The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “July Crisis”

021 Oskar Potiorek and destination hospital

Oskar Potiorek

Oskar Potiorek

Austrians cannot bring Serbs to their knees

It is Sunday 15 November 1914. It is the 21st week after the shooting at Sarajevo

Snow falls on the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres is smothered in German frustration and the number of losses on both sides has increased to quarter of a million: dead, missing and wounded.

 Turks have to flee the British in Mesopotamia.

 The British also take Basra, thus getting control of the Persian Gulf.

 Goeben and Breslau, two German warships that have been added to the Turkish fleet, encounter a Russian squadron on the Black Sea.

 In Egypt a corps of Indian soldiers on camels fights the Turks.

 The Germans advance towards the Polish town of Łódź.

 British aviators bomb the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

 The British navy announces to expand the minefield in The Channel.

 And the Austrians cross the river Kolubara, an offensive in Serbia which is bound to fail, led by Oskar Potiorek.

How differently the twentieth century would have passed, if corporal Adolf Hitler had run into a live bullet in the Great War? This is an intriguing but absurd question. History follows a capricious line, but she will absolutely refuse to deviate from it retroactively.

Another silly ‘what if’ question: what would have happened, if Oskar Potiorek had shown his driver the right way on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The chauffeur would not have had to turn the car, with the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary as its passenger,  around. Then Gavrilo Princip would not have had the time to give the go-ahead for the First World War with a bullet for Franz Ferdinand. After which Adolf Hitler would not even have had to run into that live bullet.

Is it subtle but unavoidable processes that control history or do nitwits and accidental passers-by give it a twist? Oskar Potiorek might have prevented the First World War. If he had not called ‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai’, the twentieth century would have been without a world war, according to Pascal’s reflection: ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’

The starting shot for which Potiorek created the conditions only triggered the First World War. The causality behind the war is of course much more complex than the capriciousness of some dignitary.


In 1914 we meet Oskar Potiorek as military governor of the Reichsland Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1878 it came under the flag of Austria-Hungary to the great dissatisfaction of the Serbs. In accordance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Habsburgs start supervising the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After the Bosnian crisis of 1908 it comes to a downright annexation by Austria-Hungary.

All those years Vienna took great pains to convert the muslims, Serbs and Croats into Bosnians, completely in line with the multicultural Danube monarchy, but nationalism gets the upper hand more and more among the three groups. In Bosnia also the political parties are formed along ethnical lines.

These centrifugal forces get on Oskar Potiorek’s nerves. He himself is from Carinthia, Slovene being his native language. As military governor he has been the target of Serbian terrorists, just like his predecessor. He is determined to restore order through a military regime. As a hard-liner Potiorek finds the civilian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his path. Leon von Bilinski, one of their representatives, is a man who has adopted a strategy of conflict avoidance. He cannot prevent, however, that Potiorek, backed by the army, assumes power with the aim to suppress Serbian nationalism. But by Potiorek’s repression the wind blows into the sails of terrorist groups such as The Black Hand, of which Gavrilo Princip is a member.

Another painful question is why this very man of discipline and authority loosened the reins in Sarajevo on 28 June. The protection of the heir to the throne and his wife, who were invited by Potiorek, was absolutely appalling. First a bomb is thrown at their car. When Franz Ferdinand, who is unharmed himself, wants to visit those who have been wounded in the attack, Potiorek has no objection. It would have been worth considering the advice to avoid the streets of Sarajevo for the rest of the day. ‘Do you really think the Sarajevo streets are full of murderers?’, Potiorek barked as a reply to that suggestion from his entourage. Yet Potiorek decided to join the archduke and his beloved Sophie in their car. With his own body he protected them both. Apparently he was so occupied by his task as body-guard that he forgot to tell the driver their new destination, hospital.

Could it have been Potiorek and his men’s intention to expose Franz Ferdinand to danger? However improbable this seems, there is something that supports such a conspiracy theory. Franz Ferdinand belonged to the camp in Austria-Hungary which wanted to avoid a war with Serbia, for fear that this would also lead to a conflict with Russia. Franz Ferdinand even wanted to give the Slavs within the Habsburg Empire a position equal to that of the Austrians and the Hungarians.

