The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “Germany”

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)


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)



043 Anthony Fokker and the nightmare of aeronautics

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker

The airplane breaks through as air weapon 

It is Sunday 18 April 1915. It is the 43rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The war produces a technological tour de force: two Brits hang above the Dardanelles in a hot air balloon. They are observing a Turkish camp, pass on its position by telephone to the ship they are attached to with a cable. The ship telegraphs the information to a cruiser that in its turn bombards the Turkish camp from behind the horizon with grenades.

Meanwhile on both sides of the Dardanelles the Turkish troops under the command of the German general Liman von Sanders prepare for an allied invasion.

On his way to Gallipoli the English poet Rubert Brooke dies of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship as a result of a mosquito bite.

At Zillebeke in Flanders the Germans make frantic attempts to recapture Hill 60.

The German government apologizes to the neutral Netherlands for sinking cargoship SS Katwijk.

In the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans fail to make optimal use of the chaos they caused with chlorine gas on the side of the allies.

And the French aviator Roland Garros reveals his secret to the Germans, after which there is a lot of work to be done for Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

Plagiarism is not the biggest crime of the First World War, but it was certainly widespread. Eagle-eyed they stared at each other’s war activities. What is the enemy capable of? Or rather, are we capable of that, too? Can we possibly do even better.

Take the story of the French pilot Roland Garros, after whom in later years a tennis tournament in Paris will be named. On 19 April 1915 he crashes near Ingelmunster, occupied territory in Flanders. Garros survives the crash, also sets fire to his plane, but cannot prevent that the Germans secure the wreck. Now they are going to figure out how that darn Frenchman succeeded in taking down five German planes in three weeks’ time.

Well, Roland Garros was the first fighter pilot who literally went straight for his target. Thanks to a technical gimmick he could fire a machine gun through his propellers. If a bullet struck the blade of a propeller, it would ricochet on a wedge-shaped metal plate. It was far from ideal, as the propeller could become unbalanced.

The Germans immediately started to copy the mechanism which they had got their hands on. However, it appeared that it was quite suitable for the French copper bullets but not for the German steel ones. Now it was time to contact a 25-year-old Dutchman, Anthony Fokker. In no time flat Fokker succeeded in reconciling a machine gun with a propeller. Via a cam, pushrods and rocker arms the machine gun stopped firing at the exact moment when one of the propeller blades passed. Fokker had done it: safe firing through the arc of the spinning propellers.

The synchronized machine gun with which Fokker started equipping his E.III planes, was the beginning of German superiority in the air. In the summer of 1915 the English newspapers started to write moody stories about the Fokker Scourge. Fokker Fodder, they sneered about their own planes.

Anthony Fokker can be called a controversial figure. Some consider him a war criminal, who shamelessly made money from the horrors of the war. For others he is a genius, who combined the entrepreneur, the inventor and the adventurer.

Soon it appeared that young Fokker was not born for teaching. Tinkering with model trains and fiddling with paper airplanes he got a grip on engineering. Tony was a do-it-yourselfer. When he was seventeen he produced a solid tyre as the solution for flat tyres that haunted motorists. Alas, apparently the patent for that had been granted earlier in France.

In 1911, on Queen’s Day, he made a name for himself by going around in circles a few times over the Dutch city of Haarlem in a plane which he had designed himself. It was called The Fokker Spin (Spin being Dutch for Spider). As a member of the local Orange committee, which organized all sorts of festivities for Queen’s Day, his father had inspired him. Fokker junior had every reason to please his dad. After all, he ivested huge sums of money in his son’s aeronautics, money he had earned as a coffee grower in the Dutch East Indies. For a long time there had been no immediate prospect of a return on the investments in the passion of his son, but for the time being dad Fokker could strut around the streets of Haarlem like a peacock.

Aeronautics in the first decade of the twentieth century is a phenomenon which only few people take seriously. That had also been the experience of bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright, when they tried to get the American army interested in their flying machines. It is all very well, was the army’s answer to the two brothers, as long as it does not cost us any money.

In 1903 the Wright brothers had succeeded in keeping a plane in the air for the first time. Six years later the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the Channel. And another year later Anthony Fokker built his Spin in Germany. Its pilot seemed caught in a web of metal wires that held cockpit and wings together.

‘When I was a boy of sixteen and heard about flying machines for the first time, my only goal was to become an airman. They were the new heroes in those days. Perhaps that was what attracted me: to become a hero’, Fokker said in his autobiography, which he entitled ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

On the eve of the Great War Fokker leaves for Germany and starts building airplanes and giving flying lessons at the same time. In 1913 he is the first to imitate Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud’s looping. During the war he will also give demonstrations behind the front of new types of airplanes. ‘Fokker surprised us by his skill’, writes Max Immelmann, one of Germany’s flying aces, after Fokker showed in June 1915 how his new Eindecker should be flown. Immelmann will, incidentally, lose his life when his Fokker E.III breaks apart. It must have been a technical defect.

Fokker was on good working terms with the airmen. Not only Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, but also Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and Hermann Goering belonged to his circle of close friends. Behind these friendly relations also lay an economic incentive, as was often the case with Fokker. As a born Dutchman he could not rely on contacts in the highest German circles. With special thanks to the pilots on the ‘shop floor’ he kept the order books of his Fokker Flugzeugwerke filled. Between 1914 and 1918 over 7,600 Fokker airplanes left the factory.

Initially in the Great War pilots take over the role which for centuries had been assigned to the cavalry: finding and exploring hostile troop concentrations. In 1911 the Italians were the first to do so over Tripoli during their war with the Ottomans. That took some getting used to. ‘The noise those damned things make frightens our horses’, grumbles a British cavalry officer in an official protest during the First World War.

It soon became apparent that planes could also shed bombs and attack ground targets. The sky then turns into the backdrop for spectacular aerial combats, which are observed by Private Snuffy from his trench with amazement. In 1917 Orville Wright writes: ‘We thought we gave the world an invention that made war imposssible. What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.’

It will not have troubled Fokker during the war. The Fokker D-VII is his latest masterpiece in 1918. The German pilots love it. Its reputation is so great that a special clause for the Fokker D-VII is laid down in the armistice agreement later that year: all planes of this type should be handed over to the allies. Fokker will, however, deceive his way out of this. He succeeds in transporting hundreds of engines and dismantled parts of his D-VII to Holland, where he begins the Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek. This is followed in the United States by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation. It will be clear that Anthony Fokker is a man of the world.

His Dutch biographer Marc Dierikx has revealed how Fokker managed to change nationality three times. In 1914 he becomes a naturalized German for obvious reasons. After the war he succeeds in again acquiring Dutch citizenship with the help of his friend Prince Hendrik, husband of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. And in 1922 he reports to the Immigration Office in order to become an American.

Faithfulness is also in his love life not a key principle for Anthony Fokker. In 1919 he gets married for the first time, but this marriage already runs aground after four years. In 1927 Violet Austman is the bride. Her death, two years later, shows a grim side of the man behind the entrepreneur Anthony Fokker. When she is allowed to go home after a long hospitalisation because of a nervous breakdown, Fokker is nowhere to be found. He has sent a driver to pick up his wife. When he finally arrives home at night, he does not even give her a glance. Violet recognizes her sad fate and steps out of the window on the fifteenth floor of her New York apartment. She is stone dead.

Also as an employer Fokker repeatedly shows his relentless side. He gives employees the sack before Christmas and takes them on again after the end of the year in order to economize on their days off. In 1931 he even disposes of Reinhold Platz, the man who put Fokker’s revolutionary ideas in practice even before the war. Platz turned the rough sketch Fokker made into an airplane, after which Fokker himself corrected the flaws of the design during trial flights. They were a golden duo, but not for eternity.

Let us just say openly that Fokker was a moron. His biographer Dierikx has explained his ruthlessness as follows: ‘In his early childhood he was the little coffee-grower’s boy who was superior to the kampong children with whom he played. This is reflected in the way he treats his nearest staff, in the fact that he does not succeed in shaping his personal life, his relation to women. The little boy in the kampong becomes the creative kid in the attic in Haarlem, but with only a handful of friends.’

