The Great War? Blame the kaiser

On the faded blue French telegram form: “War formally declared; staff can do work; you may prefer be here at this time.” Austria-Hungary had begun bombarding Belgrade. Caught on vacation in a Paris suburb at the outbreak of World War I, my grandfather was not able to begin his frantic drive back to Hungary with his chauffeur in their official car until Aug. 3, the day Germany declared war on France; he was allowed through French and German front lines only by the grace of God and a flimsy, handwritten sheet of paper, an “Ordre du Ministre de l’Interieur” requesting a “laissez-passez” for William Coffin, “Consul General des Etats-Unis d’Amerique Budapest, qui rejoint son poste en automobile.”

On Aug. 4, Great Britain declared war on Germany for its invasion of neutral Belgium, and German heavy artillery soon initiated its devastating bombardment of the forts surrounding Liege. The war was truly on.

Four years of grinding trench warfare began 100 years ago this week, churning western France and Belgium into a sodden wasteland – static, unrelenting, a conflict of incessant and mind-shattering artillery barrages, poison gas, rats, machine-gun fire, mud, rotting feet and the sickening stench of unburied corpses. The Great War’s vindictive and poorly crafted peace treaty then provided the key rationalization for Germany’s vengeful Nazi party as it seized power and provoked World War II in Europe … which in turn spawned the Cold War, whose reverberations still affect us.

A month following Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, the conflict expanded to include scores of countries and colonies in regions ranging from the North Sea, the Atlantic and North America to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Japan and the Pacific. An estimated 65 million men mobilized worldwide; more than 10 million would die or go missing in action, more than 21 million others being wounded. More than 6 million civilians perished.

Why? Germany’s colonial ambitions and battleship race with England? An alliance system that proved uncontrollable after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28? France’s yearning for revenge for her 1871 defeat by Prussia? Desire for spoils and hegemony in the pending collapse of the Ottoman Empire?

While all played a role, more than all other people or countries, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II must take personal blame for triggering this war.

Personality issues affected Wilhelm’s dealings with both people and nations. William Ober’s 1992 article in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine ascribed the likely cause of Wilhelm’s volatile temper, attention deficit and impulsive instability to his having been born blue, not breathing, hypoxic for eight to 10 minutes. Add potential genetic tendencies inherited from great-uncle Frederick Wilhelm IV and great-great-grandfather George III of England, both of whom had died insane.

The rigid demands of Georg Hinzpeter (Wilhelm’s tutor) bred in Willy rebelliousness and determination to have his own way. Wilhelm’s mother, Vicky, wrote to England’s Queen Victoria that her little grandson was “hard and cold by nature.” Bismarck’s son later observed that at 29, the young emperor was already considered by foreign dignitaries and members of his own court to be as “cold as a block of ice.” As Bismarck was being relieved of his chancellorship in 1890, he confided to associates that his primary motive for remaining in office was that “he had known of Wilhelm’s ‘abnormal mental condition’ and had wished to save the nation from catastrophe.”

By 1903 Wilhelm’s “psychic state had become so serious that even (Dr. Rudolf von) Leuthold (the kaiser’s primary physician), always inclined to be optimistic, told (Wilhelm’s friend) Eulenburg that it might soon be necessary for the Kaiser to be placed in a sanatorium.” Then, in late November of 1908, the kaiser suffered a nervous breakdown. For nine days Crown Prince William took over for his father, who talked of abdicating … only a few short months after he had told an American reporter that he was ready for war with Great Britain.

Wilhelm II poisons the international atmosphere, upsetting Bismarck’s delicate European balance of power. Advocating non-renewal of Germany’s secret 1887 Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, in 1892 he drove Russia into an alliance with France. His 1896 telegram to the Transvaal’s President Kruger following the Jameson Raid inflamed English public opinion against Germany during the Boer War. Jealous of England’s Royal Navy, Wilhelm felt that Great Britain looked down on Germany as a “quantite negligeable.” In June of 1897 he appointed Alfred von Tirpitz as secretary of the Navy, thus beginning in 1898 the battleship-building programs that threatened Britain’s naval supremacy – even though two years earlier “(t)he Reichstag feared that a German navy putting forth too suddenly on the seas would only alarm Great Britain.” Then “(i)n a flamboyant speech at Reval in 1904 the German Emperor … styled himself ‘The Admiral of the Atlantic.’ All sorts of sober-minded people in England began to be profoundly disquieted.” Nor did he care about the impact on England’s psyche as his High Seas Fleet commissioned nine new dreadnought battleships launched by six German shipyards between 1912 and 1914.

Wilhelm’s “weltmacht” (world might)

In 1897 “there existed a plan – initiated by the Kaiser and seriously discussed by the Navy – to seize Antwerp by sea in a sudden commando raid, without any declaration of war, and to hold it until troops were marched through Belgium. For Antwerp was thought to be important for mounting an invasion of Britain.” Both “initiated by the Kaiser” and then “seriously discussed” by Wilhelm and his top military officials? Mind-boggling.

1898: Wilhelm pronounced, “I am determined, when the opportunity arises, to purchase or simply to take the Philippines from Spain.” Conflict then loomed during the Spanish-American War when United States Commodore George Dewey’s naval blockade of Manila was challenged – and violated – by a larger German force led by Vice Admiral Otto von Diederichs. Dewey warned Diederichs’ flag lieutenant that if any additional German ship violated the blockade and refused to stop and be searched, “I shall fire at her! And that means war, do you know, Sir?”

December 1902: Wilhelm’s navy prepared to occupy harbors along the coast of Venezuela because of Caracas’s failure to repay a loan granted by England and Germany. Citing the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, President Theodore Roosevelt told his secretary of the Navy to authorize Admiral Dewey to deploy 53 warships to the Caribbean. On Sunday, Dec. 14, after German Ambassador Von Holleben had arrived at the White House and chatted casually with the president, Roosevelt asked him whether Germany was going to accept an arbitration proposal submitted by Secretary of State John Hay. When Von Holleben replied, “No,” Roosevelt emphasized “that Kaiser Wilhelm must understand he (Roosevelt) was ‘very definitely’ threatening war.” The Kaiser finally “got it”: “(O)n 17 December, the Reichstag voted secretly to accept arbitration.”

1905 and 1911: unleashed by Wilhelm, Holstein and Von Bulow handled the Moroccan crises – alienating France and again raising the specter of war.

March 1912: the Kaiser “telegraphed direct to the ambassador in London that if the English were to strengthen their North Sea fleet by withdrawing ships from the Mediterranean, this would immediately lead to Germany’s mobilization.”

Thus had Wilhelm heightened international tensions when the designated successor of Emperor Franz Josef was assassinated on June 28, 1914.

Lee Gaillard lives in Saranac Lake. A list of sources will accompany part 2 of this essay in Tuesday’s Enterprise.