HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 16

 - The Coming of the Great War


If the early years of the twentieth century were marked by a general consensus that a major war was impending, no similar consensus existed concerning the likely form that war would take. Not only the carnage of World War I, but also the nature of its alliances would have been difficult to imagine. Indeed, in 1900 many people would have predicted conflict, rather than collaboration, between France and Britain. The reasons for the eventual entente between France and Britain and France and Russia consist principally in economic and geopolitical motivations. Cultural identity also played a role, particularly in relations between France and Germany. The territory of Alsace-Lorraine formed a crucible for the questions of nationalism and imaginary identity that would be contested in the Great War.

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European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 16 - The Coming of the Great War

Chapter 1. Origins of the First World War: The Tangled Web of Alliances and Rivalries [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: The second announcement is the movies, the films. I’ve done what I think is the way to do it. They will be available. I think the first one is available now. You can watch it in the privacy of your rooms in whatever college you are. You are to please see them. Paths of Glory goes with next week. That’s the first one. It’s very short and it’s very good. It’s one of the first Kubrick films. It’s about the mutinies. I will talk about the mutinies next week. Please have seen the film by Monday. Can you tell them in section how they do that? I did it, but I’m not sure how I did it. They should be set up. Another thing you can do is you can go down to Film Studies in the Whitney Humanities Center, and you can check out the film and watch it there, or I think you can take it back, also. But you can watch it on your computer screens. Those are the three.

The first one is the first one and then the second one is the second one. Boy, I’m really awake today. The second one isTriumph of the Will, which will go with the fascism lecture. Be sure to have seen it before. The last one is Au revoir les enfants, a Louis Malle film which will be subtitled in English, I think. Yes, it is. That goes with the second to the last lecture. Make sure you’ve seen these films. None of them are long and they’re all great, great, great films, if you can buy into Kirk Douglas as a French soldier. You have to suspend reality a little bit to do that. Any announcements? Things happening? All right.

Today, much of this lecture just parallels the chapter. The origins of World War I can be confusing and I just want to make those perfectly clear so that you know this stuff. So, I hope you read the chapter. Also, we used to have you readGoodbye to All That, which is very long, but very good, by Robert Graves. Then we used the inevitable All Quiet on the Western Front, but we suppressed those. So, it’s even more important that you read the chapter. Let me get into that. I’m not going to write all the terms on the board, because there’s so many. I sent them around, and it’s hard to see anyway. What I have up here is when I talk about birthrights is — between the drilling in the background, gosh darnit — anyway, live births in 1908 were thirteen per 1,000. I’ll go into that in a minute. Let me start now.

Because World War I — in 1914 so many people wanted war, and they ran to the Gare de l’Est and chanted, “à Berlinà Berlin,” lots of champagne, and then in Hauptbahnhof in Berlin, they chanted, “nacht Parisnacht Paris.” Nobody knew that the war was going to last over four years, and kill millions of people, and mark the end of four empires, and, arguably, help contribute to the end of the fifth, that is the British Empire and the impetus toward decolonization that comes out of World War I. Nobody knew that the war that was supposed to be over by December wasn’t going to be over by December. Outside of a couple of journalists, who had been following the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria and had seen kind of the evolution of trenches, nobody predicted that kind of war.

I’ll talk about military strategy at the end today, or — in the plans for the war — or, depending on time, the timing, at the beginning of next hour. So, this makes the origins of the war so much more important. There’s certainly, in terms of diplomatic history, there’s no other event in the history of the world that has been so pored over than the diplomatic origins of World War I, the famous entangling alliances, the house of cards that collapses, all of those very familiar images. After the war, I had this great uncle who fought in the war, a great, great uncle. He was an old dude when I was a very little guy. He had been in France in 1917. At the end of the war, I remember when I was a little kid he gave me this sort of printed out book showing that the Germans had started the war. It was the official account of the origins of World War I.

Of course, the fact that at the end of the war, the war ends with German troops inside France. This has a huge, huge impact on what happens because of two things, looking ahead. One, it became very easy for the German right to say, “We weren’t defeated. We were stabbed in the back.” By whom? By the Jews. By the Communists. By the Socialists. Secondly, because Germany was defeated they had to sign on the bottom line saying, “We started the war alone, we alone.” The famous war guilt clause, war guilt clause. Now, the Germans didn’t start the war alone. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether their responsibility, the famous blank check given to Austria-Hungary, is more important than the roles of other states, Russia declaring mobilization which was tantamount to an act of war for reasons we’ll come to, or France, for that matter. But that’s why the origins of World War I are so important.

