The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Every week of the war a new character


The First World War in 261 weeks is originally a Dutch podcast by Tom Tacken (, translated by Peter Veltman.

Every week of the war a new character, introduced by the main events of that particular week. The series was supposed to run from 28 June 2014 (shooting at Sarajevo) till 28 June 2019 (Treaty of Versailles). 

Unfortunately episode 56 is the last one. Who knows, one day we will be able to relaunch this project ‘with a little help from our friends’. Interested in episodes 1-56 (doc + mp3)? Send an email to and in return for a small contribution we’ll give you access to 14 hours of listening to the Great War. Just decide for yourself how much you can spare for the renaissance of The First World War in 261 Weeks. Thanks!

056 Elsbeth Schragmueller and what we do not know about the war

Download this episode (right click and save)

Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Little army of spies achieves small successes 

It is Sunday 18 July 1915. It is the 56th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German generals August von Mackensen and Max von Gallwitz make new conquests in the Polish regions.

There is heavy fighting around the fortified town of Ivangorod 160 kilometres from St Petersburg.

In the Second Battle of the Isonzo the Austrians first lose Monte San Michele and regain it again from the Italians a day later.

After the conquest of Nasiriyah on the Turks, the British in Mesopotamia decide to advance to the town of Kut al-Imara, the next stop before Baghdad.

Bulgaria declares itself neutral again, after Tsar Ferdinand I has received the German ambassador of Constantinople in Sofia.

In a reaction to news about German excesses in Belgium, American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt considers his neutral fellow countrymen accomplices.

The employers to a large extent bow to the wage demands of the striking miners in Wales as a result of the intervention of Lloyd George.

With German-Turkish support the Senussi, an order of Sufis, attack Italian garrisons in what is now called Lybia.

And in Antwerp, outside everybody’s visual field, a German spy school is run by the mysterious Elsbeth Schragmüller.

Fräulein Doktor’s story is as exciting as it is tragic. She is Germany’s most secret agent, who scared the French so much as Mademoiselle Docteur. As a young woman she gave birth to a dead baby. She is turned out into the street by her parents. Then she throws herself into the arms of a cavalry captain, who leads a double life as a spy. But her lover dies and she herself gets addicted to drugs, which does not prevent her from building a career as a German secret agent in the First World War. She seduces allied officers and between the sheets she extracts strategic information from them.

Meanwhile Fräulein Doktor also recruits other spies for the Germans and brings the enemy’s secret agents down. She pretends to be an art history student and experiences exciting adventures in the Balkans, Belgium and France. In Paris she manages to penetrate the office of the French counter-intelligence as a cleaning lady. Again from Barcelona she conducts a secret operation on the western front under the guise of the Red Cross. But then war is over and Fräulein Doktor cannot handle the defeat. She dies anonymously in a Swiss sanatorium, addicted and exhausted.

There you are, the story in a nutshell. The reality is completely different, not to say a lot more boring. Fräulein Doktor indeed existed, but to begin with, her name was not Annemarie Lesser, as writer Hans Rudolph Berndorff in 1929 fantasized in his book, which formed the basis for a play and five films. Elsbeth Schragmüller was her real name. She was not exposed to real danger. She was not made for carnal love and for drugs she was much too conscientious.

What made Elsbeth Schragmüller special was the high position she occupied as a woman within the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle Antwerpen, which was taken for a mysterious spy school. It was in that office that Miss Schragmüller fanatically and painstakingly moulded her students into moles. She must have been good at her job, though the implications of her results remain cloudy.

Schragmüller comes from a distinguished family and belongs to the first generation of women who graduated from university. When war breaks out she wants to do more than just bring water to the boys who are leaving for the front by train. She goes to Brussels on her own and there succeeds in reaching military governor Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Via him she gets a mysterious job. She impresses and is taken higher and higher in the hierarchy of intelligence.

A year before the war she had got a doctoral degree in political science, which is why she was addressed in Antwerp as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. This title was above all functional, for nobody needed to know her true identity, but it also contributed to the myth of the femme fatale. German agents, who had been found out, talked to the French about conversations with a young woman who had introduced herself to them as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. Then rumours appeared in the French newspapers about an enigmatic beauty on the banks of the river Schelde. ‘The blonde siren of Antwerp’, ‘the red tigress’, ‘la grande patronnesse’, no holds of the imagination were barred.

Spy madness is a phenomenon of the First World War anyway. The enemy is among us! With hidden hand this treacherous warrior in the dark spreads death and destruction! In the years preceding the war the English had already been caught up in espionage literature. In the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands for example, the Germans secretly prepare an invasion of England from the German Wadden Islands. The book, which is regarded as the first modern thriller, becomes incredibly popular. This is why it not only represents widespread paranoia among the British, but also a historic diverging of opinions.

Together with the Prussians they had defeated Napoleon. Now the Germans were the arch enemy, determined to repeat what William the Conqueror had succeeded in doing a very long time ago in the year 1066: invade England. A salient detail is that Erskine Childers, writer of The Riddle of the Sands, would die before a firing squad in 1922 because of his activitities as an Irish nationalist during the Civil War in Eire. This was to the satisfaction of Winston Churchill, who thought nobody had brought more damage to the Irish people than Childers, the man that had actually made clear to the English that they should fear the Germans.

Despite the widespread fascination for spies, the First World War seemed to have come too early for 007. Espionage in the Great War was rather the work of pathetic amateurs than of skillful intelligence officers, though of course it is true that we know less of the top notch spies than of the nincompoops.

In any case Mata Hari was one of those who did not stand a chance. As agent H21 she is said to have been taken care of by Elsbeth Schragmüller. Fräulein Doktor will not have had much confidence in the coquettish and extremely naive nudie of Dutch descent. And it would have been not very likely that Schragmüller shed a tear when the French executed Mata Hari in 1917.

Much earlier in the war Karl Lody had been treated in the same way by the British. In November 1914 Lody had the questionable honour to be the first man in 150 years who was executed within the walls of the Tower of London. He had almost openly applied for his death sentence. As a tourist, cycling around Edinburgh, carrying an American passport, Lody asked the local Scots everything under the sun. His letters, addressed to a contact in Sweden, were effortlessly intercepted by the British.

Lody had no understanding of invisible ink and encrypted codes. The letter in which he enthusiastically wrote that trains filled with Russians were going to the south of England was allowed to pass. The British were all too eager to leave such a fantastic wrong track. The Russian auxiliary troops were absolute nonsense that was circulating among the British people. In Carlisle they supposedly asked for vodka, and in Durham they were said to have put a rouble in a gas meter. One of the most fantastic stories was that the snow from back home still stuck on the boots of the Russians when they landed in Scotland. Man is gullible in times of war.

Already before the Great War the German spy network had surfaced in England. When Wilhelm II visited London in 1911, an old navy officer from the imperial entourage remarkably often popped into a third-rate barber’s shop. It was therefore relatively easy for the British counter intelligence to identify the German under cover agents. On 4 August 1914, the first day of the war, it had been a matter of rounding them up. Then the important task lay ahead of Lody to fill the intelligence gap for the Vaterland. It did not really agree with him.

After Lody nine more German spies would be executed in the Tower of London, among whom the Dutchmen Janssen and Roos. In May 1915 they had crossed the Channel as so-called cigar dealers, but they were found out on the other side pretty quickly. They appeared to know a lot more about ships than about cigars.

Far away from the front the lone warrior was all too often in the dark. Obviously the war was not influenced substantially by secret information from individuals. There were occasional successes. Marthe Richard was a French spy who among other  things succeeded in eliminating a submarine by sleeping with a German navy attaché.

Louise de Bettignies, a lady from a French aristocratic family, is also worth mentioning. She was recruited by the British and from Lille, in the north of France, became the hub of an imposing espionage network. On various occasions she herself crossed the lines to the Netherlands and even England to report on the enemy. When the Germans caught her in October 1915, they decided to keep her alive. Earlier that month the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell had given the Germans an appalling press. And yet Louise de Bettignies would not survive the war. In September 1918 she died in a German prison of typhoid fever and pneumonia.

None of the spies from the First World War could in any way be compared to a master traitor like Alfred Redl. Widely praised, this former head of the Austro-Hungarian counter intelligence was identified as a double agent in May 1913. Immediately after his exposure the Austrian authorities gave him the chance to shoot himself through the mouth. A blunder, for in this way it remained unclear how big the exact damage was that Redl had inflicted on the Dual Monarchy.

Or was the smell of the cesspool too terrible to have it emptied competely by Redl? Himself blackmailed by the Russians  because of a homosexual relationship, Redl in his turn must have succeeded in blackmailing the head of the Russian secret service. Whatever the case, it is likely that the Austrian misfortunes in the beginning of the war can be attributed to a large extent to Redl. Thanks to Redl the Russians had been completely informed of the Austrian strategy.

If being a spy can be called a profession, it took long before working conditions would come into view. In 1907 the Hague Convention provided judicial protection. From now on spies that had been taken prisoner had a right to a fair trial. This did not lead to an abundance of mercy in the First World War. In 1917 the Germans shot 52 Belgians for espionage in the town of Ghent alone.

After the war Elsbeth Schragmüller remains unmarried. Living at home with her father and mother she continues her academic career, but this is broken off again for no apparent reasons. In 1929 she accounts for her wartime activities. In an article in the publication ‘Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen’ (What we do not know about the world war), she reveals that she is the woman about whom so much nonsense is in circulation. Without going into detail Fräulein Doktor relates of the ‘intellectual delight’ that went hand in hand with the debriefing of secret agents in the interrogating room. ‘We asked ourselves political, economic and military questions. You should never forget for a second with whom you were talking.’

