Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Originally published 21/10/2010

In the wake of the recent, twentieth, anniversary of German re-unification, it is easy to forget that that same day also marked another great milestone. A payment of 68 million Euros was made by the German government as the final instalment of the country’s reparations debt imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, after the end of the First World War.

So deep has become the notion of Germany’s guilt for the First World War that it has rarely been questioned outside of Germany, yet the more one looks at the events that led to war in 1914, the more unlikely it seems that the blame should lie with entirely with Germany. Perhaps a greater myth, however, about the conflict is its very name “world” war. In reality, the great bulk of the fighting and dying took place in Europe. True there were other theatres of war; British troops faced the Germans in German East Africa (Tanganyika) and in German South West Africa (Namibia); they also faced the Turks in Palestine (Israel and Jordan) and in Mesopotamia (Iraq); or the capture of the German base at Tsingtao in China by the Japanese; not to mention the little remembered sea battle near the Falkland Islands in 1914 when Admiral Maximillian von Spee’s German Pacific squadron, making a dash for home after the fall of Tsingtao met Admiral Dovetee Sturdee’s British naval task force sent from Scapa Flow to intercept them as they attempted to raid Port Stanley for its coal supply.

So lets begin by calling it the Great European War

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the re-joining of the two halves of Germany was the final act of an ancient tragedy that befell Europe three hundred years ago. In the seventeenth century, Europe’s dominant power was the Medieval German state, known as the Holy Roman Empire. Whilst Shah Jehan, then the world’s richest man, was building the Taj Mahal in Mughal India, Europe was convulsed by a series of conflicts springing from the protestant reformation, such as the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War; the latter being fought almost entirely in Germany. The devastation wrought by the conflict, which ended in 1648, not only re-drew the map of Europe, it also shattered Germany, then as now the richest country in Europe, into so many pieces that it would take 230 years to put them back together again. That is until 1871 when Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, after a Prussian – led alliance of German states had defeated France in the war of 1870, to create the 19thcentury German Empire, sometimes known as “the Second Reich”. The debt whose final payment has just been made was imposed upon Germany by the Versailles Treaty; in addition to accepting blame for causing the war, an indemnity was demanded of 269 billion gold marks (the equivalent of 100,000 tons of gold); that is £23.9 billion, which would be £270 billion at today’s values. Payment was due to complete in the 1980′s, but had been suspended during the global financial crash of 1930, and not subsequently resumed until after 1945.

The actual reparations payments were in fact made, to France and Britain, in the 1920′s under a plan drawn up by the American banker Charles Dawes – the so-called “Dawes Plan”. The payments were supposed to be redistributed among the other allied powers, but this never happened; Belgium for instance, which suffered four years occupation never received anything. The plan involved various US banks (including JP Morgan) loaning the funds in the form of bonds which Germany then repaid to the banks. It was those same banks, or their successors, that received the final payment. Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1925, but his plan proved to be unworkable and had to be replaced by the Young Plan in 1929.

The war came about due to a sequence of events that began when a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot dead the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, in protest at the Austrian annexation of the province. It was the latest in a century long chain of violence and uncertainty that had dogged the Balkans since the withdrawal of the Turks in the 19th century. The Crimean War had been fought in the 1860′s by Britain and France to prevent the Russians from grabbing former Turkish territory, and the early years of the 20thcentury saw the Italo-Turkish war of 1911, fought for control of Libya. Despite the Turkish forces including the young Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the conflict laid bare the weakness of the Ottoman military and encouraged Slav nationalists to embark on the two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 from which the modern states of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania were created as they fought first Turkey and then each other to carve up the Ottoman legacy; with Austria taking the ethnically mixed province of Bosnia, then as now an objective for Serb nationalists.

The Habsburgs delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, laying responsibility for the killing on the Serbian government; since Princip’s group, the Black Hand, had links to the Serbian intelligence services and had been involved in an number of attempts to kill Hapsburg officials in the preceding years. This brought Russia into the equation, which then saw itself as the leader and protector of the Slav minorities within the former Ottoman territories in Europe; and led to a Russian threat to go to War with Austria-Hungary if military action were taken against Serbia.

