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Just a note…

Hello all! This is just a little post to say that, as much as it might seem so, I have not forgotten about this blog! Things have been very hectic for a very long time, and have included moving hemispheres. But watch out for some new content soon into the new year. Until then!



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Britain’s Response to the July Crisis, June-August 1914.

With the various alliances of Europe activated, and the continental great powers mobilising against each other, a general European war had become inevitable by the end of July 1914. It was not yet, however, a world war in the proper sense of the term. It became so on 4 August, when the British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, issued his government’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In doing so, Britain’s colonies and dominions around the world were compelled to take part. Britain’s international power, as such, was vast, as it could call upon the manpower of territories as far away as India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Moreover, it could rely on the Empire’s ability to supply it with materiel in the form of foodstuffs and industrial goods. British mobilisation therefore meant global mobilisation, and with its formal declaration in August, the transformation of the July Crisis from a local squabble between a precocious Serbia and a wounded Austria-Hungary, into a conflict of cataclysmic proportions, was now complete.

But why did Britain become involved in continental affairs in the first place? Much ink — perhaps too much — has been spilt recently attempting to answer this question, especially as the United Kingdom has become self-reflective in the context of the centenary years of the war. Broadly speaking, there are three major reasons given to explain British involvement:

  1. Britain did so to fulfil its treaty obligations, either with France and Russia or, less sordidly, with Belgium.
  2. Britain was manoeuvred into war by its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did so either to extend waning British influence abroad, or else because he had been taken by surprise by events, and reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to an unfolding crisis of unprecedented proportions.
  3. Britain recognised a moral threat posed by an expansionist Germany, and reacted accordingly.

All of these trends have proponents — including some major names in the historical field — but none fully satisfies the question. Britain’s entrance into the war was a complicated and intricate process, at once necessary and the harbinger of senseless bloodshed.

Britain in 1914: Paradise Lost?

Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, 1902.

British industry was the basis for the island nation’s power abroad. (Source: Wikimedia.)

It is common to think of the period before the outbreak of war as a golden era, the halcyon days of the late Edwardian and early Georgian age. The Empire had expanded to its furthest reaches — truly one on which the sun never set — and the nation basked in the glow of post-Victorian prosperity. In many ways, Britain had never had it better. As a country whose power, both imperial and otherwise, rested on its commercial weight, Britain enjoyed an unchallenged role at the head of the global industrial economy. In 1900, Britain controlled some twenty percent of international trade and, even though the United States and Germany were growing industrial powers, they did not necessarily threaten British markets so much as complement them. An apocryphal story maintains that, in the lead-up to 1914, young British boys played with tin soldiers that were made in Germany. Even if this were true, the reverse was also the case; German textiles, for instance, never kept up with the vast industry centred around Manchester. British coal production remained at world-beating levels, and industries that existed due to the extensive imperial lines of communication, such as wool, coffee and rubber, remained virtual British monopolies. The British trade economy had also put aside its struggles of the years of 1885 to 1896, in which all European and American markets suffered from a depression; between 1895 and 1913, Britain’s export market grew from £226 million to £525 million (an increase of 132 percent), while its re-exports of goods in the same period increased by eighty-three percent, from £60 million to £110 million. These riches translated to impressive social improvements at home and, even if working and living conditions in the industrial centres remained  dirty and impoverished for many of the urban proletariat, at least those conditions had increased markedly in the century or more since the Industrial Revolution had transformed Britain into the world’s premier trader. In this globalised market, it was the British Empire that constructed its web of communication and transportation, it was the British Empire that presided over international trade, and it was the British Empire that benefitted from it.

There were, however, cracks that were beginning to appear in this impressive veneer. The first concerned Britain’s relative economic strength. Many scholars have pointed to the increasing importance of Germany on the world markets, and corresponding decline in British trade. Between 1900 and 1913, British trade continued to grow in absolute terms, but its global market share actually began to shrink; on the eve of war, Britain’s share of world trade remained a respectable (and certainly world-leading) seventeen percent, but this constituted a decline from the twenty percent it had enjoyed at the start of the century. The gap to its nearest continental competitor, Germany, had also decreased, as Germany had increased its market share from ten to thirteen percent. These numbers also demonstrate something more about the nature of the German trade economy. At the end of the global depression of the 1880s to 1890s, Germany’s total exports stood at £165 million — a far cry from Britain’s. Yet by 1913, those exports had increased by over 206 percent, to trail Britain’s performance by only £20 million. Britain also relied more on imports than Germany; by 1913, the total value of good imported by Britain from Germany amounted to £80.4 million — almost double the amount exported to Germany. In part this had been due to the countries’ respective responses to the economic crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. German business, more state-centric, had been redirected towards areas of innovation, in which profound advances and expansions were possible. Thus, by the dawn of the twentieth century, Germany had become a world leader in chemical production, as well as refined metals and machine manufacturing. The British response, on the other hand, had been to allow businesses to govern themselves. As a result, traditional British industries of strength, such as textiles and coal, managed to prosper and pick up the slack of failing businesses in sectors without their solid foundations. In this way, while both countries emerged from the depression in positions of relative strength, those strengths were to be found in different areas.

Germany’s increasing market share should not, however, be taken to be a threat to Britain in and of itself. The very nature of the two economies virtually ensured their cooperation. Germany continued to import Lancashire textiles. Britain was obliged to rely on German chemical manufacturing and fertiliser production. Indeed, some twelve percent of Britain’s total imports came from Germany, and nearly eight percent of its exports (and some eighteen percent of its re-exports) arrived in German ports. Germany’s increasing industrial and economic might did not mean that it hung a sword of Damocles over British economic wellbeing; rather, it allowed the German state and businesses greater purchasing power to take advantage of British goods. German industry also tended to rely on loans and guarantees from banks in the City of London (the German banking system having not yet grown to the prominence that it enjoys today; in 1913, the financial capital of Europe was London, not Frankfurt.) English financial institutions also provided insurance facilities for Germany. The vast majority of Germany’s merchant marine, for example, was underwritten by Lloyds of London. An observer of the time could probably have made the observation that there was more English capital bobbing in the harbour of the great port city of Hamburg in 1913 than there was in Southampton or Portsmouth. Germany’s economic growth therefore permitted greater British financial penetration of European markets; Germany’s greater buying power benefitted British industry in times of peace. War, however, would prove to be a different story.


The Great Famine.

The Irish Famine of the nineteenth century not only severely impacted the Irish native population, but also crippled Anglo-Irish relations. (Source: Wikimedia.)

While Britain’s economic power was not necessarily waning, but certainly beginning to change shape, its political and social stability was also facing some threats. In the early years of the twentieth century, one of the defining debates within British political circles was the question of Irish Home Rule. Ireland had become an increasing problem for Westminster, just as Westminster had become an increasing problem for the Irish. The historical relationship between England and Ireland was fraught. Ireland had been the British Empire’s first destination for transported prisoners, before it had had the ability to send them half a world away, to Australia and other penal settlements. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland in the seventeenth century resulted in widespread famine and disease as a direct consequence of the military operations; Frances Stewart argues that 600,000 of a total Irish population of 1.4 million were killed in the four years of English Parliamentarian conquests, and Tim Pat Coogan labels those conquests as part of a wider programme of genocide (though, it must be noted, both the statistics and the term ‘genocide’ are contested, and Irish insurgents committed atrocities — albeit on a smaller scale — just as the English did.) In the nineteenth century, the Act of Union dissolved local Irish parliamentary representation in favour of offering Irish members of parliament 103 seats in the House of Commons at Westminster. This constituted approximately fifteen percent of the total number of MPs in the Commons, meaning that Ireland — with approximately one quarter of the total population of the British Isles at the time — was woefully underrepresented at a political level. In the 1840s, an outbreak of potato blight decimated the staple Irish food crop, while merchants continued to export maize, grains and butter, and food supplies ordered and imported as emergency relief by the government of Sir Robert Peel proved inadequate, unpalatable and too expensive for the average Irish household. Peel’s successor, Lord Russell, responded to the failure of Peel’s well-intentioned aid programme by insisting that the market would be able to provide for the people without government intervention; this laissez-faire approach to an unfolding humanitarian crisis could hardly have been less effective. The resulting Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, consumed the lives of approximately one million Irish people, and directly resulted in the migration of at least a million more. The famine also severely impacted the relationship between Ireland and the rest of Britain. While at the time the Irish often refused to accept English charity, seeing this as a besmirching of their dignity, the fact that food was still being exported while Irish men, women and children were starving to death or otherwise dying of malnutrition-related diseases was seen by many to be representative of an attempt by London to kill off an ‘inconvenient’ population. This was reflected in the fact that the hardest hit populations were the poorer, more isolated communities, most of whom were Irish-speaking Irish Catholics. By contrast, English-speaking Irish Protestants, who were largely centred around the urban areas and larger towns, were relatively unscathed.

Again, there is no historical consensus on the culpability of the British government in the Great Hunger. A number of historians, particularly descendants of those who made up the Irish migrant diaspora during and immediately after the famine years, label the circumstances of the event a deliberate genocide, while others, such as Cormac Ó Gráda, point to the well-meaning but unsuccessful efforts of Peel’s government, as well as the sizeable charitable donations of, among others, Queen Victoria, as evidence for a conclusion of unintended negligence. What is beyond doubt is that the Great Hunger changed the complexion of Anglo-Irish relations forever. For one, it enflamed Irish nationalist sentiment against a British government that, they believed, had (at best) sacrificed them on the altar of commercial export surpluses, or (at worst) had used trade and economics as precision instruments to excise Irish Catholics from the British bodies social and politic, through an implicit policy of ethnic cleansing. It was in this context that the foundations were laid for what would ultimately become the Irish Republican Army. But the famine had a more insidious and less obvious consequence. It shifted the terms of the arguments related to Irish representation at Westminster. Irish nationalists had decried the dissolution of the Irish parliament because it had removed local governance from their hands, and the Irish representation in the Commons was hardly commensurate to their representation in the British population as a whole. But the famine’s massive demographic effects had changed the picture markedly. Where the Irish population had made up twenty-five percent of Britain’s total as of the Act of Union, a century later the combination of British population growth, coupled with the attrition of the Hunger and the resultant migration, now meant that Ireland made up a little less than ten percent of the whole. Ireland’s share in the Commons was now over-representative, and it was this fact that began to concern English political elites. Furthermore, the famine saw an explosion of Irish nationalist political institutions, including the Home Rule League (which eventually became the Irish Parliamentary Party.) This meant that, from about the 1870s onwards, British general elections consistently returned pro-Irish anti-Union MPs to the British parliament, whose major objectives were, in fact, to remove the influence of the Westminster parliament from Irish affairs, and to reimpose a local parliament. Over time, this would develop into a programme for full Irish independence, but for much of the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the aim of Irish nationalists was devolution.

Herbert Henry Asquith.

Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister of Great Britain between 1908 and 1916. His Liberal government’s inability to pass the Budget in 1909 led to the formation of an uneasy alliance with Home Rule Irish MPs in 1910. (Source: Wikimedia.)

This led to a peculiar crisis of politics in the early twentieth century, as Britain’s grasp on Ireland began to fragment. Irish Catholics, generally on the side of the Home Rule proponents, consistently sent Home Rule nationalists to Westminster. Conservatives and other Unionists were joined by Irish Protestants, normally centred around the northern districts of Ulster, who did not want to see the united parliament and leadership weakened. However, as nationalists were represented disproportionately within the 103 Irish seats in the Commons, this led to a bizarre situation. This situation is typified by the election of Asquith in January 1910. Asquith’s Liberal Party, stung by the rejection of its Budget by the House of Lords the year before, was forced into an election in which it suffered the loss of 123 seats; most of these were picked up by Arthur Balfour and the Conservative Party, but neither party achieved the number of Commons seats necessary to govern in its own right. In order to maintain government, Asquith therefore negotiated with John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which had won seventy-one of Ireland’s 103 seats. In doing so, Asquith promised to push Irish Home Rule through the Commons and Lords, which he eventually attempted in 1912. Here, then, was the paradox of prewar British politics: in order to maintain power in Britain, the Liberals were forced to deal with nationalists within the Commons, whose aim was to introduce legislation that would make their place within the Commons void, as they would (presumably) return to an Irish home parliament (and thereby, equally presumably, take with them the determining majority of Asquith’s government.) As complex as this was, worse was to come; upon tendering the Third Irish Home Rule Bill to parliament in 1912, Asquith set into motion a chain of events that nearly resulted in civil war, as Ulster-based Unionists prepared violently to resist Irish rule, and the British Army based at Curragh threatened not to follow orders if it was, indeed, ordered to restrain the Ulstermen. The Ulster Volunteers themselves had multiplied to over 100,000 men, with over 50,000 rifles and machine guns, as well as cavalry, motorised corps, and (perhaps more importantly) luminaries within politics and society, and some two million signatories to their petition to remain trenchantly British in the face of what they saw as Catholic opportunism. It was this force, marching “beneath the largest Union Jack ever made”, and made up of people who saw themselves as patriotic Britons, with whom the British government prepared to go to war in the opening days of 1914. In the House of Commons, a young but increasingly recognisable government minister, Winston Churchill, warned the Ulster Volunteer Force (and, implicitly, the Tories sitting in opposition) that the government was ready to go to war against them if need be. The UVF’s response was to prepare to sabotage rail lines, communications, and other vital services, if and when Irish Home Rule became a reality.

Ulster Volunteers in 1914.

In 1914 there were real fears that the armed Ulster Volunteer Force might cause a civil war in the United Kingdom, if Home Rule were granted in Ireland. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In later years, historical hindsight on these events has been less than perfect. Two schools of thought pervade the literature. One — that prewar Britain was enjoying its golden age of peace and prosperity — has already been mentioned. Another is nearly the diametric opposite: Britain was on the edge of the abyss, and the Irish Question was the weight under which that cliff-face was crumbling. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Great War, this narrative suggests, Britain would have torn itself to pieces over the question of whether the halls of Irish power were to be found on the banks of the Thames or the Liffey. This is perhaps overstating the case; when civil war did eventuate, between 1919 and 1921, it was traumatic to be sure, but hardly cataclysmic, nor an existential crisis for the British state. Nevertheless, politically, Ireland preoccupied the Home Office and the prime minister. Given this preoccupation, Whitehall gave little attention to events on the continent until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914.

Britain and Europe.

This did not mean, as some have suggested, that Britain ignored continental affairs. Events in Ireland came under the purview of the Home Office. Issues involving the army would certainly require the attention of the War Ministry. But British foreign diplomacy was the fiefdom of the Foreign Office and its head, the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

Historian Margaret MacMillan suggests that Britain entered the twentieth century assuming “that it could remain detached, as it had always preferred, from the continent.” But in any way that mattered, this “preference” was never realised. As we have seen, Britain was already tied to the continent — particularly Germany — in the sense of trade relationships. More than this, Britain had other relationships, and other concerns, which permeated throughout Europe. Thus, for all the British rhetoric of its “splendid isolationism”, the country was never removed from the affairs of its neighbours.

Russian depiction of the Triple Entente.

The Triple Entente was an unprecedented diplomatic understanding between France, Russia and Britain. It did not, however, guarantee alliance in wartime, and no one side agreed as to what it meant in a practical sense. (Source: Wikimedia.)

The first and most obvious of Britain’s ties was the Triple Entente. This was a diplomatic understanding linking Britain with France and Russia, and had been in place since 1907. Britain’s involvement in this agreement was not, however, a ringing endorsement of friendship between London, Paris and St. Petersburg. Indeed, all three countries had long histories of mutual antagonism. Britain and France had very nearly gone to war only a few years prior, during the Fashoda Incident. In 1904, Whitehall and the Quay d’Orsay had inked the Entente Cordiale, an historic agreement that delineated spheres of influence in the colonial world, with the aim of avoiding similar confrontations. The 1907 agreement was an extension both of this and an Anglo-Russian naval agreement. In each of these cases, British diplomats were reacting shrewdly to changing situations in Europe. Partially, the agreements were in direct response to German expansionism. Germany, however, was not Britain’s only concern. Fashoda had been a reminder of French adventurism in the colonial sphere. Meanwhile, the Russians had recently lost a war with the (in part British-backed) Japanese over the Korean Peninsula; during that war, Britain and Russia had nearly come to blows when the Russian Baltic Fleet, steaming around the world to engage the Japanese in the Pacific, left the Baltic and mistook a group of British trawlers for Japanese warships. The ensuing barrage was a lesson in Russian naval gunnery inefficiency — they did not hit a single vessel — but also in the teetering dangers of the relations between the great powers. As it was, cooler heads prevailed, but Britain’s subsequent closing of the Suez Canal to Russian traffic was probably one factor in the eventual sinking of the Russian fleet at the hands of the Japanese in the Tsushima Strait. Furthermore, a fundamental objective of Russian foreign policy remained the militarisation of the Black See and the securing of the Bosporous Straits — which ran through the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and into the Dardanelles — to Russian naval and commercial traffic. This objective had always concerned London, as expanded Russian influence in Asia Minor would put Russian soldiers in a prime position to launch a drive towards India — the jewel in the British imperial crown. It was largely the safeguarding of India that caused Britain to intervene against Russia in the Crimean War of the 1850s, when St. Petersburg went to war with the Ottoman Empire, and anxieties hardly abated after the joint Anglo-Franco-Ottoman victory in that conflict. The Foreign Office was therefore, quite justifiably, concerned by the timbre of Russian “diplomacy”; the 1907 agreement, and the subsequent confirmation of the tripartite entente, were means by which Whitehall could keep tabs on its continental sometimes-enemies.

The agreements, therefore, served a dual purpose. On the one hand, they allowed Britain to keep an eye on competitive imperial powers by binding itself to them in loose agreement. On the other hand, they sent a message to Germany, warning against its own brand of imperial adventurism. Yet the Triple Entente was and remains a misconstrued agreement. Grey was not, as MacMillan suggests, attempting to keep Britain disengaged from the continent. Far from it; the agreements in and of themselves implied expanded British influence in European affairs, and ensured that Europe would continue to be a preoccupation of the Foreign Office. This was in keeping with British policy since at least 1815; throughout the nineteenth century, Britain had been insistent on maintaining a European balance of power that did not favour any one great power (except, where possible, Britain itself.) On occasion, it had even intervened. This was hardly isolationism, and the agreements of the 1900s were continuations of longstanding policies. But there is a tendency in the historiography to look upon the agreements as binding alliances. Certainly, even at the time the French believed them to be; at the point at which war was declared between Germany and France, Paris fully expected Britain to come to its aid. Yet it did not, because fundamentally the entente was an undertaking to discuss and consult, but certainly not to defend or act on behalf of. Indeed, nothing in Britain’s various agreements bound it to any course of action. Rather, they afforded it with a vast degree of diplomatic wiggle room.

