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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)



044 Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his order to die

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Ottomans are not so sick after all

It is Sunday 25 April 1915. It is the 44th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

South Africans and Rhodesians give the Germans in Southwest Africa a beating.

Italian diplomats sign the secret London Pact: if Rome chooses the side of the allies, it is entitled to claim parts of Austria-Hungary, among which South Tyrol, Gorizia, Istria and half of Dalmatia.

An Austrian submarine, commanded by Georg Ritter von Trapp, succeeds in eliminating French cruiser Leon Gambetta in the Adriatic Sea, killing 547.

A new type of Zeppelin bombs the Sussex coast of England.

Germans and Austrians prepare for an attack at Gorlice in Galicia.

Despite warnings of the German embassy, ocean liner Lusitania leaves New York, destination Liverpool.

A French attack at Ypres results in heavy losses, in spite of support by the British artillery.

The Germans continue to target the allies with chlorine gas.

And the allied invasion of Gallipoli paints the sea red, while on the Turkish side a true hero emerges, Mustafa Kemal.

A lot has perished because of the First World War. Even headwear has been subject to demolition. Think of the Pickelhaube, the spiked symbol of the Prussian military. Or the fez, the round red felt hat – leftover of Byzantine culture in the Ottoman empire.

In post-First World War Turkey the fez was banned. It was Mustafa Kemal who was behind the Hat Law of 1925. He was the strong man, especially honoured by secular Turks as Atatürk, Father of Turks.  No Turkish living-room would be complete without his portrait on the wall. Insulting him would be the equivalent of lese-majesty, hence forbidden by law. Atatürk was in the hearts of all the Turks and it was he who made a town in the heart of Turkey its capital: Ankara. His sarcophagus is there, too.

Back to the fez. Why does a head of state want to interfere with headwear? For the same reason why Atatürk exchanged Arabic script for the western alphabet. The reason also why he granted women the right to vote, but forbade them to wear veils. Why he closed down monasteries of the Dervishes. Why he introduced family names and abolished all sorts of titles and nicknames and epithets. Why he established a civil code. Why he founded museums and stimulated the arts. Why he adopted the international calendar and time indications. And why he, above all, separated  mosque and state. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become a modern European nation.

Historian Bernard Lewis describes it as follows in ‘The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years’: ‘Atatürk, the master of social symbolism, was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.’ Says Lewis.

The Turkey of Atatürk radically broke with the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, the once so mighty realm of the sultans. The First World War had been the fatal blow, but the decline had begun much earlier. When the peoples of Europe tried to find their way out of the Middle Ages in utter blindness, the civilization of the Ottomans had been at an unprecedented level for ages. Medically, mathematically, chemically, astronomically, philosophically and even theologically speaking, the islamic world was a long long way ahead of Europe.

In 1453 Constantinople had fallen into the hands of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. That signified the end of the Byzantine Empire as advanced post of Europe. The Ottomans had already  earlier managed to penetrate Europe via the Dardanelles. The Balkans were overrun, but in the sixteenth century the Ottomans were also at the gates of Vienna and even made attacks on the Spanish coast. Everywhere in Christian countries Allah’s hordes were feared.

However, in 1699 after a battle against a Holy League the Ottomans are forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz. It is the first time that they have to face a real defeat. The realization has dawned upon them that only the western way of waging war can be successful. Military reforms will precede a cultural merger. It is the French Revolution – with its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity – that really breaks open Ottoman civilization. Napoleon brings the printing press to the Middle East.

A new western principle is introduced past the Bosphorus: nationalism. It is the aim of merging a state with a people. The Ottoman Empire has been organized differently. Numerous cultures have lived together there for centuries relatively harmoniously. Compared to Europe the Ottoman Empire was the epitome of tolerance and cultural diversity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Persecuted minorities from other countries found a place there and minorities from their own empire enjoyed a lot of freedom.

