Economics / History / Warfare

The July Crisis: Bismarck’s Blunders

Once again the July Crisis reawakens, a term that was first applied to the sequence of events after the 28 June 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that culminated in the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July 1914 and the outbreak of full-scale fighting on 4 August.  This was strangely similar to the unfolding events that occurred 53 years earlier, from the first skirmishes in April to the commencement of full-scale hostilities on 21 July 1861 at Bull Run/Manassas.  Since July 2013 this blog has taken a dim view on on the commonly-accepted histories that explain the American Civil War and First World War, going so far as to link the German “Stab in the Back” myth to the Southern “Lost Cause” yesterday.

There is an aphorism that warns historians to be careful–history is written by the victors.  But closer study reveals a deeper truth…

…never trust statues.  The U.S. is overrun with graven images honoring the Confederate “heroes” of the American Civil War, with little thought given how horrifically incompetent those men were in committing treason against their country of birth.  The same issue plagues Europe:

In simple terms, German governments since the mid-19th century should have avoided and continue to avoid war at all costs, as they categorically suck at it.  This might come as a surprise, as Prussia was renowned for producing some of the finest soldiers in the world, but the German Confederations really should have quit while they were ahead.  Since the founding of the first unified German state in 1871, their military has been one gigantic pile of failure; and there is a singular reason for this.

Bismarck Triumphant

Otto von Bismarck is renowned to this day as a master diplomat, politician and theorist (realpolitik).  He rose to Minister President of Prussia on 23 September and Foreign Minister of Prussia on 23 November of 1862 before proceeding to unify the German Empire under the Prussian king Wilhelm I with a series of stunning victories against Denmark in in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71.  As mentioned in the previous posting, Bismarck extracted massive terms from the French, which was unprecedented:

Detached observers were alarmed by this departure from the tradition of reparations for war expenses alone, the Economist observing in March 1871 that “to exact huge sums of money as the consequence of victory suggests a belief that money may next time be the object as well as the actual reward of battle.  A flavor of huckstering is introduced into the relations between States.”  Nevertheless, Bismarck insisted “France being the richest country in Europe, nothing could keep her quiet but effectually to empty her pockets.”  Overall, the German chancellor felt he had been mild: “Some moderate a victor as the Christian German does not exist in the world anymore.”

Bismarck seemed to dominate late-19th century Europe, and his dismissal by Wilhelm II in March 1890 is sometimes credited as the turning point for Germany’s future aspirations.  This ignores an obvious reality–a nation does not consist of a single man, and building cults of personality around heroes is just as detrimental as revering those that eventually turn into Icarus (Wilhelm II and Hitler attained Bismarckian levels of honor before they came crashing back to Earth).  But Bismarck’s 10 years of military success were historical oddities, befitting an age of rapid change and a man given to dumb luck.

Bismarck Ascendant

Denmark failed to prepare for the Second Schleswig War and sacked its top general, Christian de Meza, when he prudently ordered his forces to withdraw from the Dannevirke.  In 1864 these thousand-year old earthen fortifications were hallowed ground to the Danes, and the withdrawal from and loss of the Dannevirke led to the disastrous decision to stand fast at Dybbøl instead of retreat to a more defensible position.

The Prussians had introduced the bolt-action, breech-loading Dreyse needle gun into service beginning in 1848.  In addition to allowing a much higher rate of fire compared to the muzzle-loaders of the time, the fact that a soldier would not have to stand to reload made the Prussians far more difficult to hit than the Danish Dybbøl defenders.  The effect upended warfare as it turned the bayonet charge from a powerful tactic when used by experienced commanders into a suicidal Banzai charge.

Two years later, Austria had foolishly failed to adopt breech-loaders unlike the other German states and the Habsburg’s soldiers were cut down mercilessly by the Model 1865 needle gun, which had a far greater rate of fire than the Austrians’ Lorenz muzzle-loaders, when Vienna challenged Berlin over control of Schleswig in the Austro-Prussian War.

After tricking France into declaring war in 1870, Bismarck’s star general, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, also was struck with good luck.  The Germans’ gewehr dominance was short-lived; by 1870 the needle gun was outmatched by the French Chassepot.  But the French failed to recognize that the same principle applied to artillery; facing the Krupp C64 breech-loading field gun with old, slow, muzzle-loading cannons.

Considering the Prussians’ forces vastly outnumbered the French and thanks to railroads could and did mobilize much more rapidly than the their ancient Gaulish enemies, Napoleon III paid dearly for not recognizing the sheer stupidity of Sedan:

Harassed by German cavalry and jeered at by French peasants (who refused to feed the hungry troops), the French army was dispirited even before two German armies caught up with them, 60 miles (96 km) from Metz. After sharp clashes at Nouart (29 August), Beaumont-sur-Meuse (30 August), and Bazielles (31 August), Mac-Mahon was forced to retire to the small fortress town of Sedan. Here the position was truly hopeless. The town could not feed the army for more than a few days; in fact, with its streets clogged with transport carts, artillery, and refugees, Sedan could not contain the army. Many men were trampled in the panic to get within the walls. The only option for the French was to break out of Sedan, but they were encircled and heavily outnumbered, and Mac-Mahon had been wounded. Still, the escape attempt was made.

The only possible route was through the town of La Moncelle, which the French occupied. Unfortunately, the Germans anticipated this maneuver and moved their artillery up to seal off the route. As both sides poured reinforcements into an increasingly ferocious battle, it seemed that a French counteroffensive might prevail. However, the German artillery became increasingly effective and the French position ever more untenable. In desperation, the French cavalry attacked three times, showing a courage that the German gunners admired even as they obliterated their attackers. But courage was not enough, and despite their efforts the way out was closed.

Within Sedan, there was mounting chaos as the French were hammered by more than 400 German guns mounted in a semicircle on the high ground around the town. Napoleon joined the battle line, seeking death in battle to avoid the approaching humiliation, but he was too ill to remain there. By late afternoon, all was lost. Napoleon was urged to place himself at the head of his troops for one final break-out attempt, but he recognized that further resistance would bring only pointless slaughter.

Early the next morning, he ordered a white flag raised, and—with cheeks rouged to disguise his illness—took a carriage to the Prussian king, William I, and surrendered. Disgusted by their disgrace, many French troops turned their backs to him. This was an ominous portent for the dynasty; when the news reached Paris, a popular uprising overthrew the Second Empire, and the Third Republic was born. However, this was not good news for the Germans because the new government was not willing to accept German terms and the war continued.

In reality, Bismarck had lucked out once more.  Despite the Third Republic’s unwillingness to surrender, the French suffered 3,000 dead and 103,000 captured out of a total of 120,000 men at Sedan.  The loss of a French army, not the French emperor, was disastrous at Sedan.  Joseph Vinoy led the French XIII Corps to Paris intact, ensuring a four month siege would decide the Franco-Prussian War; again due to the superiority of Prussian artillery and numbers the French capital fell on 28 January 1871.

Bismarck’s Blunders

Militarily, Sedan doomed the German empire.  The Schlieffen Plan followed von Moltke’s 1870 model very closely–the primary difference being Flamenpolitik in 1914 demanded a German axis of advance through Luxembourg and Belgium.  But instead of von Moltke the Younger besieging Paris in September 1914 like his uncle did 44 years earlier, Joseph Joffre assembled enough 75mm Model 1897 field guns (which were far superior to Deutsches Heer artillery) to stop the German advance cold at the Marne.

But can one really blame the Iron Chancellor for events that transpired 15 to 20 years after Bismarck’s death?  Yes, as his political ministrations over the German Empire after 1871 were a total shambles:

Beginning in 1871, he launched the Kulturkampf (“cultural struggle”), a campaign in concert with German liberals against political Catholicism. Bismarck’s aim was clearly to destroy the Centre Party. Liberals saw the Roman Catholic church as politically reactionary and feared the appeal of a clerical party to the more than one-third of Germans who professed Roman Catholicism. Both Bismarck and the liberals doubted the loyalty of the Catholic population to the Prussian-centred and, therefore, primarily Protestant nation. In Prussia the minister of ecclesiastical affairs and education, Adalbert Falk, introduced a series of bills establishing civil marriage, limiting the movement of the clergy, and dissolving religious orders. All church appointments were to be approved by the state. As a result hundreds of parishes and several bishoprics were left without incumbents. Clerical civil servants were purged from the Prussian administration.

The Kulturkampf failed to achieve its goals and, if anything, convinced the Roman Catholic minority that their fear of persecution was real and that a confessional party to represent their interests was essential. By the late 1870s Bismarck abandoned the battle as a failure. He now launched a campaign against the SPD in concert with the two conservative parties and many National Liberals. Fearing the potential of the Social Democrats in a rapidly industrializing Germany, Bismarck found a majority to outlaw the party from 1878 to 1890, although constitutionally it could not be forbidden to participate in elections. Party offices and newspapers were closed down and meetings prohibited. Many socialists fled to Switzerland and sought to keep the party alive in exile. During the 1880s Bismarck also sought to win the workers away from socialism by introducing legislation granting them modest pensions, accident insurance, and a national system of medical coverage. Like the Kulturkampf, the campaign against the SPD was a failure, and, when the 1890 elections showed enormous gains for the Reichsfeinde, Bismarck began to consider having the German princes reconvene, as in 1867, to draw up a new constitution. The new emperor, William II, saw no reason to begin his reign (1888–1918) with a potential bloodbath and asked for the 74-year-old chancellor’s resignation. Thus, Bismarck, the architect of German unity, left the scene in a humiliating fashion, believing that his creation was fatally flawed. Indeed, his policy of supporting rapid social and economic modernization while avoiding any reform of the authoritarian political system did lead to an atmosphere of persistent crisis.

This gives Bismarck far too much credit, as his economic stewardship of the Empire was also awful:

From the defeat of Austria in 1866 until 1878 Bismarck was allied primarily with the National Liberals. Together they created a civil and criminal code for the new empire and accomplished Germany’s adoption of the gold standard and move toward free trade.