The nature of the entente has been pointed to as an example of Grey’s vacillation, his wilful vagueness; it is argued by Sean McMeekin and others that this contributed to the unstable diplomatic atmosphere of the July Crisis, as Germany and others could not predict Britain’s probable course of action, should general war break out. The French appear to have been confused. The Germans certainly were; at various points, the Kaiser and his retinue believed that Britain might remain neutral, or enter the war on Germany’s side. At other times, the army seems to have been resigned to the fact that Britain would be an enemy. Yet this reading of Grey is unfair to the erstwhile diplomat. As Britain’s longest-serving foreign secretary, Grey was hardly a novice and, while the entente may not have been a binding alliance, it did send a diplomatic message that Britain believed that it was capable of dealing and coming to understandings with Paris and St. Petersburg. Whitehall may not have had complete confidence in France or Russia, and may very well have used the entente as a means to keep a watchful eye on their more dangerous tendencies. But it clearly believed that it could exert some sort of influence over them. For better or worse, then, and to varying degrees of efficacy, Britain had publicly declared that its immediate diplomatic future was intertwined with, though not dictated by, the Republic of France and the Russian Empire. In any event, the entente also geographically bracketed Europe. It thus sent another clear message: Britain was still concerned with keeping the European balance of power in stasis. A power that threatened that balance was therefore unlikely to be viewed favourably by Grey and his Foreign Office colleagues.

Treaty of London, 1839.

In spite of what Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser believed, the British viewed the Treaty of London as far more than simply a “scrap of paper.” (Source: Wikimedia.)

Even if the terms of the entente engendered some confusion and ambiguity, the same could not be said for one of Britain’s cornerstone continental treaties. In 1839, the Treaty of London guaranteed the independence of the neutral Kingdom of Belgium. Among the signatories had been Viscount Palmerston, representing Great Britain, and Bernhard von Bülow, representing the then-German Confederation. Upon the German unification of 1871, the responsibility of the Confederation transferred to the new German Empire. The treaty was still in effect in 1914. Therefore, as all sides prepared for war, the signatories were legally obliged to respect Belgian neutrality and territorial integrity — a position the British had continuously reaffirmed. The French had understood this; before the war, Joffre had drawn up his plans for war with Germany, which involved a drive through Belgium. His political masters, however, had recognised that this would impinge on Belgian neutrality, would anger Britain, and therefore — at best — would cause the British to ignore their entente with the French, and — at worst — go to war against France in order to defend the legal agreement to safeguard Belgium. As a result, Joffre was forced to revise his plans, forsaking the military advantage that would be enjoyed by the push through Belgium in favour of the diplomatic necessity of keeping the British on side. The German General Staff, however, prepared their own plans — the infamous Schlieffen Plan — arguing for the primacy of military expediency. The advantage of going through Belgium would cancel out the dangers of angering the British. This view was accepted by both the army (which seems to have believed that war with Britain was inevitable, regardless which route it took into France) and the politicians; the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, famously declared that he could not believe that Britain would go to war with Germany over a “scrap of paper.”

The July Crisis.

All of these issues were at play in the British political arena as the July Crisis unfolded. Indeed, so much commanded the attention of British diplomats and politicians that many historians have suggested that the British were taken almost completely by surprise when the crisis escalated towards the end of the month. These historians generally reject the importance of the Treaty of London, thereby essentially agreeing with Bethmann-Hollweg’s “scrap of paper” thesis. At the same time, they argue that Whitehall was so preoccupied with the question of Irish Home Rule (specifically, whether the issue might lead to bloodshed, and whether it would fatally undermine the Asquith government) that it was blindsided by events on the continent that it did not care to observe until it was too late. At that point, Britain either close to align with France and Russia out of its commitment to the Triple Entente, or else did so because it believed it would benefit most from allying with France and Russia. The first suggests misguided and slavish devotion to an alliance system. The second, historians such as Niall Ferguson and John Charmley suggest, was a kind of perfidy; Britain, they argue, had no reason to enter the war, and its act of doing so constituted a betrayal of the interests of the British people in favour of the interests of the people’s political masters.

HMS Agincourt.

The HMS Agincourt was originally earmarked for the Ottoman Navy, but was repossessed and pressed into Royal Navy service when war was declared in 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In fact, Britain had every reason to be concerned by circumstances on the continent. Indeed, its interests were so intricately tied with European affairs that the Empire could hardly have considered not becoming involved once the Balkan crisis became a general European one. Britain’s commercial interests were closely tied to Germany’s but they were also tied to just about every power. Russian modernisation in industry — particularly railways — had been accomplished preponderantly through French finance, but British money was also heavily invested in this. The British had also seen the Balkans as a key area of commercial development. British trade also found its way readily into French ports. British money and expertise had been pouring into the Ottoman Empire, where the navy had made use of the British admiral, Limpus, in order to assist its modernisation. The Ottoman Navy had even ordered two British Dreadnought-type battleships — the Sultan Osman I and the Resadiye — and had paid for them. In the event, they would never be delivered; upon the outbreak of war in August, the Admiralty would repossess the ships for British use (rechristened as the HMS Agincourt and the HMS Erin, respectively.) This action alone demonstrates that wherever the war might touch, British interests were very much at stake. Before the war, one report suggested that Lloyds of London was so heavily invested in the insurance of the German mercantile fleet that, even if Britain went to war with Germany and sank that fleet, Lloyds would most likely fulfil its obligations to the Germans. So, far from being isolated from any potential conflict, it was in fact all but inevitable that Britain might be drawn in if a widespread conflict eventuated.

But on whose side? To some extent, this question was answered by the existence of the entente. Britain had declared its stake in Europe — albeit extremely loosely — on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. But other, more immediate events in Europe soon served to weigh more heavily on Whitehall. At the outset, there was certainly little to suggest that Britain had decided on its course of action. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Britain seemed — like much of Europe — to believe that there was no reason why the outrage would become anything other than a localised squabble. The Foreign Office and its German counterpart had already been planning a meeting between the Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, and the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, as early as April (i.e. before the barest hint of a crisis.) In July, those plans were still expected to go ahead, though their objectives had changed; now, Tyrrell and Jagow would be using the opportunity to plan a sober and calculated united response to the Austro-Serbian dramas. Grey fully supported Tyrrell’s initiative here, but events conspired against the two diplomats. The nature of these events perhaps hint at the fact that neither Whitehall nor Wilhelmstraße recognised the pressing dangers; the original plan was to meet on 8 July near Düsseldorf, but Jagow only returned to Berlin from his honeymoon on 6 July, and was therefore exhausted, while Tyrrell, suffering from stress and seasonal illness, chose this time to take a leave of absence, from which he would not return until 20 July. Yet neither man outright cancelled their undertakings and, from the Tyrrell family correspondence, it appears that plans were made to reconvene in Germany sometime in September 1914. Of course, by that stage, such a meeting would be impossible; in the midst of the July Crisis, however, neither the Foreign Office nor the Auswärtiges Amt saw any reason to believe that their diplomatic relations would cease within a period of weeks or even days.

4 August 1914

German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on 4 August 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Yet, unbeknownst to the envoys, behind the scenes the actions of various men were making a diplomatic resolution to the crisis impossible. Britain’s devotion to the concept of the balance of power meant that it was extremely likely to intervene if and when Germany and Russia chose to intervene in the Austro-Serbian emergency. Simply put: were either side to gain a position of dominance on the continent, but Britain were to stay out of the conflict, Britain would, in turn, face an untenable position, in which that side would dominate European markets and be able to freeze out British investments. Furthermore, any victorious side not supported by Britain would be unlikely to look upon it kindly. Furthermore, while the entente made it more likely that Britain would side with France and Russia, this was hardly a foregone conclusion. The question persisted as to which side would threaten British interests the most in its potential victory. This question appeared to be answered on 1 August. On this day, the German government put into motion its war plans. Its first objective was to secure passage for its armies through Belgium, into France. In order to do so, it sent an ultimatum to the Belgium government in Brussels, demanding free passage for German troops through Flanders. This was, of course, not something that Belgium could countenance, since it would not only abrogate its terms of neutrality (in assisting, through inaction, the mobilisation of one hostile power against another), but would also prove to be a dangerous precedent. What, after all, was to stop the Germans from staying? Indeed, German plans called for using Belgian lodgings to accommodate troops, and Belgian roads and railways to transport them. Effectively, the Belgians would be surrendering their sovereignty to the Germans, with no guarantee that that situation would be temporary. On 3 August, then, Belgium refused the German terms, while Britain reaffirmed its commitment to Belgian neutrality and sovereignty. For Germany, however, the entire wartime strategy rested on the ability to knock out the French as quickly as possible, and a cornerstone of that strategy was the army’s passage through Belgium. Therefore, the next day, the Germans crossed the border into Belgium, breaking the Treaty of London and invading a neutral power whose protection had been specifically guaranteed by Great Britain.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that Britain would put itself on the line purely for the sake of Belgium. Rather, Britain was alarmed by what the invasion of Belgium represented, rather than the invasion itself. Germany had demanded that Britain remain neutral in the coming war. But Belgium had done so, and had been rewarded with invasion. Germany had therefore not only torn up the “scrap of paper”, but it had also shown itself to be no respecter of international law, nor treaties to which it had been a signatory. It was this that was the last determining factor; if Britain did remain neutral, and the Germans did succeed in beating the French and the Russians, what guarantee did Britain have that, now possessing Channel ports and dominating the continental balance of power, Germany would not turn on the island nation? Other historians have shown that France and Russia were hardly dependable partners, but Germany, precocious and strident, was becoming increasingly dangerous to a Britain that prized European stability above all else. To the British Foreign Office, the invasion of Belgium was a betrayal of all the hard work and diplomacy that had built such a strong Anglo-German relationship. To the government as a whole, Belgium might as well have been a stand-in for Britain, a timely warning against inaction, and a reminder that Britain could expect the same treatment should Germany win. In short, by 4 August, as German troops swarmed over the eastern border and headed towards Liège, Whitehall only had one decision to make. By invading “brave little Belgium”, Germany had committed the very last act in a string of events that brought Britain and its empire into the war.


Britain’s entry into the war brought about its irremediable escalation. That escalation, however, has been the subject of intense debate in the century since it occurred. In the myriad academic and popular histories that have been written in those years (and especially as the centenary came about), writers have attempted to answer questions of war guilt, agency, and whether or not certain powers should have become involved. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which was one of the first (and one of the best-selling) of the “centenary books”, reminded us that the origins of the war were to be found in the Balkans, in the post-assassination scrap between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Yet the event that turned this into a world war (ostensibly, at least) was not the firing of two shots by a Bosnian-Serb activist, resulting in the deaths of the Austrian heir to the throne and his Czech wife, in Sarajevo on 28 June. Rather, the immediate stimulus for the global conflagration occurred 37 days later, and approximately 1,500 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo, when German soldiers entered Belgium and therefore incited the British Empire to action. To the British, Belgium represented the last straw in a series of calculations that made their entry into the war a logical result of evenhanded diplomacy. It did not do so for “humanitarian” or “altruistic” reasons. That is to say, Britain acted in order to defend its interests, first and foremost. This was not a stupid policy or a hoodwink orchestrated by Grey or anyone else. This was also not a British government that was so preoccupied with Ireland that it responded in a panic to an unobserved European crisis; Britain may have been taken by surprise, but no more so than any other European government. Nor did Britain go to war because German economic interests threatened its own. In fact, German economic strength benefitted Britain, as long as Europe remained balanced. Certainly, Britain feared a Europe dominated by Germany, but it would also have feared a Europe dominated by France or Russia. After the war, Jagow would blame “this damned system of alliances” for causing the escalation of the war, yet this was not necessarily the case in the example of Britain. Its ties with France and Russia made it more amenable to these powers, but that relationship did not necessitate war. 

1914 recruits.

August 1914: British volunteers swarm to recruitment offices. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Though the Germans never intended to compel Britain to war, their insistence on the Belgian phase of the Schlieffen Plan was a disastrous misstep that could hardly go unanswered by Whitehall. In part this was due to the fact that Wilhelmstraße became tied to military necessity. But it was also due to the fact that the Germans failed to read the warning signs emanating from the Foreign Office. Some historians have criticised Grey and Asquith for being deliberately obtuse and lulling the Germans into a false sense of security. On the contrary, the British government had followed a consistent line, and Belgian territorial integrity represented the very final line in the sand: this far, and no further. On 4 August 1914, the Germans crossed that line, and on the same day the British responded.

Further Reading.

  • Bostridge, Mark. The Fateful Year: England 1914. London: Viking, 2014.
  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Allen Lane, 2012.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. London: Allen Lane, 1998.
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London: Profile, 2013.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London: Icon, 2013.
  • Mantel, Gordon. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Marwick, Arthur. Britain in the Century of Total War: War, Peace and Social Change 1900-1967. London: Pelican, 1970.
  • Otte, T.G. July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Pennell, Catriona. A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-18. Oxford: Polity Press, 1986.

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Bent but not broken: Joan Beaumont and Australia in the First World War.

Beaumont, Joan. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War.
Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014. Softcover.

I always feel awkward when I write negative reviews. Often I will wonder if I was unfair, if it was the case that I simply didn’t grasp the central argument, or if I allowed style to get in the way of substance. Some history books are just bad, and they deserve to be marked out as such. This is often the result of poor research on behalf of the author, or a form of written expression that simply mangles the English language while tortuously making a (usually banal) point. Every now and then there will be a work that is demonstrably wrong, whether through wrongheadedness or (thankfully rarely) by design. In every one of these cases, a bad review is justified, and constitutes some sort of public service, warning historians and the reading public in general that they might wish to look for their answers or enjoyment elsewhere.

Joan Beaumont's

Joan Beaumont’s “Broken Nation” has garnered plenty of academic and public acclaim since it was first published in 2013.

Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014) fits into none of these categories. The historian — a distinguished professor at Australian National University — has conducted extensive primary and secondary research. Her written expression is perhaps clumsy in places, but it is rare to find any book that maintains a high standard throughout its hundreds of pages, and tens of thousands of words. Many of her conclusions can be challenged, but none could be considered egregiously incorrect, and no one would level the charge of fabrication against an historian who has worked conscientiously and assiduously to present a case that is supported by the evidence she has found. Having said all of this, the book is frustrating, sometimes unsatisfactory, and the end result is hardly the ‘last word’ in Australian studies of the First World War. To that end, I was tempted, when beginning this review, to criticise and castigate Broken Nation. It does not deserve that, but it does stand as a flawed attempt to come to terms with issues that continue to haunt and shape the country.

Beaumont’s aim is to provide her readership with as complete a picture as possible of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. The innovation of the book, and that aspect which has garnered it considerable public and academic acclaim, is its approach to the social and cultural historical circumstances of Australia’s war. It is not intended as a military history and, indeed, the military aspects seem to be intended primarily as framing devices, a convenient narrative upon which Beaumont can build her analysis. As a structure for the work, this is by no means a bad idea, but it must be applied consistently.

Context is King.

Context is important in any historical work. It should go without saying that we cannot understand an historical event without also understanding the circumstances in which that event arose. The First World War is no exception to this. The agency behind the outbreak of the war is a matter for intense debate among academic circles; it is fair to say that the diplomats who penned the so-called ‘War Guilt Clause’ that became part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 are among the very few people who have ever had an unassailable conviction as to who was responsible for the war and why it happened. It should be stressed that Beaumont is not writing a book about why the war happened, but she does feel the need to impart something of the debate to her readers. This is perhaps admirable. But the way it is handled leaves much to be desired. Beaumont presents two of the many traditional streams of thought: one, that the rigid system of secret European alliances caused the outbreak of war and, two, that it was, in fact, the general European arms race (with the Anglo-German naval arms race at its core) that ratcheted up tensions and thus made war inevitable. To be fair, Beaumont rubbishes these as causative factors, as well she should. Arms races and alliances, after all, do not cause wars in and of themselves. But these are the only two myths of the war’s origins that Beaumont chooses to address, and she does not take a position of her own. The reader is therefore left hanging: why did the war start? Again, it is notable that this is not what Broken Nation is about, but if the author is unwilling to engage with the question in a meaningful and comprehensive fashion, then she should not engage with it at all. Otherwise, the reader is given a piecemeal and confusing picture of the event: a portrait, in which the artist has sketched out the details of the background but has, quite unaccountably, forgotten to start drawing the face of the subject. Indeed, so much has been written about this question over the last two years (let alone the last hundred) that one is struck by the absence of meaningful discussion.

SMS Emden

The SMS Emden after its battle with the HMAS Sydney. Emden gained notoriety as a prowling German commerce raider during the latter months of 1914.

Such gaps in context continue into the heart of Beaumont’s work; usually, they can be found in the discussion of military matters. So, for example, the search for the German light cruiser SMS Emden in the Indian Ocean rates perhaps a single paragraph, amounting to the HMAS Sydney being drawn away from convoy escort duty to intercept and ultimately destroy the German warship. But the Emden, while perhaps a footnote in the overall history of the Great War, should not be so in the Australian history of the Great War. For it was the Emden that really concerned Australian authorities at the beginning of the war, especially after it managed to steam into firing range of the fuel storage depots in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and destroy many of the storage tanks there without being seriously challenged by British shore or naval forces in the area. Indeed, there was a significant fear that the ship might be able to do much the same to an Australian facility. The Emden was also the reason why Australian troop transports to Europe took such a circuitous route upon their departure, and it was also why the Sydney, one of the fledgling Royal Australian Navy’s finest warships, had been assigned to convoy duties in the first place. The Emden may not have ‘brought the war home’ to Australians in the way that the Japanese did by attacking Darwin, Broome, and Sydney Harbour in the Second World War, but it was a clear and very early reminder that this was a truly global conflict, and Australia’s geographical isolation from what began as a European war would not necessarily save it from danger.

Nor was the Emden the only threat to Australia in 1914. Again, the challenge came on the waves. Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Cruiser Squadron, which had been based in the German port of Tsingtao in China at the beginning of the war, and from which Emden had been separated to act as a ‘lone wolf’ raider in the Indian Ocean, posed a significant risk to British and Australian sea traffic in the Pacific. This was shown to good effect on 1 November 1914, when Spee brought his five ships — the two heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the three fast cruisers Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig — to engage a Royal Navy task force under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, consisting of four cruisers. Cradock’s ships, however, were woefully outgunned and outdated compared to the modern and efficient German vessels, and Spee managed to sink the two most powerful of the British ships, HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,600 British sailors (including Cradock); the entire German fleet suffered three men wounded. For many reasons, this battle was of enormous significance. It was the first engagement of the war between German and British ships. It was also the first time the Royal Navy had been defeated in action since the United States Navy had defeated a small British contingent on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 (the battle itself, curiously, occurring in 1814.) So, for the first time in a century, the Royal Navy was shown to be vulnerable, and Spee’s victory was a decisive one. The reason this was significant to Australia was twofold: one, at the time, Australia relied heavily on the imperial reach of Britain to safeguard its own shores. The Royal Australian Navy in 1914 was a small but relatively formidable force — the battlecruiser HMAS Australia was considered by Spee to be superior to his entire cruiser squadron combined — but many of Australia’s ships had already been earmarked to be sent to Britain to join the Grand Fleet in the European theatre of war. Security in the Pacific and Indian Oceans was to be provided by obsolescent, inferior British ships, such as Cradock’s doomed Good Hope, and these were shown to be not up to the task by the relative ease with which the German Navy destroyed them in November 1914. The second reason why this battle was significant was its geographical location. Cradock met his end off Coronel, Chile. Coronel is still a significant distance from Australian shores — some 6,000 nautical miles as the crow flies — but the fact that it is a Pacific port would have sat uncomfortably with the Australian people, given that the most important Australian cities are found on the east coast, which provides Australia with its natural Pacific border. Indeed, had Spee chosen so to do, he could have arrived off Sydney Harbour with the formidable Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, supported by their light cruisers, in fewer than three weeks. It was for these reasons that the Battle of Coronel became a sensation of its time, and a quick search of Australian newspapers from the period reveals that Coronel was reported extensively by nearly all Australian papers, regardless of their readership or relative importance. Many attempted to turn the material defeat into a moral victory; one short article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 November emphasised the gallantry of the British in the face of “superior odds”, while others (including some less popular regional papers) reported the bravery of the crew of the cruiser Monmouth, which kept firing on the Germans “until the vessel toppled over and sank” (Singleton Argus, 7 November 1914.) Such a battle inevitably inspired the Australian press to whip into a frenzy, especially since it confirmed fears of the ineffectiveness of British defences in the Pacific as well as the (conceptual) proximity of a formidable German naval force. Yet, for something so weighty and important (even if that importance was fleeting; Spee ended up sailing to the Falklands instead, where his fleet was sunk and the admiral himself killed on 8 December), Coronel gains even less attention than Emden. In fact, not one single word is devoted to an event that captured the press’ attention for the better part of the month of November 1914, and began the process of calling into question the type of protection Britain could offer in the case of an existential crisis facing Australia. This question would only intensify over the following years, until it practically dominated matters of Australian national security policy, and for Beaumont to ignore its genesis is startling, to say the least.

