The month between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War demonstrated perhaps more than anything how events had slipped away from Wilhelm, Nicholas and George. The kaiser was at the Kiel regatta racing yachts when he heard the news. He had been entertaining a squadron of visiting British battlecruisers, and the town was full of fraternizing British and German officers. He was clearly upset by the news. “This cowardly, detestable crime has shaken me to the depths of my soul,” he cabled Bethmann-Hollweg. In recent years Franz Ferdinand had become one of his closest friends—they had been hunting the week before—even though, as with so many of Wilhelm’s relationships, he regarded the friendship as instrumental: he liked to claim he had the Hapsburg heir in his pocket.

The tsar was on his annual Baltic summer cruise. Nine-year-old Alexis had fallen jumping from a ladder and twisted his ankle. He was haemorrhaging and crying with pain; Alix was white with worry. Then news came that Rasputin had been stabbed by a madwoman. Everyone on the boat apart from the imperial family hoped he was dead. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was barely registered.

George, too, was preoccupied. The latest chapter in Irish Home Rule had been dominated by bitter arguments over the fate of the predominantly Protestant six northern counties of Ireland, which had threatened to fight if they were separated from Britain. Large numbers of guns had been smuggled into the North. George was obsessed with what might happen if the British army—his army—had to fire on British citizens, and had complained repeatedly to Asquith about “‘the terrible cross-fire’1 to wh. he conceives himself to be exposed.” “Terrible shock for2 the dear old Emperor,” he wrote in his diary. As it happened, Franz Joseph was remarkably sanguine. He hadn’t much liked his nephew and didn’t even go to the funeral.

No one expected the shooting would result in war. Initially, there was collective outrage at the deed and sympathy for Austria. Even if the murder could be traced back to Serbia—the nineteen-year-old assassin, Gavril Princip, had said he’d killed “an enemy of the Southern Slavs” to “avenge the Serbian people”—everyone expected it to blow over. “Kaiser Wilhelm will3 show his teeth,” the former Russian foreign minister, Alexander Izvolsky, told Nicholas’s cousin Sandro. “And everything will be forgotten by the fifteenth of the next month!” Wilhelm did show his teeth, in his characteristic way. On a memo from the German ambassador in Vienna, he wrote that the Serbs must be dealt with “now or never4 … the Serbs must be disposed of, and that right soon.”

The Austrian government, however, saw the assassination as an opportunity. More than ever it regarded Serbia, which had doubled in size after the Balkan Wars and constantly proclaimed itself leader of the southern Slavs, as a threat to the Hapsburg empire. It had asked Germany for support to crush Serbia three times since mid-1913; Wilhelm had refused each time. The Austrian military was quite as enthusiastic about the idea of war as the most gung-ho of German officers. The Austrian chief of staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, like Moltke, was a convinced Social Darwinist who believed that struggle was a fundamental principle of life, and had been itching to fight Serbia for years. In 1913 alone he’d demanded war5 twenty-five times.

A week after the murder, on 5 July, the Austrian ambassador came to Wilhelm with a confidential letter from Emperor Franz Joseph stating that the assassination had been traced to a plot organized by the Serbian government and Serbia must be “eliminated.” It asked for German support. The implication was that Austria would launch a quick war to punish Serbia while Europe was on its summer holiday. It would all be over before anyone could complain. Germany’s role would be to make sure no other Powers would feel tempted to get involved. Wilhelm hesitated. Pointing out that acting against Serbia might “bring about a serious European complication,”6 he ate his lunch. Then he told the Austrian ambassador that Austria could rely on Germany’s full support against Serbia, even if the war threatened to spread, but Austria must act fast. Bethmann-Hollweg was summoned and entirely agreed.

Why did they agree? Wilhelm was upset by his friend’s death; he saw Austria as the wronged party and believed Serbia was a poison in the Balkans. But before, when it had come to the crunch, he had always shied away from confrontation. He had often seen this as a weakness in himself. “This time I7 shall not give in,” he told the armaments manufacturer Krupp. As for Bethmann-Hollweg, he had spent four years countering the military’s calls for war. His decision seems to have emerged from a deeply depressed sense that Germany was trapped and had almost nowhere else to go: his attempts to ease its foreign relations had failed, while the country’s internal divisions made it increasingly ungovernable. And like the army, he had begun to obsess about Russia as a future threat. “Russia grows and grows and weighs on us like a nightmare,” he said. As Germany’s only consistent ally, Austria, meanwhile, needed to be supported. A small war would allow it to recover its dignity and eliminate the threat of Serbia. What seems to have convinced them both was the perception that any war would be quick and localized—it was almost as if after all the talk of European conflagrations, it was easy to agree to a small war in which Germany would not actually take part. But there was always a risk. Crucially both men were certain that Russia was not, as Wilhelm said, “ready for war8 and would think twice before it appealed to arms.” It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. For months the German ambassador in St. Petersburg had been sending reports about the problems in Russia: the millions of striking workers, the barricades on the Moscow streets. Wilhelm was sure, moreover, that Nicholas wouldn’t put himself on the side of regicides. He told his political and military chiefs that he didn’t want war preparations made, so convinced was he that only the threat would be needed. The next day he set off for his annual yachting trip along the Norwegian coast.

