The Greatest War of History Breaks Over Europe

[Current Opinion, September 1914]

The eight days from July 28 to August 4 are not unlikely to go down into history as the most fateful since the records of mankind began to be kept. On the first of those dates war was declared by Austria-Hungary upon Servia. On the last, war was declared by the British Empire upon Germany. In the brief period that elapsed between those dates the long-hovering war-cloud had burst and a cataclysm had begun that may prove second only to that which swept over the world when the Roman Empire was broken up and the long night of the Dark Ages began. On one side, in that brief time, Germany and Austria-Hungary had become arrayed in deadly conflict with Servia, Montenegro, Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain, with Portugal and Japan likely to be involved in some degree, and with Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Rumania and Bulgaria all mobilizing their troops in fear of being drawn into the conflict.

Estimates of the war strength of the nations already involved run as high as sixteen millions, over six millions on one side and nearly ten millions on the other. Of a total population of Europe of less than half a billion, about 373,000,000 are in the warring countries. The cost of the war is estimated by experts as high as $50,000,000 a day. What the cost in men may be no one can even guess. Never before, of course, were the implements used in a great war so deadly as they are now. It seems as tho the arts and sciences of civilization have been fostered for the purpose of striking as deadly a blow as possible at civilization itself. Aeroplanes, dirigibles, submarines, wireless telegraphy, electric devices of all sorts, are drafted into service. Western civilization, like the fabled serpent, seems to have turned in its rage and struck its fangs into its own body. Count Okuma's statement is hardly overdrawn. If this war continues, he says, Western civilization will be destroyed. It is not quite as bad as that; but it is within the range of possibilities that European civilization may be trampled into the dust. If Germany succeeds again in laying France prostrate and the great Slav hordes then succeed in turn in crushing the Teutons, we may see the continent of Europe go down into the darkness of a century or more.

The Chain of Events that Have Brought War.

One can trace the chain of cause and consequence for such an event all the way back to the Tower of Babel or the Noachian Deluge if he wishes. But for all practical purposes it seems unnecessary to go farther back than six years. "The fatal fire was lit," says Leon Dominian, in an illuminating article in the N. Y. Evening Post (August 8), "in 1908 in the heart of the mountains of Macedonia, when a Turkish officer sent a telegram to Sultan Abdul Hamid, demanding the reestablishment of the form of constitutional government in Turkey." Out of that event came a Turkish parliament. To that parliament Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed the right to send delegates, for by the treaty of Berlin they were left suzerain to Turkey altho turned over to Austria-Hungary for administration. This claim caused an embarrassment in Vienna that was ended by the high-handed annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serbs, who constitute the main part of these two provinces, were inflamed to the point of war then, but Russia restrained them. Her response to the move on the chessboard came later in the shape of the Balkan Alliance, which expelled the Turks and then went to pieces in trying to divide the spoils. The Serbs, who have their own dreams of national grandeur, felt cheated once more by Austria, and out of the race hatred that has smoldered and flamed for centuries came the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, on the 28th of last June, by a Serb lad of nineteen, resident in Herzegovina. On July 23 Austria-Hungary sent her peremptory note to Servia demanding that she crush out the agitation against Austria and punish those accused of complicity in the murder of the Archduke. Servia's reply was not considered satisfactory, and on July 28 war was declared upon her. Austria says she could not wait longer because Servia was already mobilizing. Russia says that she had to begin mobilizing at once because Austria was mobilizing, Germany declared war because she found Russia mobilizing and did not dare wait for Russia to strike first. France began mobilizing because Germany had begun. Belgium was forced into war to resist the invasion by German troops and Great Britain went to war because she had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium and Germany refused to respect it. Thus all the fat was in the fire within eight days' time and the devil was singing the hallelujah chorus.

The Racial Conflict of Slav and Teuton.