The Great Power alliances of the period now came into play, with the Hapsburgs calling upon their ally Germany to aid them against Russia. The Germans, whilst they had no great enthusiasm for a conflict with Russia, feared that Austria could never stand alone against the Russians and that their inevitable defeat would open up the Balkans to Russian control – something they would never tolerate. This in turn brought in France which was allied to Russia in an arrangement that included not only military co-operation, but financial support as well – the expansion of the Russian railway network was largely paid for by loans from France. In particular the extension of Russian railways westwards towards the German border was viewed with alarm in Berlin as it would allow Russia to speedily deploy its huge army to the border in the event of war.

French policy in this regard was driven by its experience in the war of 1870, when it had had to face an alliance of German states unaided and been soundly defeated; its leader Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner, it lost the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and was forced to pay a huge indemnity of 5 billion Francs – the re-building of Berlin in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies was largely paid for with the French reparations payments. France’s defeat in that conflict had largely come about because of its failure to conclude defensive alliances with Russia and Britain. There was some sympathy for the French from the Austrian and Danish governments, both of whom had lost territory to Prussia after wars in the preceding decades, but they lacked confidence in the French to hold off the Germans, and so stood aside, as did the British. By 1914, however, the French had concluded an alliance with the Russians and also had an understanding with the British, who were afraid of what Germany might demand from France in the event of another victory. From the French perspective, if war came with Germany again, they would this time be aided by the biggest army in the world (the Russian) and the biggest navy in the world (the British).

So, whilst it can be seen that France and its ally Russia, had reasons to want to seek a showdown with Germany and Austria, the reasons why Britain and Germany might want to go to war with each other are less easy to divine since there seemed so little for either to gain from conflict. In the years since 1918, two main strands of thought have arisen, one from a broadly left-wing viewpoint and the other from a broadly right-wing perspective. Both are myths.

The left-wing myth is that war in general, and the Great European War in particular, came about as a consequence of capitalism. Whilst this theory was popular at a time when Marxism was an active force in European politics, it is less commonly heard since the collapse of communism in the 1990′s. The argument goes that firstly imperial competition for colonies inevitably leads to conflict and secondly that manufacturers of armaments stand to make huge profits from any war and thus secretly agitated behind the scenes for a war in order to boost profits. Yet a close examination of the facts shows this to be manifestly untrue. Firstly, the imperial squabble theory falls apart because the two wealthiest combatants, Britain and Germany were not in competition for colonies – Britain and France were in such a competition, but were on the same side. Secondly, whilst arms manufacturers undoubtedly stood to gain from war, at least on the winning side, they form only a small part of the economy; the vast bulk of the business communities in both Britain and Germany where implacably opposed to war as the destruction of property and interruption to sea-borne trade was bad for every other kind of business. A good example of the dilemma facing the European business community was the Rothschild banking family. With successful operations in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin this iconic capitalist dynasty faced complete ruin from the war and went to frantic lengths to try and avert it, including making direct personal appeals to the three cousins that were monarchs of main potential combatants, King George of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholai of Russia – but without avail. In Britain, the days leading up to war saw an upsurge in bellicose anti-German rhetoric in the press, most especially in the Times (whilst the Guardian ran a number of pacifist leaders). The head of the London branch of the family, Lord Charles Rothschild made a desperate appeal to the Times’ Foreign Editor Henry Wickham Steed and its proprietor Lord Northcliffe to tone down their rhetoric which was “hounding the country into war”. Their response was to describe Rothschild’s appeal as “a dirty German- Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality” and ran an even more bellicose leader the next day; hardly The Thunderer’s finest hour.

The other great myth is that of German militarism as the war’s underlying cause. Whilst this is more difficult to rebut in the modern era, with our knowledge of the Nazi party in the 1930′s and 1940′s, it is equally false. Whilst it is true that there were hawks within the German government, as there were in every country at the time, the picture of Germany as an authoritarian, undemocratic and militarised state in 1914 simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the main, this false view of early 20thcentury Germany comes about because of a reading of the wilder extremes of pan – German nationalism that existed at the time tend to get interpreted in the 21stcentury as the forerunners of Nazism, which in a sense they were; but – and this is the important point – no-one knew that at the time. Although the polity of the German Empire in 1914 might appear more authoritarian, compared to say, Britain or France, it was far from being the militarised despotism of popular legend.

