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Character and Leadership: Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Theodore Roosevelt noted: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

As the dual crises of indictments and potential nuclear war swirl around the White House I think that it is important to see the President’s words and actions in light of a number of factors. One of those, as Theodore Roosevelt noted is character. Thus it is important to know how the character other leaders at other times influenced how they treated people, reacted to criticism, and led their nations.

In the American experience one is hard pressed to find a President with a similar temperament and character that corresponds to Donald Trump. Yes, Nixon had some similarities, Jackson as well, but both men even at their worst did, at least in public restrain themselves and Nixon, when confronted with the reality of certain impeachment did the country a favor by resigning.

But that was a different time. There were leaders in the Republican Party who chose to honor the Constitution and their oaths over blind party loyalty or their determination to pass a certain legislative act. Their resistance to President Nixon was instrumental in his resignation in 1974. But there seem to be few current members of the GOP congressional delegations willing to stand either for fear of the Trump base, or blind determination to press on with tax cuts even if it means the sacrifice of the Constitution, nuclear war, or their own integrity.

But I do think that there is a leader who in temperament was much like President Trump, who ended up helping to lead his nation and the world to the abyss of World War. That is not Adolf Hitler who many people often compare the President. I think that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his reliance on his radicalized base, including armed mobs in the street, and hyper-partisan allies in the right wing media, especially Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp which serves as his de-facto state media are similar, but they do not speak to the President’s unstable, narcissistic, and paranoid behaviors. I think that the better comparison is to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with whom the President seems to share many similarities.

In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark wrote of Wilhelm in words that are strikingly reminiscent of the President.

“It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.

‘I am the sole master of German policy,’ he remarked in a letter to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go”

“Wilhelm frequently –especially in the early years of his reign –bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with the prevailing policy.

“It was in this last area –the unauthorized exposition of unsanctioned political views –that the Kaiser achieved the most hostile notice, both from contemporaries and from historians. There can be no doubt about the bizarre tone and content of many of the Kaiser’s personal communications in telegrams, letters, marginal comments, conversations, interviews and speeches on foreign and domestic political themes. Their exceptional volume alone is remarkable: the Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for posterity…”

Max Hastings wrote that Wilhelm “was a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.” Sean McMeekin in his book July 1914 wrote that Wilhelm had an “insecurity complex, a need for constant attention and acclaim. As one of his many critics put it, the kaiser needed to be “the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” He also noted “Eager for praise, taking offense at the merest slight, the kaiser was a difficult man to work for. Bismarck had disdained to gratify Wilhelm II’s fragile ego after he became emperor in 1888, which led to his sacking two years later.”

Like President Trump the Kaiser did experience some push back from different governmental ministers, and was somewhat restrained during the month leading up to the war, but his constant belligerence, instability, and unscripted remarks helped set the diplomatic and governmental crisis that led to the war. Of course this was not his fault alone, the Austrian-Hungarians, Serbians, Russians, French, and British all had a hand, but the Kaiser, through his words and actions during the three decades preceding the war bears much responsibility for what happened in 1914. If the Kaiser had had a Twitter account he would have certainly used it in a similar manner to President Trump.

But Germany had no checks and balances to restrain Wilhelm. He was an absolute monarch. Americans do still have institutional checks and balances to Presidential overreach or abuses should we choose to follow the Constitution, but for that to happen the leadership of the Republican Party must also act, as did their predecessors during the Nixon administration to put principle or party, and rule of law over blind obedience. This is not about partisanship; it is about the Constitution, our form of government, and yes, even the prevention of nuclear war.

Character and temperament are very important in times of crisis and elevated tensions. Character is also fate. We should all tremble when we think of the lack of character and maturity shown by our President.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Of Hubris, Hurricanes, Hydrogen Bombs, and Harder Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I got five mile walk in with my dogs Minnie and Izzy along the Potomac River and has a good amount of time to enjoy them, to take in the woods and wildlife, and to do some thinking. As I walked in the quiet with my girls I thought about what I wrote yesterday about the blessings of solitude. Going out with them meant that I had time to think and ponder a number of crises that have the possibility of impacting all of our lives in major ways and the hubris, arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence of the so called leader of the free world. Max Hastings description of Kaiser Wilhelm II is frighteningly descriptive of President Trump: “a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.”