At the bottom of it all, says Mr. Dominian, the fight is between Slav and Teuton. "It is a grim, relentless struggle for existence that is shaping itself into one of the world's fiercest racial contests.… The Slavonic westerly push has always been blocked by the leading power in the West. France opposed it in the Napoleonic period. Great Britain checked it in the latter half of the nineteenth century. To-day it is Germany's turn to stand the brunt of its massive bulging." This is the view urged on Americans by Professor Münsterberg, Professor Kuno Francke and other German-Americans, who press the claims of Germany upon American sympathies in this contest. Russia, we are told by them, has been for years intriguing against Austria-Hungary, and "forced Germany to declare the war first." "The great conflict of civilizations," says Professor Münsterberg, "was necessarily stronger than the mere wishes of peaceful individuals. But if it is such a gigantic conflict of Slavic and Germanic culture, the sympathies of the progressive American nation ought not to be so wilfully misled and ought not to be whipped into the camp of the Cossacks. Americans ought not to rejoice when the uncultured hordes of the East march over the frontier and aim toward the most eastern German City—toward Königsberg—the town of Immanuel Kant. Neither Germany nor Russia, the Professor maintains, could do otherwise, for it is "an inevitable conflict of the Slavic and Germanic world." Professor Francke takes much the same view. He thinks that Germany has everything to lose and nothing to gain by the conflict. There are no colonial possessions which she can hope for as a result of it, and her position in the world's commerce is likely to be sacrificed.

American Sentiment and the German Viewpoint.

These considerations have not proved to be very convincing so far as public opinion in America is concerned. It is impossible, the N. Y. Evening Post thinks, to represent this war as a clean-cut combat between Slav and Teuton. In Germany itself there are 2,500,000 Slavs and of the 46,000,000 in Austria- Hungary 23,000,000 are entitled to call themselves Slavic. If Russia, moreover, were to try, as a result of victory in this war, to set up an imposing Slavic statue, she would speedily find that its feet were made of clay, for neither France nor Great Britain would for an instant accede to such a proceeding. What is far more likely, the Evening Post thinks—what, indeed, "stands out so clearly as to wear the guise of certainty"—is that immense popular upheavals will follow this war which will take the form of protests against militarism and autocratic government, and no one is more keenly alive to this fact than the Russian rulers. The N. Y Times in treating the German point of view grows satirical. It says: "As we understand the theory of the holy war, the Kaiser had a divine mission to rescue England, France and Belgium from the impending menace of Slav domination. They were pig-headed about it and refused to be rescued. So, with a heavy heart, the Kaiser was compelled to thrash them in order to save them.'' With Germany's declaration of war against Russia, says the same paper, "the bloodiest war ever fought on earth and the least justified of all wars since man emerged from barbarism has apparently begun." Germany, we are told further, has "challenged practically the whole of Europe to submit to her dictation and has set in motion her mighty military machinery to enforce that dictation." The N. Y.Tribune also is unable to see how Austria-Hungary can be considered a Germanic nation or how the extension of her territory so as to take in even more of the Slavs can help the cause of Pan-Germanism, since she would only be hastening the day when the Slavs will control her government. "So far as the present war is concerned, the Tribune says, "the cry of Teuton against Slav is a delusion." Neither can the claim that Germany is fighting for Western against Eastern European civilization be conceded.

Germany's Amazing- Diplomatic Failure.

If it be true that the real contest in this war is the racial conflict between Slavs and Teutons, or, as the N. Y. Staats-Zeitung puts it, "a war of the German nation standing for culture against Russia and barbarism," then it must become obvious that the diplomatic failure of Germany is something amazing. She has succeeded at the very outset of the conflict in arraying against her Belgium, France and Great Britain, and has been deserted by her own ally, Italy. When Bismarck struck at France in 1870, he not only played his cards so that Great Britain and Russia remained neutral, but he even forced France to take, at least technically, the aggressive. In the present war the Kaiser and his ministers have seemed to lose every single trick in the game of diplomacy. They took the initiative in declaring war against both 'Russia and France. Their, first blow was struck not against the Slav but against the neutral nation of Belgium and the next against the French. They seem to have been surprised that the Belgians resisted. They seem to have been surprised that Great Britain declared war. They seem to have been surprised to find Italy remaining neutral. And the Kaiser is said to be surprised over the numerous indications that the sentiment of the United States has turned against Germany. "American sympathy," says the Berlin correspondent of the N. Y. Times, "was absolutely counted upon.

