HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 13

 - The Origins of World War I


The traditional, diplomatic history of World War I is helpful in understanding how a series of hitherto improbable alliances come to be formed in the early years of the twentieth century. In the case of France and Russia, this involves a significant ideological compromise. Along with the history of imperial machinations, however, World War I should be understood in the context of the popular imagination and the growth of nationalist sentiment in Europe.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 13 - The Origins of World War I

Chapter 1. Tangled Maps of Empire: Diplomatic Origins of the First World War [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Let’s go. Oh, Charles rocks. Wasn’t that good the other day, Charles Keith, you liked that lecture? He’s excellent. He did a seminar on imperialism last year, which was very good. Before I start I just wanted to — just to give you a visual idea of the new imperialism, that is the period he was talking about, from the mid 1880s, let’s say 1884, 1885 to 1914. So, what to focus on is just — when you’re looking at this thing, is there’s Africa. So, you got a few little splotches, and there weren’t even maps of much of the internal part of Africa. So, that’s 1880. And now look at this. That’s 1914.

So, something just happened in between which is that the scramble for colonies has literally eaten up the entire continent, and the places that Charles was talking about was obviously West Africa, basically, here West Africa, and now Mali, and Senegal, and Algeria, obviously Morocco, and Tunisia, and that sort of thing. And then the rest you just see. But it’s an extraordinary contrast in there. And there’s Fashoda which is where the two expeditionary forces stumble into each other, and there’s a thought of war, and they settle it there with a few drinks, but then the foreign ministers go wild and it’s all that. So, just to remind you of the context. So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today. I don’t know if you’re recording yet but we can — yes, okay, allez.

So, just to put this in context of the diplomatic origins of World War One, because the traditional image of all this isn’t a bad one. It’s the entangling alliances that create this kind of house of cards that when war first breaks out, or for that matter when the Russian Empire declares mobilization of its armies, that the house of cards will collapse and the great powers, minus Italy which will wait for the highest bidder in 1915, go to war. So, how does this all happen; briefly, in forty-five minutes, how does this happen? And towards the end of the hour, towards the end of the forty-five minutes I’ll talk a little bit about one specific affair that kind of demonstrates the intensity of what had happened, and the shift away from England being perceived as arguably France’s greatest enemy, despite Alsace-Lorraine, to that of Germany, and that’s the Saverne Affair, Saverne, s-a-v-e-r-n-e or, in German, Zabern, z-a-b-e-r-n.

But, of course lots of the diplomatic history of this period at first revolves around the enmity between France and Germany and specifically, as you’ve heard over and over again, Alsace-Lorraine. And one can debate, as historians have, to what extent revenge permeated the ranks of French society, thoughts of taking back Alsace-Lorraine through the whole period. And, as I said a few minutes ago, if you’d asked people in the 1890s who France would go to war against, if they had polls in those days, most people would’ve said Britain — more about that in awhile. But it was always there, it was always there for Otto von Bismarck as he’s trying to assure that if Germany does go to war it won’t have to fight his worst nightmare, that is a war on two fronts; and that’s exactly what happens when the French and the Russians get together.

And, so, that’s a major issue in Western Europe — is obviously the relationship between these folks and Alsace, and the parts of Lorraine that had been annexed into the German Empire; annexed rather uncomfortably, as we’ll see in awhile. And the other — I just have to dodge these peripherally, but it’s important to at least, and I’m sure you know about them anyway — but the other thing that it’s going to hinge on is really the hatred between Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the fact that the Russians see themselves as the protector of the Slavic peoples, in the Balkans, and the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a polyglot empire, that is you’ve got at least, depending how you count them, fifteen major nationalities within the Empire, and that although German is the language of the Empire that Austria-Hungary, these ethnic minorities and their claims for national independence exist as a perpetual destabilizing factor in Austria-Hungarian politics, particularly when Russia, which has always dreamt of Constantinople and controlling the access to the Black Sea, is fanning the flames of nationalism, of pan-Slavism, but also of nationalism within these various states, which destabilizes, potentially, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And the Austro-Hungarian Empire became the dual monarchy, before this course starts, but in 1867. It’s run out of Vienna, which is that city which is left by the Treaty of Versailles and the other treaties after World War One, is this enormous capital of a tiny country, when the Empire disappears. But that is rushing the story, rushing to the end of the story. But by 1900 Russia is fanning the flames of pan-Slav fervor in the mountainous territories of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which include, as you know, from the tragedies of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, Serbs, Muslims, and Catholic Croats. Now, the alliance system of the late nineteenth century, which in its own way helps — is one of the causes of World War One — there are others, too, that I’ll discuss in awhile — but it hinges on German and French antagonism, and it hinges on the competing interests of Austro-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans, and — here I’m summarizing — Germany’s fear of being attacked from both east and west by Russia and France.

