39.7 The Immediate Causes of the great War¶
We have been at some pains to examine the state of mind of Europe and of America in regard to international relations in the years that led up to the world tragedy of 1914 because, as more and more people are coming to recognize, that great war or some such war was a necessary consequence of the mentality of the period. All the things that men and nations do are the outcome of instinctive motives reacting upon the ideas which tall, and books and newspapers and schoolmasters and so forth have put into people’s heads. Physical necessities, pestilences, changes of climate, and the like outer things may deflect and distort the growth of human history, but its living root is thought.
All human history is fundamentally a history of ideas. Between the man of today and the CroMagnard the physical and mental differences are very slight; their essential difference lies in the extent and content of the mental background, which we have acquired in the five or six hundred generations that intervene.
We are too close to, the events of the Great War to pretend that this Outline can record the verdict of history thereupon, but we may hazard the guess that when the passions of the conflict have faded, it will be Germany that will be most blamed for bringing it about, and she will be blamed not because she was morally and intellectually very different from her neighbors, but because she had the common disease of imperialism in its most complete and energetic form. No self-respecting historian, however superficial and popular his aims may be, can countenance the legend, produced by the stresses of the war, that the German is a sort of human being more cruel and abominable than any other variety of men. All the great states of Europe before 1914 were in a condition of aggressive nationalism and drifting towards war; the government of Germany did but lead the general movement. She fell into the pit first, and she floundered deepest. She became the dreadful example at which all her fellow sinners could cry out.
For long, Germany and Austria had been plotting an extension of German influence eastward through Asia Minor to the East. The German idea was crystallized in the phrase «Berlin to Baghdad». Antagonized to the German dreams were those of Russia, which was scheming for an extension of the Slav ascendancy to Constantinople and through Serbia to the Adriatic. These lines of ambition lay across one another and were mutually incompatible. The feverish state, of affairs in the Balkans was largely the outcome of the intrigues and propagandas sustained by the German and Slav schemes. Turkey turned for support to Germany, Serbia to Russia. Rumania and Italy, both Latin in tradition, both nominally allies of Germany, pursued remoter and deeper schemes in common. Ferdinand, the Tsar of Bulgaria, was following still darker ends; and the squalid mysteries of the Greek court, whose king was the German Kaiser’s brother-in-law, are beyond our present powers of inquiry.
But the tangle did not end with Germany on the one hand and Russia on the other. The greed of Germany in 1871 had made France her inveterate enemy. The French people, aware of their inability to recover their lost provinces by their own strength, had conceived exaggerated ideas of the power and helpfulness of Russia. The French people had subscribed enormously to Russian loans. France was the ally of Russia. If the German powers made war upon Russia, France would certainly attack them.
Now the short eastern French frontier was very strongly defended. There was little prospect of Germany repeating the successes of 1870-71 against that barrier. But the Belgian frontier of France was longer and less strongly defended. An attack in overwhelming force on France through Belgium might repeat 1870 on a larger scale. The French left might be swung back south-eastwardly on Verdun as a pivot, and crowded back upon its right, as one shuts an open razor. This scheme the German strategists had worked out with great care and elaboration. Its execution involved an outrage upon the law of nations because Prussia had undertaken to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium and had no quarrel with her, and it involved the risk of bringing in Great Britain (which power was also pledged to protect Belgium) against Germany. Yet the Germans believed that their fleet had grown strong enough to make Great Britain hesitate to interfere, and with a view to possibilities they had constructed a great system of strategic railways to the Belgian frontier, and made every preparation for the execution of this scheme. So they might hope to strike down France at one blow, and deal at their leisure with Russia.
In 1914 all things seemed moving together in favor of the two Central Powers. Russia, it is true, had been recovering since 1906, but only very slowly; France was distracted by financial scandals. The astounding murder of M. Calmette, the editor of the Figaro, by the wife of M. Caillaux, the minister of finance, brought these to a climax in March; Britain, all Germany was assured, was on the verge of a civil war in Ireland. Repeated efforts were made both by foreign and English, people to get some definite statement of what Britain would do if Germany and Austria assailed France and Russia; but the British Foreign Secretary maintained a front of heavy ambiguity up to the very day of the British entry into the war. As a consequence, there was a feeling on the continent that Britain would either not fight or delay fighting, and this may have encouraged Germany to go on threatening France. Events were precipitated on June 28th by the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian Empire, when on a state visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Here was a timely excuse to set the armies marching. «It is now, or never», said the German Emperor. Serbia was accused of instigating the murderers, and notwithstanding the fact that Austrian commissioners reported that there was no evidence to implicate the Serbian government, the Austro-Hungarian government contrived to press this grievance towards war. On, July 23rd Austria discharged an ultimatum at Serbia, and, in spite, of a practical submission on the part of Serbia, and of the efforts of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, to call a conference of the powers, declared war against Serbia on July 28th.
