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

Friday, January 8, 2021

Germany's View of Russia on the Eve of War

Tsar and Kaiser in Happier Times

. . . During the Bosnian annexation crisis in 1908/9, the operative assessment in Berlin was that no rational Russian would risk war in view of the country's unpreparedness and weak internal condition. Chancellor Bülow affirmed to the Austrian foreign minister, Count Aerenthal, "Concerning Russia, I am in agreement with you that she is at present hardly in a position to inaugurate an active policy." Moltke wrote his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf, that the opportunity for war was "unlikely to reappear under such favorable conditions." 

The operative perception of Russian power remained the same in 1912, when the First Balkan War raised the possibility of a Russo-Austrian war. The St. Petersburg embassy, as well as the foreign minister, chancellor, war minister, general staff, and the kaiser, all thought Russia too weak to take action. Moltke's 1912 memorandum to the chancellor on the Russian situation concluded: "At the moment Russia is behind in the reorganization of her army and its equipment and weaponry...." The chief of staff wrote to Conrad that "war is unavoidable, and the sooner the better." In October 1913, Berchtold reported on a long discussion with the kaiser. He related that, in the midst of an extended diatribe on Russia's irredeemably hostile intentions, the kaiser maintained that: 

[F]or the time being Russia does not inspire [him] with any worry: for the  next six years one can be certain on that account. He had discovered this in March when, after a war council at Tsarskoe Selo, a German from the Baltic provinces known to him repeated Tsar Nicholas's pronouncement: Dieu soit lofe nous neferons pas de guerre, avant six ans c'est impossible. [Thank God we won’t go to war, for six years it’s impossible] Until then the army will not be ready for action, and furthermore [Russia will be] haunted by the specter of revolution.  

Although most German officials in 1914 retained their disdainful view of existing Russian power, Russia's seemingly strong financial position and growing economy, and the adoption of the four-year "Great Program" of rearmament, did make Moltke and other military leaders increasingly pessimistic about the future. In May, Moltke told Conrad that "to wait meant to lessen our chances; it was impossible to compete with Russia as regards quantity."  Secretary of State Jagow reported a conversation with Moltke that same month: 

The prospects for the future weighed heavily upon him. In two or three years Russia would have finished arming. Our enemies' military power would then be so great that he did not know how he could deal with it. Now we were still more or less a match for it. In his view there was no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle. The Chief of Staff therefore put it to me that our policy should be geared to bringing about an early war.

Source:  Wohlforth, William, "The Perception of Power: Russia in the Pre-1914 Balance,"  World Politics, April 1987.

1 comment:

  1. It was to Germany's detriment that it didn't apply the skepticism it laid on Russian preparedness to it's Austro-Hungarian ally. "Shackled to a corpse", as Ludendorff later ruefully noted.