AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY

CHICAGO LITERARY CLUB MARCH 4, 2013

 

The title of my paper is an Alternative History and it is based on changing one element in the equation and speculating on how world history between 1888 and 1914 might have been different.I'll explain the significance of 1888 in a moment but 1914 represented the outbreak of World War I.The people at the time obviously did not know that a second war would break out 25 years later so they did not call it World War I but instead The Great War and that is how I will refer to it in the rest of the talk

 

Historians almost unanimously agree that the seminal event of the 20th Century was the Great War.Almost everything that has happened since had itís origins in the events leading up to the war, how the war was fought and the settlements after the war. These include theUS as a World Power, the Communist Revolution & subsequent Cold War, decolonialization, WWII and the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict & the present instability in many parts of the Balkans, the Middle East & Africa

 

In April 1887, Frederick the Crown Prince of Germany and husband of Queen Victoriaís eldest daughter was definitively diagnosed with throat cancer and it would claim his life on June 15, 1888.Frederick was Emperor of Germany for 99 days as his father had died on Match 8th.He was only 57 years old at the time of his death and given that his father lived to be 91, his mother 79 and his son 82, he obviously had good genes and could easily have lived another 20-25 years which would have brought him right up to the eve of the eventual outbreak of the war in 1914. In my opinion having Frederick on the throne rather than his son William II would have made an enormous difference.The famous British historian Thomas Carlyle put forth the "Great Man Theory of History" which postulates that great individuals such as Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus and even Franklin Roosevelt in modern times have been the force behind significant historical events rather than the idea that history is based on the interplay of great interpersonal factors and specific individuals have little impact.My thesis assumes at least a general acceptance of the Carlylian view.††

 

Frederick was married to the Queen's eldest daughter, also named Victoria but in order to differentiate them I will refer to the daughter as Vicky. The story doesnít start with Vicky's marriage in January 1858 but all the way back to the marriage in 1840 of a 20-year old Queen Victoria to her cousin, Albert.He was a prince of the minor German state known as Sax Cobourg, Gotha as Germany was not yet a unified country.Even though Albert took an oath to the British crown at the time of his marriage he remained a German nationalist all his life.His dream was a united Germany with a constitutional monarchy similar to that of Great Britain.†† He enlisted his family, especially Vicky and Frederick, in this dream, although they were both willing participants.Let's quickly review the main players in the story.

 

Vicky was one of the most amazing women of the 19th Century but virtually unknown today due to the hostility of Otto von Bismarck (more on him later).Victoria and Albert had 9 children but Albertís favorite was his daughter Vicky.Vicky adored Albert and the feeling was mutual. The following is a quote from a letter Albert sent to Vicky shortly after her marriage at the age of 17 and after she had sailed to Germany to start her new life.This was the first prolonged separation between the two and Albert was heartbroken; ďI am not of a demonstrative nature and therefore you can hardly know how dear you have always been to me and what a void you have left in my heart.Ē Even though Albert died when Vicky was only 21 years old, she kept his spirit and his grand vision alive for the rest of her life.Vicky and Frederick first met at the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Vicky was only 10 years old, though very precocious, and Frederick a handsome young man of 20.Over the years they developed a close relationship which eventually blossomed into true love, something often absent in royal dynastic marriages. Vicky was a great fan of Florence Nightingale, a patron of the arts and social welfare for the working classes. While it would be a stretch to call her a feminist she had very advanced notions of the role of women, certainly in the context of her era. Vicky and Frederick both believed in constitutional monarchy and generally liberal ideas.

Frederick was a life-long soldier and fought in all three of the wars of German liberation.Historians generally agree that it was his timely arrival at the right place and the right time during the Battle of Konniggratz in 1866 which turned the tide and led to a smashing Prussian victory forcing Austria to sue for peace a few weeks later.Frederick had a terrible relationship with his own father and looked upon Albert as a mentor and something of a father figure.Frederick was unfairly accused of being under the thumb of his wife and in the super macho atmosphere of the Prussian and later German court this was a serious problem.In reality he simply recognized the brilliance of his wife and listened to her advice even though the ideal German woman was to be seen and not heard.

 

Otto von Bismarck was one of the preeminent European statesman of the 19th century and historians often refer to the latter half of the 19th century as the Age of Bismarck.He ruthlessly united Germany under the banner of Blood and Iron and was a latter day Machiavelli and one of the early practitioners of RealPolitik.He came from the aristocratic Prussian Junker class and championed their interests throughout his career.The German constitution was written by him with himself in mind and it functioned with Bismarck in command but its weaknesses were exposed after his departure.He instituted social reforms such as Social Insurance (similar to our Social Security but predating it by 60 years) not out of conviction but as a means of buying off the working class political parties.He was a bitter foe of Frederick and Vicky as they stood for everything he opposed, especially constitutional government.Bismarck used his network of spies to spread rumors about them and did everything he could to lessen their influence.He was such a larger than life presence that his hostility is one of the main reasons Vicky and Frederick are almost forgotten today.One positive factor was his contention that Germany was a satied power with no additional territorial demands. Bismarck was forced to resign in 1890 after William II took power.

