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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Discontent and Tension

Discontent & Tension - The Delicate Balance of Diplomacy
Behind such a mood was the detailed map of Europe. By 1914 the political lines were ensnarled with criss-crossing lines of alliance. Never before in European history had there been such extensive and long-formed alliances of military defense in a period of peace. The older balance of power, predicated upon the principle of individual state initiative and diplomatic flexibility, was replaced by blocs of alliances and alignments, holding Europe together politically, much like a suspension bridge between two opposing foundations, in a state of tension.

It would, however, be a grave historical error to imagine that the alliance system was neatly and concretely erected as if a simple problem in political engineering. The process, if it can even be called that, was hesitant, complex, and incomplete. For, indeed, the one side, gravitating around Germany, was well bound by carefully worked out defensive military alliances, while the other side, gravitating around France, was held more by general agreements or "understandings."

The history of the alliance systems begins with the dramatic shift in European political power dating from 1870 and Germany's defeat of France in the Franco- Prussian War of that year. Since the days of Louis XIV, France had been the dominant European power, her army the most effective and generally threatening. That French was the language of European diplomats is one obvious indication of the significance France enjoyed in the political world. Now an age of Germanic hegemony began, one that would last through the days of Adolf Hitler. With its large population (approaching 60 million at the turn of the century), its new and well-organized industrial machine, and its successfully battle-tested army, Germany dominated the Continent.

The historical vision we today have of Germany was not the contemporary view of those who witnessed the fall of France. France had long been the European troublemaker, the expansionist state whose most recent ruler, Napoleon III (1852-1870), was the nephew of the great Napoleon. From the perspective of the European chancelleries, Napoleon III was a parvenu, a political opportunist, both muddle-headed and deluded by grandeur. His defeat by Prussia/Germany was not generally lamented.

Equally important was the diplomatic finesse with which Bismarck conducted German affairs. Under him Germany was a satisfied nation, pleased to enjoy a status quo--after 1870, of course--in which its interests were respected and secure. Germany was now united, and Bismarck was not pressing for further territorial aggrandizement. It was in this general context that Bismarck could play the role of "honest broker," a term he applied to himself during the Congress of Berlin, 1878, when the European powers joined to regulate the peace terms following a brief Russo-Turkish War. Germany therefore appeared as no threat, but as a responsible member of the European community.

From across the Rhine, on the French side, no such observation was made, as might be expected. On the contrary, the condition of national hatred that the French now generated for the Germans was even constructed into a grand historical myth, forced back in time to the Gauls, when the Germanic tribes supposedly were aggressors against France. Now, the German annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the financial indemnity imposed by Germany, and the severe hurt to national pride suffered when the French army ignominiously collapsed, made the leaders of the French nation bitterly attentive to Germany.

Conversely, Bismarck feared the possibility of a war of revenge on the part of the French, and French propagandists even called for one. The fear was not taken lightly, for Bismarck knew that France had not been gravely weakened by the recent military encounter. That the financial indemnity was paid off in less than three years was proof that France was still a very powerful nation.

Bismarck's military concerns shaped his diplomatic actions. He feared what he called a "nightmare of coalitions," one that would bring France and Russia together and thus leave Germany open to double attack. Both German diplomats and soldiers wished ardently to avoid a two-front war, one that they knew Germany could not successfully wage. Geography had denied Germany any meaningful natural boundaries against military attack, and nature had made her a nation dependent on many imports to sustain her humming industrial machine. All of this clearly in his mind, Bismarck sought the military security of Germany and the diplomatic isolation of France.

The Bismarckian alliance system came to rest on two major defensive alliances. The first was the Dual Alliance of 1879 that joined Austria to Germany in case of a military attack by Russia. Put simply, the terms stated that if one of the two states was attacked by Russia, the other would offer military support. The second alliance was the Triple Alliance of 1882, now joining Italy with Austria and Germany, and extending the defensive arrangement against France as well as Russia. By these two alliances, Germany was assured of diplomatic and military support should a war break out.

