Over the last few days (this is 1914 we’re talking about just in case anyone was in any doubt) a large number of articles have appeared in the German press on the threat posed by Russia. And still they come:
There is, if anything, an increase to-day in the Press discussion of present and future and possible and probable Russo-German relations. The Berlin Bourse, which was troubled last week by the beginning of the campaign in the Cologne Gazette, was disturbed again to-day – chiefly by the spreading of the infection to the Radical and “pacific” Berliner Tageblatt. This journal published this morning an anonymous article by somebody who is described as distinguished and experienced in all branches of international politics, which, without indeed advocating war, advocates the adoption of a very firm policy towards Russia.
This is co-ordinated and there’s only one body that would be doing the co-ordination: the German government. They are preparing the population for war. The argument being used is precisely the argument being used in the corridors of power: the Russians are building up their forces and in a few years they will be too strong and it will be too late. In other words: it’s now or never.
The Times 10 March 1914 p5
It is not just the Russians the Germans are worried about. The Russians on their own would be fairly harmless (as indeed they proved to be) but they are in alliance with France. This leads to Germany’s worst nightmare: the prospect of a war on two fronts. This in turn leads to the development of the Schlieffen Plan with its aim to eliminate one of those fronts before the other one got going.
There is an alternative. Germany could return Alsace-Lorraine to France. At a stroke they would eliminate the one and only bone of contention in the Franco-German relationship and as a consequence break up the Franco-Russian alliance. But no.
There are good reasons why the German government isn’t so keen on such a move. By accepting self-determination in Alsace-Lorraine they would be accepting the principle of democracy. This is hardly the sort of thing that a monarchy can do. There would also be the element of losing face that weak regimes are very reluctant to do.
As I mentioned earlier the claim is that Germany must go to war soon or else it will be too late. The odd thing is that they were even wrong about this. The Russians were utterly incompetent in the First World War and there is no reason to think they would have fought much better even after their arms build up.
What is interesting is that even the Socialists appear to be unnerved by the Russian threat. This might explain why after the war broke out and despite the fact they had been left out of the loop, they were so willing to vote the government the funds to carry on the war.
To-day the Pan-German Press is advocating German claims of all sorts, especially in Asia Minor, “which is still to be had, but only if Germany does not shrink from the extreme test and is ready to risk war against Russia and France as well as England.”
This is fascinating. They have clearly made up their minds that if war means war with England then so be it. It is suicidal but that’s the point the German High Command has reached in 1914.
It was Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1950s who claimed that the outbreak of war in 1914 was no accident. He traced it back to what has become known as the War Council of December 1912. From there, Germany abandoned the naval arms race with Britain so that it could build up its army. Shortly afterwards it launched this campaign. Everything is ready. Now all they need is a pretext.
There is also the claim that the Russians are running riot in the Balkans:
The writer insists that “pretences” shall be dropped and that both Berlin and Vienna shall recognize that they have step by step been retreating before Russian pretensions with lamentable results.
This is absolute nonsense. The people who are winning are the Austrians. They have annexed Bosnia, created the state of Albania to deny the Serbs a port, faced the Russians down in the mobilisations of 1912 and made an ally of the Bulgarians – a country hitherto in the Russian sphere. Meanwhile, a German, Liman von Sanders, has more or less been put in charge of the Turkish army, completely putting the kibosh on (the admittedly somewhat far-fetched) Russian ambitions to control the Bosphorus.
Incidentally, it is one of the claims of Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers (p330) that the German government did not embark on a campaign to ready its people for war. This, he felt, showed that the so-called War Council was not quite as decisive as others have claimed. What this article (and others) show is that this claim is nonsense.
In all the years I have been reading old editions of the The Times I have never come across anyone advocating a European Union. Until the other day, that is.
The Times 31 January 1914 p6
Annoyingly they are not entirely wrong:
If armaments could be greatly reduced, the savings effected would provide an abundance of liquid money to the great advantage of the people. Funds for industrial and commercial purposes would become plentiful.