Its absence is the cruelest disappointment the Kaiser's government has so far suffered." This failure is magnified by the record of the Kaiser's futile effort to restrain Austria. "We are indeed ready to fulfill our duty as an ally," so the Kaiser's minister was writing to the foreign secretary of Austria-Hungary as late as August; "we must, however, refuse to be drawn into a world conflagration owing to Austria-Hungary not respecting our advice." On the face of it, this indicates a diplomatic failure even with her own ally. "Germany's great need," remarks the Montgomery Advertiser, "is another Bismarck.… With Bismarck guiding the destinies of Germany that country would not to-day be facing nearly all Europe in arms."

Germany's Invasion of Belgium.

Never was a great war waged since newspapers were begun that was so concealed in its initial operations from the public. The cutting of the cable from this country to Germany and the placing of the wireless under strict surveillance of our federal officials, cut off all direct communication with Germany. That which remained with other countries was by way of England, and all of it had to pass through the hands of the censor. France has had a very rigid censorship and between it and that in England practically no news of military operations have come through except that which was acceptable to the enemies of Germany. The result has been an avalanch of one-sided reports of German defeats in the initial engagements. Nothing very reliable on the progress of the war is likely to come until after the first great battle has been fought and the military plans are thereby somewhat revealed. One feature of the German campaign, however, stands out fairly well defined. That is the invasion of Belgium. How many German troops participated in the first assaults upon Liege can not be told (Belgian reports placed the number at 120,000) ; but it is certain that this invasion is an important part of the German scheme of operations or Germany would not have taken the chance of driving both Belgium and England into the coalition against her. The Chancellor of Germany, indeed, in a speech before the Reichstag August 4th, emphasized the necessity of the invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium, saying: "He who is menaced as we are and is fighting for dear life must think only how to cut an opening to get through."

Belgium's Heroic Defense.

The German Chancellor frankly admitted that this invasion was "against the law of nations," but excused it on the ground that it is a military necessity. His avowed fear that France was about to strike Germany through Belgium and must be anticipated may be taken with a grain of salt in view of the assurances given by France not only to Belgium but to her own ally, England, as stated by Sir Edward Grey to the House of Commons. The more the invasion of Belgium is considered, therefore, the more difficult it is to explain it on any other basis than that of its being a vital part of the German plan of attack on France. As such it seems certain that the unexpected check given by the heroic Belgians must have materially deranged the German program. With Russia gathering her forces on Germany's eastern frontier, a short and swift campaign in France is more important now than it was in 1870. The delay in Belgium may prove to be the salvation of France. There is something ominous in the words of the Kaiser in a proclamation issued three days after the check administered to his forces at Liege. "To be or not to be," so ran the proclamation, "is the question for the empire which our fathers founded. To be or not to be is the choice for German power and German existence! We shall resist to the last breath of man and horse arid shall fight out the struggle even against a world of enemies." It sounds magnificent, this "against a world of enemies," but it indicates a lamentable lack of diplomacy, and it sounds almost like the courage of despair. The N. Y. Staats-Zeitung echoes the same note: "Against a world of jealous nations in arms Germania stands forth in the full panoply of war, with her back to the wall, like Frederick the Great. Retreat is impossible. Forward or death. Every discussion of why or wherefore, of right or wrong, becomes silenced, must be disregarded, so long as this world is marshaled against this nation of Germans and its only ally."

Discriminating Between the German People and Their Rulers.

