The German Problem is back

Merkel and Schäuble revive anti-German stereotypes.

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18
American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. The Schlieffen Plan involved a huge wheeling movement through Belgium. The invasion had no justification other than military convenience, and was spontaneously resisted by Belgian francs-tireurs. The reprisals were brutal. Over to Wikipedia:

German troops, afraid of Belgian guerrilla fighters, or francs-tireurs, burned homes and executed civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, including Aarschot (156 dead), Andenne (211 dead), Tamines (383 dead), and Dinant (674 dead). The victims included women and children. On August 25, 1914, the German army ravaged the city of Leuven, deliberately burning the university’s library of 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts with gasoline, killing 248 residents, and expelling the entire population of 10,000.

The wheel was time-critical, especially on its western periphery: the speed of an advance by marching troops was no faster in 1914 than those of Caesar. The disruption caused by the franc-tireurs was militarily significant. The laws of war at the time did not protect irregular fighters, and the Reichswehr could put up a legal case for reprisals. The Belgians were Breaking the Rules. Sound familiar? Down to the parallels with the (more or less uniformed) German irregulars of 1813, hated by the French army, and the debt forgiveness of 1953.

The behaviour of the Reichswehr in Belgium in 1914 was similar to that of its Prussian predecessor in 1870-71. The elder Moltke ordered that

the franc-tireur had no belligerent rights and was liable to be summarily shot … where individuals could not be brought to book the entire community was was to be held responsible.

(Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War, 1961, p. 578.)

The invasion of Belgium in 1914 was an unmitigated disaster for Germany. During the nine years from the plan’s inception by Graf von Schlieffen in 1905, it did not apparently occur to any German in authority to consider the political consequences. Predictably, the invasion turned the chance of British participation in the war from a probability to a certainty. The dramatic expansion of the British Army could not perhaps have been foreseen, the imposition of an effective naval blockade certainly should have been. The atrocities, real and fabricated, hardened British resolve and helped abort the attempt at a negotiated peace in 1916. They also contributed to bringing the USA into the war. A more strictly military example of tunnel vision: Schlieffen’s plan was for a one-front war, and assumed Italy as an ally, covering Alsace-Lorraine defensively and making the entire German army available in Belgium. Italy stayed neutral in 1914, joining the Allies later, and forces had in addition to be sent to East Prussia. So the invasion force was cut by 20%, ensuring failure against half-way competent and determined opposition. Joffre was not a fool and did not lose his nerve like Gamelin.

The German plan reflects the combination of high professional skill in the service of half-baked and rigid general ideas. Its execution reflected a stiff, inappropriate and deeply counter-productive moralism, compounding the failure of strategic thought.

Does this sound familiar? You bet. The stereotype of the insensitive, bullying, dumb and rule-bound German has been revived, and will not die away of itself. The alliance with France, the core of the European Union, has been damaged. For the first time in my adult life, I wonder whether the European project will survive as a democratic ideal, not a technocratic club to impose an ideology as heartless as Lord John Russell’s in the Irish famine.

It’s unfortunately very easy to predict the next few years in Greece. It consists of the repeated application of the austerity policies that have failed in the past, so they will continue to do so. The economy, crippled by the double straitjacket of a large primary budget surplus and an overvalued currency, will sink deeper into the mire. The debt ratio will continue to rise to obviously unsupportable levels. There will have to be another crisis, followed by massive debt write-offs. The open question is whether these will take place inside or outside the euro. Desperation will bring to power a much harder and more nationalist leader in Greece. We pray for someone like Varoufakis, but fear Golden Dawn.

* * * * *
Footnote on Kant’s German deontology

Kant’s categorical imperative provided a secular gloss on the moral rules inculcated by Lutheranism along with political passivity. His own life provides a charming example of the excesses of deontology. (I’m sure I’ve posted it before, but I’m getting old and will repeat myself until the young LISTEN.) Late in life, Kant discovered that his servant of many years had been stealing from him. Reluctantly, he decided to dismiss the man, who accepted this as fair – and asked for a reference. Without one the servant had no chance of getting another post and his family would be thrown into extreme poverty. Kant had written extensively on the importance of truth-telling and keeping promises, deduced from first principles. What to do? He swallowed the principles and wrote the misleading reference. But then he was more of a Mensch as well as a deeper thinker than Herr Schäuble.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

24 thoughts on “The German Problem is back”

  1. The Schlieffen Plan was flawed, but it most certainly was not designed for a one front war. To the contrary, it was the fact of Russian hostility and its alliance with France that birthed the Schlieffen Plan. (And as an aside, Italian defection from the Triple Alliance was pretty much assumed; it was simply deemed to be largely irrelevant, as in the short term it proved.)