However, in the nineteenth century more and more ethnic groups – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews – began to experience Ottoman rule as tyranny. This made the realm of the sultan sick. The eastern Question was put on the map. In 1853 the Russian czar Nicholas I expressed his worries: ‘We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’

Despite the caring words of the czar, the Russians repeatedly wage war with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The sultans succeed in holding their own thanks to the European powers. They are opposed to a Russian extension at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Crimean war, between 1853 and 1856, the French and the British even fight together with the Ottomans against the Russians.

Six decades later the situation is completely different and the Ottomans stand between the Russians on one side and the British and the French on the other. They do not allow an allied rapprochement across the water, via the Dardanelles, and across the land, via Gallipoli. The common Turk appears to be a lot more vigorous than the sick man of Europe for which the Ottoman Empire had been held.

When the allied forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, a German by the name of Liman von Sanders is in command of the Ottoman troops. But commander Mustafa Kemal will be the star on the front. It seems that Australians and New Zealanders chase the Turks away from their slopes and their trenches, but then Mustafa Kemal straightens his back. The beach where the Anzacs land turns into a bloodbath. Every Turkish child learns how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk encouraged his men never ever to give up: ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.’ And these words proved to be very successful. In nine months’ time around a hundred thousand were killed during the batlle of Gallipoli. More than half of them were Turkish martyrs. The number of wounded soldiers on the side of the Ottomans is calculated to be another 140,000.

Mustafa Kemal was born in the Ottoman town of Salonika, which is now known as the Greek town of Thessaloniki. His surname ‘Kemal’ means something like ‘the perfect one’. His father was a government official, who later went into the wood trade. Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880 or 1881. Due  to the absence of a proper civil registry, there has always been some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. The theory that Mustafa’s father was of Jewish descent is not accepted by everyone either.

Mustafa Kemal joins the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. He serves as a professional soldier in the Turkish-Italian War of 1911-1912 and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Strong man Enver Pasha does not like the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, where he has also been hit by shrapnel. Mustafa Kemal has also spoken against the commitment to Germany in the first year of the war, though this has not prevented him from serving in the Ottoman army. After Gallipoli he is first sent to Edirne and then to the Caucasus front, far away from Enver’s power base in Constantinople. When he is in command of the Turkish Second Army after being promoted general in 1916, Mustafa Kemal made life for the Russians very difficult. After that things become tougher for him on the Arab front. Syria and Palestine offer very little perspective for him.

Meanwhile he accompanies on a tour through Germany the heir apparent of the throne of the Ottomans, the later sultan Mehmet VI. On his return he first takes sick leave and goes to Vienna and Karlsbad to recuperate. He is not only plagued by kidney problems, but also has to cope with the remnants of the venereal disease gonorrhoea. During his rehabilitation in Austria he becomes more familiar with the western lifestyle. Once returned to active service Mustafa Kemal, too, has to acknowledge defeat. On 31 October 1918 the armistice of Mudros is signed on board the British warship Agamemnon. The Ottoman Empire is left completely stripped.

On 8 February 1919 French general Franchet d’Espèrey parades through Constantinople on a white horse, just as Mehmet the Conqueror had done in 1453. The pride of the Turks is wounded. Their defeat is finalized in the Treaty of Sèvres, which will be signed by the new Turkish sultan, but which is rejected by an alternative government in Ankara. That government is led by Mustafa Kemal. He will gloriously lead the Turkish war of independence, which will result in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey is composed of Asian Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, which on the other side of the Dardanelles is considered to be a part of Europe.

Mustafa Kemal then remodels his country. Above all, he shows himself to be a Turkish nationalist. Threfore his name is not hallowed in Greek, Kurdish or Armenian circles. But whoever claims that Atatürk’s ruthless modernization has gone hand in hand with ethnics cleansing, will be addressed by any true Kemalist with the words of Atatürk: ‘It is not important that you are a Turk, but that you feel Turkish’.

