World War I Centennial: More Guns and Ships for Germany

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. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

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. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the fourth installment in the series. See all entries here.

February 7, 1912: The Army and Navy Bills

After the Second Moroccan Crisis, as European leaders confronted the suddenly very real possibility of a continent-wide war, internal political tensions in Germany moved into the foreground. The sweeping victory by left-wing Social Democrats in Reichstag elections threw Germany’s conservative elites into a panic — but Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured) and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had a plan to co-opt the socialists and defuse the Marxist menace.

Essentially their plan aimed to rally working-class Germans behind the elites by appealing to their nationalist pride, which in turn required stoking conflicts with foreign powers who appeared to be “threatening” Germany (in fact it was usually the other way around). The socialists would be forced either to support their policies, including increased military spending, or open themselves to being labeled as unpatriotic – both of which would undermine their political support. Critically, the conservatives knew that despite their long opposition to “militarism,” the socialists were more likely to vote in favor of military spending that required raising new taxes, hoping this might set the precedent for raising taxes for social spending.

Despite the obvious risks inherent in this plan, the German middle class was persuaded to support it because it promised to relieve simmering class tensions, and also because it received the backing of the powerful and prestigious German military. The reasons the German military supported the strategy became clear enough just a few weeks after the socialist victory, on February 7th, when the Kaiser presented the 1912 Army and Navy Bills to the Reichstag.

Positioned as a necessary response to Germany’s humiliation in the Second Moroccan Crisis, the bills called for greatly increased spending on both the Imperial German Army and the Navy – but especially the Army, which would be crucial to winning a European land war, where Russia was the largest adversary. Meanwhile the more modest increase in the size of the German Navy was meant to deter Britain from intervening on the Continent in support of France.

The 1912 military bills called for spending a total of 1.78 billion Reichsmarks on the German Army and Navy. Of course, this was just the latest in a continuing series of increases in military spending by the German Empire: the total defense budget had increased from an average of 841 million Reichsmarks in 1886-1890 to 1.16 billion in 1901, then 1.3 billion in 1911. But this 37% jump from 1911-1912 marked an unmistakable increase in the tempo of military spending, and it also set a new precedent because it received some ambivalent support from the Social Democrats, who claimed to continue opposing military expansion but supported increased spending because the budget called for a tax on inherited estates.

With the Social Democrats on board, the way was clear for an even bigger increase in military spending in 1913, when the combined Army and Navy budgets jumped a remarkable 35% to 2.4 billion Reichsmarks. Of course, there was no way the surge in Germany military spending would somehow escape the notice of Britain, France, or Russia, all of whom were paying close attention to German moves following their bad scare in the Second Moroccan Crisis, and who were already expanding their own militaries in response to the German threat. They would have no choice but to respond in kind with even more military spending, in what became known as an “arms race” – but was in fact a race to war.

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February 7, 2012 - 6:46pm
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