The Calm Before the Storm
Last week, we discussed what, I think it is fair to say, was the most important military and political conflict in the leadup to 1914: The Franco-Prussian War. Today, we are going to mostly wrap up our first arc in this series setting the stage for the First World War. I say mostly wrap up, because next week I want to take a brief look at the history of European colonialism in the 19th century, so we can understand just why Algerian soldiers were fighting the Germans in 1870, and why Indian forces will be fighting in Belgium in 1914. Also, because, the course of 19th century colonialism is an important reason that leads into the friction between the “Entente” and “Central Powers” in 1914, and because colonialism has critical historical legacies all its own. But that is for next week.
Today, we are going to take a look at the social, political, and diplomatic developments in Europe, and specifically in our five Great Powers, during the late 19th century by way of five big events, one in each of our Great Powers, that are emblematic of that social, political, and diplomatic development. I call this episode “The Calm Before the Storm,” to emphasize the fact that in this forty-odd period, no military clashes between the Great Powers of Europe took place, as they sized one another up and waited for an opportunity to strike at their rivals. But as we shall see, this period from about 1871 to 1914 was not particularly calm in Europe, nor the rest of the world, nor would it be without military conflicts. But we’ll get into that.
So first, let us very briefly discuss the general social and political trends of this era, and by that of course I mean: the industrial revolution. All of Europe during this time period was rapidly modernizing and industrializing, as well as growing in population.
Looking just at our five great powers, we can see that the population of France grew by 10% from 1870-1910, Britain 31%, Austria-Hungary 39%, Germany 61%, and Russia fully 90%! And these tens and then hundreds of millions of people were less and less likely to be employed in the trades of their parents, that is subsistence farming and artisanal craftsmanship. Just looking at Germany, by the 1890s nearly half of all Germans lived in towns of more than 5,000 people, rather than in small peasant villages as they had for centuries. All industrial or industrial adjacent activities skyrocketed during the life of the German Empire before the First World War: mining, especially of coal; steel and iron production, and factory manufacturing.
All of this, as any of you who know anything about the industrial revolution, had a human cost. People employed in factories worked dirty, dangerous, and menial jobs for up to 60-70 hours per week (and overtime pay was not yet a thing). There were virtually no safety standards nor minimum wage laws, and sanitation and living conditions for these workers was just abysmal. This is all important to keep in mind as we look at the social and political developments in Europe at this time, and as we see who will make up the soldiery and the workforce during the First World War.
So let us now discuss the newly established German Empire in more detail. Though in 1871 the long sought after dream of German nationalists had finally been achieved, not (as Bismarck predicted) through “speeches and majority decisions” but by “iron and blood,” the new German Empire was in many ways a very strange state with many internal contradictions. Some of these contradictions were shared with other European countries, while others were uniquely German. In his cleverly titled book, “The German Empire: 1871-1918,” historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler makes the point several times that while Germany was at the forefront of the industrial revolution during the latter years of the 19th century, it was ruled by an absolutist-minded dynasty that largely adhered to the political and social ideals of the past: a divinely appointed monarch ruling over his happy subjects, served by a loyal military aristocracy.
This absolutist, almost feudal, bent of the German Imperial family was at odds not only with German economic and social life, but with its political structure. The Constitution of the German Empire, signed on April 16, 1871, is by any standard a fairly modern sounding document. It lays out the formal separation of powers both between the governments of the various states and of the central government, as well as among the various branches of government. All laws were to be written by a two house legislature – a Bundesrat or Federal Council consisting of members appointed by the rulers of each individual state, and a Reichstag or Imperial Diet elected on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. Seats in both of these bodies were apportioned mostly on the basis of population, and the Emperor (or Kaiser, in German) could not simply dismiss these bodies at his pleasure. There is a section regarding how the constitution would be amended, a provision that was utilized several times in the life of the German Empire, the Emperor could not declare war without the approval of the Bundesrat, and the legislature held the power of the purse, that is the final power over all issues of taxation and budgets.
The German Emperors, whom we will discuss more later on, largely did not care much about these rapid changes, nor in how the electoral laws of the modern state they ruled allowed for challenges to their authority. And there were others in the Empire who shared their views. A German schoolteacher from the region of Posen (modern Poznań in Poland) wrote a letter to the Bundesrat in 1882 calling for the abolition of universal manhood suffrage. He argued that before 1848, when giving the mass of the people the right to weigh in on politics was unthinkable, his local town had been free of internal strife and party bickering, and wanted to return to a time when the people were happy and docile.
So let us now turn to an event that, in my personal opinion, would prove to be a debilitating and perhaps fatal disaster for the new German Empire. On March 9, 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first emperor of the German Empire, died just shy of his 91st birthday. Now this, in and of itself, was not a huge problem. As we know, Wilhelm had a mature and highly capable son, Friedrich, who was soon crowned as Friedrich III (for the record, that name refers to the fact that he was Friedrich III of Prussia, German Imperial regnal names still referring to their hold of the royal Prussian throne). However, just a few months later, the new Emperor Friedrich suddenly died due to complications from throat cancer. Thus, the Imperial crown passed to his son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom I assume most of you have heard of.
Now I want to make this really clear, that what I am about to say is not settled historical fact but is rather my own personal opinion. But in my opinion, the death of Friedrich and the ascension of Wilhelm II was a disaster for Germany. This is not to ascribe to some kind of great man theory of history; the problems that Germany will face up to and during the First World War were not the fault of any single individual, nor could they have been solved by any individual. Germany’s place on the map, wedged between two great powers on each side, namely France and Russia, the contradictions with in its constitutional and political system, its military reputation, and the anxiety all powers in Europe had about its unification, all of this played a much bigger role in Germany’s dilemma in 1914 than which individual happened to sit on the throne. But the position of Kaiser was not without power and influence, and who sat upon the imperial throne did play a big role in shaping both domestic and international policy. And in my opinion, Germany would have been in a much stronger and, more importantly, less confrontational situation in the twilight of the 19th century had Friedrich sat upon the throne rather than his son Wilhelm.
Friedrich, as we saw last week, was a not only an able military commander but also a shrewd and perceiving politician. His analysis of Germany’s reputation following the Franco-Prussian War, wherein he said, “at the moment it seems as though we are neither loved nor respected, only feared,” was right on the money. And he likely could have spearheaded a diplomatic campaign to reduce tensions between Germany and her various rivals. But in these critical years, from the late 1880s up to 1914, Germany was led not by an intelligent and erudite statesman with a firm military reputation to secure the loyalty of his soldiers, but by a belligerent crank with a chip on his shoulder.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was a bit of an odd duck. There has been a lot written about what exactly made the new German Emperor tick, and I hope to flesh out some of those theories in future episodes. Briefly, Wilhelm Viktor Albert von Hohenzollern was born in the Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin on January 27, 1859. His father was the aforementioned Prince Friedrich, and his mother was none other than Victoria, known affectionately as ‘Vicky,’ the eldest child of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. The young prince was born to healthy parents in an obviously quite lavish household, however his birth was met with early tragedy. You see, Wilhelm was born with a condition called Erb’s Palsy. Not to get too deep into medical terminology, where I would be far out of my depth, but basically during Wilhelm’s birth his left arm was severely damaged, leaving it withered, eventually six inches shorter than his right arm, and all but unusable.
This seems to have not only been traumatic for the infant, and eventually child-aged Wilhelm, but was also deeply grieving to his mother, Princess Victoria. Many historians have commented on Wilhelm’s relationship with his mother, noting that Victoria seems to have viewed her disabled son Wilhelm as a personal failure, as it was her duty as Princess to produce a strong male heir, while Wilhelm grew deeply attached to and perhaps even a little obsessed with his mother, who perhaps denied the young prince badly needed maternal attention. I won’t speculate any further on that, as I would once again be out of my depth, but suffice it to say that Wilhelm had some emotional baggage from very early on in his life.
