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Archive for the month “July, 2014”

005 Jean Jaurès and the last strawberry tart

Jean Jaurès

Jean Jaurès

The socialists, too, prefer war

It is Sunday 26 July 1914. It is the fifth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Emperor Wilhelm II prematurely returns from his holidays, without being informed that his government has declined an English attempt for mediation.

The Russians proceed to partial mobilization.

The Austrian emperor declares war on Serbia.

The German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is put out and announces that this declaration of war is against the German advice.

Meanwhile Winston Churchill has started preparing the navy for action.

Also the French have their troops standing by.

British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey is outraged about the offer of Germany that it will not touch France, if England stays neutral. 

Before war has even been declared, German troops cross the Luxembourg border at Troisvierges.

Germany declares war on Russia.

Belgium again announces loud and clear that it wants to remain neutral.

And in Paris a patriot named Raoul Villain ends the life of the leader of the socialists Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès is one of Jacques Brel’s most touching chansons. It is a tribute to ‘our grandparents’, as Brel calls the labourers who were completely used up when fifteen years old, who ended before they had even started life. Their faces had turned ashen as a result of toil and labour. ‘And if they happened to survive, it was only to be sent to war, dying in blind fear in the field of horreur.’

The chorus is one single question which Brel poses the audience twice. ‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès? Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ ‘Why have they killed Jaurès? Why have they killed Jaurès?’ They killed Jaurès on 31 July 1914. Well, in fact the murderer was an individual, he was not a member of a group of loyals like Gavrilo Princip a month earlier in Sarajevo. There is no conspiracy theory which makes it plausible that this Raoul Villain got his orders from above.

Villain was a lonely patriot who shared an ardent desire with many: to recover Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which was something a true Frenchman should not speak about, but which was always on his mind. ‘Y penser toujours, n’en parler jamais’, according to the national commandment as formulated by Léon Gambetta. He was the man who made his name by flying over the capital in a hot-air balloon during the Siege of Paris in 1870. Erasing the disgrace of the lost war against Bismarck’s Prussia was the one thing any Frenchman should bear in mind. Bismarck had even been the very person presenting the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Now that France was about to undo the injustice in a new war against Germany, Raoul Villain saw only one danger on this road: Jean Jaurès, leader of the socialists. Jaurès who was a threat to the union sacrée, the sacred unity in France. Jaurès, the pacifist, who had opposed the introduction of the three year conscription with the same ardour he had used when making a stand for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted for high treason. His case had divided France to the bone, a cause célèbre.

Ultimately the French Republic was also to Jaurès worth defending. But to him internationalism principally came before nationalism. French-German overtures were no utopia to him. Seventy years after the outbreak of the First World War Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand were to prove Jaurès right in this respect by striding hand in hand across the battlefields of Verdun.

Then why did they kill Jaurès? Why did the working classes go to war in high spirits, in France as well as in Germany? Where was the international solidarity of the proletariat? Why did the most socialist of France’s socialists, Jules Guesde, take a place in the war cabinet? And why did all the German socialists in the Reichstag vote in favour of giving war loans on the very day that Jaurès was put in his grave?

The socialist leaders of Europe had debated endlessly in the preceding years about the question how to prevent a war. Time over again Jaurès had made a case for general strike as a means to bring war to a standstill. But especially the German socialists had not expected any good to come from that.

Now that the moment suprême was approaching, the socialist vanguard could not withstand the advances of the wargod Mars.The pressure of the masses was too big. A socialist member of the Reichstag described the atmosphere of the July days of 1914 in a very apt way. On his way to the vote on the war loans he ended up at the railway station in a group of reservists. ‘Think about us in the Reichstag’ they said. ‘Get us what we need, do not be mean and vote in favour of the loans.’ He did, to the satisfaction of the emperor, who said: ‘From now on there will be no more parties, only Germans.’

Would Jaurès finally have collapsed under the wave of patriotism that washed over France? Would he have agreed to a ‘defensive war’ after all? Who knows. Anyway, they killed Jaurès.


Jean Jaurès obtained his doctorate as a philosopher with two theses. One of them, written in Latin, is about the origins of socialism with four German thinkers: Luther, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. ‘Socialism was born in the German mind long before the abnormal growth of its big industries and the other conditions which are necessary for economic socialism,’ so goes Jaurès’ motivation.