Against these alliances appeared another system, perhaps better defined as a loose confederation. It was inspired by France, and the year 1890 is its initial point. That was the year Wilhelm II "dropped the pilot"--Punch magazine published a cartoon describing Wilhelm's dismissal of Bismarck in this manner, thereby suggesting a ship of state without guidance. Now France took the diplomatic initiative, both because of the relative tranquility of her domestic situation and the growing concern over German foreign policy.

Historians have argued that Wilhelm II and his advisers were reckless in their handling of diplomatic matters. The emperor frequently-used bombastic rhetoric, speaking of Teutonic crusaders and harping on Germany's greatness. The foreign policy of his government was directed to a new Weltpolitik, a world political policy of searching after places in the sun, or, less metaphorically, an effort to break out of what Germans considered their continental confinement. To play a world role commensurate with the nation's new industrial and military stature, Germany would necessarily encounter England basking in the sun. To many Germans, England was the chief source of German political confinement. As for France, the Germans made some threatening gestures, precipitating two crises, in 1905 and 1911, over Morocco, where the French had laid tentative claims to empire. German bluster soon turned out to be diplomatic blunder, and that state was cast in an isolated position, only resulting in further German frustration.

Hastily sketched, these are the conditions which both explain the French effort at international alliance and, in turn, explain the diplomatic setbacks of Germany. In 1894 France succeeded in her pursuit of Russia, and the two states signed a defensive military alliance, each assuring the other of military support in case of attack from Germany. The Franco-Russian Alliance, this improbable alliance between the most revolutionary and the most reactionary country of Europe of the time, was signed, and, with it, the possibility of a two-front war became a German probability. Then in 1904 the French and the English reconciled their long-smoldering colonial differences and signed the Entente Cordiale, a diplomatic gentleman's agreement, reducing friction, arranging political differences in North Africa, and preparing for the exchange of military views. This was no alliance, but a step toward one and an assurance of further cooperation in times of international stress. In 1907 England and Russia drew up a similar entente, settling their major points of contention in Persia, and, again, leading to the possibility of military understanding.

There were the two camps: the German, holding to it Austria and Italy in alliance; the French, holding to it Russia in alliance, and England in "understanding." With the exception of the Italian shift to the French camp in 1915, the major European belligerents of World War I were grouped together, and in opposition by 1907. But this did not necessarily mean war.

War Clouds
Europe underwent a series of crises in the first decade of the twentieth century, in Morocco, in the Balkans, in the Far East. None disrupted the European state system, but each and all suggested the growing spirit of belligerency and the decline of moderation in diplomatic affairs. The mood of the intellectuals, described earlier in this chapter, now expanded to more popular dimensions. Both French and German military theorists taught their soldiers the glories of the offensive, preached about the manliness of the charge, and about the anticipated heroics to be obtained by the use of the bayonet. War was claimed to be the crucible in which the metal (and mettle) of the nation would be tested. The metaphor is a mawkish one, but it was often used. In the most popular novel to emerge from World War I, Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front", the high school youth are told--by a history teacher, ironically--that they are the "Iron Youth" who must gloriously fight and conquer for the Fatherland.

Matching this increasingly strident tone of nationalism, in which the clash of steel was converted into a poetry of noble endeavor. was the increasing armaments race. The first decade of the twentieth century was one in which the Germans created a navy designed not to defeat but to thwart the navy of Great Britain. Initiated with the naval acts of 1898 and 1900, this navy was constructed to conform with Admiral Tirpitz's "risk theory." The "risk" was to Great Britain, which would be sufficiently matched by the German navy to risk in a war the loss of enough of its ships so that the British "two-power standard"--maintenance of a fleet capable of encountering any two others--would be destroyed. In sum, the German navy would so reduce the British navy that Germany and her allies would master the sea. The English did not rejoice at the sight of German vessels being launched. With the introduction of the Dreadnought series in 1906, England reemphasized her naval position and went the way of even bigger, more heavily armed battleships, another display of European fascination with size and power.

Standing armies also reached impressive proportions: Germany had about a half million men under arms in peacetime, and France was not far behind. Each nation devised new weapons, and each concentrated seriously on strategy. In this new industrial age, even strategy was forced to conform to timetables: the Germans meticulously planned out an offensive, with arrival times in various parts of Belgium and France calculated nearly with the exactness of the schedules maintained by crack express trains.