Take democracy for instance. The Reichstag (equivalent to the British House of Commons) had universal male suffrage from the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, in Britain it wasn’t introduced until 1918. Consequently German enfranchisement for the lower chamber was more widespread than British (23% of the total population in 1900, compared to 18% in Britain). Germany also had much more powerful left-wing, and thus anti-war, movements than Britain. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) had over 1 million members and was not only the biggest political party in Europe, it was the biggest left-wing party in the world; compare this to the various radical nationalist parties at the time, which had barely 500,000 members between them. The British Labour Party in 1914 was the “third party” in the House of Commons with just 42 seats, way behind the Conservatives and the Liberals – a political minnow in comparison.

The notion of Germany in 1914 as being excessively militarised is also false. Whilst it is true that Germany had a larger army than Britain or France, it also had a bigger population, as well as a much longer border to defend. The following table shows starkly the myth that Germany was Europe’s most militarised society; it shows the wartime strength of the armed forces (i.e. Army plus Navy including reserves) in millions as percentage of total population

Country    Millions    % of Population

Russia          3.4             0.77
France         1.8             2.29
Germany     2.1             1.33
Austria        1.3             0.85
Britain         0.5             1.17

We can therefore see that, in fact, the most “militarised” state in Europe was not Germany at all, but France. Another indicator of military strength, the early 20thcentury naval arms race between Britain and Germany, is also not what it seems. That Germany aspired in the late 19thcentury to challenge Britain’s naval dominance is beyond question; what is less well known is the extent to which they failed. The Germans wanted to achieve a parity of battleships with the British; yet despite the scaremongering of the right wing press in Britain they never even got close. In 1914 Britain had 15 Dreadnoughts to Germany’s 9, a fact the Germans were well aware of as early as 1908, when they gave up trying match the British navy and concentrated on funding the army instead, a perfectly sane policy since the most likely threat of attack came from France and Russia, not Britain.

Here in Britain however, perhaps as a result of the fate that afflicts any victor in war, that of believing your own propaganda, we have a whole bunch of myths of our own as to why we went to war with Germany in 1914. The line that was pedalled at the time, and continues to be believed today, is that Britain was obliged to fight because of the Entente alliance with France and because of its commitment to guarantee Belgian neutrality. In fact, neither assertion is true since neither treaty explicitly committed Britain to use force. The greatest myth of all concerning The Great European War, is that Britain’s involvement was inevitable – nothing could be further from the truth. To understand Britain’s alliances in the early 20thcentury, we have to first understand two things; the disconnect between public opinion and the reality of government policy on the one hand, and how British governments in the late imperial era saw Britain’s relations with the outside world on the other.

That popular opinion saw the rapidly expanding economy of Germany as a threat to British interests is beyond question. Popular literature, and the popular press, of the time was filled with lurid fictions of German invasions of southern England. Books such as “The Invasion of 1910”, by the Anglo-French journalist William Le Queux, were just the best selling example of a sub genre of popular fiction at the time, that of the anti-German war fantasy. Originally serialised in the Daily Mail it depicted a seaborne German invasion of an unsuspecting Britain, with the story including scenes deliberately depicting the destruction of selected home counties towns with high proportions of Daily Mail readers, to enhance its sales. To be fair, such junk was not restricted only to Britain; the Germans had their equivalents too, usually depicting a sudden seizure of the port of Antwerp in Belgium by the Royal Navy as a prelude to a huge British army invading the nearby industrial area of the Ruhr Valley.