He gets married in 1923, but the marriage is dissolved after two years without issue. He will, however, adopt seven daughters and a son. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal accepts the title Atatürk, Father of Turks. Four years later he dies at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that must have been the result of his consumption of large quantities of raki. In that respect, too, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was far removed from straight Islam.

The Turks have erected a memorial at Anzac Cove, the bay of Gallipoli where so many Australian and New Zealand boys were killed on 25 April 1915. It carries the following words that Atatürk spoke to them and their loved ones in 1934: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of  a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

Next week: Alfred Vanderbilt

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


037 H.H. Asquith and the notes he scribbled during cabinet meetings

H.H. Asquith

H.H. Asquith

The British cabinet is under fire

It is Sunday 7 March 1915. It is the 37th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Six British planes drop bombs on the Flemish port of Ostend.

Heavy fights with changing opportunities are taking place along the entire front north of the river Vistula.

Austrian counter-attacks in the Carpathians fail.

A new Greek cabinet led by Prime Minister Dimitrios Gounaris takes up its duties.

British minesweepers try to turn the Dardanelles into a safe waterway while under heavy Turkish fire.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, cables Admiral Sackville Carden that he will have to accept losses, as long as Constantinople falls.

The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph acquiesces in a border adjustment to the benefit of the Italians.

Lord Kitchener asks the help of the experienced General Ian Hamilton for the allied army campaign in the Dardanelles.

The Belgians gain ground along the river Yser and the French achieve the same in the Champagne district.

Bombs and grenades torment Ypres again. 

And the British mount a full-on attack at Neuve Chapelle, the battle that will expose the British Achilles’ heel, to the embarrassment of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.

On 10 March 1915 the British canons roar for half an hour. It is raining grenades on the German enemy lines near the town of Neuve Chapelle, which is in France, though not far from Ypres in Flanders. Right there the German front shows a small bulge. The military term for such bulges is salient. Time will tell that where the front meanders, the war will soon accelerate.

The British Expeditonary Force, assisted by the Royal Flying Corps high in the sky, establish a small bridgehead at Neuve Chapelle. Nothing spectacular, however, as the British and Indian troops only gain two kilometres of territory. Besides, this achievement is overshadowed a few weeks later. Field marshal Sir John French’s plan comes to nothing. He wants to push forward across the ridge near the town of Aubers to the Northern French town of Lille, which is called Rijsel by the Flemish.

Then French gives an interview to the war correspondent of The Times, Charles à Court Repington. French blames the defeat at Neuve Chapelle on a shortage of artillery shells. A rather simple explanation. Even if the British had had sufficient firepower, they probably would not have known how to handle this. But the ‘Shell Scandal’ is born in spring 1915. Press baron Lord Northcliffe’s The Daily Mail takes over the baton and points an accusing finger at the War Ministry, which is led by the hero of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, with whom Prime Minister Asquith does not get on really well. The feelings are mutual. When one day Asquith appeared to have fallen ill, Kitchener made a very quick-witted remark: ‘I thought he had exhausted all possible sources of delay, but I never thought of the diarrhoea’.

Our boys are dying over there, because our government has not put its affairs in order over here. That is how the public feels about itThis drives the nail into the coffin of prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, called H.H. Asquith for short.

Verbally he showed great abilities. Whenever his predecessor, liberal prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, got in trouble in parliament, he was known to say: ‘Bring out the sledgehammer!’ That ‘sledgehammer’ was H.H. Asquith, who was to succeed the sick Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister nineteen days before the latter’s death in 1908. King Edward VII was not willing to break off his holiday in Biarritz for this changing of the guard. So Asquith decided to go to France.

Apart from the maritime arms race with the Germans, Asquith mainly followed a domestic agenda. He defended free trade. He was not in favour of the movement for women’s right to vote, which made him the target of the suffragettes. Asquith especially focused on the expansion of social security. With social insurance contributions and pension provisions his cabinet lay the foundation of the Welfare State.