Two weeks later the Austrians had accomplished precisely nothing. They had failed to find any evidence incriminating Serbia in the assassination. They had failed to draft an ultimatum. And it transpired they wouldn’t be able to gather together an army until after the harvest in mid-August. So much for a quick war. Finally, on 19 July, the German Foreign Office cabled the kaiser that an Austrian ultimatum would be delivered to the Serbians on 23 July, and that he must be reachable, in case important decisions needed to be made. As the possibility of European war suddenly became real to him, Wilhelm was seized with anxiety. He wanted to return to Berlin, but Bethmann-Hollweg—dreading the thought of the kaiser sweeping back to Berlin in a flurry of inflammatory pronouncements—insisted he stayed put, telling him that cutting short his trip might alarm the British navy.

At midnight on 23 July the Austrians delivered their ultimatum to Serbia. They’d deliberately delayed it because the French president, Raymond Poincaré, had been visiting the tsar in St. Petersburg and they wanted to wait until he was out of port so France and Russia could not coordinate a response. The ultimatum demanded that Austrian officers be allowed to enter Serbia to conduct their own investigation, that all Serb nationalist propaganda be suppressed, that all Serb nationalist societies be disbanded and that Serbian military officers regarded as “anti-Austrian” be dismissed. It gave the Serbs forty-eight hours to reply. The ultimatum’s ferocity stunned European diplomats. Sir Edward Grey felt that no sovereign state could possibly agree to it.

The day after the Austrians issued their ultimatum, Sergei Sazonov convened a meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers. He told his colleagues that he was sure Austria had been encouraged by Germany, which wanted to dominate the continent, and that the two states thought they could win a war against Russia. He desperately wanted to avoid war, but at the same time he was convinced that if it came to it and Russia did not stand up for Serbia and failed “to fulfil her historic9 mission she would be considered a decadent State and would henceforth have to take second place among the powers.” Another “humiliation” was simply too much to bear. Moreover, “public opinion”—or what passed for it—demanded action. The Russian press was near-hysterically insisting that this couldn’t be another Bosnia. Knowing that if Russia went to war it might end in revolution, the ministers convinced themselves that if it didn’t, the country might rise against them in patriotic disgust.

Even so, Sazonov tried to head off a conflict. He asked the Austrians to extend the deadline to Serbia and asked Grey to do the same. He advised the Serbs to accept as many of the Austrian demands as they could and suggested everything else be adjudicated at The Hague. He appealed to the German Foreign Office to mediate, unaware that they were Austria’s secret backers. The German ambassador insisted Germany knew nothing about the ultimatum and the matter was between Austria and Serbia. He told Sazonov that Austria simply wanted to teach Serbia a lesson and he should try negotiating with Austria direct. The Austrians turned down all Sazonov’s requests.

Nicholas dreaded the thought of a conflict and was sure Wilhelm did too. He told the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, “I can’t believe10 the Emperor wants war … If you knew him as I do! If you knew how much theatricality there is in his posing!” One of his ministers recalled later:

He told me11 that he thought Sazonov was exaggerating the gravity of the situation and had lost his nerve … War would be disastrous for the world and once it had broken out it would be difficult to stop. The Emperor did not think it likely that the Note had been sent after consultation with Berlin. The German Emperor had frequently assured him of his sincere desire to safeguard the peace of Europe and it had always been possible to come to an agreement with him, even in serious cases. His Majesty spoke of the German Emperor’s loyal attitude during the Russo-Japanese war and during the internal troubles that Russia had experienced afterwards. It would have been easy for Germany to level a decisive blow at Russia in those circumstances.

The tsar tried to continue life as before: playing tennis, canoeing with his daughters, having tea with his relatives, meeting the Master of the Horse of the court of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. But he was sick with worry and struggled to remain cheerful. “We had only to see12 him during that terrible last week of July,” his son’s tutor wrote later, “to realise what mental torture he had passed through.”

When Wilhelm returned to Potsdam on 27 July, he was shaken to discover Austria had ordered a partial mobilization of its army, before Serbia had replied to the ultimatum. He also found the German army chiefs very much in the ascendant in arguments over what Germany should do next. In contrast to German civilian government, which had become chaotic and divided, making opposition to the war very much harder to coordinate, the army chiefs were well organized and spoke with one voice. They had been allowed, indeed encouraged, to remain entirely beyond the control or scrutiny of civilian authority, they were disdainful of civilian culture and convinced that war was a good in itself, while civilian culture was saturated with admiration for them.

