Wilhelm II: Policy Making in 1914 Berlin

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10th Aug 2018 History Reference this


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Q. Who was in charge of policy in Berlin in 1914 and why did they act as they did?

A vigorous transition to an imperialist policy will give Germany the space it needs . . . An unsuccessful war can no more than set Germany back, although for a long time; England it can destroy. As victor England will be rid of an awkward competitor; Germany will become what England is now, the world power.’

(Das Neue Deutschland)

‘The perpetual emphasis on peace at every opportunity — suitable and unsuitable — has, in the last 43 years of peace, produced an altogether eunuch-like attitude amongst the statesmen and diplomats of Europe’

(Wilhelm II)

Historians of the Great War divide into two main camps when debating who were the principal policy-makers and men-in-charge of Germany at the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914. The first school, led historians such as Fritz Fischer, argues that Germany’s Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Germany’s Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, and Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth Moltke, colluded to deliberately and consciously begin full-scale and non-localized war. This school states that Germany’s imperialist ambitions — as exemplified in the quotations above — growing as they did out of national pride and exuberance of her unification in 1871, had given Germany an insatiable appetite to copy and surpass the political hegemony enjoyed then by England. The second school, led by mostly defunct and sentimental German national historians like Kessler, rejects the suggestion of a ‘premeditated European war’ and posits a state of affairs where, under extreme international pressure, Germany’s politicians had to, as a last resort, cede authority to the military so that they could defend Germany from hostile neighbours. This essay will argue that the great bulk of past and historical evidence ­— Wilhelm’s and others personal diaries, military documents, parliamentary papers and so on — reveal that the first school has it right when they say that policy was made in collusion between Wilhelm II, Bethmann and Moltke’s army. These policy-makers acted as they did because they feared that their opportunity for imperialist expansion was about to close, and with it Germany’s long-sought-for hopes of world-power. The Imperial Chancellor and Moltke manipulated the Reichstag and Kaiser Wilhelm II so as to engender the deliberate inevitability of war..

According to Hewitson[1], two potentially decisive policy-makers — the German public: particularly the newly-formed industrialized and urbanized classes; and German political parties — were sidelined from major policy decisions near the start of the war. The unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871 had, like in Italy, summoned up an awesome spirit of nationalism amongst Germans, and this nationalist pride flowed out into ambitions for Germany to have an empire to rival those of England and France. In the same period, German society underwent a tremendous social and political transformation, with power moving from the old Junker and agricultural classes to Germany’s huge new urbanized masses. This shift from agriculture to industry meant that the urbanized Germans now had a potentially decisive voice in national affairs and policy decisions. In 1914 it was not explicit however that Germany’s industrialized citizens would have unanimously backed the type of war that was declared by its leaders that summer. Bethmann speciously claimed, after the war, that ‘. . . the war did not arise out of single diplomatic actions, but was rather a result of public passion’. In reality, whilst the German public knew the general background to the international situation, they knew nearly nothing whatsoever about the particular decisions and policies that were being made by their leaders in the critical weeks in July 1914. Of course, not knowing of the seriousness of events in Serbia and Austria, the German public were not able to use their considerable power to have any effect upon the policy-decisions behind those events.

Hewitson[2] argues that Bethmann, Zimmermann, Jagow, the Kaiser and Moltke deliberately kept the German people in the dark because they feared that the people might raise opposition to an aggressive and non-localized conflict. Thus, Clemens von Delbruck, Secretary of State for the Interior in 1914, could state that ‘. . . we (the Chancellor’s division) have not spoken about foreign policy at all, the daily press was completely calm, and no one amongst the visitors present suspected the slightest thing about the imminent danger of war’. Journalists and the public they reported for were subjected to a lengthy and elaborate efforts from the Kaiser and his military to conceal Germany’s true intentions until such a point that when did become known to the public, it would like Germany was a victim and only fighting a ‘defensive’ and ‘localized’ war. The Chief of Wilhelm’s Naval Cabinet thus stated in July 1914 that ‘The government has managed brilliantly to make us (Germany) look like the attacked[3][4].

