The Hohenzollern's Catspaw

By Frederick Courtland Penfield
(American Ambassador to Austria-Hungary 1913-1917)

[The Independent, November 9, 1918]

Poor old Francis Joseph was called to his eternal rest before the world had allocated the crime of launching the war that came so close to strangling civilization and before he could have seen half its awful consequences. Therein fate was kind to the aged Hapsburg who for nearly three generations had governed from the banks of the Danube more absolutely than Russia had in two decades been ruled. For years Francis Joseph had sternly set his face against war and had prayed to be permitted to pass his declining years in peace. Yet he yielded to specious advice and the influence of an inspired cabal and fathered the cruelest war declaration known in history.

In Germany there was a ruthless ruler, a parvenu compared with Hapsburg antiquity, a man bursting with the greatest ego ever known, loquacious in describing the divinity of his rule, who wanted war before the strength and skill of France and Russia might make their armies superior to the fighting machine of Germany. For upwards of forty years Wilhelm and his forebearers had been preparing for strife, and believing his legions ready to the very last button, he was willing in 1914 to avail of any pretext for converting Europe into a shambles, from which Germany would be certain to emerge the undisputed victor.

Ever had the vain Hohenzollern been a close reader of the lives and exploits of soldier despots, and probably he detected flaws in the careers of Charlemagne and Hannibal. The leader receiving the known approval of the Prussian soldier was Atilla, the murderous Hun, and there are contemporary reasons for believing that this cutthroat was adopted by Potsdam's superman as the model of what a military leader should be.

One of the Kaiser's faithful had him written a book around the idea of a Mitteleuropa governed from Berlin and this effusion of Friedric Neumann had the scheme fined down to such a certainty that Wilhelm looked upon the suggested chain of countries—controlled by himself—as the most logical of corollaries for his matchless military machine.

Not content with the advancement of Germany by legitimate effort in commerce and manufacture, unique in Europe, and a progress capturing the markets of the continent, even of the British Isles, and of Asia and Oceanica—and having ships on the seven seas—the military-mad potentate of Germany believed he might upbuild by armed force at a greater rate than by the peaceful penetration that was already the envy of rival lands.

With Wilhelm the craving was for a complication of international affairs that might serve as a plausible pretext for war. Then the Mitteleuropa dream might be achieved by the sword. In Germany the Junker class wanted war, and naturally every member of the military cult was passing sleepless nights wondering when war might advance him in title or position or bring an added ribbon for his padded chest.

Wilhelm II had dreams of Eastern Empire vaster than mere Palestine and Persia, and the "penetration" to be spread by the Bagdad Railway, be it known. If he could become dictator of Russia what was there to prevent Germany from entering India as overlord? Anyway, the Kaiser had seen to it that Turkey was ready at any time to serve his purpose as a way station to the East. For thirty years German drill-masters had been goose-stepping Turkish troops in the way they should go, and the Kaiser's agents could dragoon the Ottomans into line whenever Wilhelm's grandiose scheming might use them. Even the Sheikh-ul-Islam was chosen at Germanized Constantinople to use his exalted religious office for spreading German propaganda when so instructed.

In the somnolent hours of a peaceful Sunday late in June in 1914 the telegraph flashed the startling information from the capital of Bosnia that assassins had killed the heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, as well as the consort of the Archduke. The news appalled Europe, for the murder was another tragedy in the House of Hapsburg and had great dynastic importance, but it remained the consensus of Austro-Hungarian opinion that it would not bring war.

The concrete facts were that a youthful zealot named Princip with two or three accomplices, all of Serbian blood but actually subjects of Austria, had been prepared at the Serbian capital by a handful of agitators to kill the Archduke Francis Ferdinand when he came to officially inspect the soldiers stationed at Sarajevo. In a forest contiguous to Belgrade the anti-Austrians had schooled the fanatical lads in shooting Browning pistols and throwing hand bombs that had secretly been made in a Serbian arsenal. The dastardly crime was undeniably the outcome of a deliberate political plot formulated in Serbia, but it was neither the work of King Peter's Government nor of the Serbian nation.

