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- A Short History of the Great War - 2/63 -


the Prussian sword, and it was because the sword could not do the work required of it while it lay in the scabbard that it was drawn in 1914.

Since 1871 the object of every Prussian Government had been to reconcile the German people to the veiled rule of the sword by exhibiting results which, it was contended, could not otherwise have been secured. Historians dwelt on the failure of the German Parliament at Frankfurt to promote a national unity which was left for Prussian arms to achieve, and philosophers deduced from that example a comprehensive creed of might. More material arguments were provided for the man in business and in the street by the skilful activities of the Government in promoting trade, industry, and social welfare; and the wealth, which would in any case have accrued from the removal of the tariff-walls and other barriers between the thirty-nine independent States of Germany, was credited to the particular method of war by which the unification had been accomplished. No State had hitherto made such economic progress as did the German Empire in the generation after Metz and Sedan, and the success of their rulers led most of the German people to place implicit reliance on the testimony those rulers bore to the virtue of their means. The means did not, however, commend themselves to the rest of the world with equal conviction; and an increasing aversion to the mailed fist on the part of other countries led to what Germans called the hostile encirclement of their Fatherland. Gradually it became clearer that Prussian autocracy could not reproduce in the sphere of world-ambitions the success which had attended it in Germany unless it could reduce the world to the same submission by the use of similar arguments.

But still the Prussian Government was driven towards imperialistic expansion by the ever-increasing force of public opinion and popular discontent. It could only purchase renewed leases of autocratic power at home, with its perquisites for those who wielded and supported autocracy, by feeding the minds of the people with diplomatic triumphs and their bodies with new markets for commercial and industrial expansion; and the incidents of military domination grew ever more irksome to the populace. The middle classes were fairly content, and the parties which represented them in the Reichstag offered no real opposition to Prussian ideas of government. But the Social Democrats were more radical in their principles and were regarded by Prussian statesmen as open enemies of the Prussian State. Rather than submit to social democracy Prussians avowed their intention of making war, and war abroad would serve their turn a great deal better than civil strife. The hour was rapidly advancing two years before the war broke out. The German rebuff over Agadir in 1911 was followed by a general election in 1912 at which the Social Democrats polled nearly a third of the votes and secured by far the largest representation of any party in the Reichstag. In 1913, after a particularly violent expression of militarism called "the Zabern incident," the Reichstag summoned up courage for the first time in its history to pass a vote of censure on the Government. The ground was slipping from under the feet of Prussian militarism; it must either fortify its position by fresh victories or take the risk of revolution. It preferred the chances of European war, and found in the Serbian incident a means of provoking a war the blame for which could be laid at others' doors.

The German Kaiser played but a secondary part in these transactions. It is true that the German constitution placed in his hands the command of the German Army and Navy and the control of foreign policy; but no paper or parchment could give him the intellect to direct the course of human affairs. He had indeed dismissed Bismarck in 1890, but dropping the pilot did not qualify him to guide the ship of state, and he was himself in 1906 compelled to submit to the guidance of his ministers. The shallow waters of his mind spread over too vast a sphere of activity to attain any depth, and he had the foibles of Frederick the Great without his courage or his capacity. His barbaric love of pomp betrayed the poverty of his spirit and exhibited a monarchy reduced from power to a pageant. He was not without his generous impulses or exalted sentiments, and there was no section of the British public, from Mr. Ramsay Macdonald to Mr. Rudyard Kipling and the "Daily Mail," to which one or other of his guises had not commended itself; it pleased him to pose as the guardian of the peace of Europe, the champion of civilization against the Boxers, and of society against red revolution. But vanity lay at the root of all these manifestations, and he took himself not less seriously as an arbiter of letters, art, and religion than as a divinely appointed ruler of the State. The many parts he played were signs of versatile emotion rather than of power; and his significance in history is that he was the crest of a wave, its superficial froth and foam without its massive strength. A little man in a great position, he was powerless to ride the whirlwind or direct the storm, and he figured largely in the public eye because he vented through an imperial megaphone the fleeting catchwords of the vulgar mind.

After Agadir he had often been called a coward behind his back, and it was whispered that his throne would be in danger if that surrender were repeated. He had merited these reproaches because no one had done more than he to inflate the arrogance of his people, and his eldest son took the lead in exasperating public opinion behind the scenes. The militarists, with considerable backing from financial and commercial groups, were bent on war, and war appeals to the men in the streets of all but the weakest countries. The mass of the people had not made up their mind for a war that was not defensive; but modern governments have ample means for tuning public opinion, and with a people so accustomed as the Germans to accept the truth from above, their rulers would have little difficulty, when once they had agreed upon war, in representing it as one of defence. It is, however, impossible to say when, if ever, the rulers of Germany agreed to attack; and to the last the Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, struggled to delay if not to avert the breach. But he gradually lost his grip on the Kaiser. The decisive factor in the Emperor's mind may have been the rout in 1912-13 of the Turks, on whom Germany had staked her credit in return for control of the Berlin-Baghdad route; for the free Balkan confederation, which loomed on the horizon, would bar for ever German expansion towards the East. The Balkan States themselves provided the German opportunity; the Treaty of Bukarest in 1913 entrenched discord in their hearts and reopened a path for German ambition and intrigue. Austria, not without the usual instigation, proposed to Italy a joint attack upon Serbia; the offer was not accepted, but by the winter of 1913-14 the Kaiser had gone over to the party which had resolved upon war and was seeking an occasion to palliate the cause.