This baggage, both his withered arm and the lack of attention he received from his mother, coupled with a naturally eccentric personality, led Wilhelm to develop something of an inferiority complex. Almost every single historian and biographer who talks about Wilhelm II notes this inferiority complex; throughout his entire life he was obsessed with proving that he was a strong ruler and that Germany was a strong nation. This led Wilhelm to make a series of disastrous mistakes in the first half of his rule, to say nothing of his possible role in sparking the First World War, which I won’t talk about here as we will be discussing that in detail in the next few episodes.
As I see it, Wilhelm made three big mistakes in the early stages of his reign as Emperor of Germany, the first of which in my opinion was the worst and which we will focus on. These three mistakes were the dissolution of a Russo-German alliance, the sacking of Bismarck as Chancellor of the German Empire, and the starting of a naval arms race with Great Britain. The last of these we will discuss more in a bit, and the sacking of Bismarck was, in my opinion, not as big of a blunder as it is often presented. When sacked, in 1890, Bismarck was already in his dotage and had publicly feuded with the young Kaiser Wilhelm. His removal from office was honestly pretty easy to see coming. But driving away Russia…that was a really really bad call on Wilhelm’s part.
You see, back in 1881 Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia had signed something called rather grandiosely “The Three Emperor’s League.” This was, in essence, a diplomatic and military alliance between the three great empires in central and Eastern Europe. This was perhaps the greatest achievement of Bismarck’s, save of course the unification of Germany itself. Bismarck was of the belief that an alliance with these two great empires, Austria-Hungary and Russia, was key to the long-term survival of Germany. He recognized that in the treacherous world of power politics he had thus far played to near perfection, the unification of the German states would be seen by many, particularly the French, as a highly dangerous and destabilizing development, and that Germany would need strong allies among the other Great Powers and, more importantly, to make sure that those powers would never unite in a grand anti-German coalition. The friendship with Russia was in many ways the cornerstone of this project. Having Austria-Hungary as an ally was of course nice, especially considering that just a few years before Prussia had humiliated Austria in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War and could be a potential threat, but Russia was the real prize.
In 1880 Germany had a population of about 45 million people, significantly larger than her most obvious rival France, who had a population of about 37 million. Austria-Hungary, convinced to ally with Germany in 1879, had a population of about 38 million people, which meant that if war ever broke out again between France and Germany the Germans would have a significantly powerful ally on their side in terms of manpower. But if Russia were to join in an alliance with France against Germany and Austria-Hungary, that would be a true disaster. In 1880 Russia had a population of nearly 100 million people, dwarfing any other country in Europe and almost every other country in the world. Though not nearly as industrialized as the other central and western European countries, the weight of Russia’s numbers in a war would be nearly irresistible. Plus, they sat on Germany’s eastern border (feel free to take a look at the map of Europe just before the First World War attached to today’s episode), meaning that if Germany had to fight both France and Russia at the same time, they would be forced to fight a two front war, squeezed between revenge minded Frenchmen in the west and hordes of Russian peasant soldiers in the east.
Now Bismarck’s genius here lay not so much in recognizing this fairly obvious fact, but in ensuring that it would never happen by befriending the two empires on Germany’s border, Austria Hungary to the south and Russia to the east. This problem could be seen by anyone who looked for five seconds at a map of Europe.
But, rather inexplicably, Wilhelm II did not seem to recognize this obvious reality. In 1890, the Russians proposed what was called a “Reinsurance Treaty,” which would essentially renew the previous terms of alliance between the three empires. This may have been proposed to get relations with the new German Emperor off on the right foot, though it has also been suggested that the Russians were nervous about growing anti-Russian feelings in the German halls of power and wanted to nip such feelings in the bud. Regardless, Wilhelm II rejected this proposal, and the ten-year-old alliance among Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary was undone. Germany and Austria-Hungary would of course remain allies all the way through the First World War, but Wilhelm had essentially given the Russians a giant middle finger. This, understandably, unnerved the Russians, who proceeded to form an alliance with perhaps the last country in Europe anyone would have expected. In 1894, Russia signed an alliance with the Republic of France. These two countries could not have been more different in their governments and outlooks; Russia was an absolutist, autocratic country ruled by the will of a despotic czar, while France was a representative republic which based its legitimacy on the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But what these two countries shared was fear of the power of a unified Germany, and so they decided to bind themselves in a pact of mutual defense.