A similar blanket was thrown over the eyes of Germany’s politicians and political parties. Immediately after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, most of Germany’s politicians were away from Berlin on their annual holidays; this simple fact meant that their influence over policy, and any opposition they might have normally raised to the aggression of Wilhelm and Moltke, was largely neutralized by their absence. By the time politicians returned to Berlin, the decision to go to war had been made and they had no retrospective power to reverse this policy. Likewise, German politicians were culpable for a major underestimation of the seriousness of events after the Sarajevo bombing. Politicians and liberal newspapers such as the Vossiche Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung said in the immediate aftermath of the assassination that the ‘Serbian government had no part in the crime’; even right-wing newspapers such as the Berliner Neueste Nachrichten neither anticipated nor called for retaliation against Serbia for the assassination. This attitude can be praised for seeking to pacify Germany and to avoid war; it can likewise be criticized for a certain naivety, underestimating the true intentions of the German military. These two groups then — the German public and the German politicians — can be said to have had a very limited effect upon the policy decisions taken in July 1914.

If not these, who then were the principal policy-makers in charge in 1914? Kaiser Wilhelm II ostensibly, and perhaps in reality, was a central figure in such decisions. Wilhelm was the supreme figure in German life: he was Commander-in-Chief of the German army, and was empowered by Articles 11 and 18 of the German constitution to declare war. The allies recognised Wilhelm’s centrality in controlling policy in 1914 when at the Treaty of Versailles they named him as a ‘war criminal’ with direct responsibility for Germany’s deliberate attempt to begin the war. This picture of Wilhelm’s central involvement, and his desire for war, is supported by documentary evidence from the weeks and months immediately preceding the war. Writing of Friedrich von Pourtales, German ambassador to Russia, Wilhelm said that ‘… he would do better to leave unwritten’ his thoughts about Russia’s lack of desire for war. Later, also of Pourtales, that ‘He makes those who are ignorant of Russia and weak, suspect characters amongst his readers, totally confused[5]. Numerous other ambassadorial documents and diaries reveal that, within the German and international diplomatic community, Wilhelm’s opinions were believed to directly shape and determine the direction of German foreign policy[6]. Given the tone and content of the quotations cited above, it is clear that, if Wilhelm did indeed have as much power as his diplomats believed, that he used this to engender war deliberately and on a grand scale rather ‘in defence’ or in a ‘localized context’.

Nonetheless, numerous historians, Kennedy and Herwig for instance, argue that diplomatic assessments of Wilhelm’s powers were blinkered, and that in truth he had profoundly little influence over policy in 1914. Kennedy[7] describes how Wilhelm’s power and influence over policy, at its acme around 1900, began to wane due to scandal and incompetence in the years preceding 1914. The disastrous Daily Telegraph foreign policy decisions, as well as the Eulenberg court scandal, had led to plummet of his authority amongst both the German public and its ruling elites; in Kennedy’s phrase he lacked a ‘personal regime’ that would have provided more decisive influence over policy. Wilhelm II confounded his loss of authority by dragging behind him an entourage of incompetent ambassadorial and diplomatic staff such as Pourtales, Wilhelm von Schoen and Karl Max von Lichnowsky. The Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, had often opposed Wilhelm’s decisions in the years before the war, and at the moment of the Serbian crisis reports show that Bethmann’s power clearly exceeded that possessed by Wilhelm. For instance, on July 5th 1914, Alexander von Hykos, appealed to Germany for aid in the Serbian crisis; Wilhelm II at once promised Ladislaus Szogyeny-Marich, Austria’s ambassador to Berlin German’s total support, but conditioned this promise with the following words ‘. . . that he (Wilhelm) must first hear what the Imperial Chancellor had to say’. Wilhelm II, conscious of previous challenges to his authority by Bethman, did not want to risk humiliation by promising Szogyeny-Marich Germany’s undoubted support, when he had first to inquire from Bethmann whether indeed the government would endorse such a policy.

Further, during the crucial days of policy-making after Ferdinand’s assassination, the Imperial Chancellor deliberately kept Wilhelm II on holiday in Norway, and away from Berlin, for as long as possible. Central military policy-makers such as Tirpitz, Falkenhayn, Moltke and Waldersee returned from their holidays on July 24th; Wilhelm II did not return until the 27th — just one day before the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia became effective. Further, the Serbian government had sent a reply to Austria’s ultimatum on July 25th, yet the Chancellor was not permitted to see this reply until after Austria’s declaration of war. On August 1st the Kaiser, now avowing peace, sought to prevent war by halting German military mobilization in the West, thus enabling Britain and France to make declarations of their neutrality. Nonetheless, his interventions were opposed and by both Bethmann Hollweg and Moltke, and these oppositions proved decisive.

