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Clarks Book:Weighing the evidence
on 25 October 2012
Introduction: Christopher Clark writes what is a long revisionist (all were guilty, or none was) type book on the origins of the first World War. Shortly after the war, some Foreign Office sponsored publications in Germany cited the alliance systems argument as the cause of WWI. Most, in particular, the 1920s' revisionists argue the binding character of those treaties. If a member of the Alliance were attacked ( unprovoked aggression), the others were obliged to come to that member's defense. The members of the Entente also, it was said, had similar obligations.
A second theory that appeared at the same time is the argument of a "slide into war" an idea re-published in Clark's The Sleepwalkers where he combines it with the Alliance system thesis.
What the first of those explanations fails to emphasize (or even mention) is that the alliances were foremost a defensive. None called for any of the contracting powers to behave as they did in July 1914. None triggered the casus foederis.
Clarks book, however, is good at explaining what led to the international line up in 1914, but only a quarter of the book is devoted to the July Crisis itself and important episodes are left out.
Plus as I will show below, there also is a degree of bias.
For example, he allows himself to use the term 'conspiring' when he refers to Franco-Russian consultations but applies no comparable label to Austria-Hungary/German discussions. This is ironic because surviving documentation suggests that the 'conspiring' label arguably would have fit the content of the Austria-Hungary/German discussions, whereas the specifics of what the French & Russian discussed during Poincare state visit are pretty much lost to history. And at least according to the report by the British Ambassador to Petersburg (see below) have been far less provocative than what is known to have been discussed between Berlin and Vienna.
Clark's claim that the Tsar's reaction to Austria-Hungary's ultimatum somehow 'proved' that the Russians would have stonewalled any Austria-Hungary effort to obtain redress from Serbia, including one with more modest demands and a longer deadline. Logically, it 'proves' no such thing, if anything (as shown below) the opposite was the case.
Clark doesn't mention the double game played by Germany illustrated by the message sent from Berlin to Vienna on the 27 July saying A-H should ignore any British mediation proposal that Berlin might later forward to Vienna. It was only being forwarded to keep the British happy.
In fact, it is curious how little attention the German leadership paid to the alternatives to war as a way of breaking their so-called encirclement.-----
Since the Berlin Treaty in 1878 (which followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870), things in Europe were stable. The Russian/Ottoman war was ended, the Balkan states were given definite borders, colonial disputes were settled, Belgian nationality was established and guaranteed, Russia and Germany had entered the Reinsurance Treaty avoiding the danger of a bi-frontal war for Germany. All major nations in Europe signed the Berlin Treaty: Europe was in peace. Then came, in 1888, Emperor Wilhelm II., King of Prussia, and spoiled everything. He believed he had to give Germany (`its place under the sun' as he expressed it) a higher ranking in Europe by military force. He sent Bismarck out of office and canceled the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Consequently, the Russians signed a respective treaty with France, 1892 and 1894, now placing Germany into the bi-frontal tongs that Bismarck had so' prudently evaded: Peace and balance of the Berlin Treaty were washed away. Another breach of the Berlin Treaty was Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia/Herzegovina in 1908/09.
Dawn is playing the above Clark instead places an excessive amount of importance (spends more than 100 pages) on the Sarajevo murder to make a case that Vienna would be justified to start a war while to the very end refusing all attempts at mediation.
While there had been several other critical events in the preceding decade. All had been resolved without war. It was Austria's ultimatum to Serbia, an ultimatum she knew would be refused, that led to war.
What the killings gave Vienna was not a reason, but an excuse for taking action.
A fact known now, though not then that the memorandum submitted to the German Kaiser in support of the plan to go to war was the same (so called Matshecko-) memo that had been prepared before the murders in Sarajevo shows that it did not arise from that event.
