Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Confused Allies: The Dual Alliance on the Brink of War

Part I:  Background
By Ferenc Pollmann
Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest

When William II was enthroned as emperor of Germany and king of Prussia in 1888, things changed significantly [diplomatically]. Two years later, Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, had to go, and a new German foreign policy was inaugurated. Austria-Hungary’s position in the Dual Alliance had been modified as well. Unlike during the Bismarckian era, the Dual Monarchy could perceive distinct evidence of support from Berlin concerning Balkan affairs. Germany seriously worried about its doomed ally, whose fate seemed to be similar to that of the Ottoman Empire. An active Balkan policy would be needed against this threatening outcome, and Berlin promised full support for such a new course. Germany’s backup was efficient during the crisis of annexation, and later, to Vienna’s great surprise, its ally declared acceptance of the casus foederis  (an obligation of the alliance) for the Balkans and initiated intense cooperation between the chiefs of the two General Staffs. Despite the constant urging of the Austro-Hungarian chief General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf,  however, again there was no elaboration of a synchronized common deployment. Although the two military leaders agreed to accept the principles of a common strategy based on the plan devised by Alfred von Schlieffen, the Germans refused to tell the Austrians that in all probability they would have to hold off the mighty Russian Army without any significant German contribution.

On the other hand, the deployment of the necessary Austro-Hungarian divisions in Galicia would make it impossible for the Dual Monarchy to realize its most important war aim—defeating Serbia. In fact, war aims of the two allies not only differed from each other but, to some extent, also could be achieved against each other. The mutual distrust may be explained by this, as well as from the different military strengths of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, as the international relations grew more unfavorable for  the participants of the Dual Alliance, their interdependency deepened. Anglo-German antagonism prevented the powers from loosening their bonds to the alliances and seeking connections with members of other coalitions. On the eve of the First World War, the Dual Alliance—established as a defensive pact—mutated after 1909 into a bloc, had similarity to the classic movie titled The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play fugitives shackled together and trying to survive. Each step they take demands cooperation and this causes serious difficulties for each man. As their interdependency increased, it was hardly possible for the stronger party to set the pace, especially when temporarily ceding power to the weaker member, as happened when William II gave Austria-Hungary a blank check of support in July 1914. As Günther Kronenbitter, one of the best German experts on the history of German–Austro-Hungarian relations of the time, has written, “despite the fact that it was Austria-Hungary that triggered the Third Balkan War and thereby  provoked the outbreak of the Great War, historians interested in the origins of World War I have tended to focus on the system of international relations or on Germany’s role before and during the July crisis. Even today, it seems to be received wisdom among scholars in Germany and elsewhere to consider the Habsburg Monarchy as the weak-willed appendix of the powerful German Reich.”

Kronenbitter considers the hesitation of the Austro-Hungarian chief of the General Staff to abandon the Serbian campaign and transfer the bulk of the dual monarchy’s army to the Galician theater before receiving reliable reports on the Russian general mobilization to be evidence of an attempt to exploit the given situation for setting the pace and carrying out his own war, no matter what happened with the Schlieffen Plan.

To be sure, Conrad von Hötzendorf was rather pressed by Austro-Hungarian policymakers to achieve quick military success on the Balkan peninsula and restore the prestige of the Habsburg monarchy as a great power. On the other hand, it is true that after writing out the blank check, the German government and the Kaiser showed signs of uncertainty and kept their ally in the dark about unconditional support for an Austro-Hungarian war against Serbia. In Vienna, therefore, one could not know whom to believe—the Kaiser of 5 July or the Kaiser of 30 July, chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke or chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Source: "The Dual Alliance and Austria-Hungary's Balkan Policy,"  2005 Conference Paper

Part II:  What Happened When the Armies Marched

General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austrian chief of staff, was delighted in 1914 at the opportunity to punish the Serbs; it was something he had long advocated. He was far less enthusiastic about fighting Russia. This led to indecision at the start of hostilities. His heart was in his Balkan strategy that involved invading Serbia with three of his armies while placing the remainder of his forces on guard against the feared Russians. However, when the Russians declared war, Conrad was presented with an immediate threat of invasion through Galicia and Poland. The Russia-centered alternate strategy involved a stronger defense in Galicia and a thrust to cut off enemy forces in Russian Poland. 

Belatedly shifting his forces to the north for these tasks, Conrad weakened his advance into Serbia. Poor railroads ensured that the tardy shift of units northward was a confused mess and boded ill for the ensuing operations against the Russians. Serbia—fighting for its homeland and experienced from the earlier Balkan Wars—repelled three invasions. They used the mountainous terrain cut by numerous rivers to great advantage, winning decisive victories in August and in December pushing their opponents out of their temporarily occupied capital, Belgrade, and then beyond the frontiers. Austria-Hungary would need help from both Germany and Bulgaria to rout the Serbs in October 1915. In just weeks, all the plans and the wishful hopes of the nations that had opted for war during the July Crisis were obliterated. With casualties already being reckoned in the millions and no end in sight, an immeasurable catastrophe had fallen on Europe. 

Source:  Over the Top, March 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment