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)