Modern history

THE SPIRIT OF 1914

I

Across the border, in German-speaking Austria, another version of radical antisemitism was provided by Georg Ritter von Schönerer, the son of a railway engineer who had been given a title of nobility by the Habsburg Emperor as a reward for his services to the state. The year after its defeat by Prussia in 1866, the Habsburg monarchy had restructured itself into two equal halves, Austria and Hungary, bound together by the person of the Emperor, Franz Josef, and his central administration in Vienna. That administration was staffed overwhelmingly by German-speakers, and the six million or so Austrian Germans reconciled themselves to their expulsion from the German Confederation by identifying strongly with the Habsburgs and regarding themselves as the Empire’s ruling group. But Schönerer was not satisfied with this. ‘If only we belonged to the German Empire!’ he exclaimed in the Austrian Parliament in 1878. A radical, improving landlord, Schönerer was a proponent of universal manhood suffrage, the complete secularization of education, the nationalization of the railways—a reflection, perhaps, of his father’s occupation - and state support for small farmers and artisans. He regarded the Hungarians and the other nationalities in the Habsburg monarchy as brakes on the progress of the Germans, who would, he thought, do far better economically and socially in a union with the German Reich.91

As time went on, Schönerer’s belief in German racial superiority became allied to an increasingly intense form of antisemitism. He augmented his eleven-point German-nationalist Linz Programme of 1879 with a twelfth point in 1885, demanding ‘the removal of Jewish influence from all sections of public life’ as a precondition for the reforms he wanted to achieve. Schönerer’s presence in the Austrian Parliament allowed him to campaign against the influence of Jews in, for example, railway companies, and gave him immunity from prosecution when he used extravagant language to condemn them. He founded a series of organizations to propagate his views, and one of them, the Pan-German Association, succeeded in getting twenty-one deputies elected to the Parliament in 1901. It soon broke up amid bitter personal quarrels among the leadership. But its example spawned other antisemitic organizations as well. Its constant harping upon the supposedly evil influence of the Jews made it easier for a cynical communal politician such as the Christian-Social conservative Karl Lueger to use antisemitic demagogy to win enough support to install him as Mayor of Vienna on behalf of the rising right-wing Christian Social Party in 1897. Lueger held this post for the next decade, stamping his influence indelibly on the city through a mixture of rabble-rousing populism and imaginative, socially progressive municipal reform.92

Schönerer never enjoyed this kind of popular support. But where Lueger’s antisemitism, though influential, was essentially opportunistic—‘I decide who’s a Yid’, he once famously said, when criticized for dining with influential Jews in Vienna - Schönerer’s was visceral and unyielding. He proclaimed antisemitism, indeed, ‘the greatest achievement of the century’.93 As time went on, his ideas became even more extreme. Describing himself as a pagan, Schönerer spearheaded an anti-Catholic movement under the slogan ‘away from Rome’, and coined the pseudo-medieval greeting ‘hail!’—Heil!—using it in Parliament, to the general outrage of the deputies, in 1902, when he ended a speech by declaring his allegiance to the German rather than the Austrian royal family - ‘Up with and hail to the Hohenzollerns!’ Schonerer’s followers called him ‘the Leader’ (Führer), another term which his movement probably introduced into the political vocabulary of the far right. He proposed to rename annual festivals and the months of the year by Germanic titles such as ‘Yulefest’ (Christmas) and ‘Haymoon’ (June). Even more eccentric was his proposal for a new calendar dating from the defeat of a Roman army by the Germanic Cimbri at the battle of Noreia in 118 BC. Schönerer actually held a (not very successful) festival to inaugurate the new millennium with the year 2001 n.N. (the initials standing for nach Noreia, ‘after Noreia’).94