Unless you piss it up the wall on a welfare state, that is. And on some things they are really on the money:
The nations of Europe and European civilisation itself threaten to break down under the military burdens. The people are groaning and muttering. Dissatisfaction is spreading apace. The tension is rapidly approaching breaking point.
The solution is a familiar one:
It is obvious that, if we wish to abolish war and the ruinously expensive preparations for war, we must deal with the fundamental cause of war. We must, therefore, above all, endeavour to abolish the disunion existing among the Great Powers and replace it by harmony and by a firm and lasting union.
I couldn’t help notice that then as today they seem to be extremely well-funded. I wonder how much a page in the The Times of 1914 compares with four pages in The Independent of today?
If you want to know what the British – the educated British – thought of the Germans in 1914 here’s your answer:
The chief importance of the Zabern incidents, of the Strassburg trials, and of the exhibition of reactionary and particularist passion which has followed them in Prussia, is not in themselves. It lies in their significance as symptoms of the obstacles which still impede the moral unity of Germany. They reveal the persistence of not only of a profound division between the conquered provinces and Prussia, but of such a division between the whole legal and constitutional conceptions of South Germany and those that prevail amongst the Prussian aristocracy. These divisions are not new. They go back to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and to the establishment of modern States and the introduction of modern ideas by NAPOLEON in the south…
But the feudal nobility, and especially the nobility beyond the Elbe, have always set their faces against it and striven to shut their eyes to the change… Their devotion to the Throne and to the country, their lofty sense of public duty, their zeal, and their professional attainments are undoubted. But many of them inherit also the narrowness and the arrogance of a military caste.
Is it accurate? I think so, primarily because it explains the Zabern Incident so well.
Was it the cause of the war? It was certainly a cause. It wouldn’t be the first time that an unpopular regime that found itself cornered attempted to prop itself by starting a war. Milosevic’s Yugoslavia springs to mind as another example.
What it doesn’t explain is how such a divided nation was able to keep going for so long.
The Times 29 January 1914 p9
They thought it would start this way. Rogue government official, Michael Gove writing in the rogue newspaper, the Daily Mail, was responsible for the first blast – a carefully planned and executed assassination of the very symbol of Donkeydom: Blackadder. Arguing that a sitcom was perhaps not the best way to understand the First World War he struck a blow to the heart of all those who thought that the War could be summed up in a few lines of poetry.
The Donkeys realising that they could not allow such an outrage to stand launched a furious counterblast with Richard Evans, Tristram Hunt and Tony Robinson in the vanguard. Sadly, Tony ’s cunning plan turned out to be no more cunning than his alter ego’s Baldrick’s and just like the Austro-Hungarian Army’s initial attack on Belgrade was easily rebuffed.
Unfortunately, the Donkey attack on the apparently isolated and defenceless Gove touched off a series of ideological alliances as Revisionists such as Beevor, Johnson, Farage and Sheffield rushed to Gove’s defence. Like a thunderstorm on a clear day it had come out of nothing and within days had embroiled the whole of the political and historical world. For the leftie Sheffield it must have be particularly galling to find himself – as Russia did in 1914 – on the “wrong” side. He is not alone. Although yet to declare himself, Niall Ferguson is likely to side with the Donkeys. Only Dan Hannan stands aloof.
As we stand here facing intellectual armageddon it worth pausing to consider the opposing forces. For many years the Donkeys have been considered invincible following the spectacular victories of The Donkeys i.e Alan Clark’s original, Oh, what a lovely war and that crowning achievement: Blackadder itself. But Blackadder was a quarter of a century ago and in the meantime their opponents have been marshalling their forces. Building on the pioneering work of John Terraine, Revisionists such as Sheffield, the late Richard Holmes and the late Paddy Griffiths aided by the many amateur historians of the Western Front Association, have built up a credible case for the idea that Britain’s war was both necessary and fought about as well as it could have been.
Still they are up against formidable odds. And the formidablist is the mighty British Broadcasting Corporation. It seems that the BBC has been planning for the eventuality for many years. It is likely that they will attempt to score a knockout blow using paintings, poetry and appeals of emotion. So what if they have to trample over the rights of neutral facts in the process? They are likely to fail and when they do the chances are that we will be in for a protracted period of intellectual trench warfare.