1929 is the year that Fokker sees his wife seeking escape in death. It is also the year when he suffered as a merchant. The crisis hits him hard. He no longer appears to be the innovative business man of old. He is not bold enough to change to completely metal planes. However, Fokker gets back on his feet when he can buy the licence rights of American planes for Europe for next to nothing.

His life story ends prematurely. In 1939 he needs an operation on his sinuses. This rather mild intervention has fatal consequences. Anthony Fokker dies at the age of 49, an age that most pilots in the First World War have not reached.

Next week: Mustafa Kemal.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

042 Fritz Haber and the yellowish-brown cloud at five o’clock

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Germans use poison gas as a weapon

It is Sunday 11 April 1915. It is the 42nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Bulgaria agrees to a Serbian-Bulgarian committee that will investigate Macedonian border incidents.

The British experience great difficulties in repelling the Turkish-Arab attack near the port of Basra in present-day Iraq.

Pope Benedict XV informs American president Woodrow Wilson to be prepared to launch a joint peace initiative.

Fifteen allied airplanes bomb Ostend on the North Sea coast again.

The Germans decide to increase their efforts on the eastern front.

The British submarine E-35 tries in vain to reach the Sea of Marmara via the Dardanelles.

Russian troops, with additional Armenian volunteers under the command of general Andranik Ozanian, defeat the Ottomans in the Battle of Dilman.

The Germans see their attacks stranded at Notre Dame de Lorette.

British troops take Hill 60, a hill near the village of Zillebeke in West Flanders.

And a German prisoner of war tells the French that at Langemark bottles filled with gas are ready to be used, the poisonous experiment of Fritz Haber.

The story of the First World War is a random collection of contrasts. Take Fritz Haber, generally considered to be the ultimate promoter of chemical warfare, and Albert Einstein, especially known for his pacifism. It appears that Einstein, the apostle of peace, and Haber, the poisoner, were on friendly terms with each other before, during and after the war.

In 1914, just before the war, Haber got Einstein to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which has been called the Fritz Haber Institute since 1953. Two brilliant scientists, Haber and Einstein, both of German-Jewish descent. But Haber will trade in the Jewish faith for Protestantism already at a very early stage, while Einstein will adopt the Swiss nationality long before the war. The world view of one is completely opposite to that of the other. Between ’14 and ’18 Haber wants to win the war for the Germans by putting poison gas in the hands of soldiers. Einstein persists in his anti-militarism, although it is he who in later years will be at the basis of the most horrible weapon of all time, much more horrible than Haber’s poison gas: the atomic bomb.

Both have to leave Germany in 1933, the year that the Nazis seize power. Especially Fritz Haber is getting a raw deal. He has worked hard for Germany as an ardent patriot all his life. Now the same Germany chases him away as the eternal Jew. In a letter Einstein expresses his sympathy with the exile Haber: ‘I can feel your inner conflicts. It is somewhat like having to abandon a theory on which you have worked for your whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed it in the least.’

What then was this sacred faith of Fritz Haber?  Well, he formulated his scientific creed as follows: ‘Im Frieden der Menschheit, im Krieg dem Vaterland’ (‘In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland’). Gas was his most manifest contribution to the German war effort, but the Germans also managed to keep the production of ammunition at the usual level thanks to Fritz Haber. After the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the German army ran the risk of having no more explosives. As a result of the British trade blockade Germany had no more access to the raw materials for nitric acid. The Haber-Bosch process offered a solution. Together with Carl Bosch Fritz Haber had succeeded in making ammonia of hydrogen and nitrogen already before the war. The Germans managed to convert this ammonia during the war into hundreds of thousands of tons of nitric acid, essential for the production of ammunition.

Haber was not the only scientist who dealt with poison gas, but he was indeed the man behind the first successful gas attack of the Second Battle of Ypres. To many historians this was the beginning of chemical warfare. At the end of January 1915, however, the Germans had already made an effort to this on the eastern front near Bolimów. In the Neuve Chapelle area in October 1914 a German experiment with gas that made its victims sneeze violently was mainly aimed at eliminating the enemy temporarily. Even earlier in August 1914 the French had already been carefully working with tear gas. So it is highly questionable to call Fritz Haber ‘the father of poison gas’.

Eric Wils, a Dutch chemist who has explored the First World War, eliminates the persistent misunderstandings about poison gas as follows: ‘There has been a discussion since 1915 whether the use of tear gas grenades in 1914 by French soldiers was the first use of poison gas in the First World War. The fact remains that on 22 April 1915, when the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine at Ypres, there was a completely new situation. For the first time  a chemical weapon had been developed which was used on a large scale to achieve a breakthrough in the trenchwar. Not just blowing some smoke or poisonous vapour in the direction of an opponent during a fight, but spreading 150 tons of chlorine. Especially produced for the fights in April 1915 in an industrial manner and stored in 6,000 cylinders. This chemical warfare escalated in such a way that in 1918 millions of poison gas grenades, including the ones filled with mustard gas, were fired by the fighting parties.’ So much for Eric Wils’ explanation.

Let us put it like this: Fritz Haber is responsible for poison gas to become a factor of importance in the war. According to estimates gas attacks proved fatal to 91,000 soldiers. That is not even one per cent of the 10 million who were killed in the First World War. But gas gave the war unprecedented and macabre dynamics. Statistics prove that, cynically speaking, bombs and grenades were deadlier and therefore less humane. But gas was so elusive and treacherous. It made the war in a certain sense inhuman. One of the German soldiers who had to dive into the hole that chlorine gas had made in the front on 22 April 1915, would say: ‘I am not very happy with the idea of poisoning people. All the dead lie on their backs with clenched fists.’

We can still feel the soldiers’ fear of the gas in their trenches when reading Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum est. The poet still hears his comrades call: ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ They reach for their gas masks, but one of them does not make it. The picture of this bloke, ‘choking and drowning’, ‘blood gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs’, that picture will never vanish from his dreams.

Such was the reality resulting from Fritz Haber’s laboratory. But it is not said to have haunted him. Also after the war Haber kept defending the chemical weapon as a higher form of warfare. He has recorded this as follows: ‘One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.’ Besides, also a person like Winston Churchill will continue promoting the use of poison gas after the Great War. He intends to silence rebellious Arabs in Iraq with it.

And yet an overkill of combat gasses will remain reserved to the First World War. The Second has stayed deprived of it. It was a much too dynamic war for it. But gas also frightened both parties in World War II, just as a nuclear confrontation did not happen in the Cold War. In 1997 the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention agree to ban poison gas from the world. This is almost a century after all civilized nations of the world had promised to do  the same during the Hague Convention.

This promise, however, proved of little value in the Great War. Backed by government and army command scientists, led by Fritz Haber, experimented with the new weapon to their heart’s content. The gas escaped from cylinders and was blown towards the enemy by the wind or it was fired in grenades. After teargas at Bolimów and chlorine gas at Ypres there came attacks with phosgene, chloropicrin, hydrocyanic acid and arsenic compounds. The British and the French could only follow the Germans in their gas arms race with difficulty.

In July 1917 Ypres is again the backdrop for the release of mustardgas. It will appropriately be called Yperite. Mustard gas will prove to be the killer among combat gasses. Its victim is given the time to rot away from the inside and outside. The skin will be covered in blisters and the mucous membrane detaches from the trachea. The pain is infernal until finally death comes as the redeemer.

Likewise Fritz Haber’s wife seeks redemptive death. Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres she commits suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before hubbie had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. According to one theory another much younger woman is involved, the woman Haber will marry during the war, but whom he will also divorce again. A more plausible explanation is that Clara Immerwahr preferred death to life with a man who perverted science. As she herself had graduated as a chemist summa cum laude, she could not bear that her husband cultivated death and destruction in test tubes. She did not get through to him. Fritz Haber’s patriotism was immune to his wife’s pleading. The day after Clara’s suicide Fritz Haber travelled to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas. Others were left to arrange the funeral.