When trying to realize these reforms, Asquith the liberal found the House of Lords, this aristocratic bastion dominated by the Conservatives, on his path. The Lords were so powerful that they had also managed to delay self-determination for the Irish for years. The matter of Home Rule was hanging over British politics like a dark cloud. Supported by Irish nationalists Asquith decided to take up the fight against the House of Lords. He also got Kind Edward VII on his side, but the monarch would die in 1910. Some thought he passed away as a result of stress. Here and there one could hear ‘Asquith killed the king’. But Asquith continued and with the help of the new King George V finally succeeded in defeating the House of Lords with the Parliament Act.

But all these domestic issues were moved to the edges of Asquith’s desk, when the war broke out. And the longer the war lasted, the clearer it became that H.H. Asquith was not the strong man Great Britain so badly needed. Though he was a thorough prime minister in peace time, Asquith did not pass the litmus test of the war.

The ‘Shell Scandal’ and the military debacle on the Gallipoli peninsula force Asquith as early as 1915 to turn his liberal cabinet into a coalition cabinet with participation of the Conservatives and Labor. Besides, a new ministry is created, the Ministry of Munition, which is led by David Lloyd George, who so far has served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George, who is not averse to intriguing against his own prime minister, proceeds with vigour. On the home front the British suffer a considerable gap compared with the Germans, whose Krupp Werke in Essen have been going like a bomb for decades.

Lloyd George uses the economic potential of the Dominions. Canada proves to be especially important as a producer of ammunition. Also at home the industry is radically made subject to the imperatives of war. On the border of England and Scotland an enormous ammunition factory is built, His Majesty’s Factory Gretna. In 1917 it employs over 11,000 women, twice as many as men. Just to make sure all pubs in the area are placed under state control. Tons of cordite, which is an explosive mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, have left the factory gates of Gretna. It is Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritual father of Sherlock Holmes, who gave cordite its nickname ‘devil’s porridge’. Gretna is certainly not the only ammunition factory. By the end of 1915 the state directly controls seventy arms factories. By the armistice in November 1918 this number has increased to 250.

Already in 1915 Asquith had to start thinking along different lines, but also in 1916 criticism of him persists. The Dublin Easter Rising and the terrible Battle of the Somme further undermine his position. One of the names among a million and a half losses – dead, wounded, taken prisoner- that the Battle of the Somme led to on both sides, was that of Raymond Asquith, the eldest and promising son of the prime minister. On 15 September 1916 he is shot in the chest at Flers-Courcelette. Raymond is carried off the battlefield, but dies on the way back. A brilliant future remains unfulfilled. In one of his many letters the British prime minister has expressed his fatherly grief as follows: ‘I feel bankrupt’.

Asquith Sr. had the peculiar habit to conduct a stream of correspondence with ladies of substance, although he had a dubious reputation of unwelcome intimacies. According to Lady Ottoline Morrell the prime minister did not shrink from guiding the hand of the lady sitting next to him on the sofa to the erection in his trousers. After his first wife and mother of their five children had died of typhoid fever, Asquith remarried a woman who would bear him two more children. But apparently marriage did not offer him sufficient female attention.

From 1910 till 1915 his penfriend was Venetia Stanley, another lady of substance who in her abundance of free time moved elegantly in the highest circles. In other words a socialite. Asquith’s affection for Venetia must have gone beyond the epistolary, but we are not quite sure of the details. However, the numerous letters he wrote to her are of importance to the historian. Asquith often scribbled his notes during cabinet meetings and he frequently asked Venetia’s advice in political and military matters. The correspondence, which was published in book form much later, ended when Venetia chose a new suitor from the world of politics, the Jew Edwin Samuel Montagu. Accordingly the prime minister of Great Britain was torn apart by heartache in the middle of the war.