For both Germany and Austria-Hungary, however, the outcome of the war ought to illustrate that an alternative path would have been a better choice. The gist of what Vienna believed by its preliminary investigation was that the identified assassins were Bosnians, not Serbs, but that they may have had help from some Serb officials. However, they also concluded that there was no evidence to tie the plot to the Serbian government itself. There is good reason to believe that Austria -Hungary could have obtained a meaningful redress of its grievances from Serbia by diplomatic means. After all, while the assassination was not an officially commission act of state for which they could be held criminally responsible, the unauthorized participation of Serb officials in the conspiracy provides grounds for a case of civil liability. It would be very hard to contest the idea that some measure of redress was owed to Vienna, something Russia agreed with.
For Vienna, that was never a consideration. Instead, crossing the threshold into war, was a poor choice that led to a really disastrous outcome. Realistic alternatives were available. Contrary to Clark, one thus could rank the choice to go to war with Serbia without first exhausting diplomatic alternatives as an avoidable, mistake. Austria-Hungary suffers hundreds of thousands of casualties. By Spring of 1918, Vienna is so close to starvation that Austrian authorities are forced to commandeer grain barges bound for Germany. Financially, they're broke. The Empire breaks up, and centuries of Hapsburg rule come to an end. All of this is incurred responding to a series of provocations, none of which posed an existential threat to the Empire itself.
In the 2e part of the book then Clark apologizes for Germany's role on the basis that the intent was to help create only a `localized' war (p. 412). And while this was true for most of the civilian Government, there were also other powerful voices. For example, two days before Hoyos even left Vienna for his mission to Berlin, on July 3, 1914, already the German General Staff expressed that they considered German involvement in a coming war likely and favored it. Or as General of the German Cavalry Wenninger, wrote to the Saxon Minister of War: No. 73/3472 /Berlin, 3 July 1914:
'I have to report to your Excellency that in responsible circles here the political situation is regarded as very serious - also for us. At the memorial service for His Imperial Highness Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I had the opportunity to talk things over with Generalmajor Count Waldersee, Generalquartiermeister in the Great General Staff. What he said seemed to be the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff of the Army. He opined that we might become involved in a war from one day to the next. Everything depended on what attitude Russia took in the Austro-Serbian business. In any case, the course of events was also closely watched by the Great General Staff. I gained the impression that they would regard it with favor if war were to come about now. Conditions and prospects would never become better for us.'
It is unthinkable that Austria would have taken the path of confrontation with Serbia without the active backing of the Continent's dominant military power.
As Hoyos himself would later write: Berlin, had been at liberty `to say "No" to us and stop us from making a move against Serbia; we might have felt aggrieved, but the German government would certainly not have been influenced by our good or bad mood'.( A. von Hoyos, Der deutsch-englische Gegensatz und sein Einfluss auf die Balkanpolitik Österreich -Ungarns (Berlin and Leipzig, 1922),p.81.)
More pertinently, three days after the "blank check" was issued, on 8 July, a senior Austrian official wrote that there was complete agreement with the Germans; Serbia must be attacked "even at the risk of a world war that is not ruled out [by Berlin]."(This letter printed in Günther Kronenbitter, "Krieg im Frieden": Die Führung der k.u.k. Armee und die Großmachtpolitik Österreich-Ungarns 1906-1914
, 2003,p. 472)
This while French-German relations, in fact, were improving and were probably better in 1914 than they had been in decades. Also, the Anglo-German navy race was just about over with Germany conceding; colonial disputes were pretty much settled.
And neither French rearmament nor its alliances with Britain and Russia amounted to a policy to bring about war, and no French documents have emerged which resemble Moltke's or Conrad's incessant goading of their governments to seek an early occasion for war.
The German historian Dieter Hoffmann listed 76 occasions where a preventive war was demanded in Germany in the years 1906-1914.( Hoffmann, Der Sprung ins Dunkle, 2010, pp. 325ff.)
Yet while Clark at the end of his book ads that 'the outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol' (p.561) it is clear that Clark attempts to move responsibility away from Germany and Austria while laying the blame on France and particularly Russia.
In a chapter titled `The Poker Game' Clark apparently finds it suspicious that the minutes of the summit meetings that took place between France's President Poincare and the Russian Tsar did not survive. Yet (not mentioned by Clark) there is indeed a dispatch from the British Ambassador to Petersburg, George Buchanan (as designated by D C B Lieven, Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1984) p. 148, reproduced in the crucial series of British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914 (also referred to as B.D.) Volume XI, Document Number 164.
In spite of the fact that Clark cites a 'lack of evidence', France's attitude vis-a-vis her Russian ally during the St.Petersburg meeting (The state visit had been planned since the spring of 1914) is much scrutinized by Clark in order to ascertain if undue pressure, or at least too much support, too readily offered, influenced decisions in St Petersburg and if war-guilt can thus be attributed to France. Here and in the case of Russia (see below) Clark repeats arguments advanced by inter-war revisionists.
Already in 1931, Frederick L. Schuman responded to the revisionists by concluding, that the conversation of Poincare and Paleologue did not contain an incitement to war, nor even, in so many words, a `blank cheque' to St Petersburg. But that the conversation was the inevitable result of Poincare's insistence on Entente solidarity. (Schuman, War, and Diplomacy in the French Republic, London, 1931, p. 215.)
Their lack of an interest to incite war is also shown by fact that when news of the `ultimatum' reached the returning ship with the French leadership, Minister of Foreign Affairs Viviane hastily send a cable probably written by Poincare to St.Petersburg, recommending that Serbia accepts all the conditions in the ultimatum compatible with its honor.
Furthermore even close to the end of the July, France did not prepare for war. Thus, the French Chief of the General Staff Joffre openly began to worry about the effects this would have on France's ability to wage a successful war, if need be, and threatened to resign if he was not allowed to take more stern measures.
Complaining about a cabinet decision Joffre wrote in his diary on 30 July:' Faced by this menacing situation [of German war preparations], WE had taken practically not a single measure for our defense, and I had not even received the Government permission to establish our covering: forces in one place.'
But Clark (p.472-87) has the most damning things to say about Russia. Especially the latter's pre-mobilization moves upon which Clark interprets in a sinister way. This while it is clear that Russia wanted to avoid war.
Also, when Clark mentions intelligence developed regarding A-H intentions before the actual publication of the ultimatum to Belgrade. (See pp. 427-8) Clark here fails to acknowledge that this could have in any way influenced Russia's estimate of how it needed to respond to discourage an attack on Serbia. The Russians have just received confirmation of A-H bad faith (i.e. of its intention to wage a punitive war against Serbia without first exhausting peaceful alternates to secure redress short of war). And that hence Russia might have thought it to be reasonable that to discourage Vienna from ever crossing the threshold of war, Russia would shift to a deterrence-based approach while concurrently signaling their willingness to negotiate and the absence of any immediate intent to go to war. Russia's stance thereby didn't preclude Vienna from seeking reasonable redress from Serbia; it only obliged them to forgo a premature, punitive war as a means of obtaining that redress.
And so, it is true, that in the weeks following the assassination, Russia's decision-makers reacted with alarm to the rumors that Austria might be planning to start a war that raised the fear the same as previously with Bosnia would happen.
After all, as early as 7 July, the Austrian Ambassador in Belgrade, von Giesl, received instructions to break off diplomatic relations no matter how the Serbian reply to the ultimatum was which 'must lead to war.'( Manfried Rauchensteiner, Der Tod des Doppeladlers: Österreich-Ungarn und der Erste Weltkrieg,1993, p. 75.)
On 18 July as the German Ambassador Pourtalès would write to Bethmann-Hollweg, Sazonov warned Germany that `Russia could not tolerate it if Austria took military measures' and that Russian politics while pacifist would not be passive. "La politique de la Russie . . . est pacifique, mais pas passive [The policy of Russia is Pacific but not passive]." (Sazonov spoke in much the same vein to Italian Ambassador Carlotti: tel. Carlotti to San Giuliano (no. 6421/ 5), 18 July 1914, Documenti Diplomatici Italiano (4) XII, no. 342: Russia's policy was one of `pacifismo' but not of `passività'.) And right from the beginning also, Sazonov was hopeful that `reason will gain the upper hand over the belligerent tendencies at Vienna'.( Tel. Sazonov to Shebeko (no. 1475), nine/ 22 July 1914.)This is hopeful that `reason will gain the upper hand over the belligerent tendencies at Vienna would remain so until 31 July as evidenced by the Telegram of the Tsar to the German Emperor underneath.
