Posts Tagged ‘world war I’

Stopping Hitler

July 29, 2019

If you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill Hitler before he became the Fuhrer in Germany? Perhaps you could kill him while he was a homeless artist in Vienna, or arrange to have him shot during World War I. If murdering a person, even Hitler before he committed his atrocities seems wrong, perhaps you could arrange for his parents never to meet. Surely a world in which Adolf Hitler was never born would be a better one.

I would not go back in time to kill Hitler if I had a time machine. I don’t think that killing Hitler would make that much of a difference. Hitler was far from being the only radical, anti-Semitic nationalist living in Germany at the time, and it is likely that if Hitler had not been there someone worse might have seized power. Perhaps someone who actually listened to his generals and won the war.

Probably every country has any number of potential Hitlers living in it at any given time. Usually, these people are cranks who organize minuscule political parties and rant about their eccentric political views. In ordinary times, such people have no chance of obtaining any power. To stop Hitler, we would have to consider what conditions in Germany allowed someone like Hitler to seize power and if those conditions could be changed.

I don’t think that there is much question that World War I created Hitler. If the war had never occurred, Hitler would have remained an obscure artist, living hand to mouth. The economic and political turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat and allowed a demagogue like Hitler to flourish would never have happened. To stop Hitler, we must stop World War I.

But how? It would not be so simple as preventing Gavrillo Princep from assassinating Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand. That assassination was the spark that set off the powder keg that was pre-war Europe, but the powder keg was already there. If the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had not occurred, something else would have been the spark.

I think the root of the problem in pre-war Europe was Germany. This is not to say that the German Empire was solely, or even primarily responsible for the war, every one of the combatants bear at least some of the blame, but the ultimate cause of the tension and uncertainty that made a general war in Europe, if not inevitable, at least highly likely was Germany. To understand why Germany was a problem, we must briefly recall some German history

Unlike countries like England or France, Germany did not emerge from the middle ages as a unified nation-state. Instead, Germany remained a conglomeration of states of various sizes from free city-states to small feudal states to large kingdoms like Prussia and Austria. All these German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire, to be sure, and owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Emperor never had much power outside his personal territories and as time passed, the Holy Roman Emperors had less and less authority until the Holy Roman Empire became an empire in name only, with the various states gaining almost complete independence, until the farce was ended with the abdication of the last Emperor in 1806.

The Holy Roman Empire

After the Napoleonic Wars, German patriots began to call for German unification, generally based on the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. This did not suit the rulers of the various German states, who preferred to retain their power and privileges, and the German liberals were not very successful. After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, it became clear that Germany would not be united as a federation of liberal states, but through blood and iron. The autocratic and militaristic Kingdom of Prussia took up the cause of German unification and under the leadership of its able chancellor, Otto von Bismark, Prussia led an alliance of German states in successful wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871).

German Unification

After this series of victories, it was easy for those states not already affiliated with Prussia to join together in the new German Empire, and on January 18, 1871, Bismark proclaimed the foundation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace at Versailles, with his master King Wilhelm I of Prussia becoming Kaiser Wilhelm I.

This new central European power disrupted existing European balances of power and German military and economic might frightened the other powers. This might not have led to disaster if Germany had been led by wise leaders, who could calm the tensions of a rising Germany, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but leaders of Germany were not wise or disposed to calm the fears of its neighbors.

Wilhelm I had not been particularly enthusiastic about the project of German unification. He was a patriotic Prussian, proud of his kingdom’s conservative, autocratic traditions and he did not want to see Prussia absorbed into a liberal Germany. Bismark, himself a conservative autocrat, assured the King that the German Empire would be a greater Prussian Empire, and while he had to make some concessions to German liberals, such as a constitution providing for a legislature elected by universal male suffrage, permitting political parties, etc, Bismark made sure that all the real political power in the new empire stayed with the Kaiser and his chancellor.

Wilhelm I’s son, Frederick was far more liberal than his father. He was married to Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Victoria, and the husband and wife were agreed that the British system of constitutional monarchy was the best system of government. This did not please either Wilhelm or Bismark, and the two conspired to keep Frederick from any position of state that wielded any real power.

Frederick III

 

The old Kaisar couldn’t live forever, and when he died on March 9, 1888, it seemed that the German Empire would take a liberal turn under its new Kaisar Frederick III. There was just one problem. Frederick III was already dying of cancer of the larynx when he succeeded to the throne. Frederick was Kaisar for just ninety-nine days before he succumbed to his illness, clearing the way for his own son, Wilhelm to succeed him as Kaisar Wilhelm II.