This disastrous decision on the part of Wilhelm is hard to figure, and I won’t spend any time here discussing what his reasoning behind it was. All I will say is that driving Russia and France into an anti-German alliance would have profound consequences for the German Empire when 1914 finally rolls around.
Next let us discuss France, and a scandal that would rock that country to its very core at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. As you have no doubt noticed, France has been probably the most politically unstable country we have followed so far in this series. Since discussing the French role in the Congress of Vienna back in 1814 and 1815, we have seen fully five different forms of government in France in just 55 years. Namely, the restored Bourbon Monarchy, the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and very briefly last week the Third Republic. Well, thankfully, we are now done with the revolving door of French governmental systems. The Third Republic is going to stick around for awhile, for the rest of the series in fact. It will be the system that governs France all the way through the First World War, and would not be dissolved until France was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940.
Despite the fact that France was now under a democratic system of government (though women still had no access to the vote or ability to hold office, at least all adult men could vote for their representatives), there were deep fissures at the heart of the Third Republic which were laid bare by a scandal that is too juicy to go unremarked upon by me. I speak of course of the Dreyfus Affair.
On September 26, 1894, a note was found by an agent of the French intelligence service which contained vital military secrets of the French Republic. This note not only detailed highly classified and sensitive military intelligence, but also made clear that the information had been sold by a French Army officer to the Germans. This was a terrifying and shocking development, if the Germans got ahold of French military secrets, how many Frenchmen would die in the next war with Germany? Would this information prove decisive in a coming war with Germany? And perhaps most importantly to the men of the French Intelligence service: what will happen to us and our careers if we do not catch this scoundrel?
Fortunately, they were able to find such a scoundrel, quite literally. The notes that they had gotten ahold of from the Germans clearly said that the secrets had been delivered by “the Scoundrel D.” Now they simply had to find who this scoundrel D. was. So, assuming that anyone with such high-level information must be a part of the French General Staff, they combed through the records of all officers in the General Staff, particularly those who were moved around on assignment frequently. To quote the author Nicholas Halasz, who wrote a wonderfully engaging book on this subject, “Breathlessly, they (a group of French Intelligence officers) got out a file of…the young officers who were not yet attached to any one bureau of the General Staff but were shifted on temporary assignment from one office to the other. They went down the Ds and came to a halt at the name of Dreyfus. In their immediate relief, they found no words. Each read the other’s thought: ‘it was the Jew!’”
Now, I don’t want to go on too long of a tangent here, but let me just state plainly that France, and really all of Europe, had a major, major problem with anti-Semitism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Really, it is still a major problem. The point is, the French Intelligence Service needed to find a suspect for this treason as quickly as possible, and they found the easiest person to blame for this heinous act was a Jewish army officer, as it would be easier to believe a Jew of treason than a real Frenchman. Really, any Jewish officer could have worked. The man they picked was Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
I really wish I had the time to really get into the weeds on the Dreyfus Affair. Perhaps I will in a future supplemental episode (no promises on that, but we’ll see). Suffice it to say that the Dreyfus Affair involves some of the most thrilling, intriguing, and back-stabbing cloak-and-dagger shenanigans in all of human history. Reading about it honestly feels like reading a spy novel by John le Carré or Robert Ludlum or something. Secret documents, government intrigue, attempted assassinations, multiple suicides, and a dramatic twist reveal of the truth at the end, all draped around the plight of a poor man singled out due to his family background and kept in prison in horrible conditions for over a decade.