Following Austria-Hungary's 48 hour ultimatum to Serbia, then, in a meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers on 24 July, the Ministers discussed the fact that demands had been made of Serbia, which were 'wholly unacceptable to the Kingdom of Serbia as a sovereign state.' Nonetheless, the decision was made to advise Serbia `not'(see below *)to offer any resistance to any armed invasion, while Vienna was to be asked to extend the time limit, and permission for mobilization was to be sought to cover all eventualities. On 25 July (the same day Austria-Hungary started its mobilization) measures were decided to authorize the initiation of what was termed "Period Preparatory to War" Categories 1 & 2 to begin on 26 July.
During the ensuing ten days then, the Russian Government was willing to support Britain's mediation proposals.
David Alan Rich in The Tsar's Colonels: Professionalism, Strategy, and Subversion in Late Imperial Russia concluded that, Russia's moves rather were intended primarily for `political' reasons (in the hope to deter Austria from attacking Serbia). And that Russia `sought to reassure Germany that Russia was not about to start a general war'.
Heinz Hohne concluded the same, Foreign Minister Serge Sazonov simply wanted to use pre-mobilization as a diplomatic move to put pressure on Vienna, much as he had done in the fall of 1912 during the First Balkan War.(H. Hohne, Der Krieg im Dunkeln: Macht und Einfluss des deutschen und russischen Geheimdienstes, 1985, pp.126-28.)
In other words Russian leaders settled on a limited response, a partial pre-mobilization against Austria, which was intended to serve as a warning, while meanwhile hoping diplomacy would be able to avert a war.
The Russian meetings starting on 24 July are also important because, in the above mentioned absence of any written conversations between the Russian and French allies during the French state visit to St Petersburg (Clark p. 443). And Robert Blinkley here argued that the document 'strongly testifies that the original intent of the Russian Government (perhaps, by implication, of the French Government also) was honorable and pacific'.(Blinkley, 'New Light on Russia's War Guilt', Current History, 23, 4, January 1926, pp. 531-533, p. 533.) See also the quoted document below.
Neither is there any evidence (and all points to the opposite) supporting Clark's remark:`The robustness of the Russian response fully makes sense only if we read it against the background of the Russian leadership's deepening anxiety about the future of the Turkish Straits.'(p.484.)
Others, including Ronald Bobroff in his book Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits' (2006), have shown that Russia in contrast labored to keep the Ottomans neutral in 1914.
After the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria, an additional conquest of Serbia would not only have been a blow to Russian interests, it would also, more pertinently, have cordoned off the southern Balkans from Russia with a strip of territory controlled by Germany's allies
Or when Clark writes that 'Sazonov had explicitly advised Belgrade not to accept a British offer of mediation.'( p. 483) in fact the contrary can be proven if one looks at the diplomatic cables (which Clark ignores). As can be seen, below Russia encouraged Serbia to support British proposals. And this continued up until 31 July (the day before Germany declared war on Russia) when the German Ambassador again reported to Berlin "that, despite the [the Tsar under pressure after Austria-Hungary on 28 July declared war on Serbia and commenced with hostilities agreed to sign off on a Russian] mobilization, peace could be maintained if Germany would consent before it was too late to exercise a moderating influence upon her ally." (In Otto Hotsch, Die Internationale Beziehungen im Zeitalter des Imperialismus, 1,5, 349.)