All in all, such subservience and acquiescence to the Imperial Chancellor and to Moltke shows the fallacy of the power of the official titles held by Wilhelm II: he was Commander-in-Chief only in name, and the decision behind any declaration of war would be made principally by Bethmann Hollweg and by Moltke. As Stevenson has put it: ‘On each policy-making occasion before the war, and whether counselling war or peace, the Kaiser’s demands were overridden[8]. Initially, the Kaiser gave his total support in the policy of deliberately beginning war, for he, like most Germans, sought to increase Germany’s international prestige. And during this time, it was advantageous for Bethmann and Moltke to let the Kaiser and his entourage believe that he still retained significant power over foreign policy; but the emptiness of that authority quickly becomes evident during the last week of July, when Wilhelm II turns to oppose war, but is thwarted in his attempts by the more powerful Bethmann and Moltke[9].

The last section of this essay implied that the true policy-makers in Berlin in 1914 were Moltke and Bethmann Hollweg and that their intentions were , from the start of the Serbian crisis, and indeed from much earlier, to pursue a deliberate policy of ‘expansive’ war and to replace England’s world political hegemony with its own. This section turns to examine these claims in depth, and to supply evidence for them. Principally, that the German General Staff and War Ministry, frustrated with the failure of imperialist strategy in recent years, and sensing the opportunity for an imperialist advance rapidly failing, that the military deliberately provoked the international community into the inevitability of war.

In the days immediately preceding the Austrian declaration of war, and in stark contrast to the nescience of the German public, leading German military figures knew intimately the state of affairs in Austria and Serbia and were controlling both the flow of information about the crisis and the decisions that were to be made based upon it. Many German military figures were, like German politicians, absent on holiday when the Serbian assassination too place; yet unlike the politicians, Germany’s generals returned quickly to Berlin to seize the opportunity to effect their long-term war strategy. For instance, although later denying the accusation, Waldersee was shown, in recently uncovered parliamentary papers, to have returned three times from holiday back to Berlin during the period July 20th—27th. During these visits he was in intimate contact with Austrian military commanders, and was actively gathering extensive military intelligence about the readiness and preparation of the Austrians to go to war. Moltke, likewise, penned to his wife on July 22nd that ‘I am sorry not to be able to stay here (Karlsbad) another week, but I have to return to Berlin’ and ‘Tomorrow, the 23rd is the critical day! I am eager to find out what will happen[10]. Comments like these imply a War Ministry highly cognizant of the events about them and of the influence that they might have in directing these events. Thus, historians like Mombauer[11], argue that the German military deliberately escalated the already precarious international situation by effecting a ‘military takeover’ in Germany. For instance, on July 29th, Moltke gave Bethmann a document called ‘Summary of the Political Situation’; yet within three days mobilization of the German army had already begun.

‘The spiritual progress of mankind is only possible through Germany. This is why Germany will not lose this war; it is the only nation that can, at the present moment, take charge of leading mankind towards a higher destiny’

(Helmuth von Moltke, November 1914)[12]

Helmuth von Moltke, Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, and supreme military leader for most of WWI, had great influence the policy-decisions made in the days immediately preceding war. As the above quotation suggests, and as innumerable other bellicose statements of Moltke corroborate, the German military were inspired to war by the patriotic and nationalistic idea that Germany should have international hegemony over the cultural and spiritual life of man. It is consequently very difficult to believe that Moltke, and other similarly minded military leaders, were content to wait patiently for the realization of these ambitions whilst the opportunity to enact them seemed to be dwindling. Instead, the generals knew that success depended upon an aggressive and vigorous provocation of international tensions so as to ignite war. Moltke was instrumental in effecting this provocation and his slogan that war should come ‘the sooner the better’ has lingered in history as a testament to his bellicose intent. Moltke influence over the Sclieffen/Moltke Plan was enormous, and this plan was perhaps the most explicit declaration of aggressive intent seen before the war — deliberately seeking as it did to violate the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg so as to provoke a chain-reaction whereby England and France would be drawn into the war also. Mombauer argues that Moltke and his generals had decided long before the war that a successful campaign would have first to swiftly defeat France and the West swiftly, before turning to combat Russia. This plan depended upon strict adherence to a tight military strategy, and therefore the subjugation, of ‘secondary’ political concerns — such as the preservation of peace!