The miners’ strikes at Carmaux, which drag on from 1892 till 1895, turn him into a socialist once and for all. There in the southern French department of Tarn he grew up in a bourgeois social background. His mother shaped him with her love and tolerance. ‘He had absolutely no idea of the essential absurdity which is normal practice in everyday life’, explained the novelist Jules Romains when talking about the trust in mankind which Jean Jaurès held on to in a not altogether unmelancholy way.

Once a politician on a national level he is taking great pains to overcome the differences of opinion between moderate and radical socialists, in much the same way as he is looking for a synthesis of French and German socialism. As representative of the socialist party he tries to stem the tide of patriotism in his country. In his newspaper L’Humanité he calls for the immediate halt of imperialist politics in France.

On 7 July 1914 the French president  Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani ask parliament for a loan for their state visit to Russia. The Austrian-Serbian feud after the shooting at Sarajevo overshadows the debate. Jaurès gets up to speak on behalf of the socialists. ‘We think it inadmissible that France gets drawn into wild adventures in the Balkans because of treaties whose words, meanings, restrictions and consequences it does not know. (..) When the tsarist counter-revolution had executed or imprisoned the brave Russians who had conquered their basic liberties in an heroic manner, France lost its only guarantee that the treaty with Russia served a just purpose’, Jaurès said. Only the socialists voted against the 400,000 francs.

On 29 July, two days before his death, the socialist leaders of Europe convene in Brussels for an emergency meeting. On behalf of Russia Lenin fails to come. But the Austrian Viktor Adler, the German Hugo Haase, the Briton Keir Hardie, the Belgian Emile Vandervelde and also the Dutchman Pieter Jelles Troelstra all look for a possibility to turn the tide. But they do not find it. It is painfully clear that the socialists on both sides only rate their own governments among the peaceloving parties.

At night during a mass meeting Jaurès will put his arm around the German Haase’s shoulders before the workers of Brussels. And he starts a glowing speech. This man has charisma. There is more than his beard to remind us of Karl Marx. The masses wave white cards on which is written ‘guerre à la guerre’, ‘war on war’.

When Jaurès leaves, he speaks reassuringly to the Belgian Vandervelde. There have been crises like these before. ‘It is impossible not to find a solution’, he says. Jaurès even suggests to visit the museum to admire the art of the Flemish Primitives.

On the night of 31 July, the day of Germany’s final warning to Russia, Jaurès orders a strawberry tart in the Café du Croissant, Rue Montmartre in the centre of Paris. Raoul Villain walks past the window and fires two bullets at Jaurès. Europe’s most prominent socialist dies within minutes. He will be called ‘the first war casualty’.

In the afternoon he had opened up his heart in the presence of journalists. ‘Are we going to start a world war, because Izvolski is still angry about Aerenthal’s deceit during the Bosnian affair?’ Even Louis Malvy, the interior minister, had been accosted by Jaurès. The soothing tone which was meant for the Russians should be stopped. The danger for France was much bigger than for Russia.

Many years later the writer Roger Martin du Gard gave the following impression of the dead body of Jaurès being sped off through the streets of Paris. ‘When the horse trotted away and the ambulance, escorted by policemen on bicycles, rattled into the road towards the Paris Bourse, a noise rose up from nothing, like the roar of an angry sea drowning the jingle of the bell. It was as if the sluices had opened and the bottled-up emotions of the masses were now released: Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès forever!’

The news shocks the French government, especially prime minister Viviani, an old comrade of Jaurès. Together they had founded the daily newspaper L’Humanité. The ministers fear that the murder of Jaurès will lead to riots. On no account can France face Germany as a divided nation. But it was not so bad as all that. There is sadness everywhere because the ‘mighty oak’ has been cut down, though this sadness is not translated into resistance to war.


‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ Jacques Brel quite rightly poses his question twice. Why have they killed Jaurès the father? And why also his only son? Louis Jaurès voluntarily signs up with the army in 1915 when he is seventeen. He explains this as follows. ‘When you have the honour to be the son of Jean Jaurès, you should set the example. Philosophical internationalism is not incompatible with the defence of the country when the future of the country is at stake.’ Louis Jaurès is killed on 3 June 1918 when the French army tries to stop a German advance at the Chemin des Dames.

Raoul Villain, who killed Jaurès the father, has not fought in the front line for his country. He spends the entire First World War in a cell in custody. The matter is taken to court after the war. And the incredible happens. Villain is acquitted. The jury thinks he has saved his country from ruin by his act. Jaurès’s widow is ordered to pay the legal costs. Villain leaves for Ibiza, where he leads an inconspicuous life. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, republicans must have mistaken him for a Franco accomplice. He is found dead on the beach. A bullet shot in the neck of the man who killed Jaurès. Why?