 

 

 

The eldest son of Vicky and Frederick was named William after his grandfather and he eventually became the infamous Kaiser Wilhelm during the Great War.I'll call him Willy to avoid confusion with his grandfather.Amateur psychologists have had a field day analyzing Willy for the last 60 years, especially since the seizure of the German archives after WWII. His issues began at the time of his birth when he had to be forcibly removed from his mother's womb by the use of forceps.This procedure pulled his left arm from the socket and made the appendage essentially useless for the rest of his life. If you see any pictures of Willy in later life you'll notice that he is posed such that the left arm is either not visible or is tucked into a pocket.This meant that he could never be a soldier like his father and he therefore never was able to experience the real horrors of war.It's often said that true soldiers such as Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell are very reluctant to engage in warfare as they know the true costs whereas others such as Willy (and some modern American politicians) look upon war in a more idealistic or detached fashion. There is some speculation that he had possible latent homosexual tendencies and exhibited an exaggerated macho attitude to compensate.He was never happier than when he was in an all-male group and several of his entourage were confirmed homosexuals.He was guilty of extreme instability, had a purported nervous breakdown in 1908 and may have been mentally unbalanced.He loathed strong women which is why he had such a terrible relationshipwith his own mother.His marriage to Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein in 1881 was particularly disastrous in terms of feeding the negative elements of his personality.Her nickname was Dona and she was completely submissive to him and did nothing to curb his histrionics and bombast.His mother and Queen Victoria referred to Dona as the Cow in their private correspondence for obvious reasons. Here is a quote about Willy's personality which explains a lot:

 

He believed in force, and the 'survival of the fittest' in domestic as well as foreign politics... William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics... William's personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives, as had been the case with Bismarck, as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century.

†††

Let's move on to the causes of the Great War and how having Frederick rather than Willy in command might have changed things.Hundreds, if not thousands of books and articles have been written about the outbreak of the Great War and I can't possibly explain or refute even a fraction of them.Instead I'm going to concentrate on the military aspects of the 1914 crisis and explain how having Frederick rather than Willy or even having Frederick on the throne in the lead up to the war would have made a great difference.I will emphasize three main causes of the war; the fallout from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 and the Anglo-German Naval race.

 

The Prussians and their German allies shocked the world by their quick defeat of the French field armies within weeks of the outbreak of war in 1870.The citizens of Paris refused to surrender and forced the enemy to besiege the city.Frederick, who had a senior command in the army did not agree with the decision to bombard the city but he was overridden and the memory of that bombardment would impact French attitudes for the next generation.During the siege Bismarck was able to convince the Prussian king and his royal allies to finally realize his dream of a united Germany and William I was crowned as the Emperor or Kaiser of a united country. The fact that this ceremony took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles outside Paris fed French resentment.Frederick also opposed the annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine at the end of the war but was overruled again.The legacy of the war was a constant state of estrangement between France and Germany; this was a given in European geopolitics for the next 40 years much like the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union after 1945.Bismarck based his foreign policy on keeping France isolated and without allies.†††† ††

 

That brings us to the second major cause of the war, the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894.The Reinsurance Treaty signed in 1887 between Germany and Russia was due to expire in 1890 and it guaranteed neutrality in any war involving the two parties other than a Russian attack on Austria.This treaty was allowed to lapse after Bismarckís ouster as it was thought to be unfair to the Austrians (another German ally) and too Machiavellian. An alliance between Republican France and autocratic Russia seemed inconceivable to everyone, especially the German Foreign Office.†† However the Russian Tsar Alexander III stood at attention and bareheaded in 1891 as the Marseilles', the French national anthem and a symbol for worldwide revolution, was played during a visit of the French fleet to the Russian naval base at Kronstadt and this act sent shock waves throughout Europe.Bismarck's policy was for Germany to keep Russia and France apart to prevent having to fight a two front war.Willy and his ministers were not far sighted enough to realize this dilemma.With Frederickís military background Iím sure he would have done whatever possible to forestall the alliance.The personal relationship between Frederick and Alexander would have helped as they at least respected each other whereas Alexander detested Willy for his bombastic and arrogant ways.Alexander always tried to avoid any personal contact with Willy and whenever he was forced to do so he complained to his associates that Willy was insufferable.This eventually led to a formal Franco-Russian alliance in 1894 and Bismarck's worst fears of encirclement were realized although Willy and his ministers were too blind to realize this until it was too late.††