So, at the beginning you’ve got — those are three — there are five big powers, and Bismarck once said, and uses a French phrase, which is interesting, because French was always the language of diplomacy, he says the most important thing is to be “à trios,” to be three. If there are five you want to be three. But what you have basically is two potential free agents, free agents with a big appetite but very bad teeth, as some wag once put it — Italy, here, which would go to the highest bidder in 1915, and Great Britain. Now, Great Britain, it’s not a natural given that Great Britain was going to ally with France, its great enemy for centuries, or ally with Russia, because Britain and Russia have been fighting for a very long time what some, another wag once called the Great Game, which is for control along places we hear much about these days such as Northern India, Pakistan, all the way along into South Asia. So, they are rivals for influence in all sorts of different parts of this huge mass of Asia, in the largest sense of the word.

So, one thing you have to ask, if you’re just thinking about it from the point of France, is how does it happen that in 1914 that France finds itself allied with Great Britain and with Great Britain’s sometimes enemy, that is Russia. And also from the point of view, if you were a French Republican or you were a French socialist who’s a believer in the Republic, and most of them were, how do you explain how a Republican state is allied with the czar, a czarist regime, an autocracy, repressor of all of the peoples and among other things orchestrator, encourager, facilitator, enabler of vicious pogroms against the Jews? So, how this happens is extremely interesting and it means that these powers are on the search for allies who are going to give them an advantage should Europe go to war. Now, later on I will make the case, and it’s an obvious one to make, is that most people who followed such things expected a war in their lifetimes.

There had not been a major, major conflagration since Waterloo, basically. You had wars, you had fighting after the 1848 revolutions, the intervention of the Russian army, you have the Crimean War, off in Crimea appropriately enough, 1853, 1856. You have Prussia fighting Austria in 1866. You have the Franco-Prussian war, as you know, in 1870/71. But basically this period is sometimes referred to in textbooks — I don’t know if in mine it is or not — but as the Pax Britannica because England rules the waves, et cetera, et cetera. But most people thought there would be a war in their lifetime, because of these antagonisms. More than that, many people, how many it’s difficult to say, wanted a war — more about that later. They expected a war but nobody expected a war that would carry away four empires and millions of lives, and would last way over four years, and would, as I’ve said before, unleash the demons of the twentieth century.

So, in 1879 Bismarck forges the cornerstone alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. And it’s predicated on German support for Austria, Hungary, and Hungarian resistance against Russia’s activities in the Balkans. And, so, that’s a key alliance. And one of the continuities of this entire period, from 1879 to 1914, is this alliance, which will become more formalized later. And this explains why it was in July of 1914 the Germans give the famous blank check, and that’s a good way of putting it, a blank check to Austria-Hungary after the assassination of the Archduke Francis-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, on the 28th of June, 1914. And they say, “you can do whatever you want to Serbia and we will back you all the way”; and back you all the way, that’s a big statement because that means we will back you even if it involves eventually going to war with these guys, with the Russian army, the Russian masses, the Russian nationality.

And nobody really knew; the Russian army had been defeated, and navy as well, humiliated by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905. So, nobody really knows what this is going to be like but they all know it’s going to take two weeks for Russia to mobilize its armies. How do you get all these people from here to there? You got one railroad line running — which would cost them in 1904/1905, running to Vladivostok, the port on the Pacific Ocean; or I don’t know if it’s on the Yellow Sea or the Pacific Ocean, but it’s way, way far away. I’ve never been to Vladivostok. But anyway this is the key, the first chip, or the first part, or the first block of this alliance, and it’s 1879.