Well, the German Empire is one thing; the German people are another thing. While the sentiment of the United States, so far as it has been expressed in our press, is markedly adverse to the one, there are none but words of appreciation for the other. The Rev. Dr. R. Heber Newton, for instance, takes occasion to speak in glowing terms of the intellectual leadership of the German people, of our debt to them in science, music, social reform and commercial development, and of their aid in our Civil War. But he adds this:

"Wherein we most deeply sympathize with the German people now is the sufferings and dangers brought upon them by their ruling classes, by their oligarchic military government. It is the Germany of the clenched fist and the drawn sword, of the 'shining armor' and the 'saber rattling in its scabbard,' that calls for no sympathy on our part. This is the Germany that has precipitated the monstrous world struggle of to-day which fills us all with horror and indignation. It is for this official Germany that we have only detestation."

The Springfield Republican can see no fundamental hostility between the German people and the French, and it traces the trouble back to the Bismarck tradition of blood and iron. It says:

"So far as any one man is to blame, that man is Bismarck, with his policy of blood and iron, and his malignant attitude toward France. The seizure of Alsace-Lorraine was a crime against Europe rather than France; it was the fons et origo of all these troubles. War need not mean lasting hostility—Prussia had fought Austria just before fighting France. But in seizing provinces which have never been reconciled to their fate and are now hotbeds of sedition, in pursuing France rancorously by striving to keep her isolated in Europe, Bismarck was forcing his enemy into the arms of Russia and unwittingly arming half Europe against the other half. There is no fundamental hostility between France and Germany save the bitterness on one side over the lost provinces and the fear on the other side that France meditates revenge."

Germany of the Mailed Fist and Rattling Saber.

This same admiration for the German people and dislike for German militarism is eloquently expressed in an editorial in the N. Y. Evening Post, replying to critics who contend that a paper once edited by Carl Schurz and owned by Henry Villard (its present owner was born in Wiesbaden) should be on Germany's side in the present crisis. It says:

"Never have we upheld the Germany of the mailed fist, of the autocracy of militarism; against its claims, its excesses, its encroachments upon civil rights, its assertion that it constitutes a sacrosanct caste superior to any other, we have protested in season and out of season. We have long seen in this swash-buckling, overbearing attitude of the militarists, and particularly in the activities of such a body as the German Navy League—we are cursed with one of our own-—a grave menace to the peace of Europe; and it has now brought the very worst to pass that the human imagination can conceive. We have never taken the slightest stock in a Kaiser who vows that he rules by divine right and not by popular consent; and we can not now uphold a form of government which denies to masses of its population the right to one vote to every man."

It is another Germany, the same paper goes on to say, that it has been proud to acclaim, "the Germany of high aspirations and noble ideals, the Germany of intellectual freedom, the Germany to whose spiritual leadership every nation the world over is deeply in debt." Against this Germany, it goes on to add, the war into which it has now been plunged is nothing short of a crime "Whether victory or national disaster come out of it all, the intellectual and spiritual growth of the nation is checked for no one knows how long. The fine flower of its youth is to be immolated by a ruler whose signature to a single order signed their death-warrant—without even asking the consent of the people's parliament or taking time for angry passions to cool." Out of the ashes of this militarist Germany it hopes to see a new Germany emerge "in which pure democracy shall rule, in which no one man and no group of professional man-killers shall have the power to plunge the world intomurning."

Will the War End Dynastic Rule in Europe?