Wilhelm II

Politically, Wilhelm II resembled his grandfather, Wilhelm I, rather than his more liberal father. Both Wilhelms prized the conservative Prussian values of autocracy and militarism and had no use for democracy in any form. In personality, however, Wilhelm was very different from his namesake. While Wilhelm I had already gained many years of experience in governing before becoming King of Prussia and later German Emperor, Wilhelm II was young and inexperienced when he ascended the throne. The older Wilhelm was a kindly gentleman who lived a spartan life and left the business of government to Bismarck. Wilhelm II was brash, boisterous, erratic, and impulsive. He tended to be impatient and changed his mind often. He quite likely had some form of attention deficit disorder. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm II insisted on ruling the German Empire himself, and it wasn’t long before Bismarck was obliged to resign as chancellor.

This was not a good idea. Wilhelm II’s aggressive manner and imprudent, saber-rattling public statements tended to frighten the other European powers, already alarmed by Germany’s growing economic and military power. Bismarck had been careful not to give the European powers cause to unite against Germany. Wilhelm II was not so careful and eventually, Germany found itself surrounded by enemies. Bismarck had tried to keep the peace in Europe after winning the Franco-Prussian War. Wilhelm II was more reckless. Kaiser Wilhelm’s impulsive nature and inexperience at statecraft led Germany, and Europe to disaster.

What if Frederick III had lived? He was only fifty-six when he succumbed to cancer. Had he survived he could easily have lived into his eighties. Both his father and son were long-lived. Frederick III could have been Kaiser into the 1920s, giving him plenty of time to turn the German Empire into a more liberal direction. If Kaiser Frederick III had died in 1920, he might have left Germany a constitutional monarchy with a strong emphasis on individual liberty. Germany might have shed its Prussian military culture and been a pillar of stability in the center of Europe. The expensive arms race that preceded the Great War need not have occurred and the War itself might have been avoided. Kaiser Wilhelm II would have ascended the throne as a mature and experienced leader in his sixties, hemmed in by constitutional safeguards and perhaps content to be an elder statesman. Adolf Hitler would be an unknown and forgotten painter. It would be a better world.

So there you have it. If you happen to possess a time machine, here is what you need to do to stop Hitler, without killing anyone. Just go back to Germany around 1887 with a cure for cancer, somehow convince Prince Frederick and his court that you are not crazy, and give the prince your cancer treatment. Easy.

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Gavrilo Princip

July 9, 2015

 

In a somewhat controversial move, last week Serbia put up a monument in Belgrade commemorating Gavrilo Pricip. Who is Gavrilo Pricip and why would a monument to a Serbian hero be controversial? Well, Gavrilo Princip happens to be the man who started World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so was indirectly responsible for all the horrors of the twentieth century. Here is the story I read from the Associated Press.

Serbia on Sunday unveiled a monument to Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince in Sarajevo helped ignite World War I and still provokes controversy in the ethnically-divided Balkans.

Hundreds of citizens attended the ceremony in central Belgrade held on the anniversary of the 1914 assassination which is also the Serbian national holiday of St. Vitus Day.

President Tomislav Nikolic described Princip — who is viewed as a terrorist by many outside Serbia — as a freedom fighter and hero.

“Today, we are not afraid of the truth,” Nikolic said. “Gavrilo Princip was a hero, a symbol of the idea of freedom, the assassin of tyrants and the carrier of the European idea of liberation from slavery.”

He added that “others can think whatever they want.”

Austria accused Serbia of masterminding the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Backed by Germany, Austria attacked Serbia, whose allies, Russia and France, were quickly drawn into the conflict. Britain, with its sprawling Commonwealth empire, and the United States also joined the fighting.

Princip’s legacy is also viewed differently by different nations in the Balkans, which remains a smoldering patchwork of ethnic and religious rivalries two decades after the end of the conflict in the 1990s that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

In Bosnia, Serbs regard Princip as a hero, while the country’s Muslims and Croats widely regard him as a killer and a Serbian nationalist whose goal was Bosnia’s occupation by Serbia. A century ago, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats preferred to stay in the big Austrian empire that had brought progress, law and order.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said during the Belgrade ceremony that the unveiling of the Princip monument amounted to “fighting for freedom today.”

World War I claimed some 14 million lives — 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen — and left another 7 million troops permanently disabled. Princip, who was only 19, was immediately arrested and died in captivity months before the war ended.

If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back in time to kill Hitler or Stalin, or any other of the mass murderers who so afflicted the world in the past century. I would stop the man who set the stage that allowed such men to gain power in the first place. I would either take Princip’s gun away or jump in front of him and take the bullet he aimed at Franz Ferdinand.