Now, a year later Italy allies itself also with Austro-Hungary and with Germany but there are all sorts of what-if, what-if, but-if, but-ifs attached to that alliance and Italy basically is a freelance, a loose cannon, during the entire period. Now, the last thing that Bismarck wants — and remember Bismarck’s out of there; you may not know this, but he’s out of there in about 1894, isn’t that — ? He dies, I think in 1894, if I remember right. So, he’s not around. But his nightmare is Germany being encircled. And the last thing that he wanted to see happen in his lifetime or in the lifetimes of his somewhat hapless successors — at the very end the man with so much authority over foreign policy is this lugubrious, sad man called Bethmann Hollweg, whose name you can forget, who was convinced — he once tells his son, “don’t plant a lot of trees on our estates because the Russians eventually will come and take these estates and they won’t do any good.” And he had this sort of fatalism that he was convinced that there would have to be a war, and he once says that necessity — a chilling phrase that is echoed in our own time, indeed in own country sometimes — “necessity knows no law.”

But, anyway, all of the successors of Bismarck, the last thing they want to do is to see France ally with these guys here. Now how does that happen? If you go to Paris and you go to one of the more beautiful bridges in Paris, from the end of the nineteenth century, is the Pont Alexandre III, the Bridge of Alexander III, which is sort of beautiful; it has art nouveau touches. And here was this odd scene of the czar, repressor of all the peoples, showing up and having to teach the French Marine Band how to play the theme song of the Czar, whatever that is, and the Russian Military Band learning the Marseillaise; how incongruous since the last thing that the Russian Czar would ever contemplate was the kind of government that France has. How does that happen? That is really extraordinary. Well, it has to do with fear of Germany, but there are other things that I should mention just briefly that drive these two improbable powers together and — besides the cultural factor, because lots of people, lots of the Russian elite, some spoke German, depending on where they live. In Konigsburg and places like that they spoke German. But lots of them spoke French and you had these sort of cultural ties.

My mother, who grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, of all places, Kellogg’s of Battle Creek, she was taught French, though not very well, by a Russian — a member of the Russian Royal Family who — all these people when they — and they have to go after the Russian, the Bolshevik Revolution, they come to the United States and lots of them (I have a student working on this now) — and of being taxi drivers in Paris, and some of them come to the United States, and the more well-heeled ones, some are getting jobs teaching French. But that enough is the old cultural connection, it isn’t all that important, and that’s not going to drive them together at all. But there are other forces besides after 1879 a potential common enemy, particularly this one. And one of them is economic investment, is that one of those things I mentioned before about French investors is that those with capital to invest are frequently investing outside of France, and they invest heavily in Russia. There is still some suit somewhere in which some French company is trying to get from the Russia of Putin money back lost in 1917. It is still going on.

And, so, lots of money was invested in Russia, particularly in Russian railroads; they invest in Spanish railroads, and in Italian railroads, and in other things as well. But there is this conduit; and money has a big influence in diplomatic matters, and if you’re trying to explain why it is that the French ambassador, a totally forgettable guy called Maurice Paléologue, is chasing around in the garden representatives of the czar, trying to firm up the details that Russia will, if France is invaded by Germany, move its armies in this direction and attack Russia — you have to go back to that fundamental fact; it is that these economic ties help solidify the sort of great power arrangements that are being made.

And, so, in 1889, the year of the centenary of the French Revolution, here is the Czar of Russia showing up in Paris and being welcomed enthusiastically. And of course the socialists don’t like it all because of — and this wasn’t even — this was before the pogrom in 1905 in, particularly in Crimea but in other places as well. And, so, in 1892 France and Russia sign a military treaty by which each pledge a military response if the other were attacked by Germany or by one or more of its allies. And there’s a formal alliance in 1894. Now, formal alliances are not published in Figaro or in Le Temps, in newspapers; but, everybody knows the rough outlines of this, everybody knows. Nobody has any illusions, in London, in Vienna, in Berlin about what this treaty means. And what this does is it ends what Bismarck had intended, the diplomatic isolation of France, and now these guys are surrounded.

Now, how did Britain get into this? Briefly, well Britain gets into this in the following way, that Germany basically becomes a much bigger economic rival than anyone else, that the German economy, particularly industrial economy, grows rapidly. They, virtually they’re nipping at the British heels in terms of steel production, they’re cranking out huge battleships, which are called dreadnought battleships, or that’s just the size of the ship, and its advantage in the military thing is to have the latest guns and the latest ships as opposed to ones made older, and that sort of thing. So, they’re nipping at their heels and in some aspects even in steel production increasing. And they go way ahead in chemistry; the Germans are without any question the leading power in chemical production and chemical experimentation, and the universities play a major role in that. So, and that with this economic rivalry is — which has things, is involved in Africa, imperial rivalry there, et cetera, et cetera — goes the naval rivalry that heats up after the turn of the century.