Though Austria had been a grave disappointment, the army chiefs were convinced that it was time to fight and were determined that the kaiser’s pusillanimity would not be allowed to prevent a war. Moltke had an even larger agenda. Since the beginning of the crisis he had argued that the assassination provided the perfect opportunity for a different war, the great war of reckoning with Russia. He’d been secretly encouraging his Austrian opposite number, Conrad von Hötzendorf, for weeks. The idea half-horrified him and he veered between pushing for it and then arguing against it. The war minister Falkenhayn, and the head of Wilhelm’s military cabinet, Lyncker, also agreed the moment was right, and they thought a war would silence, if not flush out, degenerate socialist elements in Germany. Crucial to Moltke’s plan—what has come to be known as the Schlieffen Plan*—was the fact that Austria was willing to fight with Germany. The plan was predicated on the idea that in a war Germany would have to deal with two aggressors—France and Russia—simultaneously. The strategy was that the army would knock out France quickly before its forces could mobilize, then wheel round to attack Russia, which was known to be slow to mobilize its huge army. Wilhelm was said to have called the idea, which had been first suggested around 1905, “Paris for lunch, dinner at St. Petersburg.” Austria was needed to keep the Russians at bay until Germany was ready.

The plan had fairly devastating implications: firstly, regardless of whether France had been in any way involved, it would be invaded. The same went for the neutral states of Belgium and Luxembourg, which were on the route into France. An eastern European conflict would instantly become a Europe-wide war. Secondly, the plan obliged Germany to mobilize and make the decision for war before anyone else, and rush into hostilities in order to eliminate France in time. As a consequence Moltke was in a hurry. The plan was typical of the way the German officer corps had come to see strategic problems in a vacuum, entirely from their narrow viewpoint, and without recourse to the nuances of diplomacy or the needs of politics. It was also the result of Moltke’s conviction that the war which would decide the fate of Europe was coming anyway, and France would have to be dealt with, just like Russia. Most significantly of all, perhaps, it had been kept secret from the civilian government.

Bethmann-Hollweg, both disappointed and relieved by the Austrians’ failure to act, had questioned the need for a war, but by the time Wilhelm returned he was in the process of being talked round, though he still wanted hostilities to be limited. German army values had so percolated into government that diplomacy had come to seem almost a cowardly way to resolve international problems. Perhaps solutions to difficult problems did require extreme, risky measures. Half-appalled, half-resigned to the situation, he offered to quit. Wilhelm refused: “You have cooked13 up this broth, now you are going to eat it.”

The Serbs’ reply to the ultimatum came on 28 July. It was breathtakingly humble and acquiescent; it acceded to everything the Austrians could reasonably have asked and swung international opinion back Serbia’s way. Wilhelm was enormously relieved. He wrote to his foreign minister, Jagow, “A great moral14 success for Vienna; but with it every reason for war drops away.” Instead he thought Austria might perhaps occupy a part of Serbia, until the Serbs had undertaken what they had promised. “I am ready to mediate for peace,” he said, and he told Jagow to notify the Austrians that they must not go to war. His orders were ignored. Bethmann-Hollweg cabled Vienna but did not tell the Austrians to stop their war preparations. The day before, indeed, Jagow had encouraged them to declare war on Serbia at once. When Wilhelm told his ministers that he wanted to avoid war, his war minister, Falkenhayn, informed him that he “no longer had15 control of the affair in his own hands.” It was an expression of the general disdain with which the senior ranks of the army now regarded the kaiser. We don’t know what Wilhelm said to this, but he didn’t challenge it.

The Austrian government rejected the Serb reply, refused Sazonov’s request for talks with Russia and declared war on Serbia. In St. Petersburg, the German ambassador, Pourtalès, had lunch with the British ambassador, Buchanan, and explained to him that the Germans assumed the Russians wouldn’t get involved because he’d assured them that Russia wasn’t capable of fighting a war over Serbia. Buchanan couldn’t believe16 how his German colleague had misread the political atmosphere.

That day Nicholas ordered the partial mobilization of Russian troops. The idea was to move Russian soldiers on to the frontier with Austria, while carefully keeping them away from the borders of Germany so as not to give offence. But he worried about it and thought about rescinding the order.

It was only on 27 July that George seemed to register the Balkan crisis. “It looks17 as if we were on the verge of general European war, caused by the sending of Ultimatum to Serbia by Austria, very serious state of affairs,” he wrote in his diary. The British government had been so preoccupied with the prospect of civil war in Ireland that the Austrian ultimatum had taken it by surprise. Indeed, the German Foreign Office was counting on Ireland keeping Britain out of the Serbian crisis altogether. Asquith had told the king it was “the gravest event18 for many years in European politics.” He also reassured George that there was little reason why “we should be anything more than spectators.” Barely anyone in Britain had ever heard of Serbia, and the government did not feel at all inclined to fight a war on Russia’s behalf. It wasn’t perhaps surprising that when Heinrich came to see George on 26 July, on his way home after his latest visit to England, the king reassured him—at least in Heinrich’s recollection—that “We shall try all19 we can to keep out of this and remain neutral.”