Schönerer was an uncompromising racial antisemite. ‘Religion’s all the same, it’s race that is to blame’, was one of his typically catchy slogans. His extremism got him into trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion, notably in 1888, when a false newspaper report of the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I caused him to storm into the guilty newspaper’s offices and physically attack members of its staff. After he had publicly toasted Wilhelm as ‘our glorious Emperor’, the outraged Habsburg Emperor, Franz Josef, deprived him of his noble title, while the Parliament waived his immunity so that he could serve a four-month term in gaol. This did not prevent him from declaring after his release that ‘he longed for the day when a German army would march into Austria and destroy it’. Such extremism meant that Schönerer never really left the fringes of politics. In 1907, indeed, he failed to secure re-election to the Austrian Parliament and the number of deputies who followed his line dwindled to three. Schönerer was perhaps more interested in spreading ideas than in winning power. But in this guise, he was to have a considerable influence on Nazism later on.95

Antisemitism in Austria was far from being a separate phenomenon from its German counterpart. The common language and common culture with Germany, and the fact that Austria had been part of the ‘Holy Roman Reich of the German Nation’ for over a thousand years, and then of the German Confederation until its rude expulsion by Bismarck in 1866, meant that intellectual and political influences crossed the border without too much difficulty. Schönerer, for example, was a self-confessed disciple of the German antisemite Eugen Dühring. Citizens of the German Reich, particularly in the Catholic south, who looked to Vienna for inspiration, could not help but notice Lueger’s combination of social reform, Catholic allegiance and antisemitic rhetoric. Schönerer’s racial definition of the Jews, his cult of the ‘Aryan’ myth, his avowed paganism and distaste for Christianity, his belief in the superiority of the Germans and his contempt for other races, especially the Slavs, were in part shared by the more extreme antisemites within the German Empire. None of his ideas could be seen as alien; they were essentially part of the same extremist current of thought. Schönerer’s Pan-Germanism doomed him to failure while the Habsburg monarchy continued to exist. But if it should ever fall, then its German-speaking minorities would be confronted in an acute form with the question of whether they wanted to join the German Reich or form a separate state on their own. In this eventuality, Pan-Germanism would come into its own.

II

In the German Reich itself, the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888 quickly led to a serious weakening of Bismarck’s position as Reich Chancellor. When the two differed over the renewal or the lapsing of the Anti-Socialist Law, with its manifold restrictions on civil liberties, Bismarck was forced to resign. The lapsing of the law gave rise to a whole range of new social and political movements in all parts of the political spectrum. New, colourful figures appeared on the political scene, contrasting with the drabness of Bismarck’s immediate successors as Chancellor, Caprivi and Hohenlohe. Among them was one at least who attracted admiration as precisely the kind of hero the German nationalists were looking for. Carl Peters was a classic colonial adventurer of the late nineteenth century, whose exploits quickly became the stuff of legend. When Bismarck reluctantly acquired nominal German colonies in 1884, Peters set out to turn his paper conquests into real ones. On reaching the East African coast, he organized an expedition and departed for the interior, where he concluded a number of treaties with indigenous rulers. Characteristically, he had neglected to consult the German government about this, and Bismarck repudiated the treaties when he heard about them. Peters got into further trouble when it was revealed that he had not only been maltreating his bearers but had also had sexual relations with African women. Reports of his misdemeanours shocked bourgeois opinion. But this did not deter Peters from pursuing his quest to found a great German Empire in Africa.96

