When Baron Giesl von Gieslingen, the ambassador from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, presented an ultimatum to the government of Serbia on July 23, 1914, he did so after careful calculations of how two major European powers would react to this bid to avenge the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the month before. The archduke’s nation, as militarily weak as it was ethnically fractious, was counting on the support of Germany in case Russia, Serbia’s ally, intervened. At the same time, Austrian and German diplomats expected that Great Britain, preoccupied with Ulster Protestants’ threat of civil war over Home Rule in Ireland, would not risk another armed conflict occurring simultaneously.
The first calculation—that Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured) of Germany would indeed back up the “blank check” he gave Austria-Hungary early in the month—turned out to be accurate. But the second guess—that Britain would be too diverted by trouble in its backyard to support Russia and its other Triple Entente partner, France, on behalf of Serbia—was a major mistake. By early August, the “July Crisis” precipitated by the assassination and Austria-Hungary’s subsequent ultimatum had escalated into “The Great War”—or, as it has become known to us, following another catastrophic conflict a quarter-century later, World War I.
There are many reasons to be fascinated by the war: the 9 million dead and twice as much wounded in battle, along with a similarly high number of civilian casualties; a redrawn map of Europe; its seismic shock to a European order largely peaceful since the fall of Napoleon; its undermining of national economies and morale that made possible WWII; the reaction of a “Lost Generation” of writers to it all.
But, as someone of Irish descent, I have a special reason for keen interest. It’s true, as The Wall Street Journal noted in a list of "100 Legacies of the Great War,"that Irish independence resulted from the conflict.
But the Easter Rebellion, occurring halfway through the war in 1916, was hardly the total of the impact of the war on the Irish. In a comprehensive survey of the Great War in its July/August 2014 issue, BBC.com notes that about 210,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the war, with Irish dead numbering some 35,000. Think of the toll it took this way: the number of U.S. dead in the Korean War was slightly larger (36,000), but out of a far larger population (150 million, versus 4.4 million in Ireland in 1910).
Handling Simultaneous Crises, Now and Then
Handling Simultaneous Crises, Now and Then
As President Obama is learning now in facing simultaneous crises in Israel and the Ukraine, world leaders can’t always space out the timing of their crises. The Balkans, with its multiple nationalist tendencies, became known as the “Tinderbox of Europe” because of the way it transformed longstanding tensions among rivals into points of conflict that toppled empires and laid waste an entire generation of young men.
Austria-Hungary had seen pieces of its old imperial realm peeled off with the drives toward nationhood by Italy and Germany in the 1860s. But it saw the possibility for recovery in little Serbia.
Elements of Serbia’s intelligence service, fearful of being subsumed by Austria-Hungary, had furnished aid and safe passage to the anarchist assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Gavrilo Princip. That knowledge served as a pretext for the extraordinary list of demands made to Serbia on July 23, 1914, including:
* Accepting an Austro-Hungarian inquiry into the assassination;
* Eliminating terrorist organizations within its borders—particularly, the Black Hand, believed to be linked to Princip; and
*Answering the note within 48 hours.
It was as bald an interference with another state’s sovereignty as any diplomats could recall. It was the pretext for an invasion, made even more apparent when von Gieslingen did not even wait for a response after delivering the note, leaving immediately for home.
One hundred years to the month that Russia’s Czar Nicholas made the fateful decision to block any threat to Serbia, Vladimir Putin finds himself playing a role with the Ukraine’s separatists similar to the Kaiser’s vis-à-vis Austria-Hungary: aiding and abetting a force too militarily suspect to do much of anything on its own. And Barack Obama is in a position analogous to British Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith a century ago: the leader of the most powerful elected government in the world, exasperated beyond all measure by an obstructionist opposition party at home, desperately craving a little rest and relaxation, only to find a foreign counterpart has gone and worsened things beyond all comprehension.
As The New York Times has reported, President Obama has grown so disgusted with trying to extract any compromise from Tea Party-cowed John Boehner that he has taken to late-night dinners, “freewheeling, with conversation touching on art, architecture and literature,” with someone, anyone who might satisfy an intellectual bent in short supply in politics-crazed DC.
In contrast, Asquith’s domestic quandary was more desperate, and his desire for companionship was of a decidedly more understandable sort for a middle-aged man.
Asquith and the Home Rule Dilemma
Starting in 1912, Asquith had committed his ruling Liberal Party to the Government of Ireland Act, also known as “Home Rule.” By this legislation, a priority for Irish nationalists since the 1870s, Ireland would possess power over most domestic matters, while responsibility for defense, foreign relations and other international matters would remain in London.
That stance, while a good deal less than what was desired by those pressing for complete independence for the predominantly Catholic island, was still far more than could be abided by Edward Carson, leader of Ulster’s Protestant Unionists. In 1913, he spearheaded the formation of an Ulster Volunteer Force. With the nationalists establishing the Irish Volunteers to claim their rights promised by the legislation, it appeared that Britain would have a civil war on its hands.
President Obama might feel mighty annoyed every time he reads about a GOP threat of a lawsuit or even impeachment. But it is nothing compared with what Carson confronted Asquith: a brilliant orator (he had turned the tables on Oscar Wilde in the latter’s disastrous lawsuit against the Marquis of Queensberry), egged on by Parliament’s Conservative minority, inciting a minority group aggrieved by the loss of its privileges, but still with access to cargoes of guns and ammunition illegally shipped into the province.