To make a very long story very short, Captain Dreyfus was arrested and thrown in prison in terrible conditions in the famous Devil’s Island prison complex in French Guyana. His story soon became a massive cause célèbre in France, and the rest of the world, as people began to line up on both sides of the issue of Dreyfus’ guilt. This conflict between the Dreyfusards (those people who believed Dreyfus to be innocent) and the anti-Dreyfusards (those people who believed he was guilty) grew to be incredibly heated and contentious; families were literally ripped apart by this issue, whole French governmental ministries were eventually forced to resign. If you’ve ever heard of the essay “J’accuse!,” literally “I accuse,” written by Emile Zola, that essay was about the Dreyfus affair, accusing the French government of framing Dreyfus because he was a Jew. That article actually first came to light when it was published in a newspaper by the French politician George Clemenceau, whom we will have dealings with down the road. There is in fact a famous cartoon drawn during this era (the late 1890s) showing a well-dressed family sitting at dinner, with the father raising his hand and saying, “we shall not discuss it.” The next panel shows them all physically brawling with each other with the caption saying, “they discussed it.” Everyone reading French papers at the time knew exactly what “it” was.
Finally, in 1897, Captain Dreyfus was granted a new trial after new evidence was brought to light that cast doubts on his guilt. This evidence was actually procured by none other than famed playwright Oscar Wilde (seriously, go read about the Dreyfus Affair some day, I promise you will not regret it). The trial was a true sensation, it really was for France the trial of the century. Yet this trial, despite obvious evidence that showed Dreyfus was innocent, resulted in another conviction and a ten-year sentence for the poor Captain. It wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally exonerated and the true culprit finally revealed to be another French Army Officer named Ferdinand Esterhazy. Dreyfus was returned to the Army with the rank of major and would go on to serve with distinction during the First World War, not dying until 1935 at the age of 75.
The Dreyfus Affair revealed not only to France but to the rest of the world that France A) had a huge problem with anti-Semitism, which was not exactly news to anyone, but more importantly B) that there were deep fissures at the heart of the French Republic, as well as deep (although not unreasonable) paranoia about German spies stealing French military secrets. The country was truly torn apart by the scandal, and had still not really recovered by the time the First World War broke out in 1914; the bitter divide between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards was a wound that, really, never was able to fully heal.
Next let’s move on to Great Britain, and in particular her position as the great naval power of Europe. At the end of the 19th century, and indeed for at least a century beforehand, Great Britain had, by far, the largest and most powerful navy in the world. It was the Royal Navy that made possible the rapid expansion and protecting of the British Empire, and it was the Royal Navy that made the British Isles themselves virtually impregnable to invasion.
Naval warfare had changed as rapidly during the 19th century as land warfare had, if not more so. In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, naval warfare was defined by wooden ships, driven exclusively by sail or very occasionally by oars. These ships would have cannons protruding out of both sides of the ship, and the goal of a captain of one of these vessels was to line up one side of his ship with an enemy ship, firing a massive broadside into the hull or sails of his opponent. By the 1890s, however, this era of wooden sailboats firing broadsides at point blank range had completely disappeared. Naval vessels were now made entirely out of iron and steel, powered by coal firing engines, with enormous cannons based out of rotating turrets that could hurl armor piercing, high explosive shells across the horizon for miles with incredible accuracy.
Throughout the 19th century, the British Royal Navy completely dominated the seas, not just around Europe, but around practically the entire world. No navy on earth could even come close to competing with it. But starting around 1900, the German Imperial Navy decided to throw down a gauntlet and challenge British naval supremacy with a massive effort to build vast numbers of advanced naval vessels. In June of 1900, under the leadership of the German Admiral Tirpitz, the German Navy began a program to build a new naval force with the goal of reaching a 2:3 ratio with the royal navy; that is, the idea was to have two of every type of naval vessel for every three the British had, so that the Germans could at least compete on a relatively equal footing with the British.