Yet, whatever its citizens may have thought, British foreign policy shows that right up to 1914, it did not consider Germany a serious threat to British interests. The alliance with France grew out of the international politics of the late 19thcentury and is not at all what it was subsequently represented to be. British policy at that time was remarkably little concerned with Europe; since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain largely withdrew from European politics and concentrated on consolidating its empire instead. Many factors have been identified in explaining the extraordinary success of Britain in the 19thcentury; democratic constitution, modern financial system, rapid industrialisation, high quality education system and, of course, a vast overseas empire. But there is one crucial factor that is hardly ever mentioned – for 100 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain stood aside from every war fought in Europe – this despite the fact that there were many wars going at that time – the Prusso-Austrian War, The Prusso – Danish War, the Prusso – French War, just to mention the main ones. The only conflict that Britain fought during that whole period against another European power was the, relatively small scale, Crimean War – and that was in Asia.

British policy therefore was directed towards a global stage, not a European one. By the late 19thcentury the reality of maintaining history’s greatest assemblage of colonies, territories, dependencies and mandates known collectively as the British Empire was beginning to tell – the so called phenomena of imperial over-stretch. British policy was concerned with identifying and containing threats to the Empire. The danger of direct attack from another European country was considered to be minimal, and could in any event be contained by the Royal Navy. If you had told a British diplomat of the 1890′s that there would be war in the twentieth century with another European power they would most likely have thought either Russia, as almost happened in the 1870′s over Afghanistan, or France as almost happened in 1898 over Sudan, the so – called Fashoda Crisis; the last serious dispute between the two countries which subsequently led to the Entente Treaty.

The main thrust of British foreign policy at that time was to identify potential threats to the Empire and to neutralise them by concluding alliances. Although Germany might have seemed a natural ally to Britain in this process, in fact the opposite was true – Germany’s colonial empire was tiny and did not cut across any British interests. True, they would have helped in the event of a European war, but Britain thought that it would either be neutral in such a conflict, or would only be involved at sea – so what help would Germany really be ? In reality they had far less to offer Britain on a global stage than France did.

We can now see that the Entente Treaty concluded with the French was not, as is commonly supposed, a reaction to German strength – it was actually the opposite. Germany was not considered to be a global player and therefore not worth concluding an alliance with, at least from the British point of view. We should therefore think of the alliance with France as similar to the Nazi – Soviet pact of 1939. I mean that in the sense that it was an alliance intended to neutralise a potential enemy by making them your ally. Far from fearing Germany, Britain allied with France precisely because they considered France to be more of a threat than Germany.

When the crisis of 1914 broke, the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith was caught completely unprepared and was split over whether or not to go to war. Britain then had one of its rare coalition governments; the Liberals were the largest party with 272 seats, against 271 for the Conservative and Liberal Unionists. They were kept in power by 84 Irish Nationalist MPs and 56 Labour

Half of the cabinet were threatening resignation if war was declared, whilst others, led by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) threatened resignation if Britain did not support France. The difficulty that Asquith faced was that whilst public opinion could be brought around to intervention in support of France under the Entente treaty (although statements made at the time that Britain was legally bound to fight were false, there was no obligation to go war in the treaty), it was a different matter to go to war in support of the French alliance with Russia. This was a separate treaty to which Britain was not a signatory; quite apart from the fact that Tsarist Russia was viewed very differently then to now. We tend to think in the 21stcentury of the Romanovs as tragic, almost romantic figures, the “Doctor Zhivago” version of history; but that was not how they were seen at the time. To most people of centre – left outlook in 1914 Romanov Russia was thought of as a backward, medieval despotism – remember that serfdom wasn’t abolished there until 1861. Very few Britons were prepared to fight in order to save Russia from the Germans and the Austrians. As it transpired however, the Germans made everyone’s mind up for them when it became obvious that they intended to invade neutral Belgium. In fact Britain had already considered this possibility and had a plan to prevent the Germans from seizing the Belgian ports, completely unacceptable to Britain, by seizing them itself, just as they and the French would later do in Norway in 1940. Meaning that even if the Germans hadn’t violated Belgian neutrality, Britain certainly would have done so.

