The making of a maelstrom
How the Anglophile Kaiser Wilhelm went to war with Britain
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Yet another study of the drift into World War I might seem unnecessary, but Katja Hoyer’s book is unusual for being written in excellent English by a German historian settled in Britain. The result neither excuses nor apologises for German nationalism and is remarkably free from the usual blame games. Hoyer does not excavate any new archives and relies entirely on published sources, but she synthesises them remarkably well and tells her story with passion and verve.
Her hero is the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, whose quote about “blood and iron” explains both the rise and fall of imperial Germany. Her story begins with the wily chancellor of Prussia forcing his reluctant king to accept the imperial crown of a unified Germany. Bismarck’s skilful diplomacy had forced the German states to unite against what was perceived as French aggression. Austria-Hungary, once a rival for German leadership, had been forced to play second fiddle. The Catholics of southern Germany had been forced to accept Protestant hegemony in a federation dominated by Prussia.
Having deprived France of Alsace-Lorraine and Denmark of Schleswig-Holstein, Bismarck could truthfully claim that Germany had no more territorial ambitions. His foreign policy aimed to isolate French revanchism and avoid military encirclement by maintaining friendly ties with Russia. Having warded off external threats, he concentrated his energies on fighting the rise of socialism at home. Kaiser Wilhelm I was content to play the role of a constitutional monarch, leaving his chancellor free to cobble together majorities in a Reichstag elected by universal male suffrage.
All this changed with the accession of an assertive, volatile young Kaiser. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm II saw himself as emperor of all Germans, disliked Bismarck’s intrigues against the newly-founded Social Democrats and preferred to channel German nationalism against enemies abroad. Hoyer does not credit young Wilhelm with any appetite for a major global war, despite flexing German muscles in various minor conflicts. But she blames his headstrong abandonment of Bismarck’s habitual caution for catapulting Germany from a minor Austrian-Balkan war into the maelstrom of 1914.
Nothing could have been further from Wilhelm’s plans than war with Britain. Devoted to his British grandmother Queen Victoria, though not to her daughter, his mother, also Victoria, the Kaiser much admired British fashion and design and most of all its navy. But his quest for naval power modelled on Britain’s was perceived more as a threat than a compliment, even though Hoyer points out that naval expansion was very much the norm across nations as diverse as Italy, Japan and the US.
Hoyer leaves us in no doubt of the enormous costs of the military defeat, with Germany losing 10 per cent of its population
Despite Germany’s internal class and sectarian differences, the Kaiser could rely on a defensive nationalism that Hoyer traces back to the battles to liberate German lands from French occupation under the Napoleonic regime in 1815. It was fitting that the Second Reich was proclaimed at Versailles in 1871, after the defeat in war of Napoleon I’s nephew, Napoleon III. Hoyer intersperses her political narrative with fascinating cultural vignettes, such as the role of the Grimms’ fairy tales, like the fable of Red Riding Hood, in creating a common German psychological preference for discipline and obedience.
Hoyer shrewdly attributes Germany’s emergence as economic superpower by the turn of the century to the humble Zollverein or customs union founded by Prussia in 1834, which became a major lever of political unification. Leading what is sometimes dubbed “the second Industrial Revolution”, Germany’s population, agriculture and industrial output grew exponentially, with German-made goods highly rated, especially brands such as Siemens, AEG and Bayer which are still respected today. German finance was led by Jewish bankers from a community that had become highly assimilated and even Christianised.
The rise of German capitalism was remarkable in being accompanied by Bismarck’s “state socialism”, an enlightened package of sickness, accident and old-age insurance for the working classes, which meant that the Social Democrats, the largest party in the Reichstag by 1912, became a largely loyal opposition to the Kaiser’s chancellor.
Bismarck had once declared that he had no intention to shackle “our trim and seaworthy frigate to the worm-eaten old battleship of Austria”. But this was precisely what happened under the volatile Wilhelm II, who unceremoniously dumped the Iron Chancellor in 1890. “The Kaiser is like a balloon,” Bismarck had complained. “If you don’t keep fast hold of the string, you never know where he will be off to.”
Once freed of Bismarck’s hold, Wilhelm II failed to keep his delicate balance at home or abroad. His personal rule with a succession of weak chancellors, limited only by the socialist-dominated Reichstag, lasted till the outbreak of World War I, after which he was sidelined by the German military high command. Despite all his faults, Hoyer reminds us that, on the eve of war, the Kaiser was widely popular, much admired for his enthusiasm for modern technology, and constantly travelling the length and breadth of Germany.
Hoyer’s analysis is at its best dissecting the foreign policy miscalculations that ended these boom years and landed the Kaiser and his subjects into a world war they still perceived as defensive. The key external threat German military planners had traditionally feared was a war on two fronts against both France and Russia. Bismarck had relied on German friendship with Britain and Russia to isolate France. Wilhelm relied on military deterrence instead. German naval expansion was seen as making Germany too strong to attack and thereby forcing Britain into alliance, rather than confrontation.
Similarly, German backing for Austria in the Balkans was seen as deterring, rather than inviting, Russian intervention. Russia’s neutrality would also ensure its ally France’s, since the French had no interest in the Balkans. But Russia’s unexpected decision to mobilise in support of Serbia triggered a chain reaction which brought the whole house of cards tumbling down. As the Schlieffen Plan for a quick invasion of France ground to a halt, Germany found itself facing the very war on both its eastern and western fronts that its strategists had most dreaded.
When war broke out and Britain, contrary to the Kaiser’s expectations, joined in, he stipulated that London must be exempt from Zeppelin bombing raids, lest any of his royal cousins be harmed. Humane or eccentric, Hoyer lets us judge.
She leaves us in no doubt of the enormous human, economic and political costs of the military defeat, with Germany losing 10 per cent of its population and 13 per cent of its land. And yet Bismarck’s nation-building ensured that Germany refused to fall apart. The path to the continuation of war 20 years later lay open.
An interesting footnote Hoyer reminds us of was the 1916 peace offer by Austria-Hungary, followed by Germany, which the Allies declined. Who knows, had it been accepted, whether three emperors might have kept their thrones and spared us the brutalities of both Nazism and the Bolshevik Revolution?
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