The Spectre of Anzac Cove.


The Gallipoli campaign is the “origin story” of the Anzac myth, and dominates all Australian histories of the Great War.

Similar shortcomings can be found in many more of Beaumont’s case studies. No Australian history of the war would be complete without some sort of extensive focus on the Gallipoli campaign, even if that history is attempting to move Australian historiography away from glorifying that misbegotten and disastrous campaign that has since become a mythologised and, to some extent, fictionalised origin story of the nation. Broken Nation is no exception to the rule, and the entirety of Beaumont’s second chapter is devoted to the Dardanelles. The author is not to be criticised for this, since Gallipoli is, for better or worse, at the heart of our conception of the Australian Great War, and Beaumont generally deals with the campaign in a thoughtful manner. There are, however, some areas of weakness here. Yet again, Beaumont feels the need to place the military campaign in the context of its origins and planning — again, not a bad idea at all. But much like her attempt to contextualise the outbreak of the war as a whole, the Gallipoli episode suffers from a halfhearted and incomplete approach. Beaumont stresses that the Gallipoli landings were orchestrated in response to a request from the Russians, who had found themselves on the wrong end of invasion when the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Entente powers towards the end of 1914. Gallipoli was to be a “demonstration” of force, designed to make Constantinople reticent about its attack on Russia. By the time the campaign began, though, the Russians had decisively beaten back the Ottomans, and the rationale for the landings (at least, according to Beaumont) was now null and void.

There is an element of truth in this, but the author has failed to capture the terrible miscalculations of the planners of the campaign in all their horrific glory. Certainly, part of the thought behind the landing plans was the idea of relieving pressure on the Russians. But this was not the only influence — nor even the most important. At its heart, the Dardanelles campaign had been conceived as a means by which Britain could become more actively involved in the war. In 1914, the British Expeditionary Force in France was tiny, consisting only of the very small regular British Army (Britain, as an island nation, having no real need for a very large standing army at any given time.) By the end of the year it had essentially been completely destroyed, and its recovery was only to be facilitated by the arrival of non-professional volunteers, dubbed the ‘New Army.’ The infamous declaration of the Kaiser that the BEF was a “contemptible little army” is almost certainly apocryphal, an invention of Allied propagandists, but in actual fact by the end of 1914 the British Army had ceased to exist as a fighting force, and it would not be back to any sort of useful strength until midway through 1915. Even then, it was unclear whether the New Army volunteers would be up to much, and even less certain as to whether a meaningful contribution was even possible on the Western Front, given the thousands of miles of trenches being dug and the formidable defences of barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery now being ranged against each side. Thus, the British found themselves in a somewhat politically unenviable situation: having thrown in their lot with the French, they were now inactive on the front lines, could not reasonably do anything in an offensive capacity until at least mid-1915 (if at all), and therefore could provide no assistance to the French whatsoever. It could be reasonably suggested that ‘brave little Belgium’, the small and weak country to whose defence Britain had rushed in its entry into the war, was now more capable of offering resistance to the Germans than the great power of the British Empire. For obvious reasons, this state of affairs was intolerable and politically untenable, and it was left to British planners to work out how best to fulfil their obligations to the French and the Belgians, first and foremost.

The Royal Navy Grand Fleet

In spite of its power, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet was also a thorn in the side of British planners: it was their most powerful trump card, but they could not afford to imperil it in piecemeal actions.

To this end, British planners were faced with a simple solution that caused greater problems. Britain’s army was functionally useless. But the Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force in the entire world. Therefore, the obvious solution to the fact that Britain was contributing relatively little to the war effort was to use the navy. There were two problems here. The first was to work out how the navy could be used, when the front lines of the conflict were often hundreds of miles inland. The second was to work out how to use the navy without imperilling British national security. Britain’s navy was powerful, but it was also Britain’s only trump card. In German anchorages sat battleships and battlecruisers that could match their Royal Navy counterparts in an equal fight; the fear in the British Admiralty was that, if the main strength of the Grand Fleet was whittled down in small contests, in which German technological superiority (or even luck) might win the day, then Britain’s main line of defence would be gone. To this end, the Dreadnought battleships of both sides acted as the early twentieth-century version of the Cold War’s ‘mutually assured destruction’: both sides had powerful weapons that they could not afford to use in case they ended up losing them. It was not for nothing, then, that Winston Churchill would later look back on the Royal Navy’s commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral John Fisher, and declare that he was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Such was the thinking that directed British hands as they worked out what their masterstroke of 1915 would be. Three plans were mooted. One was to use the fleet and a contingent of Royal Marines to attack and occupy Borkum, a small island off Germany’s northwest coast. From here, submarine operations could be launched against German commerce and industry around Emden, Bremerhaven, Hamburg and Cuxhaven. The second was to have the fleet sail up the Continental coast, providing floating artillery support for the remnants of the BEF, as well as the Belgians, who would hug the coastline to outflank the Germans. The third option was to find somewhere else to strike, which might open a new front and thereby distract the Germans or Austro-Hungarians who, though certainly posing a threat to the Allied powers, lacked the industrial, financial or human resources to match the Allies over a protracted war covering a broad front.

The first two plans were shelved almost immediately. Borkum was ambitious but it was quite mad to send the Grand Fleet into shallower waters, protected by minefields, German shore installations and, of course, German warships. Similar problems would be encountered for the second plan, as well as the fact that the BEF was incapable of marching anywhere. There were also French concerns that this operation would simply give the British an easy opportunity to cut their losses, embark their army on their ships, and sail back to England to sit out the war. The third option, however, proved more and more attractive. The Ottoman Empire had since entered the war on Germany’s side, and the power it possessed was a far different proposition to that of Germany. It had been modernising its armed forces for many years prior to the war — the British had, in fact, guided Ottoman naval development — but it still lagged behind the other combatants. Its navy was little more than third-rate; the planners in Whitehall confidently predicted that an operation against the Dardanelles could be a purely Royal Navy affair, accomplished not with the vital Dreadnoughts, but with older ships that were expendable. From the moment this plan was decided upon, preparations began to go badly wrong. Fisher alternated between supporting the plan and opposing it. Naval planners surveying the Dardanelles Straits realised that shore emplacements would cause their warships severe problems, and therefore campaigned for an expeditionary force to be taken, so as to land and destroy shore emplacements to allow the fleets to sail up the Straits. Having decided on this, the navy decided that its ships were perhaps expendable, but not expendable enough to risk on this sort of operation; perhaps they would be more useful as floating artillery for an invasion force. And so, what began as a means of bringing the Royal Navy into the war became a mess of conflicting plans that contradicted one another and could only end in disaster. Such was the rationale behind Gallipoli, and Beaumont is right to consider the operation doomed from the start, since the people behind its inception all had different understandings of what the campaign was and what it was meant to achieve. But there was a rationale behind it, born from political enmity, frustrations at the highest levels, and, indeed, some (admittedly wrongheaded) strategic considerations. Broken Nation reduces it to folly, and perhaps it was, but it was folly of a different kind to that which Beaumont imagines.

Getting it Right.

From this, one may think that Broken Nation is a terrible book. It is not. In fact, it is something of a trailblazer. Nothing like it has been written in recent times — certainly, nothing that casts as critical an eye over the myths of the Great War in both social and military contexts. There are some utterly fascinating elements to this book. For example, Beaumont points out the severe levels of mistrust endemic in the Australian political landscape when the state finds itself allied to the Japanese. Everywhere there are suggestions and innuendo; unease pervades both the military and civil establishment when it is discovered that the Imperial Japanese Navy is to provide warships for protective duty in escorting convoys of Australian Imperial Force soldiers to Europe (or, in most cases, Egypt.) The Australia of 1914 is shown to be a country of curious contrasts. In some ways it is remarkably liberal. But it is also underscored by a deep institutional racism that colours its approach to the war. The state is also nowhere near as robust as its prewar adventurism must have suggested. The crisis of the institutions at home rather unsettlingly mirrors the crises of the armies abroad. Elsewhere, there are some vital home truths that have been obfuscated over decades of Anzac hagiography. For all that Charles Bean hailed the natural fighting spirit and tendencies of the Australian bushman, the Australians who went to war between 1914 and 1918 came not from hardy bushranger and homestead types, but were the products of one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Australians were poorly prepared for war, and their arrival in Egypt for training was not, as many have suggested since, an attempt by pompous and out-of-touch British officers to get the Australians to turn out well on parade grounds and salute obsessively. Instead, they were to be taught the basics of soldiering and, much like their foreign counterparts, these skills only came with drills and practice.

AIF at Giza

Australian soldiers posing on the Great Pyramid in 1915. Australian troops soon went on a rampage through Cairo, inflicting personal and property damage. In subsequent years, many historians have attributed this to a “boys will be boys” mentality.

There is no doubt that many Australians fought bravely in the Great War. There is also no doubt that many behaved deplorably. Beaumont’s accounting of the infamous Battle of Wassa, in which Australian soldiers smashed the Cairo prostitution district, becomes a pertinent and well-deserved moral indictment on the men and their defenders, both contemporary and ever since. Australian soldiers showed profound intolerance. They looted. They vandalised. They raped. This is not ‘larrikinism’, as even some historians would have us believe, and Beaumont’s masterful deconstruction of the dominant narrative raises some very awkward questions, namely: if the soldiers who sacked the district had been any other nationality than Australian, would Australian scholars be so willing to laugh off their actions as pranks or ‘letting off steam’? I suspect Beaumont does not believe so, and I share her skepticism.

At home, she suggests something of a similar story. Australia in 1914 had a fairly large emigre German population. The 1911 census listed 33,000 Australian residents born in Germany, and a further 2,700 from the Habsburg Empire. This was not the full picture, though, since many of these Austro-German migrants had children (or grandchildren) who shared their German heritage as part of their ‘imagined community’, but who would not be listed on the census as German-born because they had been born in Australia. In 1911 there were over 74,000 Lutherans in the country, most of whom would have been of German descent; many others (mostly with heritage in southern Germany or along the Rhine) would likely identify as Catholics, though again not all of them would have turned up on the census as Germans since many were born and bred in Australia. The entire country’s population at that point was fewer than five million; Austro-Germans therefore constituted a not insignificant minority. In many places there were concentrated German communities. In the Barossa Valley of South Australia, for instance, many of the towns, villages and vineyards had been settled by Germans, and even the layout of the villages followed traditional German Dorf constructions. But with the outbreak of war came suspicion that many of these people would have (at best) divided loyalties, or (at worst) would act as subversive agents against the country and the Empire. Beaumont paints a bleak picture of ordinary Australians denouncing German-Australians, when days earlier these people would have been friends, business partners, or happy cohabitants of their communities. Germans were singled out for abuse, were forced out of work, were castigated in the press for being ‘bestial’, ‘Satanic’, or driven by ‘blood lust.’ The picture Beaumont paints of these circumstances, in which communities tore themselves apart from within simply because of the nature of one’s birth, should have painful resonance with the situation, and should act as a warning to many of us of what happens when we begin trying to invent an ‘enemy within.’ To this end, it would have been fascinating if Beaumont had extended this aspect of her work.

Holsworthy Camp

Many thousands of German-Australians were interned during the war. Most ended up at Holsworthy, near Liverpool, New South Wales.

Joan Beaumont has embarked on an admirable and ambitious project. This much is not in question. Whether she has succeeded in her ambition is another point. There is no doubting her research credentials, and she has picked out fascinating case studies. But I question the focus in some areas of this work, and I suggest that, at times, she loses sight of what she wants the book to do. And yet, for all of this, Broken Nation is a book I would recommend to anyone studying Australian history, or with any interest in it. At times, Beaumont shies away from drawing hard conclusions. Instead, she seems to encourage her readers to draw their own conclusions. While an historian should always use evidence to bolster his or her argument, rather than leaving it hanging (a point Beaumont no doubt makes to her undergraduate students at ANU), there is perhaps enough here to cause a reader to seriously question various aspects of the established Australian Great War narrative. Beaumont does not seek to ‘trash’ Anzac, and she does not seek to turn the Australian state and public into a shrine of amoral ambivalence. What she does do is call into question the concept of Australia as an undeniable force for good and bravery within a world that had rotted from within. She encourages her readers to recognise that Australia was a country in transition, much as the rest of the world was. It faced an unprecedented crisis in all aspects of society. In some areas, it rose admirably to the occasion. In others — Billy Hughes and his shameful postwar conduct in Paris comes to mind — it behaved badly, and it is these lessons that we should take from the Great War. It is for this reason that, for all its weaknesses, and for all its flaws, Broken Nation is a work of significance in Australian historiography.

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The July Crisis

How could the death of one man cause the death of millions? Since the end of the First World War, this question has preoccupied many historians and students of history. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Habsburg Monarchy, and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, threw European diplomacy into chaos, and just one month later the continent would be embroiled in war. The concept seems counterintuitive; the murder of this man by a Bosnian fanatic in a state visit to Sarajevo should not have led to total war involving France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and eventually the Ottoman Empire and the United States. As a result, many point to the complex system of alliances that existed within Europe at the time, with the argument being that “the guns went off by themselves” — that is, Europe was so precariously balanced, with the default for any crisis being to resort to armed alliances, that any disturbance would lead inevitably to war. To others, this crisis was merely an excuse, a disingenuous casus bellum for a war long planned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most historians of this line — notably Fritz Fischer, while more recently Max Hastings has taken the same argument — argue that the guilty party was Germany, whose belligerence equated to none other than a “grasp for world power”, an attempt to dominate the globe. Others have seen the shadows of conspiracy elsewhere; a key example is Sean McMeekin, who sees the Russians as being primarily accountable for what followed. Yet we should not dismiss the importance of the event itself. Before Franz Ferdinand was murdered, war seemed to be an unlikely possibility. After he was murdered, Europe drifted closer and closer to battle. In order to understand this, we should look at the events of the so-called “July Crisis”, the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war.

Serbia and Austria-Hungary.

Nikola Pasic

Nikola Pasic, Serbian prime minister.

It should come as no surprise that the two protagonists in the Balkans on the day of the assassination responded in very different ways to the outrage. In Serbia, from whence the material and logistical support for the Young Bosnia activists had come, officialdom and public sentiment stood in stark contrast to one another. We will recall that the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pasic, was a pragmatic, deeply cautious leader, keenly aware of the perpetual animosity between his state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Pasic almost certainly became aware of the fact that an attempt would be made on Franz Ferdinand’s life. His response to this had been to (belatedly) seal Serbia’s borders, and provide a series of veiled warnings to Austrian diplomats. Beyond this, he had shown little energy in attempting to head off the outrage, though this is unsurprising; Pasic’s position in government was never entirely secure, and to have tipped off the Austrians would have earned the ire of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt!   (“Black Hand”) irredentist organisation, led by the Serbian intelligence head, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, codenamed “Apis.” Pasic was hardly in a position to oppose Apis and escape with his career (or, perhaps, even his life.) In any case, it is by no means certain that Pasic possessed anything more than general hearsay and rumours, and it is extremely unlikely that he or his government as a whole was in any way complicit in the planning. None of Pasic’s cautious measures dissuaded the archduke from his visit to the Bosnian provincial capital, nor in any way made the job of the Princip cell more difficult. When Princip was arrested by Austro-Hungarian police, immediately after he had shot the archduke, he made many attempts to shoulder the sole responsibility, denying that his fellow terrorists were involved, and insisting that the planning, weaponry, and so on, had been sourced only by him. But there was plenty to cast suspicious Austrian eyes in the direction of Belgrade. Princip clearly belonged to Young Bosnia; that much was certain. Young Bosnia was known to have ties with two radical Serbian pan-nationalist groups — the aforementioned Ujedinjenje ili smrt!, and the less violent but parochially Greater Serbian Narodna Odbrana. Both were suspected of having ties with Serbian officialdom. And, while Belgrade had immediately sent its condolences to Vienna, it could not stop or hide the public outpouring of support for the assassins. The coffeehouses of Belgrade resounded with fiery songs and speeches; the celebrations for St. Vitus’ Day in Kosovo became merged with ecstatic acclamations of approval for the killing of a hated Austrian; within a day of the assassination, but before Vienna had recovered from the shock to be able to accuse Serbia of complicity, Pasic and several of his ministers were already warning Austria not to exploit the “regrettable event” in order to settle historic scores with Serbia. Serbia’s attempts to defuse the situation only served to make it look complicit, and the general sympathy for Young Bosnia made it look enthusiastically so. And then there was the matter of the assassins’ weapons, which had been procured by Apis from the Serbian Army’s own arsenal at Kragujevac. These factors, coupled with the jubilation in the Serbian streets, left few Austrian officials in any doubt. The same day that the Serbian press and ministers began denying responsibility, the Austrian delegation in Belgrade reported to Vienna that, though the Serbian government could not yet be directly linked to the plot, “they are surely indirectly guilty.” Such a verdict, it would seem, would have incited the Serbian irredentists of the coffee scene only because it did not afford them full and total responsibility; even as the government attempted to distance itself from the killing, Serbian society saw itself as being linked intimately to Princip and his fellow assassins, be that in spirit or through more material ties. And that, to the Serbian public, was not a matter of horror or shame but of pride.

Had the Serbian public been privy to the manoeuvres in the Austrian court, it would perhaps have been more restrained in its reaction. For Vienna was shocked, certainly, but it was by no means paralysed or prostrate. Franz Ferdinand had been an unpopular figure; irascible, aloof, and reform-minded, he had built his political career on bucking the stifling conventions of the Habsburg court. He had not been the heir to the throne before the death of Franz Josef’s only son, Rudolf, in a bizarre (presumed) murder-suicide in 1889. Thereafter, the archduke had demonstrated a rebellious streak. His marriage to Countess Sophie Chotek was only approved by the emperor on condition that it were morganatic — that is, Sophie was not to adopt any of her husband’s titles, and would often not be permitted to attend state functions at which Franz Ferdinand would be representing the monarchy. His ideas for the transformation of the Empire into a federation affording more rights to its many minorities alarmed the status quo, and there was little in his character that endeared him to the public in general, much less his political opponents in the court. For all that, though, he was still a Habsburg and, more importantly, the next in line to the throne. Franz Josef, his uncle, was 83 and in poor health, and both the line of succession and the emperor’s spirit had already been broken by Rudolf’s strange death a quarter of a century earlier. Upon being informed of the murder of his nephew, Franz Josef reportedly broke down in severe distress — not at the loss of his relative, with whom he had often clashed politically and personally, but at the belief that God had taken a terrible vengeance on Austria.

Conrad von Hötzendorf

Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of staff to Franz Josef.

Franz Josef’s response to the killing reflected that of the country at large. While Franz Ferdinand had been disliked, he was still the anointed heir to the Empire. An attack on him was therefore an attack on the Empire itself. Franz Josef’s chief of staff and head of the army, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, informed only that the arrested assassin was a “Bosnian of Serbian nationality”, rashly concluded that the assassination was a “declaration of war by Serbia on Austria-Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, Conrad’s official telegram to the Chancellery read simply “War. War. War.”

It is here that we see the colossal blunder on the part of Apis and his Bosnian lackeys. Pasic may have been denying Serbian involvement — and, indeed, on 7 July Pasic sent an official denial to Vienna — but it was clear that there was some manner of Serbian collusion, official or otherwise. The nature of the assassination was that of an existential threat to the Empire, which would likely result in an energetic response. Worse, the target of the assassination was the very man who had so often in the past counselled against war with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was not liked by his uncle, but he did have a penchant for swaying him against the belligerent tendencies of his chief of staff, Conrad, whose force of character he had been able to match. Now, Franz Ferdinand was dead, removing from the Habsburg court the retarding power against war. The archduke’s old ally, Berchtold, was passive and could easily be overwhelmed by personality. Franz Josef was not necessarily for war, but he relied on the counsel of his inner circle. This left Conrad, the archetypal hawk, who had called for war with Serbia more than twenty-five times since 1908. Conrad himself was prone to fatalistic bouts of depression, and under no illusions about what his course of action must be, and what the outcome would entail. Writing to his beloved mistress, Gina, Conrad claimed: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously.” Even while the diplomats scrambled to make sense of what had happened, then, arguably the most powerful remaining influence in the Habsburg Monarchy had already decided where the responsibility lay, and what the course of action must be.

Russia’s Position.

Of course, Conrad von Hötzendorf could not simply declare war, though he was quite correct in most regards; Austria could not afford not to act in the event of its heir to the throne being assassinated, but the resulting struggle could well be hopeless. After all, Serbia had powerful friends. Russia, Austria-Hungary’s major antagonist, had responded quickly to events in Sarajevo. Most governments — even that of Serbia — had sent condolences to Vienna, lamenting the death of Franz Ferdinand, but St. Petersburg had not. Embassies throughout Europe lowered their flags to half-mast in respect to the grief of Austria; Russia’s were the exception to the rule. In Belgrade itself, the Russian minister to Serbia, Nikolai Hartwig, immediately assumed that the assassin was a Serb, but claimed that the murder was a good thing, since “the Austrian dynasty is an exhausted race.” At one point, it was even suspected that the Russians may have had an active hand in the assassination itself, since Vienna was quickly convinced of the Serbian government’s complicity, but Franz Josef believed that Belgrade was secretly controlled behind the scenes by none other than Hartwig. Russia’s approval of a shipment of 120,000 rifles for the Serbian Army, just two days after the assassination, seemed to confirm its position in defence of Serbia. The Russian Army was a formidable force (though, as the Triple Entente powers would all discover to their discomfort from August 1914 onwards, the “Russian Steamroller” was little more than an optimistic myth.) And yet here was the problem confronting Conrad, Franz Josef, and Berchtold. If Serbia was to be punished for its transgressions — and there could be little doubt, as the facts became more and more clear, that at least some elements in Serbian officialdom had been involved — then that punishment would almost certainly amount to war. Against Serbia, Austria-Hungary would likely prevail. But Russia had positioned itself as the protector of Serbia, and Russia was a different matter altogether. Austria was unlikely to be capable of beating Russia; Conrad suggested that he might prevail if he were able to take the Russians by surprise, as the Japanese had a decade earlier. However, several tens of thousands of Austrian troops, who would be vital for any campaign against Russia, had been sent on summer leave, and while these men could be recalled, the logistics of doing so would definitely tip Conrad’s hand and permit the Russians to mobilise to meet the threat. Yet war and only war would satisfy Austrian honour. At this point, it was left to Vienna to turn to its own powerful patron.

Germany’s Promises.

SMS Panther

The German warship Panther, which later became the focal point of the 1911 Second Moroccan Crisis (also called the Agadir Crisis or Panther Crisis.)

Germany presents a curious problem in the story of the July Crisis. Austro-Hungarian belligerence, Serbian impertinence, and even Russia’s aggressive attitude are all, to some extent, understandable. But it was the involvement of Germany that tipped the scales in the Balkans from that of an admittedly alarming regional conflict into an ever-escalating blundering towards general European war. In 1914 Germany was the most mercurial and unpredictable of the European great powers, having either instigated or been involved in a number of crises in the first decade of the century. In 1905, Germany had threatened war with France over the issue of Moroccan independence and the establishment of German commercial interests in North Africa. Germany’s building of a powerful fleet of battleships and battlecruisers, from 1898 to 1912, had incensed British policymakers, who saw this as a threat to the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea. German investments in the Ottoman Empire had led to the planning and start of construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, a mammoth transportation initiative that, when complete, would allow the movement of German troops into Asia Minor and towards French and British interests in Asia and the Subcontinent; in particular, the British feared that this could threaten both Egypt and India. Germany’s industrial output easily outstripped most of its potential opponents, and its army, based on Prussian lines, was regarded as a model of efficiency. Finally, while Franz Ferdinand was unpopular with most, he had forged a firm friendship with Germany’s Kaiser, the moody and temperamental Wilhelm II. His murder came as a shock to Wilhelm, and it was to be expected that the German leader would seek to assist his Austrian allies in avenging his friend’s death. Therefore, if Germany were to become involved in the unfolding crisis, its role was unlikely to be a calming one.

This, however, is not necessarily fair to the Germans, and we can certainly not ascribe Germany’s actions to come as irrational, or based on vengeance. In many ways, Germany was a victim of its own success. Its rise to power on the Continent was unprecedented, and Berlin had struggled to come to terms with its newfound importance. Many of the problems dated back to the German unification in 1871, which had occurred in part as a result of the defeat of France by combined German armies. Thereafter, the first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had managed a complex and convoluted system of alliances designed to keep France isolated; at the same time, French policymakers had vowed revenge on the Germans. Even as late as 1914, official French policy called for the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, by force if necessary. Germany may have been able to deal with French aggression as long as Bismarck’s strategy of isolation had continued to work, but in 1890 Bismarck was dismissed, and Wilhelm II, refusing to renegotiate the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, inadvertently drove St. Petersburg into the waiting arms of Paris. Worse, after the turn of the century, Britain increasingly sided with the French on issues of European diplomacy. The two Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 was ambiguous affairs, and (certainly in the latter case) it could well be argued that the Germans were correct to threaten intervention to head off French attempts to upset the balance of power. But the manner in which the Germans attempted to intervene — in 1911, by sending a warship, the Panther, to Agadir — frightened Whitehall, which was already wary of the Germans since the navy had launched its vast building initiative. For their part, the Germans appear to have been confused by Britain’s apparent unfriendliness.

However, as the July Crisis began to unfold, Germany’s main concern was not Britain but Russia. Neither power was directly involved in the Sarajevo outrage, but Russia’s immediate guarantee of Serbian integrity suggested that it might attempt to take advantage of the situation and further its own interests in the Balkans. Given Russia’s alliance with France, it was not inconceivable that Germany’s most intractable enemy might benefit as well, which was an intolerable state of affairs. More immediately, the diplomats in Berlin recognised that the crisis posed a severe threat to the post-Bismarckian order. After Bismarck’s dismissal, Germany had failed to diplomatically isolate France and in the process it had not only shed allies but had found itself in an unclear diplomatic position with other powers. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was nominally an ally, but this relationship was hardly exclusive; at the same time as German private enterprise was attempting to develop the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, significant French financial interests were also pouring into Turkey, and while the Ottoman Army had entered into a modernisation program led by a German, General Otto Liman von Sanders, the Ottoman Navy had begun similar reorganisation under the auspices of the British Admiral Limpus. Constantinople’s position, then, was ambiguous at best. Italy, also tied to Germany by treaty, was hardly an impressive power, and would prove itself to be unreliable. Having once counted on Britain for support (or, at least, neutrality), Germany now found Whitehall to be inscrutable. This left just Austria-Hungary as Germany’s only dependable ally, and while Austria-Hungary was certainly no longer the impressive empire it once was, its friendship was still better than standing alone. In the current diplomatic climate, with Germany surrounded by France and Russia, both of whom enjoyed good relations with one another, Germany could not afford to alienate its one ally. Thus, when Austria-Hungary entered its hour of need, and sent diplomats to approach Wilhelm and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, there could be little doubt that Berlin would, at least, be well-disposed towards whatever Vienna required.

Alexander von Hoyos

Count Alexander von Hoyos, the Austrian diplomat sent to Berlin to secure the “blank cheque.”

As it turned out, Vienna required a great deal. It had not been difficult for Conrad to convince Franz Josef of the need for vigorous action to be taken against Serbia; if Berchtold objected, it is unlikely he did so with any force, and his later actions suggest that he was quickly convinced by Conrad’s war case. On 4 July, Berchtold sent his chef de cabinet, Count Alexander von Hoyos, to Berlin, to meet with the German Undersecretary of State Arthur Zimmermann. The next day, Hoyos discussed Austria’s response with Zimmermann, while the Austrian minister to Germany, Count Ladislaus von Szögeny-Marich, lunched with the Kaiser to discuss the same. On 6 July, both Austrian diplomats met with Bethmann-Hollweg, who confirmed what had been suggested during the earlier meetings: the German Army stood ready, and the German officials were willing to guarantee the Habsburg Empire, affording it backing in whatever circumstances eventuated. This undertaking became known as the “blank cheque”, and what it amounted to was this: if Austria-Hungary chose to go to war with Serbia, and Russia chose to defend Serbia, Germany would go to war on behalf of Austria-Hungary.

The “Blank Cheque.”

Why did Germany issue this guarantee? Certainly, it presented something of a risk. Russia’s army was massive, comprising 1.4 million men in peacetime, with a potential strength of over five million once general mobilisation orders were given. If Germany went to war with Russia, then it could also expect that France would, in turn, declare war on Germany, owing to its standing alliance with Russia. The cornerstone of German policy, besides isolating France, had always been to avoid a two-front war, yet this would be the realisation of Germany’s worst fears — a war against two powerful foes in both the east and the west. And, while Germany clearly felt that it had both a moral and — more importantly — a practical obligation to support its ally, we must remember that Germany, not Austria-Hungary, was the powerbroker in this dual alliance. An open guarantee would encourage Austria-Hungary to take any action, however dangerous; Germany, though, had the strength behind it to instead encourage Austria-Hungary to restrain itself.

Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann, Undersecretary of State for the German Empire.

Germany’s position was more or less one of confusion, naïveté, and — perhaps — opportunism. Indeed, but for the apparent agreement between the Kaiser, Zimmermann, and Bethmann-Hollweg, opinion within the halls of power in Germany was mixed. In principle, most agreed that Austria-Hungary had some sort of right to intervene against Serbia, and most agreed that Germany should support its friend. But what would this mean? As the crisis had begun, it had been the German ambassador to Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, who had assumed the de facto role of Franz Ferdinand, counselling Franz Josef to exercise restraint in his dealings with Pasic. Tschirschky attempted to head off Conrad’s talk of war. But Tschirschky had taken this position without instructions from Berlin, and was harshly criticised for doing so by his own leader, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm himself, though, did not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation; after his lunch with Szögeny-Marich, he had left Potsdam for his usual seasonal yachting trip to Scandinavia. To say the least, that the leader of Germany would depart on a pleasure sail while his government provided Austria-Hungary with permission to declare a war which might involve Russia and France is bizarre. On the other hand, the “blank cheque” insisted only that Germany would back Austria in its actions against Serbia. Russia was not even mentioned in the official communique; elsewhere, it seems that German officials were divided as to whether this support would involve Germany in any actions against Russia. Zimmermann, in his meeting with Hoyos, felt that there was “a ninety percent likelihood of a European war.” That evening, though, Wilhelm II and his military cabinet agreed that the Russians would likely not interfere. After all, the assassins were nothing more than common criminals and if the Serbian government had conspired with them — as Hoyos assured Zimmermann it had — then it was also to be considered criminal. The Russians might plump and rattle their sabres, but surely they would not get themselves involved in so grubby an affair, especially not when they had now been warned by the Germans to keep away.

Yet, even if Zimmermann was correct, and German support would lead to all-out European war, there were some within the German hierarchy who saw this as the most desirous outcome. Having lost the Russian alliance in 1890, many — particularly within the General Staff of the army — had concluded that Germany would inevitably be involved in a war with Russia and France. That time had nearly come in 1905 and 1911, when the Germans had clashed with the French over Morocco. Just two months earlier, the quartermaster general of the German Army, Georg von Waldersee, had reported to his political superiors that Germany’s neighbours could only be considered enemies; worse, they were growing stronger with every passing year, and when they felt that the time was right, they would simultaneously launch an attack on Germany’s borders. Perhaps Waldersee could have been dismissed as hysterical, but France’s deep animosity was well known, and Russia had a penchant for imperial opportunism. To Waldersee and his colleagues, if war was inevitable then Germany had to be proactive. It could not wait until it was attacked because that would be far too late, since France and Russia would attack when it best suited them. Therefore, Germany must act preemptively, taking the initiative while circumstances favoured it and not its potential enemies. In 1914, Waldersee noted, Germany still had an upper hand, and while the advantage was dwindling, it was still an advantage.

The Kaiser did not offer the “blank cheque” as a direct means of provoking a European war. But the potential benefits of a war — or, rather, a war in the immediate future, rather than one later, dictated by France and Russia — must have weighed on his mind. Moreover, though Wilhelm evidently believed that a German-backed Austria-Hungary would not provoke the Russians, the fact that Germany had offered assurances (even without naming Russia in those assurances) sparked dangerous thinking within the General Staff. For Germany was now embarking upon a foreign policy that could lead it directly into conflict with Russia. Since Russia was allied to France, it was likely that this conflict would involve France. Therefore, German military planners began preparing for war, not against Russia (for which they had no plan), but against France (for which they did.)

Austria’s Ultimatum.

Based on the positive reports from Hoyos and Szögeny-Marich, the Habsburg court made its preparations. There was no doubt among the government ministers that Serbia would be dealt with militarily, though by now talk had turned from avenging Franz Ferdinand to removing a conspicuous thorn in the Empire’s side. However, perhaps in an attempt to avoid Russian conflict, or to mollify the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, who had argued strongly for negotiations with Pasic, it was decided that Serbia would first be presented with a set of demands. Officially, were Serbia to agree to the demands in this ultimatum, it could avoid an Austrian declaration of war. However, the tone of the ultimatum is clear from the meetings in which it was drafted; Conrad von Hötzendorf, despite not being a government minister, took a key role in its wording, and Berchtold, by now fully convinced of the righteousness of the cause, argued belligerently for harsh terms. Austria-Hungary would demand that Serbia dissolve all nationalist organisations, especially the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana. Members of these organisations would be dismissed from the Serbian Army and state apparatus (and, indeed, a proviso in the final version insisted that any official Austria-Hungary objected to would be dismissed immediately.) The Serbian government was to abandon its goals of forming a “Greater Serbia.” More to the point, since the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand had riddled the Serbian state, Serbian authorities could not be trusted to root out the guilty parties. As a result, a special commission of Austro-Hungarian police was to be set up in Belgrade, with jurisdiction to arrest any conspirators. Serbia would also accept that Austria-Hungary had the right to enter Serbian territory at any point in time to deal with any perceived security threats. On 23 July, the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade delivered the ultimatum to the Serbian government; Serbia had just 48 hours to comply, or it would be war.

In truth, the Austrians never intended that Serbia would accede to their demands. It was inconceivable that any country, especially one so jealously and vociferously defensive of its sovereignty as Serbia, could accept terms that would impinge on, and even completely negate, that sovereignty. To accept would be giving the Habsburgs control over Serbian state and military appointments and foreign policy, not to mention the establishment of law and order. But, by proffering the ultimatum, Vienna hoped to give itself a legal basis for its planned invasion. We offered them a solution, Austria could claim, but they left us no alternative. Perhaps this would dissuade the Russians.

The Russians, however, had already made their position clear. Tsar Nicholas II had already been sent word of the gist of the Austrian ultimatum as early as 16 July, as a result of leaks from both Austrian and German foreign ministry officials. His diplomats, in turn, had passed on the general terms to Pasic by 19 July — half a week before they were presented by the Austrians. It cannot be coincidence that, in consultation with Russian officials, Pasic’s circular to his government ministers on receiving the leaked ultimatum was to insist that Serbia would vigorously defend its independence; clearly, St. Petersburg had counselled Belgrade in its response. When the finalised copy of the terms was presented, though, not even this foreknowledge could prevent the Serbian ministries from dissolving into panic. The ministry of war promised to fight, and ordered the general mobilisation of the army, but the army was in no condition to go to war. Russia had been supportive in theory, but on 23 July it could offer nothing more than vague assurances that it found the terms “disgusting” — hardly reassuring when Serbia faced annihilation. Pasic desperately appealed to the other European capitals, without success; the French went so far as to suggest that Serbia should give in. Thus, in spite of the proud resolution of the military figures in Pasic’s government, the Serbian officials set about drafting a reply that would accept nearly all of Vienna’s demands. There would be only two exceptions: Pasic argued that Serbia simply could not permit perpetual Austrian intervention on Serbian soil, nor an Austrian police investigation to arrest Serbian citizens. To accede to these, he argued, would effectively mean dissolving Serbia’s autonomy completely. He was, perhaps, buoyed in his resolve to reject these terms by a belated reassurance from St. Petersburg, just hours before the deadline for the Serbian response, that Russia would stand by Serbia in the event of Austrian aggression. Thus, Pasic presented the Austrian ambassador with a conciliatory response that baulked on two points and two points only. But the instructions from Berchtold were clear: all or nothing. With Pasic’s response in hand, Austrian Ambassador Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen burned the embassy cipher book, and boarded a train for Vienna. In the capital, Conrad, Berchtold and Franz Josef made the final preparations for their declaration of war. This, they delivered on 28 July.

 Final Chances.

Russian Army, 1914

The Russian Army’s general mobilisation began German plans to do likewise.