The other reason is that clearly World War I unleashes the demons of the twentieth century. The kind of racist stuff, the even somewhat genocidal stuff was out there in the public domain, but World War I turns it loose. We talk about, I hope convincingly, the Europe of extremes, which is the title of a wonderful book by Eric Hobsbawm, and one extreme being communism. But the other extreme, which was more prenant, more victorious, more overwhelming in Europe was the rise of fascism and particularly the rise of National Socialism. This stuff was out there, but National Socialism and the Nazis cannot be understood without World War I. That’s why this stuff on the origins, this diplomatic history is so important. That’s why I’m paralleling what you are reading.

If you asked people in the 1880s and 1890s, “Who will fight in the next war?” most people in Germany and many people in France would say that “it’ll be the Germans fighting the French, because of Alsace-Lorraine.” Other people, as we’ll see, particularly in the 1890s, will say, “No. It’s the British and the French who are going to be fighting, colonial rivalries, Fashoda and all that business.” But the one in what you’re reading, as I put it, the old hatred that cannot be put offstage during the entire period, even when French and British relations are at their nadir, at their worst, is that between Germany united, the empire proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Chateau de Versailles, and France, because, after all, the French had to give the second-most industrialized region, one of the most prosperous regions that is Alsace and much of Lorraine, to Germany.

I’m going to end up with an incident that looked like war was possibly going to break out between Germany and France, that is the Saverne incident, and talk a little bit about Alsace-Lorraine and stuff that isn’t in the book later, just to make it clear. It is complicated, because the French could never accept the fact that Alsace and much of Lorraine was now German. This is, again, remember we talked about nationalism and constructed identity? Most people in Alsace and in those parts of Lorraine that became part of the Second Reich, the Second Empire, what do they speak? They spoke German dialect. They did not speak French. More about that later. There was bilingualism, but that’s interesting. If you asked them, “What nationality are you?” and they reply in German, “I am French.” If you were somebody doing a survey now, you’d be sort of shocked by that. But these are complex, these identities.

Anyway, the rivalry between France and Germany was already always there. If you went to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the Statue of Strasbourg, the town of Strasbourg, which is an important European capital now of the new Europe, for better or for worse, was covered in mourning cloth for much of the period because it had been “amputated.” They used this image often. The right arm of France had been amputated in the settlement after the Franco-German War. So, that rivalry is there. French military planners, right through the whole period at the time of Boulanger, who was one who built his reputation — you already read about the general Georges Boulanger — he is Mr. Revenge. Military planners said, “When the war comes, we will move into Alsace and take Alsace and parts of Lorraine back. Then we will move to Berlin. Simple, just like that.” To the very end, that’s their military strategy, attack. They’re going to attack and get back Alsace-Lorraine.

What the Germans plan to do has a lot to do with the way the war starts, and we will get there. The second big rivalry in Europe — and again think of the 28th of June 1914, Sarajevo, a sixteen-year-old heavily-armed Gavrilo Princip — is that between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Their rivalry is over the South Slavs who are within the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the Serbs, who are not, but who provide a constant force for destabilization in the region. As you know, since the time of Catherine the Great, she set her eyes on Istanbul, Constantinople — they’re the same city — on the straits, on access to the Black Sea, that there was always going to be this drive of Russia to the straits.

As you know, later Turkey allies with Germany. But the big rivalry is in terms of Russian influence, destabilizing influence, seeing itself as the protector, the mother of all of the Slav peoples, is a permanent force of destabilization in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Ironically, the guy who gets offed along with his wife, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, he was one of the more — he was a prejudiced figure in many ways, but he was considered a moderate, because he believed that the South Slavs should have kind of a third status, possibly, along with Austria and Hungary within sort of a tripartite empire. Of course, he gets gunned down and what comes next is the blank check, where the Germans say, “Do what you want to settle this situation.” And the famous ultimatum to Serbia by Austria-Hungary.

