Now or never | 09 Jul 1914

With little new happening today, we’ll investigate more closely the position of the Chancellor of Germany, Bethmann-Hollweg, and try to understand why he’s come down so quickly on the side of war, understanding fully what it means.


But first, there’s Italy. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, Italy is a great case study for how the alliances prevalent in 1914 were not at all like (for instance) NATO vs the Warsaw Pact in 1954. Put as briefly as possible, the situation was a lot more fluid than it often appears, and indeed a lot more fluid than the popular press or the diplomatic language of the day often claimed. Here we have Italy, charter members of the Triple Alliance, so clearly they’ll be right behind Germany and Austria-Hungary in any war, right?

Eh, not so much. Public opinion, insofar as it’s paying any attention, is firmly against fighting alongside Austria-Hungary. (There’s a very long-standing rivalry, of which more later.) General Pollio’s death has deprived the Italian government of its firmest supporter of the alliance. And the Prime Minister, Alessandro Salandra, has ideas of his own about how Italy should best exploit the crisis. For now, they’re doing nothing and liking it.

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I think that "There is nothing new under the sun" will soon become a popular theme, neh?  This is basically The Money Shop 1914.
I think that “There is nothing new under the sun” will soon become a popular theme, neh? This is basically The Money Shop 1914.

It’s also worth pointing out here that a loan of £50 to £500 would, in today’s money, be a loan of about £4,000 to £40,000.

Now or Never

This can be an extremely long-winded story, but I’ll try to summarise. German foreign policy under Otto von Bismarck had focused on keeping France isolated in the wake of the 1870 war and the seizure of Alsace and Lorraine. To this end, they signed a series of treaties with various European powers (including the Triple Alliance, incidentally). One of them was called the “Reinsurance Treaty” (yes, it’s a stupid name). This was with Russia, and it basically said that if either country got involved in a war, the other would remain neutral (as long as it wasn’t Germany vs France or Russia vs Austria-Hungary).

After the Kaiser dropped the pilot, Bismarck’s successors dropped the Reinsurance Treaty like a hot cowpat. Germany began pursuing an expansionist foreign policy, aiming to secure an overseas colonial empire like the ones possessed by Britain, France, and Belgium (yes, Belgium; of which more later). This naturally brought them into direct conflict with Britain and France, the existing major colonial powers, who did everything that they could to interfere with German ambitions, often in a rather high-handed and patronising manner.

So then France and Russia began drifting closer together, and eventually the two of them signed separate treaties with Britain after Germany foolishly got involved in that stupid naval arms race (again, more later). Here’s something a lot of people don’t know about the arms race – by 1912, the Germans had given up on ever outbuilding the Royal Navy. It did a lot to poison the diplomatic situation, and the Germans were still building ships to maintain their existing relative strength. However, by 1914, the German government was far more concerned with another arms race.

This would be a land race with Russia, and it was also one that Germany was never going to be able to win. The Russian government was inexorably increasing the size of its army in response to recent concerns about its own military strength. From the German perspective, in the summer of 1914, the situation was still favourable. By 1915 it would be much less so, and by 1916 Russia would be able to field so many well-equipped men that even Germany and Austria-Hungary fighting together would be entirely outnumbered.

Bethmann-Hollweg and his contemporaries have now arrived at the same place. They won’t do anything off their own bat to provoke a war with Russia (which will certainly provoke a general European war). However, if another crisis arises like the many that Europe has seen in the last twenty years, then there exists a chance to take advantage of it by making war on Russia and win that won’t exist in just a few more years. “Now or never” is the byword.

And that’s why the Germans have presented their Austro-Hungarian allies with the blank cheque (in short). You can spend entire books talking about this, and people have, but that’s the grossly simplified version. They’ve spent the past twenty years trying to achieve parity with other European powers, and they’ve been smacked down at every turn. Now they’re going to take full advantage of the chance to do something about it while they still can.

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July Crisis

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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