“So after all!” Franz Josef responded to the news of 25 July, but the drama was not yet over. Vienna’s rejection of Pasic’s response set into motion a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. But their patrons still had room to manoeuvre to avoid a larger conflagration. In many ways, though, their path had been set in stone just as much as Austria-Hungary’s and Serbia’s had. On the same day, Nicholas II secretly finalised orders for the full mobilisation of the Russian Army. There is significant evidence, however, to suggest that a covert mobilisation had begun well before this, perhaps as early as the beginning of the month. Germany was watching closely. On 26 July, German attaches around the Russian Empire sent a flurry of reports indicating that military manoeuvres had been cancelled, soldiers on leave had been recalled, and many military districts were now on high alert. On 31 July, having received proof of Russia’s full mobilisation, Germany’s High Command responded in kind, declaring an “Imminent Danger of War”, and calling up the army for immediate service. In doing so, however, Germany’s diplomats made a fateful error. The General Staff had long presumed that the Franco-Russian Alliance was a binding, general treaty. In fact, it was defensive in character, requiring one party to respond in force only in the defence of the other. Were Russia to mobilise and go to war with Austria-Hungary, as it seemed intent on doing, Paris would have no binding reason to intervene. But France had begun taking precautionary measures on 28 July, cancelling leave and recalling troops from Morocco and Algeria. This was all the convincing German war planners needed to throw into motion their plans for the much-feared two-front war; believing that the Russians would take months to mobilise, and unaware that mobilisation had likely begun much earlier in the month, the Germans calculated that a knockout blow against the comparatively weaker French in the west, forcing Paris to surrender, would allow 1.7 million German troops in the west to swing eastwards within a few weeks, and thus face the Russians before they had a chance to fully mobilise. In misinterpreting the Franco-Russian Alliance, then, the Germans saw any move by the French — even the quite reasonable measure of recalling troops from leave, when other European states looked set to go to war — as a prelude to the likely simultaneous strike on Germany by both Russia and France. In doing so, and preparing accordingly, German war planners turned a localised eastern war into one that would extend to the western coast of Europe. How this would be accomplished, and the route it would take, would determine whether the last great power of Europe — Great Britain — chose to abandon its policy of splendid isolation, and enter the conflict. What, in this case, is most pertinent is that, on 3 August, Germany declared war on France, and the next day German armies swept into neutral Belgium, en route to French territory.


Amidst all of the parochial myth-making and damnation of the First World War, it is clear that placing blame, while perhaps cathartic, may well be a futile exercise. Certainly, Germany bears much of the responsibility; one cannot imagine, despite Conrad von Hötzendorf’s protestations, that Austria-Hungary would have risked annihilation at the hands of the Russian Empire without assurances that it would be protected by its more powerful, western neighbour. Even in giving its assurances, Germany could well have offered provisos, rather than a free hand that Austria so recklessly abused. On the other hand, the Germans, stung by prior events and eager to safeguard its only reliable friend in Europe, could be forgiven for assuming that their threat of armed intervention would be enough to warn off the Russians. At the same time, the confusion within Berlin’s circles of officialdom was palpable, and at times it seems as though German foreign policy was determined by bumbling amateurs at Wilhelmstraße.

Nor can we necessarily blame Austria-Hungary. It had taken its first steps out of shock but, having been faced with an existential crisis for which it held Serbia responsible, it could hardly back down and risk diminishing forever its power on the international stage. This was an empire in decline, but not yet moribund; the diplomats’ choices would shape the future of the Empire, and indeed determine whether, as Franz Josef feared, the assassination was part of heavenly damnation, or whether it would in fact offer a reprieve.

It is extremely unlikely that the Serbian government was culpable in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (though certainly some elements within Serbian diplomatic and military circles were), but this became largely moot as the crisis developed, and Austria-Hungary saw its opportunity to defeat its precocious bugbear once and for all. Belgrade’s terrified appeal for help was more than understandable. It is possible that, had Serbia’s Russian ally chosen to intervene in diplomatic circles, and attempt to force a negotiated compromise, the crisis may have passed. But Russia chose to mobilise — and in any event the same charge can be levelled at Germany, for failing to rein in Austria-Hungary. As for the French, having for much of July ignored the unfolding crisis, they suddenly became, quite unwittingly, both a pawn and a catalyst; the Russians expected the French to back them, and the Germans, also expecting this, read into every French manoeuvre an ulterior motive. At no point in the July Crisis was war inevitable, yet there was also a sense of inexorable logic to the outcome. The guns, perhaps, did not go off by themselves, but rather were triggered by blindfolded diplomats, reading and misreading circumstances, and suffering from both wilful and inadvertent communication breakdowns. One can almost imagine those same diplomats, not knowing the horrors to come, breathing a sigh of relief once war was declared: at last, there was no more ambiguity.

One last player, however, had not yet entered the field. Great Britain remained neutral as the other powers went to war, and while it had a series of mutual understandings with France and Russia, it had maintained its isolation from continental affairs for most of the last century. Its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had not seen the crisis as anything other than a provincial Balkan sideshow. British interests were not threatened directly by any of the belligerents. Yet within days Britain would take a side, and plunge itself into war. Why it did this is the subject of the next post in this series.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London. Profile. 2013.
  • McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2011.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London. Icon. 2013.
  • Stevenson, David. 1914-1918. The History of the First World War. London. Allen Lane. 2004.

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Filed under 1900-1914

Russia’s War, 1914 – February 1917

Leon Trotsky in 1918.

Leon Trotsky. The radical Marxist saw in the First World War the death throes of capitalist imperialism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Let Papa not plan war”, the mystical pilgrim Grigori Rasputin wrote in a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II in 1914. “For with war will come the end of Russia and yourselves, and you will lose to the last man.” On the other side of society, the sometimes-Menshevik orthodox Marxist Lev Davidovich Bronshtein – better known by his nom de guerre of Leon Trotsky – had a remarkably similar notion of how the coming European war would develop. “The present war”, he wrote in Zürich in 1914, “is at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state.” Trotsky, like Rasputin, saw in the war a destruction of the existing order (albeit, not just in Russia, but in all of Europe.) However, as war broke out in August 1914, these voices of pessimism were drowned out in a sea of support for the tsar and no small amount of optimism. Alexei Brusilov, arguably the greatest of all the generals of the First World War, was not alone when he wrote on 10 August of his “duty to my country and my tsar”, of “my love for the military”, of “excellent officers” and “very reliable troops” who were in good spirits, and that “there is no ground for nervousness or unease.” At last, Russia was to settle accounts with its oftentimes foe, the Austro-Hungarians. At last, Germany would also be dealt with. Russia would be led to war with God on its side, supported in this great undertaking by its formidable and faithful ally, the Republic of France, as well as the greatest maritime power in the world, Great Britain. Most of Russia was united behind the tsar in this endeavour; the parliament, known as the duma, voluntarily voted for its own suspension, arguing that its will was at one with the tsar, and therefore it was an irrelevant and divisive institution in a time of war. Within two and a half years, however, the tsar and his family had been deposed, the three hundred year old institution of the Romanov dynasty destroyed, replaced by a weak Provisional Government that would, within eight months, itself fall victim to revolution. In the interim, the Russian war effort that had begun so promisingly stumbled through multiple ignominies. What seemed to be Russia’s finest hour soon turned into a bloody nightmare that engulfed all aspects of the country, and would have enormous repercussions for the entire century.




In 1904 and 1905, Russia had been defeated on the battlefields of Manchuria and Korea by the Japanese. Since then, the country had learnt important lessons in the running of modern warfare. Under Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, and enjoying the continuing halo effects of the policies of Count Sergei Witte, Russia had begun the inexorable process of industrialisation. In St. Petersburg (which was renamed to Petrograd upon the outbreak of war, since Nicholas II feared that “St. Petersburg” sounded far too German), the Putilov Metal Works grew to become one of the largest factories in the world. Rearmament after the painful defeat became a watchword, and in the coming years Russian military expenditure grew at a phenomenal rate, outstripping (both proportionately and in absolute terms) even that of the Germans. Between 1908 and 1913, expenditure on munitions nearly doubled, and government contracts for fleet-building more than trebled. Russian manpower, too, suggested that any war involving Russia would place St. Petersburg at a serious advantage over any adversary. The peacetime standing army of 1.4 million men could be, in the event of a general mobilisation, augmented by every man between the ages of 21 and 43 who had previously served in the army; by 1914, this meant that the effective size of the Russian Army could be counted at close to 5 million – a vast number when the size of armies in the previous generation had generally been measured in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the millions. It was not for nothing that allies and enemies alike referred to the might of the tsar’s forces as the “Russian Steamroller”; the sentiment was that, once it gained enough momentum, the Russian Army would simply crush all before it by pure weight of numbers.


Old postcard, Russian Army, Cossacks, 1914.

Cossacks of the Russian Army. In spite of its fearsome reputation, the army hid crippling disadvantages that would come to a head early in the war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The figures, however, are misleading. Firstly, while Russia benefitted from industrial rearmament policies, these policies did not (in general) lead to a net increase in Russian strength. Indeed, much of the expenditure was aimed at replacing the materiel (particularly ships) lost during the Russo-Japanese War. In spite of the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race that dominated much of the late 1900s and early 1910s, Russia’s naval budget actually dwarfed both Britain’s and Germany’s. As far as the army was concerned, much of the expenditure had gone into reinforcing fortresses in Russian Poland. These were relics of a bygone era; even so, the War Ministry funnelled more money into rearming forts than it did rearming the army itself. By 1914, the Russian Army had just over 3,000 heavy artillery pieces. Only 240 of them, though, were mobile, with the rest being installed in the obsolete fortresses. Even when field guns and howitzers were present, they were poorly supplied with ammunition. On the Western Front, the French and the Germans would soon suffer shell shortages, but they as a matter of course equipped their guns with between 2,000 and 3,000 shells apiece. The Russians could manage just 1,000. Russian arsenals also held more than four million rifles – probably enough for the initial mobilisation, presuming they could be effectively distributed, but hardly sufficient for a protracted war.




For all this, though, the Russian campaign immediately began well. The Germans expected that the Russians would not be capable of full mobilisation for months, but the Russians were, in fact, ready to march westwards just three days after Germany’s own mobilisation plans were complete. Furthermore, since the German war plan – the notorious Schlieffen Plan – called for France to be beaten before the German forces could be turned towards the east, this meant that the fully-mobilised Russians were facing off in the northwest against only a token German defensive force in East Prussia. To the southwest, circumstances were even more favourable. Russia’s main foe in Galicia was Austria-Hungary, but Austria-Hungary was also concerned with the Serbian Army, even further south. Even better for the tsar, the Austro-Hungarians had been unable to put nearly as much funding into military armaments packages. While Russia’s rail network was rudimentary, in its western, European territories it enjoyed some semblance of a modern railway. By comparison, Austria-Hungary’s transport infrastructure was poor to non-existent. While Russia’s armament stores were worryingly poorly equipped, the Dual Monarchy suffered an even worse situation. Finally, the Austro-Hungarian war planning against Russia was predicated on the idea that the Germans – who had promised to support Vienna – would immediately leap into action against the Russians. It seems not to have occurred to Conrad von Hötzendorf and Kaiser Franz Josef that their German allies would concentrate their armies in the west, against France. Therefore, when Russia went to war, it did so faster than its strongest rival expected it to. It did so along a front defended in the north by only a small contingent of the German Army, and in the south by a ponderous, inefficient, numerically inferior Austro-Hungarian Army that was stretched between defending against the Russians and launching offensives into Serbia.


It was for these reasons that the Russians began with successful campaigns against the Austrians in Galicia. Led by Brusilov, the Eighth Army thundered through Austria-Hungary’s easternmost province, capturing Lemberg (Lviv) by early September. In the north, the twin Russian First and Second Armies under Generals Paul von Rennenkampf and Alexander Samsonov crossed into Germany well in advance of the timetable the Germans had anticipated, and the German commander in East Prussia, Maximilian von Prittwitz, was taken by surprise, throwing his army into retreat after the Russians dealt him minor defeats at Gumbinnen. Startled by the quick Russian mobilisation and advance, the German High Command replaced Prittwitz with Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff. These two commanders proceeded to plan a counterstroke against the Russians. In this, they were helped by two key circumstances. Firstly, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, beyond being fellow officers, were rivals and personal enemies, and neither was well disposed to providing assistance or support for the other. This caused severe planning difficulties for the Russians, since it was unclear whether, for example, Samsonov’s men were marching as a support column for Rennenkampf’s First Army, or vice-versa. Consequently, there was an extremely poor division of forces and tactics. This meant that, as the armies advanced, they were divided. This was exacerbated by the poor communications and, importantly, security of those communications; the Russian Army was almost entirely without field telephones, most often did not encode telegrams, and usually sent sensitive information via the nearest public telegraph station or post office. Not surprisingly, it was simple for the Germans to determine Russian plans well in advance.


English: Russian prisoners and guns captured a...

Russian prisoners after Tannenberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What this meant in real terms was that the First and Second Armies were ripe for being lured into a trap. Though the Russians still outnumbered the Germans in the East, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were able to isolate both Samsonov and Rennenkampf, and at the Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes launched crippling strikes against the disorganised commanders and their armies. At Tannenberg, the Russians lost approximately 40,000 men killed or wounded, and another 50,000 were taken prisoner, against approximately 10,000 German casualties. Samsonov, who became detached from his army and, along with his staff, lost their way in the forests around the battlefield, was so ashamed of the defeat, and apparently fearful of the tsar’s reaction when he returned to Petrograd to report, that he instead shot himself. Samsonov, perhaps, need not have despaired; a few days later, to the east and north, his rival, Rennenkampf, suffered an even greater defeat. By 13 September, the First Army had lost 125,000 men killed or wounded, with another 45,000 lost as prisoners, compared to German losses of some 40,000. The remainder of the Russian forces barely escaped an encircling action, and rapidly retreated back into Russia.


Together, Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes were devastating reversals for the Russian war effort. It had begun promisingly, but superior German tactics and a woeful failure of frontline leadership on the part of Samsonov and Rennenkampf had ruined the advance into East Prussia. Moreover, while Brusilov and his fellow commanders in the southern sectors had made impressive gains against the Austro-Hungarians, their strength was soon whittled away, as troops in Galicia were shuttled northwards to bolster the smashed remnants of First and Second Army.


English: Russian Tzar Nicholas II visiting the...

Nicholas II visits the Putilov Works in Petrograd. In spite of being one of the largest factories in the world, the Putilov Works suffered the ignominy of being an arms factory that went bankrupt during the war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These defeats also began a chain reaction in the supply lines of the Russian Army. We have previously noted that Russian supplies were barely adequate for the first mobilisation of the army. Now, with the losses incurred in East Prussia, men would have to be replaced through conscription. Yet this would begin placing a strain on industry, since the army would immediately have a deficit of equipment. As further losses were suffered, and as the army expanded in its necessary response to these crises, the supply situation began to lag further and further behind. In part, this was due to the general inefficiency of the Russian industrial economic sector. But economic mobilisation was also hampered by outright corruption. In Petrograd, the Putilov Works was awarded an enormous government contract for the production of artillery shells, worth in excess of 113 million rubles (approximately US$60 million at the 1914 exchange rate). This would have been reasonable, except for the fact that Putilov had neither the expertise nor the capacity to manufacture such a huge volume of shells. It appears as though much of the money was, in fact, embezzled by Putilov himself, in order to fund his increasingly lavish yet unsustainable lifestyle. As a result, by 1916 the factory was bankrupt, the Treasury had lost an enormous amount of money, and the Russian artillery continued to suffer a shortage of heavy munitions.


By the end of 1914, there was the added complication that Russia was fighting a war on no fewer than three fronts; in the north, Russian armies faced Hindenburg and Ludendorff, while in the southwest they contended with the Austro-Hungarian Army, and in the south the Ottoman Empire had also entered the war and, within a short time, had begun a disastrous offensive that nevertheless tied down Russian resources that were desperately needed elsewhere. Thus, the Eastern Front soon fell into a stalemate different in nature but similar in effect to that on the Western Front; using its weight of numbers, the Russian Army would often make impressive gains against the Austro-Hungarians, only to be pushed back when the better-equipped and better-trained German Army would march south to assist its weaker allies. In the south, the Russians generally held the advantage against the Ottomans, but lacked the killer punch necessary to decisively drive Turkish troops from Russian soil. For all the prewar promise, then, the Russian Steamroller had crunched its gears, and now sat idling, burning fuel while its supplies dwindled.


Alexandra Fyodorovna, tsarevitch Alexey and Ni...

The royal family visit Stavka at Mogilev. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was in this context that Tsar Nicholas II made yet another of his characteristic errors of judgement. In September 1915, stung by the loss of Warsaw and the 2.5 million casualties his armies had suffered since March, Nicholas dismissed his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In his place, Nicholas named himself. No doubt, this was intended to be a rallying action, and Nicholas would have genuinely believed that his armies would have been buoyed to have their tsar as their direct commander. Perhaps this was initially the result. But Nicholas clearly did not understand the realities of the danger to which he had now exposed himself. As part of the peculiar arrangements put into place by Stavka (Supreme Military Headquarters) as early as 1905, the commander-in-chief of the army was responsible to no one but the person of the tsar himself. Indeed, in this role, Nikolai had avoided censure on the part of ministers and generals alike, in spite of the army’s failings, because of the protection afforded him by the statutes. In assuming the same position, however, the tsar projected a different image. He had adopted an army that seemed incapable of victory. Moreover, while Nikolai had at least had a responsibility to his tsar, the appointment of that tsar at the head of the army effectively meant that the high command had no higher obligation than to itself; this sat uncomfortably with those liberal and democratic members of the Octobrists and the Kadets, who had in 1914 divorced themselves of what little power they had to influence policy, arguing that this was the only patriotic recourse available in such a time of need. Unsurprisingly, with the tsar assuming sweeping, hitherto unheard-of powers, it was now the deputies of the Duma who recognised their mistake.


For the population in general, the arcane legal details of this assumption of command bore little consideration. What did incense workers and peasants, however, were the restrictions placed on them by the authoritarian Stavka. Russia was divided into administrative military “districts”, and in each district the army could requisition produce and supplies from the local population. In theory, the district command was expected to reimburse the farms, factories and so on from whence these supplies came. In reality, the army’s requisitioning was more like plunder. Within the first weeks of the war, for instance, more than one million rubles of property had been requisitioned from locals along the northwestern front, without any form of payment being made in return. Several million rubles worth of equipment and foodstuffs were looted from Baltic port trading houses, again without any attempt at remuneration. In the meantime, the Russian civil commercial sector all but collapsed under the increasing demands of the army. It was to be expected, for example, that the army would have priority for the provision of foodstuffs. But in order for this to be achieved, the army also requisitioned most of the rolling stock of the already stretched Russian railways, as well as the vast number of skilled rail workers. The end result was sheer carnage. Grain, bread, and other products would be secured from the countryside, and transported by train to the cities, where the transportation backlog was so huge they would often sit in sidings until they rotted. What little was unspoiled would be sent on to the front. This created shortages in all consumer and food goods in the cities – most notably Petrograd, but also the provincial capitals, such as Moscow, Kiev, and Helsinki. Requisition programs were therefore viewed with extreme disfavour by the general population; the army was keeping most of everything to feed and equip itself, wasting much of the remainder, and what little was left afterwards was more often than not pinched by the army in yet more requisitioning drives anyway, without adequate compensation.


English: Elizaveta Fedorovna, wife of Sergey A...