The Russian government stirs up pan-Slavic fervor in the Balkans. They work consistently to do that. There are religious ties, the Orthodox religion. There are ties of alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet used in Serbia. Serbo-Croatian is the same spoken language, although Serb friends and Croatian friends would deny that in some ways, but basically it’s the same spoken language. But the Serbs use Cyrillic alphabet, which is what the Russians use, and the Croats, who are Catholic, use the alphabet used in Western Europe. So, the European alliance system, these entangling alliances, hinges on French and German enmity and the competing interests of Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. It also hinges on Bismarck, who was in many ways an odious guy but a very clever guy. His fear was that Germany would have to fight a war on two fronts.

So, what these powers are doing are looking for allies. As Bismarck said, it’s interesting he said it in French, showing that in many ways French was still the language of diplomacy. He said when you’ve got these great powers, five of them, “you have to be à trois.” You have to be with the three and not the two. His worst nightmare — and Bismarck was somebody who said he liked to lie awake at night and hate — his worst fear was having to fight the Russians and having to fight the French at the same time. When he encourages the French to get into the imperial game at the beginning, he’s doing that to try to get them to blow off a little steam out there in Africa. “My map of Africa is here,” remember the line of the map of Europe. So, as he said, here’s the exact quote, “All international politics reduces itself to this formula: try to beà trois.” As long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain, and France.

These treaties, the arrangements — that is, the emergence of the triple alliance and the emergence of the triple entente at the time of the war, Italy is up for grabs, open to the highest bidder. Italy will go to war, despite having been a member originally of the alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany. It will go to war on the allied side, because the allies promise them more in 1915. But that’s another story. But that’s very important in the emergence of fascism in Italy, because Italy after the war, though nominally victorious, does not get what it wants. It does not get the Dalmatian Coast. It does not get the Tyrol mountains. If you fought a war based on national claims, why turn around and give regions that have only a minority of Italian populations to Italy? Benito Mussolini goes from being a socialist to being a fascist, helps create that party based upon this idea that Italy had been screwed. They never got what they were supposed to in World War I. So, he comes power as a fascist, as you know, in 1922.

In 1879 Bismarck forges this cornerstone alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, and it’s predicated on German support for Habsburg opposition to the expansion of Russian interests in the Balkans. You can see in this the origins of the famous blank check in the hot summer, as it was, in 1914. In 1880 Italy allies with Germany and Austria-Hungary forming the triple alliance. But the wording is such that it doesn’t necessarily bring Italy into the war. As I said, Italy will come in on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany and Italy comes in, as I just said, in 1915. Now, the details of these treaties, and these diplomats are still under the influence of Metternich and all that, but the details are not known, but the outlines are known. The details are not known but the outlines of these treaties are basically known.

One seam right through the period is every time that Russia seeks to expand its influence in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary gets concerned and they turn to Germany saying, “You will back us. You will back us, won’t you?” They say, “Yes, of course, we will back you.” In the end what happens is that the blank check goes, after the ultimatum, to Serbia by Austria-Hungary. “Do whatever you want to settle this situation. We will back you all the way.” Why does Germany become encircled diplomatically and ultimately in war? How does it happen that Russia, czarist autocratic Russia allies with republican France? That the czar, the oppressor of the non-Russian peoples, especially the Jews in Russia, comes to Paris in 1889 and they name a beautiful bridge after him, the Pont Alexandre III, the bridge of Alexander III. The marine band learns the theme song of the czars and the socialists go wild in France. How can you ally with these people who are repressing socialists, who are repressing nationalities, they’re repressing everybody, and run this police state?

So, the last thing that Bismarck wanted are these two big states to come together on either side of him. How does this happen? Both France and Russia are outside of the triple alliance, which you already know. But there’s another reason. As a matter of fact, I read about four or five years ago there are still French companies trying to get their money back from Russia because they lost their money in 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power and ultimately nationalized industries, big industries particularly. It is economic in that one of the old things the people say about the French economy, but it’s still true, is that French money investments, much of it goes outside of France. They build the railroads in Spain, but they invest heavily in Russian industry and in Russian railroads.