The immeasurable distance between the cause and the occasion was shown by the fact that Belgium was the first to suffer in an Austro-Serbian dispute; and the universal character of the issue was foreshadowed by the breach of its neutrality. Germany would not have planned for two years past an offensive through that inoffensive, unconcerned, and distant country, had the cause of the war been a murder at Serajevo. The cause was a comprehensive determination on the German part to settle international issues by the sword, and it involved the destinies of civilization. The blow was aimed directly or indirectly at the whole world, and Germany's only prospect of success lay in the chance that most of the world would fail to perceive its implications or delay too long its effective intervention. It was the defect of her self-idolatry and concentration that she could not develop an international mind or fathom the mentality of other peoples. She could not conceive how England would act on a "scrap of paper," and never dreamt of American participation. But she saw that Russia and France would inevitably and immediately be involved in war by the attempt at armed dictation in the Balkans, and that the issue would decide the fate of Europe. The war would therefore be European and could only be won by the defeat of France and Russia. Serbia would be merely the scene of local and unimportant operations, and, Russia being the slower to move, the bulk of the German forces were concentrated on the Rhine for the purpose of overwhelming France.

The condition of French politics was one of the temptations which led the Prussian militarists to embark upon the hazard. France had had her troubles with militarism, and its excesses over the Dreyfus case had produced a reaction from which both the army command and its political ally the Church had suffered. A wave of national secularism carried a law against ecclesiastical associations which drove religious orders from France, and international Socialism found vent in a pacifist agitation against the terms of military service. A rapid succession of unstable ministries, which the group system in French parliamentary politics encouraged, militated against sound and continuous administration; and in April 1914 a series of revelations in the Senate had thrown an unpleasant light upon the efficiency of the army organization. On military grounds alone there was much to be said for the German calculation that in six weeks the French armies could be crushed and Paris reached. But the Germans paid the French the compliment of believing that this success could not be achieved before Russia made her weight felt, unless the Germans broke the international guarantees on which the French relied, and sought in Belgium an easier and less protected line of advance than through the Vosges.

For that crime public opinion was not prepared either in France or England, but it had for two years at least been the settled policy of the German military staff, and it had even been foretold in England a year before that the German attack would proceed by way of Liège and Namur. There had also been military "conversations" between Belgian and British officers with regard to possible British assistance in the event of Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality. But the Belgian Ministry was naturally reluctant to proceed far on that assumption, which might have been treated as an insult by an honest or dishonest German Government; and it was impossible for England to press its assistance upon a neutralized State which could not even discuss it without casting a slur upon the honour of its most powerful neighbour. Nor was England bound by treaty to defend the neutrality of Belgium. She had been so bound by a treaty concluded during the Franco-Prussian War; but that treaty expired in the following year, and the treaty of 1839, which regulated the international situation of Belgium, merely bound the five great signatory Powers not to violate Belgian neutrality without obliging them individually or collectively to resist its violation. It was not in fact regarded in 1839 as conceivable that any of the Great Powers would ever violate so solemn a pledge, and there was some complacent satisfaction that by thus neutralizing a land which had for centuries been the cockpit of Europe, the Powers had laid the foundations of permanent peace. But the bond of international morality was loosened during the next half-century, and in the eighties even English newspapers argued in favour of a German right-of-way through Belgium for the purposes of war with France. It does not appear that the treaty was ever regarded as a serious obstacle by the German military staff; for neither treaties nor morality belong to the curricula of military science which had concluded that encirclement was the only way to defeat a modern army, and that through Belgium alone could the French defence be encircled. The Chancellor admitted that technically Germany was wrong, and promised full reparation after the war. But he was never forgiven the admission, even by German jurists, who argued that treaties were only binding rebus sic stantibus, while the conditions in which they were signed remained substantially the same; and Germans had long cast covetous eyes on the Congo State, the possession of which, they contended, was inconsistent with Belgium's legal immunity from attack in Europe.

The opposition of Bethmann-Hollweg and the German foreign office was accordingly brushed aside, and the army made all preparations for an invasion of France through Belgium. The diplomatists would have made a


A Short History of the Great War - 2/63

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