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The Peril of Preventive War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

About this time of month one hundred and one years ago the armies of Europe were beginning a four-year bloodletting that killed over ten million soldiers and resulted in twenty million other deaths. That war spawned other wars and conflicts the world over, some of which still go on today. Since I have been to war in Iraq, a war that if we took international law and war crimes seriously would be considered illegal under the codes that we tried the major German and Japanese war criminals under at the end of the Second World War, I take war, and going to war very seriously.

The beginning of the First World War provides an example for us of how out of control things can get when leaders opt for war when doing the hard work to keep the peace is much more in their interests.

The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

One of the premier military and political theorist who has ever lived, Carl von Clausewitz “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Sadly, few political leaders take his advice.

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives. One hundred and one years ago this week the armies nations of Europe were beginning clashing on the frontiers of France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. Their leaders were hell bent on waging a war that all thought would be short, decisive and end in victory for their side. The leaders were wrong and nearly a century later the world still pays the price for their misplaced beliefs and hubris of those men.

It was a war in large part brought on by the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular it was the decisions of the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph which plunged the world into a world war which spawned revolutions, regional wars, a second world war, a cold war and countless other wars. The decisions were based on the belief, still common today that war is the only means of politics.

Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hötzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold that doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Cheque

 The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

 

Austrian Reservists going to war

 The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

Cheering crowds in Petersburg

The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

 The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness” of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

French Soldiers being cheered

Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote, “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Those that counsel “preventive wars” need to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary, world war one

A Wrong Turn, a Holy Cause and Two Bullets: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” Barbara Tuchman

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was eager to leave Sarajevo. He had opposed the empire’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it occurred in 1908 as a “needless provocation of the South Slavs” and their Russian supporters, he knew that the action was “a diplomatic time bomb that could go off at any time.” He had come to Bosnia to help win over the loyalty of the resentful populace and in a sense to consecrate Austrian rule over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Franz Ferdinand 

The visit included military maneuvers in the western part of the province away from Serbia to be less provocative, as well as motorcades and official visits to political officials and cultural venues. The Archduke brought with him his beloved wife, Sophie. His marriage to her was looked upon with scorn by hie father Emperor Franz Josef I and the royal family. Sophie, though a child of obscure Czech nobility she and her family were too impoverished for the Hapsburgs, likewise the relationship was scandalous because Sophie had been the lady in waiting to the Hapsburg archduchess who Franz was supposed to marry. He was forced to sign an “Oath of Renunciation” in which he declared that their children would be excluded from imperial succession.

Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

 

Last Meeting with Sarajevo Mayor and Religious leaders 

The final day of the royal visit to the region was Sunday June 28th. The date coincided with the signature of the oath of renunciation as well as a Serbian holy day, the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. In that battle the Turks had destroyed independent Serbia. However, that it was and still considered a symbol of national pride and resistance for Serbians, as a Serbia knight had killed Ottoman Sultan Murad I during the battle. Likewise, June 28th 1914 was the celebration of St Vitus day, or Vidovdan, the day set aside by Serbian government and religious authorities as consecrated to all those who sacrificed their lives for the faith and the fatherland. For Serbian radials and nationalists the establishment of a Greater Serbia and the liberation of Bosnia from Austria was a holy cause, that they were willing to give their lives to achieve.

The visit and itinerary had been planned and published for months, and some Serbs began planning to assassinate the Archduke. Members of the militant-terrorist group the Black Hand and its Bosnian offshoot Narodna Odbrana assisted by Serbian military officers developed plans assisted three conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Chabrinovitch and Trifko Grabezh with travel, weapons and training to accomplish their mission. Once across the border and in Bosnia they linked up with other conspirators where they planned the assassination attempt.

By the final night Franz was ready to leave, and was heard to say “thank God this Bosnian trip is over.” He would have left with the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf, but stayed because he was “warned that breaking off the Sunday program would damage Austria’s prestige in Bosnia.”

The next morning was uneventful until the Archduke’s motorcade was attacked by a local conspirator who threw a bomb which deflected off the Archduke and his car and blew up under the next car in the motorcade at 10 a.m. The Archduke stopped to check on the wounded and proceeded to city hall mayor and Christian, Moslem and Jewish religious leaders. It was an awkward meeting considering the attempt on his life and following it, he and his party left first to visit the military hospital where the wounded had been taken and then to a final luncheon, a last minute change to the itinerary, skipping a museum visit. However, the word of the route change did not reach the first two vehicles made a wrong turn, and in the confusion as the motorcade attempted to reverse course the Archduke’s vehicle stopped for a few seconds, not more than 8 feet from Princip just after 11 a.m. The Bosnia was surprised by the sudden opportunity and quickly fired two shots from his Browning FN Model 1910 pistol, one which struck Franz in the neck and the other which struck Sophie in the abdomen and by 11:30 both were dead.

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Gavrilo Princip after his arrest

In the days and weeks that followed the nations of Europe, each for their own reasons negotiated, threatened and finally mobilized for war, a war that would destroy the political order of Europe that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic wars, kill nearly 17 million people and wound 20 million more. The peace that followed was fraught with peril and followed by a second even more destructive world war in which and estimated 50 to 80 million people were killed, and millions more wounded.

The consequences of those wars, and the Cold War that followed are with us even today. Among the empires that died in the First World War was the Ottoman Empire, whose remains were divided between the English and French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement’s arbitrary and indiscriminate redrawing of national boundaries is a large part of the reason for the current unrest in the Middle East, especially the civil war in Syria and the Sunni-Shia war in Iraq.