So, these economic ties are very important. There are also cultural ties. Because of the popularity of the French in aristocratic circles within Russia, but on the other hand, there were lots of Russian nobles who spoke German, who lived in Konigsberg, which is still this sort of enclave now that is still part of Russia, sort of stuck between Poland and Lithuania. But the most important reason is that French investment in Russia increases dramatically in the 1880s and 1890s. And that France seeks an ally against Germany and that relations between Russia and Germany, and this is already obvious, you’ve already discerned this, are going to deteriorate because of this tender relationship between Austria-Hungary and Germany over the Balkans.

In the very end, one of the ludicrous aspects of this whole damn thing is that just as they’re about to go to war, and just as Czar Nicholas II, about whom we’ll come back and discuss one day, he signs the mobilization order. And mobilization, for reasons I’ll come back to, is tantamount to an act of war. He’s dashing off letters to his dearest cousin Willie. And Willie is writing back to “My Dear Cousin Nicky.” These people are related. They’re cousins. But international circumstances, and the tensions over the Balkans, and French fears of Germany, bring Russia and France together and the French marine band plays whatever the theme song of the Russia czars is — it certainly wasn’t Doctor Zhivago — when they arrived. For the Russian government that blames Austria-Hungary for trying to undercut what they view as their logical influence in the Balkans, and Germany will back them right away.

In 1892 France and Russia sign a military treaty that says that there’ll be a military response if the other were attacked by Germany or by one or more of its allies. They form a formal alliance in 1894.

Chapter 2. Britain’s Loyalties: Involvement in the Continental Competition [00:22:27]

What about Britain? What about Britain? One of the things is that the British don’t want to ally with anybody. They’re on bad terms with the French and they’re on bad terms with the Russians, to make a long story short. The Great Game, as they called it, rivalry over Afghanistan, over the entire sort of extension of that frontier into Asia, means that the chances of Great Britain joining in alliance with Russia and with France seems extremely dim. Britain wants to control the seas and to go it alone. But they discover a fact that shouldn’t have surprised them in the Boer War in South Africa. They don’t have any friends. Nobody supports what they’re doing in South Africa. It’s better to have an ally in a world that gets increasingly dangerous.

What happens gradually is that the rivalry, again to make a long story short, between Germany and Britain ultimately will cause Britain to look for allies, and that suddenly it seems less probable that France and Britain will go to war. What is the nature of this increasingly bitter rivalry between Germany and Britain? One is obvious — Africa. That’s one. Second, economic in that the German economy is growing by leaps and bounds. It is the number one country in chemistry. Those of you that are chemists, the whole university system — in Britain the university system isn’t terribly practical, but in Germany chemistry is part of what they do in the German universities, which are great universities. They began to lap the British in chemistry, chemical productions, and they catch up and go ahead, and steel, too. This is a big rivalry.

The British government begins to run scared because the City is running scared. Third is this famous naval rivalry, about which Paul Kennedy, my colleague and friend has written a book, The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry. The Germans start turning out these huge ships. Then the British respond. They produce the Dreadnaught, which becomes a symbol for these huge powerful battleships like nothing that had ever been seen before. The naval leagues in both countries — again, this is a culture of imperialism, the culture of aggressive nationalism — put huge pressure on governments to throw every available resource in the building of more and more ships. Britain, which had always basically controlled the seas since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the late sixteenth century. They’re running scared. Now, again, you can’t look ahead and say, “Aha! But there was only one naval battle of any consequence in World War I at the Battle of Jutland off the coast of Denmark.” It’s kind of a draw, but basically the Germans are forced back in their port so they lose. But the British couldn’t anticipate that.

So, their fear of Germany and the saber rattling of the thoroughly irresponsible idiot, Wilhelm II, helps make it possible to imagine an alliance with “the sneaky French.” In the 1890s there were a lot of war novels about future wars. This, in itself, reflects the fact that many people thought there would be another war. Again, they didn’t know it was going to be a war of four and a half years, but they think there’s going to be another war. I assure you I’ve never read the following book. But one of the more successful was, for a brief time, was this sort of book about a future war. I guess it’s in the early 1890s, or about the time of Fashoda. It’s in the 1890s, or maybe the first couple of years of the twentieth century. It doesn’t matter. Dover, the middle class of Dover are out parading around in the rain on a Sunday morning, miserable weather. They suddenly find that Dover’s been taken over by the sneaky French, that they’ve been digging a tunnel under the English Channel. Napoleon wanted to dig a tunnel under the Channel. There is a tunnel under the English Channel, the Chunnel. The trains rocket along, at least until they get to Britain and then they sort of plod along at about two kilometers an hour, but they’ve improved that side of it. Anyway, there’s sort of a French bias, but too bad.

