Germany’s terror of Russia’s military might was a fantasy
She grows and grows, and weighs on us like a nightmare
Daily Express | July 20, 2014
So said the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, about Russia. What particularly caused Bethmann and Imperial Germany troubled sleep was the Russian army, 1.5 million-strong in peacetime.
After full mobilisation, the Russians could put 20 million men in the field. Worse, as far as the German ruling elite was concerned, Russia’s so-called Great Army Programme, enacted in 1913, threatened to wipe out Germany’s speed-of-mobilisation advantage. According to the predictions of the German General Staff the Russians would be unassailable by 1917, at the latest.
So, the men in field-grey decided on a pre-emptive strike and the Bosnian-Serb student drop-out Gavrilo Princip, by shooting Archduke Franz Ferdinand, gave them a useful excuse for war.
Curtailing Russian military strength was just one element of Germany’s war aim in the East, however. An official memorandum written by Bethmann Hollweg, who was one of the milder minds in the Kaiser’s inner circle, urged that Russia “be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken”. Effectively, Russia was to be turned into an agrarian nowhere, the bread basket for the German Mitteleuropa Empire.
Something else lingered in the minds of the German military. Folk memory in the East had kept ethnic embers of hatred burning for centuries. The German Teutons loathed the Slavs (and vice versa).
General Paul von Hindenburg of the German army declared in 1914 that Tannenberg was a “word pregnant with painful recollections for German chivalry… a name that is fresh in our memories”.
The battle of Tannenberg, when the Teutonic Knights were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian army, took place in… 1410.
Pan-Slavism, the ideology of Slavic unity against the Germanic hordes, however, can be overegged. Russian support for Serbia in 1914 was based 100 per cent on pure Realpolitik, namely the need to stop Austro-Hungarian expansion in the Balkans, which St Petersburg considered hers.
A Serbia that was a vassal of Vienna would have been a pique to Russian prestige; national honour mattered in the universe of 1914. Slav brotherhood was way down St Petersburg’s list of casus belli, whereas grabbing a slice of the decaying Ottoman Empire, allied to Germany, was somewhere near the top.
The Russians had their own imperial dream: a drive southwards to the Black Sea.
What is truly staggering about the statesmen who led Europe into war in July 1914 is their wholesale failure of sense. While the Germans harboured a paranoia about the Russian army, the Russians themselves were utterly deluded about their own armed might. It was two sides of the same coin. (Something of the mass, martial hallucination of the Russians is caught in the blithe comment of a senior Imperial commander’s wife to a French diplomat: “There is going to be a war. There will be nothing left of Austria… our armies will meet in Berlin. Germany will be destroyed.”)
Billed as a “steamroller”, the Imperial Russian Army was barely a rolling-pin. As the historian’s joke has it, the Russian army had everything it needed for war in 1914, except for a coherent doctrine, smokeless gunpowder, aircraft, encrypted communications and telephones.
If the American Civil War had augured the industrialisation of killing, the mass-production of weapons of mass killing, the Great War was the full blooming of modern, mechanised slaughter. Yet Russia was wedded to a pre-Napoleonic model of warfare; the key text in Russian military academies was The Science Of Victory by Count AV Suvorov, who died in 1800.
One of Suvorov’s precepts was: “The bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about.” Cold steel before hot lead.
Another idiosyncrasy of the Russian military was a pathological dislike of defence. And so, sending masses of poorly armed Russians against Germans wielding high-tech heavy machine guns had a predictable outcome, as the journalist Karl von Wiegand recorded in October 1914: “The [Russian] men literally went down like dominoes in a row. Those who kept their feet were hurled back as though by a terrible gust of wind.”
Above all, Russia lacked the industrial base for 20th-century warfare, despite two decades of self-serving investment by her ally France. There were 400,000 Russian troops in 1914 without a gun. The sum total of the Imperial Russian Army’s lorries was 418. No Russian soldiers were issued with a metal helmet. Spending on the military had almost halved between 1881 and 1912.
Crucially, Russia lacked the railways to transport troops to the front which, at 1,000 miles in length, was the longest in the war. Germany had 10 times the rail track of Russia. Russian industry was growing like Topsy (another reason for Berlin’s obsessive fear of her neighbour) but was still stuck in the Championship, whereas Germany was economic Premier League.
In the vastness of the Eastern Front millions upon millions died and three empires were brought low; those of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Only the tragedy of the war in Eastern Europe prevents it from reading like black comedy. Composed mainly of conscripted peasants, the Russian army suffered from endemic drunkenness, illiteracy ran at 75 per cent and hunger was standard.