Gavrilo

Gavrilo Princip

 

Just think how different, and better, the world would be if World War I had been averted. The Communists could never have seized power in Russia if the Czar’s government hadn’t been fatally weakened and discredited by years of defeat in war. Russia was changing very rapidly in the years before 1914. Its economy was growing and it was becoming industrialized. It is likely that the Russian living in 1913 had a higher standard of living and was freer than any of his ancestors. The Czar was still an autocrat, but Russia had begun an evolution towards some sort of constitutional monarchy. If this process had not been interrupted by war and revolution, Russia would be a free and prosperous land today. Lenin would have died in exile and Stalin would have remained a petty criminal.

Without the defeat in World War I and the Versailles treaty, the Nazi Party would never have been formed and Kaiser Wilhelm would have remained in power. The German government was somewhat democratic with a Reichtstag elected by universal male suffrage, but there was little patience for radical parties which sought to overthrow the government. Hitler would have lived out his life as an itinerant artist in Munich.

It is commonly believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its large population of national minorities was on the verge of breaking up even before the war. It is possible that over the twentieth century such nationalist movements would have grown stronger until Austria-Hungary was obliged to grant independence to groups like the Czechs, the Slovaks, Croatians,and others. Then again, it is also possible that the Austro-Hungarian monarchy might have made concessions towards autonomy for various regions, perhaps causing the Empire to develop into a sort of Central European Federation. That was, in fact, what Franz Ferdinand was planning to do when he became Emperor. If Gavrilo Princip wanted to free his people, he might have been better off staying home that day.

He also should have stayed home that day.

He also should have stayed home that day.

Without World War I, France and Britain would not have seen whole generation of young men decimated in battle. Their finances would not have been stretched to the breaking point by the cost of that war and they might have been able to maintain their colonial empires for a longer time. This may not seem to be a good thing, but the colonial powers really abandoned their colonies too quickly and without as much preparation for independence as there might have been, not to mention infecting the newly independent nations with the European disease of socialism, which might not have been so virulent without the war.

Speaking of colonial powers, the Ottoman Empire would also have lasted longer. While the Ottomans were hardly models of liberal government, they did manage to keep the Middle East at peace. This means no Israel, but then there would not have been a Holocaust in Europe. Maybe the Zionists would have managed to gain autonomous status within the Ottoman Empire.

I am sure that not everything would have been better. Technology would not have advanced so rapidly without the stimulation of war. Democracy would have been slower to take hold, though there would have been no totalitarianism. The scientific racism held by most educated Europeans and Americans would not have been discredited by the atrocities committed in the name of the master race. And, it is likely that war would have occurred even if Gavrilo Princip had missed. Perhaps the war would have started in 1964 with atomic bombs. There is no way of knowing what would have happened.

Considering that World War I resulted in the deaths of untold millions both in the course of the war and the the war that followed as well as the murder of millions in the Holocaust and in the Soviet Union, I hardly think that Gavrilo Princip was a hero. He did not intend to set off the war that destroyed Europe, but he bears much of the responsibility for that war. I don’t think he deserves a statue in his honor.

The First World War

February 12, 2015

The First World War was the single most important event of the twentieth century. Every event that followed that war, all the other wars, the great movements and revolutions, and even the scientific discoveries and inventions, began in some way, direct or indirect, from the great and terrible happenings of the years 1914-1918. A world in which that war had not occurred would be a very different and perhaps better world.

Despite the importance of World War One, I have never known very much about it. I had some knowledge of the general outlines, which countries fought on which side, and which side won. I knew the names of some of the battles, the Somme, Verdun, but nothing in detail. I had some familiarity of the conditions of the Western Front but knew almost nothing at all about the Eastern Front, save that Russia ended up losing. I do not think that I am alone in knowing so little about World War One. The First World War tends to be overshadowed, in contemporary minds, by the still greater and more catastrophic Second World War. Yet, had the first war not been fought, it is very unlikely the second war would have broken out. At first the nature of the combatants would have been different, no Nazis in Germany and no Communist Soviet Union. In the United States, World War One tends to get little attention because we only entered the war in its last year. While the US contribution was crucial to the Allied victory, the war did not hurt us as badly as it did the European powers that fought it. Unlike France, Germany or Britain, America did not lose much of a generation in the fighting.