In the first months of 1915 Haber had to convince the generals of the power of the gas. But it did not turn out to be a magic formula. Gas could surprise the enemy, but when should their own infantry start chasing the cloud? Too early and the gas would turn against their own troops. Too late and the enemy would be extra prepared for the attack. As the war progressed, the quality of protective measures increased. Initially cotton rags, handkerchiefs and gauze dressings drenched in urine had to protect the breathing passages. But soon gas masks were passed around in the trenches. A gas alarm was given with rattles and whistles.

Gas could have meant a breakthrough on 22 April 1915 between Steenstraat and Langemark. Chaos on the side of the allies was complete. Thousands of Algerians and zouaves, gasping for air, fled from the yellowish-brown cloud that had come drifting in at five o’clock in the afternoon. A six-kilometre hole had been created in the front, but the Germans failed to push through. The following day Canadian troops flowed in to prevent a German advance. They, too, were treated to gas, but Ypres stayed out of reach of the Germans.


Yes, the story of the First World War is full of contradictions. But also the peace that follows makes you raise your eyebrows. In 1919 it is announced that the Nobel Prize for chemistry is awarded to … Fritz Haber. There are of course protests, but Haber will still be honoured in Sweden as the man who managed to bake ‘bread out of air’. Chemical fertilizers could be introduced because of Haber’s synthesis of ammonia. Behold the Janus face of scientist Fritz Haber: the number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away.

After the war Haber and his friend Albert Einstein make an effort to undo the boycott of German scientists. Haber feels responsible for Germany’s defeat, but dedicated himself fully to chemical insect control. This leads to Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to speed up the genocide of the Jewish people in the extermination camps.

Haber had no knowledge of this at all, having died in 1934 at the age of 65. He could not rest in German soil and that is why he is buried where he died, in Basel, Switzerland. Shortly before he passed away he required the ashes of his first wife Clara to be placed in his grave, which is what happened. It has remained a sober tomb though.

Next week: Anthony Fokker

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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)

035 Rosa Luxemburg and the blazing trumpets of the revolution

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

Left-wing Germany becomes further divided

It is Sunday 21 February 1915. It is the 35th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Reims cathedral is heavily damaged during a German bombing.

The Germans claim the victory in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes and take 100,000 Russians as prisoners of war.

The Russians in their turn can boast having seized the Polish town of Przasnysz.

Grand Duke Nicholas promises the British to send the Black Sea navy of the Russians and an army to Constantinople.

After a five-day delay because of bad weather, the British resume their bombardment of Turkish and German artillery units along the Dardanelles.

Besides, British troops land at Sedd el Bahr on the Gallipoli peninsula.

German submarines sink a series of allied merchant ships.

The French make some progress in the Champagne district and the British achieve a modest success at La Bassée

And, lonely in a German prison cell, a small woman is still dreaming of a socialist revolution: Rosa Luxemburg.

In one of her many letters from prison Rosa Luxemburg writes to a friend: ‘Sometimes it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison. But my innermost personality belongs more to my tomtits than to my comrades.’

Here is the tender side of the high-calibre marxist, the razor-sharp theoretician of Germany’s left wing. The small brave woman who saw in imperialism and militarism the last convulsions of capitalism, but who was hidden away in a prison-cell almost the whole war. She got four years for an inflammatory public statement she made in 1913 against the war that she foresaw.

And yet Rosa Luxemburg kept fighting her class struggle behind bars between 1914 and 1918. Friends succeeded in smuggling her writings under the pseudonym Junius out of prison. In these she gave an outline of the dilemma of society, ‘socialism or babarism’, but she especially dealt with the social-democrats, who had betrayed the cause of the workers according to her. Already before the war she targeted the moderate-left revisionists, who thought they could enter socialist paradise by social reforms.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871 as the daughter of an emancipated Jewish merchant. After having studied economics in Switzerland, she became a German citizen through a marriage of convenience. So a Jewish, Polish, red-headed woman was the perfect object of ridicule in imperial Germany. Besides having a passion for politics Rosa Luxemburg also leads an active love life. She flirts with Kostja Zetkin who is fourteen years her junior. Kostja is the son of Clara Zetkin, the other woman from the vanguard of the left movement.

She is small and slight of build. A hip impediment causes her to walk with difficulty. But within there is a fire which cannot be put out. She could charm halls full of people. During one of her speeches a police-inspector has to maintain order, but he is so carried away by the flaming argument of Red Rosa that he begins to applaud. Afterwards Luxemburg sends him a note: ‘It is a pity that a man as sensible as you should be in the police, but it would be a greater pity if the police should lose so human an example. Don’t applaud any more.’

In 1904 she is sent to prison for lese-majesty. She said that though the kaiser speaks of a good and secure existence of the German workers, he has no idea of the true facts. In the years after she will issue louder and louder warnings for a war between the European superpowers. Using general strikes the international proletariat will have to change this course. This is also what Jean Jaurès urges France to do. And in 1913 Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd of people as follows: ‘If they expect us to lift the weapons of murder against our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them ‘No, we won’t do it’.’

With this Rosa Luxemburg seems to have deserved the monument which she got in Berlin in 2006. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall she was the unsurpassed heroine of the German Democratic Republic, but also after the Wende Rosa Luxemburg continues to capture the imagination of left-wing Germany. Since 2006 sixty dark wooden beams have been hidden in the ground in her very own Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, in nazi times known as the Horst-Wessel-Platz. The beams contain political as well as personal quotes of Luxemburg herself.

A competition was organised for this work of art. The second prize was awarded to the couple that wanted to commercialize the brand name ‘Rosa de Luxe’ as an art form, such as Che Guevara, which you come across on thousands of T-shirts in the streets of Berlin. ‘Rosa de Luxe’ would also be printed on the label for example of the package of cottage cheese. Rosa Luxemburg herself wrapped her left-wing ideals in literary paper. When she wanted to express her categoric rejection of the capitalist system, she aptly chose these words: ‘Die Revolution ist großartig, alles andere ist Quark!’ ‘The revolution is magnificent. Everything else is bilge.’


Parliamentary democracy was of little interest to Rosa Luxemburg. Comrades who had joined the Reichstag were scorned by her. On the first day of the war another divisive issue could be added to this. The entire faction of the SPD, the party to which also Rosa Luxemburg had counted herself, voted for the war loans. On 2 December 1914 SPD member Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against the new war loans. He would have to give up his place in the SPD faction, of which party his father Wilhelm had been one of the founders.

In August 1916 Karl Kautsky, a prominent social-democrat on the German side, wrote in a letter to his Austrian colleague Viktor Adler, that he knew who was the most popular man in the trenches at that moment: Karl Liebknecht. ‘The dissatisfied masses understand nothing of his policy’, Kautsky declares. ‘But they see him as the man who is working for an end to the war, and this is what counts for them.’

Against the war and for the revolution is the line which Rosa Luxemburg has followed right from the start, just like Vladimir Lenin. But there are also big differences with the Russian bolsheviks, who have a thorough understanding of the importance of a well-organised revolutionary vanguard, a party elite. Rosa Luxemburg thinks that the masses will revolt all by themselves after some agitation and propaganda. That will prove to be Rosa’s fatal mistake.

Red Rosa  has never succeeded in reaching the masses, let alone setting them in motion. The Spartacus League, of which she and Karl Liebknecht were the figureheads, merged into the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands on the last day of 1918. This League remained a rather insignificant left-wing splinter, even in the turbulent months after the fall of the empire.

Spartacus was the man who had led a rebellion of slaves in the Roman Empire of the first century B.C.. But the German wage slaves of just after the Great War would rather identify with the middleclass citizen and social-democrat Friedrich Ebert. He was proclaimed the first president of the new German republic. It is his government that will restore order and authority with the help of paramilitary troops, the Freikorps, at the expense of red rioters such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

They both die in the same manner.  On 15 January 1919 Luxemburg and Liebknecht are dragged to the Berlin Eden Hotel by men of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. They do not carry a warrant for their arrest. Rosa Luxemburg managed to put a couple of her favourite  books in her suitcase. After all, she is used to being apprehended. But this time it ends differently. In the hotel there is a brief interrogation and a brutal molestation. A soldier does his job and smashes their skulls with the butt of his rifle. They are dragged into a car half dead. Liebknecht is thrown out of the car near the zoo and gets  killed. The offical reading is that he was shot when on the run. Rosa Luxemburg, 47 years old, gets a bullet through her temple. The public is informed that she was lynched by an angry mob. The death squad dumps her body into the Landwehr canal. The corpse does not turn up until months later.