At odds with this is the ardent desire in army circles to get the Serbs in the Balkans back in the kennel, starting with the Serbs within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That was also a fervent wish cherished by Potiorek. And then the emperor-to-be with his weak knees is assassinated  by a Serb terrorist. All things considered this is killing two birds with one stone. An important opponent of the war with Serbia has been eliminated and the way in which this has been done is a perfect reason to start that war… It takes some believing.

In the month after the double assassination Potiorek shouts down criticism on his irresponsible hospitality in Sarajevo with a loud call for revenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina he pulls in the reins even more. When war finally breaks out, Potiorek gets more elbow room. He is given command of the Austrian troops in the Balkans, chasing the Serb ‘pigfarmers’. Potiorek focuses his sight on Belgrade.

The Austrians see the Serbs as murderous barbarians. ‘The war leads us to a country whose population nurses a fanatic hatred against us’, Potiorek is recorded to have said. ‘The catastrophe in Sarajevo has proved that it leads us to a country where killing is considered an act of heroism, even by the upper classes. Humanity and friendliness to such a people are out of place.’ It is a kind of reasoning which leads to Austrian war crimes in Serbia, to be compared with those of the Germans in Belgium.

Barbarians in the eyes of Potiorek, the Serbs are mainly very motivated born fighters. Their highly experienced chief of staff is Radomir Putnik. The Serbs even owe it to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph that Putnik again leads the troops. The elderly Putnik was recuperating in an Austrian health resort, when war broke out. The emperor considered it a matter of honour to give the old marshal free rein. After which Putnik started to capitalise his ample knowledge of warfare in the Balkans in a new conflict. Austria-Hungary has always been the shlemiel, the simpleton, of the Great War.

Putnik’s equal on the Austrian side is Conrad von Hötzendorf, just like Potiorek a hawk as far as Serbia is concerned. It is Potiorek’s plan to take over command from Conrad by means of a triumphal march in Serbia. Conrad, who is one year older, has been his rival for years. Small wonder that these two have great difficulty communicating and co-ordinating their plans.

In the beginning of the war Conrad also has to free himself from a difficult position. Serbia is not the only scene of battle for the Austrians, however much their hearts go out to this. Soon the Russians announce themselves in Galicia. This Polish front draws heavily on Potiorek’s range in Serbia. It turns into an extremely bloody fight which flows back and forth. In August the Austrians start with a smooth advance past the rivers Drina and Sava. But once the Serbs intensify their defence, Potiorek has to return to Bosnia in a hurry. The sun rising on 24 August does not see a single Habsburg soldier on Serbian soil any more. Potiorek, who has the rank of Feldzeugmeister, has lost 28,000 men, 4,500 of whom as prisoners-of-war in Serbian captivity. And he has to beg Conrad for extra troops.

In the beginning of September the Serbs invade Hungary. Later that month they also succeed in invading Bosnia itself. To make quite sure Gavrilo Princip is taken from Sarajevo to the fortress of Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Then the first week of November it is Potiorek’s turn again. His next offensive on 2 December results in the fall of Belgrade which he has been looking forward to so much. That victory, however, does not last long. Putnik starts a successful counteroffensive the following day. On 16 December Belgrade is in Serbian hands again. But the price Putnik pays is just as high as Pyrrhus’s for his victories against the Romans. The Serbian army has to sacrifice itself in order to defend the territory. The year after Serbia will yet be overrun.

First winter descends on the smouldering ruins of Serbia. Typhoid afflicts civilians and soldiers. And then Oskar Potiorek has to submit. Archduke Eugen is given command of the troops on the southern front, where all will be quiet until September 1915. Potiorek also has to step down as military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although before the war he had become second in command within the general staff, Potiorek did not enjoy great trust in military circles. He was not less high-spirited than the highly esteemed Conrad. Yet Oskar Potiorek’s ambitions mainly aroused irritations. On horseback he did not live up to his promises. His unmarried status suggested a homosexual inclination, which did not do much good to his reputation.