Peters’s fertile imagination and restless spirit led him to found a variety of organizations, including a Society for German Colonization in 1884, which merged with a like-minded group in 1887 to form the German Colonial Society. Such was Peters’s prominence, combined with the influence of his supporters, that Bismarck felt obliged to recognize his East African venture and declare a German protectorate over the areas he had explored, the first step in the creation of the German colony of Tanganyika. In 1890, however, Bismarck’s successor Leo von Caprivi agreed to surrender some of the territory Peters had claimed, most notably the island of Zanzibar, to the British in return for their cession to Germany of the North Sea island of Heligoland. Outraged, Peters chaired a meeting organized early in 1891 by a group of nationalists including the young civil servant Alfred Hugenberg, who was later to play a fateful role in the rise and triumph of Nazism. They founded a General German League, renamed the Pan-German League in 1894. The aim of the new organization was to push vigorously for German expansion abroad and the Germanization of national minorities at home. In this it was joined in 1894 by the Society for the Eastern Marches; this group, which had relatively close ties with government compared to those enjoyed by the Pan-Germans, devoted itself to the destruction of Polish identity in Germany’s eastern provinces. Another, not dissimilar organization, founded in 1881 in response to struggles over official languages in the Habsburg monarchy, was the German School Association, which sought to preserve the German language in areas of German settlement outside the boundaries of the Reich; it was later renamed the Association for Germandom Abroad, in recognition of a substantial broadening of its remit to cover all aspects of German culture in the rest of the world.97

More nationalist associations were to follow. The most significant, perhaps, was the Navy League, founded in 1898 with money from the arms manufacturer Krupp, who had an obvious interest in the construction of a big German navy being approved by the Reichstag at the time. Within a decade it was dwarfing the other nationalist groups, with a membership totalling well over 300,000 if affiliated organizations were counted as well. By contrast, the other nationalist pressure-groups were seldom able to exceed a membership of around 50,000, and the Pan-Germans seemed to be permanently stuck below the 20,000 mark.98 Most of these pressure-groups were run by professional agitators like August Keim, an army officer whose journalistic activities had caused him promotion problems. Such men were prominent in a number of nationalist associations and often provided their radical driving force; Keim, for example, was a leading figure in both the Navy League and the Defence League and founded other, less well known associations such as the German League for the Prevention of the Emancipation of Women (1912), which aimed to send women back to the home to bear more children for the Reich.99

Alongside such marginal men were ranged disgruntled notables seeking a new outlet for their political drive in an increasingly democratic world, where the deference to the propertied and the educated that had sustained the electoral fortunes of the National Liberals and other parties further to the right from the 1860s to the 1880s no longer functioned effectively. Many of these agitators had achieved their status by working hard to get a university degree then moving up slowly through the ranks of the less fashionable parts of the civil service. Here, too, a degree of social anxiety was an important driving force. Identification, perhaps over-identification, with the German nation gave all the leading figures in the nationalist associations, whatever their background, a sense of pride and belonging, and an object for commitment and mobilization.100 The membership of these various organizations also frequently overlapped, and it was far from unusual for two or more of them to make common cause in a particular political fight despite their frequent personal and political rivalries.

Alongside the specific aims that each organization followed, and irrespective of the frequent internal rows which plagued them, the nationalist associations generally agreed that Bismarck’s work of building the German nation was woefully incomplete and urgently needed to be pushed to its conclusion. Increasingly, too, they began to think that the Reich leadership was failing to do its duty in this respect. The nationalists’ beliefs were laid bare in a particularly dramatic way in 1912, when the Chairman of the Pan-German League, the lawyer Heinrich Class, writing under a pseudonym, published a manifesto with the arresting title: If I Were the Kaiser. He was not modest in his aims. If he had the power wielded by Wilhelm II, Class let it be known, he would deal first of all with the internal enemies of the Reich, the Social Democrats and the Jews. The Social Democratic victory in the Reichstag elections earlier in the year was, he thundered, the result of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the nation. The Jews were subverting German art, destroying German creativity, corrupting the German masses. If he were Kaiser, Class wrote, they would immediately lose their civil rights and be classified as aliens. The Social Democrats would be banned and their leading officials, parliamentary deputies, newspaper editors and union secretaries would be expelled from Germany. The Reichstag suffrage would be restructured so as to give more voting power to the educated and the propertied, and only the best men would be allowed to bear office. National rallies and patriotic festivals would rally the mass of the people to the national cause.101