It has never become clear who was really behind the double murder. Leader of the death squad was someone called Waldemar Pabst, who was never convicted. Arms trafficking made him rich and he died a wealthy man in 1970. Pabst maintained that he had the full support of the social-democrat Gustav Noske, under whose direction the leftist revolt was ended. But did in the background also president Ebert agree with the murder? Note that Ebert was one of those who had been taught the socialist  tricks of the trade at the party school of the SPD by teacher Rosa Luxemburg in the years before the war.

It is highly unlikely that Luxemburg and Liebknecht would have succeeded in claiming the revolution, if they had been granted more time to live. Barely released from a prison cell of the empire, they could hardly get a grip of the revolutionary developments in the new republic. They worked as if possessed, furiously turning out their articles for Die Rote Fahne.

Rosa Luxemburg’s final article ended as follows: ‘Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once again, and, to your horror, will proclaim, with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I will be!’. Revolutionary rhetoric that does not really sink in outside the editorial office. The author Sebastian Haffner disagrees with the notion that the German revolution of 1918-1919 should coincide with the Spartacus Uprising of January 1919. Haffner refers to Luxemburg and Liebknecht when he says that was exactly how everything would have happened, if they had not been there. According to Haffner, even one-day wonders such as seaman Karl Artelt and officer Heinrich Dorrenbach have had a stronger influence on the developments than the two famous revolutionaries.

That is why the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was mainly of symbolic importance in January 1919. Covenient violence, however, became the general spirit in Germany for the next decades. Sebastian Haffner placed the double murder forty years ago in that particular perspective. He writes: ‘The murders of January 15, 1919, were a prelude – the prelude to murders by the thousand in the following months under Noske, and to murders by the million in the ensuing decades under Hitler. They were the starting signal for all the others. Yet this one crime remains unadmitted, unexpiated and unrepented. That is why it still cries out to heaven in Germany. That is why its light sears the German present like a lethal laser beam.’

Historically speaking the twofold scandalous act of 15 January 1919 is so significant,  because it sealed the division within the leftist family for good. Social-democrats and communists, members of the SPD and of the KPD were to continue their struggle for power stubbornly when the Brownshirts were already marching the streets of Germany. Would Hitler have been able to seize power, if the left had formed a single front against him? This is one of many questions history asks without supplying the answer.

Next week: Anton Kröller

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

034 Bernhard von Bülow and the fatal tutu

Bernhard von Bülow

Bernhard von Bülow

Weltpolitik lacks diplomatic ingenuity

It is Sunday 14 February 1915. It is the 34th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

Germany declares only to discontinue its war zone if the British stop their blockade of the German ports. 

The French start the attack on almost the full length of their front, but only record a slight profit at Verdun and in Artois, Champagne and the Vosges.

On the eastern front the fighting in the Carpathians and Galicia continues.

Albanians are driven across the Serbian border.

A new French-British air raid on the Flemish seaside towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend is undertaken.

The two zeppelins which bombed the English east coast in January are forced to make an emergency landing in Denmark.

An imposing English-French navy bombs Turkish fortresses at the entrance of the Dardanelles, which marks the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign.

The Germans gain some territory at Ypres.

The Austrian conquests, notably of Czernowitz, are followed by a successful counter attack of the Russians.

And in Rome the Germans do everything they can to keep Italy away from the allies, which is a special job for former chancellor Bernhard von Bülow.

Kaiser Wilhelm II is an unpredictable man, to which also Bernard von Bülow can testify. In 1917 he stood a good chance to succeed Von Bethmann Hollweg as chancellor. The latter was dismissed because he was too soft to the liking of the military. But Wilhelm did not want to have anything to do with Von Bülow, the man whom he had cherishingly called ‘my own Bismarck’ years before.

Von Bülow served the kaiser as chancellor nine years, from 1900 till 1909. It was the same Von Bethmann Hollweg who had come to take over from him in 1909. The liberal-conservative block that Von Bülow had managed to keep together for a long time, eventually came to grief on the budget. Von Bülow had very nearly been forced to pack his bags already a year earlier. The reason was a rather unfortunate interview his emperor had given to the London Daily Telegraph. Wilhelm had planned to talk firmly to the English. What got into their heads to refuse his gestures of friendship time over again. This made it very difficult for him to remain a good friend of England. The Prussian chest-beating transcended the British newspaper columns.

In England they were not amused. But in Germany the article was not welcomed either. Von Bülow wanted to take his responsibility for the diplomatic damage by resigning. The interview had been presented to him for checking, but he had put it aside on his desk because of busy work.

Von Bülow, however, had to stay. In parliament he subsequently said he was confident that the kaiser would understand that he had to express himself more prudently in future in order to avoid damaging the unity of policy and the authority of the crown. Wilhelm II would indeed keep quiet in the time to come, but the kaiser’s love for his chancellor was over.

Even before the Daily Telegraph affair Von Bülow had been very busy dealing with the impetuous kaiser, but in 1907 the chancellor himself was staring in the full glare of the spotlights. In a pamphlet a man called Adolf Brand had argued that the German chancellor was blackmailed with his homosexuality. Von Bülow started legal proceedings for defamation. Brand, who could not provide evidence for his statement, was convicted to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

The affair did not appear out of the blue. It was part of the scandal around Philipp zu Eulenburg, a confidant of both the kaiser and the chancellor. Another writer, Maximilian Harden, had painted a homosexual picture of the highest circles in the empire, with Eulenburg as the lecherous key-figure. At the end of his life none less than Bismarck himself was to update Harden over a glass of wine on the love for men which was rampant around the kaiser. According to Harden’s analysis it was small wonder that German foreign policy so hopelessly derailed with all those effeminate protagonists at the top.

It did not help publicity either that a senior military figure, Dietrich Graf von Hülsen-Häseler, had died of a heart attack in the presence of the kaiser when doing a little dance dressed in a tutu. Ottokar von Czernin, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat who was to become Foreign Minister in the second half of the First World War, saw the kaiser himself panic: ‘In Wilhelm II, I saw a man, who for the first time in his life, with horror-stricken eyes, looked upon the world as it really was.’

Wilhelm was hardly informed by Von Bülow about all the spicy innuendo in the press. It was Wilhelm’s son, the crown prince, who had to convince his majesty of the seriousness. Embarrassed by the situation, Wilhelm decided to dismiss Eulenburg. This is how a true anglophile was removed from the kaiser’s entourage, somebody who had repeatedly urged the kaiser to engage in friendly relations with England.

When Von Bülow took on the office of chancellor, he seemed to fit in perfectly with the selfish ambition of Wilhelminian Germany. As far as that is concerned he would certainly not come forward as the new Bismarck. After all the Iron Chancellor had adopted a conservative political attitude after the proclamation of the German Empire was announced in 1871. The new Germany had better guard the status quo on the European continent first. But the young kaiser, who had climbed on the throne in Bismarck’s later life, wanted more than just mind the store.

It was Von Bülow who expressed as foreign minister the ambitions of imperial Germany in 1897 as follows: ‘We wish to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun.’ Gone were the days when the Germans left the earth to one neighbour and the sea to the other, while they only kept the sky for themselves.

Germany’s Weltpolitik really took off in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was especially the spectacular build-up of the navy that testified to this. In Von Bülow’s  first year as chancellor the Germans also went to China to curb the Boxer Rebellion with a lot of fuss. In German Southwest Africa the German Imperialism of the days of chancellor Von Bülow showed its ugliest face. From Berlin kisses in the air were blown to the Boers in South Africa and to the muslims in the Ottoman Empire. But then Germany did support Austria-Hungary when it annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 at the expense of the Ottomans.