A wrong turn and two bullets, followed by the and the rest is a century of war, desolation and carnage. Otto von Bismarck had said that “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The results of the war caused by “some silly thing in the Balkans” are still felt, including the psychological and spiritual effects on peoples and nations. Barbara Tuchman wrote of the period after the First World War: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”

It is sobering to think and reflect on how a wrong turn, a holy cause and two bullets can bring about so much death, destruction and instability.

Peace

Padre Steve+

7 Comments

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1914: The Beginning of a Century of War

worldwar1-battlefield

This year marks the centennial of the onset of the First World War, a war which ushered in the world that we live today.  It was a war which changed warfare, a war which destroyed a long standing social and political order, a war that radically re-drew national boundaries and a war which planted the seeds of both freedom and tyranny, peace and more war. It was a war like no other before it. 

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It lasted four years and was fought in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as at sea in every corner of the globe. It was a war which introduced humanity to the full effect of industrialized warfare, carnage on a vaster scale than had ever been seen, and the introduction of aircraft, submarines, tanks and poisoned gas as instruments of war. It was the birth of a new era of war. 

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In terms of the human cost it changed war, amplifying the carnage of the U.S. Civil war by an unimaginable magnitude.  Firepower and weaponry had advanced exponentially in the intervening years, but offensive tactics had remained as they were before.  Military experts remained in denial about the changes, even when the evidence was before their eyes. Regiments charged into battle shoulder to shoulder, relaying on élan to overcome firepower, the French Army outfitted in bright blue uniforms with red trousers and kepi forage hats valiantly attacking German’s outfitted in field gray.  Cavalry retained its place on the battlefield for a brief moment, Uhlans, Lancers, Cuirassiers and Dragoons charged about but found that the modern battlefield was not their place. 

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Old Generals looked to the past for answers, and found none while remaining in denial about the power of the weapons and technology their troops faced. Field Marshal Douglas Haig said in 1915, after nearly 2 million men had fallen on the Western Front The machine gun is a much over rated weapon...”

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But as the war progressed the instruments of war, particularly the artillery became the weapon of choice for commanders. The symbolism of the massive French Memorial at Verdun, it’s spire shaped like an artillery round is an apt reminder of the power of artillery during the war and the reliance of the combatants on it.

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The human cost was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

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The United States, though a late entry into the war suffered 323,000 casualties of over 4.3 million men called to arms in barely a year of combat, most occurring in the summer and fall of 1918.

Erich Maria Remarque wrote of the carnage and casualties in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

The war brought about the overthrow of Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The resultant break up of those empires brought freedom for some in Europe, a change in colonial masters for others in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as civil war, failed attempts at democracy and the establishment of Communist or Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Russia. 

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The promise of a just peace died at the hands of the victors, and the conditions of peace as well as the unrest in Europe eventually brought about another even more horrific Second World War. It was a war to end all war, but the peace became a peace to end all peace.

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The young men who fought the war had hoped for better, but it was not to be. T. E. Lawrence, or as he is often known “Lawrence of Arabia” wrote after the war:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

I will be writing a lot about this war in 2014. It is something that we cannot forget. The world today is much like it was in 1914. There have been many small wars in far off places fought by a few professionals of the great powers. Tensions rise as established nations and empires shrink and new powers rise to challenge them. The terrible peace and the borders established by Sykes-Picot continue to bring war and misery to the world today.

What I write will include stories of soldiers, battles, weapons and diplomacy and the cost of war.  I will do so because it is still pertinent, it still matters. The terrible costs need to be recounted, because our world could easily fall into a similar tragedy.  

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British historian Max Hastings wrote about the changes in Europe leading up to the World War, noting that they occurred in approximately the same span of time as have transpired since the attacks of September 11th 2001. Hasting records in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War that “Austrian writer Carl von Lang wrote early in 1914: “There is a feeling that events re in the air; all that is unpredictable is their timing. Perhaps we will see several more years of peace, but it is equally possible that overnight some tremendous upheaval will happen.”  

Otto von Bismarck prophetically wrote: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” In July 1914, in the provincial town of  Sarajevo, the assassination of an unappreciated and unloved Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was likely the one man in that country who would have tried to avoid war, proved to be the match that lit the kindling which set off the conflagration of the First World War. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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August 1914: The Beginning of a Century of Disasters

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The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Carl Von Clausewitz

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives. Ninety-nine years ago this week the nations of Europe were hell bent on waging a war that all thought would be short, decisive and end in victory for their side. They were wrong and nearly a century later the world still pays the price for their misplaced beliefs and hubris of those men.

It was a war in large part brought on by the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Baron Conrad von Hotzendorf

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

 It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular it was the decisions of the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph which plunged the world into a world war which spawned revolutions, regional wars, a second world war, a cold war and countless other wars. The decisions were based on the belief, still common today that war is the only means of politics.

WIK_Franz-Joseph_ca-1910[1]

Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

 Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hotzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold which doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

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Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Checque

 The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

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Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

 German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

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Austrian Reservists going to war

 The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill-prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

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Cheering crowds in Petersburg

 The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

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German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

 The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

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French Soldiers being cheered

 Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

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A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Those that counsel “preventive wars” need to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under History, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Days of Disastrous Decision Making: July 28th – August 4th 1914

The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Carl Von Clausewitz 

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives.

It was a war in large part brought on by a declining empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular the Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph.

Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hotzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold which doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Checque

The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” 

Austrian Reservists going to war

The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill-prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

Cheering crowds in Petersburg

The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

French Soldiers being cheered

Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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