The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

039 Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the people under arms

Colmar von der Goltz

Colmar von der Goltz

Germany’s youth is prepared for war

It is Sunday 21 March 1915. It is the 39th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French take back lost trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette from the Germans.

The Germans recapture the East Prussian port of Memel on the Russians.

Bombs from German Zeppelins kill one and wound eight in Paris.

The French succeed in silencing the German guns at Soissons.

Russian troops seize the town of Przemyśl in Galicia, taking 120,000 Austrians prisoner.

French airplanes bombard Metz in Lorraine.

The summit of the Hartmannsweilerkopf in the Vosges falls into the hands of the French.

The Russian advance in the Carpathians continues.

Off the English south coast a Dutch merchant ship filled with Spanish oranges is sunk by a German submarin.

And the Turks decide to transfer the further defence of the Dardanelles to German General Liman von Sanders, as a result of which the command of the first Turkish army is passed on to yet another German, Colmar von der Goltz.

‘Herr Von Schirach, will you continue?’ It is 23 May 1946, the 137th day of the Nuremberg trials. Herr Von Schirach is the defendant Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Jugend. He continues his argumentation by first announcing that he has not only propagated National Socialism, but has also wanted to impart the views of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to the youth of Germany.

And then he says that he became a member of a youth movement called the Jung Deutschland Bund when he was ten. Actually it was more like boy scouts, formed after the British model… He is interrupted by the President of the Court. The point is what the defendant himself has done to promote education of the young, not who shaped him.

To us that is indeed the point, for what sort of club was this Jung Deutschland Bund? Well, it was founded in 1911 by a Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. The objective of the Jung Deutschland Bund appears in the following appeal which was made over the heads of Germany’s boys to their parents: ‘Raise your children in a spirit of war and inject them from an early age with love for the fatherland, for which they may one day have to sacrifice themselves.’

A century later patriotism and a spirit of sacrifice with the war as a product do not get us very far any more. ‘Senseless’ is the adjective that we apply to the many deaths of the First World War. Senseless was the bloodshed for outdated love and stupid sacrifices.

Reducing the First World War to collective insanity is modelling history on the past. Portraying millions of soldiers as meek sheep to the slaughter is ignoring the fact that all those young men had a completely different worldview from the one we have, selfish representatives of post-modernism that we are. These boys still believed in ideals. They felt part of a community that knew more obligations than rights. They were molded by men like Colmar von der Goltz. They were all loyal supporters of FC Fatherland unto death.

As a soldier Von der Goltz had already obtained the rank of marshal before the Great War, but on the battlefield he would not achieve the fame of men like Hindenburg or Von Mackensen. However, Von der Goltz teaches us a lot about the breeding ground of the ‘totale Krieg’ that the Germans performed during the twentieth century in two acts.

He has not only held up a mirror of patriotism to the youth of Germany, but he has also written a series of historical military manuals. As far as the equipment is concerned he is not an innovator. Von der Goltz stuck to the importance of the cavalry and he came up with the following aphorism: ‘The bullet is a fool but the bayonet is wise.’ Yet he was anything but a soldier of the old school. Von der Goltz perfectly understood that modern warfare concerned the entire society.

He was the Clausewitz of his days. Carl von Clausewitz, military theoretician from nineteenth century Prussia, is the author of the manual ‘Vom Kriege’, ‘About War’, which has been read to pieces. Von der Goltz’s best-known book is ‘Das Volk in Waffen’, ‘The People under Arms’. It dates from 1883 and relies heavily on Clausewitz’s line of thinking. But according to Von der Goltz the nature of war had changed significantly since Clausewitz. Von der Goltz wrote that his time showed a ‘stark manifestation of national identity, which permits a people, just like an individual, to feel a sense of honor, and to comprehend when that honor, like one’s existence, is threatened.’

Von der Goltz emphasized that mobilization should not be restricted to soldiers. It was of importance to get the entire people behind the war: ‘Das Volk in Waffen’. He had seen such an esprit with the French, who had faced a quick defeat at Sedan in 1870,  but who had succeeded in taking the battle to the level of a people’s war after all. The German people had better follow this example in a future fight.