After the publication of the book she also gives lectures about her wartime experiences. In a newspaper article from 1931 it is reported that the slender, tall, blonde woman is a war invalid. It remains unclear, however, how she got these injuries. According to the German writer Hanne Hieber, who did research into Fräulein Doktor, there is not even a photograph of Elsbeth Schragmüller, apart from a family portrait from her childhood years.

A brother of hers is one of the victims in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Hitler’s ruthless liquidation of numerous political enemies. The Fraülein who never became a Frau on the side of a husband dies in her house in Munich in 1940, probably as the result of tuberculosis.

Would she have returned to her old craft in the Second World War? Who knows. It will always be difficult to ascertain what moved this mystifying woman ideologically. And of course also the grave of Elsbeth Schragmüller remains silent.

For the moment this was the last episode of The First World War in 261 Weeks. 

Tom Tacken (special thanks to Peter Veltman for translating 56 stories from Dutch into English)


055 Emmeline Pankhurst and the disgrace of the white feather

Download this episode (right click and save)

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

It is Sunday 11 July 1915. It is the 55th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian airplanes bomb Venice again.

Sir John French tries to persuade French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre in vain to postpone a new attack until 1916.

A newly formed Third Army of the British, under the command of General Charles Monro, takes over a part of the front between Arras and the Somme from the French.

There is news about skirmishes between British-Belgian and German troops north of Rhodesia.

In Aden on the Arabian peninsula, the Sultan of Lahej dies after being wounded in a Turkish attack.

The Germans suffer heavy losses in their vain attempt to reach the other side of the Flemish river Yser.

In the Argonne the Germans attack again.

Two British warships return to the Rufiji delta in East Africa to finish an earlier job, sinking the German cruiser Königsberg.

German General Max von Gallwitz advances towards the Narew river, a tributary of the Vistula, part of an immense German effort along the front between the Baltic regions and Bukovina.

And ‘the Right to Serve’ is demanded in London by demonstrating women, led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Subscribers to The First World War in 261 Weeks receive this episode (doc + mp3) by email.

054 Lord Kitchener and the seamless sock

Download this episode (right click and save)

Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

It is Sunday 4 July 1915. It is the 54th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting in the Argonne gets bogged down.

After five days of attacking on the Isonzo front, the Italians have hardly been able to make progress, despite their overpowering dominance.

General Luigi Cadorna adamantly starts a new offensive with his Second Army, but again he encounters heavy resistance from the Austrians.

In the East African Rufiji delta two British warships, supported by four airplanes, turn their guns on German cruiser Königsberg, but do no succeed in eliminating the ship.

The British conquer trenches at Pilkem in the Westhoek (Flemish Flanders).

The army of the Austrian Archduke Joseph Ferdinand is defeated at Kraśnik.

The Sultan of Egypt, Hussein Kamel, again survives an assault.

The political and military leaders of Great Britain and France meet at a conference in Calais.

The German capitulation in South West Africa is a reality, but General Louis Botha allows the German reservists to keep their weapons and ammunition so that they can defend themselves against the ‘natives’.

And again an appeal is made to the virile part of the British nation by Lord Kitchener.

Subscribers to The First World War in 261 Weeks receive this episode (doc + mp3) by email.

053 Luigi Cadorna and the fate of every tenth man

Download this episode (right click and save)

Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Italian high command shows merciless discipline  

It is Sunday 27 June 1915. It is the 53rd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

The Forest of Argonne between the Champagne and Lorraine is the stage of a German offensive, where also lieutenant Erwin Rommel plays a part as commander of a regiment. 

Army group Mackensen advances in Galicia, while the Austrians are fully occupied with the Russians between the rivers Bug and Vistula. 

During a war meeting in Posen the German kaiser decides to continue the offensive in the east, but he prefers the plans of his Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn to the strategy of the royal couple Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

Parliament in London agrees to a munitions law which makes British industry subject to the importance of the war effort by limiting the freedom of both employers and employees considerably. 

In Stockholm a British committee arrives to discuss trade relations with neutral Sweden. 

The South African campaign in German South West Africa is concluded with a victory near Otavi.

And after a seven-day bombardment the Italians start the attack on the town of Gorizia, near Trieste, under the command of the ruthless General Luigi Cadorna.

When in 1961 historian Alan Clark expressed his view on the First World War, he gave his book the significant title Lions led by donkeys. He borrowed this sneer from a conversation the two German generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann are said to have had. When Ludendorff remarked that the British soldiers fought like lions, Hoffmann is supposed to have replied: ‘True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys’.

There is some serious doubt whether this short dialogue actually took place, but the picture remains. To many the Great War is essentially the story of brave front soldiers and gutless chateau generals. But other opinions can also be heard. The writer James Hayward for example sees in the simplification of lions and donkeys a superficial and damaging war myth. According to him it ignores the fact that the commanders of the Great War found it hard to use the latest technologies and tactics in a war of an unprecedented scale. Generally speaking they made the most of it. So Hayward says.

Whatever new insights historians may gain, it is to be hoped that they will at least keep one donkey in the stable. His name is Luigi Cadorna, the commander in chief of the Italian army, though the king held that position in name. The monarch was also the only person of authority to whom Cadorna wished to be accountable. No other commanding officer showed such lack of compassion, such disdain for especially his own soldiers as Luigi Cadorna.

The Italians are considered the worst led, wordt fed, worst clad and worst equipped soldiers in the Great War. Understanding each other was already a problem. Different dialects kept the ranks divided. It is in favour of Cadorna that already long before the war he had stressed the appalling condition of the Italian army. But it speaks against him that this was no reason for him to treat his human resources with the utmost care.

Cadorna’s most gruesome exploit is decimation, to which he urged his commanding officers in the field. Decimation is a ruthless form of castigation, going back to the days of the Romans, though they must have used it sparingly. In units that failed collectively every tenth man was picked out and mercilessly executed. That should teach the comrades to perform better in the next attack.

It is reminiscent of the executions of traumatized boys, who at the moment suprême did not have the guts to leave the trenches. Shot at dawn. Those were the words written by the administrators after the names of these so-called deserters. But the complete arbitrariness of decimation concealed an additional dimension of ruthlessness. The heart-rending executions have been presented by the American writer Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway borrowed from his own experiences. He was active on the Italian front for the Red Cross.

It was sheer terror that Cadorna unleashed on his own troops. And there were other methods to maintain discipline as well. During an attack he ordered machine guns to be put up behind their own lines. Whoever stayed behind during an offensive, risked being shot in the back. It must be said though that this was not an exclusively Italian custom. If the enemy took an Italian prisoner, his fate was certainly not to be denied. This was because Italian high command refused to send food parcels to their own soldiers who were taken prisoner of war, as was customary in other countries. Cadorna feared that these parcels would fuel the urge among his troops to capitulate.

Italian high command had a deeply rooted distrust of their own men. Cadorna dismissed 217 generals during the war. Between 1915 and 1918 330,000 Italian soldiers were accused of having committed a criminal offence, of whom 61 per cent were declared guilty. No other warring country showed such callous statistics.

Cadorna himself had no significant combat experience, but he was of a military family. His father was no less a person than Raffaele Cadorna, who conquered Rome on the papal troops in 1870. Raffaele’s heroic status added extra lustre to his son Luigi. But now the war against the Austrians offered junior the opportunity to actually follow in his father’s footsteps.

The border between Austria and Italy was 650 kilometres long. Two regions qualified for an Italian offensive. One of the two, Trentino, was abondoned because the mountain passes there were heavily defended by the Austrians. Throughout the war the Italians had to take Austrian counter attacks into account in this part of South Tyrol. For his offensive strategy Cadorna stuck to the valley of the Isonzo river, which has its source in Slovenia and flows via Italy into the Adriatic Sea. The Julian Alps appear behind it. That must have been an attractive perspective for Cadorna, conquering the Alps of Julius Caesar.

The fighting along the Austro-Italian front extended into the high mountains. The Great War started to use Hunters of the Alps on skis, while heavy artillery had to be hoisted across rocks with the greatest possible effort. In 2008 Mark Thompson’s book The White War appeared. This white war took place on impossible territory, barren and cold. ‘Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders,’ Thompson writes, ‘tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer.’ It should be added that in this landscape of peeks and valleys the Italians were usually on lower ground and the Austrians high up.

It was a military challenge the greatest genius would have had to work extremely hard on. But the Italians were lumbered with Luigi Cadorna. And his tactics were roughly the following: order as many soldiers as possible to attack on a front as wide as possible  until the other yields. Exhaustion as a battle plan did not work with the Italians either. Cadorna did not get any further than deadlocks.

Italy just could not cope with modern warfare. Its army consisted of barely a million soldiers, who could hardly rely on any artillery to back them up. The Italian industry was a long way behind the western countries, while also agriculture lacked resilience. As it would be a short war, the Italians could not care much. But the quick campaign grew into an exhausting battle of equipment, for which Italy did not have the raw materials. It was not until the winter of 1915-1916 that the Italian government managed to start some form of economic mobilization.