Potiorek’s disclosure must have brought him to the edge of suicide. But death was not in hurry. Gavrilo Princip declared during his trial that the bullet which hit Sophie was meant for Potiorek. ‘I have been spared in Sarajevo, so that I can die taking revenge’, Potiorek is said to have called out repeatedly in the months after. That was another promise Oskar Potiorek could not deliver. He does not die until 1933, a bitter old man of 80 years old.


‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai.’ It would have been better if the Master of History had given Oskar Potiorek some other lines on 28 June 1914.

Next week: Paul von Hindenburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

006 Albert I and the ties of friendship and kinship

Albert I

Albert I

Transgressed Belgium determines its own course

It is Sunday 2 August 1914. It is the sixth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans try to make Belgium believe that France is about to invade the country.

The Belgians do not fall for this and say ‘no’ to the free passage demanded by the Germans, who in their turn transgress the borders with both Luxemburg and Belgium.

British parliament cheers its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey who makes a firm stand for Belgium’s neutrality.

It is raining declarations of war.

American president Woodrow Wilson offers to mediate in the European conflict.

Battle also commences at sea here and there, while the British Expeditionary Force lands in France.

Supreme command of the Russian forces is put into the hands of grand duke Nicholas Nicolaevich. 

The Germans have to defend their colonial territories in Africa against French and English troops.

And the Belgian defenders of Liège decide to hold their position to the last man, encouraged by their king Albert I.

Wilhelm II, the German emperor with the huge ego, sends a message to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on the night of 2 August 1914. It is not a reassuring note but an ominous ulthimatum. Within twelve hours Belgium should open its borders to the Germans on their way to France. If the country fails to comply, Germany will consider this a hostile act with all the entailing consequences. The Belgians should know that France is the true aggressor. And it goes without saying that Germany has the right to be ahead of the French on Belgian soil.

Albert, third king of the Belgians, now knows that it has been of no avail. The night before he made one final attempt – among princes- to ward off the disaster for his people. His wife, queen Elisabeth, helped him compose a letter to kaiser Wilhelm. Elisabeth is the daughter of a Bavarian duke from the house of Wittelsbach. She translated the words which Albert most carefully chose verbatim into German.

He can see that Germany is not in a position to comply openly with the pressing demand of the British to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality. At the same time he trusts the kaiser to promise him personally to leave Belgium in peace. After all there are ‘ties of friendship and kinship’, aren’t there? In the letter Wilhelm is addressed with ‘Du’. Albert ends wih ‘Your faithful and devoted cousin’, though the two are not full cousins. Albert’s mother is a Hohenzollern just like Wilhelm, but from the Sigmaringen side.

Though timid by nature, Albert is certainly not naive. For a long time he has feared the Teutonic fury, a characteristic ‘true’ Germans are so proud of. A year earlier Albert was in Berlin. There the kaiser took him aside. Albert saw him rant and rave. The French should stop their provocations! It would lead to war! No doubt about it! German chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke had also been fishing during a talk with the Belgian military attaché and wondered how Belgium would act if a certain country invaded one day.

Back in Brussels Albert had immediately looked into the mobilization plans. Things did not look good for the Belgian army. All attention in previous years had been focused on domestic problems. Catholics and liberals had not recognized the importance of the defence of the country for decades. After all the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed, according to the Treaty of London of 1839, by the powers behind the Concert of Europe: the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, France and Prussia. In the centuries before the Belgian provinces had regularly been transgressed by troups of Burgundy, France, Spain, Austria and finally Holland.  But during the past three quarters of a century the young country had only known peace. The French-Prussian war of 1870 had passed the Belgians by nicely. However, Albert knew better. Like his uncle Leopold II before him, he had had to fight with the political elite in order to straighten out the defence system. It had been the heart of his ‘active kingship’.

After the assassination at Sarajevo Albert, too, had been on holiday, climbing mountains in Switzerland. When the situation became critical at the end of July, the Belgian government still had no idea how to put up a defence against an invading enemy. Should they defend the borders behind the river Meuse, or should it be a central defence on more suitable terrain, behind small rivers and streams such as the Gete, the Nete or the Velpe. Albert tried to make a case for a defence of the borders and the maintenance of the fortresses near Liège and Namur. Forced by circumstances he now had to accept a compromise.