In his book ‘Asquith as war leader’ George H. Cassar describes the prime minister as follows: ‘The picture of Asquith that emerges is of a man who on the one hand was reserved, serious, solitary and exclusive and on the other passionate, frivolous and somewhat irresponsible. The contrasting elements in his personality reflected the age in which he lived and make him a representative figure.’

After a long period of eight years in office H.H. Asquith has to hand over power to his party colleague David Lloyd George. It is December 1916. The relationship between the two liberals remains cool. Asquith declares to be loyal to the new government, but that does not sound very convincing. The liberal party will fall into two camps, of the old and the new prime minister. The controversy is most obvious during the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918. The officer Sir Frederick Maurice accuses Lloyd George’s cabinet of knowingly keeping away men from the western front. In the House of Commons Asquith puts himself forward as spokesman of Maurice. Lloyd George reacts by requesting a vote of confidence. He weathers the storms gloriously.

To the general public David Lloyd George is also the man who has won the war, after having cast aside Asquith. Yet it is certainly not curtains yet for Asquith after the war. In December 1918 he had to give up his seat in the House of Commons, but two years later he appears again on the political front. Asquith is one of the politicians who paves the way for the first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.

In 1925 Asquith is allowed to join as a peer the House of Lords, the company he had managed to bring to their knees in an earlier political life. He needed to have a title though in order to be admitted to the House. He will be the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Among aristocrats this is tut-tutted in disapproval. Asquith, member of the middle classes, son of a wool merchant, an Oxford Earl? It is the general opinion that this is ‘like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles’.

H.H. Asquith died in 1928 at the age of 75. His grandson Julian inherited the title. This second Earl of Oxford and Asquith dies in 2011 at the age of 94. He was born five months before his father Raymond was killed on the battlefield behind the Somme.

Then there is one of the English war poets, who listens to the name Asquith. It is Herbert Asquith Jr., the second son of the prime minister, who unlike his older brother did survive the war. But this Asquith, too, has looked straight into the monstrous face of the war. He described the destruction ‘after the salvo’, as one of his poems is called. A skull torn out of the graves near by. A poppy at the crater’s edge. And the rats. Of course, the rats.

‘Up and down, up and down

They go, the gray rat, and the brown:

A pistol cracks: they too are dead

The nightwind rustles overhead’

Next week: Sir Ian Hamilton

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)

027 Enver Pasha and ‘Deutschland über Allah’

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

The Turks suffer heavy losses in the Caucasus

It is Sunday 27 December 1914. It is the 27th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians occupy German trenches east of Lombardsijde and take prisoners of war.

The Germans attack Dunkirk from the air.

Both the Germans and the Austrians have to continue their marching off in Poland and Galicia.

Incited by the Austrians Albanian troops make a futile attack on Montenegran posts.

In Berlin the German commanders Erich von Falkenhayn and Erich Ludendorff and their Austrian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf get together to confer.

The War Council in London is bending over Winston Churchill’s plan to joint the Russians via the Gallipoli peninsula, before Constantinople.

In the English Channel German submarine U-24 sinks British flagship Formidable, killing 547 crew members.

The British create a new decoration, the Military Cross, for officers in the lower ranks. 

And the Russians get the upper hand in the battle of Sarikamish, which is a downright failure for the Turkish minister of war, Enver Pasha.

Whoever in present-day Turkey wants to stand up for democracy, civil rights and the separation of State and Mosque, should go to the Monument of Liberty in Istanbul. It was erected three years before the Great War:  a gun firing into the sky in memory of the 74 soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to prevent the return of an absolute monarch.

A westerner who wants to lay his bouquet there as a child of the Enlightenment, will hesitate when seeing the names Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Talaat Pasha is the man who is associated with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Enver Pasha was in the same period the minister of war and commander-in-chief, who was also called ‘the little Napoleon’, a title he could rather lay claim to posthumously than when alive. Enver Pasha was anything but a great strategist. But his poor remains could make the return trip to Istanbul, just as Napoleon’s bones were allowed back to Paris from Saint Helena. It was not until 1996 that Enver Pasha was entrusted to the Monument of Liberty.