One Austro-Hungarian officer, Octavian Taslauanu, recorded that when his men encountered the Russians in Galicia in 1914 both sides fought over a bread store. Afterwards, the “combatants” sat together munching. “The peasants make peace over bread,” Taslauanu noted. The one army more incompetent than the Tsar’s was the Emperor Josef’s.
One measurement of an army’s morale is the surrender rate. Over the course of the Great War, just six per cent of British troops waved a white flag. In contrast, 50 per cent of the Russian army put up their hands.
There are none so blind as those who have no wish to see. Worried that Germany was mobilising first following the Sarajevo terrorist outrage, the masters of the Imperial Russian Army closed their eyes to their institution’s many weaknesses, then threw restraint to the wind. By July 25 the Russian Council of Ministers had decreed “partial mobilisation”, and obliged the hapless, prevaricating Tsar Nicholas II to ratify the decision.
When General Yanushkevitch, the beardless chief-of-staff and a study in bellicosity, heard the Tsar had finally signed on the dotted line, he declared: “I shall go away, smash my telephone,” to prevent anyone rescinding the mobilisation order.
“Mobilisation” is a weasel-word, since it means, to all intents and purposes, declaration of war. On the sidelines, fanning the Russian ardour for battle was the French president Raymond Poincaré. Of all the men who cheered the guns of war in 1914, Poincaré had the most transparent motive. He was born in Alsace-Lorraine, the territory surrendered to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war. Poincaré was a fanatical French patriot and wanted the “lost” lands back. What strange bedfellows the Great War made: Republican France snuggled up to Tsarist Russia.
No one more willingly swallowed the chimera of Russian military power than the French, who expected the “steamroller” to do the real crushing of the Prussians while they fought choice battles in the West, and seized Alsace-Lorraine back.
La Belle France proved to be an exhausting, demanding amour. No sooner was war declared, than France was demanding action, action, action from Russia. So, hastiness became added to the list of Russian military inanities, rich as it already was. It became richer still: To the post of commander-in-chief of the army the Tsar appointed his cousin, the witless Grand Duke Nicholas.
When the Duke inevitably messed up, the Tsar appointed himself commander-in-chief. Fantastically, he was worse still. The hopelessness of Russian militarism was complete.
During the Great War, the Russians lost almost every engagement against the Germans, although they did rather better against the Austro-Hungarians, who were the Keystone Kops of the Great War’s armed forces.
They have long memories in Eastern Europe and the Russians took a final terrible revenge for the defeats of 1914 in the 1940s. Oddly, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had a premonition it would all go wrong.
When his son asked him whether he should plant elms at the family estate at Hohenfinow in Brandenburg the Chancellor replied no, because elms grow slowly, and the Russians would possess the place in 30 years time. He was right. They did, and they burnt it to the ground.
World War I Anniversary: Five Historians, Two Questions
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty | July 28, 2014
To mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, RFE/RL Balkans Service correspondent Dragan Stavljanin polled a few leading historians of the period to ask about the causes of that tragic conflagration and about possible parallels between that time and the world a century later.
RFE/RL: A century after the outbreak of World War I, can we now answer the eternal question — who was to blame?
John Keiger is a professor of European history and international relations at the University of Cambridge:
It is not clear, even now, the extent to which the powers were, individually, responsible for war. I would suggest, though, that Germany and Austria-Hungary still remain — they are the primary responsible powers. That remains the case today. Overall, in the end, it strikes me that what brings about the war in those last weeks of July and into early August is really a confused group of politicians who are overtaken by events. They are not always aware of what they are doing. They are not always aware of the consequences of their decisions. And, as a consequence of that, they are trapped occasionally into taking decisions which gently, gradually lead to the process of the outbreak of war.
Gerhard Hirschfeld is a professor of history at the University of Stuttgart and the author of numerous books, including "Germany In The First World War."
If you bring down a list of who was responsible, it would always start with the ultimatum sent by the Vienna government to the Serbs and — this is very important — accompanied by the blankoscheck [blank check] given by the German government, which said, "Look, you can do what you want. Settle this Serbian question once and for all." They expected a kind of war in the traditional, 19th-century style. What they got was a new type of war that was almost incomprehensible.
Sean McMeekin is a professor of history at Koc University in Istanbul and author of "The Russian Origins of the First World War" and "July 1914: Countdown to War."
The goal of German and Austrian diplomats following the Sarajevo incident was to try to localize a conflict in the Balkans. Now, this may have been unrealistic, but the ideal scenario in both Berlin and Vienna was for Austria-Hungary to be able to confront Serbia without the other powers intervening. Russia’s own policy or position, of course, was to continentalize the crisis and then the conflict. To make sure that France would get involved, and also Britain. To make sure that if it came to war, Britain and France would fight on their side. So, in this sense, turning it into a European and world conflagration was actually Russia’s policy. That is not to say that Russia bears sole responsibility either. That is to say, it was the combination of the Austro-German response to Sarajevo and then the Russian response to the Austrian move against Serbia. This is what produced the Great War.
