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 74th installment in the series.
June 16, 1913: Kaiser Hopes for 25 More Years of Peace
“Twenty-five years of peace, Mr. Carnegie, and I hope there will be twenty-five more!” Thus Kaiser Wilhelm II greeted Andrew Carnegie, the world-famous industrialist and peace advocate, who had come to Berlin to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Kaiser’s reign. Carnegie replied with evident sincerity: “Your majesty is the most powerful ally we have in that direction.”
The Kaiser’s silver jubilee was a gala affair, marked by three days of celebrations from June 15 to 17, 1913. On the second day of the celebrations, half a million Germans turned out to line the streets of Berlin and cheer Wilhelm and his wife, the Kaiserin Augusta, as they processed slowly through the city in an open-topped car. According to the New York Times, “The Kaiser seemed as happy as a child. He smiled broadly at the people and saluted right and left.”
The popular enthusiasm was genuine. Wilhelm had presided over a quarter century of incredible economic development which made Germany the richest, most powerful country on the continent, rivaling Britain. During his reign, German steel production soared from 2.1 million tons in 1890 to 18.9 million tons in 1913—more than Britain and France combined, and second only to the United States, which produced 28.4 million tons that year. Over the same period, the German rail network grew from 27,000 miles to 40,000 miles, and rail ridership soared from 426 million passenger trips to 1.8 billion, making Germany the most mobile country in the world, eclipsing the U.S. and Britain. Germany led Europe in electricity production and dominated new industries including chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
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The growth of German industrial power made some observers nervous, but it was balanced by Wilhelm’s reputation (odd though it may seem in hindsight) as a man of peace. The Kaiser repeatedly stated that he considered it his life’s mission to keep the peace in Europe, and his actions in the First Balkan War, when he urged Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary to accept a peaceful resolution at the Conference of London, seemed to confirm this.
On the occasion of his silver jubilee the New York Times opined: “Now ... he is acclaimed everywhere as the greatest factor for peace that our time can show. It was he, we hear, who again and again threw the weight of his dominating personality, backed by the greatest military organisation in the world—an organisation built up by himself—into the balance for peace wherever war clouds gathered over Europe.” The former U.S. President Taft agreed: “The truth of history requires the verdict that, considering the critically important part which has been his among the nations, he has been, for the last quarter of a century, the single greatest force in the practical maintenance of peace in the world.”
But the Kaiser was a mercurial man, prone to sudden changes of opinion and easily influenced by events and his advisors. The flip side of his character was bombastic pride and adoration of military power—the side that supposedly prompted a French general, on seeing Wilhelm’s portrait (above), to exclaim: “This is no portrait—it’s a declaration of war!” This militarist streak was coupled with feelings of inferiority and resentment towards Britain, and fear of “encirclement” by Britain, France, and Russia; like other educated Europeans of his day, he also held social Darwinist racial views and saw Germans locked in a struggle with Slavs and Latins for control of Europe.
The cliché of a “split personality” may be the best way to understand the contradictory, impulsive German monarch. Just six months before he greeted Andrew Carnegie with effusive tidings of peace, the Kaiser had convened an Imperial War Council to assess Germany’s chances in an all-out European struggle; and a little over a year later he would urge Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia with breezy fatalism: “Now or never!”