It is especially the German experience in Morocco which is of importance for the relations with the two biggest European powers on the world stage, Great Britain and France. In 1905 Von Bülow sees an opportunity to play a nasty trick on the eternal enemy France. The French have a problem in unruly Morocco, where the sultan tries to forward from under the shadow of Paris. A year earlier the French were more or less given a free hand by the English in Morocco. In exchange for this Paris promised London to relinquish any claim on Egypt. This bargaining forms the basis of the Entente Cordiale, the affectionate commitment between England and France

Von Bülow now hopes to drive a wedge between the two by promising Germany’s support to the Moroccan sultan. The climate is favourable as Russia, the closest ally of the French, is lying in the corner, knocked out after the defeat against Japan.

The kaiser himself may deliver the message. On 31 March 1905 he moors his yacht in Tangier. Von Bülow has arranged a beautiful white horse on which the kaiser can ride through the packed streets of Tangier. ‘I landed because you wanted me to in the interest of the Fatherland’, Wilhelm will later tell his chancellor. ‘I sat upon a strange horse despite the riding problems my disabled left arm causes, and I came within a centimeter of that horse taking my life. I had to ride against Spanish anarchists because you wanted me to and because it was your policy to gain from this.’

It was certainly not a masterstroke of Von Bülow. The international turmoil around Morocco resulted in the Algeciras Conference. It was decided that France could continue to consider Morocco as its protectorate. The German point of view on international control was only taken over by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

In 1911 the Second Morocco Crisis takes place when German gunboat Panther enters the Moroccan port of Agadir. By then Von Bülow has already left as chancellor. And again Germany exits by the side door. England appears to stand foursquare behind France, which can also rely on Russia. After the pathetic Panther-leap of Agadir, Germany finds itself alone against the rest of Europe.

Einkreisung is the right word for this sentiment. In his time Von Bülow tried to escape this encirclement by strengthening the Dreibund. It is quite alright between two of the three, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The third partner, Italy, however, is not always in line. It even fails to inform both friends when it suddenly invades Tripoli in 1911. But the French appear to be at peace with the Italian presence in that part of North Africa.

This is an important omen, as at the outbreak of the First World War the Italians do not feel duty-bound to help their two Dreibund-partners. On the contrary, very soon Italy threatens to tilt over to the allied camp. In order to defuse this calamity, the German government calls on an ‘old’ veteran in the diplomatic profession, Bernhard von Bülow. During his time as chancellor he had been granted the title of prince, Fürst.

He is also married to a princess, who is a piano student of Franz Liszt. She is also of Italian descent. The German government hopes this will be an advantage in Rome. But the charm offensive fails. Von Bülow will not bring his diplomatic job as special ambassador to a successful end.

On 3 August 1914 Italy had emphatically declared itself neutral, but on 24 May 1915 it moves to the side of the allies in the war. Could this have been prevented? In any case, in the first months of the war Germany urges Austria to engage with Italy as constructively as possible. Rome develops a deep-rooted grievance against Vienna, which has to do with the Italian fight for freedom from the nineteenth century. The Austrians have thrown the necessary spanners in the works in that period. And then there are of course the terre irredente, territories in the Austria-Hungary empire that  according to the Italians belong to them. The allies will eagerly start accepting these claims.

From the beginning the Austrians trod cautiously on the eastern front, so there would have been strong arguments to stay friends with Italy. But ingenuity and a sense of reality happen to be scarce qualities in the circles around kaiser Franz Joseph. Vienna does not wish to pay a high price for Italian neutrality. Then Von Bülow of course will have to tell the Italian government that war with Austria-Hungary also means war with Germany. But this threat perishes in the nearly erotically charged desire for battle, which has meanwhile taken possession of the Italian people.

Would Bernhard Fürst von Bülow have looked back with satisfaction on a full political life when he died in 1929? It is difficult to imagine. During the Von Bülow years Germany got bogged down in international isolation deeper and deeper. What he sold as Weltpolitik, proved to be the prelude to a Weltkrieg.

Next week: Rosa Luxemburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

032 August von Mackensen and the hat with the skull

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Eastern front is in full swing

It is Sunday 31 January 1915. It is the 32nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

British-Indian troops stop a Turkish attack on the Suez canal. 

British and French ward off a German offensive west of La Bassée.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gives in to the pressure of the admirals and declares a war zone around the British Isles, where U-boats can operate freely.

Montenegrins in Herzegovina manage to stave off the Austrians.

The French flying ace Adolphe Pégoud eliminates three German aircraft over the western front.

In Upington Boer general Jan Kemp surrenders to South African troops.

In Germany bread and flour are rationed.

Germany lends a large sum of money to Bulgaria.

Sailing under American flag oceanliner Lusitania arrives in Liverpool.

And in the Battle of Bolimow, a Polish village, gas is used as a weapon for the first time by the Germans under the command of August von Mackensen.

When hearing the name August von Mackensen, one first of all thinks of his hat – the fur hat of the Totenkopf Hussaren, bigger than the head itself, but especially frightening by the skull on the front with the crossed bones under it. It is hard to imagine that these days you will find another soldier anywhere in the world wearing such a grotesque hat as Mackensen’s. He was born without ‘von’ before his name, but already before the turn of the century he managed to rise into the echelons of the nobility.

The hat with the skull went with an overkill of trimmings and epaulettes on his uniform of the hussars. All this may stand for the frills around the bloodshed of the battlefields. Welcome to the First World War, Von Mackensen calls out to us a century later. We get killed by the thousand, but haven’t we got great hats!

The Field Marshal is one of the transition figures from tradition to modernity. August Mackensen was born as early as the Prussian kingdom, in 1849, a year after liberals had seized constitutional power here and there in Europe. But nationalism was also coming into bloom and so August Mackensen became one of Bismarck’s soldiers who fought for the German empire at the expense of France. He saw the kaiser flee in 1918 and after that witnessed full of disgust Germany’s struggle with democracy in the Weimar Republic. Then August von Mackensen embraced Adolf Hitler and finally died in a Germany occupied by allies, reminiscing about his days under Führer, kaiser and king.

To conclude, he became 95 years old. On his last birthday in 1944 a delegation came to convey the congratulations of Adolf Hitler on behalf of the entire German people. The nazis gratefully used him as the symbol for the obvious transition from the Second to the Third Reich. For that good cheer Hitler presented him with a country estate as a favour in return.

Thanks to the German Wochenschau – also penetrated to YouTube – we can see how Von Mackensen underwent that tribute on his 95th bithday with sincere pleasure. At the end of the film we see the greise Generalfeldmarschall talk to the delegation while gesticulating fiercely. It must have been a powerful peptalk of the war hero of old. A month earlier he had urged the German youth to show ‘Opferbereitschaft und Fanatismus’, self-sacrifice and fanaticism.

Admittedly one can draw a different picture of the man, the picture of August von Mackensen, the devoted Christian. As a devout protestant in nazi Germany he cannot agree with the Gleichschaltung (equalization) of the churches. And he defends the preachers of the Bekennende Kirche, the Confessional Church, when they venture to speak against the ideology of national socialism. Moreover, Von Mackensen protests against the atrocities of the wretched SA, massacres in the Night of the Long Knives and war crimes by German troops in invaded Poland. But he has never drawn the conclusion that all this evil started with Adolf Hitler.

Until the beginning of the First World War Von Mackensen had an atypical career as a Prussian soldier. As a volunteer in the French-Prussian war he is awarded the Iron Cross and is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Initially Mackensen chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying agricultural science. But soon he enrolls in the army again. Without having been to the Kriegsakademie he becomes deputy of chief-of-staff Von Schlieffen and later even aide-de-camp of the kaiser himself. Meanwhile he has recorded the history of the Black Hussars, in two volumes even. His wife, who bore him five children, dies in 1905. Three years later he remarries. His second wife is half his age. She remains with him until his death at a ripe old age.

