Armageddon—The Forging of a Great Peace
By Sir Henry Norman, M.P.
[Scribner's Magazine, October 1914]
For forty-three years dust-stained and rain-soaked crape has hung about the statues of Alsatian towns in the Place de la Concorde. To-day one of them is garlanded with flowers. Even the pope's mule, in Daudet's famous tale, only saved up its kick for seven years. France has ''nursed her wrath to keep it warm" for nearly half a century, and never was she less disposed to shed her blood for the revanche than when the mysterious force whose finger-print is history suddenly flung her manhood to the eastern frontier, from which a fragment of it surged over into Alsace and turned Mulhausen back into Mulhouse.
There has not been a week like that from July 28 to August 4 since man inhabited the planet. From Tuesday to Tuesday something like nine millions of men started in arms to slay one another. Nearly all the greatest armies and navies in the world are ranging for battle. Imagination fails to unify such a situation—we state it, but we can form no picture of it. Anybody who has lived through an earthquake will remember that in the midst of it his mental bewilderment was much the same as it is to-day. What has brought about this sudden upheaval of the nations?
In 1908 Austria, in defiance of international treaty, annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two Slav provinces placed by Europe under her guardianship in 1878. That was a blow to Slav ambition which Russia, the supposed protector of the Slavs, was not in a condition to resent by arms, and the anger of Servia was negligible. In the Balkan War Bulgaria took the great onset of the Turkish army, and defeated it. Servia surprised everybody by her successes on the battle-field, but she had no such task as Bulgaria. At its conclusion, however, she demanded, not without justice, a revision of the territorial arrangements made by the allies before the war. The simplest statesmanship on Bulgaria's part would have been to meet Servia's claims with fairness, and so perpetuate the precious Balkan alliance. Instead of doing so she listened to Austria's counsel, refused an arrangement, and declared war. Austria left her to her fate, Russia induced Roumania to coerce her and seize some of her northern territory, and Servia and Greece easily defeated her. That was the end of Bulgaria for the present and the magnification of Servia. But, though Austria would not help Bulgaria, she still thwarted Servia by inducing the Powers to create an autonomous Albania out of mutually hostile races, and thus cut off Servia from the sea, and the farce of the kingship of Prince William of Wied as "Mpret" did not alter the situation to Servia's advantage. There was left, therefore, a victorious Servia, thwarted in her dearest ambitions in spite of the great additional territory she had gained. The whole Balkan Slav race thereupon became one vast organization of intrigue for Slav unity, with Servia as its centre—necessarily at the expense of Austria. And Servian intrigue means assassination—as witness the murder of the Obrenovich dynasty, which caused Servian diplomatists to be refused admission for a time to civilized capitals. The murder of the heir to the Austrian throne and his consort was the next step. This plot was hatched at Belgrade, the six bombs and four Browning pistols were handed to the conspirators at Belgrade by a Servian officer, the bombs were hand-grenades from the Servian military arsenal, and the assassins were helped across the Austrian frontier by Servian customs officials. Naturally that outrage was the limit of Austrian tolerance, and in any reasonable measures for present punishment and future protection she would have had the sympathy of Europe and the world. She chose, however, to impose conditions of such extravagant humiliation as to render their acceptance obviously impossible; she announced war upon Servia within forty-eight hours if they were not accepted; when Servia "positively crawled" in humiliation she refused to modify her conditions by a syllable; and she turned a deaf ear to the appeals of England, France, Russia, and Italy. Yet it was perfectly clear that war upon Servia would bring Russia into the field, that Russia's action would involve Germany, that Germany's action would involve France, and that France's action would probably involve England. Austria, therefore, was prepared to plunge all Europe into war rather than suffer the slightest modification of terms to Servia unprecedented in the history of European diplomacy.
The explanation of Austria's action will clearly be the key to the present state of Europe. What was it?
The British Government has just issued the diplomatic correspondence of the Foreign Office from July 20 to August 4, consisting of seventy-seven despatches and conversations passing between Sir Edward Grey, foreign Ambassadors in London, and British Ambassadors abroad. If this key can be found anywhere, it must be there.
I have read and re-read these despatches with the greatest care, and I find any conclusion but one impossible. Take, to start with Sir Edward Grey's remark about the Austrian ultimatum: "I have never before seen one state address to another independent state a document of so formidable a character." Next the Russian Foreign Minister's remark to the British Ambassador: "Austria's conduct was both provocative and immoral; she would never have taken such action unless Germany had first been consulted; some of her demands were quite impossible of acceptance." Next the note of the German Government to the British Government—and it should be remembered that a formal note handed in like this is a much more weighty communication than any diplomatic conversation: "The course of procedure and demands of the Austro-Hungarian Government can only be regarded as equitable and moderate." Next the remark of the Russian Foreign Minister to the British Ambassador, as reported by the latter to Sir Edward Grey: "He assured me once more that he did not wish to precipitate a conflict, but that unless Germany could restrain Austria I could regard the situation as desperate."