Internal pacification, the nationalists argued, would include the suppression of minority cultures such as that of the Poles in the eastern provinces of Prussia, driving them from their landholdings, banning the use of their language, and using force if necessary to bring the supposedly inferior and uncivilized ‘Slavs’ to heel. Led by Class, the Pan-Germans and their allies advocated a massive arms build-up, greater even than that already launched by the Navy Laws from 1898 onwards. This would be followed by a war in which Germany would conquer Europe and annex German-speaking areas such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Austria. They brushed aside any consideration for the other nationalities who inhabited these areas, and passed over the linguistic and cultural differences that made it unlikely that even Flemish separatists in Belgium, let alone other kinds of political dissident, would support them. They added on Romania for strategic reasons. And they noted that the Belgian and Dutch overseas possessions, including, for example, the Congo, would provide the basis for a massive new colonial empire that would far outweigh its British counterpart. Borrowing eclectically from Nietzsche, Langbehn, Darwin, Treitschke and other writers, and frequently vulgarizing their ideas in the process, wrenching them out of context, or simplifying them to the point of unrecognizability, the Pan-Germans and their nationalist allies founded their ideology on a world-view that had struggle, conflict, ‘Aryan’ ethnic superiority, antisemitism and the will to power as its core beliefs.102

However, at the same time as they harboured these almost limitless ambitions for German world domination, the Pan-German League and the other nationalist associations also sounded a strong note of alarm, even despondency, about Germany’s current state and future prospects. The German people, they believed, were surrounded by enemies, from the ‘Slavs’ and ‘Latins’ encircling Germany from without, to the Jews, Jesuits, socialists and sundry subversive agitators and conspirators undermining it from within. Pan-German racism was expressed in the linguistic usage through which they reduced every nation to a simple, uniformly acting racial entity - ‘Germandom’, ‘Slavdom’, ‘Anglo-Saxondom’ or ‘Jewdom’. Other races were outbreeding the Germans and threatening to ‘flood’ them; or, like the French, they were declining and therefore exerting a corrupting influence through their decadence. The extreme nationalists portrayed themselves as voices in the wilderness; unless they were heard, it would be too late. Desperate peril demanded desperate remedies. Only by a return to the racial roots of the German nation in the peasantry, the self-employed artisan and small businessman, and the traditional nuclear family, could the situation be rescued. The big cities were sinks of un-German immorality and disorder. Strong measures were needed to restore order, decency and a properly German concept of culture. A new Bismarck was needed, tough, ruthless, unafraid to pursue aggressive policies at home and abroad, if the nation was to be saved.103

As time went on, the nationalist associations became more vocal in their criticism of the German government for what they regarded as its weakness at home and abroad. Jolted into radical action by the Social Democratic election victory of 1912, following on what they regarded as the humiliating outcome for Germany of an international crisis over Morocco the previous year, the usually quarrelsome nationalist associations joined forces in support for the newly founded Defence League, which aimed to do for the army what the Navy League had done for the fleet. The new organization was far more independent from the government than the Navy League was; it shared in full the views of the Pan-Germans, and it achieved a membership of 90,000 within two years of its foundation in 1912, giving the Pan-Germans the kind of mass base they had always failed to create for themselves. Meanwhile, the Pan-Germans launched a joint campaign with the Colonial Society to persuade the government to stop recognizing the legal validity of marriages between German settlers and black Africans in the colonies. Prominent members of the Conservative Party began to work with the Pan-Germans. In August 1913 the Agrarian League, a huge pressure-group of large and small landowners with very close ties to the Conservatives, joined with the Central Association of German Industrialists and the national organization of artisans and handicraftsmen to form the ‘Cartel of Productive Estates’. Not only did the Cartel have a membership running into the millions, it also incorporated many of the central aims and beliefs of the Pan-Germans, including the sidelining or elimination of the Reichstag, the suppression of the Social Democrats and the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy up to and including the launching of a major war of conquest.104