Initially sympathetic to Austria’s desire to make Serbia accountable for its role in the assassination (which had encouraged the Germans), Sir Edward Grey was now determined to prevent the war. He had concluded, against the advice of several of his most senior officials, that Berlin’s intentions were honourable and it had no wish to support a war. He endorsed Sazonov’s request that the matter go to The Hague, and when the Austrians turned it down, suggested a conference, like the one that had resolved the Balkan Wars, of England, Germany, France and Italy. Lichnowsky, the ambassador,20 who knew nothing of the German government’s decisions, passed the idea to the German Foreign Office with an enthusiastic endorsement. Bethmann-Hollweg realized that Grey’s proposal might actually stop the war. He felt obliged to forward it to Austria so as to avoid laying Germany open to accusations that it wanted war, but he told the Austrian Foreign Office to ignore it. On 27 July he rejected the proposal himself, claiming that it would unfairly force a decision on Austria—but salving this with a suggestion that Austria and Russia were about to enter negotiations. The next day the Austrians declared war.

Even now, the British still felt that they had little reason to get involved. Three-quarters of the cabinet were against the idea and Asquith noted that it was “still not a21 British war.” But Grey told Parliament that the minute the conflict spread beyond Austria and Serbia it would become “the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the Continent of Europe.” He did not, however, tell Parliament about all the military and naval talks with France of the previous eight years, which he now believed had created an obligation to come to France’s aid.

George complained to his younger son that he’d had to cancel22 his annual trip to Goodwood races, and was regretting the loss of his weekend sailing at Cowes.

Late on the twenty-eighth, after the Austrians had declared war, and as the roll towards European war seemed inexorable, Wilhelm and Nicholas exchanged telegrams, each appealing to the other to stop the conflict. Nicholas still hoped that, if Germany could pull Austria back from attacking Belgrade, war could be stopped: “I appeal to you23 to help me … I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure brought upon me, and forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.”

Wilhelm, for the last time, appealed to monarchical solidarity: “… You will doubtless agree with me that we both, you and me, have a common interest as well as all Sovereigns to insist that all the persons morally responsible for the dastardly murder should receive their deserved punishment. In this case politics plays no part at all.” He reassured Nicholas that Germany was doing its best to try to bring about an agreement between Vienna and St. Petersburg—though he would not promise that he would stop the attack on Serbia.24

I fully understand how difficult it is for you and your Government to face the drift of your public opinion. Therefore, with regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you. I confidently hope that you will help me in my efforts to smooth over difficulties that may still arise.500

Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin Willy501

Wilhelm didn’t know that his own Foreign Office had advised the Austrians to go to war, and that Bethmann-Hollweg had accompanied his demand to the Austrians to stop in Belgrade with a note that it wasn’t to be taken seriously and was simply for propaganda purposes.

Nicholas wrote to George too, asking for support from Britain if Russia did find itself at war, and assuring him that he was doing all he could to avoid it.

Austria has gone25 off upon a reckless war, which can easily end in a general conflagration. It is awful! My country is confident of its strength and of the right cause it has taken up … Now we are compelled to take strong measures in case of emergency—for our own defence … If a general war broke out I know that we shall have France’s and England’s full support. As a last resort I have written to William to ask him to bear a strong pressure upon Austria so as to enable us to discuss matters with her.

“Where will it26 end?” George wrote plaintively. “… Winston Churchill came to see me, the Navy is all ready for War, but please God it will not come. These are very anxious days for me to live in.”

On 29 July Wilhelm summoned his military leaders. Most of the army chiefs were keen to go to the next level of preparedness for mobilization—Kriegsgefahr, the “state of impending war,” the stage before mobilization—but Bethmann-Hollweg and Moltke, visited by one of his moments of anxiety, argued against it and Wilhelm eventually sided with them. He also announced he had received a message from Heinrich telling him of George’s words of a few days before—that Britain would try to keep out of the conflict. He seized on this as an official assurance of British neutrality. When Tirpitz suggested he might have misinterpreted it, Wilhelm said grandly, “I have the word27 of a King, and that is enough for me.” But in the afternoon Lichnowsky sent the German Foreign Office a telegram describing a meeting with Sir Edward Grey, who, after suggesting that the Austrians should stop in Belgrade, added that, if Germany and France became involved in a war, Britain wouldn’t be able to remain aloof.