Thruout the Danube monarchy, where the Archduke had never been popular, scarcely a person regarded the murder as a sufficient cause for hostilities, and after the press for a few days had animadverted harshly against the Balkan kingdom, Russia and all Slav peoples, Austrian anger seemed to have run its course. It is doubted if a hundred of Francis Joseph's subjects had any thought of war, and nobody apart from the militarist class could have wanted strife. It was simply not regarded possible.

Diplomatists inquiring at the Foreign Office were uniformly assured that while certain demands must be made upon Serbia, nothing drastic was contemplated. Distinctly was the idea given that recourse to arms was not being considered, The press soon forgot its abuse of the Slav races, the venerable Emperor went back to his hermitage at Ischl, and it was good deduction that Europe was not in 1914 to see an outbreak of war.

Weighing the pros and cons in his Potsdam study the crafty Hohenzollern must have decided that the hour had struck for launching his grandiose military plans. The killing of Francis Ferdinand was the best of pretexts for United Germany to set out for the place in the sun that destiny had so long been preparing for her. The Dual Monarchy might not wish war, but her important Teuton ally did, and hence Francis Joseph must be made to understand how overwhelming was' the crime committed on that sleepy Sabbath afternoon in the capital city of Bosnia by the "Serbs" who in reality were subjects of the Austrian crown.

But could the dreaming old sovereign be influenced to play Wilhelm's game and handle his cards in a manner keeping Potsdam and Berlin from being suspected as the instigator? The Hohenzollern believed this might be accomplished, and he well knew that Francis Joseph ruled more autocratically than the Louis of France who was convinced that he alone was the state, and "Wilhelm also knew that the Hapsburg chief was very proud as well as very old. It was the comment of habitual courtiers that at the age of eighty-four Francis Joseph's mind was as keen and alert as that of the average man of forty, yet there were many competent people who were convinced that the mind of the doyen of European rulers was bordering upon decay, like the intellects of men not born in the purple. The great Hapsburger had no parliament to bother him, for not in many months had it been in session, and then only to break up in a row with the conflicting races throwing books and inkstands at each other. Further the Cabinet of the Emperor was made up of fawning aristocrats whose judgments had not in years differed an iota from those of their imperial master, and only semi-occasionally were these statesmen summoned to the council table to express approval of measures that the gentle old man believed were to benefit his discordant peoples.

The absolutism of the Czar of All the Russias was pegs below that of the old Emperor of Austria, for the autocrat of the north had a Duma that on occasions he had to pretend to consult. Astute, Wilhelm well knew this and must have thought the conditions ideal for getting Francis Joseph to set things going by springing a war of vengeance against Serbia, True, the Hapsburg chief had not made war upon Italy when a crazed Italian murdered his beautiful Empress at Geneva—that was another matter, and then Franz Joseph was twenty years younger, and had not learned to run a government controlling 52,000,000 persons of eight or ten distinct races as a one-man affair. Progressive Germany already had easy-going Austria fettered by political and military alliances, customs agreements, trade understandings, secret and open contracts and treaties of every known character, few of which contained any modicum of equity for Austria.

It was a sad fact that the coffers of the Austrian Government had for months been in so depleted a condition that financial experts of the Emperor were displaying genius in keeping the truth from the people. Two disquieting wars in the neighboring Balkans had almost paralyzed commerce in Austria and in Hungary. Wilhelm obviously knew this, but doubtlessly hoped that Francis Joseph would not think of a matter so unimportant in declaring war.

With half an eye Wilhelm must have perceived the ease with which the dreaming recluse might serve his purpose and this safely accomplished by absent treatment. In Vienna the Kaiser had for Ambassador a keen-witted Saxon whose zeal, for the Fatherland and its ruler was boundless, and this functionary would be the very man to organize and conduct a cabal influencing Francis Joseph to do anything. It would not be safe for the German Government to have to do with so sinister a program, while it would be sufficiently safe for the hint to come from the All Highest and be carried to the Austrian capital by trusted militarists of the Crown Prince's clique.