These extreme nationalist pressure-groups were not the product of any kind of manipulative strategy by Wilhelmine elites; they were a genuinely populist movement of political mobilization from below. But they had no constituency at all in the working class; the furthest their reservoir of support went down the social scale was to white-collar workers and clerks, one of whose trade unions, the virulently antisemitic German-National Commercial Employees’ Union, railed against the Jewish business interests which they supposed were keeping their members’ wages down, and attacked the intrusion of women into secretarial and administrative positions as the product of Jewish attempts to destroy the German family.105 Yet the new prominence of the nationalist associations from 1912 onwards put huge pressure on the German government. It became even greater as the Pan-Germans won new friends in the right-wing press. One of the Pan-Germans’ supporters, the retired general Konstantin von Gebsattel, impressed by If I Were the Kaiser,composed a lengthy memorandum calling for a fight against ‘Jewish machinations and rabble-rousing by Social Democratic leaders’, a Reich that was ‘not parliamentarian’, a Kaiser who really ruled instead of being just a figurehead and conducted an aggressive foreign policy with an ‘armoured fist’, and a franchise which restricted the influence of the masses to a minimum.

In the proposals put forward in the memorandum, Jews were to be treated as aliens, barred from acquiring land and deprived of their property if they emigrated. They were to be excluded from state-run professions such as the civil service, the law, the universities and the army. Baptism, of course, made no difference to the fact that someone was a Jew in Gebsattel’s eyes; anyone with more than a quarter of ‘Jewish blood’ in his or her veins was to be treated as a Jew and not a German. The ‘Jewish press’ was to be closed down. All this was necessary because, he said, the whole life of Germany was dominated by ‘the Jewish spirit’, which was superficial, negative, destructively critical and materialistic. It was time for the true German spirit to re-emerge - deep, positive and idealistic. All this was to be brought about by an effective coup d’état from above, secured by the declaration of a military state of siege and the introduction of martial law. Gebsattel and his friend the Pan-German leader Heinrich Class regarded the memorandum as moderate in tone. The alleged moderation had a reason; the idea was to send it to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the heir to the throne, who was known for his sympathies with the nationalist cause. He in turn forwarded it with enthusiasm to his father and to the man currently holding the office of state once occupied by Bismarck, Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.106

Bethmann and the Kaiser courteously but firmly rejected Gebsattel’s ideas, regarding them as impractical and indeed dangerous to the stability of the monarchy. The Reich Chancellor admitted that the ‘Jewish Question’ was an area in which there were ’great dangers for Germany’s further development’. But, he went on, Gebsattel’s draconian solutions could not be taken seriously. The Kaiser poured more cold water on the proposals by warning his son that Gebsattel was a ‘weird enthusiast’ whose ideas were often ‘downright childish’. Still, he too conceded that even if it was economically inadvisable to expel the Jews from Germany, it was important to ‘exclude the Jewish influence from the army and the administration and as far as possible to limit it in all the activities of art and literature’. In the press, too, he considered, ‘Jewdom has found its most dangerous happy-hunting-ground’, though a general restriction of press freedom as advocated by Gebsattel would, he thought, be counter-productive. Antisemitic stereotypes had thus penetrated to the highest levels of the state, reinforced in the Kaiser’s case by his own reading of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which he praised as a wake-up call to the German nation. Moreover, as the Pan-Germans, undeterred, stepped up their criticism of the Chancellor both in public and behind the scenes, Bethmann felt increasingly constrained to adopt a tough line in his foreign policy, with fateful results in the crisis that led to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.107