Grey’s message was far from being an explicit threat—he couldn’t know that the German response to a Balkan conflict would include attacking France—but it shocked Bethmann-Hollweg, who still hoped the war might be localized. News that the Russians were starting to mobilize, and a dressing-down from Wilhelm when he suggested that Germany should sacrifice the fleet in order to keep Britain neutral, convinced him the conflict was escalating too fast and too far. Contradicting his previous messages, he sent three increasingly desperate telegrams to Vienna asking that the Austrian army stop when they got to Belgrade. But a few hours before, Moltke had cabled Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of staff, and told him to go to full mobilization. The Austrians shelled Belgrade; Bethmann-Hollweg was too late. It was a horrible instance of the German government’s confusion. Even Moltke was far from delighted by what he had done. He wrote a memo to the government that day in which he described a war “which will annihilate28 the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come.”

In a final effort to head off British involvement, Bethmann-Hollweg summoned the British ambassador, Edward Goschen, and suggested that, if the British agreed to stay neutral, the Germans would not invade Holland and that, while perhaps invading France, the Germans wouldn’t try to take any of its territories. The British were amazed that the chancellor had all but admitted that Germany was going to attack France. Grey called it “a disgrace.”29

Meanwhile, still under the illusion that he could mediate between Russia and Austria, that the Austrians had heeded his message to stop at Belgrade, and certain that Russia could be deterred from getting involved, Wilhelm replied to Nicholas’s telegram. He told the tsar that Russia could easily “remain a spectator30 without involving Europe in the most horrible war she has ever witnessed … Of course military measures on the part of Russia would be looked upon by Austria as a calamity we both wish to avoid.”

In St. Petersburg, the German ambassador, Pourtalès, had twice visited Sazonov to tell him that any partial mobilization by Russia would mean war between their two countries. His words seemed to contradict Wilhelm’s “conciliatory and friendly message,” and Nicholas cabled to ask for clarification and suggested that the dispute be taken to The Hague. He signed it, “Trust in your31 wisdom and friendship, Your loving Nicky.” No answer came back. The Russian General Staff was pressuring him to mass Russian troops on the Austrian border in retaliation for the shelling of Belgrade. Nicholas sent Wilhelm another telegram explaining that he had allowed partial mobilization to go ahead—an order that originally dated from several days before. He promised that Russian troops would not take the offensive, as long as talks with Austria continued. “I hope from all32 my heart that these measures won’t interfere with your part as mediator which I greatly value. We need your strong pressure on Austria to come to an understanding.”

When he got the telegram Wilhelm decided that Nicholas had taken a deliberately provocative step. He thought the Russians were now ahead in mobilization, or maybe he was just looking for a reason to be angry. He scribbled on it, “And these measures33 are for defence against Austria which is in no way attacking him!! I cannot agree to any more mediation since the Tsar who requested it has at the same time secretly mobilized behind my back.” Next to Nicky’s last sentences about his mediation, he wrote, “No, there is no thought of anything of that sort!!!” On the morning of 30 July Wilhelm wrote back to Nicholas:

Austria has only34 mobilised against Servia [sic] & only a part of her army. If, as it is now the case, according to the communication by you & your Government, Russia mobilises against Austria, my rôle as mediator you kindly intrusted me with, & which I accepted at you[r] express prayer, will be endangered if not ruined. The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you[r] shoulders now, who have to bear the responsibility for Peace or War


In Tsarskoe Selo, Sazonov and the Russian generals spent hours trying to persuade Nicholas to allow the Russian army to proceed to a general mobilization. If he did it, they told him, he would reconnect with his people; if he failed, the state would be damaged abroad and at home. He would look weak, and the Russian people would never forgive him. Nicholas seemed on the verge of tears. Eventually he gave in. He sent Wilhelm another telegram:

It is technically35 impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilisation. We are far from wishing war. As long as the negotiations with Austria on Servia’s [sic] account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in Gods mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe.

Your affectionate, Nicky.

Wilhelm fell into a furious tantrum and shouted that Nicholas had shown himself to be a partisan of bandits and regicides. The truth was, however, that Russian mobilization was not the same as German mobilization—as the Russians explained and as everyone knew. The Russians, like the Austrians, took weeks to get ready to fight; mobilization was a posture, a warning. They could march up and down behind their border almost indefinitely, whereas for the German army, trained and organized down to the minute, mobilization meant imminent war. The Russian mobilization was a gift to the German government. “In my endeavours36 to maintain the peace of the world I have gone to the utmost limit possible,” Wilhelm told Nicholas. “The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it.” Bethmann-Hollweg was able to argue that Russia had made the first move. The argument brought the German press on board and even the German Left.*

In the evening Wilhelm was finally shown Lichnowsky’s telegram about Grey’s warning that if France became involved Britain wouldn’t be able to stand by, two days after it had arrived. He exploded with rage, accusing George of reneging on his “promise” of neutrality. On both sides of the document Wilhelm denounced the English as “a mean crew37 of shopkeepers revealed in their ‘true colours’ … Grey proves the King a liar, and his words to Lichnowsky are the outcome of a guilty conscience, because he feels that he has deceived us. At that, it is a matter of fact a threat combined with a bluff, in order to separate us from Austria and to prevent us from mobilising, and to shift the responsibility for the war.” Now there was someone else to blame if the war widened: Grey. If he “were to say one38 single, serious sharp and warning word at Paris and St. Petersburg, and were to warn them to remain neutral, that [sic] both would become quiet at once. But he takes care not to speak the word, and threatens us instead! Common cur! England alone bears the responsibility for peace and war, not we any longer!”

