November 11, 1918: The End of the Unnecessary War

One hundred years ago today, the war to end wars ended.

It was not the end of war, despite the wishful thinking of H.G. Wells, and it was unnecessary, due to an accident of history: the early death of the second Kaiser of Imperial Germany, Frederick III.

The "Second Reich" -- the first being that established by Charlemagne and destroyed by Napoleon a thousand years later -- was established by Bismarck. In its brief existence from January 1871 to November 1918, it had three emperors, all of whom reigned in the Dreikaiserjahr, AD 1888.

The first kaiser, William I, died in March of that year, and the third, William II, assumed the title in June. Between March and June, the reigning monarch was Frederick III.

The woeful history of the twentieth century would have turned out far, far differently if Frederick had lived as long as his father, William I (91 years), and his son, William II (82). Instead, at age 57, Frederick was a dying man when he assumed the throne, a victim of throat cancer, probably on account of his love of cigars, and to the fact that his illness was not properly diagnosed and treated. His reign was so brief that few know that he had ever occupied the throne.

A Hohenzollern must be a soldier, and Frederick had served in the three wars of Bismarck that had converted Prussia from Germany's dominant state to its controlling state, wars against Denmark (1864), Austria-Hungary (1866), and France (1870-1). Although war was in Frederick’s family, it was not in his blood. He was married to Victoria of Great Britain, the biological and philosophical offspring of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert. Frederick's social and political ideas and values reflected those of the family he married into, rather than those of biological family and of Bismarck.

One might speculate how history would have differed had Frederick not died so young. As the Victorian Kaiser, he could have nudged Germany to emulate his wife's motherland. In the early years of the twentieth century, as the senior among the royal cousin-rulers of Britain, Germany, and Russia, those three countries would likely have enjoyed a community of interests. Russia’s Nicholas Romanov would probably have been a member, though perhaps somewhat reluctantly, of a Liberal Dreikaiserbund, whose leadership of Europe, to be joined by Austria’s Francis Ferdinand after the reign of Francis Joseph.

Such an alignment would have made the twentieth century one of truly peaceful coexistence.

Had Frederick III live as long as either his father or his son, William II would have endured three decades or more as Crown Prince, appearing before the public only on ceremonial occasions, much like Prince Charles of England today. By the time when William would ascend the throne of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire, in his fifties, presumably, a wiser man, more endowed with prudence, than the young hothead who did rise to power before he reached thirty.

It was William’s foolishness and imprudence that made the twentieth century the age of world wars and state-sponsored mass murders. He was not, in truth, the demon that he was portrayed as during World War I and that Hitler actually was.

Just as his great-great grandfather, George III of England, sought to use the prerogative that remained to his office from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688-9, William sought to use the powers that Bismarck’s constitution gave to his. His reign of thirty years is perhaps one of history’s vivid illustrations of the law of unintended consequences.

After only two years on the throne, William famously dispensed with the chancellor, Prince Bismarck; instead he was “served” by weak ministers who went along with his boisterous policies at home and abroad.

Where William I reigned over Bismarck’s victories in the three wars that led to Prussia establishing itself as the controlling power of Germany, William II was not averse to using war to make Germany the dominant power in Europe and, for that matter, in the world. As he strutted around in his uniforms as an admiral or a field marshal, he failed to realize the extent to which warfare had changed between 1870 and 1900.

Under William II, the informal German national anthem, "Deutschsland Über Alles," took on a different tone. Originally composed by Haydn in 1797 as “Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser” to honor the Holy Roman Emperor, it received new lyrics in 1841, when the danger of a war with France gave strength to the conviction that there was a need for a German state uniting the separate states of the German nation. But under William II, it came to be believed -- with good reason -- that Germany should be above all the rest of the world.

The Kaiser's global ambition was fed by his eager reading of The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783, by Captain Alfred T. Mahan of the U.S. Navy. Written in 1890 to explain why the United States needed a large and modern navy, it led the Kaiser to believe that Germany, too, needed a large and modern navy, and he assigned Alfred von Tirpitz to its accomplishment. The result was the Anglo-German competition to build the most powerful dreadnoughts, a key factor in aligning the British with the Franco-Russian alliance against Germany.

William sent his East Asia Squadron to China’s Liaotung peninsula in November 1897; that conquest set in motion events that contributed to the breakup of the Chinese Empire which, in turn, led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

In the Caribbean, aggressive activities of the German navy's training squadron in at the end of 1897 and early 1898 led the State Department, fearing lest Germany take over all or part of Cuba from Spain, to request that the USS Maine be sent on a presence mission to Havana in January 1898.

Also, in pursuit of William's continental policies that risked a two-front war, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff, drew up the contingency plan which made the war of 1914-1918 inevitable once a spark in Europe set off an explosion.

And, in a pacific Europe with Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary bound tightly together in a community of interests, the continent would not have been divided into opposing blocs in 1914, and the spark that was the assassination of Franz Joseph would not have occurred. In such a Frederican Europe, Serbia could not contemplate sending the assassin Gavrillo Prinzip to Sarajevo, because Russia would not support Serbia in a war between itself and Austria.

One could go on far longer: how, for example, the Great Depression of the 1930s would not have occurred if the world financial system had not been subject to pressures brought on by war debts and the demand that Germany pay enormous war indemnities. And no Great Depression, no New Deal, no heritage of FDR for others to follow.

Enough of this, however.

Suffice it to say that, just as the want of a nail caused a battle to be lost, so the presence of a supply of cigars caused a civilization to be lost.

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. In this case, though, it ignited a fuse that eventually set off a powderkeg in 1914; we have yet to recover from the explosion which ensued.

