'Tannenberg 1914: The Road to War'

In Military History, Featured

On the blog today, Michael Mcnally, author of upcoming title CAM 386: Tannenberg 1914 looks at the impact Bismarck’s dismissal had on the events of 1914

I am proud to say that December 2022 will see the release of my latest book. The kind people at Osprey have given me the opportunity to discuss not only various aspects as to the Battle of Tannenberg and the events leading up to it, but also to offer insights into the research and writing process which led from a blank canvas to the completed text.

But first, a quick vote of thanks to my long-suffering editor Nikolai Bogdanovic, to my fellow Osprey author Nik Cornish who was originally slated for the project but magnanimously stood aside and let me ‘pick up the baton’, and finally to those of you who have regularly petitioned Osprey to publish a book on the battle of Tannenberg.

As we approached the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, a plethora of new works hit the bookshelves which examined the Machiavellian politics of the early 20th century and the powerplays which would ultimately lead to the outbreak of hostilities. But in themselves, these events only served to influence the timing of the conflict. To discover its catalyst, we need to look back almost a quarter century further in history to Saturday March 15 1890, when Otto von Bismarck, Imperial Chancellor - Minister-President of Prussia and de-facto arbiter of German domestic and foreign policy – was informed that the Kaiser no longer required his services and that his resignation – when tendered – would be regretfully accepted by a grateful sovereign. In short, if he failed to resign his offices, he would be publicly dismissed.

 

The Prussian Triumvirate Bismarck, Roon, Moltke (Wikipedia commons)

But what had Bismarck’s dismissal to do with the events of 1914? The most immediate effect was a literal ‘sea change’ in German foreign policy, whereby the Kaiser sought to emulate Great Britain by developing a modern battle fleet, thereby leading to confrontation in the form of the Anglo-German naval arms race. But the main thing was that many of Bismarck’s diplomatic initiatives – based upon his policy of a short successful conflict followed by a negotiated settlement favourable to Prussia (and then Germany) – were allowed to lapse.

In 1862, Bismarck was appointed both Minister-President of Prussia and Prussian Foreign Minister. Having already formulated a future policy of short successful conflicts followed by an advantageous diplomatic settlement, he clearly saw that the only way to achieve these aims would be the creation of a strong and modern military. With this aim in mind he formed a triumvirate with Albrecht von Roon (Minister of War and also for Naval Affairs) and Helmuth von Moltke (Chief of the General Staff).

As Bismarck sought to establish Prussia’s position in Europe, the new army was ‘blooded’ on three occasions.

Firstly, in 1864 the German Confederation went to war with Denmark over plans to abolish the personal union with the German duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg and incorporate them into Denmark proper. Led by Austria and Prussia, the Confederation was victorious. But before the fate of the duchies could be decided upon in congress, Austria and Prussia signed the Convention of Gastein, whereby the former received title to Holstein and Lauenburg whilst the latter received title to Schleswig.

With Roon and Moltke critical of the performance of the Austrian troops during the recent conflict, Bismarck decided that the time was now ripe to finally resolve the rivalry between the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern. Having previously concluded favourable agreements with France*[1] and Italy, he openly accused Vienna of abrogating the Gastein accord. When Austria sought to resolve the crisis diplomatically via the German Confederation, Berlin issued a declaration of war.

 

The Proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles (Wikipedia commons)

On 14 June 1866, Prussian forces occupied Holstein – part of a force which was now numerically equal to and technologically superior to those of Austria. Although fighting took place throughout Germany, the most important theatre was in the East, where three Prussian armies (1st, 2nd and Elbe) drove through Saxony into northern Bohemia, eventually bringing the Austrian Northern Army (together with the remnants of the Saxon army) to battle near the village of Sadowa.

In the heavily wooded terrain, and armed with modern rifles, the Prussians demonstrated the extent of Roon’s reforms when two infantry divisions tore a hole in the enemy centre – destroying 38 out of 49 infantry battalions – and effectively won the battle before the Prussian reserves could be committed. Although there would be some skirmishes for the next three weeks, the war was effectively over: Denmark had been defeated in eight weeks, Austria in a little over six.

With victory in his hands, Bismarck showed the logic of his avowed policy – Austria was beaten but should not be humiliated. The price of her defeat would ‘merely’ be a future exclusion from German affairs, effectively channelling her attentions southwards whilst leaving her as a potential future ally once Prussia’s immediate ambitions in Germany had been realized.

So far, Bismarck’s achievements were impressive: Prussia’s principal ‘domestic’ rival had been neutralized, her territory had been almost doubled, and with the reorganization of the German Confederation, the Berlin government could most definitely be viewed as primus inter pares. But there was still one reckoning that needed to be resolved: the disputed French claims over Luxembourg.

Almost as soon as peace was signed, the French government began to make overtures to Berlin, demanding that Berlin meet her ‘treaty obligations’. Bismarck treated these demands as mere sabre-rattling, firstly because that was in his nature, but also – and just as importantly – because France was still in the process of extricating herself from her commitments to the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, which compromised her capacity for waging war. Eventually the withdrawal was complete and in July 1870, after suffering a final political rebuff, France mobilized for war. French troops invaded German territory, marching under the unlikely battle cry of ‘Revenge for Sadowa’.