 

Before we go any further let's analyze the German governmental structure.As I mentioned earlier Bismarck had written the 1871 constitution with himself†††† in mind.He deeply resented parliamentary meddling in the affairs of government so he arranged that the Chancellor, the position he himself assumed, would not be accountable to a majority in the Reichstag (the German parliament) but rather to the Kaiser alone and also the Chief of the Army General Staff would not have a civilian superior as we have in the United States Secretary of Defense but also be answerable only to the Kaiser.This meant that there was no civilian oversight of the armed forces and in the absence of a monarch who took an active interest in the military they were able to operate completely on their own.Willy cared nothing for the military beyond parades and uniforms and took no interest in their day to day operation whereas Frederick would certainly have been deeply involved. ††††††

 

In order to address the issue of a potential two-front war, the chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised his infamous Schlieffen Plan in 1905.The plan capitalized on the German efficiency in mobilization and the perceived Russian slowness to mobilize.Mobilization consisted of calling up all the reserves, issuing them equipment and then using the rail network to send specific units to specific places on the frontier.The Plan was set up to maximize this advantage by massing 7/8 of the army in the West to conquer France in a lightning six-week campaign and then shift the bulk of the army East to confront the Russians who it was assumed would just then be fully mobilized.A complicating factor was the terrain along the Franco-German border which was heavily fortified and consisted of wooded areas and other obstacles to the rapid movement of troops.This impediment was overcome by directing the attack through Belgium and Holland.Since there was no independent civilian check on the planning process the fact that both countries were neutral and protected by international treaties was not a factor.Willy took no interest in the plan and did not protest this aspect of it although I'm certain Frederick would have been aware of the international implications,certainly as they applied to Britain and would have made his objections known.Also given that the entire attitude of Germany as a satied power with no territorial ambitions in Europe was overthrown with Bismarck, the army and their nationalistic allies looked upon any war scenario as a chance to "settle scores" and advance Germany's "place in the sun", no alternative plan was spelled out or considered.Therefore any international incident which could lead to war automatically meant a two-front war with both France and Russia even if one of the participants (in this case France) had no involvement in the crisis.Frederick would never have allowed this ludicrous situation to develop and take on a life of its' own.††† ††††††††††

 

The third major cause of the war in my scenario was the Anglo-German naval race.In many ways Britain was a natural ally of Germany; from the time of Oliver Cromwell Britain had sought to maintain a balance of power in Europe and then stand-offin so called "splendid isolation".They had serious colonial rivalries with both France and Russia but nothing comparable with Germany.However Willy's insistence on building a great navy alarmed the British and they patched up their outstanding issues with the French and Russians and eventually joined what became the Triple Entente in order to oppose Germany.Willy didn't normally follow any grand strategic logic as he was not interested in deep thought but like many people who share this personality trait, once he latched onto something he carried it forward enthusiastically.This was manifested when he read a popular book of the time written by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American, entitled "The Influence of Sea Power upon History".In this book Mahan advanced the thesis that the real key to national greatness was a strong navy able to control the sea lanes.Willy seized on this and instructed every officer in his navy to read the book.The problem with the thesis (correct or not) is that the paramount sea power of the era was Great Britain who looked upon the navy as essential to her survival and the that of the Empire.As long as Germany maintained good relations with Britain the sea lanes would be secure but Britain would never countenance just standing by and letting a rival power eclipse her naval superiority.Another factor in the deterioration of relations between Britain and Germany was the personal relationship between the sovereigns of the two countries.Vicky was always deeply devoted to her brother, the future King Edward VII, but once her influence evaporated after the death of her husband and the accession of her son, the situation worsened dramatically.Willy detested Edward VII (he called him Satan) and the feeling was mutual.Clearly this personal relationship was secondary to other issues but it was a factor.Even though Vicky died in 1901, the same year as her mother and the accession of her brother, having Frederick still around, who was always a good friend of Edward, would have meant a lot.

 

Willy was assisted in this crusade by German industrialists who formed the Navy League and were a precursor of the American military industrial complex.The pressures of the naval race forced Britain to settle all outstanding colonial issues with France and Russia and gradually were drawn into an informal alliance with them.They concentrated their fleet in the North Sea and allowed the French to patrol the Mediterranean and signed an alliance with the Japanese to allow them to assume primary responsibility for the Pacific.In reality the naval race forced Britain into the arms of the French and Russians, whereby in Willy's tortured logic it should have made them realize the advantages of an alliance with Germany.There was never any real chance that the British government would allow Germany to overtake them on the sea, particularly since the Germans needed to maintain a large land force but often perception is more important than reality. ††A popular British novel of the time called "Riddle of the Sands" postulated a surprise German attack a so-called "bolt from the blue" and this fanned British hysteria but such a result was inevitable to anyone who thought through the consequences of these actions which I'm certain Frederick would have done.The German military industrial complex was very powerful but having a Kaiser who was pushing in the opposite direction rather than acting as a cheerleader for them would certainly have helped.

