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26.05.2014 admin
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. The new military spending bill presented to the German Reichstag on March 1, 1913, arrived in a climate of growing fear.
This language echoed Bethmann Hollweg’s master Kaiser Wilhelm II, who in a letter sent December 15, 1912, warned his friend, the shipping magnate Albert Ballin, “There is about to be a racial struggle between the Teutons and the Slavs… it is the future of the Hapsburg monarchy and the existence of our country which are at stake.” On February 10, 1913, German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) took the same gloomy view in a letter to Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, predicting a racial struggle between Germans and Slavs and assuring Conrad of German support in such an eventuality.
Although this kind of overtly racial rhetoric may sound foreign to modern ears, it was widespread among European and American elites in the early years of the 20th century. While social Darwinists devoted a great deal of attention to the differences between white Europeans and Africans and Asians, they also believed different branches of the white race were competing with each other. After the Western Roman Empire was overthrown by invading Germanic tribes in the fifth century, most of Western Europe was divided up into Germanic kingdoms – but the upheaval was far from over, as wave after wave of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes continued to emerge from the east. Beginning in 1226, the Teutonic Knights of East Prussia launched a series of crusades against pagan Slavs living near the Baltic Sea, which later became a sectarian war of Catholics against Orthodox Christians; their conquests eventually extended into modern-day Estonia. Although German colonization was usually peaceful enough, racists of a later era viewed it as additional proof of racial superiority, as Germans spurred technical and economic development among “backward” Slavs. Ideas of German racial superiority went hand in hand with the glorification of medieval German chivalry and a supposed economic imperative for expansion.

The obvious place to find this Lebensraum (“living room”) was in neighboring Slavic states. The application of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to humanity gave a scientific gloss to racism, known as social Darwinism, in which human races were viewed as virtually distinct species with their own characteristic attributes. Of particular interest was the rivalry between the “Germanic” peoples of northwest Europe and the Slavs of Eastern Europe – an ancient contest dating back to the great migrations of the early medieval period. In the sixth century a new group, the Slavs, began spreading out from their homeland in western Ukraine; by the eighth century the Slavs had overrun most of Europe east of the Elbe River, where they came into conflict with the Germanic Franks and Saxons, recently united by Charlemagne. The Knights invited German settlers to farm land abandoned by fleeing (or dead) Slavs and founded fortress cities including Konigsberg (Kaliningrad) and Riga. In the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, local rulers throughout Eastern Europe offered incentives for German craftsmen and farmers to settle in their realms to stimulate economic growth.
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. Like competing individuals, different races displayed varying levels of evolutionary fitness; unsurprisingly, in a worldview elaborated by white Europeans they always seemed to come out on top.
Although it is doubtful that Charlemagne or his contemporaries viewed the situation through a racial lens, later European racists portrayed their expeditions against the Slavs as the beginning of a long struggle between Germans and Slavs.

Throughout the 13th century, Polish princes granted German settlers autonomy under the “Magdeburg right,” and in 1243 King Bela IV of Hungary promised German immigrants freedom from feudal taxes.
Subsequent events would provide plenty of fodder for this racial interpretation of history. German influence also spread via the Hanseatic League, which established trading posts in cities across northern Europe. Later, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian tsars invited German colonists to settle throughout European Russia; the most famous group, the “Volga Germans,” lived in separate communities with a distinct German character until the Second World War, when they were sent to the gulag by Stalin. Only by growth can a people save itself.” A decade later this project would be conceived on an even grander scale by a young Austrian-born German corporal with political ambitions named Adolf Hitler.

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