Now let’s have a look at his achievements in the Great War. As one of the army commanders he has to share the debacle of the Battle of Gumbinnen in August 1914. Von Mackensen himself described it as a ‘mass slaughter’ for the Germans, based on bad intelligence and poor air reconnaisance.

The Russians greatly embarrass the Germans in their own East-Prussia, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff will come to put things right. In the Battle of Tannenberg and the one of the Masurian lakes also Von Mackensen manages to revenge.

In November 1914 Von Mackensen gets the command of the Ninth Army which has been formed two months earlier. He takes over from Paul von Hindenburg who as head of Ober Ost will now look across the entire eastern front. Von Mackensen will help the Austrians at Lodz. Both camps can count their blessings after the battle has ended. The Russians have managed to keep the Polish capital of Warsaw despite a German siege. It is, however, more meaningful that Von Mackensen has succeeded in stopping the Russian advance in Silesia.

By this time Von Mackensen has secured his place in the German Pantheon. In imitation of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Napoleon’s rival from Prussia, the Germans will affectionately call Von Mackensen ‘Unser Marschall Vorwärts’. They also sing their new Marshal Forward’s praises: Mackensen, der edle Ritter, fuhr wie Sturm und Ungewitter’ – ‘a noble knight of thunder and storms’.

Throughout the war he remains active on the eastern front. At the same time he receives a choice of awards. The Pour le Mérité, the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, the Bavarian Order of Max Joseph, quite a chestful.

Commanding the Ninth Army Von Mackensen fights the Battle of Bolimow in Poland against the Second Army of the Russians on 31 January 1915. It is under his authority that for the first time in military history gas is used as a weapon on a large scale. Thousands of gas grenades are fired, but the gruesome experiment fails. The teargas is either  blown back to the German lines or it condenses on the ground as a result of the cold temperatures. Anyway, the Russians are not impressed and neglect to inform their allies in the west of the German test.

Following the big Spring Offensive of Gorlice-Tarnów, two Polish towns east of Kraków, he is promoted to field marshal in 1915.  What starts as a small operation, meant to protect the Austrians, ends in the collapse of the Russian lines. At the end Galicia is in the hands of the Central Powers and there is no longer the threat of a Russian invasion in Austria-Hungary. The crowning glory of the German work is the recapture in June 1915 of Przemyśl, the town that had been seized by the Russians before that after a siege of over a hundred days. On 4 August Warsaw falls into the hands of the Germans after all. The enormous number of 750,000 Russians are taken as prisoners of war.

Von Mackensen wreaks havoc at Tarnow-Gorlice with a murderous artillery bombardment, which lasts for hours, preceding an assault of the Russian lines. He acquires fame by attacking on a wide front and penetrating as far as possible into enemy territory. However, the true brain behind these tactics is his right hand Hans von Seeckt, the same man who will build the Reichswehr from the bottom up during the interbellum under the strict regulations of the Treaty of Versailles.

‘Trust in God and on your own strength’ is the motto of the Hussars with which Von Mackensen urges his men to head for the Bug river, which connects Poland with Ukraine. In September 1915 the Serbs are facing Marshal Forward, who also carries the command of Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. On 9 October 1915 Von Mackensen captures Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

After that he heads the multicoloured Danube Army that deals with the Romanians. It will be his last campaign. Von Mackensen serves the rest of the war as military-governor in Romania and is more concerned with economic business than military affairs. In December 1916 Von Mackensen conducts a military parade in the heart of Bucharest on a white horse. In August and September 1917 he is confronted with Russian-Romanian armed forces. At the Battle of Mărăşeşti the Romanian heroine Ecaterina Teodoroiu dies saying ‘Forward men, I am still with you’. The battle itself ends in a deadlock, but soon afterwards Romania has no other choice than sign the scornful Treaty of Bucharest on 7 May 1918.

In Romania Von Mackensen is taken as prisoner of war in November 1918. He is detained in Hungary and Saloniki, but the old marshal travels back to Germany again in 1919 where he can start resting on his many laurels. He remains loyal to the monarchy and leaves for the Dutch town of Doorn in 1941 in full attire in order to attend Kaiser Wilhelm II’s funeral. The deceased ordained that swastikas are not to be seen. However at his grave the loving power of Jesus rules: ‘Ich bete an die macht der Liebe, die sich in Jesu offenbart’

As far as biographer Theo Schwartzmüller is concerned, Von Mackensen, the monarchist who thought he could reconcile Hitler and Jesus, already presented himself as an ‘anti democrat’ in 1914. Besides, when talking about Von Mackensen’s military successes, Schwarzmüller also sneers at him by calling him the ‘Pyrrhus of the Central Powers’.

Yet the Bundeswehr had two military barracks, at Karsruhe and Hildesheim, carry the name of Mackensen until long after the Second World War. Also this hommage is in the past now, just as the Mackensen Strasse in Berlin has been named after the Jewish poetess Else Lasker-Schüller since 1988.

As it is, August von Mackensen has disappeared into the misty past of the hat with the skull, though his life is less misty than the Myth of MacDonald/Mackensen makes us believe. Even during the Great War rumour had it that the Scottish major-general Hector MacDonald had not killed himself at all in 1903 because he was suspected of being homosexual. No, he had escaped to Germany and taken on the identity of a high ranking German officer, who had died of cancer. Thus Hector MacDonald became August von Mackensen. German Marshal Forward was in fact a Scot. And Adolf Hitler was from the planet Mars.

Next week: Marie Curie

Translation Peter Veltman

031 Franz Hipper and his reputation as a baby killer

Franz Hipper

Franz Hipper

Battle at Dogger Bank leads to deadlock

It is Sunday 24 January 1915. It is the 31st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

A German Zeppelin that bombed the Baltic port of Libau is shot down from the Russian fort.

The Dukla Pass in the eastern Carpathians is the goal of heavy fighting.

Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, gives up his opposition against an operation in the Dardanelles, thanks to Winston Churchill.

Edward M. House, senior advisor of American president Woodrow Wilson, embarks on the Lusitania to Europe to continue his peace initiatives.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Aisne at Soissons.

Great Britain releases a five million pound loan to Romania.

French troops in Cameroon capture the town of Bertua.

A lieutenant named Erwin Rommel is awarded an Iron Cross for glorious actions against the French in the Argonne.

The German government decides to confiscate all supplies of cereal and flour.

A German submarine sinks four British merchant vessels off the coast of Lancashire.

And during the Battle of Dogger Bank the losses remain limited for the German squadron of commanding officer Franz Hipper.

‘If the war of 1914 was not a war which the armies of Europe were ready to fight, that was not so with Europe’s great navies.’

This was a perceptive observation of the military historian John Keegan, who died in 2012. The fiddling on the battlefields, the incapacity to capitalize heavy artillery strategically, the squandering of human reserves – this is what Keegan calls ‘pre-war failures’. The generals had no idea about modern warfare when they started on their campaigns. They did not know how to fit in the handbooks which they had learned by heart with the latest technologies.

For that the admirals of the years before 1914 could not be blamed, Keegan makes clear. The navies from both parties had eagerly embraced the latest novelties. The ships had become faster and faster, their military equipment heavier and heavier. The paradox following from this was that the land war went on and on because of the poor preliminary work, whereas the British and the Germans spared their excellent navies for four and a half years.

Indeed the German U-boats undermined the domination of the British at sea considerably. Indeed Maximilian Graf von Spee’s squadron wreaked havoc on the world seas during the first months of the war, but finally suffered defeat near the Falkland Islands. Indeed the Battle of Jutland, also called Battle of the Skagerrak, in the night of 31 May to 1 June 1916 was a tremendous clash. But the all-decisive battle between the Grand Fleet and the Hochseeflotte never took place. The course of the Battle of the Dogger Bank is symptomatic. In short, the Germans flee and the British fail to set off in pursuit.

It is Franz Hipper, born in Bavaria, who approaches the Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915 with his reconnaissance squadron. Between England and Denmark the bottom of the sea rises to about eighteen feet below the surface of the water over a length of nearly 300 kilometers. In 1781, during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the Dogger Bank had already been the scene of a sea battle.