One hundred years ago today, the war to end wars ended.

It was not the end of war, despite the wishful thinking of H.G. Wells, and it was unnecessary, due to an accident of history: the early death of the second Kaiser of Imperial Germany, Frederick III.

The "Second Reich" -- the first being that established by Charlemagne and destroyed by Napoleon a thousand years later -- was established by Bismarck. In its brief existence from January 1871 to November 1918, it had three emperors, all of whom reigned in the Dreikaiserjahr, AD 1888.

The first kaiser, William I, died in March of that year, and the third, William II, assumed the title in June. Between March and June, the reigning monarch was Frederick III.

The woeful history of the twentieth century would have turned out far, far differently if Frederick had lived as long as his father, William I (91 years), and his son, William II (82). Instead, at age 57, Frederick was a dying man when he assumed the throne, a victim of throat cancer, probably on account of his love of cigars, and to the fact that his illness was not properly diagnosed and treated. His reign was so brief that few know that he had ever occupied the throne.

A Hohenzollern must be a soldier, and Frederick had served in the three wars of Bismarck that had converted Prussia from Germany's dominant state to its controlling state, wars against Denmark (1864), Austria-Hungary (1866), and France (1870-1). Although war was in Frederick’s family, it was not in his blood. He was married to Victoria of Great Britain, the biological and philosophical offspring of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert. Frederick's social and political ideas and values reflected those of the family he married into, rather than those of biological family and of Bismarck.

One might speculate how history would have differed had Frederick not died so young. As the Victorian Kaiser, he could have nudged Germany to emulate his wife's motherland. In the early years of the twentieth century, as the senior among the royal cousin-rulers of Britain, Germany, and Russia, those three countries would likely have enjoyed a community of interests. Russia’s Nicholas Romanov would probably have been a member, though perhaps somewhat reluctantly, of a Liberal Dreikaiserbund, whose leadership of Europe, to be joined by Austria’s Francis Ferdinand after the reign of Francis Joseph.

Such an alignment would have made the twentieth century one of truly peaceful coexistence.

Had Frederick III live as long as either his father or his son, William II would have endured three decades or more as Crown Prince, appearing before the public only on ceremonial occasions, much like Prince Charles of England today. By the time when William would ascend the throne of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire, in his fifties, presumably, a wiser man, more endowed with prudence, than the young hothead who did rise to power before he reached thirty.

It was William’s foolishness and imprudence that made the twentieth century the age of world wars and state-sponsored mass murders. He was not, in truth, the demon that he was portrayed as during World War I and that Hitler actually was.

Just as his great-great grandfather, George III of England, sought to use the prerogative that remained to his office from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688-9, William sought to use the powers that Bismarck’s constitution gave to his. His reign of thirty years is perhaps one of history’s vivid illustrations of the law of unintended consequences.

After only two years on the throne, William famously dispensed with the chancellor, Prince Bismarck; instead he was “served” by weak ministers who went along with his boisterous policies at home and abroad.

Where William I reigned over Bismarck’s victories in the three wars that led to Prussia establishing itself as the controlling power of Germany, William II was not averse to using war to make Germany the dominant power in Europe and, for that matter, in the world. As he strutted around in his uniforms as an admiral or a field marshal, he failed to realize the extent to which warfare had changed between 1870 and 1900.

Under William II, the informal German national anthem, "Deutschsland Über Alles," took on a different tone. Originally composed by Haydn in 1797 as “Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser” to honor the Holy Roman Emperor, it received new lyrics in 1841, when the danger of a war with France gave strength to the conviction that there was a need for a German state uniting the separate states of the German nation. But under William II, it came to be believed -- with good reason -- that Germany should be above all the rest of the world.

The Kaiser's global ambition was fed by his eager reading of The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783, by Captain Alfred T. Mahan of the U.S. Navy. Written in 1890 to explain why the United States needed a large and modern navy, it led the Kaiser to believe that Germany, too, needed a large and modern navy, and he assigned Alfred von Tirpitz to its accomplishment. The result was the Anglo-German competition to build the most powerful dreadnoughts, a key factor in aligning the British with the Franco-Russian alliance against Germany.

William sent his East Asia Squadron to China’s Liaotung peninsula in November 1897; that conquest set in motion events that contributed to the breakup of the Chinese Empire which, in turn, led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

In the Caribbean, aggressive activities of the German navy's training squadron in at the end of 1897 and early 1898 led the State Department, fearing lest Germany take over all or part of Cuba from Spain, to request that the USS Maine be sent on a presence mission to Havana in January 1898.

Also, in pursuit of William's continental policies that risked a two-front war, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff, drew up the contingency plan which made the war of 1914-1918 inevitable once a spark in Europe set off an explosion.

And, in a pacific Europe with Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary bound tightly together in a community of interests, the continent would not have been divided into opposing blocs in 1914, and the spark that was the assassination of Franz Joseph would not have occurred. In such a Frederican Europe, Serbia could not contemplate sending the assassin Gavrillo Prinzip to Sarajevo, because Russia would not support Serbia in a war between itself and Austria.

One could go on far longer: how, for example, the Great Depression of the 1930s would not have occurred if the world financial system had not been subject to pressures brought on by war debts and the demand that Germany pay enormous war indemnities. And no Great Depression, no New Deal, no heritage of FDR for others to follow.

Enough of this, however.

Suffice it to say that, just as the want of a nail caused a battle to be lost, so the presence of a supply of cigars caused a civilization to be lost.

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. In this case, though, it ignited a fuse that eventually set off a powderkeg in 1914; we have yet to recover from the explosion which ensued.