The German plan was named after its creator, Count von Schlieffen (1833-1913). Schlieffen reasoned as had Bismarck and all other major German strategists since that time: Germany could not wage a successful two-front war. With the Franco-Russian alliance a stark reality after 1894, he had to choose which state he would attempt to knock out of the future war first. France was selected for this dubious honor, but for clear reasons. The mobilization of Russia would be slower, the military potential of France was greater. Better catch the stronger, better prepared state off guard first; such was the essence of the thought behind the Schlieffen Plan. Translated into military terms, it meant that the Germans would maintain a holding action on the eastern front against Russia, while they would move rapidly and daringly against France. What the Germans needed was the element of surprise; what they counted on was the precision of their military maneuvers.

Like a hinged door, with its hinge situated around Metz, the German armies would move through the lowlands, violating Belgian neutrality, and invade France from the Northwest. If all went well, these armies would penetrate south of Paris, thus isolating the capital and cutting off the French armies from support deep in France. Here was a brilliant military plan, requiring the courage of keeping the "hinged" area of the German front rather weak so that the concentration of troops at the "swinging door" portion to the Northwest would be strong and therefore assure a rapid "swing." Schlieffen himself said the plan would require a Frederick the Great to achieve its success. No such general was available on either side in 1914.

Without further excursion through the sandtables upon which the Germans played out their plans, one can see that the Schlieffen Plan was not one that could be accommodated to slow diplomacy and careful political deliberation. If the conditions of war were at hand, the plan could only work if it were seized upon and acted upon readily. In sum, German military planning had placed diplomatic considerations in the rear. The anxiety of war was only compounded by the rapidity of enactment that the Schlieffen Plan presupposed.

No other nation had concocted anything from the chemistry of war that matched the German plan, but all were convinced that the offensive was the necessary posture to assume. Why? The answer is disarmingly simple. Almost all strategists thought that modern warfare was bound to be short. First, the industrial state was too sensitive to endure a war of long duration, a war of attrition. Second, and clearly related to the first argument, the expenses of modern warfare would be too much for any state to endure. Third, there was historical confirmation of the "short-war" thesis. Both of the recent major European wars were effectively over in a matter of a few weeks; such was the interpretation of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Russo- Japanese War of 1904-1905. A "summer war," this is what generals, politicians, and the public at large thought would happen. Hence the war would be fought and won by the standing armies with no need for the reserves. The entire argument conspired to place an emphasis on the offensive. Whoever moved first and swiftest would no doubt win.

That such thought as this could have been received with equanimity by many Europeans is proof of the fascination with war that then held the imagination. Many historians have commented that the long period of peace and comfort Europe had enjoyed led to the romanticism of war. Removed from actual life, warfare had become the stuff of early science fiction with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells commenting on it. Wells wrote as a prophet, his message a warning; but to many of his readers, his words were thrilling fictions producing a slight chill of the spine just before retirement to an eider-down-covered bed.

In the two decades before the outbreak of World War I, there were dramatic signs that the European mood and the international political condition were changing drastically. Prophets of doom and heralds of elitism had scornfully dismissed the virtues of democracy and the results of industrialism. The older "concert" of Europe had given way to the noisy confusion of nations jostling against one another and into new alliances. How easy it is for us to see this as a period preparatory to destruction. But it was not so perceived by most people living at the time.

All of these signs of impending doom were not clearly noticed by the masses of Europeans who still thought they were living in a "century of progress." Indeed, the impressive number of turn-of-the-century commemorative books, forerunners of our "coffee table editions," were lavishly illustrated with the wonders of the age, and the prose in which they were couched painted a purple word picture of greater wonders yet to come.

The age clearly has its element of drama, of impending tragedy and general unawareness. European civilization was at its pinnacle, at a height never again to be attained. In almost all fields of human endeavor, the Europeans were in the forefront, perhaps already being surpassed by the Americans in industrial prowess, but nonetheless visibly the center of a world system. The war would slowly grind this position down and leave behind a multitude of problems, many of which were never solved.

The complacency of the age was in its own greatness and in a disinclination to believe seriously that one war could possibly destroy it all. The guns that opened fire on the western front in August of 1914 shattered all dreams and all delusions.

NEXT:  Chapter Eight: The War

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