III

Like other European nations, Germany went into the First World War in an optimistic mood, fully expecting to win, most probably in a relatively short space of time. Military men like the War Minister, Erich von Falkenhayn, expected a longer conflict and even feared that Germany might eventually be defeated. But their expert view did not communicate itself to the masses or, indeed, to many of the politicians in whose hands Germany’s destiny lay.108 The mood of invincibility was buoyed up by the massive growth of the German economy over the previous decades, and fired on by the stunning victories of the German army in 1914-15 on the Eastern Front. An early Russian invasion of East Prussia led the Chief of the German General Staff to appoint a retired general, Paul von Hindenburg, born in 1847 and a veteran of the war of 1870-71, to take over the campaign with the aid of his Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, a technical expert and military engineer of non-noble origins who had won a reputation for himself with the attack on Liege at the beginning of the war. The two generals enticed the invading Russian armies into a trap and annihilated them, following this with a string of further victories. By the end of September 1915 the Germans had conquered Poland, inflicted huge losses on the Russian armies and driven them back over 250 miles from the positions they had occupied the previous year.

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Map 2. German Expansion in the First World War

These achievements made the reputation of Hindenburg as a virtually invincible general. A cult of the hero quickly developed around him, and his massive, stolid presence seemed to provide an element of stability amid the changing fortunes of war. But he was in fact a man of limited political vision and ability. He acted in many ways as a front for his energetic subordinate Ludendorff, whose ideas about the conduct of the war were far more radical and ruthless than his own. The pair’s triumphs in the East contrasted sharply with the stalemate in the West, where within a few months of the outbreak of war, some eight million troops were facing each other along 450 miles of trenches from the North Sea to the Swiss border, unable to penetrate to a meaningful degree into the enemy lines. The soft ground allowed them to construct line after line of deep defensive trenches. Barbed-wire entanglements impeded the enemy’s advance. And machine-gun emplacements all along the line mowed down any troops from the other side that succeeded in getting close enough to be shot at. Both sides threw increasing resources into this futile struggle. By 1916 the strain was beginning to tell.

In all the major combatant nations, there was a change of leadership in the middle years of the war, reflecting a perceived need for greater energy and ruthlessness in mobilizing the nation and its resources. In France, Clemenceau came to power, in Britain Lloyd George. In Germany, characteristically, it was not a radical civilian politician, but the two most successful generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who took over the reins of power in 1916. The ‘Hindenburg Programme’ attempted to galvanize and reorganize the German economy to bend it to the overriding purpose of winning the war. Run by another middle-class general, Wilhelm Groener, the War Office co-opted the trade unions and civilian politicians in the task of mobilization. But this was anathema to the industrialists and the other generals. Groener was soon dispensed with. Pushing the civilian politicians aside, Hindenburg and Ludendorff established a ‘silent dictatorship’ in Germany, with military rule behind the scenes, severe curbs on civil liberties, central control of the economy and the generals calling the shots in the formulation of war aims and foreign policy. All of these developments were to provide significant precedents for the more drastic fate that overtook German democracy and civil freedom less than two decades later.109

The turn to a more ruthless prosecution of the war was counter-productive in more than one sense. Ludendorff ordered a systematic economic exploitation of the areas of France, Belgium and East-Central Europe occupied by German troops. The occupied countries’ memory of this was to cost the Germans dearly at the end of the war. The generals’ inflexible and ambitious war aims alienated many Germans in the liberal centre and on the left. And the decision at the beginning of 1917 to undertake unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic in order to cut off British supplies from the United States only provoked the Americans to enter the war on the Allied side. From 1917, the mobilization of the world’s richest economy began to weigh heavily on the Allied side, and by the end of the year American troops were coming onto the Western Front in ever increasing numbers. The only really bright spot from the German point of view was the continuing string of military successes in the East.

But these, too, had a price. The relentless military pressure of the German armies and their allies in the East bore fruit early in 1917 in the collapse of the inefficient and unpopular administration of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and its replacement with a Provisional Government in the hands of Russian liberals. These proved no more capable than the Tsar, however, of mobilizing Russia’s huge resources for a successful war. With near-famine conditions at home, chaos in the administration and growing defeat and despair at the front, the mood in Moscow and St Petersburg turned increasingly against the war, and the already precarious legitimacy of the Provisional Government began to disappear into thin air. The chief beneficiary of this situation was the only political grouping in Russia that had offered consistent opposition to the war from the very beginning: the Bolshevik Party, an extremist, tightly organized, ruthlessly single-minded Marxist group whose leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had argued all along that defeat in war was the quickest way to bring about a revolution. Seizing his chance, he organized a swift coup in the autumn of 1917 that met with little immediate resistance.