Two days later the German Ambassador in Vienna expressed the following views to the British Ambassador, and this is important and significant:
The Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs would not be so imprudent as to take a step which would probably result in many frontier questions in which Russia is interested, such as Swedish, Polish, Ruthene, Roumanian, and Persian questions, being brought into the melting-pot. France, too, was not at all in a condition for facing a war.... As for Germany, she knew very well what she was about in backing up Austria-Hungary in this matter.
Again, Sir Edward Grey spoke on the following day to Austria as follows: "It seemed to me that the Servian reply already involved the greatest humiliation to Servia that I had ever seen a country undergo." The next day the Russian Foreign Minister, after an interview with the German Ambassador, telegraphed to Sir Edward Grey these plain words:
The Berlin Cabinet, who could have prevented the whole of this crisis developing, appear to be exerting no influence on their ally. The Ambassador considers that the Servian reply is insufficient. This attitude of the German Government is most alarming. It seems to me that England is in a better position than any other Power to make another attempt at Berlin to induce the German Government to take the necessary action. There is no doubt that the key of the situation is to be found at Berlin.
On the same day the German Ambassador in Paris stated to the French Foreign Minister that "Austria would respect the integrity of Servia, but when asked whether her independence would also be respected, he gave no assurance."
On July 29 the British Ambassador in Berlin informed Sir Edward Grey that the German Foreign Minister "denied that the German Government has recalled officers on leave, but as a matter of fact it is true." And meantime the German Ambassador in Vienna was blowing the spark, by hints that Austria would take Salonica, and the British Ambassador there telegraphed to Sir Edward Grey: "I fear that the German Ambassador will not help to smooth matters over, if he uses to his own Government the same language as he did to me to-day." And Sir Edward Grey told the German Ambassador that he "had begun to doubt whether even a complete acceptance of the Austrian demands by Servia would now satisfy Austria." On July 30 the British Ambassador in Vienna telegraphed to Sir Edward Grey:
Although I am not able to verify it, I have private information that the German Ambassador knew the text of the Austrian ultimatum to Servia before it was despatched and telegraphed it to the German Emperor. I know from the German Ambassador himself that he indorses every line of it.
Finally, on the very day before Germany declared war on Russia (July 31) the Russian Government sent out the following formula as a last effort to find a peaceful issue:
If Austria will agree to check the advance of her troops on Servian territory; if, recognizing that the dispute between Austria and Servia has assumed a character of European interest, she will allow the Great Powers to look into the matter and determine whether Servia could satisfy the Austro-Hungarian Government without impairing her rights as a sovereign state or her independence, Russia will undertake to maintain her waiting attitude.
Within a few hours Germany had declared war.
All this time Sir Edward Grey had not ceased to work for peace. He had proposed a conference of Ambassadors in London, mediation by Great Britain and Italy, and direct conversations between Austria and Russia. To all these Russia and France and Italy had agreed. To all of them Austria and Germany had returned evasive or negative replies. As a last effort Sir Edward went so far as to promise Germany an understanding with England to safeguard her from an aggressive policy by France, Russia, and England in the future. No greater offer than this was possible to British statesmanship. The remarkable despatch containing it should be read in full. It was addressed by Sir Edward Grey to the British Ambassador in Berlin on July 31:
You should...add most earnestly that the one way of maintaining the good relations between England and Germany is that they should continue to work together to preserve the peace of Europe; if we succeed in this object, the mutual relations of Germany and England will, I believe, be ipso facto improved and strengthened. For that object His Majesty's Government will work in that way with all sincerity and good will. And I will say this: If the peace of Europe can be preserved, and the present crisis safely passed, my own endeavor will be to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia, and ourselves, jointly or separately. I have desired this and worked for it, as far as I could, through the last Balkan crisis, and, Germany having a corresponding object, our relations sensibly improved. The idea has hitherto been too Utopian to form the subject of definite proposals, but if this present crisis, so much more acute than any that Europe has gone through for generations, be safely passed, I am hopeful that the relief and reaction which will follow may make possible some more definite rapprochement between the Powers than has been possible hitherto.
This frank and memorable offer was made on Thursday. On Friday it was read to the German Foreign Minister, who "received it without comment," and asked for it to be left as a memorandum, "as he would like to reflect upon it before giving an answer, and his mind was so full of grave matters that he could not be certain of remembering all its points."
