Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Sleepwalking... and the Nightmare that was Kaiser Wilhelm

I have long harboured doubts about the so-called "Sleepwalkers" thesis - the idea that the world slithered into war in 1914 due to some sort of collective misunderstanding and lapse of concentration - finding it all rather too neat.

Of course, history books often chime subconsciously or not with the times in which they are written, but I suspect that Christopher Clark's book is a rather egregious example of this - telling us as much about the world in 2014 as about 1914. To me, its message of, effectively, "no-one was to blame, we were all at fault", with a side-order of "Behold the perils of national sovereignty!" seems to coincide rather too well with the modern mores - and political imperatives - of the European Union.  The only surprise, perhaps, is that the book has been so well-received in Germany, which has otherwise made something of a fetish of the guilt of its forefathers.

So, it was with some relish that I picked up John Röhl's new biography of Kaiser Wilhelm (the abridged edition, natch, not the 3-volume behemoth).  Röhl - born in the UK to a German father - is a highly-respected academic historian, who has made a career out of damning Kaiser Wilhelm - highlighting his deficient character, his anachronistic political beliefs and the catastrophic results of his 'personal rule'.

It was indeed a toxic mix.  Röhl's Kaiser Wilhelm is an emotionally-stunted buffoon, an arrogant braggart, an almost schizophrenic Anglophobe, desperate for acclamation and viciously vindictive if he didn't get it.  He was a man-out-of-time, a monarch whose authoritarian conviction of his own divine right to rule belonged more to the eighteenth century than the twentieth.

Most crucially, these negative traits would be hideously and catastrophically brought to bear.  Coming to the German throne in 1888, Wilhelm would not allow himself to be a mere figurehead - like his British cousins - he insisted on ruling personally. Successive German Chancellors would merely be his creatures; fawning and obsequious, more medieval courtiers than modern politicians.

The book is richly noted with original sources and full of quotes from Wilhelm and others, so there is no shortage of evidence for Röhl's thesis.  Indeed, never was a man more roundly damned by his own words, it would appear, than Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Of course, any historian has to be alive to the distant sound of an axe being ground, and - as we know - Röhl has spent many a long year seeking to prove Wilhelm's political and personal shortcomings.  What he presents is certainly convincing.  Wilhelm was a catastrophe - surely one of the most disturbed and dysfunctional individuals ever to accede to a modern throne.  The vital point, of course, is whether those shortcomings were permitted to have political and strategic expression - and on this point, too, I find Röhl convincing.

It may be, of course, that Röhl overstates his case; overeggs his pudding.  But, crucially, if even a fraction of the evidence that he presents is as pertinent as he claims it is, then surely the 'Sleepwalkers' thesis - however cosy and comforting for us in 2014 - is a dead duck?  Other European states and statesmen might have been sleepwalking into disaster in 1914 - misreading each other's intentions and sending mixed messages - but Wilhelm was in a perverse wet dream all of his own: actively desiring his 'glorious' war to establish German hegemony and pushing his feckless Allies to bring it about.

As Röhl himself puts it: the idea that the world "slithered into the First World War...can be sustained only by the deliberate omission or marginalisation of much well-known cast-iron evidence to the contrary".  It might not be fashionable, but this brilliant and convincing demolition of Kaiser Wilhelm at least has the whiff of veracity about it.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The forgotten battlefield at Leuthen...

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Leuthen.  Heard of it?  Maybe you have..  If you have attended a Military Staff College, the chances are you will have heard of it, as it is a tactically very significant battle, but you probably don't know where it is.  Allow me to elaborate...

The Battle of Leuthen was in 1757 - during the Seven Years War - and it saw King Frederick the Great of Prussia rout a much superior Austrian force, thereby driving the Austrians from the province of Silesia and securing it for Prussia.

The battle is significant in a number of ways.  For one thing, Silesia is a highly fertile province - in contrast to Prussia's sandy Brandenburg heartland - possession of which certainly aided Prussia. Securing Silesia - as Frederick did at Leuthen - was an essential step in Prussia's rise to political prominence.

The Prussians advance at Leuthen
Secondly, the battle is highly significant tactically.  Leuthen is one of the best examples in history of the successful use of the 'oblique order' - attacking an enemy's flank to deny the advantage of superior numbers.  At Leuthen, Frederick used the lie of the land to hide his advance and so was able to engage an Austrian force over twice as large as his own, flank-first, thereby nullifying the Austrian numerical advantage.  In less than three hours the battle was decided, with around 5,000 dead (mostly Austrian) and the Austrian commander, Charles of Lorraine, could not believe that his men had succumbed.  This is why Leuthen - and the tactics employed there - is still taught at Staff Colleges and Military Academies across the world.

According to legend, it was after the battle of Leuthen that Frederick's troops spontaneously started signing the hymn "Nun danket alle Gott" - 'Now Thank We All Our God' - and, it was said, the tune was taken up by the entire Prussian army, some 25,000 men.  For that time on, the hymn has been known as the Leuthen Chorale.

Lastly, Leuthen is significant simply because it was one of the most famous victories of one of the most successful military tacticians in history - Frederick the Great.  We all like to think of Napoleon as the supreme military thinker of the modern age, but it is worth remembering that when the diminutive Corsican visited Frederick's tomb (he died in 1786) in Potsdam, he is reported to have said to his aides - "Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here."

'Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair'
Today - the battlefield at Leuthen is a rather forlorn place.  Those generations of military men who know of Frederician tactics and the oblique order might recognise the name, but they probably couldn't find it on a map.  It is now in Poland - Leuthen is now Lutynia - about 10km west of the beautiful city of Wroclaw (the former Breslau).  The memorial that was erected in the mid 19th century - a 20-metre victory column made from grey granite, topped with an angel - was dynamited after World War Two, when the province of Silesia fell to Poland and national antagonisms were still (understandably) running high.  The remains of that monument are still there - a graffiti-covered granite pediment, standing alone in a farmer's field; the message of the German inscription long since forgotten.

Given the significance of Leuthen - would it not be appropriate to erect a new memorial at the site?  I appreciate, of course, that the Prussian/German history of Silesia can still be a controversial subject for its modern Polish inhabitants - but it is now 2014, the Cold War has long ended and Poland is a fellow member of the European Union.  Surely it is now time to put these old hatreds out of their misery and embrace the common history that sites such as this represent.

On this matter, indeed, it should be added that the city of Wroclaw has been in the vanguard of seeking to constructively confront these issues, actively working on reconciliation and a localised Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung... The best example of this admirable approach has been the old Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw - once the German Jahrhunderthalle - which, though it embodied a far more sensitive history than Leuthen, was nonetheless lovingly restored recently in a multi-million pound project.  If the Hala Stulecia can be embraced by modern Wroclawians - why not Leuthen...?

Time will tell, of course, but it is nice to imagine that a new memorial, and an information board, might adorn this site in years to come.  Perhaps it could even be in place by the time of the 260th anniversary of the battle in 2017?  Here's hoping.