keegan_first_l

To learn more about this war, I turned to The First World War by the eminent military historian John Keegan. I am happy to report that Mr. Keegan does a truly marvelous job in relating the course of the war, from its beginnings, in the plans by the military staffs of the various combatants to fight the next war, to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the war, through the years of trench warfare when massive armies butted heads to no avail, all the way to the last desperate attempt by the Germans to knock Britain and France out of the war before fresh American soldiers arrived to reinforce them. He seems to pay equal attention to both the Western and Eastern fronts. I learned quite a lot about the fighting between Russian and the German-Austrian alliance, not to mention the fighting in the Balkans where the war started.
Keegan mostly dwells on the military aspects of the war and has relatively little to say about the domestic politics of the European nations. He does go into some detail about the diplomatic maneuverings the nations of Europe engaged in during the Balkan crisis that led up to the war. It is somewhat poignant to learn that neither side really wanted a general war in Europe, but no one seemed strong enough to end the crisis. Keegan speculates that if Austria-Hungary had launched an immediate invasion of Serbia in retaliation of their support for terrorist activities, the crisis would have ended before it had grown out of control. As it happened, Austria-Hungary waited for support from Germany, and the wait proved fatal for Europe.

Keegan challenges some myths and ideas that have grown up about the war. He argues that the various generals were not as incompetent or unconcerned about casualties as is often supposed. As he points out, they tried to fight the war as best they could, but technological development was at an awkward phase for fighting a war. Barbed wired and the machine gun made defended positions nearly impregnable, while the technologies that would have aided the offensive, tanks and airplanes were only beginning to be developed. Improvements in transportation, especially trains, made it possible to send many thousands of men into battle, but the generals had no way to keep in contact with their armies once battle had begun. It was no longer possible for generals to lead their men in person; the battles were too large for that. Telephone and telegraph wires were easily cut. Radio was still in its infancy. The generals were removed from the battlefields because they had no choice. They sent their men to be slaughtered because wars cannot be won without attacking the enemy and attacking the enemy’s positions killed thousands.

I enjoyed learning about World War One from John Keegan’s book and I think it serves as an excellent introduction to the war. It covers all the major battles and aspects of the war without getting bogged down in details. Best of all, it can be understood easily even by the reader not familiar with military affairs. I can highly recommend The First World War.

 

A History of France

November 3, 2014

A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles was originally written for servicemen being deployed to France to fight in World War I who might want to know something of the history of the country. The war ended before the project was completed, so William Sterns Davis took the opportunity to update and expand the book and make it available to the members of the general public to introduce them to the history of the country we had fought alongside. I think this book serves as an admirable introduction to the history of France from the Roman conquest of Gaul down through the medieval period, the Revolution, Napoleon, and the just concluded World War I. Davis does tend to spend more time on the (to him) recent history of France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the expense of earlier centuries, but I ought not to complain. There is still plenty of material on earlier periods and I do not get the impression, as I often do of history books that the author is trying to hurry through the early history of his subject.

This book was written in 1919, well before the age of political correctness and post-modern moral relativism and the tone of Davis’s writing shows it. He does not hesitate to call groups of people barbarians or make moral judgments on the personal lives of kings. I personally find this sort of honesty refreshing, though it can be somewhat jarring, especially in the last two chapters. While discussing France’s recovery from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, Davis expounds on France’s acquisition of a colonial empire in Africa and Indochina stressing the great improvements French administration made in the lives of the people of the colonies. That may be, but no one asked of the natives of the colonies wished to be ruled by France.

The chapter on World War I reads like allied propaganda with France defending civilization against the Teutons bent on conquering the world. The Germans are clearly the bad guys throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Treaty of Versailles is represented as just and reasonable with the reparations necessary to repair the damage the Germans did to the French territory they occupied. Perhaps, but I wonder if Davis lived to see the troubles the more onerous provisions of that treaty caused to Europe and France.
In general, the book is strongly pro-France and the author seems to have a real affection for the French people. Anyone who wants a good general overview of French history will find what he is looking for here.

Veterans Day

November 11, 2012

Today is Veterans Day. This day began as Armistice Day, November 11 1918 being the day that Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919 to celebrate the courage of the men who fought and died in that war. The day was changed in 1954 in order to honor the veterans of all the wars of America.

I don’t have anything else to say except Thank You to all of the veterans who have served your country. You are better men and women than I am.

 

 

Last WWI Combat Veteran Dies at 110

May 5, 2011

Claude Choules, the last surviving World War I veteran died. I wouldn’t have thought that there were any World War I veterans left alive. It hasn’t been a century yet, but it seems like ancient history, almost another age.

I wonder how many World War II vets are still alive. They must be starting to get rare too.


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