The notion that the British could have stopped the Russians from going to war was a fantasy, and also a characteristic exaggeration of Britain’s influence in Europe. The Russians were determined that their very future was in the balance if they let Austria beat the Serbs; British neutrality wasn’t going to stop them. It was true, however, that for eight years Grey had made Britain the fulcrum in Europe, hinting at crucial moments that if it came to war, Britain would side with the victim of aggression. But he had always shied away from committing himself entirely, to avoid the risk that the promise of British support might actually encourage France or Russia to start a conflict. His position encouraged both sides to ask for commitments, one for help, the other for neutrality. It has sometimes been suggested that if Grey had announced on 28 or 29 July that Britain would definitely fight with France and Russia if it came to a war, Germany might have been sufficiently chastened to withdraw. He himself, after all, believed that Britain had built up an obligation to defend France if it were attacked. The problem was he couldn’t make the announcement because the majority of the British cabinet were against the idea of fighting. Moreover, like the rest of the cabinet, he had no desire to support Russia on its own. It’s also worth noting that though Bethmann-Hollweg and Wilhelm worried about British involvement, the German military no longer seemed to care one way or the other. They knew the war would be a land war, they calculated that British ships would be irrelevant, and the British army numbered barely 70,000 men.

For Wilhelm, Grey’s warning, together with Russian mobilization, brought back all the old anxieties. He saw Europe, led by England, ganging up on him, and the hand of his dead uncle:

So the celebrated39 encirclement of Germany has finally become an established fact, and the purely anti-German policy which England has been pursuing all over the world has won the most spectacular victory. England stands derisive, brilliantly successful; her long-mediated purely anti-German policy, stirring to admiration even him who it will utterly destroy! The dead Edward is stronger than I who am still alive … Our agents and all such must inflame the whole Mahommedan world to frantic rebellion against this detestable, treacherous, conscienceless nation of shopkeepers; for if we are to bleed to death, England shall at all costs lose India.

In Britain most people, including the cabinet and George, still believed that Britain wouldn’t come into any war. The Liberal Party was still vigorously against it, the Conservatives were still undecided.

Even now, however, Wilhelm hesitated. It was Bethmann-Hollweg who insisted that war must be declared even if Russia agreed to negotiations. It was Falkenhayn, the war minister, who pressed the kaiser to authorize Kriegsgefahr and order that a German ultimatum be delivered to Russia to halt her mobilization within twelve hours or Germany would declare war. When Pourtalès, the German ambassador, came to deliver the ultimatum, the head of the tsar’s court chancellery, Mossolov, told him it would be impossible. “You can’t stop40 a car that is going at 60 miles an hour. It would inevitably capsize.”

The next day, 1 August, Nicholas sent a last telegram pleading with Wilhelm to continue negotiating: “Understand you are41 obliged to mobilize but wish to have the same guarantee from you as I gave you, that these measures do not mean war … Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God’s help, in avoiding bloodshed. Anxiously, full of confidence await your answer.” German mobilization, however, was different. Their war mobilization led to immediate action—so this was not a guarantee the kaiser could give. But he did draft a telegram suggesting that talks might take place if Russia halted its mobilization. It was not, however, sent until late in the evening, well after Pourtalès had tearfully delivered the German declaration of war to Sazonov.

Nicholas was “praying with all the fervour of his nature that God would avert the war which he felt was imminent.” His son’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, was struck by “the air of weary exhaustion he wore … The pouches which always appeared under his eyes when he was tired seemed to be markedly larger.” After he got the news from Sazonov, “The Czar appeared, looking very pale, and told them that war was declared, in a voice which betrayed his agitation, notwithstanding all his efforts.”42 When she heard, Alix began to weep, and all the daughters seeing her cry began to cry too. Wilhelm’s delayed telegram arrived late that night. Nicholas saw it as proof of his duplicity, though it was more a sign of his powerlessness: “He was never sincere;43 not a moment,” he said bitterly.

In the end he was hopelessly entangled in the net of his perfidy and lies … it was half past one in the morning of August 2 … There was no doubt that the object of this strange and farcical telegram was to shake my resolution, disconcert me and inspire me to some absurd and dishonourable act. It produced the opposite effect. As I left the Empress’s room, I felt that all was over forever between me and William. I slept extremely well.

