01/08/2014 03:36 PM
The Disturbing Relevance of World War I
Photos: Photo Gallery: Europe's Great Conflagration - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International
By Klaus Wiegrefe
It has now been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, but the European catastrophe remains relevant today. As the Continent looks back this year, old wounds could once again be rubbed raw.
Joachim Gauck, the 11th president of the Federal Republic of Germany, executes his duties in a palace built for the Hohenzollern dynasty. But almost all memories of Prussian glory have been eliminated from Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where there is no pomp and there are no uniforms and few flags. The second door on the left in the entrance hall leads into a parlor where Gauck receives visitors.
In the so-called official room, there are busts of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, the first German president after Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country into exile, on a shelf behind the desk. There are two paintings on the wall: an Italian landscape by a German painter, and a view of Dresden by Canaletto, the Italian painter.
Gauck likes the symbolism. Nations and their people often view both the world and the past from different perspectives. The president says that he doesn't find this disconcerting, because he is aware of the reasons. In 2014, the year of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the eyes of the world will be focused on Germany's head of state. It will be the biggest historical event to date in the 21st century.
And Gauck represents the losers.
More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. Almost one in six men died, and millions returned home with injuries or missing body parts -- noses, jaws, arms. Countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are planning international memorial events, wreath-laying ceremonies, concerts and exhibits, as are faraway nations like New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.
Poles, citizens of the Baltic countries, Czechs and Slovaks will also commemorate the years between 1914 and 1918, because they emerged as sovereign nations from the murderous conflict between the Entente and the Central Powers.
Unthinkable in Germany
In the coming months, World War I will become a mega issue in the public culture of commemoration. The international book market will present about 150 titles in Germany alone, and twice as many in France -- probably a world record for a historic subject. The story of a generation that has long passed on will be retold. New questions will be asked and new debates will unfold. British Prime Minister David Cameron is even making funds available to enable all children attending Britain's government-run schools to visit the battlefields of the Western Front.
A response of this nature would be unthinkable in pacifist Germany.
But Western Europeans paid a higher death toll in World War I than in any other war in their history, which is why they call it "The Great War" or "La Grande Guerre." Twice as many Britons, three times as many Belgians and four times as many Frenchmen died on the Maas and the Somme than in all of World War II. That's one of the reasons, says Gauck in his office in the Hohenzollern palace, why he could imagine "a German commemoration of World War I as merely a sign of respect for the suffering of those we were fighting at the time."
The "Great War" was not only particularly bloody, but it also ushered in a new era of warfare, involving tanks, aircraft and even chemical weapons. Its outcome would shape the course of history for years to come, even for an entire century in some regions.
In the coming weeks, SPIEGEL will describe the consequences of World War I that continue to affect us today: the emergence of the United States as the world's policeman, France's unique view of Germany, the ethnic hostilities in the Balkans and the arbitrary drawing of borders in the Middle East, consequences that continue to burden and impede the peaceful coexistence of nations to this day.
Several summit meetings are scheduled for the 2014 political calendar, some with and some without Gauck. Queen Elizabeth II will receive the leaders of Commonwealth countries in Glasgow Cathedral. Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Slovenia are also planning meetings of the presidents or prime ministers of all or selected countries involved in World War I.
'A Different Nation Today'
August 3 is at the top of Gauck's list. On that day, he and French President François Hollande will commemorate the war dead at Hartmannswillerkopf, a peak in the Alsace region that was bitterly contested by the Germans and the French in the war. The German president is also among the more than 50 heads of state of all countries involved in World War I who will attend a ceremony at the fortress of Liège hosted by Belgium's King Philippe. Gauck, a former citizen of East Germany, sees himself as "the German who represents a different nation today, and who remembers the various horrors that are associated with the German state."
The 73-year-old president hopes that the series of commemorative events will remind Europeans how far European integration has come since 1945. Gauck notes that the "absolute focus on national interests" à la 1914/1918 did not led to happy times for any of the wartime enemies.
But he knows that the memory of the horrors of a war doesn't just reconcile former enemies but can also tear open wounds that had become scarred over. In this respect, the centenary of World War I comes at an unfavorable time. Many European countries are seeing a surge of nationalist movements and of anti-German sentiment prior to elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.
In a recent poll, 88 percent of Spanish, 82 percent of Italian and 56 percent of French respondents said that Germany has too much influence in the European Union. Some even likened today's Germany to the realm of the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Last August, a British journalist emerged from a conversation with the press attaché at the German Embassy in London with the impression that Berlin, in the interest of promoting reconciliation, wanted to take part in commemorative ceremony in neighboring countries. This led to an outcry in the British press, which claimed that the Germans were trying to prevent the British from celebrating their victory in World War I.
Source of Apprehension
Such episodes are a source of apprehension for Gauck. "One can only hope that the voice of the enlightened is stronger today than it was in the period between the two wars."
And if it isn't? "Europe is too peaceful for me to consider the possibility of wartime scenarios once again. Nevertheless, we saw in the Balkans that archaic mechanisms of hate can take hold once again in the middle of a peaceful decade," Gauck warns.
Such "yes, but" scenarios on World War I are often mentioned. In the era of NATO and integrated armed forces, hardly anyone can imagine a war between Europeans. Still, it is possible to sow discord in other ways in the 21st century. Today's equivalent of the mobilization of armed forces in the past could be the threat to send a country like Greece into bankruptcy unless its citizens comply with the demands of European finance ministers. Historians of different stripes note with concern that the course of events in 1914 are not that different from what is happening in Europe today.