On the night of 2 August 1914 the king summons his cabinet to study the German ultimatum. He cannot withstand the temptation to throw the inadequate military preparation in the face of his ministers. For the rest the king and his office holders are in complete agreement. They loudly and clearly say ‘no’ to the German ultimatum and the suggestion that French troops would already have crossed the borders. Belgium is a free country, not a marching route. Let the king’s generals cross swords again about the strategic plan.

When German troops cross the border at Gemmenich on 4 August, poor little Belgium’s martyrdom is a fact and Albert is ready to face history as a cavalier king. Enthusiastically cheered in the Brussels streets, he hurries to parliament in his boots with spurs. He asks for a ‘résistance opiniâtre’, a persistent resistance. The members of parliament repeatedly interrupt his speech with ‘vive le roi’ and ‘vive la Belgique’. After a standing ovation the king leaves parliament and heads for the front. At Louvain headquarters the following day he addresses the ‘army of the Nation’: ‘Caesar said of your ancestors: of all the people of Gaul the Belgians are the bravest. (..) Remember, Flemings, the Battle of the Golden Spurs and you, Wallons of Liège, who are at this moment at the place of honour, remember the 600 Franchimontois.’

But the dominance of the enemy will prove too big. The king has to withdraw with his army to the Antwerp stronghold. The situation there becomes untenable and it becomes clear that the king has got himself in an awkward position. Prime minister Charles de Broqueville urges Albert to make the best of a bad job and to join the allied forces. The king, however, refuses to let the people of Antwerp down. Eventually Albert has to take refuge behind the river Yser.

Although he most certainly was no trueborn soldier and openly and frankly admitted his lack of strategic qualities, he commanded the Belgian army in person for four years, taking ministerial responsibility for granted. For Albert it was not simply  a matter of responsibility, being obedient to the royal oath ‘to maintain the independence of the country and to keep its soil intact’. Moreover Albert was distrustful of his general staff. Even autocratic colleagues such as Wilhelm II and Nicholas II left warfare to their generals. Albert did not and he also refused to hand over supreme command to the allied forces. He wished to remain in control in his own country, however little of it was left in freedom.

Certainly, it was not easy for his allied friends. Already on 6 August 1914 the French general Joseph Joffre has to accept with gnashing teeth that the Belgians stubbornly refuse to make the counter-attack which he had planned. Albert is horrified by the ease with which English and French alike sacrifices tens of thousands of their soldiers for a little territorial gain. According to his war diary he carefully keeps the statistics of the fallen. The Belgian king expresses his horror about the jusqu’au boutisme of the allied generals with ‘They will have to justify themselves before the Almighty’. Together with his confidant commanding captain Emile Galet he supports the doctrine of a realistic balance of power.

Although the Germans had violated the integrity of the country, Albert holds on to the principle of neutrality during the whole war. Negotiated peace is his aim. Without informing his ministers, he has his envoy Emile Waxweiler hold exploratory talks with the German envoy Hans Veit Graf zu Törring-Jettenbach, who is married to the sister of Albert’s wife. Albert’s plan will not be successful, however. The Belgian monarch cannot bring the superpowers that are trampling his country to their senses.

When gradually his Belgian ministers start daydreaming about a peace that will make Belgium bigger, with large tracts of land from the neutral Netherlands and Luxembourg, which was also transgressed, Albert calls them to order.The king of the Belgians keeps his head rather cool in a war where emotions come before common sense. He will lose four foreign secretaries in the process.

His cabinet is in France, near Le Havre, but Albert remains right behind the front during the entire war. Until 1917 the royal family lives in a villa near the seaside town of De Panne, without running water, electricity  or central heating. When in 1917 De Panne is designated to the English zone, the king moves towards Veurne.

He regularly visits his soldiers in their trenches. On his way to Houtem headquarters on horseback he frequently chats with a farm worker. And now and then he gets on an airplane to scout the front line. This is how the king and the Belgians are on guard at the Yser front, behind the water plain that had come into being after one Karel Cogge had opened an old sluice called Kattesas near Nieuwpoort.