Von der Goltz hails from an old family of barons and dukes, which has spawned many Prussian soldiers. Colmar von der Goltz fights in the German wars of unification – he is severely wounded in the Austro-Prussian war – and in 1883 he travels to the friendly Ottoman empire, whose striking power has been heavily affected throughout the years. For twelve years he will busy himself modernizing the army. This is good news for the German arms industry, though Von der Goltz does not seem to have accepted any bribes. With ‘a Prussian officer does not take tips’, he is once said to have refused an attractive offer.

Back in Germany he works on reinforcements in East Prussia and along the French-German border. But he also makes enemies with his outspoken criticism of the organisation of the German army. However, in 1905 Von der Goltz is tipped by many as successor of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the general staff. But the kaiser prefers a familiar name, Helmuth von Moltke, whose heart will stop beating during a memorial service for the deceased Von der Goltz, halfway though the First World War.

From 1909 till 1913 Von der Goltz again offers the Turks all the help they need. They call him Goltz Pasha. For the Turks his lessons especially come in handy during their battle with arch-enemy Greece, even though the Ottomans will lose the First Balkan War in 1912.

When the First World War breaks out, he is already 70 and retired. But just like Paul von Hindenburg he loves to be called in to help the fatherland in 1914. Von der Goltz regrets, however, that he is only assigned a more or less administrative job, military governor of occupied Belgium. He had rather taken command in East Prussia, where he was born.

In Belgium he introduces ruthless retaliation in response to sabotage. Adolf Hitler will turn this sort of policy into a role model. A quote of the Führer from 1941: ‘The old Reich knew already how to act with firmness in the occupied areas. That’s how attempts at sabotage to the railways in Belgium were punished by Count von der Goltz. He had all the villages burnt within a radius of several kilometres, after having had all the mayors shot, the men imprisoned and the women and children evacuated.’

At the end of the first year of the war Von der Goltz can again travel to his Ottoman friends. He becomes the advisor of the sultan, but Von der Goltz and strong man Enver Pasha do not get along, neither do he and the head of the German mission over there, general Liman von Sanders, really like each other.

When Von Sanders has to hurry to the centre of conflict of the Dardanelles in March 1915, old Von der Goltz gets command of the First Army in Constantinople. In October of the same year he leaves for Persia with the Sixth Army of the Turks. He has to see to it that the German and Turkish operations will be synchronized. The English have appeared in Mesopotamia to protect their oil supplies and to thwart a German-Turkish advance to Afghanistan and the British Raj. Third objective was to convince the Arabs that they had better commit themselves to the side of the allies than to their Ottoman fellow believers.

Von der Goltz posthumously records a hard-won victory after a long siege of Kut Al Amara, a town southeast of Baghdad. On 29 April 1916 emaciated Brits and Indians have to surrender. They will not be much better off as prisoners-of-war under the Ottomans. Von der Goltz had died in Baghdad of typhoid fever ten days before the fall of Kut Al Amara. Malicious gossip has it that young Turkish officers had poisoned him. Still in June 1916 his mortal remains were transferred to Constantinople.

Heinrich Heine was young Colmar von der Goltz’s favourite writer. In his younger years the former also wrote some novels and short stories with which he could support his family. His father had died of cholera. Heinrich Heine, the romantic, is especially known for the frightening prediction: ‘Where they burn books, they will eventually also burn people’. Would Von der Goltz have re-read that sentence? Or did he prefer prose such as: ‘One day for us, too, the cheerful great hour of battle will arrive. In days of doubtful, for the time being still secretly jubilant expectation the old royal call for battle will go heart to heart and mouth to mouth: Mit Gott für König und Vaterland.’ ‘With God for king and country!’

This is the steaming flow of words of the Jung Deutschland Bund, accounting for 750,000 members in 1914, among whom also young Baldur von Schirach. All these boys were prepared for a war that was going to be ‘frisch und fröhlich’ (bright and cheerful) . They were going ‘mit Sang und Klang zum Kriege wie zu einem Fest’ (they went to war with song and sound as if they went to a party). According to Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz it was destined to be that way. He was the man that knew there was going to be a war. And knew that education should precede war.

Next week: George V

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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