The Blue Raccoon

Friday, August 01, 2008

Did She Need To Die?
Save the stripper, save the world.

If August 1, 1914 had turned out different, this woman would've been just another
exotic entertainer; and not remembered as a bad spy who nonetheless inspired the contemporary character of "the femme fatale." Her real name was Margaretha Geertrulda "Grietje" Zelle but she danced (and not that well) under the Oriental moniker of "Mata Hari." From

The Lights Go Out

On August 1, 1914, Europe teetered on the edge of international war. As historian Harry F. Young summarized in his recounting of that fateful day 94 summers ago: "Austria had opened fire on Serbia; Russia had begun to mobilize the troops; Berlin’s ultimatum to St. Petersburg would expire at noon; France was prepared to support her tsarist ally; and so far England’s efforts to mediate had failed.”

Kaiser Wilhelm signed the order to commence German war preparations. A short while later, Wilhelm was given a dispatch from a German diplomat in London that indicated the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey had promised, "England would remain neutral and would guarantee France's neutrality" if Germany didn't attack France. Wilhelm convened a meeting of his top brass and popped champagne to celebrate.

The specter of a two-front war was dissipated. Germany could go on the offensive in the East and remain on the defensive in the West. Von Moltke, summoned to the meeting by a harried messenger, was flabbergasted. He and the "All Highest" argued as the general insisted the Schlieffen Plan had a schedule to keep. The single-front mobilization plan was, he said, out of date. The trains couldn't be called back. If they were, the troops sent east would arrive in a higgeldy-piggeldy pile of bodies and equipment, far too unorganized to present effective force. The Schlieffen Plan was to Moltke holy writ -- for the most part because he didn't have an alternative he believed would work. The concept of a quick knock out of France in one campaign was his motivating idea. Nothing else mattered.

The Kaiser bellowed at Moltke, "Your uncle would've given me a different answer!" This was a sharp cut; he was referring to "Moltke the Great" who, with Bismarck, unified Germany into an empire.

The younger Moltke must've known that plans to send the armies to the East were worked on through 1913, and with typical German efficiency could've been yanked out of their files and put into play. German railroad officers received rigorous, military-style training. A staff officer who'd worked on these plans would later prove, on paper at least, that with almost the flip of a switch, the Germans could've transferred up to four armies east within days. But the German Railway Office wasn't consulted: just two supercilious neurotics getting red-faced in Berlin, both of whom, were they in civilian life, would've been more suitable running a konditorei. (Though even at that, they would've had difficulty retaining employees.)

Moltke didn't want to deviate from schedule. He seems just to have wanted to get it over with. War was inevitable; let it come. This meant violating the neutrality of Belgium, and tripping the wire to get Britain involved.

But the Kaiser didn't want to hear a refutation of good news. If conflict with France could be prevented, Germany needed to make the effort. A messenger was sent flying to the forward units edging toward Luxembourg: stop in your tracks. Don't transgress the border.

The Unnecessary War

As the attentive members of the billion-eyed audience know, this blog has spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and the sacrifice of many millions of pixels, to the question of what-if the historic World War I of 1914-1918 had not occurred. That is, if by some use of a synapse altering bio-chemical-electrical zapping of several people involved in the eruption of this, the most tragic enterprise of modern history, one could prevent the war's outbreak, then what would happen? (You can see one example -- and, yes, I cribbed from myself, but scroll down for the meat).

This is, of course, rank supposition. But the center question of Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War rolls back history to World War I and blames Churchill for blundering into a conflict that wasn't needed, and thus setting the stage for World War II, Hitler, and the ending of the British Empire -- which, far as I can see, really needed to go, as most empires do. Judge for yourself.

I have not read Mr. Buchanan's book--I'm stuck in 1909-1911 pretty much these days--but I'm not sure it would otherwise enlighten me. The Germans had something to do with causing World War I, as did the state-sponsored Serbian terrorists called The Black Hand -- but one place where Kleio raised her pen during the writing of this plot to figure out how this is going to go-- is during the warm afternoon of August 1, 1914, in a Berlin palace chamber, where two bemedaled buffoons more appropriate as characters in a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera are yelling at each other. [Image via]

One of the pair is Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger), chief of the German general staff. He ascended to his position on January 1, 1906. The nephew of the lionized victor of Koniggratz and Sedan that established the German empire, Moltke tried to get out of the job. He told Kaiser Wilhelm II, "Does your Majesty really think that you can twice win first prize in the same lottery?"

