The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Via Wikipedia.

We Interrupt This Blogpost To
Prevent World War I.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month some 91 winters ago; distant from us across a scorched earth of memory and events; known because of black and white photographs and some herky-jerky moving images and yellowing newspapers -- back then, the most horrendous enterprise ever undertaken by humanity concluded. The First World War came to an exhausted finale.

The statistics for the catastrophe are enormous and numbing: an estimated 37 million dead and maimed. The war settled little and returned in a new and improved guise 21 years later.

The horrors of World War I was but the prequel for Duby Dubya Deuce that swallowed whole around 65 million. If we throw in that science now guesstimates that the Great Influenza of 1918 incubated as an avian flu variantin northern France's trenches -- and that that pandemic may have killed between 20 million to 100 million from August 1918 to March 1919--we can pile those incomprehensible figures on top of everything else.

So we're talking ballpark about 110 million people dying as a direct result, or through disease, from both conflicts.

This is like dropping a rock down a well and never hearing a splash. We cannot comprehend in a meaningful way such unspeakable amounts of death.

I've spent far too much time and effort contemplating a separate reality where the historic World War I didn't occur. If you go
here, and scroll down, you can see. The causes of that cataclysm were hydra-headed. Gavrilo Prinzip lit a fuse when he bumbled into assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. You can go to Strange Interludes Part the Second to read more.

I asserted then that our history would be better off if the Wilhelmine Germans and the so-called Central Powers had triumphed in the fall and winter of 1914. But I've reassessed. Consider how during the first four months of the war, on the Western front alone, the combined casualties of Britain, Belgium and France were 570,000. Germany suffered about 200,000.

That's too many. Too many wives to have lost husbands, too many children to be deprived of fathers, too many first blushes of young love extinguished. These numbers are an affront and insult to life itself. Yes, Heraclitus the Cynic observed that struggle is the father of all things; but bettter that be accomplished through challenging poses of the Kama Sutra than across the churned up moonscape of Flanders.

And so I take a step into mist-shrouded fantasy. I ask for your indulgence, and to consider this: how at almost each turn, the assassination by Serbian state-allowed terrorists of Austria-Hungary's heir apparent could've been prevented. Even to the last. If Gavrilo Prinzip had just eaten his lunch at another deli, the Archduke's discombobulated motorcade would've ridden off into the Sarajevan dust. The random quality of this single occurrence just causes one to shake the head in disbelief. It's almost like Prinzip was being guided on a wire.

World War I--as it occurred in our history--was avoidable, or it could've been mitigated into a Balkan region conflict such as were flickering and disturbing the peace as they'd been since 1912.

Boundaries on the Balkans after the First and the Second Balkan War, 1912-1913.

Consider how Austrian chief of the general staff and primary war planner, Baron Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf wavered on July 29, 1914, about going to war with Russia. He thought he could settle the score with Serbia first. He figured he'd have two weeks before Russian intervention.

Further, Hotzendorf's German equivalent, Helmuth von Moltke believed on the morning of July 30 that Russian mobilization didn't mean Germany needed to mobilize in support of Austria-Hungary. By the afternoon, Moltke's mind was changed--maybe because he'd learned that Hotzendorf's preoccupation with Serbia would leave Germany's ass in the wind. Moltke was counting on supporting Austro-Hungarian movement in Galicia. But the two generals, supposed allies, didn't really talk much prior to the war. When it all came down, these two be-medaled boobs were swept up and tossed aside.

Matters were further muddied by official German diplomatic messages urging Austro-Hungarian restraint regarding Russia, while Moltke urged otherwise, confusing the easy-to-confuse Hotzendorf who said flat out he didn't want to be blamed for igniting a general European war.

One August 1, 1914, Europe teetered on the edge of international war. As historian Harry F. Young summarized in his recounting of that fateful day: "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 higgeldly-piggeldly pile of bodies and equipment too unorganized to present an effective force.

The Schlieffen Plan was holy writ to Moltke -- for the most part because he'd never countenanced an alternative. He was a technician, not an artist, and imagination wasn't his strong suit.

The preposterous concept of a quick knock out of France in one campaign was his motivating idea. Nothing else mattered. Moltke contemplated of the next war with the last war's strategy; armies had grown so large that attempting such massive movements wasn't humanly possible. Though he didn't know it, Moltke needed tanks and brigades of motorized troops. These didn't exist in 1914.

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 diligently maintained files and put into play. German railroad officers received as rigorous training as soldiers. A staff officer who'd worked on these plans would later prove -- on paper at least -- that almost with the flip of a switch, the Germans could've transferred up to four armies to the east within days. But the German Railway Office wasn't consulted: instead, history's great moment came down to a pair of fatal neurotics getting red-faced in Berlin, who, were they in civilian life, would've been suitable for running a deli.

Moltke quite simply didn't want to deviate from the 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.

As happened, though, the whole thing was an an
apparent confusion by the Anglophillic and fluent English speaker 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 conflagaration engulfing both of his favorite nations could be avoided. He'd cabled the Kaiser: Wait, hold up--we can turn this thing around. There's been debates about this so-called misunderstanding ever since.

Prince Lichnowsky seems to have misinterpreted Grey's circituitous phrases--what the foreign secretary had actually said 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. In fact, within a few months of the extent of the horrendous miscalculation becoming 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.

