On the “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” of World War I

More than a century has now come and gone since the start of World War I.  Numerous books and articles have been published to mark the centennial, often differing sharply with each other in their interpretations of the events and personalities concerned.  My personal favorite is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark.  I’ve been reading quite a bit of the source material myself lately.  As I speak German, these have included memoirs of many of the key players on the German side.  In reading his book, I noticed that Clark was very familiar with everything I’d read.   I also noticed that everything I’ve read was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the material he quoted in detail.  Clark also generally refrains from categorizing every historical personality as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”  I avoid reading histories written by journalists, because so few of them manage to avoid this moralistic pigeonholing.   It’s much easier to understand historical events if, as Clark puts it in his introduction, one “remains alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described… carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.”

Not everyone agrees with Clark.  Even a century later there are others, even among professional historians, who remain obsessed with the question of “war guilt.”  For example, John C. G. Röhl, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, recently published a life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he insisted that Germany’s last Kaiser managed to concoct World War I almost single-handedly.  I’ve also seen several articles, such as this one that appeared on the conservative Australian Quadrant website, that are still harping about “German militarism” as if the war had ended yesterday.  If the Quadrant author is to be believed, the “ideological and cultural pathologies” of Wilhelmine Germany were direct forerunners of Nazism.

I doubt it.  Germany could certainly have broken the chain of events that led to war.  So could Austria-Hungary, and so could Russia.  The question of who, among these three, not to mention the other belligerents, was really the chief culprit was hardly as obvious in the days immediately preceding the clash of arms as the historians of the victorious powers so often asserted when it was over.  Writing two days after Russia had begun her “partial” mobilization in response to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Lord Bertie, at the time British ambassador in France, wrote in his diary,

It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians.  Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained.  Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs?  What rubbish!  And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.

A day later he wrote,

I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it.  The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war.  I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia.  If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.

In fact, that’s exactly how it looked to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.  As he noted in his memoirs, it was clear that if Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations to defend Austria against a Russian attack, it would certainly bring France into the war.  The Germans knew they would be facing a two front war, and reacted accordingly.  He also confirmed Bertie’s surmise about the conflict between the German civil and military officials in the days leading up to war.  In his words,

The foreign office… was so hypnotized by the idea of “peace at any price,” that it completely ruled out war as a possible element of Entente policy, and was therefore unable to correctly assess the signs that war was possible.  Therein lies yet another proof of Germany’s desire to preserve the peace.  This attitude of the foreign office gave rise to certain contradictions between it and the General Staff and the Admiralty, who gave warning as their duty required, and advised preparations for defense.  These difference persisted for some time.  The Army could never forget the fact that it was the fault of the foreign office that they had been surprised.  And the diplomats were piqued that war had come in spite of their efforts.

The memoirs of the Kaiser and some of the other key players in the war and the events leading up to it are often dismissed with a wave of the hand as mere justifications after the fact.  In fact, while self-justification is a typical motive, memoirs can’t simply be invented out of whole cloth, and invariably reveal a great deal about the character of the authors, regardless of how they choose to construe the facts.  Wilhelm was no angel.  He was paranoid, a narcissist, became an anti-Semite, especially after the war, and had an unfortunate penchant for bombast and bluster.  However, he was not the rabid warmonger portrayed by Röhl and many others, either.

Perhaps the most damaging indictment of Germany was written by her ambassador in Great Britain before the war, Prince Karl Lichnowsky.  His assessment, currently available under the title, The Guilt of Germany for the War of German Aggression, pointed out the folly of Germany’s crash naval building program in alienating England.  He saw the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as a man dedicated to preserving the peace, and an honest broker in his dealings with Germany and the other European powers.  Grey had suggested a conference of the powers, similar to the one that had preserved the peace of Europe during another spat over the Balkans a couple of years earlier, as a way to avoid war.  Lichnowsky considered Germany’s decision to refuse this offer suicidal, and a major contributing factor to the onset of war.  His assessment of Grey and British policy in general was probably a great deal more accurate than that of the Kaiser and the German foreign office.  Their paranoia about the supposed perfidious, anti-German intrigues of England’s King Edward VII and his foreign secretary is evident in the Kaiser’s as well as several other memoirs.  However, in spite of that, one cannot simply ignore the reply of von Jagow, German foreign secretary at the time, which is also included in the volume referred to above.  According to Jagow,

We could not agree to the English proposal of a conference of Ambassadors, for it would doubtless have led to a serious diplomatic defeat.  For Italy, too, (Germany’s ally at the time in the Triple Alliance with Austria, ed.) was pro-Serb and, with her Balkan interests, stood rather opposed to Austria… The best and only feasible way of escape was a localization of the conflict and an understanding between Vienna and Petrograd.  We worked toward that end with all our energy.

