It’s been over 100 years since the war to end all wars. An impoverished and tubercular Gavrilo Princip, who carried all his possessions in a suitcase and had nowhere to stay when he arrived in Belgrade, firing the bullets in Sarajevo that killed Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este and the heir to the Habsburg throne for the cause of Serbian nationalism. Shots that rang around the world. Sophie Chotek, the Czech noblewomen, a love match and marriage that the Emperor and therefore the Habsburg royal family did not approve, also died, but is mostly forgotten, like the estimated 40 million dead in the first world war. Because this is a story of great men locked into a feudal way of thinking and acting.
If you look at the cover picture, Franz Ferdinand’s car with whitewall tyres and a flag, surrounded by men on horseback. Tens of millions of men called up, but also millions of horses and mules. Yet, it all feels strangely familiar. 100 000 Russian troops mustered near Ukraine’s border. False flag operations such as ‘Operation Himmler’, which Hitler used as a pretext for the invasion of Poland. Or the weapons of mass destruction George W Bush (junior) claimed Saddam Hussein had developed before the second Gulf War. But there was no cypher attack on critical infrastructure because we’ve moved on.
British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey in the last days of peace, was perplexed and unnerved by an understanding he himself had a large part in constructing and articulating—Triple Entente with France and Russia—had somehow come to this juncture:
‘that a remote quarrel in south-eastern Europe could be a trigger for a continental war, even though none of the three Entente powers were under attack or threat of attack’.
Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Fleet, had already mobilised the navy. The Tory Press had quickly come on board. The more liberal press to follow. Talk of Irish Home Rule and sending the British Expeditionary Force to Ireland was shunted into a siding.
Kaiser Wilhelm II symbolised the continued role of the aristocracy in decision making at the highest government levels. His dithering about whether a partial or full mobilisation of German troops was needed made the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke weep and edge towards a mental breakdown. Troops were already on their way by train towards Luxemburg. But Wilhelm II was assured, he believed, by King George V that Britain would maintain its neutrality. They were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, was Queen Victoria’s daughter. King Edward VII can be seen dressed in a colonel’s uniform of the Austrian 11th Hussars. Britain wasn’t anti-German. Neither was Germany anti-British.
Both, for different reasons, were fearful of the Russian bear. German fears were existential. The German High Command called for a defensive war that had to be fought sooner rather than later. Russia was a backward and feudal nation, with the Ukraine its breadbasket. But it was industrialising fast. Soon it would become the America of the East. Already troop numbers were projected to exceed the numbers of German soldiers. French finance also poured into Russia and doubled the number of railway tracks laid near the borders, allowing the rapid deployment of troops and supplies that had been so successful a tactic during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
The Anglo-French naval agreement tied Britain into controlling the North Sea. The French agreeing to limit its activites to the Mediterranean. Russia’s Far East naval fleet had been destroyed by Japan’s in the war of 1905. Britain courted Japan as an ally in containing Russia. In particular, the Russian imperial threat in Persia and, the jewel in the crown, India.
The Entente agreement appeased Russia, but also sought to contain a Germany that was modernising and overtaking Britain as the workshop of the world that exported most goods and services. The empire on which the sun never sets controlled around a quarter of the world’s population and land mass. It had more dreadnoughts than any other nation, and it continued to control the oceans and seas. But the First World War would bankrupt the country. The beneficiaries would be largely America and Japan.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and China, the new workshop of the world, creating facts on the ground by creating islands of seabed and subsoil could be the way we sleepwalk into the next and last war, which will be Armageddon. Taiwan, where American backed, Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Kuomintang army fled over the Taiwan Straits to be protected by American troops remains a Chinese rallying call.
Christopher Clark shows the ways in which the pre-1914 world was divided into countries and hegemonic influences that changed. But perhaps we’re best looking sideways at W.H.Auden (1907-1973) who also captured the zeitgeist, again in familiar ways.
When statesmen gravely say ‘We must be realistic’,
The chances are they are weak and therefore, pacifistic,
But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps
Their generals are already poring over the maps.