Germany went onto the gold standard in 1873, the same year as the “Crime of ’73” where the United States transitioned from the bimetallic standard and adopted a de facto gold standard.  The Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 began simultaneously (just ‘coincidentally’ according to most historians), triggering a horrific continuous worldwide economic contraction from 1873-79.  As a result, Bismarck completely reversed himself:

In 1878–79 Bismarck initiated a significant change in economic policy, which coincided with his new alliance with the conservative parties at the expense of the liberals. Tariffs were introduced on iron as well as on major grains. The new policy was a result of the “great depression” that had swept Europe and the United States in the mid-1870s. Bismarck’s shift had serious political implications: it signified his opposition to any further evolution in the direction of political democracy. The liberal ministers Falk and Rudolph von Delbrück resigned, and Robert von Puttkamer became minister of public worship and education in 1879 and minister of interior in 1881. The grain tariffs provided the Junker estate owners of Prussia, who constituted the main opposition to political reform, subventions that isolated them somewhat from the world market. From 1879 onward, the landed elite, major industrialists, the military, and higher civil servants formed an alliance to forestall the rise of social democracy.

Bismarck the Bumbling Bonehead

Bismarck descended into complete idiocy after the fall of France.  Concerned only about his station in political life (textbook idiotes, the Greek root that translates as “private person”), Bismarck lurched from one extreme to the other from 1871 until his 1890 ouster.  It really shouldn’t be surprising, as triggering three different wars in less than 10 years time isn’t really the sign of a great statesman.  But his ill-deserved international reputation lives on:

Between 1870 and 1890 Bismarck earned the respect of European leaders for his earnest efforts in behalf of peace. Apart from a few colonial acquisitions in the mid-1880s, Germany had acted as a satiate power. All of Bismarck’s considerable tactical skills had been successful in creating a powerful German Empire in his first decade in power. For the next two decades these same skills maintained the peace.

An amazing assessment, as the same article shows Bismarck’s foreign policy was as similarly stupid as his political and economic record were after 1871:

Bismarck’s two areas of concern were the Balkans, where the disintegration of the Turkish empire could easily lead to conflict between the Habsburg monarchy and Russia, and France, where the desire to avenge the defeat at Sedan was strong. In each area a general European conflagration could flare up and involve Germany. In 1873 he embraced a pacific foreign policy when he negotiated the Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors’ League) with Russia and Austria-Hungary. But the alliance did not survive the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. When the Austrians and British threatened war over a Carthaginian peace imposed on Turkey by the Russian victors, Bismarck called for a peace congress in Berlin. The German chancellor succeeded in getting the Russians to moderate their gains, and peace was preserved.

But a European conflagration had barely been averted. Soon after the conference, Bismarck negotiated a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary, which remained in effect through World War I. Although in the mid-1860s he had rejected such an alliance as harmful, he now considered it advantageous. Because he feared that the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy would lead to Russian expansion into central Europe, he sought the alliance to gain leverage in Vienna. He steadfastly used it to prevent a war in the Balkans. In addition, he did not want seven million Austro-German Catholics seeking admission to the empire.

Having a solid ally, Bismarck demonstrated his virtuosity by negotiating a revived Dreikaiserbund in 1881. He now had influence in St. Petersburg as well as in Vienna to prevent a Balkan war. In 1882 Italy, fearing French hostility, joined the Dual Alliance, making it into the Triple Alliance. On the surface Bismarck had triumphed. France had no allies for a war of revenge, and, for the moment, a Balkan war seemed unlikely.

But the ephemeral nature of all these alliances soon became apparent. A crisis in Bulgaria inflamed Russo-Austrian relations, leading to a breakup of the revived league. Once again a war was avoided with Bismarck’s intervention, but his efforts could not reconstitute the league. He then negotiated a separate secret treaty with Russia, while maintaining the 1879 accord with Austria-Hungary.

Bismarck’s realpolitik was nothing of the kind.  He was concerned with the potential for war between Austria and Russia or France and Germany.  Rather than create structures that ensure that such conflicts don’t spring up while Bismarck held power or afterwards, Germany used the Balkan excuse to attack France, Belgium and Luxembourg in August 1914.

Perhaps Bismarck wanted to avoid a future July Crisis–where in the summer of 1914 both Russia’s and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s aversion to war still could not prevent the aggressive German armed forces from marching into two neutral nations in the service of striking France.  But this presumes a warmonger like Otto von Bismarck’s having received a reputation as a peacemaker was well-earned.  The opposite view is Bismarck’s reputation concealed Hitlerian aspirations; only Bismarck had enough sanity to not spark another war after 1870.

Final Note

What was the alternative?  Could the July Crisis have been averted in 1914?  Sure–even after the mobilizations, war isn’t inevitable until soldiers start shooting at each other.  But there is one quality that is required to create and sustain peace, and it was in short supply from 28 June 1914 onwards:


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