There was hardly any lack of pathos. The high priest of Italian nationalism was called Gabriele D’Annunzio. This ‘pornographer of the war’ wrote.: ‘Where masses of butchered flesh fall apart, new life ferments in a sublime manner.’ Cadorna may have expressed it a bit less poetically, but to him human sacrifice was also a form of purification which his tender-hearted Italy could use well.

He tried eleven battles on the Isonzo in order to break through the Austrian lines. When reconstructing them one by one, an occasional Italian success can be found. During the sixth Isonzo battle for example Gorizia was taken, but the objective, the town of Trieste with the Istria peninsula behind it, would never come within reach. Cadorna could afford eleven fruitless massacres around an otherwise idyllic river, which glistens in the sun like an emerald, 140 kilometres long. Cadorna’s tormentor on the other side was Austrian Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević, one of the generals from the Great War who was an absolute master in defending. The specialty of the Croatian field marshal was to recapture as quickly as possible what the enemy had taken with great difficulty.

When in August 1917 the Austrians finally appear to have become numbed, the Germans come to their rescue. During the twelfth Isonzo battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, the tide turns. In October and November the Central Powers break through the Cadorna lines with unimaginable ease. Now the effect of his merciless discipline on troop morale also becomes apparent: 265,000 men were taken prisoner. An even larger number deserted. The loss of equipment was in proportion.

The Italian government then thinks the time is right to look around for a new commander in chief. Rome has come to this realization under pressure of especially the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Cadorna’s final order of the day is ‘to die but not to bend’.  After him Armando Diaz can try a different approach. Diaz indeed shows compassion for his soldiers. Despite all previous losses, Italy embraces the war in the last year as it has never done before.

Cadorna may have left the front, but his role is certainly not yet over. He travels to Versailles, where on the initiative of the British Prime Minister Lloyd George the Supreme War Council of the allied forces is created. The immediate reason for these joint crisis deliberations is Caporetto.

After the war Cadorna finally ends in the witness box, when from an official investigation into the Caporetto debacle an accusing finger points in his direction. It fills him with sadness. Self-reflection is still not known to the old general. Napoleon would not have done better than he. If his troops had shown more stamina, it would have ended better on the Isonzo. But Cadorna thought that the army was like the people, not to be trusted.

This requires at least some explanation. The Caporetto defeat had been preceded by serious rioting in Turin. They had been Russian situations, but in Italy the army had been prepared to nip a revolution in the bud firmly: 41 dead and over 200 wounded.

Sulking about the defeatism and faint-heartedness of the Italians Luigi Cadorna starts on his memoirs. And then in 1924 he receives a great honour. In the first year of the war the British have already raised him to the peerage in The Most Honourable Order of Bath. Now Italy’s new commander-in-chief Benito Mussolini appoints him Field Marshal, a title which Il Duce also has in store for Armando Diaz.

In 1928 Cadorna complacently dies at the age of 78. Four years later a mausoleum is opened in his honour. It is on the Lago Maggiore, not far from the place where Luigi was born. One can of course visit the mausoleum, but then again one can also abstain from doing so.

Next week: Lord Kitchener

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)




052 Walter Rathenau and the raw materials for a war

Walter Rathenau

Walter Rathenau

Reconciliation vain hope in Germany

 It is Sunday 20 June 1915. It is the 52nd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

During an attack on Gallipoli the French lose 2,500 men, but the Turks have to sacrifice almost double that number for their defence.

Lemberg, present-day Lviv in the Ukraine, falls into the hands of the Austrians again.

In Galicia the Eighth Army and Eleventh Army of the Russians beat the retreat.

German submarine U-40 thinks they are stopping a British trawler in the North Sea, but in reality this Taranaki is a Q-ship, a decoy vessel, which is in direct contact with a British submarine, which will torpedo U-40.

In East Africa British troops ‘celebrate’ a hard-won victory on the Germans with rape and pillaging in the port of Bukoba on Lake Victoria.

On the Isonzo front, between the Adriatic Sea and Monte Santo, the Italians start a large-scale attack  with an artillery bombardment.

Under pressure of parliament, the Duma, Tsar Nicholas II discharges his Minister of War, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, who is the man responsible for the deplorable state in which the Russian army went to battle.

And in Germany the industrialist Emil Rathenau dies, after which the management of the AEG-concern is passed on to his son Walther Rathenau.

‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau, die gottverdammte Judensau’. Those are the nauseating lyrics that mark the transition from the First to the Second World War. On 24 June 1922 Walther Rathenau is indeed shot dead like a damned Jewish pig. With his death the hope for lasting peace after a Great War is drowned. Of course this is an interpretation in hindsight, but also in the Weimar Republic of those days the assassination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was like a blow with a sledgehammer, though Rathenau was not the first or last politician to be killed in the new Germany.

It is also tempting to draw a parallel between the murder of Walther Rathenau and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, eight years earlier. Then it was Sarajevo, now it is Berlin. In both cases a handful of young conspirators, affected by extreme-nationalistic ideals. Then it was The Black Hand, now Organisation Consul. In Berlin the terrorists have not come on foot, but they drive their car by the side of Rathenau’s. One attacker opens fire, while the other throws a grenade. Then it was the starting signal for a war, now it is a shot in the back for peace.

Who was Walther Rathenau? In his own words: ‘I am a German of Jewish descent. My people is the German people. My Fatherland is Germany. And my religion is that German faith which is above all religious.’ And in his mother’s words, which she wrote to the mother of one of the assassins: ‘My son was the noblest man the earth bore.’ And finally in the words of publicist Sebastian Haffner: ‘He was an aristocratic revolutionary, an idealistic economic planner, a Jew who was a German patriot who was a liberal citizen of the world… He combined within himself qualities that in another person would have been dangerously incompatible. In him, the synthesis of a whole sheaf of cultures and philosophies became not thought, not deed, but a person.’

You could also call Walther Rathenau one of the most tragic characters of the twentieth century. A key figure in any case, in whom all hope and despair are joined. A Jew who could not be a German. The patriot who was seen as a traitor. The bachelor who passed for a homosexual. The captain of industry, who was in pursuit of a more just society. The war planner, who afterwards wanted to secure peace, but was not supposed to succeed in this.

He was born a child of a time that became more and more modern at a rapid pace. His father, Emil Rathenau, was introduced to Thomas Alva Edison’s electric light bulb in 1881. He immediately saw its potential and succeeded in acquiring the German rights. Two years later he founded the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft, the AEG. When Emil Rathenau dies on 20 June 1915, his son Walther is the first man of the company, also in name. In fact he had already reached that position years before the war. But also outside the company Rathenau the younger had made his mark as a visionary economist, who had empowered the German economy especially through the formation of cartels. In the long run he also foresaw a mid-European customs union, with Germany as the epicentre.

Rathenau was also a cultured and well-read man. He painted, played the piano, wrote poetry and books on politics, philosophy and economics. As an intellectual and a society figure he was in touch with distinguished artists and writers. Author Joseph Roth once said about Rathenau: ‘In everything he read or wrote, there was always the urge to reconcile’. And yet it was this very man who supported the German war economy as no other. There are historians who maintain that Germany would have been swept away in the first year of the First World War, if Walther Rathenau had not raised his finger.

In August 1914 Rathenau is the man chosen to keep the German war machine afloat. After Krupp, his own AEG becomes the biggest supplier to the army and the navy. But Rathenau’s war effort extends itself to far beyond his own company. When the British trade block forces the Germans to cut their coats according to their cloth, Rathenau introduces the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, the KRA, in the German Ministry of War. He starts this Raw Materials for War Department with three employees and after some sampling he comes to the conclusion that German industry will have bled to death within six months. At the end 2,500 people are employed by the KRA and Germany can face up to the war. In October 1915 The Times calls Rathenau’s KRA ‘one of the best ideas of modern times’. Rathenau was personally in charge until March 1915.

Rathenau masters recycling and finding Ersatz raw materials to perfection. Companies have to present their balance of raw materials on a monthly basis. That is also the core of his influential management philosophy: separation of ownership and control.

He had warned that war would break out. On 1 August 1914 he wrote in his diary that he was very pessimistic about what was to come. But Rathenau, too, will embrace the war as a purification of the narrow-minded middle-class. We see him again as a true patriot, a hawk even, who recommends, for example, to use tens of thousands of Belgians as forced labour in German industry. He gets along extremely well with Erich Ludendorff, who will implement the war agenda together with Paul von Hindenburg.

Walther Rathenau wants to be more German than German. Already in 1897 he called upon the Jews of Germany to assimilate completely in the German people, who he admired for their courage and robustness. This pamphlet was called ‘Höre, Israel’. Later he would be ashamed of it. This embarrassment went hand in hand with the painful awareness that antisemitism was unavoidable, that he, too, was doomed to remain a second-rate citizen in Germany. Bernhard von Bülow, Reich’s Chancellor in the first decade of the twentieth century, remembered his first meeting with him. Rathenau introduced himself as follows: ‘Let me, before I am honoured by the favour of being received by you, make a statement that is at the same time a confession.’ Then he paused for a little while. ‘Your Highness, I am a Jew.’

He should never have been able to get through to the officer’s exam, but now, thanks to the war, he had the rank of general. Could it be that the war provided new opportunities for a fairer society for everyone? Rathenau, who had seen his political aspirations go up into thin air before the war, must have believed in it. But he was terribly wrong.

Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War the German government was under pressure of the right wing to scrutinize the war effort of Jews with a Judenzählung. Later it would become clear that more Jews had left the war dead, wounded or decorated than could have been expected on the basis of their numbers in society. But the picture of the treacherous Jew, ducking away, was ineradicable, creating its own dynamics. An increasing number of Jews started to long for a new Germany, a post-war Germany.

Meanwhile at the end of the war Walther Rathenau turns against a hasty armistice. He thinks that a Germany that keeps on fighting could secure better conditions with the allies. That attitude will indeed sidetrack him in the years following the war. It is Catholic Chancellor Joseph Wirth who calls upon him in 1921 to  tackle the reconstruction of Germany. Erfüllungspolitik would be part of the game. Wirth and Rathenau think that it would be advisable if Germany complied with the provisions of Versailles, including the war reparations, as best as possible. Their Germany would have to walk the extra mile and reconcile with the new realities. That policy turns them into traitors of the German cause for every rightwinger. When on top of that Rathenau concludes a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1922, the red Jew’s reputation as a traitor is a fait accompli. The extreme-right free corps march the streets, singing ‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau’.

According to British ambassador Edgar d’Abernon, Rathenau knew he was going to be assassinated. He had told him often enough. A month before his death papal nuncio Eugenio Pacelli also paid a visit to Chancellor Wirth. A priest had told the later Pope Pius XII that there was a conspiracy against minister Rathenau of Foreign Affairs. Wirth then insisted that Rathenau started working on extra police protection, but the latter continued to refuse.

On the day of his funeral hundreds of thousands of workers paraded the streets of the German towns. It was a protest against political violence and a tribute to the man the new democracy had needed so badly, a man who had promised them a just society where an even distribution of property and income were both morally and economically imperative.

In the decade after his death Walther Rathenau remained a subject of worship. His death inspired democratic Germans to be vigilant. Already a day after the attack Chancellor Wirth had told the Reichstag where the danger came from in the new Germany: ‘The enemy is on the right.’ And we now know that he did not just stand there.

Once in power the nazis turned Walther Rathenau’s assassins into heroes. Two of them, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, had fled after the attack. They had not succeeded in leaving the country and had decided to get away by bike. Both went into hiding in an old castle ruin in Thuringia, but soon the couple became too conspicuous. In a gunfight with the police Kern was shot in the head, after which Fischer ended his own life. From the castle tower they had called out to Germany: ‘We will die for our ideals.’

Next week: Luigi Cadorna

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



051 Kick Schröder and his sense of independence

Kick Schröder

Kick Schröder

The Dutch guard neutrality 

It is Sunday 13 June 1915. It is the 51st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Army Group Mackensen crushes General Nikolai Ivanov’s men in Galicia, while also at Lviv, Lemberg in German, the Russians are put under pressure by the Austrians.

In Artois a French bombardment of the troops of Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, lacks precision, but a Moroccan division of General Philippe Pétain will succeed in reaching the top of Vimy Ridge after all.

Two days later General Ferdinand Foch realizes that his armies cannot get through at Artois, which he largely blames on the failure of the British at Aubers and Festubert.

The Germans transfer troops from the east to the west because of the successes in Galicia.

At the Isonzo Front a huge effort of the Italians to conquer Hill 383 is not rewarded.

Lloyd George takes the oath as Minister of Munitions and with his French colleague Albert Thomas he immediately synchronizes the clocks at a conference in Boulogne.

In the Alsatian Vosges Mountains the Germans leave the village of Metzeral after setting fire to the houses.

And in the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf a flaming article is published against the Germans, signed by editor-in-chief Kick Schröder.

‘There is a group of unscrupulous villains in the centre of Europe, who have caused this war. In the interest of humankind, to which our country belongs, if we are not mistaken, it is essential that these criminals are eliminated. It is the honourable job of the Allies to do this, so that they, too, wage war directly in the interest of the Netherlands ‘par excellence’, our autonomy, which will be over, if German militarism wins. Our battle is against these criminals. It is against them that our sense of independence has to be mobilised.’

What the editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf wrote in his own columns is by no means very mild. It is 16 June 1915 and Mr Kick Schröder is putting a cat among the Dutch pigeons, which the government indeed wants to keep as far away from each other as possible. Even the tabloid press is expected to respect neutrality. But Schröder will not accept ‘fear’ and ‘pettiness’ and ‘Prussian censorship’, which applies to the Dutch newspapers according to him. Schröder will not accept neutrality either. He thinks independence should be the goal of Dutch politics. He mainly targets the companies that secretly continue exporting goods to Germany.

It is usually taken to be true that Dutch journalism prefered the secure middle way in the war. In ‘De Donkere Poort’ (The Dark Gate), a 1931 study of the Netherlands in 1914-1918, author P.H.Ritter quotes the example of De Limburger Koerier. This regional newspaper one day received a letter from the Comité Catholique de Propagande Française. The idea is to place articles that were positive towards the French cause in exchange for well-paid advertisements. Ritter then writes: ‘De Limburger Koerier was one of the ‘beneficiaries’, but the newspaper dismissed these practices with contempt, as did the entire Dutch press, which appeared not to be susceptible to such bribery.’

Then there is the writer Paul Moeyes who states in his much more recent study ‘Buiten Schot’ (‘Out of harm’s way’) that the position of the Dutch newspapers has been ‘exemplary neutrality’. De Telegraaf could be considered the exception to the rule, which was also to be said for De Toekomst (The Future) at the other end of the spectrum. But this strongly anti-English newspaper counted a much smaller number of readers.

It is Joan Hemels, professor of communication sciences, who knocked the image of the immaculate national press off its pedestal. In his farewell lecture, which he gave in March 2009, Hemels argued that ‘the picture of the neutral position of Dutch journalism urgently needed correcting’. According to Hemels Austria-Hungary bribed quite a few Dutch journalists, which is remarkable. The dual monarchy is said to have sent numerous biased press releases into the world via the Hollands Nieuwsbureau (Dutch News Agency). Propaganda under the cover of objectivity. Cheque book journalism with a view to creating an enemy.

But the British greased their propaganda machine best. The Germans did their utmost, too, but completely lost the battle for public opinion worldwide. In September 1914 it could be read in the Kölnische Volkszeitung how the Belgian citizens had rampaged: ‘They tore out the eyes of German soldiers, they cut off their ears, noses, fingers, genitals or ripped open their bodies.’

The word itself is not enough. The injustice should also be depicted. A Belgian girl, her chopped off hands stretched out to heaven, becomes an icon of German barbarism. Satirical newspaper cartoons get vicious traits. The Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers becomes world famous with his drawings in which he presents the Hun as a pig, devil or butcher. The Germans are so enraged that in 1915 they put a prize on the head of the Dutchman. But Raemaekers received generous praise from former American president Theodore Roosevelt. He said in April 1917: ‘The cartoons of Louis Raemaekers constitute the most powerful of the honourable contributions made by neutrals to the cause of civilisation in the World War.’ In that particular year Raemaekers happens to be in the United States. With his pictures he wants to prepare the country for participation in the war. At the end of 1917 over two thousand papers worldwide publish his cartoons on a regular basis.

Raemaekers’ paper in the Netherlands is De Telegraaf, which is owned by Hak Holdert, a true press mogul. Just as Schröder Holdert hated the Germans, though he was still alive when De Telegraaf made its columns available in fact for the German occupier in the Second World War.

As editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf Kick Schröder is a man with a flaming pen and a fiery beard. One of his pseudonyms is Barbarossa. Via sports he found his way to journalism. Schröder played cricket and soccer at a high level. How British can you get. In 1894 he was captain of a Dutch soccer team, which has entered into the annals as the first still unofficial Orange.

Schröder was the son of a German baker, who in the middle of the nineteenth century had moved to the Netherlands. ‘At home they spoke German’, explains his grandson, also called Kick Schröder. ‘As an Amsterdam boy he was ashamed of this. His hatred against anything German and despotic dates from his youth.’

Already in the beginning of 1915 Schröder got in trouble with a soldier who had trumpeted in a bar that De Telegraaf was paid by the English government to rouse public feelings for the allies. Schröder successfully took the man to court. The soldier withdrew the allegation.

And yet Schröders strong anti-German tone eventually gets him in trouble with the law. Prime Minister Cort van der Linden could not survive the German pressure to end the slander of De Telegraaf. German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gottlieb von Jagow, indirectly informed The Hague in April 1915 that public opinion in Germany ‘would eventually not tolerate such excesses to remain unanswered.’

On the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in December 1915, it should be noted, Schröder is arrested and taken to prison. ‘There was quite a crowd of people in front of his parental home,’ his grandson recalls. ‘Hundreds of people who cheered and demonstrated that he had to be set free. Grandmother visited him in prison with sandwiches.’ Schröder himself writes a letter from prison in which he says that his only conversational partner is a bucket of faeces that only answers ‘with a somewhat soft smell’.

De Telegraaf cries blue murder and appeals to the reasonable part of the Dutch population to defend the freedom of press. The paper subtly adds that the arrest of its editor-in-chief had led to a considerable increase in subscribers. Meanwhile Schröder gets the support of professors and journalists, even though he has thrown the book at them. But the riot becomes international. In the allied countries people wonder whether the Dutch government happens to be committed to the German cause. Justice will restrain itself under all this pressure and have Schröder released before Christmas. Louis Raemaekers draws a cartoon depicting Barbarossa kicking open the door of the prison cell, while frightened politicians flee away. It is not until October 1917 that the blunder of the Dutch government is a legal fact. Schröder is acquitted on appeal of the allegation of having endangered Dutch neutrality.