Next week: Albert I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

004 Sir Edward Grey and the charm of birds

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

British government hesitates in July crisis

It is Sunday 19 July 1914. It is the fourth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

King George V announces a conference to solve the Home Rule problem for Ireland.

Strikers at St Petersburg throw up barricades against the police.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani prepare to leave Russia.

Austria-Hungary lets this moment coincide with an ultimatum to Serbia. It must comply with ten demands within 48 hours.

After deliberating with big brother Russia Serbia decides to react to the demands as favourably as possible. It promises to take a firm line with anti-Austrian statements and groupings. 

Serbia, however, adds that it cannot comply with one particular demand. It will not allow Austrian government officials to hunt down the assassins of Franz Ferdinand on Serbian territory.

The Austrian ambassador in Serbia returns home and his emperor decides to mobilize.

Military commanders in Germany return prematurely from their summer holidays.

Yet an offer to arbitrate in the Austrian-Serbian conflict is made by the British government in the person of its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

When on 23 July 1914 Austria-Hungary burdens the Serbians with an almost impossible ultimatum, in London Sir Edward Grey’s finest hour is supposed to come. Unfortunately the British Foreign Secretary tarries and tarries. Grey is a fervent flyfisher, but now that it comes to the crunch, he casts his bait into the water too late. He ventures to mediate, but neglects to make clear to the fighting cocks on the continent where England itself stands.

Suppose Grey had told France and Russia from the start: ‘Do not count on us, we have our hands full with Ireland ’. Would those two indeed have chosen to turn a blind eye after all while Austria slapped Serbia? Suppose Grey had said to Germany and Austria without hesitation: ‘You will upset the balance in Europe over my dead body. England is solidly behind France and Russia.’ Would Berlin have insisted much more strongly that Vienna should not bring things so much to a head?

He did not pull either scenario from the drawer of his desk. Grey’s indecision eventually cost him his reputation, even though he became especially famous because of that one oneliner. Staring from a window of the Foreign Office on the eve of the Great War, Grey is supposed to have said to a friend in a moment of lucidity: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

There is no British Foreign Secretary who served his Majesty longer than Sir Edward Grey. He took office under prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905 and did not step down until David Lloyd George took over government from that other liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at the end of 1916. No other European foreign minister had such a strong position of power in the preceding years.

Grey, who was a representative of the Liberal Party, descends from a family of office holders, among whom Earl Grey, later well-known because of the tea. Edward is the oldest of a family of seven. He is educated in Winchester and Oxford. In the pre-war years Grey proves to be a competent minister. In 1907 he signs for a détente in the hitherto strained relations of the conservative governments with Russia. For Grey it is certain that Russia is an indispensable factor in European politics for the balance of power. In Central Asia he agrees with the Russians on defining their mutual spheres of influence.

Grey also strengthens the bonds with France. When the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand started an expedition to the upper course of the Nile, he called this an ‘unfriendly act’. But that was in 1895 when Grey was assistant foreign secretary. War with France was then still far from unimaginary. In the new century we see cordiality appear between London and Paris, though Grey as architect sees to it that this Entente Cordiale does not end in a straightjacket for the British, who after all are so attached to their splendid isolation.

In these pre-war days Grey, too, thinks that the greatest threat comes from Germany. He estimates that the Germans are seriously considering an invasion. The British foreign secretary is not unfamiliar with germanophobia. He assumes that during their holidays German officers are strategically mapping the British coasts. Grey’s policies, however, are not aimed at a military conflict with an economically vital Germany. The starting point is ‘containment’: Grey tries to keep Germany under his thumb by isolating it together with other superpowers, France and especially Russia.

His cautious manoeuvres and the resulting military obligations take place in an atmosphere of ‘hush hush’. War prime minister David Lloyd George for example complains in his memoirs about the inadequate intelligence from the Foreign Office during Grey’s term in office. ‘His striking physiognomy with the thin lips, the firmly closed mouth, and the chiselled features gave the impression of cold hammered steel,’ characterizes Lloyd George. ‘Add to this exterior the reticence of speech and the calm level utterance on the rare occasions when he spoke and you were led to expect imperturbable strength in an emergency.’

But Lloyd George painfully makes clear that during the July crisis of 1914 Grey fell short of expectations. Three years earlier, however, Grey had nicely lived up to his promise, when Germany and France collided again about Morocco during the Agadir crisis. The Germans despatched the gunship Panther to North Africa and escalation was imminent. Together with prime minister Asquith Grey preferred to warn Germany using bold language. This proved to be effective. Germany went into its shell. Grey however did not learn his lesson to act accordingly in recurrent matters.