They suddenly find, as they’re strolling along in the pouring rain, the horizontal rain, that the sneaky French, there were soldiers all over. Taking these sort of national stereotypes, the French are disguised as waiters wearing dirty waiter uniforms. This is the British image. I wouldn’t even comment on what English kitchens would have been like. That would be a cheap shot. But under these towels were sneaky weapons. They take over Dover. Then, of course, the British get it together and they drive them back into the tunnel, and shoot a few, and then they cement up the tunnel, and then parliament passes more battleship bills, etc., etc., the future novel. But there’s another one four or five years later. I haven’t read this one, either, and I’m not going to read it. The people in Whitby or Scarborough, speaking of horizontal rain in the east coast, they wake up and they see these huge German battleships just lobbing shells that can reach and blow up York, lobbing one shell after another. The sequel isn’t very interesting, but the British parliament passes even more bills. Then the battleships of the “good guys” go and blow up the battleships of the bad guys, and everybody can go back to eating odd things on a Sunday morning.

Chapter 3. The Formation of the Triple Entente [00:29:27]

So, how does it happen that that scenario is reversed, of what the future will be? I’ve just explained it. It has to do with the fears of both of these states of Germany. And that the crises, which you can read about, the Moroccan crisis in 1905 makes even firmer this military alliance. It’s called an entente, that word is in English, too, or an understanding, but basically it’s an alliance. By 1905 they’re already saying, “Look, our navy, the British Navy will take care of the North Sea and the Channel, and you guys take care of the Mediterranean.” The crisis in 1911, the second Moroccan crisis, which pushes Germany and France close to war, affirms all of the above things that I’ve said.

Don’t get the idea that in 1911 things are more dangerous than 1910, and in 1910 they’re more dangerous than in 1909. Again, this sort of hydraulic model of pressure building up and finally there is war. It doesn’t work like that. These alliances become firmed up. Of these great powers that Britain, and France, and Russia end up in — Bismarck was dead by then, but in his worst nightmare of being à trois, of being three. The French, by the way, had another reason to be particularly eager to have an alliance. An odd thing happens in la belle France, in most of France. The French population stops growing. It just stops as of 1846-1847. It’s regionally specific. In Brittany and in the Auvergne, in the center of France, people are still churning out babies. You still have huge families. We have friends, one of them just died, older people, and they grew up in misery in the mountains. Misery. They had thirteen children and twelve children. They were one of twelve or thirteen children. But in most of France that’s not the case. In one part of southwestern France, when people had a second baby they received a condolence card. Isn’t that bizarre?

The French population stops growing. Why? There are a couple of reasons. This is just an aside, but it’s interesting. The Napoleonic Code, remember, ends primogeniture, so you’ve got to divide up the plot of land into two or three or into two. Birth control. There are two arguments: the peasants start it and then it filters up to the middle classes, or the middle class starts it and it filters down. It depends on where you are in France. But they stop having children. Look at this. I wrote it on the board, and it may be in the book, I don’t even remember. Here are live births, 1908-1913 per thousand: Italy 32.4, Austria 31.9, Germany 29.3, England 24.9, USA 24.3, France 19.5. That is so low. The French population would have literally not grown had it not been for immigrants. Immigrants then were people coming from Italy and from Switzerland, but mostly from Italy, and from Spain, some, and from Belgium.

What’s the effect of this? There’s this enormous crisis. It has to do also with this sort of threatened virility. Why do we have fewer children? What’s the matter with us? France has become too effeminate, etc., etc. You could just hear the language of this. Women are not serving the state. Why are they not having babies anymore? What’s the matter? They want to vote. Is this getting in the way of having babies that can be sent off to war? It causes an enormous problem. It’s discussed all over the place, particularly by the nationalists. “We don’t have enough children.” Jumping ahead, and I’ll come back to this, Verdun, 1916. The Germans say, “We’re not going to take the forts at Verdun. They’re impenetrable, untakeable, cannot be taken, cannot be pris. But we will make them pay so many hundreds of thousands of people, that we will bleed them and they will be forced to sue for peace.” Falkenhayn was the general. “We won’t take the forts Douaumont and Vaux, but we will kill so many hundreds of thousands of people, and we can afford to lose hundreds of thousands of people, because our birth rate is higher.” Nice for the people sent into all this stuff. More about that later.

