World War I Centennial: A False Glimmer of Hope

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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 55th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 7, 1913: A False Glimmer of Hope

After an alarming deterioration in 1911-1912, in February 1913 relations between Britain and Germany took a sudden and unexpected turn for the better. Friendlier relations between Europe’s two leading powers held out hope for lasting peace – but the Anglo-German détente proved to be superficial, temporarily masking tensions without resolving their underlying causes.

Germany’s ambitious naval construction program was the single biggest factor alienating British public opinion, which rightly viewed naval superiority as key to the security of the British Isles. Concern over Germany’s growing High Seas Fleet pushed Britain and France closer together, leading to the Anglo-French Naval Convention. On the German side, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military advisors were infuriated by what they viewed as British arrogance on naval issues as well as Britain’s participation in an alleged Franco-Russian conspiracy to encircle Germany.

So why did relations between Britain and Germany suddenly begin to improve in 1913? One important reason was their successful cooperation at the Conference of London, where they worked together to resolve the crisis arising from the First Balkan War. Here diplomats – not generals – shaped foreign policy. Men like British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey and the German ambassador, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, made it their life’s mission to keep the peace in Europe, and were almost always able to negotiate a reasonable compromise.

At the same time, the more aggressive members of the German government were sobered by British determination to outpace German naval construction by a substantial margin, no matter how many ships Germany built. Although the Haldane Mission in February 1912 failed to produce an agreement limiting naval construction, by 1913 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s repeated warnings – backed up by Parliamentary approval for more dreadnoughts – finally got through to Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (pictured), the architect of German naval strategy.

Thus on February 7, 1913, Tirpitz gave a speech to the Reichstag budget committee agreeing to a balance of forces in dreadnoughts which favored Britain 16-10 – the same proportion proposed by Winston Churchill in 1912. In truth it wasn’t quite that simple, as Churchill’s original offer didn’t include dreadnoughts which might be built for the Royal Navy by Dominions of the British Empire, including Malaysia and Canada. Nonetheless, for political and diplomatic purposes, Tirpitz was signaling his willingness to come to terms with Britain on dreadnought construction – a major step towards alleviating tension between the two countries.

Also on February 7, 1913, in his first speech to the Reichstag the new German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, proudly pointed to Anglo-German cooperation at the Conference of London: “The intimate exchange of views which we are maintaining with the British Government has very materially contributed to the removal of difficulties of various kinds which have arisen during the last few months… I am not a prophet, but I entertain the hope that on the ground of common interests, which in politics is the most fertile ground, we can continue to work with England and perhaps to reap the fruits of our labors.”

This speech was an important piece of public diplomacy, obviously intended as much for British ears as German, and a clear indication that Germany did not want conflict with the powerful British Empire. Nor was Jagow trying to deceive: even the most belligerent German generals hoped to avoid fighting Britain, which could totally isolate Germany with a naval blockade in the event of war.

But the improvement in relations between Britain and Germany would prove fleeting. First of all, while German concessions on naval construction were welcome in Britain, they were simply part of a strategic shift in German defense spending, which from 1913-1914 prioritized the army in preparation for a land-based conflict with France and Russia. Since Germany had no chance of matching British power on the sea, it made more sense to focus on building up its power on land, where it had a real chance of beating France and Russia (and which was its traditional area of strength to begin with).

For this strategy to work, the German “war party” hoped that Britain would stay out of the conflict, so Germany could face France and Russia alone – and this hope appeared to be justified by warmer relations. But it should have been obvious that Britain would never allow Germany to destroy the European balance of power: the British had learned the hard way that they couldn’t let the Continent fall under the domination of a single despotic power, as in the glory days of Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for the diplomats, Lichnowsky would continue to work for peace, but there was no guarantee that he would always be allowed to do his job, as demonstrated by the fate of the previous German ambassador to London, Count Metternich, who was cashiered by Berlin for reporting bad news. In Germany’s authoritarian government, the military outranked the civilians, and the Kaiser and his generals could always sideline, overrule, or simply ignore diplomats who didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. In 1914 this would be a recipe for disaster.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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February 7, 2013 - 11:20pm
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