought widespread joy. The labor strike in St. Petersburg, said to have been inspired by German agents, melted away and was replaced by patriotic demonstrations, with people carrying pictures of their tsar, and people singing and shouting "God Save the Tsar."  Russia's socialists, liberals and conservatives believed that Russia was a victim and had to be defended from the Germans. Crowds in St. Petersburg attacked and looted the German embassy there. Russians of German ancestry began being expelled from various clubs. And a few people who spoke out against the war were beaten.

Russia's countryside was another matter. When people there received news of the war they wondered who the enemy was this time. Their priests saw it as their duty to give them guidance, and they told the people that, as in the time of Napoleon, Russia had to fight to preserve its national life and its religion, that Russia would emerge as a greater, true mother of the Slav races and that their Eastern Orthodox Church would remain unshaken. Priests shouted "God be with us! Victory will be ours!" The priests held a cross in their hand, and peasant soldiers going off to war fell to their knees before them, kissed the cross and received the priests' blessings.

The great joy expressed by those going to war, first in Vienna, then in Russia, Berlin and London, was a unique moment in modern history. It was exciting relief from the humdrum of everyday work. It was like a great community disaster that brought people of an otherwise lonely community closer together. Among those not expecting to go off to war was the view of a coming great sporting event, fought by their nation's heroic soldiers winning a quick victory.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.