First, there was the catastrophe of Hurricane Harvey with the massive destruction to Houston and much of East Texas to which despite two visits to the region the President still seems emotionally untouched by. Then, after North Korea tested a missile that could hit the United States I conducted a test of its largest nuclear weapon to which after he made his obligatory angry tweets to North Korea, President Trump then both threatened and scolded South Korea.

Now there is the real possibility of another natural disaster as Hurricane Irma bears down of the Southeastern or Gulf Coast of the United States as a major, possibly category four or five storm capable of massive destruction and loss of life, and the realization that we have a President that only seems to see these crises in the light of self-promotion and how they make him appear, and the realization that most people do not prepare themselves for worst case scenarios.

This is nothing new, Barbara Tuchman wrote of an earlier generation “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Likewise over the weekend I have been doing a lot of reading. I finished Max Hastings book about the opening months of the First First World War, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Bradley Gottfried’s annotated atlas of the Battle of Antietam, The Maps of Antietam, which was helpful as I walked the battlefield on Thursday, Meg Groeling’s The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial,of the Civil War Dead, and Breaking Point of the French Army: the Nivelle Offensive of 1917 by David Murphy. All three books to some extent dealt with the hubris of leaders and the human cost of war. Likewise, my walk of the Antietam battlefield was a good way for me to put both hubris and the human cost of war into perspective.

While natural disasters cannot be avoided they can certainly be mitigated if leaders and people are willing to do the hard thing prepare for worst case scenarios. What happened with Hurricane Harvey is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and even for the region to partially recover. Houston will rebuild, and recover but many of the poorer small towns down the Gulf Coast of Texas will not. As I write this the potential damage and loss of life to whatever section of the East Coast or the Gulf Coast that Irma hits will be substantial.

As for North Korea, it seems that the President is determined to provoke the already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula by not only threatening North Korea, but our ally South Korea as well. I don’t know about you but my training as a young officer on the Fulda Gap during the peak of the Cold War taught me to prepare for the worst and I don’t see the leaders of our country or for that matter most people planning, or even thinking about how bad this could get. My motto is that of Hannah Arendt “Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes,” to which I would add be flexible.

My hope is that Irma will turn away from land and head into the vast reaches of the North Atlantic, but with every new update I see the possibility that as with Harvey, millions of real people are going to have their lives upended. The same is true if the situation on the Korean Peninsula comes to war. It’s just the way I think, and I would rather be ready and have done my best to prepare for the worst case scenario hoping that it never comes to pass, than through a lack of planning, inaction, and careless words or gestures make things exponentially worse.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“The Unfolding of Miscalculations” With Fire and Fury…


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…” 

Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles. 

The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.” 

Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.” 

Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party. 

Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said:  “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”

In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury. 


By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted. 

Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other. 

The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:

“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”

Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.” 

Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.” 

I only wonder what miscalculation will be next. 

Until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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“Everything Tends Toward Catastrophe and Collapse…” The Trumpian World Order


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On the night of July 28th 1914, as Europe slipped into the embrace of war, Winston Churchill, in one of his less statesmanlike moments wrote his wife: “Everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse… I am interested, geared-up and happy.”

One hundred and three years ago the nations of Europe were careening towards war, a war that would destroy the old order, devastate the flower of European youth, energize revolutionary movements on the far left and far right, and impact the world up to today. The war which began with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declaring war on Serbia two days prior would eventually claim 20 million dead and another 21 million wounded. It would be followed by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, and massive political, geographical, and economic crises which led to the Second World War Two decades after the Treaty of Versailles. 

The outbreak of the war was the result of a complex web of personalities, politics, prejudices, and per-conceived fixed notions, and wrong-headed assumptions by the leaders and the peoples of the nations involved. In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 Christopher Clark wrote:

“Moreover, the complexity of the 1914 crisis arose not from the diffusion of powers and responsibilities across a single politico-financial framework, but from rapid-fire interactions among heavily armed autonomous power-centres confronting different and swiftly changing threats and operating under conditions of high risk and low trust and transparency.” 