    What von Schlieffen and von Moltke the Younger were counting on was that the primitive state of the Russian railway system would allow them to finish off France before Russia could get its armies into the field. This was why the German military was happy to go to war in 1914; had it been delayed even five more years, the massive French investment in Russian infrastructure would have changed the situation and prevented that solution. As it was, the Russians mobilized faster than the Germans had anticipated, necessitating the shipment of two corps from the First and Second Armies in Belgium. AS it turned out, the Russian generalship was so poor that von Hindenburg and Ludendorff managed to beat them at Tannenberg without the reinforcements.

    That said, the two corps may not have made the difference at the Marne, either. The road net and German logistical capabilities were overstretched as it was. It's possible that the extra troops wouldn't have been anywhere useful and in supply.

    With hindsight, it's easy to see that the Schlieffen Plan was the wrong route to take, and that the Germans should have stood on the defensive in the west, not invade Belgium, hope Britain doesn't enter the war, and beat Russia first. But the German High Command looked at the vast spaces of Russia and figured that they couldn't beat the Russians quickly enough to be able to come back and take on the French. We shouldn't let the fact that they did eventually force Russia to surrender think that they could have accelerated the timetable to what they needed. It was three years of attrition and futility (anywhere Brusilov wasn't in command) that caused the Russian Army to disintegrate.

    In the end, Wilhelm II's belligerence and failed diplomacy put his generals into an unwinnable situation. They opted for a high risk strategy that had as its goal making the war short enough that the blockade wouldn't start to bite before it was over. One can debate whether their strategy really had a realistic chance of doing so. Strategy and logistics have never been the strong suit of German generalship, which I suppose is its own analogy to the current situation with Greece.

    1. Thanks for the corrections. You confirm my conclusion though.
      According to Wikipedia, the 1905-6 Schlieffen Plan counted on 48 corps. Moltke in the end had to make do with 34, not enough to give a margin of victory over the roughly equivalent French Army, plus the small but effective BEF. The two corps sent to Prussia were immaterial.

      1. "Schlieffen’s plan was for a one-front war, and assumed Italy as an ally, covering Alsace-Lorraine defensively and making the entire German army available in Belgium."

        Also, unless my knowledge of European geography is worse than I think, it'd be rather hard for the Italian Army to get to Alsace-Lorraine, assuming that France and Switzerland objected.

        1. I blame Wikipedia: " The deployment plan assumed that Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops would defend Alsace-Lorraine." Italian troops could easily have got to then German Lorraine by rail, via the Brenner Pass and Austria.

          1. "I blame Wikipedia: " The deployment plan assumed that Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops would defend Alsace-Lorraine." Italian troops could easily have got to then German Lorraine by rail, via the Brenner Pass and Austria. "

            I doubt it, since both Germany and Austria were mobilizing troops and had their railroads running at 100% capacity.

          2. The initial versions of the Schlieffen Plan, as well as previous German strategic memoranda that did not involve invading Belgium dating from the 1890s, did envision Italian troops taking over the southernmost portion of the line against France. This was intended due to what James noted originally as the lack of existence of sufficient German troops to fulfill the plan. By 1910, this Italian presence was no longer included, replaced by the call-up of more German landwehr divisions.

            These early versions of the Plan are also the origin of the claim that it was based upon an assumption of a one-front war. In its initial drafts in 1905-06, this is true. The German General Staff initially only adopted the Schlieffen Plan for a war against France alone, not Russia. However, this, too, changed and it became the default plan, with different details, for both a war against France alone and a war against both France and Russia.