And in both Germany and in Britain, as in France, you’ve got these naval leagues, you’ve got these groups of citizens who invite admirals to dinner, they give thundering speeches about defeating the perfidious Albion or defeating whomever, they all — but what they really want to do is to get their countries to build more big ships; and, of course, industrialists just love that. And the stuff that Charles was talking about the other day, bring an explorer to lunch, and then have him talk about how awful the horrible Huns are, that is the Germans, the borschts and all that, in the French case. And it all — and so they have this big, big rivalry going on because Britain’s control of the seas has basically been for centuries.

In World War One there was only one naval battle of any consequence, which was basically a draw, but in which the British navy forces the Germans back — this is in the next war — will force the Germans back into port, a battle up here. So, the last thing they do, that the British think that they can do is lose control of the seas, and all these big German ships in kind of an aggressive way, that they’re inaugurated by this — Nicholas or by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II banging bottles of German champagne over these ships, and giving more heated speeches about Germany’s destiny and place in the world, et cetera, et cetera. And, so, what happens is that basically the British government, which has for a long time, has said, “well, we’re not going to, we don’t need to make an alliance with anyone else, with anyone at all,” now as tension, economic tension, followed by political and naval tension between Germany and Britain increase, they begin looking across the channel to zee French.

And, I said earlier, that in the 1890s — and the Fashoda incident is in what? 1898 or ‘99, I can’t remember, it doesn’t matter — if you ask people in Paris or Lyon or some big city, or Bordeaux, where the next war was going to be they would say it’s against the British. Well, let me give you an example of that. There were — and since lots of people expected wars, there are these folks writing future war novels, and it’s just Jules Verne and all of that, and there were these sort of science inspired novels and writing that reflected electricity and sort of space wars kind of stuff, but there were also future war novels. And one of the more ridiculous ones, the author of which escapes me, was a novel published that had some success in England in the 1890s, and it involves a future war against whom? Not the Germans but against the French. And the novel goes something like this — one would never want to read such a thing — is that the people in Dover, down here, the white cliffs of Dover, one day they wake up on Sunday morning and, “my God, the French have arrived,” and in their sneaky ways they had been digging a tunnel under the English Channel.

Now, Napoleon wanted to dig a tunnel under the English Channel. We now have a tunnel under the English Channel. I was in there again about five weeks ago or six weeks ago, very rapidly, the fast train, that finally after all these years the British finally did their part and now the train actually runs fairly fast after it arrives at Dover, instead of just sort of slinking along in the mud until it gets to London. But, so these folks go out to have their greasy eggs, and chips, and all this kind of stuff on a Sunday morning and they suddenly see zee French are there, and they are armed. And they have been — they have snuck through this tunnel that’s been being built underneath, in their sneaky ways, and then they pop up with their guns.

And the thing that’s so ludicrous, talk about national stereotypes, is that in this novel the soldiers, at least the avant-garde, the first people arriving, are dressed as French waiters and under their large dirty napkins — again, this is the British image of the French, those large — are sneaky weapons that they have been building and then hiding. And, of course, they rush out, they seize Dover, and then the British people rally, and of course they call out the constables and they drive them back into the tunnel and plug up the tunnel, and that’s the end of that. But of course it’s a call for more military preparation, et cetera.

There’s another similar novel written in about 1904 or 1905 and it’s simply — it doesn’t involve people in Dover, it involves people up in Whitby and Scarborough in the northeastern coast, where the wind is always horizontal and the rain is pounding on you from every conceivable direction. And they wake up and what they see are these huge dreadnought battleships, lobbing enormous shells, and destroying British homes and British people with big guns. And the point of the novel, outside of putting people to sleep, was to get to encourage yet more military preparations to fight a war, not against the French anymore, but against the Germans. And events in 1905, the first Moroccan crisis, which you can read about in Chip Sowerwine’s book, followed inevitably in 1911 by the second Moroccan crisis. What this has to do with is German saber rattling in Morocco, in Tangiers specifically, in the second case, and in which the Kaiser himself shows up.