From the end of 1915 Hak Holdert starts to fight the illegal trade with Germany with his Anti-Smuggle Bureau and the French award Kick Schröder the Légion d’Honneur. At the end of 1917 he gets permission to visit the French front. He writes about that experience in the book Een dagje poilu (‘A day in the life of a soldier’). ‘Embedded journalism’ is what we call it now. Incidentally, Paul Moeyes also mentions examples of Dutch war correspondents – there were not many – who had to bear the harness of German censorship.

After the war Schröder comes into conflict with Hak Holdert. Because of this he is sidetracked as a journalist. He dies at his desk of a cardiac arrest, pen in hand, at the age of 68.

How should we assess his robust writings during the First World War? Was Barbarossa an advocate of both the free word and civilisation? Or did he thunder like a bull in a china shop, putting the fragile peace for the Netherlands on the line?

We could leave it to P.H. Ritter, a contemporary, to answer this question. Ritter wrote: ‘I cannot conceal my judgement that the allegations, made by Schröder to the Dutch government,  were completely incorrect. For whatever the Dutch government may be accused of when they were in office between 1914 and 1918, nobody who has studied the history of the Netherlands during the crisis years can doubt the sincerity and painfully accurate enforcement of neutrality. I am convinced that the conduct of De Telegraaf was highly dangerous and on top of that inappropriate for a leading institution of a neutral country. But I am equally convinced of the dangerous and inappropriate attitude of the government. One may wonder what endangered the neutrality more, the one-sided indignation of a single press medium or government pressure on the judiciary.’

Well said by Ritter. No government should be afraid of just a newspaper.

Next week: Walther Rathenau

050 Nicholas Nikolaevich and the revenge on his dogs

Nicholas Nikolaevich

Nicholas Nikolaevich

The Russian steamroller is faltering 

It is Sunday 6 June 1915. It is the 50th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In his monoplane British pilot Reginald Warneford shoots down Zeppelin LZ-37 over Ghent, after which the burning airship crashes against the convent of Our Lady Visitation.

In Berlin the government orders U-boat commanders not to torpedo passenger ships any longer.

In the Cameroon jungle the allies are facing both German resistance and heavy rainfall.

America’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, William Jennings Bryan, resigns because he thinks president Woodrow Wilson has railed too fiercely against Germany after the sinking of Lusitania.

French and British launch another attack on Gallipoli.

The French struggle on in the area around Arras in northern France.

The Canadian government announces that they intend to send another 35,000 men to the war. 

On the eastern front Austrians and Germans succeed in crossing the river Dniester. 

The Italians try to build a bridgehead between Gorizia and Tolmin. 

And on the Galician front in the east pressure on the Russians becomes untenable, which eventually also applies to the position of commander-in-chief Nicholas Nikolaevich.

With its tall legs and long hair the borzói is a proud Russian greyhound. But the leftist revolutionaries of 1917 hated it so much that they could easily kill it. The borzói was the reactionary symbol of the nobility, that had used it to hunt for wolves, while the people impoverished. The revenge of the reds was satisfying: borzóis were tracked down and killed on a large scale. If Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich had not given so many borzóis as presents to European friends in the years before the Great War, the breed could very well have disappeared from the face of the earth. Nicholas was a fervent hunter, but his dogs did the heavy work. He only got off his horse to cut a wolf’s throat, after it had been cornered by the dogs.

The cavalry was his craft in the army. In the Russian-Japanese War Nicholas did not move into action, but during the rebellion that broke out after the defeat a star role lay ahead. Tsar Nicholas II did not want to undertake reforms and relied on his namesake, the Grand Duke. Would he, please, tighten the reins as military dictator? Nicholas Nikolaevich refused to do this job in a grand manner. He spoke to a minister and said: ‘Do you see this gun? I will now go to the tsar and I will beg him to sign. Either he will comply, or I will shoot myself.’ After which the reluctant tsar signd the reform papers after all.

Nicholas Nikolaevich was an uncle of Nicholas II. Their family lines came together at Nicholas I. He was the Romanov, whose empire from the first half of the nineteenth century was described by the writer Ivan Turgenev as ‘a mixture of light and darkness, of European civilization and Asian barbarousness’. The first Nicholas, the two Alexanders after him and finally the second Nicholas, all four Romanov tsars held on to their conservatism for a century, each in his own way. Oppression of the people was at the heart of this. The abolition of servitude in 1861 had got Alexander II the title ‘Liberator of Russia’, but he was not really such an idealist. They were purely economic motives that had made him decide to create a big class of free farmers. The muzjiks of the immense countryside were an inexhaustible source for the Russian army, which derived its reputation of steamroller from this. The tsar had the support of 170 million people. That reservoir of flesh and blood would have to pay off on the battlefield. But in practice it would not work out like this.

In the first place personal preponderance had to be put in perspective. Large groups of the population, notably the non-Russians, were exempt from military service. Many of those who qualified for the army could neither read nor write. All these illiterate soldiers had to be trained for a long period of time in order to be fully prepared. There was quite a shortage of highly trained officers and non-commissioned officers. The enemy considerably reduced the scarce elite of the Russians already in the first year of the Great War. And what was then replenished from below not only lacked fighting strength but also political reliability. This applied especially to workers and intellectuals, who wanted to have nothing to do with old-fashioned army discipline and corporal punishment.

Then the equipment of the army remained appalling throughout the war. Russian industry could not provide the men with the guns and the artillery they needed. Against the 381 heavy batteries the Germans put up on the eastern front in 1914, there were only 80 on the Russian side.

Moreover, the Russians were also in two minds tactically and strategically. For a long time defending had been the slogan, but the friendly French wanted a frontal attack in the back of the Germans. And apart from being loyal allies, the French were also important money lenders of the Russian army. Meanwhile also the Serbian bloodbrothers, because of whom the whole conflict had actually started, had to be helped. As a result the Russians overplayed their hand in the opening stage by both acting against Germany in East Prussia and dealing with the Austrians in Galicia. A clear choice for plan A (Austria) or plan G (Germany) would have offered a better chance of success.

When looking at the pre-war map, one could see Russian Poland appear between East Prussia and Galicia as a small bulge of the colossal tsarist empire. In military terms Poland was an enormous salient. Because of that vulnerable position the Russians had neglected to tackle Poland infrastructurally. After all it could easily fall into the hands of the enemy. The downside was that the troops going westward could hardly be stocked up because there were not enough railway lines.

It was the same problem with communication. Artillery fire usually had to be aimed using the human eye. The Russians did not have a decent network for the telegraph and the telephone. Wireless messages could quite easily be deciphered by the Germans. All in all the high command, the Stavka, was barely in control of the movements at the front.

The court loved to interfere in the appointment of commanding officers, which usually did not work out all too well. Between 1908 and 1914 four chiefs of the general staff  took turns. After the mobilization the envy continued to fester among the army leaders, who were also subordinate to a quarrelsome and corrupt minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Incidentally, there are also historians who correct the ‘bad press’ of this minister. After the humiliation by Japan, Sukhomlinov, is said to have tried to free the Russian army from obsolete tactics and to supply them with sufficient resources. Yet in spring he is blamed for the substandard condition of the Russian army. In June 1915 Sukhomlinov has to step down after a bribes affair. Moreover, staff from his immediate surroundings are convicted of espionage.

In 1914 Nicholas Nikolaevich had positioned himself at the head of this slow and shady army. He has never commanded any troops in the field, but as commander-in-chief he now leads the biggest army the world has ever seen. Around 6.5 million soldiers are serving Nicholas Nikolaevich at the end of 1914.

He does not lack optimism. He is not unpopular with his men either. And as a Christian he shows enough religious zeal. There is prayer every day. But military historians have not observed any vision and diligence in his case. Eventually the setbacks he had on the extended war front are held against him.

Already in September 1914 the Russians have to withdraw from invaded East Prussia. And when finally the Germans come to the rescue of their Austrian ally in Galicia and Poland, Nicholas Nikolaevich also loses ground there. In August 1915 the Russians are on the brink of a breakdown. Brest-Litovsk falls. Its defenders will have to get away from a burning city in a hurry. The Grand Duke uses all his energy to close the gaps and to prevent the retreat from derailing into an uncontrolled flight. The fighting subsides because the Germans are also at the end of their tether. The Russian army is not at all defeated at the end of 1915, but it is no longer a threat to Germany.

Nicholas Nikolaevich’s days are numbered. The tsar decides that he had better take the helm himself in this hour of greatest danger. It is Rasputin the intriguer who, together with the tsarina, has urged Nicholas II to do so. This is not at all strange, as the relationship between the dark monk at the court and the tall grand duke at the front was downright hostile. At the beginning of the war Rasputin wanted to bless the Russian soldiers at the front, but Nicholas Nikolaevich responded as follows: ‘Please, come. I will have you hanged immediately.’

Then Nikolaevich leaves for the Caucasus, where fighting the Turks will become his  consolation prize. He is going to improve the equipment and the provisioning of the Russian army, but on this side stage of the Great War it is General Nikolai Yudenich who will grow into the number one Russian daredevil. In January 1916 a Russian offensive is unleashed under Yudenich’s command.

As Vice King of Transcaucasia Nicholas is still busy planning a railway line from Georgia in 1917. But the revolution at home draws a straight line through that plan.