As the war proceeds, this is perhaps the dominant note in the American comment—that out of it all may come an end to the monarchies of Europe. "Under Prussian domination," remarks the Albany Press, "autocracy has flowered into the fullness of bloom which now threatens democracy the world over." The Prussians, it maintains, do not stand for what has made Germany truly great and are not even in blood pure Germans but a mongrel stock made warlike by an alloy of primitive Baltic races, and they have acted "as a barrier to crush the ardent liberalism which has been the hope of modern Germany." The N. Y. Times sees a lasting peace for Europe, after the conclusion of this war, only in the overthrow of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Romanoff dynasties. The dynastic idea, with its divine right of kings, we are told, is an anachronism. It has presided over the process of carving up European states to suit the interests of monarchs, in disregard of ties of race and blood and nationality, "Never in the world," it asserts, "of their own will and choice would the industrious people of Germany have brought upon themselves the horrors and perils of a war with Russia, France and England merely to further the aggressive designs of Austria in the Balkans. The wars of old were king-made wars. Here in the twentieth century this is a king-made war, or we should say a war made by emperors for imperial ends." It adds:

"It is medieval, it is barbarous, it is horrible, that men should turn out at the behest of sovereigns and war councils to be shot to death for purposes wholly unrelated to their own welfare. In Russia the absolutist principle of government survives, it is still in a large measure vital in Germany and Austria. If war must come, the only compensating benefit it could bring to Europe would be the crushing out of the imperial idea, the end, once for all time; in those three empires of the absolute rule and the substitution for all-powerful sovereigns and their titled advisers of an executive with power to carry out only the will of the people."

The Spirit of Bismarck In German Statecraft.

The argument made by German-American writers to the effect that the real cause of the war is to be found in the jealousy, of Great Britain and Russia for Germany's success, impresses the Louisville Courier Journal as made up for the occasion. The intention of Germany to challenge the strength of Great Britain, it says, has "been obvious for years and has been freely admitted by Germans themselves. It reproduces in this connection an extract from a speech made by the German Chancellor in the Reichstag, November 10, 1912, as follows: "For months we have been living, and we are living now, in an atmosphere of passions such as we have perhaps never before experienced in Germany. At the root of this feeling is the determination of Germany to make its strength and capability prevail over the world." The Louisville editor adds to this a quotation from Professor Usher's book on "Pan-Germanism"—much quoted these days—in which Bismarck is represented as saying that "every government takes its own interests as the standard of its actions, however it may drape them with deductions of justice or sentiment." Professor Usher, recalling this, then quotes with evident approval the following comment made on modern Germany by someone whose name he does not give: "Bismarck's heavy spirit has settled upon Germany. It has adopted his policy. It has adopted his brutality. It has his greatness. It has taken his criterion of truth, which is Germanic; his indifference to justice, which is savage; his conception of a State, which is sublime."

America's Melting Pot as an Object Lesson to Europe.

The disposition to hold the Kaiser responsible for the war the Topeka Capital finds to be "universal." It agrees with this; but, nevertheless, it thinks that to overlook the fact that Germany is making a stand for the enlightened races of western Europe and against the Slav is to "neglect the vital underlying significance of the war." It regards as certain a future alliance of Germany, France and Great Britain against Russian aggrandizement. The Philadelphia Telegraph is of the same view. "The whirlwind which now twists Europe in its grasp," it predicts, "may develop within a few months into a resistless gale of democracy blowing toward Russia." The Denver News takes no stock in this notion of unavoidable race hatreds. Here in America, it holds, a demonstration has been given to the world that the races of Europe are not necessarily antagonistic. It goes on to say:

"The appeal to race feeling is the hypocrisy of world politics. In order to preserve the prestige upon which thrones stand, the sentiment of racial antipathy is sedulously cultivated. It has been kept alive by kingcraft and militarism long after all other influences of enlightenment were engaged in destroying it. Science, art, music, literature and even commerce—and the last to a larger degree than many imagine—have been working together for the welding of races in a common interest, intellectual and economic, while kings and armies wrought to keep aglow the embers of interracial hatred.

"Let the multitudes of the old world turn their eyes to America that they may learn the truth. Let them observe the miracle of the melting pot. Where men are free they find that the tie of a common humanity is stronger than traditional jealousies. We know not what may come out of Europe's struggle; but may we not hope she is in the travail that will give birth to a new conception of human destiny, in which the spirit of democracy will make place for that comradeship of men which has been the new world's glory?"

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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