            Or maybe it didn't. Whether or not the Germans ever adopted the Schlieffen Plan as the basis of war planning is actually a huge controversy among historians. I should state that everything I've written above (in this comment and those preceding it) is based upon the assumption that what was implemented in 1914 was, in fact, the culmination of plans that started with von Schlieffen's 1905 (or maybe 1906, which puts a different spin on things, since von Schlieffen retired on 1 Jan, 1906) Denkschrift. But it isn't really clear that this is the case. Unfortunately for historians, most of the German archives on the subject were destroyed by an April 1945 bombing raid and most of what didn't ended up in East Berlin.

            What we've discovered is that, for pretty much the entirety of von Schlieffen's tenure heading the General Staff, what we think of as the Schlieffen Plan doesn't bear any resemblance to his actual work. And it's possible that the Denkschrift was not intended as a serious plan, but rather as a political document designed to pressure the government into increasing the size of the army by showing that there weren't enough divisions in existence to win a war.

            Regardless, the actual plan implemented by the Germans in 1914 involved a two-front war, an attack through Belgium, and a left flank secured without the presence of non-German troops. Either this was descended from von Schlieffen's original Denkschrift, or it wasn't. If the former, the plan was modified many times before it was implemented. James' original statements were all true about the Denkschrift or other German planning a decade or more before the war, but don't really have much to do with the plan that was actually used.

            For a lengthy discussion of this: http://terencezuber.com/schlieffendebate.php

        2. To further explicate what James said, remember that Alsace-Lorraine was a part of Germany from 1871-1918.

  2. I think you may be optimistic about the next few years in greece.

    Perhaps there should be a new proverb: "Those who overcome their past are doomed to repeat it."

      1. And europe in general.

        The Troika was (imo) incredibly remiss in its planning; now that the greeks have capitulated, they're apparently going to let the whole country go down the tubes for another month or more (banks still closed, no financing available) while they hammer out the details of the new "bailout" plan, including somehow getting the IMF on board. That's like signing an armistice where one side gets to continue shelling after the losers have surrendered.

        Unless implementation of the "reform" measure goes well (which is unlikely with a thoroughly resentful population) the greek economy will continue to get worse, and eventually the folk who are more violent than Golden Dawn may decide to turn their anger outward. There's also a really nasty subtext to the structure of the fiscal measures: increases in VAT and reductions in wages and pensions are mostly measures that can be implemented in software, so that the locals don't really have to cooperate on having their income diminished.

        1. "The Troika was (imo) incredibly remiss in its planning; now that the greeks have capitulated, they're apparently going to let the whole country go down the tubes for another month or more (banks still closed, no financing available) while they hammer out the details of the new "bailout" plan, including somehow getting the IMF on board. That's like signing an armistice where one side gets to continue shelling after the losers have surrendered. "

          Yes to that last sentence.

          If you assume that the goal of the Troika is the destruction of Greece as an example to others, then their actions make sense.

  3. The only reason Germany could do what it did is because of the Euro, the designers of which have yet to issue the continent the public apology that is due. Speaking of people in the grip of bad ideas, it was madness to bind such different countries together in a common currency and assume that the result would be a happy one. That's not a critique of Germany, but of the Euro's designers who seem to have very little understanding of life outside the elite bubble in which they live. The irony now is that the system designed to restrain Germany from taking over Europe gives it a mechanism to do just that.

    1. Accompanied by fiscal union, it might have worked, but of course no one, certainly not Germany, was willing to surrender that degree of sovereignty. So the currency union went ahead on its own, on the theory that it would pull the member states toward "ever closer union," eventually reaching some kind of United States of Europe model. We can see how well that worked out.

    2. According to this unsigned but coherent article , Schäuble's actual aim is not to dominate but to to break up the eurozone. He envisages a sort of Holy Roman Empire of Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and curiously Slovakia bound together with full fiscal integration and a common budget and parliament. He is very doubtful about France and Finland. It's fantasy – why should these countries accept not just German hegemony but outright control? – and runs contrary to the central tenets of postwar German foreign policy, but it shows the way the old man's mind is working. Democracy is not included in any significant sense: he wants a "big coalition" combined with strong party discipline. Incidentally. the article confirms that the last eurogroup offer was meant to be rejected and force the Greeks to exit the euro. The deliberately humiliating conditions even include opening of shops on Sundays, a neoliberal shibboleth that Germany has refused to adopt for itself

      1. DWN is basically an online tabloid and should not be taken any more seriously than BILD.

        1. Politicians take tabloids more seriously than snobs like us do, and leak stuff to them to manipulate public opinion. But if DWN is a tabloid, where are the Page 3 girls?