On the day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicates, once more an appeal is made on his uncle. Nikolaevich again takes over command, but the new government reversed that decision within twenty-four hours. When the tsar and his family have been assassinated and a fierce civil war between the Reds and the Whites is raging, Nicholas Nikolaevich spends his days on the Crimean with his wife, who has a mystic penchant. They manage to flee for the Bolsheviks in the nick of time on board a British battleship.

First his brother-in-law, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, gave him shelter. They are both married to a daughter of the Montenegrin king. In 1922 a White general will proclaim Nicholas the new tsar of Russia, but the Grand Duke must have realized by then that he is involved in a rearguard action. The days of the Romanovs in Russia are definitely over. As an exile in France, Nicholas, who is considered the last hope of reactionary Russia, becomes a prominent target of Soviet spies. However, in 1929 he dies a natural death on the French Riviera.

After Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich there has not been a Romanov who could claim a serious right to the throne of Mother Russia. And little has been heard of the borzóis who went hunting for wolves with the nobles.

Next week: Kick Schröder

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)





049 Komitas Vardapet and the caravan of death

Komitas Vardapet

Komitas Vardapet

Ottomans focus their anger at the Armenian people

It is Sunday 30 May 1915. It is the 49th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are urged on by the British during an amphibious operation which will be known as Townshend’s Regatta.

Eventually Major General Charles Townshend succeeds in conquering the town of Amara on the river Tigris on the Turks without any significant losses. 

The Austrians on the Isonzo front do not bow to Italian bombings and, supported by the Bavarian Alpenkorps, prefer to attack.

Austrian and German troops, united in the Mackensen Army Group, retake Przemyśl.

On the Gallipoli peninsula a trench war develops that is reminiscent of the western front: considerable losses and barely any gain of ground.

The Germans defend their West African colony of Cameroon to the death.

Bari and Brindisi, coastal towns in the heel of of the boot of Italy, are bombarded by the Austrian air force.

The Italian navy in its turn take the Dalmatian coast under fire.

The French succeed in taking trenches at Souchez by surprise during heavy fighting north of Arras, while the British gain ground at Givenchy.

And during their deportations to the east many Armenians collapse, while the most highly-strung among them is driven into a lifelong depression: Komitas Vardapet.

Mass murderers thrive when their deeds are ignored. The following quote from 1939 is attributed to Adolf Hitler: ‘Who is talking about the destruction of the Armenians today?’

Yet no subject from the First World War is so topical as the Armenian Genocide. This has been a raw nerve in Turkey for almost a century. When the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, visited Turkey in April 2009, the world held its breath. Was Obama going to say the G-word in front of the Turkish parliament?

During his election campaign he had made it absolutely clear that he considered the Armenian Genocide a historical fact. But in Ankara Obama avoided the sensitive subject, which the kindly ones interpreted as a wise decision. It would have been stupid of Obama to endanger the careful rapprochement that had been noticeable between the Turkish and Armenian governments recently.

In any case ‘genocide’ is not a concept dating from the First World War. It was not introduced until 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He joined the Greek words for ‘people’ and ‘kill’. In 1948 the concept was taken over by the United Nations as those acts that are aimed at ‘the destruction, entirely or partially, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people’.

Since then genocide has been considered the ultimate crime. It is not enough to kill on a large scale at random. It should be supported by a plan. The Holocaust is a very clear example of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference the nazis worked out their Endlösung der Judenfrage meticulously.

Even though there are western scientists who refuse to go any further than mass murder, outside Turkey the Armenian Genocide is widely recognized by historians. To a much lesser extent this holds good for the claims of other ethnic groups that had to tread very carefully in the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Kurds and the Pontic Greeks along the Black Sea coast.

It cannot reasonably be denied that hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives during the First World War and the years following. But to start with, there is no agreement about the exact number. In Turkish circles it will hardly ever pass the 500,000 mark. Armenians themselves will rather give an estimate of a million and a half who perished between 1915 and 1923. For a clear understanding, the number of Armenians under Ottoman rule at the time of the First World War is estimated at one and a half to two million people.

More crucial than the matter of numbers is the official point of view of the Turks that ‘the Armenian question’ was part of a civil war, which simply goes hand in hand with famine and outbreaks of diseases. The Armenians were the enemy and in the fight for survival the Ottoman government was obliged to start ‘a relocation’ of the Armenian people. The language here clearly follows ‘the question’. ‘Relocation’ is the Turkish euphemism for ‘deportation’.

Even a delicate soul like Komitas Vardapet had to leave Contantinople, on 24 April 1915, the day that Armenians still remember as the beginning of their tragedy. He had tried to spread the music of his Armenian people in the Ottoman capital. He had started a choir, given presentations and lectures, played the flute and the piano and above all he had sung. Komitas was a baritone but could also reach the range of a tenor. At the Berlin conservatory he was trained to be a musicologist, but he had chosen the Ottoman countryside as his area of work. This is where Komitas had dug up his richly varied treasure of folklore music, which he had polished in mellifluous arrangements, even before Bela Bartok would do the same with the folklore music of Eastern Europe.

Komitas was born as Soghomon Soghomonyan in 1861 in a family of Armenian origin that only speaks Turkish. His father is a cobbler, his mother a carpet weaver. Both parents will die young, after which Soghomon, their only child, is raised by his grandmother. It is a bleak childhood. For nights on end he has to sleep on the cold stone floor of the laundry room. But Soghomon could sing like a nightingale.

As an orphan he is selected to go to an Armenian Apostolic seminary. When he is introduced to the bishop, he says: ‘I do not speak Armenian, but if you wish I can sing it.’ In 1890 he is ordained as a monk. Three years later he becomes a priest, a ‘vardapet’. The name Komitas which he adopts, refers to a seventh century poet of hymns.

The Christian culture is deeply anchored within the Armenian people. In the year 301 an Armenian king was the first authority who turned Christianity into a state religion. The Armenian Apostolic community has not been dependent of a higher ecclesiastical authority for fifteen centuries either. The Armenian culture also has its own unique script.

The Armenia which detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 is only part of the old home country: the mountain areas in the southern Caucasus and the east of Anatolia. But over the centuries  Armenians had also settled in the Turkish towns, where, together with the Greeks and the Jews, they had begun to dominate business life.

In the nineteenth century there also developed a desire for independence among Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarians that had severed the ties with the Ottomans in 1878 were a shining example. Radicals were prepared to enforce an Armenian state using violence, but Sultan Abdul Hamid II firmly started to reduce all the efforts to naught. The years 1894 to 1896 showed massacres and pogroms among the Armenians. In the country the dirty work was frequently left to Kurds, another Ottoman minority with whom the Armenians had been at war for ages.

When in the years preceding the Great War the new rulers, the Young Turks, want to roll out the pan-Turkish ideal throughout Asia, they consider the Christian mountain people of the Armenians an annoying obstacle. Tension rises after the outbreak of the First World War when Armenian volunteers appear to enlist in the Russian army.

There is also talk of Armenian rebels that operate in the Ottoman hinterland, though apparently they have only become really active after the massacres. It is one of the main issues: was Armenian rebellion a cause of Ottoman repression or a reaction to it?

It is certainly true that in the first year of the war around a hundred thousand Armenians loyally followed the call to enlist in the Ottoman army. After the three Pashas have decided to deal with the fifth column of Armenians, it is they who will be first to get rid of.

The fateful Battle of Sarikamish around the turn of the first year in the war is the beginning of the hunt for the Armenians. Constantinople is convinced that they are bound to have helped the Russians put the Ottoman troops to the sword in the icy sub-zero weather of the Caucasus.

The resentment is first aimed at the Armenian men, inside and outside the Ottoman army. They are disarmed, killed or worked to death. After that the less resilient part of the Armenian people is forced to leave hearth and home. Camps in the north of Mesopotamia are the destination, but many will never get there. On the gruelling journey there an untold number of Armenians fall victim to sickness, exhaustion or famine. Robbers, rapists and murderers have free reign along the route.

Should this be called genocide? The answer of historian David Stevenson is as follows: ‘Who took the decision and why remains uncertain, and the relevant documents have been destroyed or withheld. In particular, it is unclear whether a security operation to protect the Caucasus border escalated because of Armenian resistance and the Special Organization’s indiscipline, or whether the aim from the start was to wipe the Armenians out.’

The world is too busy with the developments on the front, but the Armenian fate has not gone completely unnoticed. The German consul Johannes Lepsius tries to make his government fully aware of the tragedy the Ottomans have on their conscience. It is in vain. Berlin cannot afford to put the relationship with its ally at risk.

The American ambassador Henry Morgenthau is another voice crying in the wilderness. The following quote is from one of his reports: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.’

What did Komitas Vardapet’s eyes see in the few weeks before he was allowed to return to Constantinople and leave the caravan of death, under pressure of friendly Turkish intellectuals and the outside world? Black-and-white photos show us the naked bodies of men, women and children, left discarded by the side of the road. Did Komitas see this in bright colours? And did these pictures from hell drive him to insanity for the rest of his life? Or is it true what can be heard on the Turkish side: Komitas Vardapet already showed signs of schizophrenia before the war.

In the autumn of 1916 Komitas ends up in a Turkish military hospital. When the war is over, he is lured to a psychiatric clinic in Paris in 1919 under false pretences. They are years of infinite fears and isolation, of prolonged silence and crying of pain. In room 3 of the Villejuif Hospital he gets older and greyer, and finally dies in 1935, as an icon of Armenian suffering, which is also reflected in the Hymn of the Kiss of Peace that Komitas Vardapet composed.