There is another parallel between Napoleon Bonaparte and Enver Pasha. Both seriously underestimated the deadly combination of the frosty cold and the Russians as enemies. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was frozen to the bone in 1812, just like Enver Pasha’s Third Army around the turn of the year in 1914. Only 12,000 of the 90,000 soldiers that he sent fighting returned home.

The Causasus formed the backdrop for this dreadful battle. Turks and Russians had already met there with each other in 1877. Enver Pasha was the man to see some good in cornering the Russians again in the Caucasus. It was a long way from Saint Petersburg, where the Russians had first and foremost focussed on the battlefields in the east of Europe. The German Liman von Sanders, military advisor of the Ottomans, dissuaded Enver Pasha from attacking in the Caucasus. In vain, however. The Battle of Sarikamish, which lasted from 22 December 1914 till 17 January 1915, was to end in a military tragedy for the Ottomans.

Long before 1914 it became clear that the Ottoman Empire had had its day. Following the track of their first sultan Osman I, the Turks had become a power to be reckoned with in three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottoman Empire staggered on as the ‘sick man of Europe’, a somewhat peevish diagnosis attributed to the Russian Czar Nicholas I. But it was true that both militarily and economically speaking the Turks had only little to add.

In the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had to surrender more of its territory to Europe quickly. In 1908 Austria-Hungary had been able to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina just like that. Three years later young Italy managed to fulfill its colonial  ambitions by founding Libia in North Africa at the cost of the Ottomans. Also islands like Rhodes and Kos were passed on from Constantinople to Rome. And another year later a league of Balkan nations chased the Ottomans away fom their last piece of European soil.

So the Turks found themselves hardest hit, yet there was some talk of new panache. The Young Turks had seized power in 1908. They were a mysterious and elusive group of people, who more formally passed off as the Committee of Union and Progress. Originally the Young Turks had believed in leftist liberalism. Their organisation reminded of the freemasonry. They specifically reacted against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had sidelined the Turkish constitution and had started to revamp the Ottoman Empire along the lines of the Islam.

After the revolt of 1908 things looked promising. In ‘young Turkey’ liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to apply. Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Turks became each other’s equals within the parliamentary framework of a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II was traded in for his brother Mehmet V, who was to remain an insignificant sultan until a few months before the end of the First World War. The Young Turks invested considerably in education and public services, but soon they appeared to conduct a nationalistic programme as well.

The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire had to be stopped. Minorities who were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, especially Armenians and Kurds, were now having a hard time. The turkification of the Ottoman Empire was embedded in the romantic ideal of the Turanists who drew a far-fetched connection between Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Hungarians and Finns. These were all peoples that had had their origins in Central Asia long ago.

Enver Pasha was the personification of this Great-Turkish ideal. He was one of three pashas, which translated means ‘gentlemen’. The three had run the show since the coup d’état of 1913. The seizure of power had not taken place without bloodshed. Enver Pasha had been personally involved in the assassination of the minister of war.

The triumvirate of the pashas mainly sought to keep the threat of Russia under control. Relations with the big boys in Europe – France, Great Britain and Germany – all shared that purpose. Of the three pashas minister of war Enver, however, was the most pro-German. After all he had been military attaché in Berlin and as a result had a perfect command of the German language. Behind his desk on the wall hung a portrait of Frederic the Great, the Hohenzollern monarch who was dear to every true Prussian’s heart.

In the two Balkan wars that preceded the Great War Enver Pasha, a hawk of the opportunist kind, had been in command of the military. As we have already seen, the first Balkan war had ended in a Turkish fiasco. In the second Balkan war, however, Enver had succeeded in retaking the Thracian town of Edirne, former Adrianople, from the Bulgarians. His ego grew so big that it nearly burst. He was determined to continue on his path to victory with the help of his German friends. Even in the years before the three pashas something beautiful had blossomed between Berlin and Constantinople.The Bosporus was swarming with German soldiers and businessmen. The BBB plan would be the crowning glory of this friendship: a railway line from Berlin to Bagdad via the Bosporus.