Moltke didn't think the vainglorious Kaiser would want him because during strategic maneuvers and war games, the All Highest was always supposed to win. Moltke didn't play that. Willy hired him anyway. [Image via; the title of the book kind of says it all]

John H. Maurer, in his excellent analytical (but readable)
The Outbreak of the First World War, gives a good description of Moltke.

Moltke possessed "a strange combination of stubbornness and a tendency toward belittling himself; he also possessed an overly sensitive, moody, introspective character. The greatness of his uncle apparently haunted Moltke, since he often referred to himself as "the lesser thinker." Despite his reputation among fellow officers as an "intellectual," Moltke did not really possess a powerful mind. Unlike other talented staff officers in Prussia's history--such as Schlieffen, the elder Moltke, Scharnhorst and Clausewitz--he did not write tracts on military history or theory."

Depicted in most of the war literature is an ineffectual shilly-shallier who blundered into a war he couldn't control, a more recent view--one I must read--by the historian Annika Mornbauer (one of the more intriguing historian names I've run across of late) seems to conclude that Moltke was "both bellicose and ambitious, hoping for war ‘the sooner the better’ and playing a crucial role in the outbreak and early months of the First World War."

Moltke just wanted to get the thing over with. For him, this was wargasm: a built up leading to the release of, to borrow a phrase, shock and awe.

Barbara Tuchman in her excellent
The Guns of August says of Moltke:

"Tall, heavy, bald and sixty-six years old, Moltke habitually wore an expression of profound distress which led the Kaiser to call him
der traurige Julius, (or what might be rendered "Gloomy Gus"...) Poor health, for which he took an annual cure in Carlsbad, and the shadow of a great uncle were perhaps cause for gloom...The nephew was a poor horseman with a habit of falling off on staff rides, and worse, a follower of Christian Science with a side interest in anthroposophism and other cults. For this unbecoming weakness in a Prussian officer he was considered 'soft'; what is more, he painted, played the cello, carried Goethe's Faust in his pocket, and had begun a translation of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande."

That Moltke was interested in this symbolist play is interesting, as:

"Pelléas and Mélisande form a bond of love, which,
step by step, cascades to its fatal end. Maeterlinck had studied Pythagorean metaphysics and believed that human action was guided by Eros (love/sterility) and Anteros (revenge/chaos). The juxtaposition of these two forces brings about a neverending cycle of calm followed by discord and then change. Pelléas and Mélisande are so much in love that they disregard the value of marriage, provoking the ire of Anteros, who brings revenge and death, which restores order."

Sounds like somebody who may have had war and tribulation on his mind...

Moltke wasn't timid about speaking up to the Kaiser. He called Wilhelm's 1900 Peking expedition a "crazy adventure" and Moltke's disgust with Germany's retreat during the Moroccan Agadir crisis caused him to comment that Germany should just disband the army and place itself "under the protection of Japan; then we can make money undisturbed and turn into imbeciles."

Moltke's major duty was tinkering with the long-held and flawed Schlieffen Plan for dealing with war with France and Russia. He made two important modifications.

[Via Wikipedia]

First, he chose--wisely--not to violate the neutrality of Holland. The Netherlands needed to be preserved as Germany's "wind pipe." But the obsession with sweeping across Flanders in a vast right wing wheel called, then, for the stupid invasion of Belgium, which would trigger Britain's automatic response. This also meant the fortifications at Liége would need to be overcome by a special shock unit called the Army of the Meuse fitted out with large caliber howitzers.

Second, Moltke decreased the strength of the German right wing that was to take Belgium by sending units to East Prussia--facing the Russians, and Lorraine, in the southern end of the German-French border. Moltke thought, with good reason, that the French would sally forth out of their fortifications and march into the German industrial center of the Ruhr.