Eleven days after the armistice of 11 November 1918 Albert makes his joyful comeback in the capital, Brussels. It is an unprecedented celebration. Leaning on gates and swinging from branches the Belgians cheer their grave monarch. His people, divided by language, are impressed by Albert. He uses the opportunity to regulate the universal right to vote. Conservative powers grumble. But Albert does not want to accept that the front line soldiers who defended the country from the mud have no vote in peacetime. Already before the war he has a reputation as a monarch who recognises the social issue. When he became king in 1909 he had also made a name by addressing his people both in French and Dutch, which was something new. His biographer, Jan Velaers, calls Albert I ‘an inspiring force in Belgian society’.

During the decades after the armistice he continued to be kindly disposed towards the cause of the Flemish emancipation. As a constitutional monarch, however, he slowly vanished from the centre of power, where vehement crises of a financial, political and linguistic nature raged.


Albert must have felt happiest when high in the mountains, lonely and alone. He was an experienced mountaineer, a fact which makes it hard to believe that an accident had ended the life of the 59-year-old monarch. On a wooded slope near the rocks of Marche-les-Dames, not far from Namur, the royal body was found. His spectacles were discovered a bit further in a crack. The king was familiar with the area. Could it have been murder? Or suicide? Apparently unfounded speculations.

His son Leopold III has to take the helm. He lacks his father’s character. When the Germans invade Belgium again in 1940, Leopold takes command of the Belgian army, just as his father had done. But this time there is no cure against the German Blitzkrieg. Leopold is forced to capitulate and decides to make the most of it. He accepts an invitation for coffee by Hitler and by doing so makes himself impossible after the war. Not every king is an Albert.

Next week: Bertha Krupp

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

005 Jean Jaurès and the last strawberry tart

Jean Jaurès

Jean Jaurès

The socialists, too, prefer war

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

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

The Russians proceed to partial mobilization.

The Austrian emperor declares war on Serbia.

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

Meanwhile Winston Churchill has started preparing the navy for action.

Also the French have their troops standing by.

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

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

Germany declares war on Russia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Next week: Albert I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

004 Sir Edward Grey and the charm of birds

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

British government hesitates in July crisis

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

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

Strikers at St Petersburg throw up barricades against the police.

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

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

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

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

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

Military commanders in Germany return prematurely from their summer holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Jean Jaurès

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

003 Count Leopold von Berchtold and the stick to hit Serbia

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Austria-Hungary wants war

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

Demonstrations in Northern Ireland seem to foreshadow civil war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Next week Sir Edward Grey

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

002 Wilhelm II and the arm in the dead rabbit

William II

Wilhelm II

Blank cheque precedes declaration of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Count Leopold von Berchtold

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

001 Franz Ferdinand and a ferry in trouble

Download this episode (right click and save)

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

Europe surprised by attack in Sarajevo

It is Sunday 28 June 1914, the beginning of the first week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

German Emperor Wilhelm II is getting ready for his annual cruise in Norwegian waters on the imperial yacht Hohenzollern.

The French are under the spell of the lawsuit against Henriette Caillaux, wife of the former prime minister, who killed a journalist that was a nuisance to her husband.

In the Bosnian town of Sarajevo there is an attack on the Austro-Hungarian successor to the throne in which both he and his wife are killed.

The perpetrator, the young Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, and his conspirators are arrested on site.

Riots break out in Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia.

From Belgrade the diplomatic service of Austria-Hungary announces to Vienna that the Serbians must be accessories to the attack.

Also the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, is informed that his Viennese colleague, Leopold von Berchtold, is pointing an accusing finger at Belgrade.

The German emperor reacts stoically to all the news and his Austrian colleague Franz Joseph is not exactly grief-stricken either.

 After a most plain ceremony the couple are laid to rest on their own country estate in Austrian Artstetten,  Sophie and Franz Ferdinand

28 June 1914 is the day that the story of WWI begins. To the Serbians 28 June is a date with a much older history. Tucked away in time on 28 June 1389 Serbian armed forces were defeated by the army of the Ottoman empire. The Battle of Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, hurt the Serbian soul permanently.