There has been a lot written about the motivations for this buildup of Germany’s navy, ranging from a simple desire to be protected against British blockades if a war ever broke out between the two countries, to a rather melodramatic motivation on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s part to impress his British in-laws (after all, Queen Victoria of Great Britain was Wilhelm’s grandmother, and the soon to be crowned Edward VII was his uncle, and they would surely be impressed by Willy’s new navy). Whatever the German motivation for this extremely provocative (and, as we shall see, ultimately fruitless) action was, the British reaction was swift and decisive. They began to redouble the buildup of the Royal Navy to the point where all German attempts to compete were totally dashed. If the Germans built one new battleship, the British would build three. In 1905, with the Germans struggling to build anywhere near the number of battleships and heavy cruisers the British were, the British under Admiral Jack Fisher then launched the HMS Dreadnought, a battleship of size and sophistication that was so beyond anything seen before, that it birthed an entire new class of naval vessels: the Dreadnought class.
By 1912 or 1913, it was pretty clear that the British had decisively won the naval arms race with Germany. In 1913, The British had fully 22 dreadnoughts on the sea compared to just 15 for the Germans. And while that did fall within the 2:3 ratio the Germans had optimistically planned for (although I personally do not quite see how even a 2:3 ratio of ships would allow you to compete with the Royal Navy), the British had a further 15 under construction while the Germans only had five. Looking at all other classes of ships it’s the same story: 40 British pre-dreadnought battleships to the German 22, 121 British cruisers to the German 40, 221 British destroyers to the German 90, and as for the new-fangled sci-fi vessel the submarine, the British had 73 whereas the Germans only 31.
So what was the result of this exercise? Well, the Germans had a few new fancy battleships and dreadnoughts to play with, which was nice. But far less nice was the real scare Britain had gotten from this move on Germany’s part. Why, the British government asked, was Germany trying to build so many naval vessels? The object was clear: to be able to sink the Royal Navy to the bottom of the sea if a war ever broke out. We can see Britain’s growing worry about the German Navy from the deployment of its various naval squadrons; not only was the Mediterranean British squadron reduced from 14 to just six battleships between 1902 and 1906 (with all those battleships being sent to the Atlantic squadron), but that squadron was now based not out of Malta off the coast of Italy, but in Gibraltar at the very opening of the Mediterranean Sea, from whence it could quickly be sent to the Atlantic. It was clear who Britain saw as its most dangerous and most likely enemy – not the Ottomans nor the Russians nor the Italians nor the French nor the Austrians – but the Germans.
To quote the Times of London in an article written in August 1902 following a British naval exercise celebrating the coronation of King Edward VII, “The display may be less magnificent than the wonderful manifestation of our sea-power witnessed in the same waters five years ago. But it will demonstrate no less plainly what that power is, to those who remember that we have a larger number of ships in commission on foreign stations now than we had then, and that we have not moved a single ship from Reserve…[yet] some of our rivals have worked with feverish activity in the interval, and they are steadily increasing their efforts.” It did not take a genius to realize that this veiled reference was aimed at Germany, and everyone from the leaders of Britain’s government to average day-laborers in London and Manchester read these kinds of reports almost daily during the decade or so before the First World War. The British, it seemed, were steeling themselves for a war with Germany. And it was a war they planned to win, as they had done so often before, with the power and might of the Royal Navy.
So now let us move east, far east, not just to Russia but to the far-eastern Russian territory on the Pacific Coast. I plan to go into more detail on this next week, but basically for the last century or two Russia had been steadily pushing its eastern border to the point where they now bordered the great Empire of China, and had several ports on the Pacific Ocean. For most Russian statesmen and planners during most of the 19th century, I’m sure the primary rival they planned to face in the far-east was China, as well as perhaps the British with their rising colonial empire in India. But one power they perhaps did not foresee a conflict with, who practically no one in Europe predicted could stand up to a European empire, but which would soon utterly humiliate the Russian colossus, was an ancient country on a relatively small archipelago in the just off the coast of China: the Empire of Japan.