The ‘October Revolution’ soon degenerated into bloody chaos. When opponents of the Bolsheviks attempted a counter-coup, the new regime responded with a violent ‘red terror’. All other parties were suppressed. A centralized dictatorship under Lenin’s leadership was established. A newly formed Red Army led by Leon Trotsky fought a bitter Civil War against the ‘Whites’, who aimed to re-establish the Tsarist regime. Their efforts could not help the Tsar himself, whom the Bolsheviks quickly put to death, along with his family. The Bolsheviks’ political police organization, the Cheka, ruthlessly suppressed the regime’s opponents from every part of the political spectrum, from the moderate socialist Mensheviks, the anarchists and the peasant Social Revolutionaries on the left to liberals, conservatives and Tsarists on the right. Thousands were tortured, killed or brutally imprisoned in the first camps in what was to become a vast system of confinement by the 1930s.110

Lenin’s regime eventually triumphed, seeing off the ‘Whites’ and their supporters, and establishing its control over much of the former Tsarist Empire. The Bolshevik leader and his successors moved to construct their version of a communist state and society, with the socialization of the economy representing, in theory at least, common ownership of property, the abolition of religion guaranteeing a secular, socialist consciousness, the confiscation of private wealth creating a classless society, and the establishment of ‘democratic centralism’ and a planned economy giving unprecedented, dictatorial powers to the central administration in Moscow. All this, however, was happening in a state and society that Lenin knew to be economically backward and lacking in modern resources. More advanced economies, like that of Germany, had in his view more developed social systems, in which revolution was even more likely to break out than had been the case in Russia. Indeed, Lenin believed that the Russian Revolution could scarcely survive unless successful revolutions of the same type took place elsewhere as well.111

So the Bolsheviks formed a Communist International (‘Comintern’) to propagate their version of revolution in the rest of the world. In doing so they could take advantage of the fact that socialist movements in many countries had split over the issues raised by the war. In Germany in particular, the once-monolithic Social Democratic Party, which began by supporting the war as a mainly defensive operation against the threat from the East, had been beset by increasing doubts as the scale of the annexations demanded by the government began to become clear. In 1916 the party split into pro-war and anti-war factions. The majority continued, with reservations, to support the war and to propagate moderate reforms rather than wholesale revolution. Amongst the minority of ‘Independent Social Democrats’, a few, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founded the German Communist Party in December 1918. They were eventually joined by the mass of the minority’s supporters in the early 1920s.112

It would be difficult to exaggerate the fear and terror that these events spread amongst many parts of the population in Western and Central Europe. The middle and upper classes were alarmed by the radical rhetoric of the Communists and saw their counterparts in Russia lose their property and disappear into the torture chambers and prison camps of the Cheka. Social Democrats were terrified that if the Communists came to power in their own country they would meet the fate suffered by the moderate socialist Mensheviks and the peasant-oriented Social Revolutionaries in Moscow and St Petersburg. Democrats everywhere were conscious from the outset that Communism was intent on suppressing human rights, dismantling representative institutions and abolishing civil freedoms. Terror led them to believe that Communism in their own countries should be stopped at any cost, even by violent means and through the abrogation of the very civil liberties they were pledged to defend. In the eyes of the right, Communism and Social Democracy amounted to two sides of the same coin, and the one seemed no less a threat than the other. In Hungary, a short-lived Communist regime under Béla Kun took power in 1918, tried to abolish the Church, and was swiftly overthrown by the monarchists led by Admiral Miklós Horthy. The counter-revolutionary regime proceeded to institute a ‘White terror’ in which thousands of Bolsheviks and socialists were arrested, brutally maltreated, imprisoned and killed. Events in Hungary gave Central Europeans for the first time a taste of the new levels of political violence and conflict that were to emerge from the tensions created by the war.113