And what this does is it convinces the British that maybe allying with the French isn’t such a dumb idea after all. And, so, they begin to have informal military talks that become formal military talks that become an entente, same word in English, an understanding, that’s a formal understanding, where they’re sitting down and saying the obvious things: “you, the British Navy, will take care of the English Channel, you’ll take care of the North Sea; we, the French Navy, in Toulon, down here, we will be responsible for the defense of the Mediterranean.” And this is of course more — this is, because of the influence of Germany in Turkey, and Turkey will finally come in, as you know, in the war, on the German side; thus Gallipoli where the British officers send all the Australians and New Zealanders to die this certain death, up a hill that couldn’t possibly be conquered. They sent British soldiers too, they sent everybody.

But, anyway, so it’s more — there was a reason, also because Austro-Hungry then did have a port. So, this is no mere gesture toward the French. But this explains how it was that these two also fairly unlikely powers come together. Moreover, remember what I’ve come back to two or three times, the birthrate. The French realized that if the war, if it’s more than just a short encounter, and Lord knows it would become that — more about this during World War One — that their birthrate is so miniscule, compared to the rest of Europe, that you better have allies; if you’re going to be fighting the Germans you better have allies. And everybody knew what the birthrates were. Here are just some examples. This is live births per 1,000 inhabitants, 1908, 1913, so a key period: France, 19.5; England, 24.9; Germany, 29.5; European Russia, 45.6; and Italy, 32.4.

So, military planners know this stuff, they know that exactly. And that means it’s all that more important for the French, if they’re contemplating this war, to take that space back to count on all of these people. But it will take these people, as I said, two weeks to mobilize, and that’s why the act of mobilization, the decree of the Czar, is tantamount to an act of war. Because what this does is — this is leaping ahead and I’ll come back to it, but it’s important enough that it’s worth coming back to — this tells the Germans they have two weeks in order to defeat France — they’re sure they can do it — and then you better stop because this big bear is going to have mobilized all of these people in Central Asia and other parts, and they’re going to be lumbering towards you. So, you better stop them, in two weeks. How are you going to do that?

The French have big forts, all along here, here and there and everywhere, the way — and you know they’re going to want to move immediately into Alsace-Lorraine — more about this again later. So, the way to do it, and not for the last time, they are willing to violate Belgian neutrality, and Dutch neutrality, though that disappears from the plan. The Schlieffen Plan, which I’ll come back to, written in 1905, is predicated on the fact that the French are going to invade Alsace-Lorraine, and so you’ll just sweep into a neutral country, Belgium, neutral since 1831. Now, what does that do? That guarantees that without any question at all, guarantees that the British will go to war. Why?

For the British it seemed bad enough to have the French across the channel, but what if you have the Germans in Belgium, in Austen, which is a short hop across the channel, and really is the shortest way or one of the two shortest ways to get across. So, that’s impossible, you can’t have that, so you’re going to go to war. Now, was that a risk — why was that a risk that Germans were willing to take? Because the English, the British do not have a conscript army. They have a tiny army, it’s called an expeditionary force, and will take them a long time, months and maybe longer, to raise the kind of army that could make any difference in the long run here in France and in Belgium. So, these cards, this house of cards is there, these entangling lines are sort of there.

And, so, that’s basically what happens in 1914 is when — and I remember going to Sarajevo before it was destroyed, in the ’90s, and I remember putting my feet where the sixteen-year-old gunner, Princip, put his feet as he — when Archduke Francis-Ferdinand — the driver had the bad idea of backing up after having missed a turn, after they tried to kill him once, and then Princip suddenly finds himself with the Archduke and his wife there, and he blows them away, right there. This leads to the blank check and it’s going to — and you can read about this, you already know it from high school history — it brings Europe into this dreadful war. Now, some more things, some more things. Let me just give you — do I have time for that? Yes.

Chapter 4. Mounting Tensions in Alsace-Lorraine: The Saverne Crisis [00:32:29]

Let me give you an example of how the stakes get — the tension gets heated up. Now, again, like revolutions, wars don’t necessarily break out according to the hydraulic model where things are awful in 1910; in 1911 it’s even more tense; in 1912, “oh my God”; 1913, 1914, it’s got to come — it doesn’t work like that. You have the Balkan Wars going on down in the Balkans, appropriately enough, a couple of years before World War One and all of that. But there are these moments, like 1905 the first Moroccan affair, in 1911 the second Moroccan affair, that raise the tensions between these countries and make it possible for the popular press, and sort of the culture of war to target the “enemy,” the enemy for the future war. And in this incident, Saverne, is at least interesting enough to — no, in German, in French, to discuss because it leads to this increase in tension. And this is 1913.