On Saturday Germany declared war. Only one conclusion, as I said, can be drawn from all these despatches. It is that the German War Staff had decided beforehand that the favorable moment for war had come, and that the relations of Austria and Servia furnished a suitable pretext. It cannot be supposed that Austria would take a step imperilling the peace of Europe without consulting Germany beforehand, and it is certain that if Germany had desired to do so she could without difficulty have caused Austria to modify her demands for the sake of European peace. The key, therefore, to the action of Austria is the word "Germany."
But this answer at once prompts another question. Why should Germany choose this time for war? What can she have seen in the situation to-day more favorable to her chance of success than that of last year or next year? The answer is not very difficult.
To German statesmen the great danger and the great obstacle is not England, and not France, but Russia; in Europe danger, in Asia Minor an obstacle. And the progress of Russia during the last few years has been remarkable—in commerce, in finance, and in military power. Every year that passed saw Germany relatively less strong on her eastern frontier. There would quite certainly come a time when Russian pressure would grow intolerable. The alternatives would then be war or sacrifice of cherished ambitions—and the war would be worse the longer it was postponed. And Germany's readiness for war was probably at the highest point it could ever reach. She had made available for war service as many men as she could ever get; she had raised by a forced levy on national wealth as much money as she could ever hope to secure; and the burden of militarism was beginning to produce dangerous symptoms among her people. Moreover, the deepening of the Kiel Canal was completed a month ago. The moment was, therefore, favorable at home.
It seemed no less so abroad. In Russia a dangerous strike had begun, and a fresh revolutionary outburst appeared probable. In France the gravest constitutional crisis for many years was only stopped for the moment by the formation with much difficulty of a makeshift Government, and the President and Foreign Minister were abroad. England, too, was faced with the gravest internal situation in her history because of Home Rule and Ulster (Ulster rifles were supplied from Hamburg), and the King had stated that "to-day the cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people." It seemed improbable, therefore, that England would have any stomach for foreign adventure. Finally, affairs in Austria seemed to counsel action. Her venerable Emperor cannot be expected in the natural course of human life, as his recent illness showed, to add many more to the sixty-six years he has spent upon the throne, and the heir to his troubled heritage, now that the strong and obstinate Franz Ferdinand is gone, is young and inexperienced. Certainly the help that Austria could give in a great war would never be more than it is to-day, and might conceivably be very much less.
In this connection it must be realized that the German plan of campaign of the "war on two frontiers," the possibility of which has for years been before her, has been to hurl a mass of men upon France through Belgium, strike France to her knees in two or three great battles, spread destruction everywhere by ruthless means, and then turn the bulk of her forces round and transport them to her eastern frontier before Russia had completed her mobilization and was ready to strike. Unlikely as this may seem, the German staff confidently considered it to be within their power, and not a few competent foreign observers also thought it possible.
This, then, being the military plan, the condition of foreign countries, as seen through German eyes, furnishes the reason why the German war lords chose this moment to strike. They disregarded Bismarck's advice, and the keystone of his policy—never to quarrel with Russia—advice repeated by William I almost on his death-bed. They thought (1) that, if Russia could not again be bluffed into keeping out, she was never likely to be less strong than now; (2) that Austria would never be more strong, and her value as an ally might be greatly lessened at any time; (3) that France was in no state to act with unity and promptitude; and (4) that England would not fight, partly because a Liberal Government would not plunge the country into war, and partly because, even if she desired to do so, the danger of ''civil war" would prevent it. Italy was at least to mobilize enough men to keep a great French army paralyzed on the Alpine frontier, and the resistance of Belgium was regarded as negligible.