It is generally assumed that Grey, who was cautiousness personified, did not anticipate the danger in that lovely summer of 1914. Great Britain was especially busy with the Home Rule matter: the Irish who want to break away from Great Britain. When during a cabinet meeting the shadow of the July crisis finally fell across the Irish matter, Winston Churchill described this moment as follows: ‘The quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to the Serbians. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began to fall and grow upon the map of Europe’.

A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the German ambassador arrives to point out to Grey that tensions might rise considerably. Grey is requested by Germany to admonish Russia to be calm. It is Grey’s choice to play the role of sympathetic mediator who now and then calls out to ‘…take it easy’, whereas he should have banged his fist on the table. Also on 23 July, the crucial day of the Austrian ultimatum, he loses valuable time. Yet he makes an attempt to prolong the 48 hours within which Austria expects Serbia to react, but this message is not received in Vienna.

In Berlin they still rather like Grey’s proposal for international mediation between Russia and Austria. After all it is not the German emperor’s aim to get involved in a large-scale conflict. He only wants to create the conditions for Austria to make short work of Serbia. This variant virtually goes down in history as ‘Halt in Belgrade’. Shortly before midnight of 25 July the German ambassador in London is charged to inform Grey that they are to talk about his mediation plan. Unfortunately Grey has already left London to spend the weekend on his estate.

So the wartrain thunders on and will eventually reach Sir Edward Grey’s station. Without consulting the British cabinet Grey directed some admonishing words, ‘entirely calm but very grave’, to the German ambassador on 29 July. Should the conflict between Austria and Serbia not be ‘localized’, it would not be ‘practicable’  for Great Britain to stay aside. Grey links this with the horrifying prediction that a war would be the ‘greatest catastrophe’ the world has ever seen. It is all too late. From Berlin the emperor and his chancellor are no longer able to assume control in Vienna. Later both Grey and his Russian colleague Serge Sazonov will put the blame for the escalation of the conflict on Germany.

When on 4 August Germany declares war on Belgium, England’s aloofness is also finished.  Grey did not connect Britain’s fate inextricably to Serbia, France or Russia, but Germany should keep its hands off neutral little Belgium. Historically Grey was proved right by a treaty from 1839, which had guaranteed the neutrality of the young Belgian nation. It was also signed Prussia. To Grey this treaty was a matter of honour, but the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is said to have dismissed this during a conversation with the British ambassador as a ‘scrap of paper’. In his memoirs Grey observed that even though the invasion of Belgium had been the reason to participate in war, his own premonition inspired him to help France in the first place.

During the war Grey gradually discovers that foreign policy can hardly withstand military dynamics. He works hard to strengthen the ties with France and Russia. It is agreed that neither of the three will strive for individual peace. You can also hold Grey accountable for the important London Pact of april 1915, according to which Italy sides with the allies. But he misinterprets the political mood in Turkey and Bulgaria who will join with the Central Powers. Neither does he succeed in winning over Greece and Romania for the allied cause fully and in time. His reputation which was so sparkling before the war has begun to do justice to his name, greyish.

When David Lloyd George becomes prime minister in 1916, Grey has to step down as foreign secretary for Arthur Balfour, who used to be prime minister for the Conservatives. That same year Grey joins the House of Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. During the First World War he already makes out a case for the formation of a League of Nations, something which also the American president Woodrow Wilson will start promoting.

A diplomatic mission, which he leads in September 1919 in order to persuade the United States to accept the Treaty of Versailles, fails. Grey is British ambassador in the United States for two years. Meanwhile his eyesight deteriorates. In 1925 his memoirs are published under the title of Twenty-Five Years. In these memoirs he speculates about an English-American-German alliance to guarantee world peace. Another world war is to precede the realisation of this atlantic thought.

Before he dies in 1933 at the age of 71, childless after two marriages, one more important book of his is published: The Charm of Birds. Exactly! The other side of Sir Edward Grey is that of the ornithologist. It is a pity that he did not make a better study of the German eagle.

Next week: Jean Jaurès

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

003 Count Leopold von Berchtold and the stick to hit Serbia

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Austria-Hungary wants war

It is Sunday 12 July 1914, the third week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

Demonstrations in Northern Ireland seem to foreshadow civil war.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani who has recently taken offfice set sail for Russia on battleship France for a most friendly state visit.

The French senate is trying to tackle the backlog in weaponry.

Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill has his navy standing by.

King George V of Great Britain proceeds to inspect 260 Royal Navy ships.

On the Berlin Exchange prices of Canadian Pacific Railway shares are rocketing.

Hungarian prime minister István Tisza resigns himself to a tough way of dealing with Serbia.

According to an Austro-Hungarian report the Serbs are drafting their reservists.

 In Sofia Austro-Hungarian diplomats try to set Bulgaria against Serbia.

The Vienna government decides to give Serbia an ultimatum, prompted by Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtold.

In the July crisis of 1914, which drags on for over a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Count Leopold von Berchtold und Ugarschitz, Fratting und Pullitz plays a crucial role. Has the Foreign Minister been egged on by the war party in his country? Is he conscious of the dangers of a punitive expedition against Serbia? The ultimatum which is finally given to Serbia is indeed signed by Berchtold. Thus the Sarajevo fire is fanned into a world-wide inferno.

The charming Berchtold is of high aristocratic descent. His ancestry is rooted in Tirol. In 1859 a biography with the catching title ‘Der Menschenfreund’ is dedicated to an earlier Count Leopold von Berchtold. With German, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian blood flowing through his veins young Count Leopold von Berchtold represents the multicultural Danube monarchy itself. He has a sophisticated taste. His heart rather  seems to go out to the arts, literature and horse racing than to politics. Although he seemed to be a career diplomat, he made it to ambassador in St Petersburg because of the fact that he was one of the richest men in the empire. In his Russian period he is a true advocate of a relaxed relationship with the tsarist empire, but he lacks the understanding which is needed to take the sting out of the conflict in July 1914. That sting is embodied by the German-Slavic differences.

Under the responsibility of Berchtold, who is easily frightened, things in the Balkans derail in the summer of 1914. Even though Russia is not committed by treaty to come to the rescue of Serbia in case of war, yet the small kingdom in the Balkans can feel supported by its big Slavic brother. Berchtold is bound to realize that, still he is convinced that he can force the Serbs on their knees without the help of the Russians. On top of this he was warned in February 1913 by the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg that things might escalate in the Balkans. ‘According to me it would be an error with extremely grave consequences if we rushed into a solution with violence’. After all, France supports Russia, too.

In order to truly understand the rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary we need to go back to September 1908. The scene of the action is Buchlau castle, in the present-day Czech republic. Lord of the castle is Count Leopold von Berchtold. In all secret he receives the foreign ministers of Russia and Austria-Hungary, Alois Lexa von Aerenthal and Alexander Izvolski. The Austrian Aerenthal is the cunning one. He worms the promise out of Izvolski that Russia will let the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina pass. In exchange Aerenthal promises to support Russia’s claim to gain access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea via the Dardanelles, without changing the status of Constantinople. This has been the ultimate desire of the Russians for centuries, free passage to the world seas.

In the margin of the talks which are completed without any reports, thereby allowing various interpretations, Aerenthal also leaves space in the Balkans for expansion of Serbia and Montenegro, in case these two small states accept the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vienna loses no time. The day after Bulgaria has officially declared itself independent of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Vienna this is merely seen as formalizing what had been laid down in 1878 in the Treaty of Berlin. As of that year Austria-Hungary was to govern the Ottoman province.

Grabbing Bosnia and Herzegovina leads to international tensions thirty years later. The indignation is especially noticeable in neighbouring Serbia. This self-confident  kingdom sees the road to the Adriatic Sea  blocked by the annexation. It mobilizes its troops and turns to its big brother Russia for help. Russia, however, gives priority to its own agenda in the spirit of Buchlau, which means free passage from the Black Sea via the Aegean to the Mediterranean. Poor Izvolski. His ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Aerenthal turns out to be soft as butter. Austria-Hungary leaves the Russians out in the cold in the international playing-ground. Especially the British secretly value barbaric Russia to be deprived of hot water.

Germany is the only country that has not openly declared to be against the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In that sense the Bosnian crisis of 1908 with its Germanic bond of brothers resembles a dress rehearsal of WWI. But first two smaller wars will have to be fought in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913.

In the First Balkan War the Ottoman Empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, will have to face a League of Balkan States, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece. The Turks are defeated and have to withdraw from Europe, but afterwards the victorious Balkan states are left divided about Macedonia. In the ensuing confusion the Ottomans manage to retaliate. Remarkably, however, Serbia appears to have taken a much stronger position on the map when the fog has lifted. The recently created state of Albania may have closed the road to the Adriatic sea for the Serbians, the contours of a South Slavic state in the Balkans are clearly taking shape.