The Tsarina Alexandra was put in charge of affairs of state. Utterly devoted to her husband, children, and friends, Alexandra was wholly unsuited for governance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that the tsar was now personally responsible for Stavka, and therefore responsible for the supply organisation that was proving so detrimental to the ordinary Russian, certainly could not help his image among his subjects, since he was now intricately connected with an institution that was a source of much of their discontent. Further fuel for discontent, however, came from the opposite problem. Since Nicholas would now be more heavily involved in military affairs, he would be basing himself at Stavka at Mogilev, some 800 kilometres south of the capital. Naturally, this would preclude him from the ordinary affairs of state, which he left in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. Nicholas was convinced of the profound intellect and astuteness of his wife, but his devotion to and love for her proved disastrous in the long term. Alexandra had neither the experience nor the political acumen necessary to govern any country, let alone one as vast and complex as Russia in the middle of a world war. As a result, she relied upon the advice of the mystic Rasputin, who himself had become unpopular among circles of the public and nobility. Moreover, Rasputin’s tendency to manipulate circumstances to benefit his own cronies gelled with Alexandra’s penchant for holding grudges and rewarding those with whom she felt some sort of personal affinity. As a result, minister after minister was appointed, dismissed, and replaced, as they fell in and out of personal favour with the tsarina. Beginning with the departure of the tsar to Mogilev, and ending only with the eventual downfall of the Romanov dynasty, Alexandra’s brand of “ministerial leapfrog” resulted in no fewer than four prime ministers, four agricultural ministers, five ministers of the interior, and three foreign ministers, ministers of war, and transport ministers. None of this, of course, helped resolve the increasingly desperate situation wrought by both requisitions and army supply apparatus mismanagement; in fact, even if Alexandra had appointed competent functionaries based on ability, they still could not have resolved these problems, since the supply organisation, falling under Stavka’s purview, was in fact outside the competence even of the minister of war. Nevertheless, the Russian citizenry, aware of the turmoil in government and keenly feeling the pangs of hunger and the difficulties of shortages, logically connected the two. Increasingly, it was felt that the woes on the home front were the responsibility of Alexandra and, as the anti-tsarina propaganda began to become more and more hysterical, of her presumed lover, Rasputin. And then, of course, there was the matter of Alexandra’s lineage. To Russians who were beginning to starve while their armies performed so poorly on the front lines, it was noteworthy that the woman presiding over this farce was not Russian by birth but was, in fact, German – and thus of the very same nationality as those whom Russia was fighting. It was easy for those who were suffering to link Russia’s suffering to Alexandra’s bloodline. The tsarina had become the “German whore”, a spy who was deliberately undermining the Russian war effort, and her husband, the tsar, was either blind to her manipulation (which was bad enough), or was, perhaps, himself a traitor. When, on 1 November 1916, Pavel Miliukov stood in the Duma, which had reconvened a year earlier, and raised the issue, he was tapping into a growing vein of popular discontent. Standing before his political colleagues and opponents, Miliukov rattled off failing after failing of the current government, from dismissals to supply issues to the wretched conditions in the capital. At the end of each point, he challenged his audience: “Is this stupidity or is it treason?” To a large number of those assembled, the answer was the latter, but Miliukov insisted that it did not matter which trait was being displayed by the tsar, his wife, and their advisors; the end result – the ruin of Russia – would be the same.


English: World War I Russian infantry. Русский...

Russian infantry. The Brusilov Offensive of 1916 was initially a resounding success for Russia, but the reliance on General Evert’s cooperation proved to be General Brusilov’s undoing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Miliukov’s firebrand denouncement of the authority of the monarchy came at a precipitous moment. The tsar’s direct command of Stavka had changed nothing. Nicholas lacked any military experience of any sort, and his correspondence between he and his wife indicate his remarkable lack of engagement in the role. Between telegrams and letters, both the tsar and the tsarina averaged two exchanges per day, with few of them pertaining to matters of state. At the beginning of October, Nicholas also had his son Alexei accompany him to Stavka, with the idea that the trip might bolster morale for the troops. In letters throughout the month, he discloses the trip as more of a “boy’s own adventure” than anything of benefit; Alexei, he writes to Alexandra with some mirth, “sometimes becomes inordinately gay and noisy” during staff meetings with senior officers, which was unlikely to receive the smiles he ascribes to those officers in attendance. On 31 October, Nicholas reported to Alexandra that he had arrived at Vitebsk to review a division that “arrived here a month ago [numbering] only 980 men”, when its usual complement was some 15,000. This, he juxtaposes bizarrely with the notation that, when he and Alexei returned to Mogilev that night, they “spent the night in our cosy train”, before Alexei went to play in the garden around Stavka the next morning. Such banality, and seemingly callous dismissal of the awful plight of units of his own army in favour of the brief happiness of his son, suggest to us that the tsar was well out of his depth in command of the entire war effort. On 4 September 1916, for instance, the tsar mused that he might take a leisurely motoring trip through the woods near Mogilev, while at the same time noting the artillery fire nearby. Here was a man ill-suited for the rigours of war. More to the point, he was also given to the same favouritism as his beloved wife. In March 1916, for instance, he followed the advice of his family friends General Alexei Evert and General Alexei Kuropatkin to launch an offensive against German positions near Lake Naroch. The aim was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, on the Western Front, by conducting a large offensive in the east that would compel the Germans to remove forces from France and bolster their defences. In the event, the Lake Naroch campaign was a complete disaster. The German Tenth Army, severely outnumbered but possessing excellent defences, repulsed the attacking Russians, inflicting approximately 100,000 casualties for just 20,000 of their own. In June, Nicholas approved an ambitious plan by Alexei Brusilov – until now, still the most successful Russian general – to launch a general offensive against Austro-Hungarian lines, flood into Galicia, and recapture Lviv. Brusilov’s plan was a splendid one, but it relied on the concerted assistance of other front commanders – notably Evert – who did not approve of the radical tactics Brusilov wished to employ. Consequently, though Brusilov immediately enjoyed great success and flung the Austrians into a haphazard retreat, Evert’s simultaneous attack on the Germans to the north – which would have precluded the German Army from rushing to the assistance of its Austro-Hungarian allies, as it had done on every other occasion – never materialised, and Brusilov was fought to a standstill in September. According to one German observer, “the Russian attack was checked just at the right moment”, since German and Austrian resources had been stretched much too thinly to halt further incursions. The significance of Evert’s refusal to march, then, cannot be overstated, yet it was precisely this refusal, and the unwillingness of Stavka to compel Evert to march, that secured the fate of arguably the best offensive of the war.


None of this inspired confidence in the continued leadership of the Romanovs. Legally, Nicholas, as commander-in-chief, was not responsible for the failures of Russia’s campaigns, but in a popular sense he had tied his name and person to the fortunes of the army. Whenever the army failed, Nicholas’ star fell further in the public eye. Coupled with the disastrous policies on the home front, initiated by the “German whore”, Alexandra, these failures were nearly more than the population could stand. The revelation that Boris Stürmer, Nicholas and Alexandra’s prime minister, had been engaging in secret peace talks with the Germans, only exacerbated the problem; it was Stürmer’s actions that led to Miliukov’s famous “stupidity or treason” speech. Moreover, the influence of Rasputin on the empress – especially due to his outspoken criticism of the war – concerned political actors both in Russia and abroad. In November 1916, the right-wing agitator Vladimir Purishkevich, usually an impassioned proponent of the monarchy, accused the government of being “puppets whose strings have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna.” Clearly, even the most staunch supporters of tsarism were beginning to turn against the monarchy. As a result of this, an extraordinary affair of high intrigue was about to take place in the capital.


Grigorij Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin, the wandering mystic who became integral to the interior workings of the Romanovs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the official account, on the night of 29 December 1916 Grigori Rasputin was invited to dinner at the palace of Prince Felix Yusupov. Yusupov, a junior member of the nobility, later testified that he had arranged for the cake to be poisoned with a large dose of cyanide, and Rasputin had been left eating a large amount, but when Yusupov and his co-conspirators returned, they found the wandering mystic unaffected. Terrified, they beat and stabbed him until, believing him to be dead, they again left the room. Yusupov returned for his coat, only to be attacked by a bloody and bruised but vengeful Rasputin, whereupon Yusupov’s assailant was shot four times. The body was taken to the frozen-over Neva, and thrown in. Recovered two days later, Rasputin appeared to have died from drowning.


English: Picture of the murdered Rasputin. Čes...

Rasputin’s body, after its recovery from the Neva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are, however, many reasons to doubt this version of events (besides the simply incredible circumstances). Yusupov changed his testimony on more than one occasion. According to the official autopsy, no trace of poison was discovered in Rasputin’s system. It is not uncommon for water to be discovered in the lungs of someone thrown into a body of water, even if that person was dead at the time. Also, more recent evidence suggests that the third of the four shots that riddled Rasputin’s body – to his head – would have been immediately fatal. Moreover, the fact that the damage inflicted by this bullet was unjacketed suggests that it was fired from a Webley revolver – only issued to British officers – since it was exceedingly rare for weapons from other countries (especially Russia) to use unjacketed rounds. It is known that the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had two station agents in Petrograd, and that they had taken a very dim view of what they saw as Rasputin’s anti-British defeatism. It is also known that SIS had ties to Prince Yusupov. Finally, the night of Rasputin’s murder, a cable was sent to London from the British Embassy in Petrograd, referring to the fact that “our objective has been achieved.”


Thus, a not unreasonable amount of circumstantial evidence exists to suggest that Rasputin was the victim of assassination, engineered by British Intelligence. If so, it is the first instance of the head of the Foreign Section of SIS, Sir Mansfield Cumming (known as ‘C’), ordering the assassination of a foreign dignitary (if indeed we can call Rasputin that). It would not be the last, though; in the Second World War, C would also order the death of the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich.


Whatever the truth of Rasputin’s death, the salient point is that it did not, in fact, achieve anything except to throw the leadership of Russia further into chaos. Yusupov claimed to have acted to save the monarchy from Rasputin’s influence; the British, if indeed they were responsible, would claim likewise. Yet all it demonstrated was that not even the favourite of the tsar and the tsarina was safe, and that the royal family was under siege from its own client nobility or its own allies. Moreover, in spite of the removal of the supposedly malign influence of the “Mad Monk”, Russia’s circumstances only worsened. Food and fuel shortages exacerbated the misery of a particularly cold winter. Workers who protested their atrocious working and living conditions were subject to brutal military justice. The Russian Army continued to suffer appalling casualties at the front for no discernible gain. All the while, the tsar continued to live in comfort at Stavka on his “cosy train.” This state of affairs could not continue. After suffering most of the winter, on 22 February 1917 the workers of the Putilov Works commenced a strike, protesting the lack of food, rising costs, and inadequate wages. The protestors were met with ranks of soldiers; though there was no bloodshed, the striking workers were fired from their jobs, further adding to the tensions, since without work the men had no wages at all. Alarmed by the protest, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an urgent telegram to the tsar, warning him that precipitous action had to be taken immediately to avoid outright rebellion. “There must be no delay”, he counselled his emperor. “Any procrastination is tantamount to death.” Yet procrastinate Nicholas did. Mollified by a letter from Alexandra that assured him that Rodzianko was overreacting, and that the situation was under control, Nicholas chose to ignore the chairman, writing to Alexandra that “that fathead Rodzianko has written to me some nonsense, to which I shall not even reply.” In the meantime, the day after the Putilov strikes, Petrograd women took to the streets. Here was a unique convergence of factors. It was International Women’s Day, so demonstrations were already planned. Bread shortages had recently begun to bite more than usual. Many of the women were wives of dismissed Putilov workers, and saw the demonstration as a means of showing their solidarity with their husbands. Crucially, 23 February was also a beautiful day, not as cold as most of the days so far in 1917, still, and sunny. The combination of all these factors encouraged a large turnout of several tens of thousands of women. Moreover, as they marched, the women encouraged workers in factories and workshops that they passed to also join their protests. In all, more than 50,000 workers left their work and began their own demonstrations. By 25 February, their ranks had swollen further, to include students, intellectuals, petit bourgeois shopowners, socialists, and others, and the emphasis had changed; now, the chants were not positive, in support of the Putilov workers, but damning. “Down with the German woman! Down with the war!” Finally, after years of simmering tensions, the Russian population threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.


State museum of political history of Russia

International Women’s Day rallies in support of the Putilov workers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this juncture, the tsar finally, belatedly, recognised the danger of the situation. His initial response was the same as the response the government had used to respond to the 1905 revolutions: military force. On this occasion, however, Nicholas had badly misjudged the mood of his troops. Nominally, Nicholas had nearly 150,000 troops in Petrograd. However, only a minority – no more than 15,000 – were considered reliable. Most of the soldiers in Petrograd were untrained conscripts who had been called up from the same countryside that had been virtually sacked by Stavka’s requisition policies. More to the point, most were billeted with the same worker families who were protesting. Even the Cossacks, upon whom generations of Romanovs had been able to rely, showed signs of disobedience. Ordered to attack the rioting crowds, then, most regiments chose to disobey orders. Many turned on their officers, while some – but not most – actively joined the revolt.


In a last-ditch effort to restore order, Nicholas tried to do precisely what Rodzianko had counselled days earlier. He boarded his train in Mogilev, and set off for Petrograd. By this time, however, the rail networks into the capital had been commandeered by revolutionaries. The royal train was diverted to an isolated siding, where Nicholas was confronted by a deposition of officers. Their report was clear: the capital had fallen. Nicholas’ reign could not continue. His only option was to abdicate. That done, the tsar and his son were arrested, and returned to the Romanovs’ winter retreat at Tsarskoye Selo, where they joined the rest of the family in protective custody.


English: Russian politician Prince Lvov, head ...

Georgi Lvov became the head of the Provisional Government in February 1917. However, he would have as much luck leading the country as Nicholas II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fall of the Romanovs was sudden and spontaneous, but it was the product of years of disappointment and disaster. Yet, in the heady afterglow of this February Revolution, the autocracy’s replacement – the so-called Provisional Government, made up of leading Duma deputies across the liberal-democratic and socialist spectrum – was to discover that the problems of the late tsarist era were not so easily resolved. Under Prince Georgi Yevgenievich Lvov, a capable, intelligent, and considerate leader, the Provisional Government opted to continue the war, confident that it could avoid the same pitfalls that had beset the tsarist armies. Too late, it would discover that Russia was already too weak, too beset by systemic failures, to achieve this. In general, the Russian Army performed well as long as it was ranged against the weaker of the Central Powers – either Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire. It also possessed perhaps the best commander of the war in Alexei Brusilov. However, cooperation between commanders was woeful, and this was exploited with ruthless effect by the Germans. The Provisional Government had no answer to these issues, which continued to plague the army even after Nicholas had been deposed as its commander-in-chief. Ultimately, the Provisional Government too would fall victim to crippling failures, and by October 1917 it would be swept away. But, at the end of February 1917, the first phase of Russia’s First World War was at its ignominious end.


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“Enemies who never were”: Stalin, Yezhov, and the Great Purges, 1936-1938

English: Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin.

Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the prominent Bolshevik theorist, and one of the most high-profile victims of the Great Purges. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March 1938, at the height of what would be termed the “Great Purges” or the “Great Terror”, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the prominent Bolshevik theorist and leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (hereafter CPSU), was found guilty of conspiracy in relation to the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief, who was killed in 1934. Bukharin, according to the court’s ruling, had actively worked “for the defeat and dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism”, and his guilt was already assured by the theatrical appeal to patriotism by the prosecutor, Vyshinsky. Bukharin, along with his co-accused, confessed to all charges, and was shot shortly after the end of the trial. Exactly one month earlier, in the city of Kiev, a 63 year old seamstress named Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia was also shot to death, having been arrested three months earlier by the NKVD on suspicion of espionage on behalf of Poland. These people could not have been more different; Bukharin, the eloquent intellectual, was seen as the most intelligent and incisive of all the CPSU theorists. Ditkovskaia, on the other hand, was a modest, private pensioner, who was also illiterate, to the extent that she could “barely sign her own name.” Indeed, the one common attribute that bound these two completely different individuals together was the fact that they, along with some 700,000 other Soviet citizens, were arrested by the NKVD between 1936 and 1938, branded enemies of the people, and executed. In more recent years, both have been rehabilitated, with authorities noting that their apparent complicity in any crime against the USSR was implausible and unfounded.


The Purges were defining events in the history of the Soviet Union. In the space of two years, the upper echelons of the CPSU, as well as the Soviet armed forces, were devastated by seemingly arbitrary arrests and executions. But the extent of these arrests extended well beyond that of the power structure of the USSR; as the case of Mariia Ditkovskaia shows, the Purges also tainted facets of ordinary Soviet society as well. In the wealth of historiography devoted to the subject, the focus has been on discerning the agency behind the Purges. Some historians, like Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko and Edvard Radzinsky, tend to paint Stalin as the single causative factor of the Purges, an all-powerful monolith who ordered deaths because it suited him. Others, such as J. Arch Getty, Amy Knight and Sergo Beria, have portrayed Stalin’s functionaries, such as the internal officials of the NKVD, as the true driving force behind the Purges, with Stalin more of a figurehead. However, in many ways it can be stated that the Purges were a causative agent in themselves, a self-propagating spiral of denouncement and murder that, once begun, took on a life of their own. The Purges began as an outgrowth of Stalin’s paranoia and fear of internal saboteurs, assassins and conspirators. However, once they took shape, they did not satisfy their perpetrators or Stalin himself, instead fuelling their insecurity through the vast number of informants and arrests that virtually confirmed to Stalin and his inner circle that their imagined anti-Soviet conspiracy groups actually existed.


Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin, Sochi, 1934.

Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin, early 1934. Kirov’s murder in Leningrad proved the spark for Stalin’s subsequent reign of terror, though some have speculated that Stalin himself arranged his friend’s killing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Purges accounted for roughly three quarters of a million deaths by the time they wound down in 1938. The origin of this Great Terror is largely seen by most historians as the murder of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad, at the hands of an assassin named Nikolaev. The original investigation into the murder had been conducted by Genrikh Grigorevich Yagoda, the head of the NKVD, but it proved inconclusive. Yagoda’s own credibility had already been called into question by the shooting, due to the fact that his agency had been unable to prevent the murder of a high-profile Party leader by a single assailant. Yagoda’s investigation did little to alleviate Stalin’s feeling that Yagoda was unsuited and inadequate; though the NKVD chief implicated Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two of the most well-known early Bolshevik leaders, and high-profile opponents of Stalin, in the killing, he had uncovered no concrete evidence of this theory. In the eighteen months following the assassination, several “plots and conspiracies” were uncovered, but not by Yagoda or his much vaunted secret police. In early 1936, Nikolai Yezhov reopened the Kirov murder case, with a startling conclusion: Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev had conspired with a “Trotskyist underground” movement, and arranged the assassination of the popular Leningrad Party leader. But more startling revelations were to come. With approval from Stalin, Yezhov distributed a letter throughout the Central Committee and to all Party leaders throughout the USSR, within which he reported the existence of a large and powerful “Trotskyist-Zinovievist counter-revolutionary bloc.” The disclosures were astonishing. Under a paragraph entitled “THE FACTS”, Yezhov warned the Party that the NKVD had discovered “a host of terroristic groups made up of Trotskyists and Zinovievists”, spread as far afield as Moscow, Leningrad, Gorky, Minsk, Kiev, Baku “and other cities.” The activities of these groups, which Yezhov termed “the All-Union Trotskyist-Zinovievist centre”, were not limited to the murder of Kirov, but, according to the NKVD man, were tasked with murdering a veritable who’s who of the Soviet Union, including “Comrades Stalin, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, Zhdanov, Kosior, and Postyshev”, and following these high-level assassinations, subverting the armed forces using terrorist cells implanted in the army hierarchy, and then making use “of confusion and failure of every sort in order to seize power.” Most historians credit the murder of Kirov in 1934 as the catalyst for the Purges, but the mass arrests and executions did not begin for a full two years after his homicide; rather, Yezhov’s letter was, more fairly, the spark that ignited the Terror. In order to understand why, however, we must understand the man for whom Yezhov was primarily writing his letter: Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.


Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin...