As they moved ever closer to calamity many could not believe that disaster was hanging over them as surely as the Sword of Damocles. Barbara Tuchman noted: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

The world that we live in is much like that of August 1914, as Clark describes them. Unklike 1914, when the United States was an emerging power on the periphery of the conflict, the United States is the great power, with a Navy like Britian’s and Army like Imperial Germany’s, but with a leader who does not seem to be able to control himself from his worst instincts. 

I shudder as I watch the regime of President Trump descend into self-inflicted chaos driven by the whims of a narcissistic President who has no capacity for self-reflection, who relishes in humiliating those who are most loyal to him, and who lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land of fact-free paranoid fantasies run amok, at the very point the country’s most dangerous potential adversaries threaten at every corner of the globe and long-standing allies wonder what has happened to the United States. Tuchman described the President, who she never met, in his domestic and foreign policies, when she wrote: 

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” 

One hundred and three years ago far more able men than this President were making decisions based on their own self-deception and unwillingness to face the facts that we staring them in the face. Believing that victory would be quick and their cause vindicated governments mobilized their fleets and armies, and began to declare war. 

President Trump, who ironically avoid serving in the military believes in military power and surrounds himself in with Generals and military hardware. At the commissioning ceremony of the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford he said “When it comes to battle, we don’t want a fair fight. We want just the opposite. We demand victory, and we will have total victory, believe me.” He reflected that belief this week when in tweeting about banning transgender persons from the military he said “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory…” even as he weakens our alliances, praises dictators, and his Secretary of State continues to erode the country’s diplomatic power. It is as if he is determined to find a war in which he will be remembered as a great warlord, like Kaiser Wilhelm II envisioned himself. 

As I observe the actions of our President in relation to our enemies and allies alike and watch their response to him, I am reminded of Tuchman’s description of Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War, “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.” 

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but every night I go to bed wondering if early the next morning the President will tweet us into a war. Likewise I wonder what the President will do if Kim Jong Un will fire the missile that brings Armageddon to an American city, or a terrorist group finally succeeds in detonating a weapon of mass destruction on American soil. The latter question is not just how he will respond militarily, but rather how far he will go in curtailing political dissent, free speech, and civil rights. I wonder if the President, to use the words of a less experienced and statesmanlike Churchill is geared up and happy as events tend toward catastrophe and collapse. 

Anyway, for now I’ll do my best to remain hopeful that disaster can be avoided but with every passing day I get more concerned about the future of the country and the world. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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Busting National Myths

In light of the many historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by pseudo “historians” like the infamous David Barton it is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens. Some myths can be positive and inspiring, but others can lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents. They also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.

Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive. Such was the case in Germany following the First World War.

After the war the certain parts of the German political right posited that the German Army was not defeated by the Allied powers, but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left. But such was not the case the German Army was on the verge of collapse.

Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth. It is true that there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II, including the mutiny  of the German High Seas Fleet, as well as Army units stationed in Germany. However, in truth, the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918, the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.

The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the crisis which Ludendorff suffered what could be called an emotional collapse and  was relieved of his duty. His successor, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted that the Kaiser Wilhelm abdicate his throne.

The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages because to not sign was to have the Allies resume the war against Germany.

The treaty required the Germany to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle, and pay massive reparations to the Allies. The  legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany during the chaotic years of the Weimar Republic.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to battlefield losses or the entry of the United States.  He made the “stab in the back” a staple of his attacks on the Republic. This was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.

The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.

Thus for Hitler, the Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey noted Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.” (Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel wrote about the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295)

Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth.

Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events.

The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.

The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world. Sadly in the case of the United States, a portion of the political Right,  mostly found in the conservative Christian elements of the Tea Party movement are spreading their own version of the “stab in the back.” They blame Democrats, liberals, atheists, racial and religious minority groups, educators, labor unions and a host of others for the calamities that those that they have supported: the big banks and financial instructions that collapsed the economy in 2008, the politicians of the Republican Party who took the country into an unwise, unjust and illegal war in Iraq that not only cost many American lives and treasure but brought on the crisis that has led to the advance and power of the Islamic State, and the list can go on and on, and includes social issues, race, education, and even religion. But ignoring the responsibility of those they support,mother create myth, and cast blame on everyone but themselves.

That myth that they preach has become a staple of our political crisis. It is little differnt in tenor and intent of those who promoted the stab in the back myth during the Weimar Republic.

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.

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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.

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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+

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