Now this podcast is not a podcast about the history of Japan; though, if you are interested in that subject, I cannot recommend highly enough the History of Japan Podcast by Isaac Meyer, which details the history of that country in great detail and with excellent writing. In particular, I’d recommend checking out two mini-series in that podcast: the Fall of the Samurai, which covers the Meiji Restoration, and the Maelstrom, which covers the Russo-Japanese War we are about to talk about. In short, Japan had for centuries been all but closed off from the rest of the world, but from about the 1860s to the 1890s had undergone a massive and incredibly rapid industrialization and modernization program that, really, shocked the rest of the world. By the 1890s, Japan was more industrialized than many European countries, had one of the finest military forces in the world (mostly modeled off the German Army and British Navy by the by), and had expanded its territory controlling an Empire that included modern day Korea and Taiwan.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Russian and Japanese territory bordered one another roundabout the Chinese province of Manchuria (noted on one of this week’s maps), and made claims to sovereignty on one another’s territory in the region. For years, diplomatic negotiations over this territory had gotten more and more heated, and on February 8, 1904, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet stationed in Port Arthur (modern day Lüshunkou District in China), and soon thereafter launched an invasion of Russian Manchuria.
The ensuing Russo-Japanese War was an utter disaster for Russia, not just militarily, but politically as well. For years there had been growing pressure on the Czarist regime (now under the ill-fated Czar Nicholas II) to grant more democratic reforms to the government and humanitarian labor reforms to the Russian legal code. But all of these efforts had been roundly rebuffed by the Czar, who believed he ruled by divine right and that no institutions should be placed between him and his people, whom he saw as his children. The Russo-Japanese War quickly started to go badly for the Russians, as Russia’s military leadership had assumed that they could easily whip the Japanese “yellow monkeys” (which was their gross racist term for them, not mine) but instead the Japanese army and navy proved to be more than a match for their Russian counterparts. When the war started to go south for the Russians, a huge crowd of protesters gathered in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on Sunday, January 22, 1905, pleading for the Czar to reform the government of the country and grant the workers and peasants of Russia more rights. These protesters were met by armed Russian soldiers who fired into the crowd, killing hundreds and wounding perhaps thousands more. “Bloody Sunday,” as this massacre came to be known, was a devastating blow the Czar’s legitimacy.
Perhaps even more devastating to the Czar was news of a naval disaster in May of 1905. With the Russian Pacific fleet badly damaged and trapped in Port Arthur, the Russian Baltic Fleet was dispatched to sail all the way around Europe and Africa, down around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean and up through the western Pacific Ocean to relieve the siege at Port Arthur. But on May 27, 1905, the Russian Baltic Fleet was met by the Japanese Imperial Navy off the coast of Japan in the Tsushima strait and was utterly destroyed, with the Russians losing most of their large vessels while inflicting almost no casualties on the Japanese. This utterly humiliating defeat soon forced the Russians to sue for peace, with the following peace negotiations actually moderated by none other than U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was seen (at least at first) by both sides as a neutral arbitrator.
The fact that the Great Russian Empire had been so thoroughly laid low by a nation of “yellow monkeys” was devastating to the legitimacy of the absolute rule of the Czar. Following months of more and more heated protest, Czar Nicholas II finally relented to demands of political reform, and in October of 1905 instituted a Duma, or Parliament, as well as granting to the Russian people generally more civil rights. Well, he did not so much grant these rights as he was forced to recognize them, lest the mobs storm his palace and rip him and his family to pieces. This seemed to show that the Russian Empire was weak and deeply divided, and this state of affairs would inform many of the war plans of all the other Great Powers as the First World War grew nearer.