Nikolai Yezhov (far right) with Josef Stalin (centre right). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much has been made of Stalin’s apparent paranoia, although few have attempted to really understand it. George Kennan, for example, notes that Stalin had a “darkly mistrustful mind, [in which] no political issue was ever without its personal implications”, but Kennan treated this more as the caprice of a despotic tyrant, rather than a genuine psychological flaw that would impair his judgement. What many of the modern-day biographers and Russian historians fail to acknowledge is that Stalin was not merely paranoid, but utterly fearful. Nikolai Tolstoy, descendant of the famous author Leo Tolstoy, insists that “if there is a consistent thread to be traced in Stalin’s policy it is fear, a fear so absolute and omnipresent that one can safely claim that it governed his waking and sleeping hours.” Indeed, Stalin’s fear seems to have known few bounds. All of his meals were tested for poisons before being delivered to him, and “on no account was tea to be taken twice from the same packet.” If Stalin were to attend the Kremlin cinema, a short walk across Red Square from his office, he would be flanked by companies of armed bodyguards and an escort of armoured cars. As Tolstoy explains: “Other rulers, more or less tyrannical, have had cause to fear assassination but continued to lead public lives. Stalin alone appears to have believed himself to be living in a country where every man’s hand was against him. As his atrocities mounted year by year, so he surely knew that there was scarcely a person in the land, man, woman or child, who did not have cause for a bitter hatred against the architect of all their sufferings. Everything in Stalin’s life suggests that at any rate that was what he believed.”


Given Stalin’s ever-present fear of “the possibility of betrayal from any quarter”, Yezhov’s letter would not, as Getty has suggested, have merely constituted another justification for a conniving and manipulative Stalin, but in fact have terrified the vozhd. When Stalin, frustrated – and likely made suspicious – by Yagoda’s inability to prove a conspiracy between Kamenev and Zinoviev to murder Kirov, gave Yezhov carte blanche to reopen the investigation, he would have done so, fearful of what connections Yezhov might turn up. And Yezhov did not disappoint. By ‘exposing’ a large-scale internal bloc that aimed to overthrow Stalin and install Trotsky as ruler of the USSR, Yezhov had confirmed Stalin’s very worst fears. Almost certainly, Yezhov did so quite deliberately, “eager to make a case and a name for himself”, and to pull himself into contention for Yagoda’s position at the head of the NKVD. In this way, Yezhov was able to rid Stalin of Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and other people in opposition, while at the same time convincing Stalin that he was safeguarding the USSR’s paranoid leader. In expanding this circle of conspirators, however, Yezhov had miscalculated. He had released a force that he would no longer be able to control. The evidence for this appeared very soon after the distribution of his letter.


On 20 August 1936, Yezhov received a letter from A. Flegontov, the chairman of the Council of the Handicrafts Cooperatives of the Ukraine, who “consider[ed] it my duty […] to report that Grigory Maksimovich Krutov, chairman of the Far Eastern Territorial Executive Committee […] was on exceptionally friendly terms with Mrachkovsky.” Mrachkovsky had been implicated, along with Kamenev and Zinoviev, in the plot against Stalin and the murder of Sergei Kirov. Yezhov could thus not afford to ignore this evidence that a Party official had been friendly with a declared member of the “Trotskyist, counterrevolutionary, terroristic organisation.” Krutov was removed from his post, and, in 1938, shot. Flegontov’s letter was by no means unique; further denunciations followed. By the time the Purges ground to a halt in 1938, the Party had been decimated. Almost the entire “Old Guard” Bolsheviks found themselves facing a firing squad. Of Lenin’s first Council of People’s Commissars, named in 1917 as the first Bolshevik government of Russia, very few remained alive. Some, like Nogin, Lunacharsky, Stepanov and Lenin himself, had died of natural causes before the purge began. Of the others, only two – Teodorovich and Stalin – remained unscathed. The rest had been arrested, and all of them would be liquidated. The Central Committee of the CPSU lost 110 of its 139 members who had been elected at the XVIIth Party Congress in 1934, and other apparatchiks of the Party suffered similar arrests and executions.


English: Document for the Gulag prisoner who w...

NKVD identity papers for a gulag prisoner. Those convicted of crimes against “Soviet power” during the Great Terror were usually either shot or sent into exile to the prison camps in Siberia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the victims were not all Party officials. Having branded Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and others as Trotskyist saboteurs, working in collaboration with the German Gestapo or “one or more fascist states”, Yezhov had publicised a distinct link between Trotskyism, the policies and activities of the “collaborators”, and hostile foreign powers. In effect, he had cast suspicions upon anyone who had ever known, followed or sympathised with Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Rykov and so on, or who had visited or had any dealing with foreign countries or their nationals. Thus, Grigory Krutov, the Far Eastern Territorial Executive Committee chairman, was implicated in the “crimes” of Kamenev and Zinoviev, through no more concrete a link than his previous convictions as a follower of Trotsky. Beyond the Party, even greater recriminations were taking place. In the armed forces, the officer corps was decimated by vilification and association. According to Bialer, at least one third of the Red Army’s officer corps was arrested by the NKVD, and either executed or imprisoned. Yezhov’s “uncovering” of terrorist cells within the Red Army led to the near-complete annihilation of the Soviet officer class, with horrific consequences. Most astonishing, however, was the fact that most of the victims were not high-ranking officers in a position to betray the Soviet Union, but mid-level functionaries, with little of value to offer to any of the USSR’s enemies (real or imagined), and limited influence. Colonel I. T. Starinov, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, recalled returning to Leningrad, and being informed that his colleague, Boris Filippov of the Leningrad Railway Station, had been arrested: “From the newspapers I knew that Iakir, Tukhachevskii, Uborevich, Kork, and Primakov had confessed their guilt in full. Apparently they had really betrayed something to the enemy, had been plotting something. But what could Boris Ivanovich have betrayed or plotted?” Starinov’s incredulity reflected a growing trend, not just within the Red Army, but also in the wider sphere of Soviet society. Indeed, the vast majority of the 700,000 victims of the Great Purges were not army officers or Party officials, but “those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom.” Thus, in late 1937, the Kiev seamstress Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia was arrested, solely for the fact that she may possibly have made the acquaintance of some Poles. Also in 1937, Fedor Vasilevich Doroshko, a traditional Ukrainian musician, was arrested after being denounced as a Ukrainian nationalist, and sentenced to death with the ludicrous charge of being a spy for the Japanese. Ditkovskaia and Doroshko are just two examples of those denounced by their neighbours, relatives, friends and acquaintances as being enemies of the people; in Doroshko’s case, because he had voiced doubts over the policy of forced agricultural collectivisation. Doroshko, like so many others, was shot.


It is very simple to look at the Purges and see in it the hand of Stalin, an attempt by the vozhd to terrorise the subject peoples of the USSR into submission. This is certainly the view of such popular historians as Edvard Radzinsky, but other, such as Getty, view this explanation as flawed, verging on asinine. Certainly, it ignores Tolstoy’s argument that Stalin was a man governed by his own fear. If this fear and paranoia is taken into account, however, we begin to build a clearer picture of why Stalin embarked upon this mass murder of close to a million of his own people. In the aftermath of the Kirov assassination, the investigation was handled by Yagoda, whose conclusion of Kamenev and Zinoviev’s probable guilt did not satisfy Stalin. When Nikolai Yezhov reopened the case, however, he sparked a chain of events that snowballed completely out of his or Stalin’s control. In insisting on a widespread Trotskyist terror movement, Yezhov, as it has been shown, catalysed a string of denouncements from Party members and ordinary citizens, implicating their acquaintances as being associated with Trotskyist-Zinovievist policies or figures. With every denouncement, however, Stalin’s worst fears were realised: given his paralysing fear, and his clear belief that “every man is an enemy”, Stalin could not help but treat each arrest and execution as both a validation of his fears of conspiracies against him, and satisfaction that such conspiracies were being rooted out. With each new trial, Stalin would, in his own mind, become both more terrified and more secure. A lack of arrests, on the other hand, would not ease his mind in the belief that there was no threat, but rather indicate that the threats existed but were not being detected by the NKVD. Often, therefore, the only sensible conclusion that Stalin could draw was that the NKVD had been compromised. Such was the case of Yagoda, Yezhov’s predecessor, who had “proved himself incapable of unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc.” Apparently unable to satisfy Stalin’s need to bring more enemies to trial, the NKVD chief became one himself, deposed from his position and denounced as being an embezzler and a member of the Trotskyist underground. Appearing as a defendant in the same show trial as Nikolai Bukharin, Yagoda was found to be a member of the “Rightist conspiracy in the NKVD”, and shot. Thereafter, his young successor, Nikolai Yezhov, diligently acted upon the evidence accumulating against Party officials, Red Army officers, and normal Soviet citizens, sending a vast number to the firing squads to satisfy his leader’s urge to destroy the non-existent conspiracy against the Soviet state that he, Yezhov, had concocted in his letter to the Central Committee. Thus, the Purges, though begun by Yezhov and Stalin, were able to propagate themselves, by setting into motion the very actions and processes that would convince Stalin that they were still necessary, even in the face of ridiculous charges against essentially irrelevant individuals.


The Great Purges were not the first, nor last, attempt to crush perceived opposition or threats to the regime. Indeed, brutal repression of dissidents by the secret police is a recurring trait in Russian history (among others), that can be traced with little difficulty to the Tsarist secret police predating Lenin’s October Revolution. Yet the Great Purges stand out in history for their scale, ferocity and sheer impact upon the ruling party, the armed services, and the population in general. The mass arrests and murder that characterised the Purges have been justified as “the [genuine] struggle between revolution and counter-revolution in a country surrounded by hostile governments”, and vilified as a petty attempt by Stalin to solidify his own personal dictatorship. In reality, the Purges were fundamentally a mistake. The period of the Great Purges – which in Russian is often termed Yezhovshchina, or “the Time of Yezhov” – is one marked by Yezhov’s ambition and miscalculation, and Stalin’s fear and paranoia. Once Yezhov’s annihilation of Stalin’s opponents, real and perceived, was in full swing, it took on a life of its own, and Yezhov’s only course of action, to satisfy his vozhd, was to follow it to its conclusion.


Stalin, (Nikolai Yezhov, censored) and Molotow...

After his arrest and execution, Yezhov was “disappeared” from official Soviet history. The same photograph from before is reproduced here, retouched by Soviet censors to remove the now-discredited “enemy of the people.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 20 December 1937, Yezhov attended a meeting of the Presidium at the Bolshoi Theatre, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the NKVD. Anastas Mikoyan, an influential member of the Politburo who would under Khrushchev become the second most powerful man in the Soviet Union, took to the floor to praise the NKVD chief. Yezhov, Mikoyan proclaimed, was a “gifted, faithful Stalin pupil [who] has smashed the vicious spy nests of Trotskyist-Bukharinist agents of the foreign intelligence services.” He finished with a plea to all members of the Politburo, the Central Committee, the CPSU and the USSR itself: “Learn from Comrade Yezhov the Stalinist style of working he has learned and is learning from Comrade Stalin!” It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that this diligent student of Stalinism, who created the circumstances by which some 700,000 people would be swept away in a maelstrom of trumped-up charges and arbitrary killings, would himself be purged. In 1938, with Yezhov “arous[ing] distrust by his failure to produce a public Reserve Rightist Centre trial”, Stalin accused his once-faithful NKVD chief of “complicity in the plot by Frinovski, Shapiro, Ryzhova, Fedorov and others to use his bodyguard to assassinate him.” Arrested and interrogated by his own former subordinates, in much the same way that his predecessor Yagoda was, Nikolai Yezhov was shot sometime after the end of the Great Purges, most likely in the early part of 1940.


Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev

Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. Once indispensable members of the Party and close associates of Lenin himself, by 1938 all three had been shot on Stalin’s orders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Terror spanned just two years, but in that time it changed the face of the Soviet Union and Stalinism irrevocably. Along the way, it eliminated nearly a million people, some of whom were important figures of opposition against Stalin, but most of whom were inconsequential: villagers, musicians, cobblers, people who had no political inclination, no disposition towards treason, no connection to Stalin and the high politics of the USSR. Yet, through a system of institutionalised murder, spawned by the irrational paranoia and fear of Stalin, these people became victims of Yezhovshchina. Eventually, the Purges can be characterised as they were at the beginning of this examination, through the examples of a prominent Communist theorist and an obscure Kiev seamstress. Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, in his last letter to Stalin, accepted his fate with typical philosophical eloquence. “Great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything”, he wrote his one-time political ally, “and I know that it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal-historical tasks resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders.” At the other extreme, we have no record of Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia’s last thoughts, or whether she accepted and understood her fate. All we know is that Mariia Ditkovskaia and Nikolai Bukharin died as innocents, accused by their executioners of being agents for enemies who never were.


Further reading


  • Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton. The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
  • Bialer, Seweryn. Stalin and His Generals: Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
  • Carmichael, Joel. Stalin’s Masterpiece: The Show Trials and Purges of the Thirties – the Consolidation of the Bolshevik Dictatorship. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.
  • Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. London: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Conquest, Robert. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-39. London: Macmillan, 1985.
  • Getty, J. Arch. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Getty, J. Arch, and Naumov, Oleg V. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Jansen, Marc, and Petrov, Nikita. Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov 1895-1940. Stanford: Hoover Institute Press, 2002.
  • Kuromiya, Hiroaki. The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Vintage, 1973.
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives. Anchor: New York, 1997



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The Myth of Nazi “Efficiency”

Patterns of Force (Star Trek: The Original Series)

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy investigate a planet that has turned into Nazi Germany by another name. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the classic Star Trek episode “Patterns of Force”, the starship Enterprise arrives at a planet gone mad. An historian named John Gill, who had been observing the citizens of the planet Ekos, had decided to break Starfleet’s policy of non-interference – the Prime Directive – and directly intervene in the political and societal development of the Ekosian people. In doing so, Gill decided to pattern the new Ekosian society on the “most efficient” state Earth had ever known, Nazi Germany. However, his attempts to achieve this efficiency and unity of will, without the state resorting to the horrors of Hitler’s regime, ultimately failed; Gill, now the self-styled Führer, was drugged by his deputy, who then waged a racial war of genocide against the neighbouring Zeons. Happily, this interstellar Third Reich is defeated by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, just before Ekos launches its “Final Decision” against the Zeon people. Predictably, as he died, Gill apologised to Kirk, admitting that his breach of the Prime Directive was wrong. With the crisis resolved, the Enterprise thus leaves Ekos.

Of course, the episode dispensed with any attempt at metaphor. John Gill is referred to as the Führer. There is an SS and a Gestapo, and it is no coincidence that the “race enemies” of the Ekosians, the Zeons, have names that so closely resemble Jewish ones (Isak, Abrom, and Davod, are all Zeons encountered by Kirk and Spock during the adventure, and “Zeon” is close enough to “Zion”, the Hebrew word for ancient Israel). In doing so, the episode’s moral was aimed at the legacy of Nazi racial policies. Yet there is a deeper historical concept at play here. Gill contends that a Nazi-like regime is the preferable form of government because of the efficiency of the Nazi state, only to discover that this efficiency goes hand-in-hand with the horrors of the Holocaust. Gill, however, is portrayed as an historian who admires the overall achievements of National Socialism while abhorring the methods.

The idea that Nazi Germany was a remarkably efficient state used to be taken as a given. Those (like the fictitious Gill) who argued this contended that the Germans were possessed by a unifying goal, that the German economy outstripped anything else in its class, and that the proof of this efficiency can be found in the fact that Germany was able to wage war against the combined weights of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union for many years, before finally buckling and collapsing under the overwhelming force of these states. That it held out for so long, and even looked set to win, these commentators argued, demonstrated Germany’s superior management and organisation.

In order to evaluate Germany’s economic performance under the Nazis, it is important to understand  the context that came before. There is no doubt that, in the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the German economy had been subjected to disastrous forces. Germany had, at the end of the First World War, been required to pay severe reparations to the victorious Allies. In the event, these reparations were not ever fully paid, but it is important to note that the amount that was demanded of the Germans was well beyond that which Germany could feasibly ever pay. Throughout the mid-1920s, however, the German foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, appealed to the Americans to have the terms of reparations payments changed. This was achieved through a remarkable series of circumstances.

Owen D. Young in 1924

Owen Young, Dawes Committee economist, and chairman of General Electric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Firstly, the so-called Dawes Committee was convened, with its chief economist, Owen Young, tasked with coming up with a plan to calculate German repayments without endangering the German economy itself. Young was a brilliant financial mind, as he was the chairman of General Electric. But Young had reasons to ensure Germany’s economic recovery, beyond merely ensuring that reparations could be met. General Electric had entered into a tight commercial alliance with the German electrical giant AEG; improving the health of the German domestic market, then, could only improve AEG’s bottom line, which in turn would benefit GE and Young. Moreover, American industry relied on a series of capital investments by American merchant banks, ensuring a close relationship between companies and banks. The banks, in turn, had looked to Germany hungrily. Since savings in German banks had been all but wiped out after the First World War and during the German economic slump, those banks could not afford to extend loans that would be necessary to recover the economy without hard currency backing. On the other hand, American financiers, such as J.P. Morgan, had monetary reserves, and saw a lucrative opportunity in providing German banks and companies with large, high interest loans. Thus, American banks were encouraged to sink capital into Germany’s recovery. This suited the Americans, since they foresaw massive returns on these investments. For a time, this also suited the Germans, who were able to secure such enormous loans that they quickly began making their reparations payments, not with their own money, but with American cash. Effectively, then, the Germans borrowed American money, which they then used to pay their required reparations to the British and the French, who were then obliged to pay installments on their war debt to the Americans (using American money that had been borrowed by the Germans).

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Excha...

Horrified crowds outside the New York Stock Exchange, October 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This arrangement may have suited all parties in the short term, but it is astonishing that neither Young nor Stresemann saw the dangers of the system they had encouraged. By 1925, the German economy was almost entirely dependent on American money, secured through loans. But what would happen if the Germans were unable to make their repayments? Or, more worryingly, what would happen if, for some reason, the American banks were forced to recall their loans? As it was, the world was about to find out. In October 1929, after years of heavy speculative trading, the Wall Street Stock Exchange crashed. The results were catastrophic. Banks that had invested on the exchange suddenly lost millions, and their first impulse – to squeeze borrowers – was met with panic by those who kept savings accounts. The subsequent run on currency placed the banks in a position in which they no longer had either public confidence or monetary backing in order to continue trading. The obvious response was to recall the massive loans to Germany.

The banks could do little other than demand German payment. But this brought about its own repercussions. German banks, trading houses, and even government budgets had been largely dependent on American capital for several years. The impressive recovery of the German economy since the immediate postwar days had been largely a fiction, since the risk had been shouldered not by the Germans but by over-keen US investors. In any case, the German balance of payments, especially with regards the enormous reparations debt, was kept afloat by the greenback rather than the Reichsmark. So, by suddenly recalling their loans, the American banks were not simply trimming Germany of a luxury it had enjoyed. They were undermining the entire foundation of the new German economy.

As one might reasonably expect, the sudden withdrawal of American capital smashed the German economy. Virtually overnight, banks and other companies collapsed, personal savings accounts that had only just begun to recover from the postwar downturn were once again wiped out, and the government found itself insolvent. This change of fortunes reversed the growth that the country had been experiencing; in the months immediately before the crash, some 20 million Germans had held paid employment, but by 1933 that number had fallen precipitously, to just 11.5 million, though this figure hardly does justice to the situation, since workers who remained employed usually had to accept pay cuts and a decline of their working conditions. Not only did employment problems rob Germany of revenue, but it also added millions of families to an already overstretched and inadequate social welfare programme that simply could not keep up with the huge numbers of those who could no longer support themselves independently.

stamp series Winterhilfswerk with additional s...