So, this has a big effect. If you’re going to go to war and get Alsace-Lorraine back, and if Germany gets more and more aggressive, irresponsible, no question about it. In an age of aggressive nationalism, you’d better have somebody else to help you out. There’s a lot of them, and they blew us away in 1870-1871, and they defeated — they didn’t blow away, but they defeated Austria. Prussia defeated Austria in 1866, cementing its role as the most important power in Europe. So, that helps as well. The French fears and all that. A couple more points. I don’t want to give you an example from this and I mention it just briefly. It’s interesting about how this works, how small incidents in a complicated world of national rivalries and competing identities can almost launch a war. Bam! It took the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to start it all off. There would have been a war sometime.

Chapter 4. The Saverne Incident [00:35:56]

This is the case of Zabern, in German, Saverne in French It’s a very nice little town. I went to Saverne. You’ve got to see all these places. So I went to Saverne. There’s a nice canal that runs through it. Alsace and Strasbourg were annexed to France in 1681 by the megalomaniac Louis XIV. They had been part of France a very long time. In 1871, for reasons you know, they become part of Germany. But this incident at Saverne, what it does is it reinforces the stereotypes that the French have of the Germans and that the Germans have of the French. It’s the image of German quest for domination, and aggressiveness and the role of the German army, which seems to have absolutely no limits. Someone once said about Prussia that it was a state tacked on to an army. The Saverne Affair seemed to indicate that Germany was still the same way.

If you go up to Alsace, you go up to the Vosges Mountains. There’s this route called the Route des Crêtes, or the route of the peaks. You can look down into the Vosges — it still is France, but from what had been German Alsace. You can see all of these monuments put up by German hiking clubs to try to reaffirm this German identity that people had. Identity is an extremely complex thing. First of all, what is clear is that the vast majority of the population spoke German. Whether this makes them feel German or not, it’s not sure. Let me give you a couple examples. I didn’t send this around; it’s too much.

Let’s say for the total of Alsace and Lorraine, the parts that were annexed into the German Reich, that the number of communes in which German dialect was the dominant language is 1,225; in which French was the dominant language was 385. The percentage of the population that spoke German is seventy-seven percent. The population that spoke French as their major language was twelve percent. There was some bilingualism, but not a whole lot, actually, and ten percent sort of neither, in that they were probably more or less perfectly bilingual because of intermarriage. So, when the Germans come in after 1871, they are better than what the French did after World War I. The French try to just rip German out as a language of instruction. Get rid of all the street signs in German. The Germans are a little more delicate in the way that they do things, but German is the language of administration. Another important point is that they don’t trust the Alsatians. Even though they speak German, they don’t trust them.

Alsace and those parts of Lorraine are annexed into the Reich, but they don’t have the same rights as a region that the other parts of Germany like Wurttemberg and Bavaria have. German deputies from Alsace and those parts of Lorraine don’t have the right to vote on issues of war, for example, in the Reichstag. They are not trusted because they are seen as potentially disloyal to the Reich. The idea is that they have been infected with Frenchness. Part of this is religious. It’s so complex. Alsace is a wonderfully interesting area. It has the largest percentage of Protestants in France outside of Ardèche in the south center. It’s also got a large percentage of Jews, who had been victimized by anti-Semitic riots after 1848. But the majority of the population is Catholic.

The German Empire, going back to the Kulturkampf of Bismarck, the war against the Catholics, still doesn’t really trust the Catholics. You’ve got Catholics in Bavaria, usually very right-wing Catholics in Bavaria. You’ve got Catholics in the Rhineland. You’ve got some Catholics up in the North in the Palatinate and you’ve got a lot of Catholics in Alsace. So, they don’t trust them, basically. They don’t trust them. Relations between the German troops, who, as in the case of Spain, are not coming from that region — people occupying Catalonia come from Galicia or they come from Castile so they won’t be infected by the local population, from the point of view of the Spanish state — so, the troops that are in Alsace are not from Alsace, because they don’t trust them. So, tensions are very good.

