Paul Gottfried’s claim in “Where Have All the Nazis Gone?” (The Western Front, October) that “both sides had behaved recklessly in 1914” is incorrect.  A close scrutiny of the July Crisis indicates recklessness mixed with mendacity in Vienna and Berlin, and merely reactive and predictable responses from Paris, St. Petersburg, and London.  Dr. Gottfried then goes further, turning the claim of “equal recklessness” into the assertion that the blame for the war itself was, or should be treated as, equal.  He further asserts that to claim otherwise is indicative either of foreign Teutonophobia or of German self-hatred, and that only a postnational leftist could uphold the “largely refuted” thesis of German culpability advanced by Fritz Fischer, whom he proceeds to malign intemperately.

Historians of widely different backgrounds, including those with impeccable conservative credentials, accept that the Wilhelmine establishment welcomed the prospect of war and encouraged Austria-Hungary to issue an impossible ultimatum to Serbia.  Both Central Powers acted knowing that their actions could lead to an all-out war unless Russia and/or France climbed down at the last minute and meekly abdicated their status and role as great powers.

Berlin needed a seemingly righteous cause, the latter-day Ems Telegram, to unite the nation and, in particular, to persuade its millions of Social Democrats and Roman Catholics that the coming war was just.  It encouraged Vienna to go ahead with its ultimatum that would lead Russia to threaten Austria, so that its move against Russia could be presented as a selfless rescue of her aggrieved Danubian ally.  Germany thus invited a French response; that it was fully expected, and indeed desired, is proved by the prompt activation of the Schlieffen Plan.  It entailed the wanton violation of Belgian neutrality, thereby making British intervention inevitable.

The only other power behaving with comparable recklessness was Austria.  To contain Serbia and curtail her Piedmontism may have been a “rational” objective; to do so at the risk of an all-out war, however, was not.  The policy of resolving nationalist tensions within the monarchy by absorbing ever-more-restless Slavs was self-defeating in the extreme.  Francis Ferdinand’s trip to Sarajevo on St. Vitus’ Day (of all days) was as provocative and reckless as it would have been for the prince of Wales to go to Dublin in state pomp on St. Patrick’s Day of that same year.

It is unfair and inaccurate for Dr. Gott-fried to imply that historians who hold Germany primarily culpable for the tragedy of 1914 subscribe to “a straight line from Bismarck to Auschwitz.”  The line was interrupted in 1890.  The mentally unstable kaiser and his coterie gratuitously discarded Bismarck’s conceptual framework, while lacking his skill and his prudence.  Seeking to break out of a self-imposed and imagined “encirclement,” they rejected Bismarck’s flexibility of external liaisons in favor of implacable hostility to France and Russia and a rigid alliance with Austria.  The Iron Chancellor would never have allowed the worn-out Viennese tail to wag the dynamic German dog, and he repeatedly warned that the Balkans must never be allowed to act as the proverbial powder keg.  His successors in July 1914 disregarded that advice on both counts.

As a foe of our present-day neocons, Dr. Gottfried should realize that, in 1914, the Wilhelmine ruling stratum’s understanding of the State Reason was corrupted by ideological obsessions that were eminently neoconservative in spirit and logic.  The naval lobby, the colonial lobby, the annexationist lobby, and the Voelk-isch lobby all beat the drum that could have come, with a few semantic modifications, straight from the pages of the Weekly Standard.  Like the leadership of the Project for a New American Century today, the Wilhelmine military and diplomatic establishment did not allow any “realist” calculations to subject their grand design to critical scrutiny.  They were all too happy to brand all moderation as weakness and all doubt as treason.

        —Srdja Trifkovic
Highland Park, Chicago

Dr. Gottfried Replies:

Srdja Trifkovic is wrong about the reasons for my ascription of Teutonophobia to Fischer and his school.  Fischer and his disciples Wolfgang Mommsen, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Immanuel Geiss go well beyond editorializing against the Germans for the recklessness that led to war in 1914.  Indeed, they view the outbreak of World War I as illustrating Germany’s bid for world hegemony and trace this tendency to the founding of the Second Empire and to the failure of the German people to develop according to a Western liberal model.  Dr. Trifkovic’s favorable remarks about Bismarck would be every bit as offensive to the Fischerites as my questioning of their causal explanation for the war.

Why have I “maligned intemperately” Fischer, whose attachment to the Nazi Party is a matter of historical record?  His postwar conversion is simply an illustration of his blatant opportunism.

As for the contrast between Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s war fever and the Entente’s “merely reactive and predictable responses” in 1914, Dr. Trifkovic must be joking.  The Serbian government was then supporting Black Hand terrorists, culminating in the assassination by one of their members of the Austrian archduke and his consort on June 28, 1914.  The Austrian government was justified to send an ultimatum to the Serbian monarchy, though what they sent ignored the counsels of moderation that came from the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Tisza.  That the Austrian government had good reason to react strongly to the Serbian support of South Slav terrorism within its borders, a fact documented by (among many others) pro-Allied historian Joachim Remak, Luigi Albertini, and William Langer, should be self-evident.

From 1892 (the year of its alliance with Russia) onward, France was working to push her ally into confrontations with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.  The French foreign ministry also nurtured the hope that the First Balkan War in 1912, in which Serbia and other Balkan powers fell upon Germany’s client, Ottoman Turkey, would result in considerable harm to the Central Powers.  (The Germans and Austrians disappointed the French, however, by staying out of this imbroglio.)  As George Kennan has argued in The Fateful Alliance, the French alliance with Russia had a revisionist goal, retrieving what the French had lost to Prussia after a disastrous war in 1871.  Neither France nor the Panslavists who pushed for it in Russia viewed it as a mere defensive pact.

By 1914, as a result of expanding the period of conscription in 1913, the French had raised an army almost as large as the German one, despite a much smaller population.  If Germany were a belligerent power, neither the size of her army nor her military outlays would indicate this fact.  Nor did the British government, Niall Ferguson observes, embody the pacifist mood that some historians wish to find in it.  Between 1907 and 1909, unbeknownst to its people, it had made striking concessions to the French in case of a war with Germany.  In the envisaged war, the Germans would necessarily strike the first blow, given their diplomatic and military encirclement by Russia and France and given the far larger military forces of their enemies.  The English were also significantly willing to make an amphibious landing on the Belgian coast to prosecute the war in question.  Well before Germany went to war against Russia, following Russia’s full mobilization on Germany’s eastern border on July 31, 1914, the British government had begun to establish a naval blockade against Germany.  This blockade would continue to be imposed, causing widespread famine, until the postwar German government had signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  If these are “purely reactive responses,” I have no idea what reckless ones by the Entente would have looked like.

Nationalist zealots were active on both sides of the European alliance system before 1914, and for every member of the Pan-German League, one could find Pan-Slavs, French revanchists, and raging British imperialists.  The comparison of either side, however, to the posturing imperialists at the Weekly Standard may be stretching a point.  No European nationalist leader in 1914 was quite so oafish or devoid of “realist calculations.”