Complicit in these preparations for war was the Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg. Though he protested somewhat at the celerity with which the military preparations gathered momentum ­— Hewitson[13] records an argument (Ausienandersetzung) between Molke and Bethmann on July 30th — Bethmann nonetheless was cognizant of the preparations that his military men were making, and of the fact that these preparations were neither for a defensive nor a localized war. To this end, Bethmann told his ambassadors, on the eve of the war, that ‘. . . we have accepted the role of mediator’ — confirming his acquiescence to the generals’ will. Stevenson argues that Bethmann’s outward protests against war, such as his last minute demand for a ‘halt in Belgrade’, were never pursued vigorously enough or believed either by Bethmann himself or by the military. An entry from General Falkenhayn’s diary, dated July 30th, states that, after talks with Bethmann, Falkenhayn had ‘. . . got the decision accepted over the imminent danger of war[14]. In other words, Bethmann either willingly consented or meekly acquiesced to the preparations for war as readied by Moltke. Wilson argues further that, rather than having a ‘military take-over’ forced upon his government, and thereby being unwillingly dragged into conflict, Bethmann in fact, on the evening of July 30th, still had the chance to pressure Austria to restrict its military mobilization and therefore to slow-down Russia’s also. Bethmann made no such appeal, and therefore, Wilson argues, endorsed the military’s aggressive planning.

In the final analysis, the two principal policy-makers in Berlin in 1914 were Molke and Bethmann — though considerably aided by the Kaiser, even if he was not always fully conscious of his contribution to these decisions. The impossibility of maintaining the old argument that German policy-makers only entered WWI in self-defence, and then that they only intended a localized war, ought to be evident to any modern and objective historian. Since Fischer’s seminal War of Illusions was published in the 1967, historians of all countries, aided by the discovery of a vast amount of documentation from the period, have begun to ask not whether Germany sought war deliberately, but why she did so. Principally, Germany sought war because, since the efflorescence of national pride engendered by unification in 1871, Germany possessed a craving to follow the imperialist expansion of countries like England and France — a longing immortalized in the German caricature of Sleepy Michael, who has ‘woken up too late’ to claim his part of the international map. In 1914 Moltke and his military advisors thought they saw a moment to realize these ambitions. The European political and military conditions of 1914, aided by the catalyst of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, seemed to open a window for a ‘now or never’ lightning military thrust. The usual checks such as the Reichstag and public opinion that might have prevented or at least localized the war, were bypassed by the rapidity of events in the last week of July 1914, and by the lack of information that was made available to these groups. A historian’s final reflection on the question of policy might then be this: that Germany’s irrepressible jealousy of Britain, born out of convictions of her own cultural and spiritual supremacy, led her policy-makers to deliberately engineer the inevitability of war.


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[1] Hewitson, M. (2002). Germany and the Causes of the First World War. Berg, Oxford, p. 195.

[2] Hewitson, M. (2002). Germany and the Causes of the First World War. Berg, Oxford, p. 198.

[3] Herwig, H. (1991). The Outbreak of World War I: Causes and Responsibilities. (5th Ed.) Lexington, Massachusetts, p55.


[5] Carroll, E.M. (1938). Germany and the Great Powers, 1860-1914. New York, Fantasy Press, p190.

[6] Stevenson, D. (1988). The First World War and International Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[7] Kennedy, P.M. (Edit.) (1979). The War Plans of the Great Powers: 1880-1914. New Haven, London.

[8] Stevenson, D. (1988). The First World War and International Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p200.

[9] Stevenson, D. (1988). The First World War and International Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p251.

[10] Hewitson, M. (2002). Germany and the Causes of the First World War. Berg, Oxford, p. 210.

[11] Mombauer, A. (2001). Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p433.

[12] Mombauer, A. (2001). Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p283.

[13] Hewitson, M. (2002). Germany and the Causes of the First World War. Berg, Oxford, p202.

[14] Wilson, K. M. (1995). Decisions for War: 1914. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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