Next week: Nicholas Nikolaevich

048 John Condon and the piece of boot numbered 6322

John Condon grave

John Condon grave

The Irish, young and old, are willing to sacrifice

It is Sunday 23 May 1915. It is the 48th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Italy declares war to Austria-Hungary.

With a gas attack the Germans try to capture the ridge of Bellewaerde, but due to a shortage of ammunition the Second Battle of Ypres is going to bleed to death.

Again the Russians lose ground in Galicia.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Turks and the Anzacs agree on a nine-hour ceasefire so that they can bury their dead.

British submarine E11 under the command of Martin Nasmith, torpedoes several Turkish ships in the Dardanelles.

British prime minister H.H. Asquith presents his new coalition cabinet of his own Liberals and Conservatives.

Winston Churchill is replaced as head of the admiralty by Arthur James Balfour, while Sir Henry Jackson is appointed First Sea Lord and David Lloyd George will lead the new Ministry of Munitions.

22 French airplanes bomb chlorine gas factories at Ludwigshafen am Rhein.

German-Austrian troops attack Przemyśl.

And near Ypres – so the story goes – a fourteen-year-old boy from Ireland is killed, John Condon.

It is perhaps cynical, but a regiment of dead guys in a row creates less emotion than one single boy of fourteen under a white tombstone. ‘Age 14’, it says on John Condon’s grave. You can find it on Poelcapelle Cemetery, not far from Ypres in Flanders. It is a place of interest, not to say a visitor attraction, for which coachloads of schoolchildren regularly queue. After all they could have been John Condon, even though Johnnie came from a Southern Irish seaport, called Waterford.

Johnnie is also neatly buried in a row. And his grave is like any other grave, be it of a soldier or of an officer. A white erect tombstone. The top is slightly convex. It is 81 centimetres tall, 38 centimetres wide and 7.5 centimetres thick. Those are the measurements that go with death for King and Country, even though the poor wretch under is only Known unto God.

Most tombstones are made of stone from the quarries in Portland in Southern England, but if a substitute is needed, the choice is usually Italian marble from Botticino. This type of marble is less easily affected by algae and mosses. The staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission guard all these white headstones on 23,000 cemeteries, spread around the world as a remainder of small and great wars. The headstone of an Englishman shows a rose or a lion, a Scot has Saint Andrew’s cross or a thistle, an Irishman a harp, a Canadian the maple leaf, an Australian the rising sun, a New Zealander a fern, a South African a springbok and a Newfoundlander a caribou. Plenty of symbols in the Commonwealth.

There is possibly one grave from the Great War which is better known than that of John Condon, The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster abbey in London. On 11 November 1920 a skeleton without a name was buried there.

The life story behind these bones is not known, contrary to John Condon’s. It seems like it can be told quickly. And that is exactly what the Dutch singer Bram Vermeulen has done in his moving song, Johnnie. Bram imagined himself a reincarnation of a Walloon officer during the First World War. He sang: ‘Vertel van die verschrikking. Maar niet aan mij. Ik hoef niet meer te weten. Ik was erbij’ (Tell us about the horrors. But don’t tell it to me. I don’t want to know more. I was there). Think of it what you want, but it is with good reason that Bram’s songs about the Great War are so powerful. Reliving precedes reincarnation – or the other way around.

This is the first stanza of Johnnie.

When he had lied about his age

he was quite tall, only fourteen years old

But they could use them all, so there

no one would ask for your age any more.

A few lines further down the song Johnnie gets to know the war.

Already a week later Johnnie is numbed

He is completely out

Stunned by the cold, the mud and the bombs

He only wanted it to end.

 When the order came to attack

Johnnie was like an obedient dog

He managed to advance twenty yards or so

When a bullet found his exhausted body

Is that a bullet Bram sings about? Didn’t John Condon suffocate on 24 May 1915 during the last German gas attack in the Second Battle of Ypres? Didn’t he get killed near Mouse Trap Farm and wasn’t he found eight years later by the side of the Ypres to Zonnebeke railway. The body collectors knew that it was Johnnie because of a ‘piece of boot’ which was found near the remains. On this piece of boot was the service number 6322, which belonged to Private John Condon, Royal Irish Regiment. It was the boy who had lied about his age, so they put on his grave: Age 14.

Now apparently they kept a register of births in Waterford. A birth certificate testifies that in October 1896 a certain John Condon, son of John and Catherine Condon, was added to the register. This John Condon junior was not fourteen in May 1915, but eighteen years old. John, however, did have a younger brother, Patrick. Could The Waterford News have been right after all in 1938? They wrote that this Patrick shipped himself to the war as a stowaway and died as his older brother Private J. Condon. The newspaper called it a ‘boyish adventure. Source of the story was Nicholas Condon, the older cousin Patrick was supposed to run away with.

Confusion everywhere. Is it John or Patrick Condon who is buried at Poelcapelle Cemetery? Or neither? After digging it up the number 6322 on the piece of boot was linked to the Royal Irish Regiment, but John Condon’s battalion never fought on the spot where the skeleton was exhumed by the piece of boot. The second battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, however, did fight there. And a certain Patrick Fitzsimmons was one of its members. Killed In Action on 16 June 1915, and his service number was –you have guessed it – 6322.

Patrick Fitzsimmons is one of the 54,896 names on the walls of the Menin Gate at Ypres, a majestic but pompous memorial to the missing soldiers. It was unveiled in 1927 by Field Marshal Herbert Plumer. ‘He is not missing, he is here’, said Plumer that day about all the soldiers that seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. But where was Patrick Fitzsimmons laid to rest, ‘Age 35’? As a name on Menin Gate or as a dead body in John Condon’s grave at Poelcapelle Cemetery?

Flemish writer and journalist Geert Spillebeen provides us with some guidance in this matter. Not only did he write a children’s book about John Condon, entitled Age 14, but he also contacted relatives in Ireland. However, they did not tell him what it was all about, but to Spillebeen the story of the fourteen-year-old is still credible. ‘Whatever way you look at it, the case will always be very complex’, Spillebeen hastens to add. ‘One should not forget that they were troubled times for Ireland. Taking part in the First World War in British service was not talked about.’

Of all the questions around Johnnie the most intriguing is still: why would a boy of fourteen choose for war? Perhaps because he was attracted by adventure. Or it may have given him an opportunity to get away from the grey misery of Waterford. Maybe Johnnie’s love for his country, young as he was, was overflowing and in that war he thought he could bring freedom closer to his Irish people.

After all, that had been the message John Redmond and his brother Willie had addressed to all Irish boys. Both brothers were parliamentarians in Westminster. John Redmond had been leader of the Home Rule Party since 1900. This party advocated by legal means Ireland’s independence within the British Empire. Home Rule seemed to be within easy reach on the eve of the Great War. Only few Irish considered an armed rebellion. The Redmond brothers were convinced that the outbreak of the war on the European continent would only speed up the Irish cause. The rule of thumb had always been that England’s problems offered opportunities to Ireland.

But the crack that ran through Ireland could not easily be removed. In the north Protestant Irish opposed the abolition of the union with Great Britain. This had even led to the paradoxical constitution of their own army. If Home Rule had to be prevented, Ulster Volunteers would take up arms against British troops if necessary. The response from the side of the Catholics was immediate. From 1913 Irish Volunteers were ready to defend Home Rule. Tens of thousands of boys from both camps, Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers, flowed to the British ranks during the Great War. It is estimated that over 116,000 Irish fought in the trenches, slightly more Catholics than Protestants.

John Redmond encouraged the Irish Volunteers as follows in September 1914: ‘Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the work, and then account for yourselves as men, not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war. It would be a disgrace forever to our country otherwise.’ Also his own brother Willie Redmond felt it concerned him. He was already past fifty. Despite his parliamentarian background he had been in conflict with the British law for inflammatory actions a couple of times, but with full conviction he would leave for the front for the British empire. In November 1914 he addressed young people in Cork: ‘I do not say to you go, but grey haired and old as I am, I say come, come with me to the war.’

Willie Redmond was prepared to sacrifice his blood in British service for the Irish cause. That was a radically different choice from the one Irish nationalists behind the Easter Rising of 1916 made. But they, too, paid with their blood. The British mercilessly ended the revolt in the streets of Dublin.

Till the very last Willie Redmond thought a bridge could be built in the trenches between the north and the south of Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants. He goes over the top as a major on 9 June 1917, when the battle of Messines ridge rages. He is immediately hit in his wrist and his leg. He encourages his men to go on and is then taken to the field hospital at Loker. There he dies at the age of 56. His death arouses international emotion. The French will posthumously award major Redmond the Légion d’Honneur.

The grave of Willie Redmond, the old man, a war tourist attraction in the Flemish Westhoek, is less known than that of John Condon, the young boy. The tombstone is different: there is a cross on the grave of major Redmond, a devout Catholic. But it is especially remarkable because it is in a separate place, just outside Locre Hospice Cemetery. This isolated resting place has a symbolic value. Ireland separated itself from England soon after the war. And there is still no place for the boys that put on British uniforms in 1914-18, let alone for the old men who told them to do so.

When in 2003 it was suggested to build a memorial for John Condon in Waterford, there were plenty of protests. There was a letter-to-the-editor in the Waterford Today, that read as follows: ‘As a young Republic, we are a success, so instead of looking back at the mistakes of the men that fought in 1914-18, let us concentrate on making our land fit for heroes. The poor foolish men that listened to Redmond have all gone to their reward. Let them rest in peace.’