Yet it was not all about Germany. In maritime affairs the Turks would rather take their chances with the British. They had ordered two ultra-modern warships in England. They were virtually ready when the First World War was about to break out. Without batting an eyelid the British government informed the three pashas in Constantinople on 3 August 1914 that they would not get the two battleships. There was outrage, especially among the ordinary Turks, who had raised funds for the two warships on a large scale. After all the vessels were meant to impose the Russians on the Black Sea. The British offered some compensation, but the British decision has not gone into the history books as an example of advanced diplomacy.

It is in a much smarter way that the Germans manage to use the Turkish discontent about the two lost warships. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which have both escaped the allies in the Mediterranean, hurry to the Dardanelles, the straits that lead to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire is then not yet involved in the war. When Goeben and Breslau are allowed through, the Turks de facto choose the German side. Even to Enver Pasha this is all going too fast, after which the German ambassador plays a masterly trick. The Turks can have the two ships. Wearing their fezes the German crew on Goeben and Breslau let themselves be cheered by the people of Contantinople. And the German diplomats snigger ‘Deutschland über Allah’.

On 27 September the Turks decide to close off the Dardanelles for all shipping, which especially affects the Russians. Then German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, in Turkish service, gives the final boost on 29 October. He sails onto the Black Sea with Goeben and Breslau and attacks the Russian ports of Odessa, Sebastopol  and Theodosia. Followed by France and Great Britain, Russia declares war to the Ottoman Empire four days later. Sultan Mehmet V declares the jihad, a holy war, hoping that muslims under allied command revolt. But very little or nothing of this will be realized.


After the catastrophic Battle of Sarikamish Enver’s military reputation can no longer  be saved. Meanwhile one of his rivals, Mustafa Kemal, becomes the hero of Gallipoli, the peninsula the allied forces will waste their energy on in 1915. As Atatürk Mustafa Kemal starts building a new and modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

There is no place in the new republic for a man like Enver Pasha. He is even sentenced to death, but together with the two other pashas he manages to escape on board a German submarine. When in 1921 Talaat Pasha is assassinated in Berlin, Enver Pasha will be the first man of the Committee of Union and Progress in exile. In the same year he explains his mission in a letter: ‘Today I am aiming for the same goal as before and during the 1908 Revolution, during the Tripolitanian War, the Balkan Wars and the First World War. And that goal is simply to organize and set in motion the islamic world of four hundred million people … and to save them from the European and American oppression, that keeps them enslaved’.

Meanwhile he has come into contact with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks. The latter considers Enver Pasha a suitable ally to warm the islamic peoples to the Soviet Union. This leads to a military confrontation between the worldly troops of Atatürk and Enver Pasha’s warriors of Allah. Atatürk is the winner and makes peace with the Soviet Union. This is then a reason for Enver Pasha as leader of what has become known as the Basmachi Revolt to take up arms against the communists.

Enver sees himself as caliph, secular leader of all muslims. But in 1922 he is killed in the Caucasus. There are two versions of the exact circumstances of his death, when he was only forty years old. He is said to have been killed in a charge against a soviet brigade by a bullet just above the heart. Or he is supposed to have managed to escape, wounded, to be finished off not much later by the soviet commander himself.

Enver Pasha is laid to rest in 1996 in the town where he was born as the son of an engineer, Constantinople, since 1930 better known as Istanbul. Although Turkish president Süleyman Demirel showed few doubts at the reburial and called Enver Pasha ‘a nationalist, an idealist and an honest soldier’, the Turks still do not seem to know what to make of Enver and his role in the First World War.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Next week: Désiré-Joseph Mercier

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