Even a century ago, the world was globalized after a fashion. Intercontinental trade was booming, and export quotas were higher than they would be until the era of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germans wore jackets made of Indian cotton and drank coffee from Central America. They worked as barbers in London, bakers in St. Petersburg and maids in Paris, while Poles slaved away in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
Those who could afford it, traveled around Europe, without requiring a passport. Professors corresponded with their counterparts in Oxford or at the Sorbonne, in English and French. The ruling aristocratic families were related to one another. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Britain's King George V and Czar Nikolai II were cousins. They called each other Willy, Nicky and George and saw each other at family events, including the wedding of the Kaiser's daughter in Berlin in 1913.
A Debate over the Beginnings
This raises the question of why, despite the many trans-national connections and interactions, the German attack began on Aug. 4, 1914, when a group of mounted lancers crossed the Belgian border. What was wrong at the cabinet tables of the day? Why did this war claim such horrendously large numbers of victims? And why did it drag on for four long years?
The calamity began when, on June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. A group of Serbian assassins, outfitted by Serbian government officials, was waiting for him.
The young men dreamed of a Greater Serbia that would include the Serbs living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver had to turn his car around after taking a wrong turn, 19-year-old student Gavrilo Princip fired into the open vehicle. His wife, Duchess Sophie, was hit in the abdomen and died on the way to the residence, while the heir to the throne was hit in the neck and bled to death. Three of the conspirators were executed, while others were sentenced to long prison terms.
The assassination is not among the glorious deeds of Serbian history, and at first the mourning Habsburgs had the sympathy of other European leaders. In happy times, the majesties would have gathered at the funeral of the murdered couple and exchanged pleasantries
But the 83-year-old Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, the uncle of Franz Ferdinand, decided to attack Serbia and wipe out the Serbian nationalism that had become a threat to his ailing realm. The monarch, who had been on the throne for 65 years, had already considered waging a war against Belgrade several times in the past. The assassination seemed to confirm the warnings of those advisers who believed that accommodation with Serbia was impossible. World War I "was unleashed, and it was Austria-Hungary that had unleashed it," writes Viennese historian Manfried Rauchensteiner.
Not Just Germany
Words like Rauchensteiner's have revived a debate that had seemed settled long ago. In the 1960s, Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer shocked Germany more than any other historian before or since. Fischer claimed that Berlin's "grasp for world power" was the main, if not the only, reason for the great massacre. After a heated debate among historians, Fischer's claim became the established view.
But just in time for the centenary, new research has raised fundamental questions about this view of events. Historians are not exonerating Kaiser Wilhelm II, who alternated between public bluster and anxious restraint. But they also stress the failures of Russia (US historian Sean McMeekin), France (German historian Stefan Schmidt), Austria-Hungary (Rauchensteiner) or all the major powers combined (Australian author Christopher Clark).
Two ostensibly solid blocs were pitted against each other: the German and Austro-Hungarian empires on one side, and the so-called Entente, consisting of the French Republic, the Russian Empire and the British monarchy, on the other. Even this constellation shows that in 1914, democracy and human rights were not at issue, but rather capitalism and the planned economy.
Although neither of the two sides was planning an attack in the spring, all the major powers viewed war as a legitimate tool of policy and even considered an armed conflict unavoidable in the medium term. The main parties feared for their standing, influence and even existence. France, believing that it had lost the arms race against Germany, urged Russia to exert pressure on Germany from the east. German military leaders assumed that they would be inferior to the Russians on the long term, which suggested that striking quickly would be the best approach. The czar, propelled by the fear that Great Britain could change sides, decided to build up his military strength. And in London, there were fears that the dynamic German Reich would outstrip the British Empire.
Meanwhile, smaller countries like Serbia sought to play off the major powers against one another.
It was a fragile, highly complex system, and controlling it required prudence and foresight. Historian Clark estimates the number of decision-makers in 1914 at several hundred, including monarchs, ministers, military officials and diplomats. They were overwhelmingly older men, and most were aristocrats.
'Quick Fait Accompli'
Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph did not fail to recognize the danger that Russia would come to the aid of its Slavic brothers in Belgrade in the event of an Austrian attack on Serbia. He asked his German allies for support, and on July 5, 1914, the Austrian ambassador called on Kaiser Wilhelm II at the New Palace in Potsdam, outside Berlin.
It's a scenario that often repeats in world politics: For egoistic reasons, a relatively weak country -- Austria-Hungary -- tries to draw a major power and ally -- the German Reich -- into a regional conflict. It wasn't the first time, either, but the Germans had always stepped on the brakes before 1914.
And this time? The Kaiser recognized that Russia was "by no means ready for war." He and his advisers felt that the risks involved in an Austrian blitzkrieg against Belgrade were manageable. "A quick fait accompli and then friendly to the Entente -- that way the shock can be endured," noted Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.
The liberal-conservative lawyer from Brandenburg was a key figure in the so-called July crisis. Contemporaries describe the former civil servant as a conciliatory person and not an agitator. But in the summer of 1914, he agreed with the assessment of German military leaders. If the czar did not flinch, they preferred to attack, as long as St. Petersburg hadn't completed its military buildup. "Better now than later," was the motto of Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian Army.
Today we know that the haste was unfounded and the Russian Empire was a giant with feet of clay. But over lunch with the Viennese ambassador, Wilhelm II issued the so-called blank check, saying that Vienna could count on his "full support," and that Franz Joseph should proceed with his attack on Serbia.
The Kaiser's blank check transformed a local crisis into a European conflict. It was the German Reich's decisive contribution to the "seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century.