World War I Centennial: Recalling the Messenger


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 16th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 9, 1912: Recalling the Messenger

On May 9, 1912, the mounting tensions between Britain and Germany claimed a high-profile victim, if only in the professional sense, with the resignation of Count Paul Wolff-Metternich (pictured) as German ambassador to London. While presented as his own decision on grounds of ill health, Metternich’s resignation was actually forced on him by his superiors in Berlin, reflecting Kaiser Wilhelm II’s displeasure at the recent failure of naval arms negotiations and exasperation at Metternich’s consistently negative reports about the hostile attitude of the British government. Rather than heed the ambassador’s warnings and adjust their policy to conciliate the British, with typical short-sightedness the German government decided to replace the ambassador.

In an age when international relations were largely built on personal relationships, Metternich had been a fixture of European diplomacy, serving as German ambassador to London from 1903-1912, where he had a reputation as an Anglophile – a German who had fallen in love with English culture, admired the British Empire, and moved with ease in London’s high society. More importantly, Metternich was also widely respected as a voice of moderation who could be relied on to accurately convey British positions to the German government.

All these qualities made Metternich the perfect choice for ambassador when the German government sought friendship and maybe even alliance with Britain – but when relations soured, Metternich’s enemies at home began to undermine his position. One of his biggest critics was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s aggressive naval strategy and a close confidante of the Kaiser.

Tirpitz’s expanded naval construction program was largely responsible for the failure of the Haldane Mission from February 8-12, 1912, when the British Secretary of War, Sir Richard Burdon Haldane, visited Berlin in the hope of reaching an agreement to limit naval arms construction. But Tirpitz managed to lay the blame for the failure on Metternich, who consistently warned the German Foreign Ministry that there was no way the British would agree to Tirpitz’s plans for more German dreadnoughts. Tirpitz insinuated that Metternich was biased by his Anglophile tendencies, and even disloyal – a charge sure to anger the honor-obsessed Kaiser.

Although he wouldn’t present his official papers of recall to King George V until June 11, news of Metternich’s resignation soon leaked out in London, triggering a strong reaction from British officials who saw it as a major blow to any hopes of reconciling with Germany. In fact on May 14, 1912, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, took the highly unusual step of “expressing the regret that will be felt at his retirement by everyone who has had official relations with him, and by the very large number of personal friends that he has made during his long stay in this country, a regret which I share to the full and feel very much personally.”

Of course, Metternich had merely been the messenger delivering bad news to Berlin: his resignation would do nothing to alleviate the underlying tensions between Britain and Germany. Before long his eventual replacement, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, would be annoying Tirpitz and the Kaiser with the same kind of strong warnings about British opposition to Germany’s arms build-up. The episode illustrated the risk of self-deception inherent in any autocratic government, with the circle around the Kaiser clinging to unrealistically optimistic views, and simply cashiering anyone who presented awkward or unwelcome information – a tendency that would prove fatal in the coming Great War.

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