Saturday 9 August 2014

World War I - Whodunit?

I’VE AN IDEA for a television documentary – one I probably should have had two years ago. If it had occurred to me then, and I’d found someone to back it, it would be on your screens right now. This is, after all, the week in which we commemorate the outbreak of the First World War.
My idea is to treat the outbreak of the war as a cold case, with a crusty old Chief Inspector and an idealistic young Detective Sergeant.
The documentary (“docu-drama” is a better description) begins with the Detective Sergeant approaching the Chief Inspector with what he claims is evidence of a gross miscarriage of justice.
He points out that Germany’s confession of “war guilt” in the Treaty of Versailles was extracted under duress.
“For goodness sake!”, he tells the Chief Inspector, “the country was still being blockaded. It’s population was starving. There was rioting in the streets. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the armies of France, the British Empire and the USA were camped on its doorstep. What choice did she have?”
“That’s all very well,” says the Chief Inspector, “but for the past 100 years the evidence of Germany’s guilt has been regarded as overwhelming: proved beyond reasonable doubt.”
“Well, the Allied Powers would say that, wouldn’t they?”, says the Detective Sergeant. “I mean, they were hardly going to admit that the death of so many of their sons was the result of their own nefarious machinations – were they?”
The Chief Inspector demands to know if the Detective Sergeant has anything in the way of fresh evidence. Something solid enough to have the whole case re-opened.
The Detective Sergeant slams down a book by Cambridge historian, Chris Clark – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.
“The question, as always, in a crime such as this is ‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits? The evidence suggests that it was Serbia that had the most to gain. Its great dream was a South Slav nation – ‘Yugoslavia’ – which Serbia would dominate. But Yugoslavia could only be constructed upon the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that would require a general European war.”
“You’re saying Serbia wanted a general European war?”
Dragutin Dimitrijevic: Serbia's Head of Military Intelligence. He not only wanted a general European war - he triggered it.
“Not only did they want it – they triggered it!”, exclaims the Detective Sergeant. “Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian assassin of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was the wind-up toy of Serbian military intelligence. The latter’s boss, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, was certain that the Archduke’s death would provoke a war with Austria and that this, in turn, would draw in Serbia’s protector, Imperial Russia. Once the Russians moved, a general war was inevitable.”
“Hmmm”, says the Chief inspector, “it’s pretty thin.”
“Okay, but there’s more”, says the Detective Sergeant. “The entire Serbian economy, bankrupted by the Balkan Wars of 1912 and1913, was being kept afloat by French and Russian loans. So Dimitrijevic wasn’t going to move without the go-ahead from Paris and St Petersburg.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying that the French and the Russians gave the green light to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination?”
Raymond Poincare: The French president was present in St Petersburg in the midst of the assassination crisis, which he helped to fan into war.
“Petty much, pretty much. Maybe not the assassination specifically, but definitely something in the nature of a casus belli – a cause for war. How else do you explain the fact that in the twelve months immediately preceding the outbreak of war, the French President, Raymond Poincaré, was present in both London and St Petersburg. Hell’s teeth! The man was actually in Russia at the exact moment the crisis was unfolding!”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Poincaré, having confirmed the anti-German faction at the British Foreign Office still had Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s ear, made sure he was in St Petersburg to steady Tsar Nicholas’s nerves.”
“His motive?”
“Revanche! Chief Inspector. Revenge! Poincaré was born in Alsace – the province stolen by Germany in 1871.”
“And the Russians?”
“Constantinople! They were terrified that Germany’s friendship with the Turkish Empire would stymie their plans for seizing the Bosphorus – gateway to the Mediterranean.”
Sir Edward Grey: The British Foreign Secretary who famously remarked on the eve of World War I: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Less well known is his role in extinguishing them!
“And Great Britain?”
“She had no choice but to go along – if only to keep St Petersburg’s attention on the Balkans and away from India.”
“But Germany invaded Belgium!”, objected the Chief Inspector.
“Facing a war on two fronts: what other choice did she have?”
Now, tell me these aren’t the ingredients for a gripping whodunit – History’s ultimate cold case?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 August 2014.


Fossil said...

Good luck with working out the ending! You can make a case against almost every participant. Most of the men who fought in the war (if they weren’t conscripted) were sucked in by the chorus of freedom, honour and country that still echoes every Anzac Day. They soon learnt that they were taking part in the most pointlessly wasteful and destructive war in history, a war that nobody had the wit to bring to an end before all the European powers were exhausted No wonder that the victors were so anxious to pin guilt on Germany. And no wonder that the doubtful motives of some of the winners (Grey after all succeeded in imposing a war on a cabinet, a party and a country that did not want it) have been left to historians to uncover.

jh said...

I remember once reading that peaceful states are (relatively) self sufficient states.

Anonymous said...

The assassination was the excuse for war, not the reason. The underlying issues had been there for some time, with fault on both sides.

I do think you are seriously underplaying the role of Kaiser Bill in this. Willy's obsession with building up a German navy and with colonial possessions drove the UK and France together in the previous couple of decades. It was he who decided to give the blank cheque to Vienna to deal with Serbia. And so on.

Simon said...

The State

Jigsaw said...