Annika Mombauer is a senior lecturer in history at the Open University in London and the author of numerous books and articles on World War I.
Many of the decision makers and, in fact, many ordinary Europeans did feel that war would eventually come. You have to think of another "-ism" — social Darwinism, this belief that nations and peoples are subject to the same biological laws as animals and that they are going to either rise to the top or they are going to be eliminated in a vying for power. There is this sense that if you want to be a great power, you have to eventually fight a war against other powers and, obviously, win that war in order to keep your great power status. There were many decision makers who were quite keen for a war and you can find those people in all capital cities of the great powers. But you do seem to find a lot of them in Vienna and in Berlin. And you find statements such as "Oh, if only the war will come before I retire!’"
Joern Leonhard is a professor of history at the University of Freiburg and the author of numerous books, including "Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War."
I think it is wrong to talk about some sort of unique German war guilt, but we have to talk about different and very often interrelated responsibilities. The talk on German war guilt, which was very much influenced by the Versailles Treaty and the interwar period and the argument that Hitler’s rise was only possible because of this war guilt….
I think this war-guilt discourse has a very moral implication and what we need now is some sort of true historical analysis. And if we do this analysis, I think we will see there are many different responsibilities. There was not only the German blankoscheck for Austria — there was also a Russian blankoscheck for Serbia without which Serbia could not have responded to the ultimatum in the way it did. And there was also a kind of blankoscheck from France for Russia.
RFE/RL: There has been a lot of speculation that the situation around the world now — say, in Ukraine or the dispute between China and Japan over islands and resources in the South China Sea — and the situation in the summer of 1914. Do you see parallels and lessons that can be applied to the world today?
John Keiger: Yes, I’m afraid that, rather pessimistically, I do think that, particularly over Ukraine, but also perhaps over what is going on in the Far East, [where] there is a potential for things to go horribly wrong. One incident in which the pride of a nation becomes implicated — like, for instance, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 — that kind of incident, if it came today, say, the assassination of a major person in Ukraine that immediately brought into play the various external powers, then that could provoke a very serious incident. That does concern me. I don’t think the United Nations would be able to do very much. It is very hard to know, but, for instance, if the Russian ambassador in Ukraine was assassinated, what would happen?
Gerhard Hirschfeld: I don’t see parallels. History does not repeat itself. History is, in a way, dependent on certain factors and conditions that are different from what we used to have. There are no parallels between 1914 and 2014. Having said that, there is one element, however, that, I’m afraid, creates continuity and this is the human factor. People do not change. They have the same feelings, emotions, ambitions, strivings for power. So, when it comes to judging the personal factor, the ambitions of politicians, there I would say is an element of continuity. But the historical context changed dramatically. We didn’t have a NATO in 1914, we didn’t have an OSCE, an EU. We didn’t have international organizations and alliances that are controlling elements of a crisis. You have the same emotions, but not the same conditions and historical structures as in the past.
Sean McMeekin: History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. I see the appeal of these analogies — that China is Germany. But, of course, China could equally well be Russia in 1914. The Russian economy was growing at a rate of about 9 percent a year in 1914. In fact, in many ways, Russia on the eve of World War I was a far better analogy for China today. Supposedly, even if you believe the traditional historiography the whole problem is the growth of Russian power and that was what was actually destabilizing Europe — not the growth of German power. So, sometimes even when we try to learn from history, we draw the wrong analogies and the wrong lessons.
Annika Mombauer: Historians and politicians have often looked back at July 1914 and other historical events in an effort to try and address current crises. I think what is interesting is often the July crisis has been invoked by the media and by politicians and historians with regard to the crisis in Ukraine. I don’t know that we can learn any lessons, but if we can, I think they have been learned because there isn’t a major European war raging at the moment. And I think that must be partly because we do learn from history and we do learn from past mistakes. But I don’t think we can use a crisis in the past and apply it to a crisis now.
Joern Leonhard: We should be careful not to talk about direct analogies. If we look to the summer of 1914, we see factors that help us to better understand the situation at the moment. And the first thing I would mention is the politics of history. There is some sort of imperialism and fear of imperialism after the end of empires. If you look at the situation in Russia, this is a post-imperial state. If you look at the conflict zone from the Baltic states to southeast Europe to the Middle and Far East, it is in a way the shadow zones of the three former empires — the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. And the breaking up of these empires is a legacy of World War I. And in a way you could argue that following World War I, there has been in many ways never been a stable state structure filling the gap that came up after the end of these empires.
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