Now, Alsace and parts of Lorraine are annexed in 1871. But the German government doesn’t really trust Alsatians; in fact, they don’t have the same statute within the Empire as the other parts of Germany, such as Bavaria, or Vienenburg, or Hanover, that they have, or Pomerania, or Brandenburg, or any of the other states. They are part of the empire but they don’t have all the rights. As a matter of fact the representatives in the Reichstag from Alsace and Lorraine cannot vote on certain key foreign policy matters and all of that. So, there’s a lot of tension there. But again, showing the sort of people can have multiple identities. To be sure, many people left Alsace and Lorraine and moved to Paris, and moved to Belfort, and all sorts of — Nancy, and all sorts of places after 1871, because they didn’t want to be German.

But Alsace is basically — and Lorraine is basically German speaking, in 1913. The total, just to give you an example, of the number of communes in — administrative units in 1913: 385 spoke French, where French is the majority language in 385; 1,225 are German speaking; and eighty-six, no one has a majority. So, in other words seventy-seven percent of the communes in Alsace and the parts of Lorraine that were annexed are German speaking. Yet many people, not all but many people, and we don’t know how many, consider themselves French, even though they spoke German. Well, why not? There were lots of people who had multiple identities; we’ve talked about — who were Basques who feel that they’re French, or Gascon, or Provençal, or Flemish, et cetera, et cetera. So, you’ve got this sort of — that situation.

Alsace is terribly important because when you go up to the border between Alsace, old French Alsace and German Alsace, you’ve got this crêtes, or these — what do you say?; crêtes, I can’t even think what it is. In English you have these mountains, these summits really, and you’ve got this road, a military road all along the top, and so it’s an important frontier point. And, so, for the point of view of the German military, in particular, they don’t trust the Alsatians, even though they speak German, they speak the same German that is spoken across the Rhine River in Freiberg, for example. And what this incident that takes place in 1913 does is it confirms the image of German aggressiveness. And there’s a chance it could’ve brought war; it doesn’t.

But here are other reasons, too, why Berlin does not trust Alsatians. Why? One reason is that remember Bismarck was totally anti-Catholic, and he wages this war on the Catholics called the kulturkampf, or the cultural war against the Catholics. And within the German Empire you’ve got Catholics in the Rhineland, you’ve got Catholics dominant in Bavaria, and you’ve got Catholics where? In Alsace. And this is part of the problem, too. So, you’ve got these tensions between German officers and Alsatian citizens. And finally in 1911 Alsace-Lorraine is recognized as a federal state but they still have to abstain on issues of war, treaties, and constitutional amendments.

So, you’ve got this little town called Saverne, which is a very pretty place, 8,000 people, with a canal running through it. You’ve got your basic German officers with their dueling scars and lots of tension between civilians and soldiers. And the tension was made worse when a German officer, indeed speaking to some Alsatian soldiers who were there — they tried to bring the soldiers from other parts of the Empire to be soldiers there, the way that you would never find Castilian, or you’d never find the Catalan soldiers guarding Barcelona, you’d find Castilian soldiers — he refers to all Alsatians in an extraordinarily scatological and pejorative term, in German slang. And people don’t like that, there’s a lot of tension, and that word spreads. And then an officer says, “I don’t care if you kill these bastards, what a good thing that would be,” or something like that. And, so, word spreads.

And it turned out there was a junior officer who had had the very bad idea of sleeping with a fourteen-year-old Alsatian woman, and so some of the Alsatian guys get a little drunked up, and then they pull him out of the room and beat the hell out of him. And, so, things get — it was probably a good idea, but they shouldn’t have done that. But it goes from there; going from there, and then the German High Command and the newspapers get involved in this, and they make it seem like there have been insults to the German flag, to the German emperor, by these people who cannot be trusted because they are who they are, et cetera. And, of course, the French say well these are real French people who are being attacked, and indeed molested, in one case, child rape essentially, at least legally, by these horrible Huns. And everything just — the tension level goes up.

Now, they don’t go to war, but it confirms these kinds of stereotypes that you would see by the way in the first year of the war too, where the images of the brutal German — and there were atrocities, there were atrocities committed by Germans, more than were committed by other people on the western front, that’s without question; and all these rumors that kind of confirmed this image that is in many ways false, but there was enough of a grain of truth in it that it goes back to this incident. So, this minor incident, what’s essentially a shouting match and a fight, in a small town in Alsace has huge implications. And what it does is it helps confirm not only the image of the Other, but it confirms these military plans that for the French it’s going to be very, very important, for the home front particularly, that you better, when the war starts get yourself into Alsace and Lorraine, and take Alsace-Lorraine back.