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 get worked; that of making a Alsace-Lorriane an autonomous division of Germany? Better diplomacy than mad policy -- 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.

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."

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 and Europe.

So my solution?: A time traveling SWAT team. I send this out to any who would be able to conceive of such.

On May 9, 1911, 10 men meet in Belgrade to form a secret organization
Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), which becomes known as The Black Hand. This is the most radical branch of another secret organization brought together on Oct. 8, 1908, Norodna Odbrama, "National Defense."

A number of members were Serb army officers. Their stated goal was to realize a Greater Serbia by any means necessary, which meant political assassinations. This meant the destabilization of Austria-Hungary. None of them on May 9 understand what their shenanigans will end up causing.

By 1914 the group blossoms into some 2500 members organized in grassroot cells of 3-to-5 members.
Cell members didn't know much about what was going on outside their sub-groups.

The Black Hand obscures the boundary between it and National Defense, and supplants the older group. The cells were directed by two levels of committees, the top being a 10-member committee chaired by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known also as Apis, The Bee. His personal courage was undisputed, but his zealotry and ruthlessness knew no bounds. Even the Serbian prime minister feared Dimitrijevic--for he could just as well lead a coup against the present Serb government if it stood in the way of his plans.

Team Stop WWI, using bio-electro-chemical means, zap the 10-member "Black Hand" May 9, 1911 gathering with a shot of "Road to Damascus." Maybe it's triggered by something in their drinks, food, even an airborne agency. The 10 are afflicted by physiological seizures. Their brains spark and pop as synaptic firings alter. They scream, laugh, weep. They transform into Scrooge on Christmas Day.

A few go starkers. Drooling, naked crazy. A couple may kill themselves on the spot in a fit of ecstatic realization. The Bee could be one of these, or, he understands now he must work for a diplomatic solution. That'll end up getting him killed by the haters he's helped stir up (in fact, Dimitrijevic got shot in 1917 for treason).

This mind-altering experience of a few key players won't stop war, but delay the conception, and perhaps prevent the grinding death machine of the Western Front trenches and the horror of Galipoli. Likewise not to occur as in our history, would be the nonsensical drawing of Mesoptamian maps by the British and French. Their meddling-- and the world's ravenous need for petroleum-- is one of the reasons our reality today is threatened by constant conflict from that region.

In the spring of 1914, the elderly Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was quite ill with pneumonia and expected to die. His successor, Franz Ferdinand, was preparing for assuming the role and that meant making some modifications to the system. Team Stop WWI Now uses its techno-magic to hurry Franz Joseph into a death that would come some 30 months and too much later. This may split up Austro-Hungary, but, so what? It was going to fall apart one way or another.

No World War I, no World War II, no Holocaust, no Soviet pogroms, no
Rape of Nanking, no "Great Depression," no radical Islam as it is understood today, a different development of nations in Mesopotamia, Africa and Asia -- and no Hogan's Heroes.

This changed reality still leaves Britain and Germany in a naval arms race, a truncated Russia with German satellites--through economic support or otherwise--in the Ukraine, along the Baltic and with the Kingdom of Poland, providing buffers between the German Empire and nationalist Russians. There is a revanchist France, perhaps in the altered worldline, more like Franco's Spain. Another spate of conflict is inevitable. Anybody who has ever played the elementary strategy game of Risk, and squabbled over Europe, can tell you that.

Perhaps Russia moves to reclaim
Belarus, a chafing German client state, and at the same time, France launches across the border again to get its licks in, sometime around 1920-ish. The U.S.--a different one than what we know because there wasn't a World War I for it to stretch its superpower eagle's wings--would sit and read of the distant events at the family breakfast table.

Germany and Britain come to blows over colonies and control of Mesopotamian oil interests. Maybe a version of
Jutlandoccurs, but under different circumstances, and another result. And, because there's no repression of Jews, all those European scientists and intellectuals and artists stay home. Abstract Expressionism isn't exported to New York. The laurels of European culture is wrested from Paris, where it was sliding anyway, to Berlin.

In this altered world, perhaps it is the Germans who split the atom, and the Germans who perfect rocketry, among other technolgical innovations. A "Cold War" might exist between whatever Germany evolves into and the whatever Russia becomes, but it's anybody's guess whether in this altered world if the nuclear standoff would've led to a Space Race like the one that caused John F. Kennedy to make the bold statement of sending a man to the moon and returning him to Earth. The Maltese Cross banner might've gotten shoved into the lunar dust, not Old Glory.
"Das ist ein kleiner Schritt für einen Mann, ein riesiger Sprung für Menschheit."

The inhabitants of such a world wouldn't be any less venal or more gracious than the world we are condemned to inhabit. Those residents just have a different set of problems to complain about, and keep them up nights on blogs that few if anybody ever reads.

The sad part is, that even if this "zap the Black Hand" option could be played, I wouldn't enjoy any of the benefits. Not in this "worldline" where I dwell. Some other Harry Kollatz Jr., sitting in his version of a cluttered Colonial Ave. Richmond, Va., office, would be pondering another batch of "what-ifs." Or, at least, that's one theory.

Whatever the case, get working on this problem of World War I, you future historic circumstance-altering humanity-loving scientists, on this 11th day of the 11th month. Make the past an alternate future for somebody today!

A rare World War I aerial photo, taken at a height of 150 meters by a French photographer, shows French troops on the Somme Front launching an attack on the Germans. (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives) Via History Place.