          1. German tabloids would have the girls on the front page. 🙂

            In any event, DWN basically uses the social media as their primary distribution channel; they post sensationalist articles that tell The Truth and get lapped up by people who don't trust the Lügenpresse (i.e. conspiracy theorists and their ilk) and then share the articles through Facebook, Twitter, etc.

            I don't know how good your spoken German is, but if you can understand it, this short ZDF documentary explains how they function.

          2. Thanks. I'm glad I didn't rely on the DWN for the post! So it's basically a literate blog. However, whichever way you read Schäuble – whether he aims ultimately at a large or small eurozone – his determination to establish an ordoliberal Teutonic hegemony is deeply scary. Not least because of the lack of pushback in Germany. Or indeed anywhere in Europe: look at the establishment socialist parties in Britain, France, or Spain. Podemos, the SNP, and Syriza at least represent signs of life.

          3. What lack of pushback? The social democrats practically rioted over Schäuble's suggestion of a temporary Grexit. (Except for Gabriel, but he's the Tony Blair of the SPD, minus Blair's charisma, and during the last weekend he probably lost any remaining chance of ever becoming chancellor.)

            Or are you referring to austerity in general (since I'm not sure how the establishment socialist parties in Britain and Spain should provide any pushback on EZ policies since both PSOE and Labour are currently opposition parties, nevermind that Britain isn't in the EZ)?

            I'll see if I can write something about Schäuble later; I think that he's basically the Inspector Javert of this piece, and while I dislike him strongly, his motivations are more complex than that (for starters, he's been an advocate for a closer political union for the longest time, and, yes, one that would include Germany surrendering sovereign powers to democratically elected EU institutions). For example, check out this speech of his back in 2011.

          4. They signed up to austerity in power and have not disowned it in opposition, so they cannot articulate or mobilise such popular opposition as there is.

    3. The irony now is that the system designed to restrain Germany from taking over Europe gives it a mechanism to do just that.

      The EEC and its successor acronyms were designed to restrain Germany from taking over Europe. The euro is a separate, very foolish, project, and its use as a mechanism of German hegemony is what I characterize as the Third Reich by other means. I don't know how offensive that is, but I don't think it's ridiculous at all.

  4. The Schlieffen Plan was a fantasy. It assumed divisions which, at the time of it's adoption, did not exist and were not budgeted for, assumed a march rate which was unsustainable, assumed logistics support which could not be delivered, assumed the French would do just what the Germans required, assumed British neutrality, assumed Belgian compliance…Very like Operation Barbarossa (also a creation of the Great General Staff). Then (in both cases) when it went wrong, the authors were quick to blame someone else. Classic right-wing delusion.

    1. I wonder how much of the defeat of von Kluck's First Army, and von Bülow's Second Army, on the western edge of the wheel, was down to sheer fatigue?

      1. I would say a fair amount, but the French and the BEF were, if anything, even more exhausted. The French Plan XVII, involving offensives in Alsace and the Ardennes, was an unmitigated disaster (and came close to fulfilling the German assumption that the French would do just what the Germans wanted), and assembling a force for the Battle of the Marne involved pulling depleted units out of the line and shuffling them quickly to the left flank of the entire French army.

        Also note that the performance of the BEF has been greatly exaggerated by the English language histories of the campaign. Sir John French was a miserable commander, and his troops were badly underequipped for continental fighting. The BEF exasperated Joffre and he almost gave up any reliance on it. The British army underwent a remarkable transformation and by the middle of 1916 was a truly useful force, the disaster of July 1 notwithstanding. But its contribution in 1914 wasn't much.

        I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Schlieffen Plan was a fantasy. It also wasn't a single plan; German strategy underwent revision from the time it first appeared until the outbreak of the war, even while Alfred von Schlieffen was still Chief of the General Staff. It was, however, a high risk plan that didn't have a great chance of success. But the failure of German diplomacy had left the generals with little choice other than a high risk plan, especially if you accept the assumption that defeating Russia was a task that would take too long.

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