In the event however, the Germans got there first and gave Asquith a politically acceptable reason to fight. It was claimed at the time that Britain was obliged to intervene, but again this wasn’t true, there was nothing in the 1839 treaty that established Belgian security that compelled Britain to take military action – it was a strategic choice. Nevertheless, the German invasion of Belgium saved Asquith’s government from collapse and set Britain against Germany even though neither country particularly regarded the other as a deadly enemy. It was of course open to the Germans to abandon their invasion of Belgium, but that would have been disastrous. Mobilisation in 1914 meant assembling millions of troops behind the lines then transporting them by rail to the border. Had they halted the deployment at the last moment, most of their army would have been stuck on thousands of trains close to the Belgian border at exactly the moment that a big French army and an even bigger Russian army was preparing to attack them from east and west simultaneously. Insane at it seems, the calculation was made that this risk was even greater than taking on the richest country in the world, Britain, in an unnecessary war. Somewhat like the USA in the modern world, such were Britain’s huge financial resources that whatever side they were on was bound to win in the long run. Germany had to win by a quick decisive campaign through Belgium and into northern France. When that failed, the final outcome was only a matter of time, the only real surprise is that it took four years.

And so in November 1918, the economics of war finally asserted themselves. Despite the Germans stunning victory in the east against the Russians, a combination of the British naval blockade, the resilience of the French army in the face of horrific losses, the arrival of an American force in France and the full mobilisation of British military power from across the globe had left Germany bankrupt and starving and they finally had sue for an armistice. By this time 13 million had been killed, but that was just the precursor to an even greater horror. An outbreak of the highly virulent Spanish flu among the troops in 1918, was carried around the world as they de-mobilised and led to a world-wide pandemic that killed 20 million – more than had died the fighting.

At the peace talks in 1919, Britain was fully aware of the dangers of imposing too severe a penalty on the Germans; but the French were not to be denied. For them, the war had meant two million dead and a vast tract of north eastern France laid waste. Much has been written about the devastation wrought by the fighting, but nothing in our modern experience even comes close to describing it. Perhaps a single image will help. In 1914, the French village of Douaumont was a thriving rural community, a few miles from an ancient fortress that had guarded the road to Paris since Roman times. In 1916 it was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting between French and Germans during the battle of Verdun. Such was the intensity of the artillery bombardment that the village was completely obliterated – and I mean that quite literally, there wasn’t a single stone left standing. In fact, the only way you could tell that there had been ever anything there at all was a vague grey smudge in the soil visible only from the air. During the battle, the combatants fired off 40 million artillery shells, that’s six per square metre of the battlefield, which in some places resembled the surface of Mars with a permanent smog overhead of Mustard Gas and Phosgenes mixed in with the noxious smell from the rotting corpses that littered the battlefield. All that is left now is a cemetery containing the remains of 100,000 unidentified soldiers from both sides out of the three hundred thousand who perished there.

In such circumstances, it was idle to expect any sympathy from the French. They were intent first on recovering the territory lost in 1871, then they were going to impose an indemnity on Germany of such severity as to prevent them from ever waging war on France again. The dangers of crippling Germany economically, as described in the book The Economic Consequences of Peace by the economist John Maynard Keynes who was a member of the British delegation and famously stormed out of the conference, were not considered. In his own, prophetic words –

“If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing.”

After a conflict in which so many had died there had to be someone to blame, and that someone was always going to be the loser. But the problem with the demonization of the “other” is that, as the Jihadiis of the 21stcentury have discovered – if you scream for war against the Americans for long enough then one day that war will happen – so it was with Germany after 1918. If you demonise a country long enough and impose a penalty of such severity as to drive them into the arms of a true tyrant, then a real life demon is what you will get. And we did get one, the illegitimate son of Ms Shickelgruber.

Many things led to The Great European War – Turkish political decline, Russian expansionism, Slav nationalism, French wounded pride from 1870, British indifference to European affairs for 100 years and finally, and least importantly, a rapidly expanding Germany hemmed in all sides by envious neighbours. Germany has had to say sorry for many things that happened in the 20thcentury, including some that were genuinely her fault; but it is high time that we acknowledged that we never should have blamed them for the Great European War – it was as much the fault of Britain and France as it was of Germany.

There, was that so hard ?

Copyright ©2010 Savereo John

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