Russia mobilized her army on July 30th, and on August 1st Germany declared war upon her. German troops crossed into French territory next day, and, simultaneously with the delivery of an ultimatum to the unfortunate Belgians, the big flanking movement through Luxembourg and Belgium began. Westward rode the scouts and advance guards. Westward rushed a multitude of automobiles packed with soldiers. Enormous columns of gray-clad infantry followed; round-eyed, fair young Germans they were for the most, part-law-abiding, educated youngsters who had never yet seen a shot fired in anger. «This was war», they were told. They had to be bold and ruthless. Some of them did their best to carry out these militarist instructions at the expense of the ill-fated Belgians.
A disproportionate fuss has been made over the detailed atrocities in Belgium, disproportionate, that is, in relation to the fundamental atrocity of August 1914, which was the invasion of Belgium. Given that, the casual shootings and lootings, the wanton destruction of property, the plundering of inns and of food and drink shops by hungry and weary men, and the consequent rapes and incendiarism follow naturally enough. Only very simple people believe that an army in the field can maintain as high a level of honesty, decency, and justice as a settled community at home. And the tradition of the Thirty Years’ War still influenced the Prussian army. It has been customary in the countries allied against Germany to treat all this vileness and bloodshed of the Belgian months as though nothing of the sort had ever happened before, and as if it were, due to some distinctively evil strain in the German character. They were nicknamed «Huns». But nothing could be less like the systematic destructions of these nomads (who once proposed to exterminate the entire Chinese population in order to restore China to pasture) than the German crimes in Belgium. Much of that crime was the drunken brutality of men who for the first time in their lives were free to use lethal weapons, much of it was the hysterical violence of men shocked at their own proceedings and in deadly fear of the revenge of the people whose country they had outraged, and much of it was done under duress because of the theory that men should be terrible in warfare and that populations are best subdued by fear. The German common people were bundled from an orderly obedience into this war in such a manner that atrocities were bound to ensue. They certainly did horrible and disgusting things but any people who had been worked up for war and led into war as the Germans were would have behaved in a similar manner.
On the night of August 2nd, while most of Europe, still under the tranquil inertias of half a century of peace, still in the habitual enjoyment of such a widely diffused plenty and cheapness and freedom as no man living will ever see again, was thinking about its summer holidays, the little Belgian village of Vise’ was ablaze, and stupefied rustics were being led out and shot because it was alleged someone had fired on the invaders.
The officers who ordered these acts, the men who obeyed, must surely have felt scared at the strangeness of the things they did. Most of them had never yet seen a violent death. And they had set light not to a village, but a world. It was the beginning of the end of an age of comfort, confidence, and gentle and seemly behavior in Europe.
So soon as it was clear that Belgium was to be invaded, Great Britain ceased to hesitate, and (at eleven at night on August 4th) declared war upon Germany. The following day a German mine- laying vessel was caught off the Thames mouth by the cruiser Amphion and sunk,-the first time that the British and Germans had ever met in conflict under their own national flags upon land or water. . . .
All Europe still remembers the strange atmosphere of those eventful sunny August days, the end of the Armed Peace. For nearly half a century the Western world had been tranquil and had seemed safe, Only a few middle-aged and ageing people in France had had any practical experience of warfare. The newspapers spoke of a world catastrophe, but that conveyed very little meaning to those for whom the world had always seemed secure, who were indeed almost incapable of thinking of it as otherwise than secure. In Britain particularly for some weeks the peacetime routine continued in a slightly dazed fashion. It was like a man still walking about the world unaware that he has contracted a fatal disease, which will alter every routine and habit in his life. People went on with their summer holidays; shops reassured their customers with the announcement «business as usual». There was much talk and excitement when the newspapers came, but it was the talk and excitement of spectators who have no vivid sense of participation in the catastrophe that was presently to involve them all.