This is quite a setback for Count Leopold von Berchtold, the new Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister. Berchtold finds it difficult anyhow to follow in Aerenthal’s footsteps. His cunning predecessor, in whom emperor Franz Joseph had put a blind trust, died in 1912.

In the heart of Europe the Slavs are rattling the doors of Austria-Hungary. Among other things Berchtold has to cope with pro-Russian sentiments among Ukrainian speaking Ruthenians. In June 1914 he writes to the Austrian prime minister Karl von Stürgkh. ‘I am not exaggerating when I say that our relations with Russia, which are so very important, will in future be determined by the question if we succeed in preventing Russification of the Ruthenians.’ But that’s where Berchtold is wrong. The Russian danger is to come from the Serbian corner that very same month.

On 28 June 1914 Serbian terrorists even dare to eliminate the Habsburg descendant to the throne. Berchtold appeared rather hesitant at earlier crises in the Balkans, but he knows that he cannot let the Serbians get away with it this time. Within the many-headed decision making structures of the Habsburg monarchy Berchtold had a powerful ally in Franz Ferdinand. His assassination is the perfect opportunity to avert the Serbian threat. By analogy with the Italian unification this small kingdom is quickly growing into the ‘Piedmont of the South Slavs’.

Besides Berchtold feels hawks like Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the general staff of the army, breathing down his neck. Von Hötzendorf would gladly have invaded Serbia the day after the assassination. But there are also moderates, particularly count Tisza, prime minister of Hungary. Tisza warns the old emperor Franz Joseph for the collision course Berchtold is taking. But on14 July Tisza, too, eventually agrees with the ultimatum that Berchtold will present to the Serbians nine days later. This ultimatum is preceded by a free hand of the German emperor. On its way to Belgrade Vienna is finally supported by Berlin.

The list of ten demands presented by Austria-Hungary in Belgrade should be read as an ostentatious attempt to create a ‘casus belli’, an act to justify war. Before the strict deadline of two periods of twenty-four hours has expired, Serbia gives in. The answer to the ultimatum carries an appendix containing the results of the police investigation of the assassination in Sarajevo. The answer to this ultimatum is truly a diplomatic tour de force. Belgrade humbly promises to stop making hostile statements to the address of Austria-Hungary. To that end it is willing to work together with Vienna. The smuggle of weapons and explosives between Serbia and Austria-Hungary will also be ended.

There is, however, one condition that Serbia cannot accept as a sovereign state. The condition dictated by Austria-Hungary to look in Serbia itself for the conspirators behind the assassination. This downright violation of Belgrade’s own jurisdiction is the stick Berchtold has found to hit Serbia with. Vienna declares war on Belgrade on 28 July with disastrous consequences. The attempt to compromise of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is too late.

To many this declaration of war comes like a bolt from the blue. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was already a month ago. Europe had passed to the order of the day. In France in July for example the front pages carried many stories about the court case against one Henriette Caillaux. She is the wife of the minister of finance, Joseph Caillaux, who got into political trouble as a result of articles published in Le Figaro. Henriette revenged her husband in March 1914 by shooting Gaston Calmette, the editor of that newspaper, in cold blood. She stands trial mid July. That dominates the news in France. And certainly not the outbreak of a war that might cover the entire world.


Berchtold does not survive the war politically. Already in January 1915 count Tisza convinces emperor Franz Joseph that his minister of foreign affairs is but a feeble-minded character. He has not succeeded in getting Italy to side with Austria. To that purpose Rome has made the necessary territorial demands to Vienna. Initially Berchtold braces himself against concessions in the Trentino, but German pressure makes him reconsider. In order to evade a war with Italy, he advises his colleagues also to give up parts of the Albanian coastline. Both Tisza and chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf do not want to know about this.

Berchtold disappears from the centre of power, the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, into the background. In 1916 he is appointed Obersthofmeister  at the court in Vienna. Later he is allowed to advise the new emperor Karl as Oberstkämmerer. In 1942 Berchtold dies in Hungary at the age of 79. The man who walking around with his eyes shut took up the shovel to dig the first mass grave of the First World War is himself buried in the family tomb at Buchlau.

Next week Sir Edward Grey

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

002 Wilhelm II and the arm in the dead rabbit

William II

Wilhelm II

Blank cheque precedes declaration of war

It is Sunday 5 July 1914. This is the second week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

The last of the conspirators behind the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is arrested.