In the early hours of 1 August the British Foreign Office made a last attempt to close down the war. They received a telegram from Berlin, informing them that despite Wilhelm’s readiness to mediate, Russia had mobilized against Austria: “We are unable to remain44 inactive … We have therefore informed Russia that, unless she were prepared to suspend within twelve hours the warlike measures against Germany and Austria, we should be obliged to mobilise, and this would mean war.” Asquith and Grey decided to use George to get to the tsar. “The poor King45 was hauled out of his bed,” Asquith wrote, “and one of my strangest experiences … was sitting with him—he in a brown dressing gown over his nightshirt with copious signs of having been aroused from his first ‘beauty sleep’—while I read the message and the ‘proposed’ answer.” George described the telegram as “a last resort46 to try to prevent war.” George’s contribution, according to Asquith, was to add “my dear Nicky,”47 and sign it.

George’s message forwarded the German telegram and added:

I cannot help48 thinking that some misunderstanding has produced this deadlock. I am most anxious not to miss any possibility of avoiding the terrible calamity which at present threatens the whole world. I therefore make a personal appeal to you, my dear Nicky, to remove the misapprehension which I feel must have occurred, and to leave still open grounds for negotiation and possible peace. If you think I can in any way contribute to that all-important purpose, I will do everything in my power to assist in reopening the interrupted conversations between the Powers concerned.

The message was entrusted to Buchanan and a shorter telegram was sent to Tsarskoe Selo asking the tsar to see the British ambassador as soon as possible. But the tsar was a hard man to get at. By the time Buchanan managed to see him, it was late in the evening and Germany had already declared war on Russia. “Whether we shall49 be dragged into it God only knows,” George wrote, “but we shall not send an Expeditionary Force of the Army now. France is begging us to come to their assistance. At this moment public opinion here is dead against our joining in the War but I think it will be impossible to keep out of it as we cannot allow France to be smashed.”

Nicholas’s reply to George’s telegram arrived the next day. “I would gladly50 have accepted your proposals, had not the German Ambassador this afternoon presented a Note to my Government declaring war,” he wrote. He had done “all in my power to avert war,” while Germany and Austria had rejected “every proposal.” He had moved to general mobilization only, “owing to quickness with which Germany can mobilise in comparison with Russia … That I was justified in doing so is proved by Germany’s sudden declaration of war, which was quite unexpected by me as I had given most categorical assurances to the Emperor William that my troops would not move so long as mediation negotiations continued.” He hoped, he added, that Britain would support them.

The Russian government’s justification for going to war was that the people demanded it—an extraordinary claim from an autocratic state that barely ten years before hadn’t even recognized the existence of public opinion. At some level Nicholas believed it, but of course “public opinion” was not the hundreds of thousands of strikers or the people on the barricades in Moscow. It was true, however, that with only one exception—the tiny pro-German court faction—the entire government, bureaucracy, the educated classes, the buyers of papers, demanded intervention in Austria’s war with Serbia, which gave Germany an excuse to attack. If there had been no Nicholas, Russia would still have gone to war. Though he had his doubts, Nicholas was not strong enough to counter such feeling. On the other hand, in his twenty years in power, Nicholas had done so much to weaken and stunt the emergence of a properly functioning modern government, so much to ensure that it was about as chaotic as it could be, that it is possible to speculate that a more professional government might have managed to hold on to the obvious fact that war was a threat to its very existence, and that this reality ought to trump everything else.

Nicholas felt he had been forced to do it, and he blamed Germany. “The German Emperor51 knew perfectly well that Russia wanted peace,” he told Buchanan bitterly, “and that her mobilisation could not be completed for another fortnight at least but he had declared war with such haste as to render all further discussion impossible.”

Even at this late stage, Wilhelm, Bethmann-Hollweg and Lichnowsky, the ambassador in London, still hoped that Britain would stay out, and the war wouldn’t need to spread beyond the East.

On 1 August Ambassador Lichnowsky reported excitedly that Grey had asked whether, if France remained neutral, Germany would leave it alone. Lichnowsky answered yes, deciding that this was an offer to stay out if Germany stayed out of France. Wilhelm received the message just after he’d reluctantly handed Moltke the signed order for general mobilization—which meant armies would soon be pouring into France. The kaiser and the chancellor jumped at the offer. Wilhelm sent a telegram to George telling him he had just received “the communication from52 your Government, offering French neutrality under the guarantee of Great Britain.” He assured George that he would not attack France if it offered neutrality and if that was guaranteed by the British army and fleet. “I hope that France will not become nervous, the troops on my frontiers are in the act of being stopped by telegraph and telephone from crossing into France.” The kaiser told Moltke that the soldiers could all be sent off to Russia. Moltke practically burst into tears. He insisted mobilization couldn’t be halted, that it would be mad to leave Germany exposed to France. Wilhelm replied sullenly, “Your uncle would have53 given me a different answer.” He had the order to stop at the Luxembourg border phoned through to the troops. “I felt as if my heart was going to break,” Moltke the warmonger sniffed as he set off miserably for general headquarters, devastated that the kaiser “still hoped for peace.”54*

George’s reply, when it came, was not what Wilhelm had hoped. “I think there must56 be some misunderstanding of a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey this afternoon, when they were discussing how actual fighting between German and British armies might be avoided.” The French had refused to be neutral. Wearing a military greatcoat over his nightshirt, Wilhelm recalled Moltke. “Now you can57 do what you like,” he growled. At 7 p.m., the German army were in Luxembourg. France was in the war by the next afternoon. The French ambassador in Berlin, Paul Cambon, told Edward Goschen that there were three people in Berlin who regretted the war had started. “You, me and58 Kaiser Wilhelm.”