And while some historians like Clark (and also McMeekin whom Clark quotes) continue to argue over Russia's 'war guilt' based on `the period preparatory to war' having been ordered on 26 July (the Army Corps of the military districts Kiev, Odessa, Kazan and Moscow were mobilized that day), it cannot be disputed that it was Austria-Hungary who was the first to declare war on another country, namely Serbia. Mobilizations did not necessarily have to lead to war, as Russia's statesmen were keen to highlight on many occasions (although this did not apply to Germany, where in fact due to the constraints of the so-called Schlieffen Plan it necessarily did), but declarations of war did lead to war - and while some aspects (indeed many) of the July Crisis are a matter of interpretation, the timing of the declarations of war is one of those rare 'facts' in history that cannot be disputed. What remains contentious, however, is the intention behind partial mobilizations and declarations of impending states of war, and the inevitability, or otherwise, of such measures leading to the outbreak of war.
The Russians had an interest in preserving the status quo balance of power in the Balkans. By threatening to overrun Serbia, Austria-Hungary threatened to overturn that balance. Russia acquiesced in Austria-Hungary 's annexation of Bosnia and pressured Serbia to do the same. It was prepared to yield to keep the peace. It was hardly outrageous for Russia to expect Austria-Hungary to exercise similar restraint about Serbia. Russia didn't demand Austria-Hungary give up its pursuit of redress. All that can be said for sure was that it rejected a pre-mediated punitive war as the opening bid to obtain that end. A key Russian staff conference in November 1912 furthermore had underlined the crucial importance of not allowing the Austrians to defeat Serbia and then turn on Russia with their whole army.
*On the same day Russia informed the Serbian Government not to offer any resistance to any armed invasion', Sazonov cabled to Strandtmann at the Russian Legation in Belgrade:
Telegram 1487 Urgent
St Petersburg, 24 July 1914
If Serbia is really in such a helpless condition as to leave no doubt regarding the result of an armed struggle with Austria, it would perhaps be better that in the event of an invasion by Austria the Serbs should not even try to offer resistance, but should retreat and allow the enemy to occupy their territory without fighting, and make a solemn appeal to the Powers. In this appeal the Serbs, by pointing out the difficulty of their position after the recent war during which their moderation gained them the recognition of Europe, might refer to the impossibility of their surviving an unequal struggle, and ask for the protection of the Powers based upon a sense of justice.(End)
Later Sazonof wrote to Benkendorff (the Russian Ambassador in London):
From my discussions with the German Ambassador I have gained the impression that Germany rather encourages Austria's intransigence. The Cabinet in Berlin, which could halt the whole development of the crisis, seemingly exerts no influence on its ally. The Ambassador here [Pourtales] considers Serbia's answer insufficient.
I consider such an attitude by Germany to be very alarming and think that England more than the other powers could undertake steps to put appropriate pressure on Berlin. The key to the situation lies undoubtedly in Berlin.(End)
Benckendorff passed a French version of this telegram to Nicolson the same day. The telegram was also sent to the Russian Ambassador in Paris.
But in spite of the fact that Clark paints Germany here as the victim of circumstances, Germany just like with the `blank cheque' rather held the key.
The British Government was intent on arranging mediation to solve the crisis peacefully and asked for Germany's help in trying to convince the Austrians to accept this. However, Germany's statesmen merely passed on the suggestion to Vienna to save face, advising their ally in no uncertain terms that they did not expect them to accept the British proposal, thus continuing the underhand game they had already played throughout July. Rather than counseling restraint. Vienna was urged to follow up her diplomatic move with immediate military measures, 'to place the world before a fait accompli'. Still in defiant mood, and thus encouraged by Germany, Austria-Hungary did not take the other great powers up on their suggestion to extend the deadline for Serbia's answer.
(Update 6 January 2013: For more on this subject see my review of the book by McMeekin: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RCT61TE1L5ODW/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm )
On 30 July, not knowing about the secret 'blank cheque' agreement, Poincare started to become suspicious and recorded in his diary: 'If Germany seriously wanted to stop Austria and prevent a general conflict, she would speak a different language.'
The day before in fact, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg during an appeal for British neutrality, revealed Germany's intention to violate Belgian neutrality and her determination to go to war.