Well, the, suggestion from high quarters was all that the diplomatist required to organize the cabal to halt the aged Monarch's prayers for peace, and to so work upon his pride and probably weakening intellect that he would play Germany's game by hurling a surprize ultimatum and war declaration against the Serbian Government, whose people he had long detested. There were not more than six or seven men in this band of schemers; there were military high officials who had long wanted war for their own purposes, and one or two were Hungarian statesmen saturated with the Pan-German idea, one of whom had the Emperor's ear to the exclusion of advisers of higher positions.

One by one these conspirators journeyed to the Imperial villa at Ischl and remained until convinced he had furthered the project of war, and in this specious manner Francis Joseph was influenced into assuming the outward responsibility for the world's master crime.

The original intention of calling for an apology from Serbia, the punishment of certain agitators against Austria-Hungary, and promises of better conduct thereafter, was departed from piecemeal by the substituted ultimatum drafted con amore in the Vienna Foreign Ministry by a diplomatist of Hungarian birth intimately knowing Serbia thru official residence at Belgrade. The formal declaration of hostilities following the ultimatum was wholly unnecessary, for the ultimatum adroitly meant to be unanswerable had all the force of a declaration of war. The unreasonable time limit of forty-eight hours for replying to the demands made a clash absolutely certain—it could not be avoided, in spite of the conferences held day and night at St. Petersburg, London and Paris.

And this is the true genesis of the starting of the world cataclysm, already killing four or five millions of innocent mortals, maiming twice as many, and devastating half of Europe, In all faith do I believe that the responsibility for the war rests in .Germany, and that the irresolute Francis Joseph was influenced into his murderous action by the cabal of men doing Wilhelm II's bidding.

Thruout Austria and Hungary there was always good feeling for America, superficially at least, and dignitaries from the Emperor down to subordinates in public always assured me that the Monarchy wanted nothing but the best of relations the Washington Government and the people of the United States. But beneath the surface there was a feeling of animosity against us varying always with the current attitude of Berlin toward Uncle Sam. The press of Vienna and Budapest was ordered not to print statements or opinions unfriendly to America, and the official censor scores of times forced the newspapers to delete carping editorials and letters written by persons whom the editors delighted in describing as "American Journalists" or "Professors in recognized American universities." When taken to task by the Foreign Office for these disobediences, the editors would make the shambling excuse that the offending article slipped into their columns by mistake, and that would terminate the incident. Of course there were German propaganda agents operating in the Danubian capitals, and these had little fear of the Austro-Hungarian Government.

When a submarine flying the Austrian flag pounced without warning upon the Italian ship "Ancona," having American passengers, and Washington demanded an apology with punishment of the commander of the undersea craft, the Austrian Government promptly apologized and offered compensation. A day or two after the Foreign Office had rendered satisfaction, for the outrage, a distinguished Austrian diplomatist assured me that the piratical craft was really a German submarine, manned by Germans, and that the flag of Austria had been employed solely as a ruse.

I have seen the play of fate in the passing from life of certain of the actors in the superlative of tragedies staged at the Austrian capital in the epochal year 1914. I saw the venerable Emperor and the German Ambassador in their coffins, witnessed the loss of ho-nor of the pro-German statesman at Budapest, and the dismissal from the Foreign Office by the well-meaning Emperor Karl of the conscienceless man who drafted the Serbian ultimatum. Of the military men, I have read that one achieved a field marshalship and the other a countship for their efforts in causing the purposeless war.

Poor Austria has surely paid a crushing price for her partnership with Prussianized Germany, with which her only similarity was the possession of the same language, and Austria's fate must ever be remembered by statesmen who think there is strength in secret alliances.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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