Maurer writes, "Thus, the right wing instead of having 37 1/2 corps as envisioned by Schlieffen, possessed only 26 corps in 1914. Moltke had changed the fundamental shape of Germany's operational polan. Instead of a sweeping Napoleonic manoeuvres sur les derriéres, the German plan called for a more even distribution of German forces across the entire breadth of front."

Britain On The Fence

Wilhelm may not have known the hard anti-war sentiment of the British executive Cabinet. Churchill wrote, "The Cabinet was overwhelmingly pacific. At least three-quarters of its members were determined not to be drawn into a European quarrel, unless Great Britain was herself attacked, which was unlikely."

Liberal elder statesman Sir John Morley led a group of isolationists who did not see Britain's interests served by taking a firm stand against Germany, as Maurer explains. They instead feared that a tough anti-German stance would provoke action. "If a great-power conflict did occur, Britain would best serve its interests by avoiding the conflict. Even the violation of Belgium's neutrality by Germany did not entail nor provide sufficient warrant for Britain's entry into war."

Another segment led by Lloyd George and Lord Haldane didn't think England could not in the end stay out of a European war. Isolation wasn't possible, but full on commitment to war wasn't wise, either. What mattered most was what Germany chose to do.

Prime Minister Asquith wanted to hold his party together without having to form a coalition government. He couldn't make any sudden moves. But the Schlieffen Plan gave him some maneuvering room.

"If Germany had scrapped the hair-trigger Schlieffen Plan, more time would then have existed for joint Anglo-German diplomatic initiatives to work," Maurer observes. " The "halt in Belgrade" formula, in conjunction with Grey's call for an international conference in London, for example, provided the basis for further negotiations to avoid a great-power conflict. Maybe by then, heading off the train bound for devastation was impossible. But diplomacy is always better than mad policy.

A joint effort by Britain and Germany stood a chance to reach agreement between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Serbia. Negotiations would only work, however, if Britain made clear its resolve to fight any German bid for hegemony. Cooperation Britain and Germany required that the British Liberals take a firm stand in advance of hostilities to resist German aggression toward Belgium and France." [Image of Asquith, "
at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons at the time of the Titanic sinking." From Encyclopedia Titanica.]

As happened, though, the whole August 1 affair was an apparent confusion by fluent English speaker and
Anglophile Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, the German envoy in London -- "The Misunderstanding of August 1."

Lichnowsky loved England's ways, but his homeland, too, and a telephone conversation with the obtuse British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, left him with the impression that a ruinous conflagration engulfing both of his favorite nations could be avoided. He'd cabled the Kaiser: Wait, hold up--we can turn this thing around. Did Lichnowsky, refined diplomat though he may have been, anxious to avoid war become distracted by Grey's parsing of language? There's been debates about this, one of the most important telephone conversations ever, for almost a century.

Prince Lichnowsky seems to have misinterpreted Grey's circuitous phrases--or believed he was hearing Grey say what he wished he'd say. What the foreign secretary had actually stated was that he could guarantee Germany against attack by France if Germany would promise to attack neither France nor Russia.

There was no way, of course, that Britain could assure French docility. The incident, however, points out Moltke's over-reliance on a plan that really wasn't much better than a table-top exercise that rolled over neutral Belgium and guaranteed British mobilization, and didn't solve the Problem of How To Take Paris.

"Now Do What You Like"

It is doubtful France would've remained idle if Germany had turned the brunt of its power against Russia. The nation could now revenge the humiliation of Sedan and 1870. Or, would some how a diplomatic angle have worked; that of making a Alsace-Lorriane an autonomous division of Germany? This would've rubbed raw French national pride, setting the stage for a future conflict by avoiding one in the short-term. Talking is in many cases better than dying -- except nationalism in Europe was in the air like a dog whistle, calling the nations forward, lerching them into collision like zombies driving in a demolition derby.

Despite Moltke's pleading the Kaiser wouldn't budge. He instead sent a telegram to England's King George that German units were receiving orders to halt by telephone and telegraph from crossing into France; a twist of the truth, in fact, they were on the verge of piercing Belgian neutrality. [Image: "
Circa 1914: Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 - 1941) Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia in the field during army manoeuvres with General Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke (1848 - 1916, right). (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)-- via JAMD.