Franz Ferdinand should have chosen a better day in 1914 for his visit to Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the relatively unknown capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina,where for centuries muslims, both Croatioans and Serbians, have had to live together. Franz Ferdinand, who bears the title of archduke, is the future emperor of Austria-Hungary. To the annoyance of true Serbians, Bosnia and Herzegovina have also been part of this empire for six years. A visit to Sarajevo on 28 June is all in all an affront for which Franz Ferdinand is going to be sorry. The first shot of the First World War is fired on 28 June 1914, though no one will understand the significance.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are also celebrating their wedding day on this very same 28 June. They are sitting side by side in an open car when the young Bosnian Gavrilo Princip thinks he should do the Serbian nation a favour. Princip’s main concern is Franz Ferdinand who he considers the oppressor of the Serbian people. The second bullet is meant for Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who is also in the car. Princip misses the target and accidentally hits Sophie in the abdomen. She is said to have cried out to her husband: ‘For God’s sake, what has happened?’. Then she collapses between her husband’s knees.

After being hit in the carotid artery he stutters: ‘Sopherl, Sopherl, stirb nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder.’(‘Sophie, Sophie, stay alive. Stay alive for the children’).

While the archduke himself is losing consciousness he goes on repeating several times that it’s nothing: ‘Es ist nichts, es ist nichts, es ist nichts…’. But the archduke is profoundly mistaken. In the governor’s residence the death of both spouses is established.


Let us return to the morning of 28 June 1914, when the world still looks completely different. Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the man to succeed the ancient emperor of the Austro-Hungarian double-monarchy. The future emperor is reputed to be a reformer. And decaying Vienna is horrified by the thought that the status quo is about to end for the Austrians and Hungarians.

Emperor Franz Joseph is almost 84. He will humanly spoken not live much longer. At the age of 50 Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, as is his title, is not exactly just out of the cradle. He has been warming up to the throne half of his life. In 1889 crown prince Rudolph commits suicide. Rudolph was the only son of emperor Franz Joseph and his ravishing but neurotic wife Elisabeth, better known as Sissi.

After that Franz Ferdinand’s father came on the screen as the eldest brother of the emperor, but senior soon declined the hereditary honour. Consequently Franz Ferdinand sees it as his task to continue the tradition of the Habsburgs as the central dynasty of Europe. Quite a task as the future of the court in Vienna does not look very good. The Habsburg empire and its ethnic communities are creaking and cracking everywhere. Franz Ferdinand, howevefr, does not seem to be burdened with this prospect. He lives an impassioned life travelling and hunting. He is said to have killed about 5,000 deer single-handedly in his life.

Meanwhile surrounded by advisors in the military chancellery of castle Untere Belvedere he is indeed preparing conscientiously for his task. Franz Ferdinand advocates modernization of the army and extension of the navy. He wants Austria-Hungary to regain its position on the world stage. First it should, however, put its domestic affairs in order. Franz Ferdinand does not share the desire to go to war as shown by chief-of-staff Conrad von Hötzendorf with regard to the ambitious kingdom of Serbia. His urge to reform provides him with a liberal image but a good observer will recognize in Franz Ferdinand a reactionary who wants to embed the monarchy in aristocracy, with his catholic God’s blessing of course.

For a time he has been willing to grant the Slav inhabitants of the empire their own status equal to the Austrians and the Hungarians. But in the final year of his life he is inclined towards a ‘United States of Great Austria’ consisting of fifteen member states. He most certainly distrusts the Magyars who were treated equally. He sees their nationalist sentiments as a threat to the dynasty. Franz Ferdinand cannot tolerate Hungarian being spoken in his presence.

Historian Michael Freund has called Franz Ferdinand a ‘man of uninspired energy’, ‘of dark appearance and emotions, exuding an aura of strangeness and casting a shadow of violence and ruthlessness.’ Contemporary Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus observed that Franz Ferdinand was not the type of person to greet somebody else, ‘he does not feel the urge to venture on the unexplored grounds that in Vienna is called heart.’

His own heart was stolen in 1895 by one Sophie Chotek. As duchess of Hohenberg she is of rather humble birth, Czech aristocracy come down. Emperor Franz Joseph, who is not al all fond of his self-willed nephew, does not accept the relationship. A future Habsburg emperor should present a lady of his own class.