Whatever happens it won’t be over by Christmas.
We all love those daft things that school children put on exam papers – How long is the menstrual cycle? Three feet; that sort of thing. So, here are some from a hundred years ago (when they didn’t have such things as menstrual cycles):
After twice committing suicide, Cowper lived till 1800 when he died a natural death.
Much butter is imported from Denmark, because Danish cows have greater enterprise and superior technical education to ours.
In the British Empire the sun always sets.
The courage of the Turks is explained by the fact that a man with more than one wife is more willing to face death than if he had only one.
Under what conditions will a body float in water? After it has been in the water three days.
Some of the others might turn out to be even funnier if I understood them.
In these enlightened days of state-controlled railways and fare control it is sometimes difficult to believe that there was a time when railways were monopolies red in tooth and claw and were more or less free to do what they wanted.
And here, from a hundred years ago, we have an egregious example of precisely the sort of monopoly abuse we have so often been warned of. It’s revision time for fares and you know what’s coming: they’re… er… reducing them:
The Times 3 December 1913 p5
Well, that’s as may be but the only reason they’re doing that is because they’re making the service… er… better:
In anticipation of the opening of the first section of the electrified suburban lines during the coming year…
As it happens the lines to which they refer weren’t electrified until 1916 – not that that is particularly important.
So, what’s going on? Well, as Brian Micklethwait likes to point out everything competes with everything else. Railways may not compete much with other railways but they sure as hell compete with buses, trams, cars, moving nearer work and finding a job nearer where one lives.
Even so, railwaymen often refer to the “sparks effect”. This is the phenomenon whereby a newly electrified line will see a significant increase in passengers. With that in mind you would have thought they could increase their fares. I can only imagine fares are being reduced because they are able to run more services.
By the way, not strictly relevant but I loved this from column 1 on the same page:
Mr J. D. Gilbert asked the chairman of the Highways Committee whether in view of the by-laws allowing passengers to stand in the tramcars, the committee had considered the advisability of issuing notices, similar to those in use in Manchester, asking ladies to have all hatpins protected.
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the beginning of the Zabern Incident. Well, now it’s got a whole load more serious.
There have been further incidents in Alsace. Mainly these have involved locals insulting soldiers and the soldiers reacting with extra-legal brutality but they haven’t been without their farcical side. In one incident, the participants in a court case managed to get caught up in riot and various judges, clerks and advocates found themselves spending a night in the cells. In another, Lieutenant Förstner, the 18-year old who sparked it all, went out on a shopping trip. Normal enough if you discount the escort of four soldiers with bayonets fixed.
And now it’s reached the floor of the Reichstag. And the Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, has lost a vote of confidence.
The Times 5 December 1913 p9
In a democracy (e.g. France which in this very week in 1913 has also no-confidenced its Prime Minister) that would mean it’s time for the Chancellor to pack his bags. But not in Imperial Germany. In Imperial Germany the Chancellor is answerable to the Kaiser not the Parliament. Democratically elected representatives can huff and puff as much as they like but they are not going to blow the Prussian Army’s house down. At least not for another 5 years.
This kinda sorta brings me on to an observation: the end of monarchy is a bloody and protracted affair. In England the process began in 1642 and was probably all over by 1700 and involved a couple of civil wars and a military dictatorship. In France it took about 80 years (1789-1871) and involved three revolutions, a terror and a twenty-year war. In Germany (at least the Western half) it lasted from 1914 to about 1948; in Russia from 1917 to 1989; in Spain from about 1920 to 1980. In each case millions died. Oh, and China of course (1911-1980).
The only exceptions I can find are Portugal (although that had a period of dictatorship) and Turkey (dictatorship again). Japan is almost impossible to categorise not least because you have to decide who you take as the monarch: the Emperor or the Shogun?
Getting back to Imperial Germany, the tragedy is that here we see them within touching distance of a proper, functioning democracy. So near and yet so far.
The Times 11 November 1913 p7
The Saverne Affair
(or Zabern Incident) occasionally gets a mention in discussions of the origins of the First World War.