The invasion was short-lived, as once again the reformation of the Prussian army proved decisive, coupled with the fact that those states such as Bavaria which had been excluded from the reborn confederation now declared war on France.

With Moltke’s strategy being only to fight where his forces held the advantage, the German forces launched their own invasion of France. They pushed the enemy units back into their own territory, defeating them in a series of pitched battles such as Spicheren, Gravelotte and Sédan, after which engagement the Emperor Napoléon III was captured, and a new Republic declared.

Almost immediately, the new government opened negotiations with Berlin, only offering to meet Prussia’s costs. Bismarck rejected the latter proposal out of hand, declaring that as Napoléon had not abdicated, the ‘republic’ had no mandate to act in the name of the French people, whilst simultaneously indicating that he was willing to continue negotiations in the event that an equitable settlement could be reached. The problem, naturally enough, was that the Prussian Minister-President knew exactly what he wanted from any settlement, and knew that it was almost impossible for any French government to accede to and still remain in power.

As talks continued, German forces continued to advance on all fronts, and in September 1870, Paris was invested. Although additional French armies were raised in the provinces, they were contained by the occupying forces, and on 18 January 1871, Bismarck showed how far his influence had grown when he staged the Proclamation of the German Empire (the Second Reich) in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and the acclamation of King Wilhelm I as German Emperor. Ten days later, France capitulated, and in the peace negotiations Bismarck achieved his aims – the acquisition of France’s German-speaking provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, and the creation of a defensible military frontier which would safeguard against future French aggression.

In less than seven years, Prussia had successfully prosecuted three conflicts and made spectacular gains politically, militarily and diplomatically. But in keeping with his avowed political theory for Bismarck – newly appointed Imperial Chancellor – it was now time to forge a lasting peace for Europe, albeit one that was created for German benefit.

The first step was to reconcile Austria to German – that is to say, Prussian – primacy. A defensive agreement, the Dual Alliance, was signed between the two powers in October 1879. A meeting of ideological and political opposites, it nonetheless brought a measure of stability to central Europe, being augmented in 1882 by the addition of Italy as a diplomatic partner, the agreement now being known as the Triple Alliance until its expiry in 1915.

Bismarck’s second major diplomatic coup was to overcome the mutual distrust between Austria and Russia by forming the Dreikaiserbund or ‘League of the three Emperors’. Whilst not a formal military alliance, it was aimed at maintaining the status quo by combatting the nascent nationalism and radicalism that was being seen across Eastern Europe. Signed in 1873, and subsequently renewed in 1881 and 1884, the agreement also served to defuse friction between St Petersburg and Vienna by the clear definition of ‘areas of interest’ in the Balkans.

 Bismarck's Alliance Policy (Wikipedia commons)

By now certain that Austria – in return for German support – would continue to follow Berlin’s lead, Bismarck embarked on his most ambitious and (until his enforced retirement) most important diplomatic undertaking.

Although France had been heavily defeated in 1871, the Imperial Chancellor was under no illusions that France would continue to accept German possession of Alsace and Lorraine, reasoning that the best way to ensure peace was to denude it of potential allies. Therefore, and with Britain a most unlikely partner, he turned his attention to St Petersburg, negotiating what would later be known as the Reinsurance Treaty. Its existence known to a few carefully chosen individuals, the treaty bound Russia and Germany into a defensive alliance which protected both against aggression from a ‘third, as yet unknown Great Power’.

In effect, this meant that if Russia were attacked by Austria, Germany would be obliged to side with it, whereas if Russia were the aggressor, the Triple Alliance would come into force. For Germany, the only conceivable enemy was France, and as Bismarck had no interest in further hostilities it meant that an aggressive France would be met by a coalition of Germany, Austria, Italy and Russia. In short, France was now isolated and impotent and a continued Peace in Europe was guaranteed.

The British historian AJP Taylor wrote that: ‘Bismarck was an honest broker of peace; and his system of alliances compelled every Power, whatever its will, to follow a peaceful course’. In a similar vein, Eric Hobsbawn was of the opinion that he had: ‘remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers’.

With Bismarck’s ‘fall from grace’, the treaty was allowed to lapse. When Russia asked for a renewal, the new government in Berlin immediately refused to countenance the request. Germany’s new foreign policy was to be a maritime one, and once rumours of the diplomatic break began to circulate, France began a diplomatic offensive aimed at securing a military alliance with Russia. Bismarck had locked France in a cage, but his successors chose to unlock it and throw away the key. At first, the Tsar’s government was sceptical and rebuffed the French overtures, but eventually the prospective deal was sweetened with promises of investment and financial assistance. Russia agreed to a treaty that only one of the two signatories truly wanted, and with the ratification of the Franco-Russian Alliance and a rationalization of mutual interests and foreign policy, France could now plan for the restoration of her lost provinces.

In my next blog, I will explore the planning for hostilities.

 


[1] France would later claim that, in return for her neutrality, Bismarck had promised her a free hand with her own territorial ambitions with regard to Luxembourg. Italy, for her part, coveted the Austrian possessions in the Veneto.

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