So easy to judge people of the past by your own logic of the present but a total waste of time.
The idea that Britain could have stood aside and watched the rest of Europe become mere vassal states of Germany is crazy. That would merely have postponed the conflict which would have probably then had a chapter of conflict at sea before an invasion
of Britain.
Had Germany been forced to surrender there might well have been a different result than round two.

Anonymous said...

Mick says 'If World War 1 was a bar fight...'
Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint.
Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg.
Germany expresses its support for Austria’s point of view.
Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.
Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers.
Russia and Serbia look at Austria.
Austria asks Serbia who it’s looking at.
Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone.
Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so.
Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene.
Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it?
Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action.
Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.
Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.
Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium.
France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other.
Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over. Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there. Turkey punches Russia in the back of the head when Russia isn’t looking. Britain and France tell Turkey that’s not on and once they’ve sorted Germany out Turkey’s next. Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria.
Australia (and New Zealand) punches Turkey, and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings though because Britain made Australia do it.
France gets thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.
Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises both fists in the air and runs round the room chanting.
America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself.
By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault. While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.

Victor said...


Sheer unadulterated brilliance.

Now, for your next trick, please set it to music and choreograph a ballet.

Tim Mallory said...

So true Victor. If it wasn't so tragic it would make a great plot for a soap opera!

We never learn from our past mistakes.

Chris Trotter said...

Yes, Anonymous, it's a very fine piece of satire - and admirably even-handed (or should that be fisted?)

If Chris Clark's research is right, however, the story should be told a little differently.

You would need to have France, Russia and Serbia huddled together in a corner long before Germany and Austria make their anticipated appearance.

As Austria steps through the door Serbia breaks a bottle over its head. When Austria, a little groggy and with blood pouring into its eyes, lunges towards Serbia, Russia steps forward and tells it to back off or be hit again.

Austria looks back to see if its friend Germany heard what Russia said. Germany nods, but its eyes are on France which is circling around behind it.

Austria wipes the blood from its eyes and demands that Russia step back while Serbia receives its punishment. Russia refuses and prepares to strike Austria.

Germany notices that France has now got right round behind it and is standing alongside its friend Great Britain. It also notices that Belgium's table is blocking Germany's access to France and its British ally.

Meanwhile, across the bar, Austria whacks Serbia and Russia lunges forward - not towards Austria but straight at Germany.

Moving quickly, Germany kicks a chair in front of Russia and then picks up Belgium by the scruff of its neck and throws it across the floor so that it can strike a crippling blow against France.

In the ensuing melee the magnificent bar, formerly the envy of the word, is reduced to rubble.

Anonymous said...

I forgot the bit where NZ hits German Samoa with a jug who adopt it as tradition.


Anonymous said...

You would need to have France, Russia and Serbia huddled together in a corner long before Germany and Austria make their anticipated appearance.

... with Germany having previously beaten up France, and insulted its old friend Great Britain.

Bismarck's old rule was that there were five Great Powers in Europe (UK, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia), and that Germany needed to be on the side of three against two. France was always going to be a mortal enemy, and Austria-Hungary had too many cultural links, so this meant trying to stay on good terms with either Russia or the UK. The attempted Three Emperors League fell over because Austria-Hungary and Russia didn't get along, and Willy (having sacked Bismarck)then decided to wreck the British option by pushing the navy. Thus Germany in the lead up to WWI was violating Bismarck's old rule.

aj said...

WW1 Battle Rap (BBC)

Victor said...

You could blame it all on Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, who helped relieve Vienna from a Turkish siege in 1683, thus keeping the Hapsburgs in business for another two-and-a-third centuries.

Or you could blame it on.......(fill in the gap to your heart's content)

History isn't ultimately a whodunit. The past is an infinitely tight web of circumstances, trends, motives and actions, a point reinforced to my mind by fine authors such as Christopher Clark and Margaret Macmillan.

BTW Chris. Thanks for recommending "The Sleepwalkers" a few months back. It is truly excellent.

Chris Trotter said...

You're welcome, Victor, although I do think he shied away in the final chapters from the conclusion his earlier chapters had left staring him in the face.

And you are, of course, quite right when you say apportioning historical blame is a fool's errand. The great pity is that our forbears, gathered at Versailles, did not share your opinion.

It was the Allied Powers' determination to blame Germany for the outbreak of the First World War (and then to make her pay for it) that made the Second World War inevitable.

I have taken up the banner of revisionism in an attempt to make sure that the sort of lies that made Hitler a viable political proposition are not mindlessly repeated as we look back from the vantage point of 100 years.

Victor said...


"It was the Allied Powers' determination to blame Germany for the outbreak of the First World War (and then to make her pay for it) that made the Second World War inevitable."

I think it made it possible, perhaps even probable, but not inevitable.

Factor out the Wall Street Crash and give Weimar 20 more years of peace, progress and prosperity and you might have got a different outcome.

David said...

It was love that caused World War I. Franz Ferdinand fell in love with Sophie Chotek who was not a member of one of the reigning dynasties of Europe. So even though they married, she could not usually accompany him on public occassions, except in this instance in Sarejevo she could for some reason I can't recall. That's how they ended up there in the first place.