But that is not what Hipper is after on 24 January. He has come to look at the shallows as he suspects that in reality British fishing boats are patrolling for the Royal Navy. He will of course try to eliminate these boats. But actually Hipper is going to encounter a British squadron at war strength.

Thanks to the crypto-analysts of Room 40 the British know that Hipper is coming. He is in command of three battlecruisers, one armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and eighteen destroyers. The British suspect that he is preparing a new attack on their east coast. The bombings of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby are still hurting the British. Hipper also owes his nickname ‘baby killer’ to this operation.

Yet the importance of his raid of the three coastal towns has remained limited. The Germans mainly dealt a psychological blow, just as the threefold kill of U-boat commander Otto Weddigen in September 1914 had damaged the reputation of the British. But this sort of selective strike action has not brought the Germans any closer to their goal: undermining the maritime superiority of the British until the moment they cannot keep up their maritime blockade of Germany any longer and a real attack by the Germans is justified.

British admiral David Beatty is quite dominant at the Dogger Bank with five battle cruisers, seven light cruisers and thirty-five destroyers. At seven o’clock in the morning he attacks Hipper’s fleet, but fails to cut off the way back for his German adversary. The deficient communication between his ships plays tricks on Beatty. The British still rely on flag-signals instead of trusting their radios. Out of unjustified fear for submarines in Hipper’s proximity, Beatty decides not to go after the German prey.

This is why the German loss remains limited to the only armoured cruiser Blücher, which was at the tail of Hipper’s fleeing squadron. Not an accidental victim. When the ship was launched in 1909, Blücher was already made obsolete by maritime technology. Battle cruisers like Dreadnought, that combined firing power and speed, had already become the terror of the seas.

At half past eleven in the morning Blücher endures a heavy impact. The British cruisers then batter away together, while Hipper and his battle cruisers can sneak off. Left behind by friends and surrounded by enemies Blücher rolls on its side and goes down taking 792 of its crew with it.

Also Hipper’s flagship, battle cruiser Seydlitz, sustains damage. Its rearmost gun-turret has taken a direct hit from Lion, which will not emerge undamaged from the battle either. You can also call it a chance hit, for only six of the 1,152 shells that the British ships fired hit their target.

Sailor Wilhelm Heidkamp recognizes the danger on Seydlitz. When the fire reaches the ammunition depots, the ship will definitely blow up. Heidkamp opens the doors of the depots, allowing water to flow in. The burns which he incurs making his heroic effort, will eventually cost him his life years after the war.

After Dogger Bank the war at sea reaches deadlock which is not broken until the year after at Jutland. They are the only two sea battles in the war where the strongest ships of both navies, ships of the dreadnought calibre, engage in battle with each other.

The Dogger Bank produces a lot of homework for both parties. The Germans especially learn their lesson from the near-disaster with Seydlitz. Instead of going on a rampage again they reinforce the armour-plating of their heaviest ships in their home ports and introduce stricter regulations for explosive cargoes.

Hipper was mainly very lucky at Dogger Bank, but he is also congratulated for his escape. As a maritime tactician his reputation remains intact for the rest of the war. Hipper has not left any memoirs and he has received less biographic attention than other admirals like Reinhard Scheer. An English biography from 1982 typifies him in the title as an ‘inconvenient hero’.

According to the author Daniel Allen Butler there is no doubt that Hipper got through the war with gnashing teeth. The great care of the emperor himself and the half-hearted strategics of the respective commanding officers Von Ingenohl and Von Pohl went against his nature of boldness.

When the more aggressive Reinhard Scheer stood at the helm of the navy, Hipper’s career was very much at risk. He had to go on sick leave. Sciatica caused severe backaches which he fought in a sanatorium. Scheer, the new commander who was not free of envy, wanted to get rid of Hipper, but the navy staff did not support this. Consequently Hipper then was to serve Scheer in the great sea battle of Jutland in 1916. He inflicted heavy blows on admiral Beatty’s squadron, but especially excelled by carrying out a massive charge when Scheer’s navy was experiencing extreme adversity.

Franz Hipper, son of a middle-class shopkeeper from the southern German town of Weilheim, joins the Kaiserliche Marine when he is only eighteen. Henry of Prussia, the brother of kaiser Wilhelm II, is a role model to Hipper. In 1894 and 1895 Hipper is officer on the Wörth, which is a technologically advanced battleship under the command of Henry, who is reputedly a real sailor. At the same time the prince has an enormous popularity among his men. Just like Henry Hipper will also demonstrate his hatred of paperwork.

Immediately after the Battle of Jutland, Hipper is knighted by the Bavarian king Ludwig III. Unlike the German army, which with its decorum counted many aristocrats in its officer corps, there were quite a few citizens in the navy top, with all its technological challenges. This explains how a person like Franz Hipper could become Franz von Hipper after a steadily progressing career. His superior officer was also offered a knighthood for his services at Jutland, but Reinhard Scheer declined.

In August 1918 this very same Scheer is promoted to chief-of-staff of the Seekriegsleitung. Von Hipper is the one to succeed him as commanding officer of the Hochseeflotte. The war is nearing the end, but a man like Von Hipper cannot swallow that the imposing German navy has hardly taken part in the battle. Now that the trump card of the U-boats has been played and the great offensive of the German army on the western front has silted up, the great moment for the navy has come.

Von Hipper organizes the preparations for the heroic final chord of his navy. But then the sailors and stokers got their first wind of the Götterdämmerung which was Von Hipper’s key objective. The revolt spreads from the town of Kiel. A member of the crew of torpedo-boat B97 concluded a letter to his father as follows: ‘Do not worry, even though everything is in chaos. We will not allow ourselves to get shot in these last days.’

Red flags are hoisted on ships. Fights break out between rebellious and obedient divisions. Eventually over eight thousand men are arrested on the quaysides, but Von Hipper avoids a bloodbath among the mutineers, though they have refused him his grand finale in the war.

The Armistice is on 11 November 1918. Already a few weeks later Von Hipper is released from the navy as admiral. However he expresses his approval of the decision taken  by the German navy top in June 1919 to submerse the remainder of the navy off Scapa Flow. But he does not show up during the interbellum in political circles where a rebirth of the German navy is hatched out.

In 1932, at the age of 68, the admiral for whom war was business, not a matter of romanticism, dies. British admiral Sir David Beatty has never met his German opponent, not even in peacetime, but devoted warm words to Hipper when he heard of his demise: ‘I am very sorry. One would like to express one’s regrets for the passing of a gallant officer and a great sailor.’

He was also cold-blooded and ruthless. To the British a baby killer, this is the picture of him that remains: a commanding officer unemotionally giving his orders on the bridge in the heat of the battle, while chewing a cigar.

Next week: August von Mackensen

Translation: Peter Veltman

030 Samuel Smith and death coming from above

Samuel Smith

Samuel Smith

Zeppelins make England tremble

It is Sunday 17 January 1915. It is the 30th  week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting between the French and the Germans in the Bois-le-Prêtre, in the Argonne, goes back and forth.

They are also fighting very hard about the Hartmannswillerkopf, a mountain top in the Vosges.

Dunkirk is shelled from the air by the Germans and Zeebrugge by the British.

In East Africa a British-Indian force has to lower the flag at Jasin.

The Russians succeed in occupying the town of Skempe in northwest Poland.

The Turks have to continue their drawback in Armenia.

Adolf Wild von Hohenborn is appointed Germany’s minister of war, as successor of Erich von Falkenhayn, who remains chief of staff at the front.

British plantations in Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, are attacked by African nationalists under the command of John Chilembwe.

During this rebellion, which was not very successful, the grandson of the legendary David Livingstone is decapitated, because he is said to have oppressed Africans.

In the Bukovina the Austrians succeed in recapturing within a week the mountain pass of Carlibaba, or Ludwigsdorf, from the Russians.

And two German zeppelins drop bombs over England, killing four people, among whom Samuel Smith.