 

Let's now talk about the circumstances of the outbreak of the war and how Frederick's presence or at least his influence in the years leading up to the war could have made a difference.As I mentioned earlier Willy's bombastic attitude in the years leading up to the war contributed greatly to instability and the hardening of attitudes among all the Great Powers.The concept of mobilization and the mobilization timetable was key.The Schlieffen Plan was highly detailed and set out day by day and even hour by hour deadlines that had to be met and the delay of even a day in beginning the clock ticking would have been catastrophic.After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 the Austrian high command wanted to use this incident to settle with troublesome Serbia once and for all.Therefore officials traveled to Berlin to obtain the support of the Germans who would be key in helping to restrain the Russians, patrons of their fellow Slavs, the Serbians.Without consulting his civilian advisors Willy issued the infamous "blank check" promising full German support for whatever the Austrians wanted to do.Frederick would never have been so callous and would have demanded to know the Austrian plan and had contingency plans of his own.The Schlieffen Plan with an invasion of France and initially standing on the defensive in the East were all that was on the table because Willy had not bothered to demand anything else; Frederick would never have allowed that situation to develop.Some type of Plan B which would have involved massing on the Eastern Front and standing on the defensive against France just might have cowed the Russians into backing down and the incident would have been localized in the Balkans between Serbia & Austria.However the German General Staff wasn't interested in localizing the war, they wanted to settle the score with France and the Schlieffen Plan was all they had.

 

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Schlieffen's successor as Chief of the General Staff, has often been accused by some historians of changing and diluting the Plan which caused it to fail.I think this charge is unfair as circumstances changed drastically between 1905 and 1914.Schlieffen assumed that the Italians would honor their commitments to the Triple Alliance and he could rely on their troops to bolster the left wing leaving more Germans for the right wing in Belgium but by 1914 it was obvious this was not going to happen.Also the Russian Army in 1905 was prostrate after their devastating losses in the Russo-Japanese War but they had greatly improved by 1914.But the main criticism of the Schlieffen Plan is that as brilliant as it was on paper it did not take into account real world circumstances such as the realistic rate that a soldier could march during an extended advance, especially when they also had to fight plus it assumed perfect cooperation from the Belgians who fiercely resisted.Moltke abandoned the invasion of Holland which some people said made it more difficult to squeeze troops through the relatively narrow "Liege Gap" but this was more than offset by the advantage of having the Dutch as neutrals throughout the war.

 

An even more valid criticism of the Plan was that since it was developed without input from any source other than the High Command it ignored the geopolitical realities of the time.British foreign policy since the days of Henry VIII had been to demand no Great Power control of the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland).It didn't matter if this control was asserted by Phillip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon or Imperial Germany.The Germans dismissed the 1839 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium as a "scrap of paper" but to the British this was a case of national survival and the invasion enabled them to sell the war to the British public.Frederick would at least have been aware of the implications of a violation of the treaty and taken appropriate actions.

 

If the Anglo-German Naval Race had not occurred and adequate guarantees given to Britain about the future of Belgium and had this occurred in an atmosphere of good will between Britain and Germany versus the animosity engendered by Willy's erratic behavior in the pre-war years, it's possible the British would have stood aside in 1914. Of course if this general goodwill had prevailed throughout Europe, the war might have been avoided altogether. Some authors have speculated that a German victory in 1914 would have just simply speeded up the European Union by 40 years but I don't agree with that view as I feel German aggression needed to be stopped and it's likely that if victorious they would have imposed peace terms closer to the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovisk with the Bolsheviks signed in early 1918 rather than the formation of an equal union of sovereign states as we have today.However a quick German victory would have at least spared many of the horrors which later developed as a result of the four year carnage that actually occurred.††

I was going to end with an interesting story about the ultimate fate of the German fleet, the construction of which during the Naval Race caused so many problems, but during the research for this paper I found out that my story was an "urban legend".The German fleet was interned at the time of the 1918 armistice and sent to the main British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.As a protest against the plan to allocate the ships of the fleet to the victorious powers, the Germans scuttled the fleet on June 21, 1919.The urban legend is that the sunken fleet represented the best source of high quality steel which had not been contaminated by the atomic atmospheric tests which took place from 1947 until the signing of the test ban treaty in 1963.Such steel was needed for the NASA space program and quantities of the steel were brought up and incorporated into the Apollo Moon missions.However I discovered by reading that great source of human knowledge "The Straight Dope" that this story was not true so I'll just have to end without an interesting anecdote.