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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.

800px-Bain_News_Service_-_The_Library_of_Congress_-_Kaiser_Wilhelm_(LOC)_(pd)

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+

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The War to End All Wars….and a Peace to end all Peace

It was the War to end all war

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent across Western Europe and the war which had killed 16 million soldiers, sailors and civilians and wounded another 21 million more came to an end. It had begun as a conflict in the Balkans which rapidly drew in all of Europe’s major powers.  The central focus of the war was the Western Front where the armies of Germany battled those of Britain, France, Belgium and later the United States.  Battles with names such as the Marne, Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, the Aisne, represented the pinnacle of killing as soldiers battled in the mud of massive trench systems and Generals sacrificing thousands of men in a day for the gain of a few hundred yards of territory throwing them against mountains of barbed wire, landmines, well emplaced machine gun nests and mortars. Massed batteries of artillery tore men to shreds leaving many men so pulverized that they would ever be identified.  Poison gas both choking agents and the long lasting mustard gas added to the hell that was the war in the West.

During the war the war Imperial Russia had fallen to a Communist revolt and surrendered, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in October of 1918 and even the Allies had faced near calamity on the home front. In 1917 the French Army mutinied after years of futility with only Marshal Petain the hero of Verdun able to quell it.

The men who drafted the Peace to end all Peace: Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd George

Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated his throne on November 9th amid a revolution at home which tore the country apart.  The new German Government accepted an armistice in the belief that the Allies would honor President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.  Instead they were subjected to humiliation and starvation as the Allies refused to end their blockade of Germany until the Peace Treaty was signed. Hundreds of thousands more Germans died as a result of starvation and disease as their cities were wracked by violence as order collapsed.  It was the Socialist government which had inherited the country that had to fight the Communists in the streets allying themselves with the Army High Command to form Freikorps from units and individual soldiers under commanders willing to fight.

Soviet style revolution in Germany 1918-1919

In France at the Palace of Versailles the Allies led by the British and French brushed aside Wilson’s attempt at a just peace and placed draconian sanctions on the new German Republic which had no choice but to accept the surrender terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. The Army was to be reduced to 100,000 men with no heavy weapons, the Navy to a token force of obsolete ships, the air force disbanded.  Massive war reparations were imposed which were impossible for the Germans to fulfill and which were only paid off this year.  The final ignominy was the fact that the Germans were forced to bear the sole responsibility for the war. The German economy collapsed in the aftermath, France occupied key German industrial areas in the Saar and Ruhr and the nation fell into more disorder as the Deutschmark lost all of its value as hyperinflation made the money worthless.

Freikorps helped restore order when the Army dissolved

Eventually order returned to Germany with a brief period of relative prosperity which lasted until the world-wide Great Depression which through Germany back into chaos. Government after government was formed and dissolved and the last Chancellors of the Republic were forced to rule under the emergency conditions of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution.  Eventually extremists on the left and the right brought further chaos as the eventually leading President Hindenburg to appoint the Leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP as Chancellor.  We know the rest of the story. A World War that killed far more than the first 22-25 million military and 62-78 million civilians, a war of extermination on the Eastern Front, the Holocaust, and fearful weapons which ushered in the Atomic and Nuclear age.  Europe was shattered, Britain’s wealth drained and empire unsustainable, France divided and impoverished and other nations in political or economic crisis with the Soviets controlling Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain.

Cold War

In Europe and Asia a “Cold War” between the Soviet Communists and the West took the place of the previous war.  The United States would fight wars in Korea and Vietnam while the Soviets would rule with an iron fist in Eastern Europe and at the height of the Cold War invaded Afghanistan.  The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan caused crisis in both the United States and the Soviet Union and Afghanistan helped mark the end of Soviet power and the end of the Soviet Union.

Around the world colonial empires fell through either revolts of colonized people or the abdication of empire by nations exhausted and economically broken by war. The many of the newly free “nations” were artificial and as a result experienced their own civil, tribal and religious conflicts the effects of which are still felt.  The end of the Cold war brought more change and for a time there was a period of American superiority but wars engulfed the Middle East as Iraq attacked its neighbors and was defeated in the Gulf War.  However the effects of that war were felt as Moslem extremists took power in Afghanistan and others including the Yemeni born Saudi Osama Bin Laden began a campaign of terror to drive the United States out of the Middle East that culminated in the attacks of September 11th 2001 and now the war that seems to have no end.

And it was the War to end all war and a peace that ended all hope of peace….God help us as it is unlikely that this war will end anytime soon for us or our allies even if we withdraw from Afghanistan.  Our enemies are too beholden to their ideology to stop their attacks until they win or are destroyed, the war will continue and God only knows how many soldiers and civilians will die in the coming years over 90 years after the War to end all War ended and the Peace to end all Peace began.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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