The beleaguered 62-year-old Asquith took refuge in fevered correspondence—sometimes several letters a day, even dashed off when events were at their hottest—to Venetia Stanley, a friend of his daughter’s. Historians are still divided over whether the relationship was consummated, but there is no doubt that the older man was besotted by her, even, according to an article by historian Max Hastings in London’s Daily Mail, expressing “bitter disappointment” that events would prevent him from a weekend in the country with his confidante.
Edward Grey: The Lights Going Out in Europe
A wearying two-day conference involving the unionists and nationalists at Buckingham Palace left Asquith and his Cabinet grasping for the slightest note of optimism. Then, late in the day on July 24, their deliberations took a wholly unexpected turn, courtesy of Foreign Secretary Edward Grey.
A year and a half ago, on a short business trip to London, I came across a short inscription on a building in Queen Anne’s Gate, indicating that it had been Grey's home. I knew that one of the key players in Europe’s great crisis had lived there, but I did not know the full extent of his importance at the time, nor of his more unusual qualities.
Grey loved nothing better than to slip away from Whitehall to go fishing and birding up north, but those opportunities had grown fewer and fewer as he served out a term that made him his country’s longest continuously serving foreign minister. By the time of the July crisis, stress and overwork had rendered him close to blindness in the service of his country.
And now, as Asquith’s Cabinet had struggled futilely with the Irish question, the P.M.’s even-toned, earnest Foreign Secretary was speaking.
The best narrator of the scene was the First Lord of the Admiralty—and, in due course, PM in his own right—Winston Churchill, in his memoir The World Crisis, 1911-1918:
“The discussion had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet was about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey's voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was Austria’s note to Serbia. He had being reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually as the phrases and sentences followed one another impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum; but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible graduations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.”
The “strange light” would soon be overcome by darkness. Within 10 days, as events took on unexpected momentum, Grey made one of the most prescient remarks about the whirlwind about to overtake the world. Working late in the Foreign Office after a sorrowful but resigned speech in Parliament calling for war, he saw outside his window a man lighting gas lamps in St James’s Park below. ''The lamps are going out all over Europe,’’ Grey said. ''We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’’
The Kaiser and the Question of War Responsibility
Who was responsible for this extinguishing of a generation’s hopes—or, as columnist and former speechwriter Peggy Noonan called it in a piece this weekend, “The War That Broke a Century”?
Over the years, a number of factors have encouraged the view that responsibility for the war’s outbreak was a collective, transnational failure: profits by munitions makers, the arrogance and incompetence of military leaders on both sides that wasted millions of lives, infringements on Western freedom bred by war-fueled zenophobia, the belief that ascribing war guilt created dangerous resentment among the war’s losers, and the desire to convert former foes into allies.
But, with the release of state papers from Germany well after the war’s conclusion, it’s hard not to agree with a conclusion made in an August 1918 Atlantic Monthly article by British war correspondent Charles à Court Repington that “the general staffs of the Central Powers deliberately determined on what they called a preventive war, in order to forestall the moment when Russia's impending military reorganization was likely, if not certain, to prevent the accomplishment of those ambitious projects on which nearly all Germans of the ruling caste had set their hearts.”
And at the heart of Central Powers’ planning was the Kaiser. He might have been the grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, but awful medical experiences –nerve damage at birth that resulted in a permanently paralyzed arm, along with treatment of his father for throat cancer—led him to burst out once: “An English doctor crippled my arm and an English doctor is killing my father!”
After pledging his unconditional support for Austria-Hungary, even in the event of Russian intervention, Wilhelm kept careful track of events in Ireland. He gambled that the war could be contained—that France, and especially Britain, would not come to the defense of its Triple Entente ally Russia if the latter stepped in to protect Serbia. Indeed, the diplomatic corps of Austria-Hungary and Germany shared his disbelief:
*The Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, Count Ladislaus Szögyény, wrote from Vienna that the Germans believed that the British were reluctant to fight.
*Germany’s under-secretary of state, Arthur Zimmermann, privately stated, five days before Austria-Hungary delivered its ultimatum to Serbia, that Britain feared a full-scale war on the Continent because of the situation in Ireland.
*Germany’s secretary of state, Gottlieb von Jagow, informed an admiral a few days later that the British would not enter a war.
And so it might have turned out, but for John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who had been pressing for Home Rule. He could have insisted that the Home Rule legislation be implemented immediately throughout Ireland, bringing on the civil war that Asquith’s government feared and the Kaiser’s government welcomed.
Instead, after Germany shocked the international community by violating Belgium’s neutrality in hurling its forces against France, Redmond told Parliament that Home Rule supporters would stand shoulder to shoulder with unionists in resisting foreign invasion—i.e., from Germany.
Asquith undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when Redmond acquiesced in Home Rule being suspended during hostilities, with the understanding that it would be implemented after the peace that everyone expected to come soon. But, with the war dragging on two years later with no end in sight, Asquith's government wildly overreacted to the Easter Rebellion by executing its leaders, and a call for conscription to replenish the British army’s rapidly depleted ranks further soured an Irish population that feared its extension to their shores and further useless loss of the lives of their young men.
By that time, however, events had taken on their own momentum. Virtually no country in Europe would come out unaffected by the remorseless conflict now set in motion--including Germany, whose monarchy came to an end, and Ireland, propelled toward a new, independent, but divided, country.