Coffee House

Germany’s forgotten war

1 August 2014

1 August 2014

Britain is braced for the anniversary of the outbreak of world war one. Memorials and events are taking place across the country this weekend. Not so in Germany, where reticence reigns.  This week’s Spectator features a piece by Antonia Oettingen, a descendant of Karl Max von Lichnowsky, the Kaiser’s ambassador in London from 1912-1914. She explains why Germany is shy about the Great War.

‘In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm had an ambitious task for my great-great-great uncle Karl Max von Lichnowsky. He sent him to London to be our ambassador there, with orders to try to ensure Britain’s neutrality (at the very least, in cases of conflict with Russia and France). Although Lichnowsky already had a sympathetic relationship with Britain’s foreign minister, Edward Grey, who also hoped to avoid a war, his mission failed. His personal objective — to deter the Kaiser from going to war — fell flat too. In a telegram sent on 18 July 1914 he pleaded with Kaiser Wilhelm to ‘spare the German people a war from which nothing can be gained but everything lost’. Less than a fortnight later he was on a ferry back home to Prussia, while Austrian-Hungarian, Russian and German soldiers were marching off to fight. When he arrived home, and broke news of war to her, Lichnowsky’s Bavarian-born wife Mechthilde took up a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm and flung it to the floor.

Ninety-nine years after Lichnowsky’s attempt to mediate between our two nations, in October last year, another diplomat from London’s German embassy tried once again to ensure Britain’s neutrality. Norman Walter, head of press at the embassy, suggested that the British commemorate the first world war in a ‘less declamatory tone’ by focusing more on the achievements of the European Union and less on who was to blame for the outbreak of the conflict. Walter was trying to encourage Britain to keep faith with the European project at a time of great unease, but his remarks also reflected the national mood. While the second world war is acknowledged to be an atrocity, Germans are not quite so happy to play the role of arch-villain of the first.’

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  • jack

    I just find it all so very sad. Recently at a public school I saw 150 names in honour of the dead. The school had a total compliment of 250.

    I imagine even worse figures in Germany…

  • swatnan

    WWI happened rather by accident, didn’t it.

    • Lorenzo

      Read Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” to bolster the “rather by accident” idea.

      • Con Poulos

        A nasty piece of revisionist history. The author has a post colonial chip on his shoulder. An anti British Empire hang-up present in Australian academe. Had the Germans won there would have been no Oz. Think German Pacific Empire………In any case , had the Germans wished ,they could have stopped the Austrians.

        • Lorenzo

          I thought the author was a lot harder on the Russians, French and Serbians than he was on the Brits.

          Does “revisionist” mean “failing to blame the whole thing on the Germans and entertaining the notion that the motives and actions of the British were less than noble and selfless”?

        • Lorenzo

          In hindsight, possibly they could have, but a reading of history deeper than “it was the huns wot done it” suggests that the Austria-Hungary / Serbia / Russia / France situation got out of German control pretty quickly. This is not to excuse the Germans, but the political and diplomatic situations in and among the involved countries just about guaranteed that war would break out.

      • Inverted Meniscus

        Lazy nonsense.

        • Lorenzo

          The book contains 562 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes – lots from primary sources. Certainly not lazy and too well documented to be nonsense.

          • Con Poulos

            Clark can annotate and footnote all he likes, he still wishes to absolve the Germans from their responsibilities. It still remains the case that the Germans could have dissuaded the Austrians . The Germans had dreams of an American invasion years before the business in Sarajevo. Clarke starts his narrative with a bit nastiness in Belgrade ,,,how cash can anyone take him seriously after that.

            • Lorenzo

              He doesn’t absolve them at all, he just points out that other involved countries had plenty to do with setting the stage for the start of hostilities.

              Since Serbia was heavily involved in lighting the fuse, it makes sense to provide background describing their government, how it became what it was, and its interaction with the Dual Monarchy leading up to Sarajevo.

              As for his footnotes, he does reference supporting information. You are most welcome to refute his sources. Have at ’em.

              • Con Poulos

                “The Sleepwalkers” is a great piece of historical writing .It i

                • Lorenzo

                  I’d rather say is thesis is that were varying degrees of fault among all the belligerents, Germany included.

                  Clark’s discusses in several places the German naval buildup and concludes that it was not a big factor in Britain’s war alliances. (Look in the index of your copy under “naval arms, Anglo-German” to find the passages).

                • Con Poulos

                  Look there is not much that is unknown in “The Sleepwalkers” .Its about his emphasis, considering his support of a German historical aspect . You are right in saying all the Powers in Europe bear responsibility. I think and I am sure that most, do not blame Serbia but view it as an excuse . There may well have been war in Europe ,but in August 1914 it should have been avoided . That is why Germany is responsible . As for Clark I am waiting on his take on WW2. Will he blame the Austrians?

    • Inverted Meniscus

      No. That is the lazy nonsense of somebody unfamiliar with the events and personalities of the time.

    • Denis_Cooper

      Well, it happened primarily because Germany was ruled by a half-crazed hereditary monarch with a withered arm and a pathologically twisted psyche who was still entirely beyond the control of the elected German parliament when it came to matters of war and peace. On domestic matters there was a large measure of parliamentary control, but not on foreign affairs including the starting of wars of aggression. But I suppose that WWI could perhaps be classed as an “accident”, the accident of his birth, insofar as the war might have been avoided if a different and saner person had been born to become Kaiser. Arguably it was also the same inability of the German people to get to grips with modern ideas of democratic government that led to them not just sitting back but applauding while their country was taken over by another bloody madman and his gang of thugs leading to another round of mass slaughter. Now the German political elite think that they are such experts on how to run a liberal democracy that they have a duty to impose their notions on everybody else in Europe (for a start), the underlying arrogance in their attitudes still persists as documented here:

      http://www.german-foreign-policy.com/en/news/

      • swatnan

        I blame Queen Vic; it was basically a family feud across Europe.

        • Denis_Cooper

          She intended exactly the opposite, but could not determine the character of the child borne by her daughter.

      • Lorenzo

        David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer”, a book perhaps more to the taste of other commenters here, lays heavy blame on the German General Staff who were consistently hot for war irrespective of Kaiser Bill’s vacillations between belligerence and passivity.

    • Wessex Man

      You believe that? do you honestly believe that?

      • swatnan

        It was a comedy of errors which turned into tragedy in which countless millions of young men died to satisfy the power lust of incompetants of the ruling elites of Europe. It was a White Mans War which the innocent colonials were dragged into and the hadn’t a clue what they were fighting for. The elites promised it would all be over by Xmas; but they lied.
        The only bright side was that Womens emancipation and various Independence Liberation Movements arose across the Empires.

        • Wessex Man

          oh dear.

  • lgrundy

    “suggested that the British commemorate the first world war in a ‘less declamatory tone’ by focusing more on the achievements of the European Union and less on who was to blame for the outbreak of the conflict”.

    After having just read Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War [originally published as ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918’], I can understand why.

    • Wessex Man

      I agree, it just goes to show hoe inconvenient facts seem to be swept under the carpet ‘for the greater good’.

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