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 94th installment in the series.
December 4, 1913: German Government Rocked by Anti-Militarism Protests
In the early years of the 20th century, a visitor to Germany might marvel at the appearance of a calm, orderly society based on conservative values like education, hard work, duty, and respect for authority. But appearances can be deceiving: Germany’s rigid social structures concealed a deep, widening rift between the industrial working class on one side, and the aristocracy and middle class on the other.
Angry about low wages and long hours, German workers increasingly fell under the sway of socialism, a modified version of Marxism calling for the proletariat to take control of the means of production through organized labor and legislation. This goal became more plausible after the government lifted its ban on socialist political activity in 1890. With support from trade unions, the reinvigorated Social Democratic Party won huge electoral gains—but found its ambitions frustrated by Germany’s authoritarian government.
One of the fiercest controversies concerned the military’s dominant position in German society. As part of a self-proclaimed internationalist movement, socialists decried the European arms race as a dangerous waste of money, while at home the SDP reviled the aristocratic military elite as a natural ally of big business and an entrenched opponent of democratic reform. The army could also be used to put down strikes and protests, further limiting the power of organized labor.
The controversy finally boiled over in the autumn of 1913 following a seemingly minor incident in Alsace, a province with a mixed population of French and German speakers annexed from France in 1871. On October 28, Günter Freiherr von Forstner, a 19-year-old Prussian second lieutenant stationed in the town of Zabern (Saverne), made disparaging comments about the local Alsatian population and seemed to encourage his men to brutalize civilians. After local newspapers reported Forstner’s comments, his superiors refused to take serious disciplinary action, triggering protests by townsfolk.
On November 28, 1913, a large number of protesters surrounded the barracks in Zabern, alarming the garrison commander, who then authorized his troops to disperse the crowd by force. That’s when things really started to unravel, as hundreds of peaceful protesters were arrested without cause, including several local notables, and the town was placed under unofficial martial law. All in all it was a clear case of the military acting with total disregard for civilian rights (as depicted in the cartoon published in the satirical magazine Simplicissimus in November 1913, above).
As these events thrust Zabern into the national spotlight, there was still a chance for the central government to defuse the situation. But in typical fashion Kaiser Wilhelm II—trained in the Prussian military and no one’s idea of a statesman—did exactly the wrong thing. On November 30, the German emperor met with Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn to hear the military’s side of the story, but completely ignored civilian representatives. The same day the SDP organized the first of a wave of protests in Mülhausen (Mulhouse), a big town in Alsace, which soon spread to the rest of the country.
Things were about to get even worse, as Forstner—apparently none the wiser for having caused a national crisis, and none too bright to begin with—took center stage again. While drilling with troops on December 2, 1913, the second lieutenant heard some townsfolk mocking his fancy uniform, lost his temper, and struck a partially disabled apprentice cobbler named Karl Blank with his sword. Naturally this provoked a fresh public outcry, but once again Forstner’s superiors refused to take real disciplinary action, further escalating the conflict.
The Zabern Affair was now a full-blown political crisis for the government, as traditional allies like the Center Party and Conservative Party distanced themselves to express their disgust over its incompetent handling of the situation. On November 30, the SDP’s newspaper Vorwarts (Forwards) called for the Reichstag to assert itself:
“If the Reichstag stands for the terror of the sword in Zabern, and the guilty are not called to account in the most unconditional manner, and guarantees given to prevent the repetition of similar military excesses, then the government by constitution and law will have capitulated altogether before the arbitrariness of our Militarism!”
On December 3, 1913, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg finally addressed the Reichstag on the Zabern Affair—but instead of asserting civilian authority, the weak-willed head of government just offered lame excuses for the military. True, Forstner had referred to Alsatians with the insulting term “wackes,” but Bethmann Hollweg said this merely meant “screwball” and wasn’t an ethnic slur (it was); anyway the military had now banned the use of the word “screwball” so it wouldn’t happen again. The chancellor conceded that Forstner’s behavior has been improper, but dismissed it as an “unpleasant but certainly not … world-shaking” event, and completely dodged the real issue—the illegal arrests and imposition of martial law in Zabern.
The Reichstag wasn’t buying it: On December 4, 1913, the deputies voted 293 to 54 that the government’s handling of the affair was “not the view of the Reichstag.” This was a humiliating blow to Bethmann Hollweg, equivalent to a vote of “no confidence,” which could have triggered the fall of the government. One observer said the chancellor looked physically ill, maybe even at risk of a nervous breakdown. However the Center and Conservative Parties refused to join the SDP in demanding his resignation, since this might open up the possibility of a power struggle between the military, backed by the Kaiser, and the socialist opposition – and then who knew what would happen.
December 7 delivered another blow to the government’s prestige, as mass protests organized by the SDP gripped 17 cities around Germany. But the Zabern Affair was already starting to subside: on December 5, 1913, the Kaiser (with his usual impeccable timing) relented and ordered Forstner’s unit moved to a remote village away from the public eye, as the Alsatians had demanded all along. Thus an opportunity for reform had been missed, meaning the conflict between soldiers and socialists would only grow more intense during the maelstrom to come.