Finally, let us discuss the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their acquisition of a territory that we will come to know and love very shortly. Back in 1877 and 1878, there had been a brief war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire over the independence (or lack thereof) of the Ottoman possessions in the Balkans, including modern day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro among others. In the ensuing peace treaty, it was decided for reasons that are rather too complicated to get into here, that the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina (shown on one of this week’s maps) would nominally remain part of the Ottoman Empire, but would be mostly administered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
So fast forward to 1907, and the new Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Alois von Aehrenthal, has ambitions to make Bosnia-Herzegovina not simply a territory that is administered by Austria-Hungary, but a fully incorporated province. So he starts discussing thing with the Russian Foreign Minister Count Alexander Izvolsky about what sort of deal could be struck between Austria-Hungary and Russia regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina. Eventually, by the summer of 1908, the two foreign ministers had struck a deal, whereby Russia would offer public diplomatic support for Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in return Austria-Hungary would offer public diplomatic support for Russia gaining sole naval access to the Dardanelles Straits, the separation point between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. This seemed like a fine deal to Izvolsky, who was quite pleased with himself that he was hopefully, with Austro-Hungarian help, about to force the Ottomans to grant to Russia what it had wanted for centuries: unfettered naval access to the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore the rest of the world.
This fine deal though…did not exactly go as planned. I’ll try to simplify this as best I can, but basically, the Austro-Hungarians planned to formally announce their annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 6, 1908. But quite literally the day before that, on October 5, 1908, Ferdinand the Prince of Bulgaria, then an Ottoman vassal state, declared his country to be fully independent from the Ottoman Empire, and took for himself the title of Czar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. When the next day the Austro-Hungarians declared their annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, publicly declaring that they had Russian support to do so, it looked like a grand coalition of European states was conspiring to rob the Ottoman Empire of all of her remaining European territory. This made all the states in Europe, particularly those who were not in on this apparent plot, very nervous about the possibility of the whole of the Ottoman Empire being swallowed up without them being able to grab any pieces for themselves. So now, we have a full blown crisis on our hands.
Perhaps even more worrying for the Russian government than this growing international crisis was the reaction of the Russian people to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this podcast, we have talked a lot about nationalism, French nationalism, Italian nationalism, Hungarian nationalism, and especially German nationalism. But we have not really talked about Russian nationalism, and more broadly the idea of pan-Slavic nationalism. There were many people in Russia, as well as in the rest of Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, who found collective identity in their Slavic heritage, and believed that all the Slavic peoples should be under their own governments. So the fact that Russia, the greatest Slavic power of all, was apparently consenting to and even perhaps helping the half-Germanic half-Hungarian Austro-Hungarian Empire annex a region that was mostly made up of Slavic peoples was deeply offensive to many Russians.
Germany was also concerned about this provocative act, but their worries were mostly soothed by two people whom we will come to have dealings with in just a few weeks. First was the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Germany, Count László Szőgyény, second was a young member of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry sent on special assignment to Berlin, Count Alexander von Hoyos. They were able to convince Kaiser Wilhelm to support this move by Austria-Hungary, though the Germans were not without their reservations. As historian Margaret MacMillan wrote in her fantastic book on the beginning of the First World War, The War that Ended Peace, “In the end, the Germans felt they had little choice but to support their chief ally. It was a dilemma they would face again in 1914.”
In the end, the result of the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908 was that Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was confirmed by the rest of the Great Powers, yet Russia’s control of the Dardanelles straits was not, which led to the ousting of Izvolsky from the Russian government. For our purposes, there are three important takeaways from this crisis. First, was that the problem of Slavic nationalism, which the Austro-Hungarians were already struggling with, would now be made more palpable and more acute. Nobody in any of the Slavic nations of Europe was happy about this development, nor were the Bosnians themselves. Second, was the fact that the Russians were furious at the Austro-Hungarians, and felt that they had been duped into helping the Austro-Hungarians gobble up more territory while the Russians themselves got nothing in return. And third, was the fact that among the new subjects added into the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a young Bosnian-Serb, only about twelve or thirteen years old, who would be deeply grieved by this blow to Slavic nationalism. That young boy was named Gavrilo Princip.
Ok, so now we have shown some of the problems that the Great Powers of Europe dealt with in the leadup to the First World War, both internally and with one another. Next week we will discuss the progression of 19th century European colonialism. In order to truly grasp the global nature of the First World War, and why that war is called the First World War rather than simply the Great European War, I want to quickly lay out how the Great European Powers of the 19th century, denied the opportunity to conquer one another, looked beyond the continent of Europe for new peoples to dominate.
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