He returned to the General Staff crushed and weeping tears of abject despair. When an aide brought orders to stop movement of the army into Luxembourg requiring his signature, Moltke threw down the pencil and refused to sign.

By 11 p.m. Moltke was still brooding, when, as Tuchman describes, came another summons to the palace. Moltke was ushered into the Kaiser's bedroom where he wore a military greatcoat over his nightshirt. A telegram had come from Lichnowsky who after another conversation with Grey "had discovered his error and now wired with profound sadness, 'A positive proposal by England is, on the whole, not in prospect.'"

The Kaiser told Moltke, "Now you can do what you like." And then he went to bed.

"Moltke, the Commander and Chief who now had to direct the campaign that would decide the fate of Germany, was left permanently shaken. 'That was my first experience of the war,' he wrote afterward. 'I never recovered from the shock of this incident. Something in me broke and I was never the same thereafter.'

Neither was the world, he might have added."

Von Moltke was hung up on his pre-conceived plans and wouldn't deviate from them. But they were faulty, and relied on a knock out one-two punch by armies too large to actually encircle and destroy, much less move at inhuman speeds to undertake such endeavors. He had to learn that himself, in time, and by then, it was too late for him, Europe and all of us.

Within a few months the extent of Moltke's horrendous miscalculation became quite visible in both the exhausted soldiery and massive body counts. Moltke would remark that the choice to invade France--which hadn't fired so much as a popgun at Germany after Sarajevo--was a terrible mistake.

Consider the Titanic, built by this same Anglo-Teutonic Civilization, one that believed in such a thing as a ship that couldn't sink. Her Captain Edward J. Smith was at the helm of a vessel that in size and scope surpassed his experience. She had the latest technological innovations, but not enough lifeboats due to concern both about concern and appearances. No boat drills were held. After the iceberg was struck, no general announcement was given, word spread like gossip, although steerage passengers, engineers and those luckless post office clerks knew the ship was in dire trouble.

And later, when the "Spanish Influenza" began claiming thousands of lives at a rate not known since the bubonic pandemic of the 14th century, the civil and religious authorities of 1917-1919 at first thought that such a thing was impossible in their advanced technological age.

These were the people who considered the 1914-1918 cataclysm "The War To End All Wars."

All the world needs is a different set of problems

Would have only August 1914 turned out in a much different way. Germany goes on the defense in the West, respecting Belgian neutrality and thus the British have no immediate prompt for war; instead, Germany uses greater force--and airborne reconnaisance, such as was used with great effect at Tannenberg-- against Russia that liberates the Tsar's satellite states and precipitates a collapse of the Romanov government in short order. Lenin need not apply. The arrangement would breed eventual civil unrest, as the Germans would extract economic concessions from the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Baltic nations, and the Kingdom of Poland, too, and that would eventually bubble over, and give a truncated Kerensky-democratic/socialist Russia enemy-of-my-enemy allies against imperial German designs.

A fight would ensue, over time, with the British due to colonialist pursuits and a naval arms race. The French would become the aggressors of 1914, or, perhaps more the case, sit across the border stewing and seething and hurling anti-German slogans but not bombs, in a 1914 version of the 1939-1940 "Phony War."]

As Brane theory suggests, that in an universe next door, "in the bosom of its proper and particular God," as Richmond, Virginia's favorite non-adopted, un-son Edgar Allan Poe described in his befuddling Eureka--that there is a reality where 170 millions or so didn't die from WWI and its evil spawn, WWII.

The continuing horrors are thus avoided of the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, Mao, a split Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a chopped up and dangerous Mesopotamia.

It'd be wonderful for the world to just have a different set of walk down a city street, overhear the conversations at their sun dappled cafés, glimpse the headlines of their newspapers--or their laptops, see and feel and taste what that world might be like...through fiction, is the closest I can get.

Save the stripper, save the world.

The execution of Mata Hari for espionage, by the French, October 15, 1917. Via

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