Chapter 5. War Expectations and Enthusiasm [00:40:14]

Some of them think, “well, we can’t really — they’re not going to really go through Belgium, are they?” They think that maybe they’re going to be fighting them here; of course, that all will happen later. But, so, in 1914 there really aren’t any surprises, the way it — and the people who tried to stop the war, like Sir Edward Grey, who said “the lights are going out all over Europe, they will not be lit again in our lifetime.” Man, did he ever have that right, absolutely right, because the war — 1914 to 1944 is basically one continuous poisonous war, a new, terrible Thirty Years War. But once this had all been set up there wasn’t much could happen to stop it, and the way the war, the way the military planning goes is it helps explain — and I will explain next Monday — how it was that this war that was supposed to be over before the leaves fall, over before Christmas, home before Christmas, et cetera, et cetera; not Berlin, not Paris, à Berlin, goes on for years and years, and carries away an entire generation of people, of young men, an entire generation. It’s built into the planning, and we will see how that happens.

It’s a terribly important story. And then certainly there is no event in the twentieth century in which there was so much been written on this, on how the war started. I remember my uncle, my great-uncle, who fought for America, he was American, and he fought in 1917, 1918 and all that. I remember, and I was a little teeny guy when he died. But they gave me the book of the documents showing that the Germans started it all. But the Germans didn’t start it all, and that would have a huge impact on what happens in Germany in the ’20s and ’30s, and thus be very important. But that’s why this is an important subject. And just in conclusion, what else can we say? Obviously, it’s not only these diplomatic factors and not only this military planning that brings about this war, there’s more to it than that.

And Charles alluded very effectively, very cleverly, to some of the other factors the other day, and I barely need to repeat them, but that the imperial rivalry helps create this culture of popular imperialism which feeds into this culture of popular aggressive nationalism that — in which the Other, whether it be an indigenous person who dares stand up for his or her rights in Mali, or somewhere like that; the next stage is identifying the Other, the dangerous Other, as being one’s enemy, traditional enemy in some — in the case of Germany and France, on the continent. And we call this jingoism, from kind of a poem that was in a British newspaper — I think that’s where it started — “by jingo we’ll get them,” et cetera, et cetera, “by jingo we get them.” And jingoism basically means aggressive nationalism. And it’s this expectation that war will come, which not only the military — Joffre said, one of the high command in France, he said he anticipated — every day he dreamt of the next war, of what it would be like, that it would be wonderful, thrilling.

And the whole — and the Social Darwinist idea that you got the survival of the fittest. But if you’re going to show you’re the fittest, what a better way to do it than instead of just dueling with some guy in your own national team, getting a dueling scar on some general that you quarreled with over a woman in a tavern sometime, now you’re going to show that you feel a nationality — the British, the French, the Germans, the Russians, you name it — that you’re the best and you’re going to show them, and you’re going to show them on the battlefield. And, so, the point of view of the French, what one has to keep in mind is the French were invaded; the French did not invade Germany, the Germans invaded France, c’est tout, quoi. But nonetheless there was this expectation of war and the way it fits into these, the equivalent ofBoys Life magazines and popular novels about the future war, painting the map of the world the color of your particular country, red in the case of Britain, et cetera, et cetera.

All of this comes together and it helps us try to explain this great enthusiasm, at least in the big cities, at the Bonhoeffer in Berlin, or at the Gare de l’est in Paris, for this war. Now, whether people in other parts of France and Germany and other places were enthusiastic about the war, it’s a very moot question that’s been hotly debated, and in many places obviously they had better things to do. They had to get the harvest in, which would be one problem on the home front and every place, because the war starts in the summer. But the expectation of war and the culture of war closely tied to the culture of nationalism, aggressive nationalism, tied to imperialism and economic rivalry and everything else, helps explain how this war came about. And the idea of how people accepted the war is more complicated, and dependent on where the armies were, and all of this.

And that’s a remarkable story, and it’s to that I’ll turn in the second lecture next week, the home front. The first lecture next week will be how we ended up with this trench warfare that has been so dominant in the visual images of the war, in the museums about the war, and in that great literature about the war, some of which you’ll be reading when you read Barbusse. Allez.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]