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 63rd installment in the series.
April 7, 1913: German Chancellor Warns of Impending Racial Struggle
The new military spending bill presented to the German Reichstag on March 1, 1913, arrived in a climate of growing fear. In a speech urging the Reichstag to vote for the bill on April 7, 1913, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg (pictured) warned that Austria-Hungary – Germany’s only real ally – faced an existential threat from the rise of Slavic power in the Balkans in the First Balkan War, and predicted a “life and death struggle” between “Germanism” and “Slavism.” Earlier the chancellor envisioned an impending “world catastrophe” resulting from a “European conflagration pitting Slavs against Teutons.”
This language echoed Bethmann Hollweg’s master Kaiser Wilhelm II, who in a letter sent December 15, 1912, warned his friend, the shipping magnate Albert Ballin, “There is about to be a racial struggle between the Teutons and the Slavs… it is the future of the Hapsburg monarchy and the existence of our country which are at stake.” On February 10, 1913, German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) took the same gloomy view in a letter to Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, predicting a racial struggle between Germans and Slavs and assuring Conrad of German support in such an eventuality.
Although this kind of overtly racial rhetoric may sound foreign to modern ears, it was widespread among European and American elites in the early years of the 20th century. The application of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to humanity gave a scientific gloss to racism, known as social Darwinism, in which human races were viewed as virtually distinct species with their own characteristic attributes. Like competing individuals, different races displayed varying levels of evolutionary fitness; unsurprisingly, in a worldview elaborated by white Europeans they always seemed to come out on top.
While social Darwinists devoted a great deal of attention to the differences between white Europeans and Africans and Asians, they also believed different branches of the white race were competing with each other. Of particular interest was the rivalry between the “Germanic” peoples of northwest Europe and the Slavs of Eastern Europe – an ancient contest dating back to the great migrations of the early medieval period.
After the Western Roman Empire was overthrown by invading Germanic tribes in the fifth century, most of Western Europe was divided up into Germanic kingdoms – but the upheaval was far from over, as wave after wave of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes continued to emerge from the east. In the sixth century a new group, the Slavs, began spreading out from their homeland in western Ukraine; by the eighth century the Slavs had overrun most of Europe east of the Elbe River, where they came into conflict with the Germanic Franks and Saxons, recently united by Charlemagne. Although it is doubtful that Charlemagne or his contemporaries viewed the situation through a racial lens, later European racists portrayed their expeditions against the Slavs as the beginning of a long struggle between Germans and Slavs. Subsequent events would provide plenty of fodder for this racial interpretation of history.
Beginning in 1226, the Teutonic Knights of East Prussia launched a series of crusades against pagan Slavs living near the Baltic Sea, which later became a sectarian war of Catholics against Orthodox Christians; their conquests eventually extended into modern-day Estonia. The Knights invited German settlers to farm land abandoned by fleeing (or dead) Slavs and founded fortress cities including Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Riga.
Interactions between Germans and Slavs weren’t always violent. In the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, local rulers throughout Eastern Europe offered incentives for German craftsmen and farmers to settle in their realms to stimulate economic growth. Throughout the 13th century, Polish princes granted German settlers autonomy under the “Magdeburg right,” and in 1243 King Bela IV of Hungary promised German immigrants freedom from feudal taxes. German influence also spread via the Hanseatic League, which established trading posts in cities across northern Europe. Later, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian tsars invited German colonists to settle throughout European Russia; the most famous group, the “Volga Germans,” lived in separate communities with a distinct German character until the Second World War, when they were sent to the gulag by Stalin.
Although German colonization was usually peaceful enough, racists of a later era viewed it as additional proof of racial superiority, as Germans spurred technical and economic development among “backward” Slavs. Indeed, there was no question in their minds about which race was better: in 1855 Arthur de Gobineau, one of the founders of “scientific” racism, wrote that “the Russians, Poles, and Serbians… are only civilized on the surface; the higher classes alone participate in our ideas, owing to the continual admixture of English, French, and German blood.” And in 1899 another famous racist, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, wrote that the “inferior Slavonics” had degraded their blood by mixing with “Mongoloid” races.
Ideas of German racial superiority went hand in hand with the glorification of medieval German chivalry and a supposed economic imperative for expansion. Germany’s growing population was “hemmed in” by modern borders, and required more land; in 1895 the German sociologist Max Weber wrote that posterity would judge Germans of his day by “the extent of elbow-room that we obtain through struggle and leave behind.”
The obvious place to find this Lebensraum (“living room”) was in neighboring Slavic states. In 1911 the pan-German publicist Otto Richard Tannenberg wrote: “Room; they must make room. The western and southern Slavs – or we! ... Only by growth can a people save itself.” A decade later this project would be conceived on an even grander scale by a young Austrian-born German corporal with political ambitions named Adolf Hitler.
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