The quarrel between the emperor and his successor culminates to such an extent that Wihelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia call upon their Viennese equal to be a bit more accommodating. In 1899 Franz Joseph is willing to agree with the marital union, but he wants it to be a morganatic marriage. Children of such a ‘left-handed’ marriage should content themselves with the title of the lowest-born marital partner. In other words Franz Ferdinand will not be able to beget an heir to the throne  by his Sophie. And at official occasions Sophie will have to know her position, somewhere at the back.

The emperor’s entourage, including both Franz Ferdinand’s brothers, will see to it that the ‘dynastic discipline’ is respected. As Oberhofmeister (High Chamberlain) Alfred, the second prince of Montenuevo, does not pass any chance to deny Sophie the dignity of the Habsburg court. Franz Ferdinand hates him fort his. Sophie accepts all the insults in a dignified manner. Her serenity contrasts with the impulsive nature of her husband.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina are Reichsland (Imperial Territory), Sophie is allowed to sit next to her husband for a change on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand has come to Bosnia to inspect the troops, a task which he has fulfilled for some years. To the Serbians this is a fateful sign.The tension between the small kingdom of Serbia and the big Danube monarchy has been so great for years that you can cut it with a knife. Bosnia is the centre. The Serbians see the army manoeuvres there as a sign that Austria-Hungary is about to invade and advance to Belgrade.

Today this is certainly not on the programme in Sarajevo, but there will be a visit to the town hall, a speech by the mayor, the opening of the new accommodation of the national museum, luncheon in the Konak (the old Turkish fortress), and visits to the mosque and the bazars. Sophie is convinced that it is going to be an enjoyable day. ‘Wherever we went, we were treated in such a friendly fashion – even by all Serbians – with so much cordiality and genuine warmth’, she said on the day before they left for Sarajevo.

However, when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are driving along the Appel-Kai, there is a muffled bang. The young typographer Nedjelko Cabrinovic throws a bomb to the car of the archduke. It is a conspiracy. They are seven, Cabrinovic, Princip and five others. The bomb Cabrinovic throws misses its target. It rolls off the folding roof of the car after Franz Ferdinand has made a defensive gesture with his hand to protect his Sophie. Two officers in the car following the archduke get the full blast. Several bystanders are injured by fragments of the bomb.

Rather outraged than shocked Franz Ferdinand decides to continue his visit. In the town hall he snarls at the mayor. ‘I have come to Sarajevo and people throw bombs at me. It is a disgrace.’ Sophie pacifies him, after which Franz Ferdinand is said to have mumbled ‘I am sure bullets will be next’.

When Franz Ferdinand decides to go to the hospital to pay a visit to the people injured in the bomb attack, Gavrilo Princip, loitering by the side of the road, sees his opportunity. The car has to turn to go in the right direction. With his gun he will finish his comrade’s job. In Vienna old Franz Joseph, a dutiful but fossilized monarch, can heave a sigh of relief. The future of his dynasty will look much brighter without obstinate Franz Ferdinand.

Even when dead Sophie still has to know her position. Her coffin is placed on a lower pedestal than her husband’s. Two handkerchiefs and a fan are laid on it, as a reminder of her modest position as lady-in-waiting. Foreign princes are not invited for the funeral.

In his lifetime Franz Ferdinand had determined that he and his wife Sophie were not to be buried in the Kapuzinergruft in Vienna, where all highly placed Habsburgs are laid to eternal rest. He had his own ‘light and airy’ crypt built in his palace at Artstetten. In the dead of night the lifeless bodies are taken away from Vienna to the couple’s country estate. At Pöchlarn they have to take the ferry across the Danube. There is a thunderstorm. The ferry narrowly escaped capsizing.


Sopherl, Sopherl, stirb nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder’ (Sophie, Sophie, do not die! Stay alive for our children!) Franz Ferdinand was rightly worried, for the Habsburg family will be unconcerned about the three orphans. A hunting friend of Franz Ferdinand takes over their upbringing. And when the national-socialists come to power in Germany and Austria, to be on the safe side Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s children are locked up in Dachau concentration camp.

Next week: Wilhelm II

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Post Navigation