It is one of those multi-dimensional disputes in which one conflict slams into another. One of those conflicts is a straight ethnic one – familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Northern Ireland – between Germans and Frenchmen. The other is between the German military and Germany’s burgeoning democracy.
So far, a German officer has been rude (or has he?) about the Alsatians and there’s been a riot. There will be further riots followed by votes of no-confidence in the government.
The point is that it served as a reminder to the French that Alsace had been lost in 1870, while in Germany, it demonstrated that democracy was advancing at the expense of the military. I believe that fear of losing their privileges was one of the factors that led Germany’s rulers to go to war.
I was reading an article about the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank (boo, hiss) in 1913 and I came across this:
Faced with the supreme necessity of sustaining the national credit and providing a market for Government securities, the Secretary of the Treasury in 1863 passed a National Bank Act basing the issue of currency by the banks upon the purchase of an equal amount of Government bonds. That was a cardinal error which still remains uncorrected. It has entailed a vast locking-up of banking capital in Government bonds as security for notes, and it has made impossible a normal and elastic currency system based on commercial paper and similar assets and automatically adapting itself to the daily needs of business.
Cue utter confusion. For starters, why would a bank want to issue currency? Surely, a bank has all the money it wishes to lend out in the form of deposits. And what is meant here by currency? notes and coins or money in general?
…it has made impossible a normal and elastic currency system based on commercial paper and similar assets and automatically adapting itself to the daily needs of business.
This is really confusing. I can understand how notes work in a goldsmith system. Briefly, a depositor deposits some gold with the goldsmith and in return receives a receipt for that gold. The receipt, or note, is then capable of being used as money because it is literally “as good as gold”. I can see how government bonds might replace gold but it requires a depositor. And surely, once a depositor has deposited his bond the bank can issue its own receipts/notes rather than having anything to do with the government. Or maybe that’s illegal. Or maybe depositors would prefer to use government notes as they are accepted in more places.
“…a normal and elastic currency system”. What do they mean by “elastic”? Do they mean what modern-day Austrian economists mean i.e. inflationary? I doubt it because at the time the UK was on a gold standard which tends to be anti-inflationary [notwithstanding comments I have made about how there was some inflation at the time].
And what’s all this about commercial paper? The modern meaning is short-term business debt. I can kind of see how that would replace government bonds although presumably it would have to be extremely homogenous and what happens when the term is up?
And where, if anywhere, is the link with gold which, as I understand it, was one of the main issues in the 1896 presidential election?
Whatever the case may be it seems clear that the US monetary system was far from being a free market before the Fed came along.
One last thought: there are times when I think the confusion that monetary matters generate is deliberate rather than accidental.
The Times 10 September 1913 page 8
What follows is the final part of a series based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, IV. & V
When reading about the time it is impossible to be unaware that in less than a year Europe will be plunged into war. It is not as if they are unaware of the risk. Churchill, hardly a pacifist, describes the prospect as “Armageddon”. A recent series of articles have appeared in the Times under the title “Europe’s Armed Camp”.
In the 1900s, Germany began to build up its navy. Britain responded. By 1913 Germany is ready to throw in the towel. Britain has not only shown herself prepared to outbuild Germany at every step but has raised a Territorial Army to fend off a potential invasion. She has also developed plans to send an Expeditionary Force to the Continent should the need arise.
Meanwhile and simultaneously, France and Germany have both expanded their armies.
It is worth spending a little bit of time describing the political systems in Central and Eastern Europe. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all had systems that were partly monarchical and partly parliamentary. In Germany the Kaiser made all the appointments. The Reichstag was elected on a wider franchise than the House of Commons i.e. universal male franchise and it had the power to block the Kaiser’s bills including the budget.
Austria-Hungary had parliaments everywhere although the Hungarian was elected on an extremely restricted franchise and there were some magnificently complicated arrangements for making decisions, such as military spending that affected the whole empire.