The Autobahn was such a feted achievement of the Nazi economic policies that it was even celebrated on postage stamps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was in this context that Hitler would eventually rise to power and, certainly, the logic of the conclusions drawn (as much by the fictitious John Gill as by real, established names in the field) seems impressive. In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, official unemployment stood at six million. Within a year it had been halved, and by 1937 fewer than one million Germans were without jobs. In order to raise the employment figures, the regime had begun a number of public works schemes, including the famed Autobahn motorways. Several thousand kilometres of road were built in a few short years, and the Autobahnen alone had employed over 150,000 Germans in gainful work. The number of welfare recipients soon fell by more than 60 percent in large cities. Indeed, by 1936, Germany was in such a strong economic position that Berlin was able to host a triumphant Olympic Games, complete with all the pageantry expected of the situation, and German Zeppelin airships criss-crossed the Atlantic as symbols of renewed German might. The design of the so-called “People’s Car” (Volkswagen), which would open motoring to the masses, was another crowning achievement of the regime’s economic policies. Away from industry, too, the economy had improved. Agricultural production gained from strength to strength throughout the 1930s, and by 1939 output was some 71 percent higher than it had been in 1933 – no doubt an amazing achievement. In short, Germany’s economic recovery, it is claimed, was a miracle, a Wirtschaftswunder before the term had been coined, and at the heart of this were Hitler and his ministers.

This logic is seductive, but it is based on faulty assumptions. Let us first address the question of the motorways. The Autobahn project certainly employed over 100,000 people, and the country was soon festooned with bitumen and bridges. These projects, however, were not entirely of the Nazis’ making. The first Autobahn – Hamburg to Basel – was begun in September 1933, but it had been in the works for years; only the more pressing matters of combatting the hyperinflation of the early 1920s had prevented the successive Weimar governments from implementing the plans. It is also worth noting that, though it was begun in 1933, the Hamburg-Basel corridor was not completed by the time construction work was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1939. It would not be finished until the 1960s. In any event, while the Autobahnen were successful insofar that they were built, and that they employed more than 100,000 otherwise unemployed Germans, the plan had been for the projects to employ over four times as many people as they actually did. On their own terms, then, the Autobahn projects were, at best, only qualified successes.

But even if the motorways were built, they were useless without traffic. Here we have an illustration of the strange nature of Nazi economics, or the difference between image and reality. In 1939, the prototype of the Volkswagen was demonstrated by Hitler himself in Berlin, but the car did not enter production at all under the Third Reich, in spite of the Führer’s pledge to have a million of them built every year. Without this “People’s Car”, the Reich had begun building a system of roads that were inaccessible to most Germans, since motoring was an unaffordable luxury. At the height of the Autobahn building phase, in 1935, for every sixty people in Germany there was just one automobile, compared to one for every twenty in France, or one for every twenty-five in Denmark; in the United States, one person out of every five owned a car of their own.

As impressive as the rises in agriculture were, the figures here are misleading as well. In 1936, Hitler had launched a campaign of economic improvement – the Four-Year Plan – which was overseen not by economists, such as Hjalmar Schacht, but by the chief of the air force and minister-president of Prussia, Hermann Göring. Hitler declared that “Germany must be wholly independent” in its production of the necessities of modern economies, foodstuffs being chief among them. Yet this never happened; by 1938, Germany was still reliant on the importation of fodder for draught animals, fats and eggs were so hard to come by that butter and lard were both heavily rationed well before the war, and fruits and coffee became increasingly difficult to source. The latter was due to heavy importation duties, since coffee crops were not native to Germany. The former, however, was for the most part due to massive inefficiencies in the German countryside. Though production on farms had increased between 1933 and 1939, this was not the full story. The German agrarian sector had been severely depressed since 1914, when the farming manpower was conscripted and left for war. After the war, hyperinflation and uncontrolled recession, coupled with the fact that many of the labourers had never returned from the war, left the agricultural markets in a parlous state. Farmers turned to subsistence production – that is, focusing on providing enough only for themselves – since there was no longer any benefit to boosting production for a market economy that could not pay them for their labours. So, it is true that, in the six years between Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the Second World War, agricultural production was increased, but this increase in production only returned the agrarian sector to pre-First World War levels. In short, by 1939, Hitler and Göring’s Four-Year Plan had perhaps improved some areas of farm production, but only in the sense that Germany was back to the levels of a quarter-century earlier. In absolute terms, then, Germany was twenty-five years behind. Moreover, the countryside lost a large number of labourers (approximately 1.4 million) in these National Socialist prewar years, as urbanisation increased and more and more farmhands moved to the growing cities and towns to try and find their fortunes among the urban classes. Apples, which had been a staple of German fruit diets, were planted and grown, but in many cases orchards were understaffed by the time the apples were ripe for picking. The contraction of the import market also meant that fruits that were not native to Germany, such as bananas and oranges, became heavily restricted commodities. It is no coincidence that, in the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, one of the subplots revolves around a fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz, who woos his paramour, Fräulein Schneider, by presenting her with a pineapple. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, such fruits were so rare as to only be vaguely remembered, dreamt-of commodities, luxurious and a product of a bygone age. Elsewhere, while meats were more available, they were still subject to stringent rationing, as were all legumes except lentils. Again, it should be emphasised here that, at this point in time, Germany is not at war, and is supposedly in the midst of a miraculous economic recovery.

Members of the Sicherheitsdienst during a Łapa...

SD officers leap from a car to conduct an arrest. Though the SD was theoretically in charge of domestic intelligence, it also controlled the German police, which caused problems between it, its parent organisation (the SS), the secret police (Gestapo), and military intelligence. Once Germany began to expand, it also ignored that its mandate was only for Germany; this picture is taken in occupied Poland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The planning for the Four-Year Plan also reveals another hindrance to German recovery. Far from being the model of order and productivity, the German bureaucracy was, in fact, labyrinthine and combative, frequently at odds with itself, and incapable of rapid and decisive reaction to circumstances. Many roles were decided on personal favour – hence how a First World War fighter pilot with no financial experience would be selected to run Germany’s attempt at centralised economy, rather than the accomplished and experienced banker Hjalmar Schacht. Within the existing apparatus, too, delineations of power were confusing. Take, for example, the security organisations. The Schutzstaffel (SS) had been conceived of as an elite, paramilitary unit, providing personal security for Nazi Party leaders and meetings. However, once Hitler came to power, the role of the SS was expanded, in order to provide national security; in effect, its role was to ensure that Nazi power was not threatened from within. As a result, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or “Security Service”, was created, which was to act as a domestic intelligence outfit. In order to give this new organisation teeth, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered the integration of the municipal police forces – the Kriminalpolizei, the Ordnungspolizei, and the Sicherheitspolizei – into the SD. This meant that detectives and uniformed policemen alike were now members of the Nazi domestic intelligence service, which was itself part of the Party bodyguard organisation. This also put the SD and SS in competition with both the infamous Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or “Secret State Police”), whose brief it was to also operate as a domestic security police force with a purview over criminal intelligence, and the Abwehr, or German military intelligence, which resented the encroachment on the Party’s paramilitary wing on its turf. Later, though the SS was technically limited to domestic duties, it would form its own regiments (termed Waffen-SS, or “Armed SS”), which would place it in competition with the army. In no case were the competences of these forces clearly defined; it was not uncommon for Kripo detectives to be investigating a case that was already being investigated by the Gestapo, or for the umbrella organisation of the SS to become involved, without any of these branches recognising that they were, in effect, stepping on one another’s toes.

English: NSDAP dues revenue stamp, 1 RM, 1942 ...

The Nazi Party soon began to meddle in the affairs of state, attempting to circumvent the organs of state authorities. Party paraphernalia became de facto symbols of the German state itself; here, a postage stamp, supposedly controlled by federal postal authorities, bears the Party insignia and initials. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps more crucially, there was a severe disconnect between the defined roles of the Party and the state. The German state had already possessed institutions – the foreign ministry, the treasury, and so on – but upon seizing power, Hitler clearly felt that the state had become irrelevant. The departments of the state apparatus, he felt, could be replaced by those of the Party (hence, the police were absorbed into the Party bodyguard). This was not always the case, however. The Four-Year Plan, for example, may have been headed by Göring, but it was impossible to implement without a large body of civil servants, trained in economics at a state level. This, the Party did not possess. Yet the insistence that the state civil servants suborn themselves to the Nazi Party was met with some resistance and, as the actions of Party functionaries diluted the perks and allure of working in the civil service, numbers of professional bureaucrats dwindled. Pay and prestige were both low commodities. The number of students at German universities declined precipitously, both as a halo result of the Great Depression, as well as a Party emphasis on militarisation rather than education. Of those who were well-educated and well placed to enter the state bureaucracy, the fact that competing bureaucracies were being set up within the Party – better paid positions with significantly more prestige – lured them away from working for ministries in favour of Nazi divisions and departments. Of the civil servants who remained, many were weeded out by the Gestapo, either for political reasons (i.e. having been supporters of the old Weimar Republic, or of the Social Democratic Party), or for racial reasons; there had been a not inconsiderable number of Jewish German civil servants when Hitler came to power, but they were quickly removed. Nonetheless, in spite of these severe problems, the civil service limped through the 1930s, for the simple reason that, even though its members were effectively discriminated against, the service itself was invaluable. Put another way, while the Nazis were suspicious of state organs, they could not immediately do without them. At the same time, however, the Party manoeuvred to create its own apparatus that could supersede the state’s role in statecraft, meaning that, for much of the 1930s, Germany became heavily and confusingly bureaucratised, with an unclear sense of direction and a near-complete lack of efficiency that alienated the very people who were needed to make the National Socialist socioeconomic policies a success.

So, the National Socialist regime in Germany was not the efficient megalith that has been supposed. There is more, however, to attack than merely the myth of recovery. Let us return to our first premise. Our fictitious historian, John Gill, purports that he wished to model a whole planet on Nazi Germany, in order to make it more efficient, and to unite it in will, all without the horrendous persecution and violence of the Earth equivalent. Let us, for the sake of argument, ignore what we have previously argued. Let us presume that Germany was highly efficient. Gill’s argument to Captain Kirk maintains that this can be achieved without the bloodshed that accompanied Hitler’s rule. To suggest this, however, is to misunderstand the nature of Nazism itself.

What is Nazism? Or rather, what are the ideas that govern Nazism? These are rather complex questions, but the essential character of the ideology can be found through Hitler’s semi-autobiographical ramblings in Mein Kampf, as well as his later actions. This character is perhaps best summed up by Sir Richard Evans:

Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole.

At its fundamental core, Nazism was a political ideology based around difference and hostility towards difference. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party did not come to power in 1933 as just another legitimate political movement. Its success at the polls – for it did, indeed, become a party with a reasonable measure of public support – was conditional, based largely on divisive rhetoric, and this rhetoric became the driving force behind the attempts to modernise the economy. Indeed, Hitler’s immediate economic measures – approving an increase of rearmament spending to some ten percent of Germany’s total gross domestic product (GDP), proportionately three times higher than the armament spending levels of any of the western democracies – demonstrate the belligerent nature of German recovery. The vaunted reduction of unemployment was achieved through a combination of statistical chicanery (such as counting seasonal workers as fully employed), but more importantly through a massive recruitment drive for both the army and for military-industrial labour. In addition to Hitler’s immediate moratorium on reparations payments, which placed Germany in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, these measures can only be seen as preparations for war.

Bismarck left Hamburg for the first time on 15...

The battleship Bismarck was a product of the Four-Year Plan, and Hitler’s plans for massive rearmament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the Four-Year Plan was devised as a means to rapidly rearm a now-ballooning army (the Nazis’ army policy, devised in December 1933, called for a standing army of some 300,000 men, or 200 percent larger than what international treaty stipulations permitted). It was not just the army that expanded; though Germany was denied an air force by the Treaty of Versailles, the government began to invest heavily in new “passenger aircraft” for the national airline, Lufthansa. These would eventually include the Dornier 17, the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 86 – aircraft whose design was wholly unsuitable for passenger and mail flights, but perfect as medium bombers. In the sphere of naval power, rearmament increased work for shipbuilders and boosted employment figures, but the projects themselves were highly illegal. Orders were placed in 1934 for a huge number of vessels: eight battleships (when the Treaty permitted six), three aircraft carriers (none permitted), eight cruisers (six allowed), 48 destroyers (12 permitted), and no fewer than 72 U-Boats, when the Treaty of Versailles had expressly forbidden Germany from having any at all.

None of this should come as a surprise. Indeed, Hitler had long been agitating for a rejection of the “unjust” Treaty of Versailles. Moreover, he had insisted that, in order to become fully self-sufficient, Germany would have to expand, to take “living space” (Lebensraum) from the east (here meaning Poland and the USSR). This would never be agreed to by those powers, and so could only be achieved through force of arms – hence the massive programme of German rearmament. Infamously, while the Autobahnen had long been projected, the Nazis saw them principally as means to easily transport men and materiel in wartime conditions, so while scenic driving was certainly a factor in their construction, they were also a military project.

English: A Jewish shop in Berlin during the bo...

“Germans! Defend yourselves!” Crucial to Nazi ideology was the demonisation of “enemies”, of whom the Jews were the most prominent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the brutality of the regime, I wish only to say a small amount, since this analysis cannot do it justice. Yet it is ludicrous to suggest that the regime could have existed without brutality. Its emphasis on social darwinism and the “inferiority” of races, creeds and so on, lay at the very heart of the National Socialist ideology. Systematic violence against Jews, for example, had been a staple of the Party even before it came to power; Jewish shops were smashed and looted, and people identified as Jews were assaulted in the streets. Now, with access to the state apparatus of policing and security, the Party naturally intensified its campaign of terror. One Berlin square, Hausvogteiplatz, had been liberally populated with Jewish sweet shops and high street fashion, but within a few years, most of the shopowners had been driven out or arrested. This was a common theme throughout Germany. It would be several years before the “Final Solution” was formulated, several years before Jews were murdered en masse, but the origins of genocide can be seen in the organised, fanatical antisemitic campaigns and pogroms immediately launched by the Party leadership upon coming to power.

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive det...

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive detention of an “incorrigible homosexual.” Gay people, much like Jews and the mentally ill, were targeted by the regime as an integral part of its ideological convictions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nor were the Jews the only ones to be singled out for harsh treatment. Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and the mentally ill were also subjected to barbarous treatment. In July 1933, just half a year after assuming government, the Nazis instituted compulsory and forcible sterilisation for people judged to be “unworthy” of reproducing, including schizophrenics, epileptics, and those who were termed “imbeciles”; this policy resulted in the sterilisation of close to 400,000 German citizens.

The NSDAP came to power on a wave of popular discontent, and it managed to make itself popular by exploiting the politics of difference. For example, Jews were to blame for Germany’s economic hardships because they were disloyal, money-grubbing communists (the fact that this is a contradictory positions seems not to have occurred to the proponents of the view). The disabled were a drain on society’s resources, and were “life unworthy of life” – it should come as little surprise that the sterilisation programmes would eventually evolve to become “euthanasia” programmes, in which the mentally infirm were gassed. Domestically, brutality was a staple of the Party. Why else were the SS, Gestapo, and SD such pressing priorities upon the seizure of power? Internationally, we should be under no illusions. Hitler meant war. The cornerstones of his economic recovery policies revolved almost totally around preparing Germany for war, either in terms of providing for itself, or in order to smash its opponents. The desire for Lebensraum could be justified by Germany’s need for the space, and for the fact that the space was presently occupied by Slavic peoples – Untermenschen, or “subhumans”, according to the racialised principles of the Party. Thus, it is nonsense to conceive of Nazi Germany without brutality, without warlike tendencies, without plans for extermination, because these concepts were at the very heart of what it meant to be a Nazi.

From all this, we can come to several conclusions. Firstly, that Nazi Germany, contrary to popular belief, was actually startlingly inefficient. While it did enjoy economic recovery from the Great Depression, this recovery had already been set in motion by the preceding Weimar governments. Of the Nazi work creation policies, some, such as the Autobahn projects, were qualified successes, while others did not succeed at all. Nazi meddling in economic policy also led to some declines, to the extent that previously healthy economic sectors suffered further recession. In many cases, by the mid-1930s production and revenue had not yet returned to prewar levels, let alone the heights promised by Hitler and presumed by a good many historians.

Secondly, while we may find some redeeming qualities in the economy, in terms of bureaucracy the National Socialist regime had a profoundly chaotic impact. The once-powerful German civil service was treated as a bastard child of the Party administration, though the Party could not afford to totally dissolve it. Thus, umpteen competing bureaucracies were established, making an adequate division of work all but impossible.

Thirdly, the idea of National Socialism as being a reasonable political alternative, had the brutality of the regime been avoided, is nothing more than fiction. Far from inequality, prejudice, and violence being unfortunate, tangential characteristics, they were from the outset at the very heart of the concept of Nazism. Of the Nazis’ few economic successes, most were achieved only because they had an aggressive ulterior motive. Yes, employment increased, but only because these people were newly employed as soldiers, or else building the very weapons of war that were forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles. Aircraft carriers, battleships, and U-Boats are not defensive weapons; in fact, the orders placed for them demonstrate the bellicosity of the projected Nazi foreign policy. It is worth noting that none of these aircraft carriers were, in the event, actually built, and that of the eight projected battleships, only two were launched; one, Bismarck, managed to sink the flagship of the Royal Navy one of the greatest symbols of British naval strength, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, before being hunted down by the entire Home Fleet and sent to the bottom, while her sister ship, Tirpitz, spent much of the war holed up in a Norwegian fjord, until bombers from the Royal Air Force sank her too, in 1944. Nevertheless, the intent is clear. Furthermore, since racial “purity” and the vileness of Untermenschen was at the heart of Nazi ideology, it is impossible to strip it from that ideology. (On a side note, if we were to be clinical, it can be argued that the Holocaust itself, launched in 1942, is the ultimate, terrible expression of Nazi economic inefficiency; with a huge, captive population of potential slave labour, the Nazis resorted to extermination instead. That many of these victims were indeed forced to work before their gassing in no way alters the fact that the primary reason for the series of camps housing Jews was for their total and irremediable physical destruction as a people. Work, as the Nazis saw it, was a way to mark time while execution was prepared).

Finally, we must reach the inescapable conclusion that John Gill, fictional as he was, was a fundamentally terrible historian. In attempting to create a benevolent Nazi state, he catastrophically misunderstood the nature of Nazism. In the event, the would-be horror of an interstellar Holocaust was averted by Kirk, Spock, and the USS Enterprise, but such heroes rarely exist in real life. Star Trek saw itself as a parable for society, portraying the Federation as a liberal, anti-imperialist big government, and the extension of full rights to everyone as a necessary outcome of human development; this is, after all, the show that presented the first interracial kiss on television. If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is this: to ignore, or misunderstand, our own past mistakes, is to endanger our future.

Further reading

  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Consequences of National Socialism. Harmondsworth. Penguin. 1978.
  • Burleigh, Michael. Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda. London. Harper Perennial. 2006.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. London. Allen Lane. 2003.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. New York. Penguin. 2005.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster. London. Allen Lane. 2008.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1937-1945: Nemesis. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. New York. Penguin. 2006.


Filed under Ideologies