These clumsy and purblind calculations have been speedily falsified. Russia "called the bluff" instantly, and her vast masses are gathering in Poland and Galicia. France rose as one man and faced war with equal determination and dignity. The Belgians, with a courage that has thrilled the world, marching to the old song—
"Ils ne vont pas dompter
Le fier lion de Flandre"
(it will be remembered that Quentin Durward was told that "the men of Liège are at once the fiercest and the most untamable in Europe")—have rolled back the German advance with huge losses, thus upsetting the time-table of the German advance, and destroying all hope of catching France half-prepared. The Ulster anxiety dropped instantly out of sight, and Mr. John Redmond, in a speech which the Manchester Guardian described as "worth a good-sized battle-ship," used these never-to-be-forgotten words: 'I say to the Government that they may to-morrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland," since "the coast of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons, and for this purpose armed Nationalist Catholics in the south will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the north." I have never heard such cheers in the House of Commons as greeted this speech. Thus, as a child might have foretold to Germany, the old disloyal saying that "England's danger is Ireland's opportunity," came true in a new and noble sense. All contentious business ceased in Parliament, and estimates for over a hundred millions sterling, which ordinarily would have meant days of debate, were voted in five minutes. The British fleet holds the North Sea and the Channel in a grip of steel, the home land has never been so united in purpose, the British dominions are unanimously affording magnificent help, and the British Army, probably the best-trained and the best-equipped military force of its size in Europe, will have shown where it is and what it can do long before these lines are in print. Its position and plans I must not discuss at this moment. Finally, as M. Hanotaux has pointed out, German diplomacy chose for its war-pretext precisely the one issue that was certain to split the Triple Alliance, namely, the issue which involved the future control of the Adriatic. Italy has consequently persisted in her neutrality. She could not possibly have done otherwise without risking an anti-government outbreak, and the Chasseurs Alpins, the magnificent body of men who ordinarily guard France's Italian frontier in the maritime Alps, are facing Germany in the Vosges or the Ardennes.
It is now important to consider for a moment what caused England to throw herself into this war. The reluctance to go to war in a Continental quarrel was deep-seated and traditional. To "fight for Servia," as some people saw the situation at first, was abhorrent. Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, M.P., chairman of the Labor Party, rose and uttered a dignified protest in the House of Commons—with the result that the Labor Party was split from top to bottom and he has resigned his chairmanship. Even the Cabinet was for a time acutely divided, and on the fateful Sunday a break-up of the Liberal Ministry seemed not impossible. That a complete and determined unity of opinion was finally and so speedily reached in the ministry and the country was due in no small part to the amazing ineptitude and duplicity of Germany's diplomatic procedure, which placed her attitude and aims beyond doubt.
It was known on Monday morning, August 3, that Sir Edward Grey would make a full statement that afternoon. The House of Commons was crowded to its utmost capacity—it cannot hold all its members—even a score of chairs being placed upon the floor, and I have never known such tension and expectancy. Sir Edward Grey is perhaps the most restrained and the coldest speaker in the House. By temperament he loathes and dreads exaggeration and rhetorical sentiment. Whereas the ordinary orator hesitates sometimes in seeking the strongest word or the most effective phrase. Sir Edward Grey is apt to pause and almost stumble in his speech from seeking the simplest word or the expression farthest from exaggeration or mere sentiment. On this occasion he was a man whom none of us had ever known before. Obviously he was exercising the severest self-restraint, yet now and again passion blazed in his face and rang out in his words. The reason was clear. Not only was it due to the deep conviction with which he viewed the fateful moment of his country's choice of peace or war, but even more to the fact that he, a man to whom simple honor in private and public dealings is as the air he breathes, had been dealt with by Germany in a spirit of cunning, and had been approached with an offer implying that he might be bribed into a dishonest security. "If, in a crisis like this, we run away from those obligations of honor and interest as regards the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in face of the respect we should have lost." To every one who heard Sir Edward Grey utter those words it was clear that the die was about to be cast. In proposing the vote of credit of £100,000,000, three days later, Mr. Asquith fitted the adjective to the German proposal—which was, as he said, that behind the back of France we should have assented to the seizure by a victorious Germany of all her colonial possessions, and have bartered away to the Power threatening her our plighted word to Belgium. "What would have been the position of Great Britain to-day...if we had assented to this infamous proposal?" The terrible word "infamous" fell like a bomb upon hearers already strained to the utmost—and their answering cheers detonated like an explosion. And the country as a whole, now that the facts are understood, has come to share the almost unanimous view of the House of Commons. Nobody talks of "fighting for Servia" any more; those who declared that war would be "a colossal crime " are silenced by the facts; every intelligent person realizes that the war is not so much between Germany and Austria on the one side, and England, France, Russia, Belgium, Servia, and Montenegro on the other, as between civilization, with free, peaceful development for both great and little nations, and the satisfaction of an insatiable and intolerant military ambition for "world power." In fact, the allied nations are fighting, as American telegrams show, to our thankfulness, that the American people also clearly understand, for what Mr. Gladstone called "the common interests against the unmeasured aggrandizement of any Power whatever.
How comes it that the Germany of science and industry and culture, the Germany that so many, like myself, have learned to know, to admire, and to feel almost affection for, thus stands to-day, surrounded by a ring of enemies, without a real friend in the world, unmasked in an ambition, to destroy which every European nation except Austria is ready to draw the sword?