In the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution, a parliament, the Duma, was elected on a universal male franchise. It had rather too many socialists for the Tsar’s liking so the franchise was narrowed until he got something more acceptable. The Duma is not entirely powerless but does not appear to have any control over the budget.
The 1905 Revolution took place in the wake of Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. This severly weakened Russia both on land and on sea. She has been rebuilding her forces but it is a slow process.
In the absence of a strong Russia, Austria has been having a field day in the Balkans. It annexed Bosnia in 1908, created Albania to prevent Serbian access to the Adriatic and has detached Bulgaria from her alliance with Russia.
And yet Austria is worried. Historians of the period love telling us how many times Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of the Austrian General Staff, urged war on Serbia. The number is well into the twenties. The Serbs make no secret of their desire to add the Austrian territories of Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia to their own. The Austrians see this has highly destabilising: should Croatia go why not Bohemia, or Slovakia, or Ruthenia?
There are some extraordinarily disturbing ideas knocking around Germany. In his book “The Next War” General Bernhardi talks about the need to smash France, curb Britain and ignore treaties and other promises into the bargain. The Prime Minister, Bethmann-Hollweg, the “Good German”, talks of a coming race war between Teuton and Slav.
In addition to threats abroad they face threats at home. The Socialists are the largest party in the Reichstag and it is becoming ever more difficult to get their army and navy bills enacted.
The Times, 5 August 1914 page 6
What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, IV & VI.
In 1913, Britain has an empire. A very big empire. It’s pretty peaceful, doesn’t appear to be very expensive and doesn’t appear to be very controversial. The problem is that the British have no idea what to do with it. It is, let’s face it a pretty disparate and far flung bunch of territories. About the only thing that connects them is that Britain got to them before anyone else. In 1906, the Unionists went into the general election proposing an Empire-wide common external tariff otherwise known as Imperial Preference. Given that this would have put up the price of food and given that that’s what about 50% of average incomes were spent on it is not surprising that the Liberals won by a landslide. What is surprising is that the Unionists refuse to ditch it.
There are proposals to build a Channel Tunnel. Given that it didn’t get built until 80 years later, using much better technology and at great cost, you would have thought the main concern would have been over its feasibility. But no. The main concern, or at least the one occupying the minds of the Times and its correspondents, is how an invader might use it. Could an invader take both ends? Could it be blown up? What if they put the entrance on a viaduct and blew that up? Those are the sort of questions being asked.
Some controversies and concerns will seem odd to us. A lot of space is given over to agriculture, Welsh disestablishment and the teaching of Greek.
One of the big hullabaloos is over the Olympics. Britain did not do very well in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics only coming third in the medal table. This has caused a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth not least from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who feels that Britain risks losing her reputation as the “Mother of Sport”. He believes there are only three options for dealing with this catastrophe: accept the humiliation, withdraw from the Olympics entirely or create a subscription-based fund to pay for the recruitment and training of future Olympic champions. Cue letters to the Times arguing that we should withdraw as quickly as possible as the Olympics already represent a ridiculous perversion of the amateur principle.
At no point has anyone suggested that they should be using taxpayers’ money.
What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, V & VI.
Drugs. When I was preparing this piece I was under the illusion that drugs were legal. That’s not quite the case. Since as long ago as 1868, only pharmacists could sell opium. In 1908 cocaine was put onto a similar footing. As far as I am aware there are no restrictions on cannabis. At the 1912 International Opium Convention most European states agreed to end the trade although Germany, Austria and Turkey dissented. The Convention was eventually incorporated into the Versailles Treaty.
When I started delving into the pages of the Times my assumption was that there was very little regulation. The more I read the more I realise this isn’t really true. Every train crash prompts a government-led investigation. Companies must submit returns on how many accidents there have been on their premises. Back-to-back housing has been banned. In 2000, the Telegraph reprinted and edition from 1 January 1900. Sure enough, there was a little article reminding readers that a regulation had come into force on the availability of stools for female shop workers. Having said that a few years ago I was reading up on the Regulation of the Railways Act from the 1880s. This made various demands on companies but it turned out that most companies had put these measures into place well before the law was even thought of. In other words regulation was following existing practice. It would be interesting to know if this was still a common feature in the 1910s.
In an editorial in part on the topic of drug regulation the Times of March 18 1913 had this to say. Some of the sentiments may seem familiar:
There is an increasing body of nursery legislation which treats us all as if we were little boys to whom the contents of the cupboard must be doled out by the governess. However deplorable it may be, we are driven to confess from time to time that a strong case has been made out for some additional restriction. The thing has gone so far that there is a section of the public in love with restriction for its own sake. They are always looking for an excuse to forbid something or other, and naturally take the most sensational view of any evil that can be discovered. They would be unhappy in the perfect world which they think they desire, because they would have nothing to forbid. They would rather leave a man with a depraved appetite and forbid him to indulge it, than educate the man out of the appetite altogether. That is diametrically opposed to all that makes for true freedom and progressive citizenship. But, if men and women will not master and obey the laws of life, no political arrangements can make them free, and there is nothing for it but the locked cupboard and the policeman.
Mind you they’re not always banning things. In 1910, an explosion at the Pretoria Pit near Bolton killed over 300 miners. While there was a great deal of sympathy expressed there was very little suggestion that this was a problem to which the solution was more state regulation.
There is an organisation called the Liberty and Property Defence League – incidentally, based just around the corner from the current-day Adam Smith Institute – which occasionally gets letters into the papers and another called the Cobden Club which mainly aims at preserving peace.
It is legal to own a gun so long as you have a licence to do so. The licences themselves cost 10 shillings. And guns get used. Ex-lovers, ex-wives, scab labourers and people hanging around having a quiet drink in a hotel bar have all become victims of 1910s gun crime. In another incident, an actor managed to get himself killed while on stage when a fellow actor, as part of the play, fired on him with blanks. Incidents like this would be shocking today and yet the murder rate was about half what it is now.
In December 1910, the police were called to a burglary in progress in Houndsditch. The burglars opened fire killing three policemen and sparking a manhunt. In what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street some of the perpetrators, believed to be East European anarchists, were tracked down. The army were called in and in an exchange of fire a bullet narrowly missed the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
What, exactly, the policemen think they are going to achieve with those shotguns is anyone’s guess. From here.
He’s not the only person to have had shots aimed at him. Edward Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was shot by a man he’d turned down for a taxi licence. Leopold de Rothschild had shots fired at him. But the real fun is abroad. In the years leading up to the First World War, the King of Serbia, the King of Greece, the Russian Prime Minister, the Grand Vizier of Turkey, a French President, an American President and (famously) the heir presumptive to the Austrian throne will all be assassinated. On the eve of the First World War the wife of an ex-French Prime Minister will be on trial for the shooting of a newspaper editor.
In the years following the 1905 Russian Revolution something like 2000 Tsarist officials were assassinated.
Mind you, the great and the good were just as susceptible to natural causes. In the years leading up to the First World War a US ambassador to London, a German Foreign Minister and an Austrian Foreign Minister will all die in office. The Russian ambassador to Serbia will die during the July Crisis and a British general, Grierson, will die on his way to the front. A Fortnum’s hamper was found by his side.
Court cases of all kinds tend to be over quickly and juries usually make up their minds within the hour. I suspect the fact that they aren’t paid for their time plays a large part in this. Punishments include hanging and flogging. Flogging takes two forms: the cat if they’re up to it and the birch if they are not.
One thing that still surprises me is access to these courts. Ordinary people, for instance, can and do bring libel cases.
Homosexuality is illegal but it appears to be rarely prosecuted. The word “homosexual” appears once in ten years and that is in relation to a libel case in Germany. I recently read about a blackmail case. A mother accused a merchant of “ruining” her son. I assume this is a euphemism for buggery. The merchant paid her £150 which in those days would buy you 40 ounces of gold – about £35,000 at today’s prices. A few months later the mother made further demands at which point the merchant went to the police and the mother and son were prosecuted for blackmail. At no point is there any question of the merchant being prosecuted for a criminal offence despite the fact that by his actions he’s effectively admitted to it. Could it be, that so long as you were discreet the state wasn’t that bothered?