What happens in Saverne at a place where military civil relations aren’t terribly good, in this town of 8,000 people, is that there is an incident that gets blown out of proportion. There is some drilling. The Germans soldiers are always drilling. And they’re drilling and the commander makes a crack about the Alsatians. He calls them an extremely unfortunately scatological term that he meant to refer to all Alsatians. He essentially says, “Well, if you beat the hell out of those people, you’ll be doing a service to all.” This gets around. One of the reasons that relations weren’t very good in this particular town was because there was a German officer who had the bad idea of sleeping with a fourteen-year-old girl. Some of the local guys go get this guy in this room and just pound him into a well-deserved pulp. So, it spins out of control.

What happens is on both sides in Berlin and Paris, this becomes a huge incident, confirming the stereotype of the Other. There’s nasty language. Bethmann-Hollweg, who was the chancellor then, says some over-the-top things about the French, and the influence of France and Alsace, etc., etc., and that the French are planning a war. And the French government, in a time when there is a nationalist revival, at least among the elites in France, they respond in kind and everything gets big titles, big titres, big headlines and stuff like that. They don’t go to war. But what it does is it reaffirms these stereotypes and it makes people a little more edgy.

Chapter 5. The Schlieffen Plan: The Timetable of Mobilization [00:43:08]

In 1913, but well before that, military planners — I have three minutes and that’s just what I need — military planners are looking ahead to the next war. The French we’ve already talked about. They have a not terribly poetically designated plan number eighteen, which is to invade Alsace-Lorraine with élan. That’s all you need, they said, élan, patriotic frenzy, fury. All you need is to be on the offensive and that’s the end of it. By the way, they invade wearing red pants and they could be shot, picked out through the fog finally in 1914, until they put a little less-bright color on. How are the Germans going to fight a war on two fronts?

How are you going to do that? They’re afraid of the Russians. Why? There are a lot of Russians and the other peoples. They think it’s going to take about two weeks for the Russian army, once mobilization is declared, that the big bear will roll their forces toward the German frontier in German Poland. So, how are you going to win the war in two weeks? If you invade France not through Alsace-Lorraine, but if you invade — well, you’re going to have big trouble. You’re going to run into fortification. So, how are you going to invade France? The only way you can defeat them, and a guy called Schlieffen, whose name I wrote in what I sent around to you, is that you have to invade Belgium, and, from his point of view, the Netherlands, though Moltke, his successor, takes the Netherlands out of the equation.

Belgium had been declared independent and neutral in 1831. If you go into Belgium the idea is you invade Belgium. You get through the big fort at Liège. You get through the kind of rough country, which is not too much. Then you hit theplat pays, the flatlands, and you roll toward the English Channel. The last thing Schlieffen reportedly said on his deathbed was, “The last soldier, his right arm should touch the English Channel.” Then you turn down and you put Paris in a headlock, and they will sue for peace and you will beat them in two weeks before the big bear can come moseying along slowly. That’s why mobilization was tantamount to an act of war, because it starts the timetable. They’ve got to defeat them in two weeks.

What happens if you go through Belgium? From the point of view of the British, it’s bad enough to have the sneaky French across the Channel. But what if you’ve got the Germans in Ostend eating moules frites? What if you have the Germans across the Channel? Big-time enemies a very short, choppy boat ride away. What’s this going to do? It’s going to reaffirm the alliance. Sir Edward Grey, the one who said most famously, and he got it right, “Lights are going out in Europe. They will not be relit again in our lifetime.” At this point, the British hesitate. The French said, “Will the word ‘honor’ be struck from the English dictionary?” The French ambassador is chasing around a high official in the czarist regime in Russia saying, “You must back us all the way.”

So, the invasion guarantees that the worst nightmare of Bismarck will come true, that they will be à trois. The fact that it doesn’t work out, for a variety of reasons, the way the German high command intended, and the way Schlieffen intended, and von Moltke, means that they don’t, for reasons I’ll come back to, can’t get Paris in that headlock, force them to sue for peace, and the race to the sea begins to try to outflank — as in a football game, to make a ridiculous analogy — the outside linebacker. They end up at the sea. Then shovels, and defensive weapons like barbed wire and machine guns, become the weapons of the war. That explains why there wasn’t and subsequently could never be a knockout punch, and why millions of people died in and around those trenches.

[end of transcript]

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