The answer is to be found in the effect of the teaching of men like Treitschke and von Bernhardi. A group of eminent Germans, backed by a thousand less known, have preached for a generation the doctrine that it is the proud task of Germany to impose German civilization and German culture upon the world, that every other nation is decadent and ''barbarian," that Germany is powerful enough to accomplish this divine task, and that all considerations of international law, social obligations, or treaties must yield to the necessity of fulfilling at any cost and by means her paramount destiny.
Here are specimens of these teachings: ''The maintenance of peace never can or may be the goal of a policy." "The inevitableness, the idealism, and the blessing of war, as an indispensable and stimulating law of development, must be repeatedly emphasized." "What we now wish to attain must be fought for, and won, against a superior force of hostile interests and Powers." "We must not hold back in the hard struggle for the sovereignty of the world." "Our next war will be fought for the highest interests of our country and of mankind....'World power or downfall!'—Weltmacht oder Niedergang—will be our rallying-cry." These quotations, taken almost at random from the only book of the kind I happen to have where I am now writing, von Bernhardi's "Germany and the Next War," could be expanded a thousandfold, and illuminated by scores of contemptuous and insulting epithets flung at England and other nations. They accurately and adequately summarize, however, the teaching which has permeated the mind of modern Germany. This is a comparatively new growth. It did not exist when I was a student at Leipzig. But for a long time now I have been conscious that at the back of their minds my German friends, sincerely filled with personal good will, cherished a kindly contempt for my own country, as for one whose work in the world was done, whose vigor was sapped by wealth and play, and who was inevitably destined to yield her empire in due course to the people whose knowledge, whose courage, whose national discipline, whose pre-eminence in the arts of peace, and whose invincibility in war inevitably destined her for the future sovereignty of the world. The brutality of her soldiers in Belgium (in one-tenth of the tales of it be true) her behavior even to the sacred persons of foreign ambassadors, her contempt for public law, and her utter disregard of solemn treaty obligations are but the reflection in action on a small scale of the overbearing pride of her national outlook.
It has had its natural result. The neutrality of Belgium, for which we are nominally fighting, only means that we are defending the outpost. In reality, we, and others, have taken up the sword to prevent a development of German ambition which, if not checked, would be fatal to us all in the end. If Germany defeated France she would acquire territory and ports a few miles from our shores, and no treaties or engagements would stop her from establishing at least suzerainty over Holland and Belgium, while the seizure of the French colonies would give her naval bases in many seas. War with England would then be her next step, under conditions a thousandfold more unfavorable to us. As Lord Cromer has pointed out, Napoleon III was lulled into security by Prussian assurances in 1866, while Austria was crushed at Adowa, and he paid for it at Sedan four years later. So it would have been with us had we failed to stand by France to-day.
"World power or downfall!" It will be downfall—not to the Germany of industry, of science, of criticism, of literature, of culture, but to the Germany dominated and led—a large part of it very reluctantly—by Prussian militarism, Prussian autocracy, Prussian ambitions, Prussian "blood and iron." Europe must conquer, or liberty, as we understand it, will perish from the earth on this side of the Atlantic.
And when at Armageddon the forces of good have prevailed over the forces of evil; when the German people, having learned that the politics of the drill-sergeant, which imposed such heavy burdens upon them in peace, led them but to disaster in war, rise in their wrath; when the trumpets blow the last "cease fire" over the graves of tens of thousands of fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons of weeping women—what of the terms of peace? They will be heavy. They must be such as will make war impossible for long enough to reach the time when the peoples of the world will demand that war shall cease forever. Among them, let us hope, will be the condition that no new German fleet shall be created; that the frontier fortresses shall be dismantled; that the annexed provinces, or such parts of them as desire it, shall go back to France; that Schleswig shall go back to Denmark, and the Kiel Canal be neutralized; and that after a century and a quarter "the fair land of Poland," then "ploughed by the hoof of the ruthless invader," as Balfe's famous song has kept the story alive, will, we may hope, be reunited into an autonomous country again; and that a great league of peace and peaceful development will be formed. It is intolerable and unthinkable that the world should be exposed to the horror and the ruin of war in every generation of mankind.
And it will not be the map alone that will be altered. The people will make many a new demand of their rulers and governors. In England, for instance, men will remember that the Government in a week took over the control of the railways, established national sea insurance, fixed the price of food, raised a hundred millions sterling, and dropped the disputes of party politics; and they will ask why, if these things can be done in time of war, they cannot be done, for ends at least as good, in time of peace. And on the Continent other questions will be asked—and answered by those who ask them.
So, "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right," we must assume victory.
Doubtless dark days lie ahead, but we must assume it because of our determination that, now the seventh angel has poured out his vial into the air, by the heavy hammer and in the hot fire of Armageddon there shall be forged at last a great and an enduring peace.
August 15, 1914.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald