Germany Embattled:
An American Interpretation

By Oswald Garrison Villard

[Scribner's Magazine, December 1914]

A wonderful quiet, certainty, and determination unto death are characteristic of all Germany to-day, and even with all the sorrow we are undergoing we deeply feel the greatness of these times. God bless our arms!"

No other phrase that has crossed the ocean more completely states the German frame of mind when the mobilization was over and the empire could catch its breath and realize that by the most sudden, as well as the most violent, of convulsions the Germany and Europe of yesterday had gone forever—that the whole world had changed overnight.

The writer, a woman of rank and position, had but just parted, dry-eyed, from her husband and sixteen soldier relatives of a family which boasts of having had no civilians among its members since 1700. She had no word of regret; only a prayer that she might keep her self-control and be found worthy of a crisis which had revealed the entire nation so united and determined as to wipe out in a moment all differences of rank, religion, and party. To describe that hour of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice many a gifted writer and man of affairs has found himself utterly at a loss. The thrill and the uplift born of its whole-souled devotion wrenched every one loose from the purely personal considerations of life and exalted them with all the enthusiasm which comes from a readiness to die for a common cause. The psychology of the crowd was at its noblest height. Even the foreign spectators caught in the sudden swirl of vast, loosened reservoirs of national feeling found it impossible to observe, save with awe, conviction, and deep emotion, this profoundly impressive transformation of a people.

To the Germans their cause is just, their conscience clear. No such outburst of lofty enthusiasm for Kaiser and country would have been possible had there been anywhere as serious doubts as troubled, in England, Charles Trevelyan, Ramsay MacDonald, John Burns, and Lord Morley. As the facts were presented to the German people there seemed to be no question that their war-lord, who had kept the peace for the twenty-six years of his reign, had in this emergency stood for peace until the last moment, moving only when Russian perfidy compelled him to. It was necessary to strike first, even as a football team seeks to "get the jump" upon its opponents, for if Russia or France were to deliver a blow while German mobilization was under way and incomplete, the country would be in the position of a frigate raked in the sailing days by a broadside when "taken aback" and helpless. The public actually trembled lest the Kaiser hold off too long, and when he moved he seemed to them of Olympian stature. His language, bombastic as it may have appeared abroad, was pitched to the key-note of the hour; one heard for the first time praise of him as unser lieber, guter Kaiser. He stood for the whole people when he opened the war session of the Reichstag and, with his great sense of dramatic values, called upon its leaders to come forward and place their hands in his —even the socialists, whom he had dubbed traitors to the country in a speech at the Krupp works but a few years before. All this at the very moment that battalions in every town and city were marching, singing, to the front and Von Emmich's divisions, without waiting for siege-guns or reservists, were victoriously assaulting Liège.

With this profound belief in the righteousness of its cause, the nation went to war joyously exalted, wondering at itself and its power. Its leaders had hoped, they said, that the nation was strong and sound and firmly welded together in all classes by the bands of union forged under the stress of 1870-71. They knew it now to be true. They had not been sure that what is considered a decadent age had not affected the rugged virtues; that prosperity, material and scientific success, had not somewhat palsied the ability to think in terms of the nation. The wonderful response of the people filled all doubters with joy. Not only was it unnecessary to drive a single conscript to the ranks, but two millions of men who for one reason or another had escaped military service, or had passed beyond it by reason of age, volunteered, begging to be sent to the front. It is no wonder that the national motto, "Gott Mit Uns," was translated by Kaiser and people into that positive affirmation of the aid of the Deity which has so offended the world's onlookers.

Yet, when the nation gazed abroad in this moment of lofty exaltation and found that Italy, her ally, held back; that Belgium also flung herself into the struggle with absolute devotion in order to protect her territory; that England joined the enemies to east and west; that Japan, who had learned her military art from Germany, obeyed the orders of England to come to her rescue in the East; that the sentiment of the United States and other neutral nations was wholly against her—it was then that a feeling of absolute incredulity gave way to absolute anger. It was the English upon whom the waves of their wrath broke primarily. They had cut the cables connecting Germany with the outside world; they it was who spread abroad the false stories that Liège held out until August 17 and that the Germans were guilty of acts of brutality. It was England who told but half the story in her White Paper. It was England whose abstention from the war Sir Edward Grey had been ready to put up for German bidding until, driven into a corner, he refused to name his final price.

The English thus appeared before the German nation as traitorous to its civilization and culture, because its statesmen had so often described their people as ''cousins across the Channel;" because there had existed the warmest cordiality and co-operation between the scientific and learned men of both countries; because they were of kindred racial stock and in their ideals nearer to one another than to France or Spain or to the Slavic power to the east. As the Germans analyzed the situation, their joint type of civilization was threatened with complete submergence by the brutal Russian forces which England had opposed at every turn since the Crimean war, against whose aspirations in the Near East the England of Gladstone had set itself like the Rock of Gibraltar; the Russia whose institutions are the exact opposite of those of liberal England; the hands of whose Romanoffs have reeked with the blood not only of its Jews but of all Russians who sought liberty. Whatever may have been the theories of the Bernhardis and the extreme militarists, the German people as a whole felt such a kinship to the British, with whom their royal family is so closely allied, that it was like a stab in the back from a brother when England declared war.

Did the English, all Germany asked, not comprehend that it was their battle which it was fighting? To Germany, Austria was well within her rights in sending the ultimatum; its language was no harsher than the circumstances warranted. In moving to revenge the archduke Austria did no more, as Ambassador von Bernstorff puts it, than the United States would have if emissaries of Huerta had murdered the vice-president of the United States. Russia should have allowed Austria to punish Servia, not only for the murder at Sarajevo, but for years of open anti-Austrian agitation bent on despoiling her of her provinces; that Russia moved proved to many a German that Russia herself was behind the Servian agitation; that Servia was merely the Czar's cat's-paw. When Russia acted Germany was compelled to follow for two reasons: her honor as an ally was as much involved as England's was engaged to France by the secret understanding, and she could not permit mobilization on her boundary, since her chief hope was to dispose of France before the Russian masses could be drawn up at her frontier. The possibility of war on two frontiers has never been lost sight of in Berlin; there has not been a day since 1880 that the German general staff has not studied and restudied its plan for defending the nation against a simultaneous French and Russian attack; there has not been a day during this period that the German army has not been confident of its ability to defeat both enemies. But to defeat them and England, too? It cannot be denied that for the moment even military Germany was staggered.

But only for a moment. Then, with a quick ''the more enemies the more honor," the nation pressed on, easily persuading itself that the real issue behind it all was not only the Russian position—testified to in the White Paper by Sir Edward Grey—that Austrian domination of Servia would be intolerable to her, but Russian determination to undermine first Austria and then Germany for her own aggrandizement. For a few days the air was full of this cry of Slavic peril, that Germany stood alone against the Huns—as Western culture had once fought to keep the Turks out of Europe—until the question of Belgian neutrality thrust this into the background. That some Germans realize that her moral position would be far stronger to-day had she left Belgium untouched is deducible not merely from the chancellor's confession that she had violated a law of nations; it is admitted frankly by a few, like Professor Paul Natorp of the University of Marburg. Yet even he has convinced himself, like all Germany, that the French would have marched in with the consent of England and of Belgium itself if the Germans had not; they are the more certain of this now that the Germans have found the tell-tale papers in Brussels showing that the British were plotting with the Belgians what they should do if Belgium were invaded. That French troops and officers were actually crossing the boundaries when the Germans were, and that some were already in Liège, Namur, and Antwerp, is believed from one corner of Germany to another.

But, even if this were to be disproved, the Germans as a whole are behind the chancellor in his belief that to invade Belgium was justified by that direst necessity that knows no law. It was the only way to protect their own unfortified Belgian frontier. Why could not the Belgians have realized this and spared themselves all that they have suffered by letting the Germans march quietly through? The Kaiser's troops would have disturbed or injured no man; they would have made good any injury done and paid handsomely as they went. For the rest of the world to cry out against what happened as a result of Belgian folly, in the manner that it has, passeth understanding from their point of view. For England to protest seems to Germany the height of hypocrisy. England standing for the rights of small nations—the same England that wiped out the Boer republics; that consented shamefully to Russia's crushing out of Persia; that connived at France's swallowing of Morocco when the ink on the treaty of Algeciras guaranteeing Moroccan integrity was scarcely dry! Merely to state the case against "perfidious Albion" is to prove its shamelessness.

Hence the Germans have convinced themselves that England's seizing on Belgian neutrality as a reason for war was but the hollowest of shams. Everything that is now disclosed but proves in Berlin a long-planned conspiracy to ruin Germany because of her success in the world. It is envy that is at the bottom of it all, a wicked, criminal envy because German ships are filling the seas and German commerce is growing by leaps and bounds and her merchants are capturing the marts of trade hitherto the private property of John Bull. It is all so clear and plain that Germany could not understand why the rest of the world could not see it, too. "But wait," it cried, "until the German side gets out to the rest of the world, then its moral opinion will turn to our aid." Meanwhile, the question of Belgian neutrality into the background like the Slavic peril; the stake was now the preserving of German Kultur (not culture, but civilization) from all the world, if need be.


German Kultur! What this means is the riddle of the hour to many who honestly seek to fathom the Teuton point of view. Is there a German "culture" or civilization superior to any other? And is that Kultur typified by autocratic Prussian militarism which slashes lame cobblers and bends the nation to its own perilous will? Is it typified by the Kaiser in his war-lord moods, as when he bade the German troops departing for China to carve their way to Pekin with ferocity?

"I have," he said, "to re-establish peace with the sword and take vengeance in a manner never before seen by the world.... The German flag has been insulted and the German Empire treated with contempt. This demands exemplary punishment and vengeance.... If you close with the enemy, remember this: Spare nobody. Make no prisoners. Use your weapons so that for a thousand years hence no Chinaman will dare look askance at any German. Open the way for civilization once more."

Or when he speaks of divine right, preaches the doctrine that might makes right, and denounces three millions of his countrymen as traitors because they wish to reconstitute the nation? Does it mean the Germany of the university professors like Treitschke, who demand not only that Germany shall have "her place in the sun" but that she shall aggressively fight for it; the professors who dream of oversea dominion, of making Germany the Rome of the twentieth century, who are so certain of the superiority of what they consider German civilization as to be ready to impose it upon all the world?

Or does this word Kultur stand for that other Germany that all the world has come to love and praise, the Germany of kindliness and friendliness, of learned men to whom tens of thousands of Americans owe a never-ending gratitude; the Germany of poetry and music, with its rare love of nature; the Germany of humanitarian ideals that has led all the world in its efforts to solve social problems, elevated civic administration to the rank of a science and builded the city beautiful, while caring for its poor and its aged under laws all advanced nations are copying?

To Germany herself what her Kultur stands for is the spirit behind both of these divergent Germanys, but not that which produces autocratic or militarist excesses; for it signifies the supreme expression of its life as a nation—the youngest of nations. In its brief existence it has made more positive contributions to knowledge and world-advancement than any other nation in the same period. At all times Kultur stands for wonderful discipline not only in the army but in party, church, and state, together with equally marvellous efficiency. To this must be added an idealism amazing in a practical people which worships the expert and has wedded industry to science. On the one hand there is a deep, warm sentimentalism and on the other a union of minute knowledge and of comprehensive grasp of fundamental principles. Finally, there must not be denied as another component part a growing belief in the necessity and glory of armaments; a demand that their nation be allowed to play a part as a world power even as Spain and England in their times. Something of a composite like this it is which Germany is defending to-day as her contribution to civilization, as even more worthy of preservation than the precise framework of government under which her citizens live; for it men and women are giving freely of all that is most precious to them.

But as they give they suddenly find themselves portrayed as barbarians, as savages without reverence for the very things that play so deep a part in their lives, and they are aghast. How is it that they can be so misunderstood? Is all the world poisoned against them? Can such frightful lies triumph? They read them on every hand—the crassest falsities, chiefly from English sources, since London is not only the greatest financial exchange but the world's clearing-house for news. They, a united people, learn from the English press that the Kaiser had deliberately ordered every socialist member of the Reichstag shot; that socialist mobs were shot down in the streets of Berlin; that the people who rose in patriotic exaltation never equalled in modern times were driven unwillingly to the front! Their Kaiser, beloved by great multitudes, is portrayed as a wholesale murderer who plunged all Europe into bloody war when he could have prevented it; they themselves are pictured as slaves of a military cabal which plans the subjugation of France and England, the destruction of liberalism and the governing of Europe by an intolerable iron rule. They are told abroad that their soldiers are vandals who violate women, mutilate little children, murder in cold blood, and not merely destroy private property but priceless works of art never to be replaced—the common heritage of mankind. In brief, they are accused of the very things of which they accuse, under oath, the invading Russians who in one East Prussian district alone are charged with three hundred and fifty murders of non-combatant men and women and children.

The world, they suddenly find, believes anything of them—of them who have gone forth to war in the spirit of the crusader, not hirelings, like the British regulars, but a most democratic army of the people, united with a new spirit of brotherliness to their comrades in the ranks from all walks in life, from princes to 'prentices. There are fathers and brothers, yes, grandfathers, in every regiment, men of years, position, title, learning, and high standing in every company, drawn together, not for plunder, not by lust of war, but to save their country, and all bound together by a discipline never approached by any other army. And of these it is said that they are like the Sioux Indians! Nothing to Germans could be worse than these slanders save what they themselves tell of the Belgians, of furies in skirts putting out with corkscrews the eyes of helpless German wounded and pouring boiling water upon them; of ununiformed citizens shooting out of cellars and from attic windows, and rising treacherously, as at Louvain, when led by priests and professors. Nothing surprises them more than that any one should look upon the burning of Louvain as else than a just punishment for acts directly contrary to the laws of war. When their own villages have been shot to pieces and burned by Russians without its creating an outcry in America, they cannot see why the burning of Belgian villages, the natural result of shelling troops out of them, should seem anything else than an ordinary incident of war, the hell that is war that they, under their Prussian generals, propose to make so terrible a hell by legitimate severity that their enemies will soon submit.

The fact that the Belgians lied to all the world about Liège, and similar misrepresentations, the Germans are ready to bear with as part of the game. But not the calumnies of their troops, as if they were Bulgarians or Serbs or Greek marauders. That is the last straw, and the head-lines, "Wir Barbaren," "Wir Unmenschen," now appearing in the German press over records of British and French prisoners' appreciation of their kindly treatment testify to the hurt inflicted. And so we have the German professors spurning their British decorations and academic honors, and the terrible prospect that between these two Teuton nations, which ought to be the best of friends, there will exist at the end of the war, whatever the outcome, a bitterness and a hatred beside which the latent hostility of French and Germans since 1870 will seem mere childish irritation. The Germans simply cannot understand when they hear that Englishmen of German names are changing them because, as in one recorded case, they say that the Germans have been carrying on war "contrary to every dictate of humanity."

Conscious of their rectitude, clear as to the injury done them, certain of the triumph of their arms, their faces are now turned to the neutrals, but particularly to the great North American republic where dwell so many of German birth. With German love of thoroughness and system they have formed committees for the purpose of presenting the truth abroad. They have showered every attention upon returning Americans in the passionate belief that they will be ambassadors of good will and reporters of the right. Citizens everywhere are besought for names of friends or relatives in America to whom literature may be sent, in full faith that the United States, so ill treated by Great Britain in 1776, 1812, and during the Civil War, will particularly express its horror at the policy which has sent against their Kultur hordes of black, brown, and yellow troops from Africa, India, and Asia.


It may, therefore, be about the hardest blow of all when Germany realizes that their representations of the facts as they see them, and their contentions, have from the first been freely printed in the American press, together with the views of Dernburg, Münsterberg, Francke, Von Jagemann, Kühnemann, Burgess, Sloane, Ridder, Hexamer, and Ambassador Bernstorff, but that the American public as a whole continues unconvinced. The United States remains firm in its belief that the responsibility for this terrible misfortune which has overtaken humanity rests primarily with Austria and next with the Kaiser. ''The final help," says the London Times, "is the mighty duty of America." What Germany, in its eagerness for that "final help," does not yet appreciate is that the unfavorable American judgment was based on consideration of the facts, and particularly of those relating to the invasion of Belgium. Our good opinion was forfeited by Germany when the Kaiser rejected Sir Edward Grey's offers to assure peace, when the ''scrap-of-paper" incident occurred, and when the imperial chancellor exalted the law of necessity above the law of nations.

Berhn must learn that this judgment cannot be altered either by fuller appreciation of that thrilling uprising of the Kaiser's subjects or of their unanimous belief in the justice of their cause or of their readiness to die for it. There are plenty of American men and women who recall the wonderful rallying about Lincoln in 1861. "Who that saw it," wrote James Russell Lowell, "will ever forget that enthusiasm of loyalty for the flag, and for what the flag symbolized, which twenty-six years ago swept all the country's forces of thought and sentiment, of memory and hope, into the grasp of its overmastering torrent?" In France today we are witnessing a less-exploited but similarly moving uprising of the people, actuated by the profound belief that it is the very existence of France which is being fought for as well as the "giving to the whole world liberty to breathe, to think, to progress." But waves of national sentiment, however they may bring tears to the eyes and quicken the heart's beat, prove nothing in themselves.

The same is true of the question of the atrocities. If the United States did or did not believe all of them, or believed none of them—even if it approved and did not profoundly disapprove the dropping of bombs without warning into defenceless cities, the exacting of ransoms, the holding of unarmed citizens as hostages, the burning of cities in revenge for individual treachery—its final opinion would not be affected by the presence or absence of these horrible phases of war. War, it knows, lets loose every evil passion, inflicts every pain and torture known to man. But all of this, as thoughtful Germany must soon come to see, can have nothing whatever to do with the fundamental moral issues involved, the right and wrong of the struggle, any more than does the question of England's consistency or her attitude in the past toward the Boer republics, Persia, and Morocco, or our own "water-cure" torturing in the Philippines. Regret that the German name is at present under a cloud the United States will; but no amount of evidence that these accusations are slanderous will achieve the real purpose of the German propaganda in America—the turning of the United States against the Allies.

In the South African war American sympathies were chiefly with the Boers; in the Manchurian campaign overwhelmingly against Russia. If sentiment today favors the Allies it is plainly not because of any thick-and-thin friendship for England or for the Czar's despotic government. As a matter of fact, had France and England violated Belgian neutrality and entered Germany by her unfortified frontier, American public sentiment would have felt just as outraged by the wrong done by Frenchmen and Englishmen. The truth is that the German general staff knew that the easiest road into France lay through Belgium, and they took it. But one may pay too high a price even for the easiest road, and the price paid by Germany was war with Belgium, England, Japan, and perhaps Portugal, and the final forfeiture of public opinion everywhere. The laying waste of Belgium, be it a legitimate incident of war or not, has stirred the world to its utmost depths. Americans cannot but believe, as they pour out sympathy and aid to this stricken people, that it was wickedly unnecessary, and have, therefore, but restricted patience for German appeals.

The sober second thought in Germany, of which one finds traces in Professor Natorp's articles, can but reflect ere long upon the infinitely stronger position Germany would be in, even were the steps leading to the conflict the same, had it fought a defensive war. Many defeats will probably be necessary to shatter German faith in the divine wisdom of its general staff, whose officers had decided for years past that the best policy was that quick overwhelming of France which so nearly succeeded. The time must come, however, when Germans will wish with all their hearts that by keeping out of Belgium they had saved themselves three or four opponents and thereby held in some degree the sympathy of the United States. The position of the German and allied armies at this writing shows a truth we had begun to suspect by the close of our Civil War, that well-trained troops behind breast-works are a better means of defence than the best forts. No one can be found to believe that if Germany's soldier millions had merely lined their own frontiers and waged a defensive campaign behind forts, or trenches where there were no forts, France and Russia, fighting alone, could have made headway against her. The horrible losses of the raid into France would have been avoided and the control of the sea would indubitably be hers. There would have been no charges of vandalism or soldier misconduct to combat and to deplore. Plainly a Bismarck was needed, not only on the diplomatic side, but on the military side as well. Upon the general staff the blame for this utterly mistaken policy will eventually rest.

By this it is not meant to imply that even in this supposititious case Americans would have been altogether on the side of Germany. For all our recent imperialistic excursions into Central and South America and the Philippines, despite our dangerously large navy, the spirit of our people is still as opposed to great military establishment as in the first days of the Republic. As ex-President Eliot has put it: "The reliance on military force as the foundation of true national greatness seems to thinking Americans erroneous, and in the long run degrading to a Christian nation." It is probably true, as German speakers contend, that Bernhardi's book no more represents the real heart and mind of Germany than the vaporings of Congressman Hobson and the tracts of the pseudo-''Lieutenant-General" Homer Lea really reflect the sentiment of the common people of America. To accept the teachings of books like these is to admit that mankind is well along on its return to the stone age. But every military system produces men who worship war as war, believe it to be the normal state of man, and assert that there is no safety for any people but to make a soldier of every citizen. The German army has them in plenty, and, however democratic it may be in its ranks, it is controlled by a clique of professional soldiers who, standing quite apart from the aspirations of the plain people, have, as now appears, made great strides toward dominating the nobler Germany and giving to its foreign policy an aggressive jingo note. Victory now would enormously strengthen the hands of the Nietzsches, Treitschkes, and Bernhardis, with whom the crown prince seems in such complete sympathy. No one can deny this merely by asserting that this is not a war of the Kaiser but of the whole German people, or by pointing out that in the haste to serve the Fatherland the two Germanys are now as one. In war-time there is always the demand that all differences of opinion be sunk and consciences stifled.

No true friend of Germany in the United States can wish for her any success that will convince the masses of her people that true national greatness depends solely on military power. To do so means positive infidelity to our own institutions—and to humanity. If there are German-Americans or others who preach this doctrine that true national worth is measured by the relative perfection of a military machine and the number of battle-ships, they sojourn among us but are not of us. They are ignorant as to a chief teaching of the Republic; they are grossly untrue to the men of '48 who fled when the Prussian militarists blew to pieces that noble uprising and ended that brave if hopeless demand for true democracy. Whether the Germans, blinded by the Sturm und Drang they are now passing through, can perceive it or not, German victory would spell the strengthening of absolutism everywhere and of its bond-servant, militarism. It would mean the subordination of the nobler Germany to the reactionary. It would mean not a Germany to be beloved and honored of all thinking men, but a Germany to be feared and dreaded, with all liberal tendencies crushed within her. Her chief aspiration would then, perhaps, be fresh territories to conquer and certainly more and more sacrifices for the military machine. Against this possibility Americans must protest the louder the more they are indebted to Germany, the more they admire her, the more they pity her, the greater the anguish they feel that the very existence of this nation of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, and all the rest of its really great men has been recklessly staked in a war utterly unnecessary, about whose real causes no man is clear. The more he loves Germany the more the real American must pray that she be saved from the dangerous forces within her which are threatening to overwhelm what is best in her. She must be shown that what is going on to-day is a denial of Christianity and nothing else. Her splendid abilities, her powers of organization, her sentiment, her idealism the world needs for the prevention of wars and not for the deification of the war spirit.

Americans who believe in self-government and democracy can take but one stand against absolutism and arbitrary power. They trust that as a result of this war thrones will everywhere come crashing to the ground. In Germany we must hope for a reawakening of the spirit of 1848 which will recognize at least wherein lies the great power of the United States in this hour. It rests not in the number of our battle-ships nor in the size of our army, but in our moral power: in the vigor of our democratic institutions, in the fact that this country loves justice, truth, and right; that the judgments of its common people are, in the long run, profoundly wise; that that judgment to-day is swayed neither by entangling alliances, nor by the lust of conquest, nor by the blasphemous doctrine that God is on the side of the largest battalions. If America is to-day, in this world crisis, the court of last instance, it is judging honestly on the facts and the facts alone.

Never was it so good to be an American!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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