In the person of Foreign Minister Serge Sazonov, Russia warns Austria-Hungary not to place any unreasonable demands on Serbia.

When visiting an Austrian diplomat in Belgrade, Russian ambassador Nicholas Hartwig – as a pan-slavist he is a fanatic advocate of a strong Serbian nation- gets a heart attack and dies.

The Serbian press suggests that Hartwig’s death amidst Austrians cannot be a coincidence.

István Tisza, Prime Minister of Hungary, resists the punative expedition against Serbia that Leopold Count von Berchtold, Foreign Minister in the Danube monarchy, is planning against Serbia.

Baron Friedrich von Wiesner, who was sent to Sarajevo by Berchtold, reports to Vienna that there are no signs for Serbian involvement in the attack.

Austria asks Germany whether it can  count on its support in punishing Serbia.

The Austrians soon get what they want from Germany, carte blanche, given to them during a luncheon with the Austrian ambassador in Potsdam by emperor WilhelmII.

It is quite a temptation to blame Wihelm II, emperor of Germany, largely for the Great War. The British King George V, however, passed a ruthless judgement on his first cousin. ‘I look upon him as the greatest criminal known for having plunged the world into war.’

Wasn’t Wilhelm the man who in the first week of 1914 had given his famous blank cheque? If Austria wanted to make Serbia pay for the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand, it could rely on the support of Germany, whatever the consequences. That is how Wilhelm’s message read to his colleague emperor Franz Joseph. A fortnight before the attack in Sarajevo the latter had spent a pleasant weekend with the lamented Franz Ferdinand and his Sophie in their favourite hunting-lodge. Not only had they admired the gardens of Konopsicht, they had also discussed the situation in the Balkans. Another week later Wilhelm had a talk with the banker Max Marburg in which he hinted at a preventive war with Russia, even before the tsar would manage to finish rearmement.

A true chain reaction followed the carte blanche that Wilhelm played for Austria during the July crisis of 1914. One country dragged the other into war – a world war. That was, however, not what Wilhelm had intended. ‘The last thing the Kaiser wanted was a European war’, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote in his memoirs as crown witness. Wilhelm just loved parades on glorious days when the sun was shining brightly, including speeches full of bloodthirst. But actual massacre in mist and mud were not really the kaiser’s thing.

Throughout the month of July 1914 cordial telegrams go to and fro between emperor Wilhelm II and the Russian tsar Nicholas II with whom he shares friendship and destiny. This cables have gone into history as the Nicky-Willy correspondence. The picture emerges of two cosmopolitan princes out of control, unable to change the course from war to peace, however much they would want to. End July Nicholas offers to submit the Austrian-Serbian matter to the Hague Conference, but Wilhelm declines the offer.

After the outbreak of the war Wilhelm will soon move more backstage. Strategically and tactically this game is beyond him. He is rather a man to give peptalks. He once told cadets that they should shoot their father or mother when asked by the emperor. In numerous speeches the man exposes himself. The most famous speech is the one from 1900, when Wihelm sends off the Germans who are about to end the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. Wihelm roars ‘May no Chinese ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German’.

Psychologists have bitten their teeth to pieces on this pompous type of emperor. Much attention is also paid to his lame hand, the result of an awkward birth. With a wet towel the persistent midwife managed to beat some life in the weak infant. This unhappy birth was followed by an unhappy childhood. Especially the mother, daughter of Queen Victoria, was seriously worried about their imperial son having to go through life as a cripple. She subjected her son to all kinds of insane theories. One ill-starred day his lame hand was inserted in a freshly slaughtered rabbit, which was said to cure him.

There are a lot of things that can be said against the theory that the global disaster of 14–18 was caused by the handicap of a disfigured emperor. But it is quite interesting to speculate what world history would have looked like with a German emperor without the megalomania with which he tried to compensate his inferiority complex. How differently would things have turned out, if a monarch had calmly and wisely managed to guide an turbulent Germany into quieter waters? There were no limits to the ambition of Wihelm II. That equally held good for his young nation. Both prince and people had something to prove.

Tact and a sense of nuance are not in Wlihelm’s vocabulary. In his view there were only two types of politician, those for him and those against him. Wihelm II, scion of the noble Prussian family of Hohenzollern, wanted the clash of arms. Thus he could conquer his limitation. Imperial Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, who experienced the German emperor as quite a handful, typifies him as follows, ‘he is like the little boy who whistles when walking across the graveyard in order not to be afraid’.