In retrospect, this “way of escape” may have appeared a great deal more “feasible,” in view of the fact that the actual alternative turned out to be Germany’s crushing defeat in the World War, but that outcome did not yet seem inevitable.  In fact, Germany did seek to localize the conflict, as is evident from the source material.  As for the German naval building program, I doubt that its aim was really to outstrip or seriously threaten British domination of the seas.  Again, one cannot simply dismiss what has been written about the subject on the German side.  According to the one man most often associated with the program, Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s battle fleet was necessary in order to protect her coast against a combination of France and Russia or any other two naval powers other than Great Britain.  She never aimed at more than an 8 to 5 ratio of naval power in favor of England, and would have been satisfied with 3 to 2.  There is no credible evidence that Tirpitz or the Kaiser aimed at anything beyond this.

There is a great deal of additional material in Tirpitz’ memoirs of interest to students of events leading up to the outbreak of war.  For example, he could not understand why Germany had not simply mobilized in response to the Russian mobilization, and left the moral odium of an actual declaration of war to its enemies.  In his words,

Did not (German Chancellor, ed.) Bethmann really consider the enormous disadvantages which were created for us by our not leaving the act of declaration of war to the enemy?… my feelings revolted at our having to assume the odium of the attacking party in the face of the world, on account of the jurists of the Foreign Office, although we could not at all intend to march into Russia, and although we were in reality the attacked party.  I therefore asked the Chancellor, as the meeting broke up, why the declaration of war had to coincide with our mobilization?  The Chancellor replied that this was necessary because the army would immediately send troops over the frontier.  The reply astonished me, because at the most it could only be a question of patrols.  But through these days Bethmann was so agitated and overstrained that it was impossible to speak with him.  I can still hear him as he repeatedly stressed the absolute necessity of the declaration of war, with his arms uplifted, and consequently cut short all further discussion.  When I asked Moltke afterwards the actual relation between the crossing of the frontier and our declaration of war, he denied any intention of sending troops over the frontier forthwith.  He also told me that he attached no value to the declaration of war from his own point of view.

Thus the riddle, why we declared war first, remains unsolved for me.  It is to be assumed that we did it out of formal legal consciousness.  The Russians began the war without any declaration, but we believed that we could not defend ourselves without such a statement.  Outside Germany there is no appreciation for such ideas.

That’s for sure!  In retrospect, it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning.  Unfortunately, I can’t write a complete history of the start of World War I in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Clark that the notion that it was all Germany’s fault, with Kaiser Wilhelm the “bad guy” extraordinaire, is nonsense.  There was plenty of blame to go around.  What’s the point?  I suppose that I tend to be dubious of the value of morality tales posing as history.  In reality, there are no good guys and bad guys.  The terms “good” and “bad” are artifacts of the human tendency to attribute objectivity to moral judgments.  In fact, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, but are better understood as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  I read history to gain an understanding of why things happened the way they did, and what motivated individuals to act the way they did.  That information is often lost in works that seek to portray certain individuals as “good,” and others as “bad.”  Understanding of real human beings and the complexity of human motivations and behavior are sacrificed when one seeks to create a collection of wooden puppets that all fit neatly in one of these two moral pigeonholes.


2 thoughts on “On the “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” of World War I”

  1. I have to disagree with you. I think we can legitimately do both things: yes, let us try to understand the motivations and actions of those statesmen, without intrusion of moralism; but also and separately we can aim to judge or assess them. The two need to be kept separate, of course, in case we end up with a mish-mash that does neither very well.

  2. If you are speaking of moral judgments or assessments, there is no objective basis for making them. OTH, I think a case can be made for using moral emotions as a weapon, so to speak, to defeat ideologies such as Nazism and Communism that most sane people would regard as threats. People aren’t suddenly going to grasp what their moral emotions really are, and why they exist, overnight.

    As for Kaiser Wilhelm, I think you can tell that my personal moral emotions regarding him aren’t the same as those of, for example, Professor Röhl. I lived in Germany for some time, and think I can recognize the type, although he was certainly extreme in some ways. As for German “militarism,” a similar type of “militarism” existed among the political and military elite of all the countries involved at the time.

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