World War I Centennial: The Socialist Menace

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the third installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 1912: The Socialist Menace

After the Second Moroccan Crisis, Europe’s political and military leaders were hurriedly making preparations for a possible continent-wide war – but some of the fiercest power struggles were internal. The tension caused by these domestic political conflicts ultimately pushed the international situation even closer to war.

The bitterest political conflict occurred in Germany, where in January 1912 the country’s conservative elites were thrown into a panic by Reichstag elections which gave the Social Democrats – a socialist party representing industrial workers – the lead position in parliament.

It would be hard to overstate the German elites’ hatred of the Marxist Social Democrats, whom they considered indistinguishable from communists; German industrialists and aristocrats who owned landed estates were terrified that the socialists meant to abolish private property, declare public ownership of industrial concerns, and generally strip the upper classes of their wealth and power. Meanwhile conservative religious figures in the Protestant and Catholic churches feared their aggressively secular tone, accusing them of undermining religious faith in the working class. Perhaps most crucially, the German military leadership (the vaunted Prussian general staff) abhorred the Social Democrats’ goal of abolishing the professional, standing army and replacing it with a popular militia.

And the history of the previous decades gave them no comfort, as successive elections seemed to portray a Marxist march to victory – especially remarkable considering the party was banned from organizing or campaigning until 1891. From just 124,500 votes in 1871, the Social Democrat vote had grown to 550,000 in 1884, 1,427,000 in 1890, over two million in 1898, and over three million in 1903. A financial collapse and economic downturn in Germany, triggered by the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911, led to a big increase in support for the Social Democrats, who attracted a whopping 4,250,000 votes in a series of ballots from January 12-25.

German Unity

On January 25, the last round of voting gave the Social Democrats a total of 110 seats in the Reichstag, out of an overall total of 397. Although this was far from an absolute majority, it made them the largest party in the Reichstag, meaning they could no longer be ignored. It fell to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (pictured) to form a new government including a political party that most of Germany’s conservative elites viewed as the enemy.

Although he was a member of the traditional Prussian officer class, Bethmann-Hollweg was considered relatively liberal by the standards of the day, which might have made him a good intermediary between the conservatives and the socialists. But because the two groups were so bitterly opposed, in the end it meant that no one trusted him as he oscillated back and forth between the two extremes. This prompted him to pursue an incredibly dangerous strategy.

The only way to neutralize the socialist menace and unite the country behind Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bethmann-Hollweg decided, was to appeal to their patriotism as Germans. And the only way to do this was by presenting them with an external threat – which in this case meant engineering conflicts with the Western powers, Britain and France. Here Bethmann-Hollweg would have the eager support of the conservative elites, who had long been stoking their own paranoia about an international plot by Britain, France, and Russia to “encircle” Germany.

The risks of this strategy were obvious: if diplomatic conflicts with the Western powers got out of hand, the result could be an actual war of the kind that was just narrowly averted during the Second Moroccan Crisis. But Bethmann-Hollweg trusted his own ability to “have his cake and eat it”: he felt confident he could unwind the diplomatic tangles he helped create, reaping the domestic political rewards of unity and harmony while avoiding the disaster of a general war.

This proved true enough during the Balkan crises of 1912-1913, when Germany and Britain worked together to defuse international tensions. But when more serious threats to the peace arose (not coincidentally, also in the Balkans) it would prove disastrously misguided.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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January 25, 2012 - 6:33pm
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