On the night of 19 January 1915 Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old cobbler, goes into the street to see what is going on. Loud bangs lured him away from his workshop. They are explosions of primitive bombs which were dropped from the German zeppelin L-3 across Samuel Smith’s dwelling-place, Great Yarmouth. This seaside town in the county of Norfolk harbours a naval base. When one of the bombs drops on a house, Samuel Smith is hit by shrapnel. He dies on the spot. That day Smith and three other civilians are the very first British victims of an air raid.

Samuel Smith’s fate marks the beginning of perhaps the most gruesome part of twentieth century warfare, demoralizing the enemy by bombing its civilians. Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be introduced to these ruthless tactics. Coventry in the heart of England, though,  lent its name in the Second World War to the German verb meaning bombing complete districts: coventrieren. The English call this nightly shower of bombs ‘The Blitz’, referring to the absolute arbitrariness of fate.

Samuel Smith, who provided for his mother and the two orphans she had taken into her home, cannot have been aware of what happened to him that night. The English were totally unprepared for air raids. No sirens went off. No air defence aiming at the skies. No airplanes storming at the bombers. Never before had death come from above.

Hans Fritz, captain of the crew of fifteen of the L3 zeppelin, could freely throw his explosive cargo overboard for ten minutes. At eleven o’clock in the morning he had taken off from home base Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg together with the L4. At half past one in the afternoon the two airships had been spotted over the Dutch coast, after which the L3 started its mission of terror over Great Yarmouth at eight twenty-five at night, English time. Somewhat at random, for navigation did not amount to much in those days.

The L4 had veered northward to dispose of its bombs over King’s Lynn, which is still Norfolk. The four casualties of that day were shared equally by the two airships. Afterwards they quietly floated back to Germany. The next morning Fritz and his men could disembark again at Fuhlsbüttel. But they could not enjoy their freedom very long. When the L3 returns from a new raid on England on 17 February 1915, it is having engine problems when flying over Denmark. An emergency landing on Danish soil follows.The crew escape with their bare lives. Following orders captain Hans Fritz destroys his confidential documents after which he also sets fire to the damaged ship. He and his men are detained by neutral Denmark for the rest of the war.

Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were the first to withstand the zeppelin attacks, but it was not the first time that an airship carried out a military task. Already on 6 August 1914, when the war has been on for two days, a zeppelin takes part in the attack on the Liège belt of fortresses. The Belgian defenders open fire at the airship. The Z-6 manages to escape, but once on the ground the airship is a total loss. Antwerp also becomes the target of a zeppelin raid. At the end of August a missile from a zeppelin hits a hospital. Twelve people are killed.

What would the very old count Ferdinand von Zeppelin have thought of the fact that his invention had been given a new life as ‘instrument of murder from the air’? Von Zeppelin lived to see the first three years of the First World War. The count was struck down by pneumonia in 1917. In the 1870-1871 war he had witnessed how the French used air-balloons for observation and communication. Some had even managed to escape from Paris in the basket underneath such an air-balloon. This made Von Zeppelin think. And in 1895 he was ready to obtain a patent for an airship that was to bear his name.

Its special feature was its rigidity. A zeppelin consists of a lightweight aluminium structure which does not expand, but contains a number of gas-filled bags. Underneath it the gondolas and engines with propellers are suspended. The development of the airship was accompanied  by numerous design faults. The military took their time in realizing the strategic use of airships. Quite a few pleasure trips were already undertaken with zeppelins, when the German army ordered ten of them. They seemed especially suitable for reconnaissance purposes and escorting ships.

There were other countries that possessed airships, but these did not have the same quality as the German zeppelins. Peter Strasser was the biggest advocate in military circles. He was the commanding officer of the airship section which was the responsibility of the navy. He was convinced that using zeppelins as bombers could make a difference in the war. It was the emperor himself who did not want to accept bombardments of English towns for a long time. After all he still had relatives over there. Impressed, however, by the allied air raids on German targets, he would cast this hesitation from him. Already in September 1914 the British had started their first air raid. The zeppelin shelters at Düsseldorf and Cologne were the first target.

In the course of the war the Germans improve their zeppelins. They become bigger, faster and more aerodynamic. The carrying capacity increases, as does the height they can climb to, though the latter achievement produces its own problems. The thin air and extreme cold demand the utmost of the men, high up in their gondolas. Meanwhile the British increasingly get a hold on the deadly airships. With searchlights and tracers they scan the skies. London is protected by a ‘ring of steel’, the first air defence system in history. Fighter planes begin to climb just as high as the zeppelins. And the new incendiary bullet which does not ignite until it has hit its target, proves fatal to the majestic hydrogen-filled cigars.

The zeppelin crew are not to be envied. They are not allowed to carry parachutes: too heavy. So the crew members know that at a given moment they may face the choice, jump overboard or be burned alive. When the most notorious zeppelin commander, Heinrich Mathy, was presented with this dilemma, he answered that he would not find out until the supreme moment. And that moment arrived.

Mathy is the man responsible for the most horrendous zeppelin attack in the war. On 8 September 1915 London mourns the death of 22 people and a million and a half pounds worth of damage because of Mathy’s L13. But to Mathy himself in his latest airship L31, things do not look too good on 1 October 1916. Over London his ship is caught in beams of light, after which second lieutenant William Tempest climbs higher and higher and fires away in his fighter plane until L31 burns ‘like a Chinese lantern’, as Tempest will testify later.

It cannot have come as a surprise to Mathy, who was an ace among zeppelin commanders. Those who maintained not to be haunted by nightmare visions of burning airships, were braggarts, according to Mathy’s account. What tension it must have been to fear that one single moment, high in the sky, where it is terribly cold and mouse-still, the moment that an enemy pilot comes alongside. In October 1916 Mathy made his choice. He jumped over Hertfordshire. There is this famous photograph showing uniformed Brits looking at the contours Mathy’s body made when it hit the ground. He is said to have lived a couple of minutes on that spot.

By then the zeppelin had had its day as a bomber, so much is clear. Peter Strasser will, however, not give up and on behalf of the navy direct his latest zeppelins to perfidious Albion well into 1918. On 5 August 1918 Strasser himself is on board L70, when high over Norfolk it is shot out of the sky.

In the second half of the war it was mainly airplanes, Gothas, which were to cause death and destruction over British towns. The bomb which was dropped on a kindergarten classroom of a school in Upper North Street in London in 1917 left the deepest scar. On a London memorial one can still read the names of the eighteen dead Gotha children, aged five.

There is no memorial for Samuel Smith, though a documentary in the BBC series Timewatch paid attention to him in 2007. A camera crew joined a grandniece and her son to Great Yarmouth cemetery, where their great-uncle was buried. The voice-over says that until recently the relatives did not even know this. In the documentary mother and son first visit the simple grave of Samuel Smith and then the street where he died.

The impact the zeppelins had on the British people can hardly be exaggerated. The British were horrified and indignant, while German children merrily sang: ‘Zeppelin, flieg, Hilf uns im Krieg, Fliege nach Engeland, Engeland wird abgebrannt, Zeppelin flieg!’

But perhaps the morale of the British homefront became indeed stronger because of the German airforce, just as in the next world war the bomb carpets on Dresden and other German towns for which Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible also seemed to have had the same effect. A British poster from the Great War shows a zeppelin above the silhouettes of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Underneath it says: ‘It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home  by a bomb. Join the army at once and help to stop an air raid. God save the King.’

When the war is over, the Germans are forbidden in Versailles to build any more zeppelins. But already in 1922 the production of zeppelins in Germany starts again, with the American army as a customer. In the interbellum the beau monde chooses zeppelins as their luxurious means of transportation, until the Hindenburg, the biggest airship ever built, crashed in the United States in 1937. The Nazis then see no point in zeppelins any more. Once feared as deadly weapons, they have turned into a historic curiosity.

During World War One the Germans made a total of 159 zeppelin flights that cost 557 lives. One of these was an unmarried cobbler,  of whom we know little more than that one day in January 1915 he wondered what caused the hellish noise out there.

Next week: Franz Hipper

Translation: Peter Veltman

Post Navigation