It was of great importance to von Bülow to keep the emperor as far away as possible from internal policy. When the chancellor found out in 1905 that Wihelm had personally been fiddling with a draft text for a treaty with Russia, von Bülow had to wave his portfolio in front of the emperor in order to force him to back down. Fifteen years earlier Wilhelm had not been involved either in the decision not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. This wedge between the emperor and the tsar has been crucial to the course of world history.

There is some particular friction between the England of his mother and Wihelm. The personal must have overlapped the political. As a boy Wilhelm idolized his mother, but he was met by a coldness. Did this feed his hatred against Great Britain? ‘An English doctor crippled my arm and an English doctor is killing my father’, he moaned at emperor Friedrich III’s deathbed.

Be that as it may he did not want to have anything to do with the English tradition that has the king stay in line with the constitution and parliament. This works as a straightjacket to Wilhelm’s ambition. For painter and photographer he poses as a ruler, whose metal pace breaks space. His upwardly pointed moustache shows his drive.

Wilhelm does not feel appreciated by the rest of the world, even though in 1901 he closed the eyes of his grandmother Victoria with his strong right arm. As it happened she was half German herself and married to a German into the bargain. Both Victoria’s sons, however, granted their Berlin cousin this special privilege. But he would have loved to ride through Paris as a great prince, who did not have to stand in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte, another role model to the Kaiser. Never did Wilhelm II in his 82-year-life see the City of Light sparkle.

Wilhelm II is fully convinced of his historic position in recent Germany. Bismarck, the iron chancellor, had settled the unification of the Germans with the victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Twenty years later the young emperor Wilhelm II, conservative and radical at the same time, was to push the old statesman Bismarck out.

Wilhelmine Germany claims its place under the sun. The French and the English may have divided the world, yet Germany wants a piece of the pie. There is no limit to the industrial and scientific achievements of Wilhelm II’s Germany. Hard work is being done. The first twenty-five years of Wilhelm’s reign show enormous progress, also in the field of social services. Building a navy to challenge the British who have been masters at sea for centuries causes quite a stir. ‘Never before did a symbolic person represent an era so perfectly’, are the words with which Walter Rathenau characterized the emperor amidst these feats.

Wilhelm II, leader of the ‘operetta regime’ the German empire looked like, was a quick-tempered person. According to Canadian cultural historian Modris Eksteins the emperor was ‘in reality a soft, effeminate, and highly strung man whose closest friends were homosexuals, men to whom he was drawn, for the warmth and affection he could not find in the sharply circumscribed world of officialdom and the confines of traditional, male-dominated family life’.

On 6 August 1914 Wilhelm holds a speech ‘an das Deutsche Volk(to the German people). He explains that Germany has always sought peace. It is the enemy who wants war, the enemy who begrudged Germany its success. And now they do not allow Germany to remain loyal to its ally. Then the sword should decide, according to Wihelm. ‘Es muss denn das Schwert entscheiden!’ In Berlin the masses of people  eager for war already cheer him. His subjects seem to be caught in a spiritual desire for a glorious future where German Kultur will rise above Anglo-Saxon civilization.

He has not, however, succeeded in playing a leading part in World War I. At  the end of the war it is general Hindenburg and general Ludendorff who rule almost as dictators over Germany. No wand then they conveniently move the emperor forward as a puppet on a string. In 1917 it is Wilhelm who can take care of the unlimited U-boat war. Germany reserves the right to attack foreign ships on the open sea.

Thus the picture of the emperor as a war criminal remains intact. The USA does not want to discuss peace with Germany as long as the emperor is still around. On 9 November 1918 the emperor is informed that the army no longer supports him. There is nothing left for him to do but to pack his bags, even though he has bragged to go down with his troops.

He hurries to the Dutch border with his retinue. At Eijsden sergeant on duty Pinckaers is frightened out of his wits. He has been ordered not to allow any German to cross the border, but he considers this a different matter. By order of the authorities he is then told that the emperor can enter the country. Count Bentinck gives the emperor shelter on an estate in Amerongen. Later he is given a small palace of his own, Huis Doorn.

His wife is to die there. He remarries. Kills his time walking, chopping wood and writing his memoirs. Receives visitors. And learns that in Germany new leaders rise, Hitler’s national socialists. Wilhelm is outraged by the Kristallnacht. When Germany rounds up France in 1940 in no time at all, the emperor sends a telegram congratulating the Führer. A year later Wilhelm dies. He has determined in his life that his bones can only be buried in German soil when the monarchy has been restored

It looks as if he will stay in Doorn for some time yet.

Next week: Count Leopold von Berchtold

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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