In Germany itself, the threat of Communism still seemed relatively remote at the beginning of 1918. Lenin and the Bolsheviks quickly negotiated a much-needed peace settlement to give themselves the breathing-space they required to consolidate their newly won power. The Germans drove a hard bargain, annexing huge swathes of territory from the Russians at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk early in 1918. As large numbers of German troops were transferred from the now-redundant Eastern Front to reinforce a new spring offensive in the West, final victory seemed just around the corner. In his annual proclamation to the German people in August 1918, the Kaiser assured everybody that the worst of the war was over. This was true enough, but not in the sense he intended.114 For the huge blood-letting that Ludendorff’s spring offensive had caused in the German army opened the way for the Allies, reinforced by massive numbers of fresh American troops and supplies, to breach German lines and advance rapidly along the Western Front. Morale in the German army started to collapse, and ever-larger numbers of troops began to desert or surrender to the Allies. The final blows came as Germany’s ally Bulgaria sued for peace and the Habsburg armies in the South began to melt away in the face of renewed Italian attacks.115 Hindenburg and Ludendorff were obliged to inform the Kaiser at the end of September that defeat was inevitable. A massive tightening of censorship ensured that newspapers continued to hold out the prospect of final victory for some time afterwards when in reality it had long since disappeared. The shock waves sent out by the news of Germany’s defeat were therefore all the greater.116 They were to prove too strong for what remained of the political system of the empire that Bismarck had created in 1871.

It was in this cauldron of war and revolution that Nazism was forged. A mere fifteen years separated the defeat of Germany in 1918 from the advent of the Third Reich in 1933. Yet there were to be many twists and turns along the way. The triumph of Hitler was by no means inevitable in 1918, any more than it had been pre-programmed by the previous course of German history. The creation of the German Reich and its rise to economic might and Great Power status had created expectations in many people, expectations that, it was clear by this time, the Reich and its institutions were unable to fulfil. The example of Bismarck as a supposedly ruthless, tough leader who was not afraid to use violence and deception to gain his ends, was present in the minds of many, and the determination with which he had acted to curb the democratizing threat of political Catholicism and the socialist labour movement was widely admired in the Protestant middle classes. The ‘silent dictatorship’ of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had put the precepts of ruthless, authoritarian rule into practice at a moment of supreme national crisis in 1916 and created an ominous precedent for the future.

The legacy of the German past was a burdensome one in many respects. But it did not make the rise and triumph of Nazism inevitable. The shadows cast by Bismarck might eventually have been dispelled. By the time the First World War came to an end, however, they had deepened almost immeasurably. The problems bequeathed to the German political system by Bismarck and his successors were made infinitely worse by the effects of the war; and to these problems were added others that boded even more trouble for the future. Without the war, Nazism would not have emerged as a serious political force, nor would so many Germans have sought so desperately for an authoritarian alternative to the civilian politics that seemed so signally to have failed Germany in its hour of need. So high were the stakes for which everybody was playing in 1914-18, that both right and left were prepared to take measures of an extremism only dreamed of by figures on the margins of politics before the war. Massive recriminations about where the responsibility for Germany’s defeat should lie only deepened political conflict. Sacrifice, privation, death, on a huge scale, left Germans of all political hues bitterly searching for the reason why. The almost unimaginable financial expense of the war created a vast economic burden on the world economy which it was unable to shake off for another thirty years, and it fell most heavily upon Germany. The orgies of national hatred in which all combatant nations had indulged during the war left a terrible legacy of bitterness for the future. Yet as the German armies drifted home, and the Kaiser’s regime prepared reluctantly to hand over to a democratic successor, there still seemed everything to play for.

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