The next day Lichnowsky came to see Prime Minister Asquith in tears. The kaiser was no longer answering his telegrams. The Germans were now threatening to enter Belgium. The Belgian king had appealed to the British government, through George, to safeguard his country’s neutrality. The German occupation created an extraordinary volte-face in British public opinion. It also provided the cabinet, which had gradually come round to Grey’s argument that Britain was not only obligated to defend France, but that strategically it couldn’t allow France to be invaded by Germany, with a justification for action: the defence of “plucky little Belgium.” The decision to go to war was extraordinarily united. Only two cabinet members resigned, and only one MP, the Labour member Ramsay MacDonald, spoke against Grey, who told Parliament that Britain must go to war to defend Belgium out of “honour.” MacDonald observed that “There has been59 no crime committed by statesmen of this character without those statesmen appealing to their nation’s honour”—both the Crimean and Boer Wars had been justified for the sake of “honour.”

On 2 August George wrote in his diary: “At 10:30 a crowd of about 6,000 people collected outside the Palace, cheering and singing. May and I went out onto the balcony, they gave us a great ovation.”

The next day he added almost enthusiastically: “Public opinion since Grey made his statement in the House today that we should not allow Germany to pass through the English Channel or into the North Sea to attack France and that we should not allow her troops to pass through Belgium, has entirely changed … and now everyone is for war and our helping our friends.” On 4 August he continued: “Fairly warm, showers and windy … I held a Council at 10:45 to declare war with Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault … Please God it may be soon over.”60The declaration of war included the empire; with one signature 450 million subjects were bound into the conflict.

Wilhelm would spend the rest of his life apportioning blame for the First World War. He wrote to Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president, ten days after the outbreak, claiming that George had promised neutrality and then reneged on it. Deeply stung by the accusation that he might have given assurances that weren’t his to give, George always maintained that he had never made any such promise. To his last breath Wilhelm would insist that Nicholas had wanted war all along, that Russia had been secretly preparing for war for months before, that the Entente had been hoarding gold since April 1913.

Neither George, nor Nicholas, nor even Alix believed that Wilhelm was personally responsible for the war. “I don’t believe61 Wilhelm wanted war,” George told the departing Austrian ambassador. Alix told her son’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, that though she had never liked Wilhelm—“if only because he is not sincere”—she was “sure he has been won over to the war against his will.”62

And it was true. When it came to it, Wilhelm had not wanted war. But he couldn’t stop it. In the week before it broke out he was traduced and ignored repeatedly by his civilian and military staff. Forces beyond his power had begun to dictate the direction the country was going in. But in many respects he had brought the situation on himself. Twenty-six years of haphazard intervention had left a dangerous legacy. He had encouraged a powerful army, conscious of its own strength and convinced of the benefits and inevitability of a European war, and he had kept it beyond government control. He had initiated a shipbuilding programme which had created bitter hostility with Britain where before there had been none, and refused to temper it in any way. His insistence that his government deal only with the Right had made it a hostage to nationalist interest groups and alienated the rest of the country. His embracing and encouragement of a public rhetoric which bristled with violence, racial stereotyping and threats had helped to bolster an image abroad of a nation hungering for conflict. And finally, he had allowed chains of command and decision-making in civilian government to become chaotic and confused because it suited him for them to remain so. Virtually all his positions were the result of weakness and immaturity, the pursuit of appetites and wishes with no thought to the consequences: over-excitement at the idea of the might of the army and his notional control of it; a craving to look powerful and strong, and to identify himself with the aggressive masculine stereotypes of the German army; and above all a desire to be popular.

* The German war plan known as the Schlieffen Plan was once thought to have been formulated in 1905–6, and was therefore named after the then incumbent chief of staff Schlieffen. It is now known that the plan was adopted as the sole German war plan only in 1913, during Moltke’s time as chief of staff.

* The German Socialist Party had gradually become infected by the fear and antipathy towards Britain and Russia that had taken hold of almost every class in Germany. In 1907, at an International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, their delegation had voted against the idea of using a general strike to try to prevent a European war. In subsequent years senior members, such as August Bebel, had begun to say that patriotism was not incompatible with Socialism: that if war came, they would pick up a gun and fight for the fatherland.

* Moltke later wrote, “Something in me55 broke and I was never the same again.” Unable to take the strain of running the war, he had a breakdown almost immediately after it started and resigned his commission.

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