And yet on 18 May 2014 the John Condon Memorial was unveiled in Cathedral Square in Waterford, a four-metre-tall sculpture in honour of the ‘boy soldier’ John Condon, of Wheelbarrow Lane, Ballybricken.

Next week: Komitas Vardapet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

047 Victor Emmanuel III and the five-foot tall kingship

Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III

Turbulent Italy rushes into war

It is Sunday 16 May 1915. It is the 47th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

The Battle of Festubert gets bogged down in skirmishes, which eventually result for the allied forces in a gain in ground of one kilometre, at the cost of 16,000 lives.

The Russians occupy the town of Van in the east of Anatolia while the Turks withdraw to the Kurdish town of Bitlis.

Based on a telegram from war correspondent Charles à Court Repington an article in The Times  is published, which attributes the Aubers Ridge catastrophe that happened a week earlier to a shortage of grenades. 

In the House of Lords the ‘Shell Crisis’ is then met with Lord Kitchener’s plea to increase the production of ammunition.

Under the command of August von Mackensen the Germans unleash their artillery on Przemyśl in Galicia. The Russians try to evacuate the town by a counter attack.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Anzacs manage to hold their own against the dominance of the Turks, but Lord Kitchener already speculates on a retreat.

In the wake of this Gallipoli fiasco British prime minister H.H. Asquith chooses to discharge Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and form a coalition government.

And the Italian government decides to mobilize, after having been entrusted with far-reaching powers. Thus the war party has won the battle for king Victor Emmanuel III.

When in May 2004 the Spanish crown prince gets married, the Italian pretender to the throne is also invited as a high ranking guest. If only this invitation had not been sent. After dinner this Victor Emmanuel IV will start bashing one of his cousins, who also claims to have a right to the Italian throne. Oh well, they must have thought in Italy. Perhaps our republic is not everything, but return to the monarchy? We had better not do that.

The longest ruling monarch of Italy was the grandfather of the present number four, Victor Emmanuel III. He wore the crown in both world wars, but the second one led to his downfall. The prince had adopted a too favourable stance regarding Mussolini’s fascists to serve his time after the war. He had already had to give up questionable titles of ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’ and ‘King of Albania’ halfway through the Second World War. When peace had come, his son Umberto II could try to save the monarchy for another month, but that turned out to be a hopeless challenge.

Victor Emmanuel III had already come to the throne in 1900, as a direct result of what in those days was called the ‘anarchism of the deed’. In the first year of the new century Victor Emmanuel’s father, King Umberto I, lost his life in the same way Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would experience in Sarajevo fourteen years later. In the case of the Italian king there were four bullets.

Umberto’s assassin was called Gaetano Bresci. He was Italian by birth and had moved to America in order to build a life as a silk weaver. In 1900, however, he returned to his native country for a special mission, to kill the king, thus unleashing the revolution. A few moments before his arrest he would formulate this more exactly: ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle.’

The killing of Umberto fits in a series of anarchist assassinations of dignitaries. In June 1894 president Sadi Carnot of France is the first. In August 1897 prime minister Canovas of Spain is next. September 1898 Empress Elisabeth, Sissi, of Austria-Hungary. September 1901 president McKinley of the United States. November 1912 prime minister Canalejas of Spain. May 1913 king George I of Greece. They were all killed by radical individuals, who were driven by social despair and were possessed by the ideal to create a society of equals. It would only take one spark, they thought.

Four of the six ‘tyrant murders’ were committed by Italians. French socialist Jean Jaurès commented: ‘For many years all anarchist hooligans have been Italians. And that is no coincidence. It is because the misery and the reaction there are very intense and the violent passion and the destructive instinct lead to murder’.

The Italian Errico Malatesta is a prominent teacher of anarchism. In June 1914 he thinks he can put his violent theory into practice. Italy is in the thrall of The Red Week. Turmoil in the streets. Workers who go on strike. But The Red Week will not only expose the division of Italian society as a whole, but also the fragmentation within the political left. When socialists and republicans decide to end the general strike, Malatesta has to go into exile again.

On the eve of the Great War Italy is a young nation, filled with assertiveness, just like Germany. But even less than Germany it is a colonial world power. As early as 1896 Italy suffered a humiliating defeat against Ethiopia, that was supported primarily by Russia, France and Great-Britain.

It should be noted that the Italian nation is very much subject to the opposite forces of left and right, republican and monarchist, agricultural and industrial, and also north and south. All these antagonisms were already visible at the time of the Risorgimento, the multicoloured movement that had indeed successfully sought to achieve Italian unification after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before that the peninsula had been a collection of kingdoms and duchies, and on top of that the pope in the holy middle.

The annexation of the Papal States in 1870 seemed to be the completion of the Italian resurrection, but there remained a crown on the work: the territories that fell under the rule of the Austrian emperor. This desire of the irredentists would be the main motive to declare war to Austria-Hungary in May 1915, despite all German diplomacy.

The Italians were also familiar with opportunism. Prime minister Antonio Salandra called the principle of his foreign policy ‘Sacro egoismo’ (i.e. sacred egoism). Before the war Italy had chosen the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dreibund, but this triple friendship proved to be of little or no value when it came to mobilizing in 1914.

Initially Italy emphatically declares itself neutral, but in the first months of 1915 Rome begins to estimate that the allied have the best papers. Germany is stopped at the Marne and the British attack on the Dardanelles looks promising. It encourages the Italians to sign the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) grants Italy a lot more territories as spoils of war than pre-war partner Austria-Hungary had wanted to give up.

‘We want war’, a prominent socialist shouts at the king of Italy over the heads of a crowd in Milan. ‘When you, as our monarch who has the power to send our soldiers to the front, renounce your right, you will lose the crown.’ This socialist is called Benito Mussolini. He has been a self-confessed opponent of the Libyan war that Italy had fought with the Ottomans, but now the same Mussolini joins the war effort as a true patriot.

Newspapers that want to remain neutral are swamped with popular anger. And on 18 May Giovanni Giolitti therefore leaves the capital. Giolitti was the elder statesman in Italy. As prime minister he had prevented an escalation of the class struggle with social reforms and liberal politics. In these years the king had also been willing to grant his people greater freedoms.

In May 1915 Giolitti, the ‘godfather of Italy’, expects more benefit from neutrality than from war. According to him Italy is not ready for war yet. In the years to come this will prove to be an accurate observation. With his point of view Giolitti falls out with his former protégé, prime minister Salandra, but it also results in fierce demonstrations here and there in favour of war. Under this public pressure Victor Emmanuel chooses the side of Salandra.

Did ‘the people’ want war? Doubtful. ‘The street’ was not the voice of the majority as such. But this voice as so often remained silent while war was endorsed by parliament, the senate and the king.

Perhaps Victor Emmanuel III did not play a leading role in the ‘glorious days of May’, but he was a willing puppet in the hands of the warmongers. He is often described as shy and hesitant. His appearance was certainly not imposing. ‘Little Victor Emmanuel’ was only five foot tall. Kaiser Wilhelm II simply called him ‘the dwarf’. There is a photograph showing the Italian king walking next to the Belgian king Albert, as if a father is taking his little son for a stroll.

During the great War Victor Emmanuel will not leave the side of his troops. He likes the business of war. But strong man on the front is general Luigi Cadorna, a ruthless character who does not mind a few more dead bodies. The Italians therefore pay a high price for their participation in the war: 650,000 of their soldiers lost their lives. The biggest defeat is the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.

Victor Emmanuel was of the House of Savoy, which had first ruled the kingdom of Sardinia and from 1861 presided over all Italy. His father gave his only child the following poor advice: ‘Remember: to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’ But for Italy he really needed to do more than that. Between 1900 and 1922 the king had to intervene ten times in a parliamentary crisis. But after that Mussolini took control to the satisfaction of the king, who just hated squabbling politicians.

The popularity of the monarchy also remains considerable during the fascist years. The beauty of the queen, born as princess Elena of Montenegro, gives a substantial impulse to this. She bears Victor Emmanuel five children.

In 1938 the monarch commits the biggest sin of his political life. He tacitly agrees with the racial laws that are mainly aimed at jews, thus breaching the oath he had sworn at his coronation.

As the Second World War progresses Italy’s little monrach tries to get rid of Mussolini, but the latter keeps the support of Adolf Hitler. When in 1943 Victor Emmanuel reaches a ceasefire with the allies, his daughter has to pay the price. Princess Mafalda is married to a German. Although this prince is a loyal nazi, Mafalda is imprisoned by the nazis, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on her father. Eventually Mafalda ends up in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. There the princess is mortally wounded during an allied bombardment in August 1944.

After his abdication in 1946 Victor Emmanuel III moves to Egypt in exile, where he dies in 1947 at the age of 78. During a referendum a year earlier the Italian people voted for the republic as a form of state. After a reign of almost a millennium the House of Savoy has no more subjects.

The royal residence in Turin has been put on the list of world heritage, but the members of the family were not allowed to enter Italy until the year 2002. That was painful. In 2007 Victor Emmanuel IV, the heir-apparent with the dark image, filed a claim for damages with the Italian government. He wanted 260 million euros for the injustice done to his family during all those years of exile. This is just one of the unpaid bills of the history of Italy.

Next week: John Condon

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Post Navigation