On 29 July Bethmann-Hollweg told the British Ambassador W. Edward Goscher that `provided Belgium did not take sides [let German troops pass through its territory to attack France] her integrity would be respected after the conclusion of the war.'(As quoted in British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914, 1926, no 293 in vol II.)
Most important it was also decided on 30 July that by midday on 31 July, Germany was to declare her mobilization, whether or not Russia decided to mobilize.
This move would make war inevitable, as Germany's military planners knew only too well.
Thus while it is true that Russia's mobilization was declared first, it is important to note that Germany had already decided on implementing her mobilization regardless, and that Germany's decision-makers just kept their fingers crossed that in the event the enemy would be the first to declare a general mobilization to ensure that Germany's moved appeared to be defensive.
That Russia's mobilization was indeed announced before Germany's thus was a fortuitous circumstance of which apologists of Germany would make much in the war-guilt debates that followed the outbreak of war, and to this day the argument that Russia started the war due to her general mobilization is one that can still be encountered as we see now in Clark's book.
That Russia did not want war is evidenced by a 31.July telegram from the Tsar to the German Emperor:" We are far from wishing war. So long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia's account are taking place my troops shall not take any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in God's mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe." (Deutsche Dokumente,no.487)
The next day Germany `declared war' on Russia, with Russia only following suit one week later.
Yet even after Germany's declaration of war, even then, Nicholas said he understood that, under the circumstances, the Kaiser was obliged to mobilize, but he asked Wilhelm to give him that same guarantee that he had given Wilhelm: "that these measures DO NOT mean war" and that they would continue to negotiate "for the benefit of our countries and universal peace dear to our hearts." With God's help, their friendship must succeed in avoiding bloodshed. (Tsar Nicholas to Kaiser Wilhelm, telegram, 2.06 p.m., 1 August; received at Palace 2.05 p.m. [Central European time], DD, III, nr 546.)
On August 1, just after the Kaiser had signed the mobilization order, German Head of the Military Staff General Moltke was recalled and told of a British promise to keep France neutral. Wilhelm, overjoyed with the idea that France would stay out of the war, called for an immediate halt to deployment in the West. Admiral Müller's diary records Moltke's emotional response: "All we need now is for Russia to back off as well" [Jetzt fehlte nur noch, dass auch Russland abschnappt](Regierte der Kaiser? Kriegstagebu'cher, Aufzeichnungen und Briefe des Chefs des Marine-Kabinetts Admiral Georg Alexander von Mu'ller, 1914-1918,1959,p. 39.)
Far from fearing a Russian attack, Moltke is worried that Russia might also want peace. The fact that Moltke could say this in the presence of Germany's most important civilian and military leaders, and that Müller records no reaction, suggests either that his opinion was already well known, or that they agreed with it.
The day before already a senior official in the German Foreign Office admitted to a representative of a neutral power, who then told George Buchanan , British ambassador in St. Petersburg, that "the only thing which [the German] Government fears was that Russia would, at the eleventh hour, climb down and accept [the ultimatum]." (Buchanan's paraphrase, in My Mission to Russia, vol.1,1923, p.209.)
On 1 Aug the Tsar sent another telegram to his cousin in Berlin, which he hoped might still avert war. In it Nicholas accepted that the Kaiser was now compelled to mobilize, but requested from him the same guarantee that he had given him - that mobilization did not mean war and that talks would continue irrespective of the ongoing mobilization measures on both sides: "Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God's help, in avoiding bloodshed."(Tsar Nicholas to Kaiser Wilhelm, telegram, 2.06 p.m., 1 August; received at Palace 2.05 p.m. [Central European time], DD, III, nr 546.)
Again his telegram clarified that Russian general mobilization did not need to mean war.
It would, no doubt, have made for a more complete, if even longer, account if Germany’s sleepwalkers had received the
same attention as those of France, Russia, or Serbia. If that had been the case, the overall impression of Germany’s role would have surely been less positive.