The German Problem is Back

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18

American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. The Schlieffen Plan involved a huge wheeling movement through Belgium. The invasion had no justification other than military convenience, and was spontaneously resisted by Belgian francs-tireurs. The reprisals were brutal. Over to Wikipedia:

German troops, afraid of Belgian guerrilla fighters, or francs-tireurs, burned homes and executed civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, including Aarschot (156 dead), Andenne (211 dead), Tamines (383 dead), and Dinant (674 dead). The victims included women and children. On August 25, 1914, the German army ravaged the city of Leuven, deliberately burning the university’s library of 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts with gasoline, killing 248 residents, and expelling the entire population of 10,000.

The wheel was time-critical, especially on its western periphery: the speed of an advance by marching troops was no faster in 1914 than those of Caesar. The disruption caused by the franc-tireurs was militarily significant. The laws of war at the time did not protect irregular fighters, and the Reichswehr could put up a legal case for reprisals. The Belgians were Breaking the Rules. Sound familiar? Down to the parallels with the (more or less uniformed) German irregulars of 1813, hated by the French army, and the debt forgiveness of 1953.

The behaviour of the Reichswehr in Belgium in 1914 was similar to that of its Prussian predecessor in 1870-71. The elder Moltke ordered that

the franc-tireur had no belligerent rights and was liable to be summarily shot … where individuals could not be brought to book the entire community was was to be held responsible.

(Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War, 1961, p. 578.)

The invasion of Belgium in 1914 was an unmitigated disaster for Germany. During the nine years from the plan’s inception by Graf von Schlieffen in 1905, it did not apparently occur to any German in authority to consider the political consequences. Predictably, the invasion turned the chance of British participation in the war from a probability to a certainty. The dramatic expansion of the British Army could not perhaps have been foreseen, the imposition of an effective naval blockade certainly should have been. The atrocities, real and fabricated, hardened British resolve and helped abort the attempt at a negotiated peace in 1916. They also contributed to bringing the USA into the war. A more strictly military example of tunnel vision: Schlieffen’s plan was for a one-front war, and assumed Italy as an ally, covering Alsace-Lorraine defensively and making the entire German army available in Belgium. Italy stayed neutral in 1914, joining the Allies later, and forces had in addition to be sent to East Prussia. So the invasion force was cut by 20%, ensuring failure against half-way competent and determined opposition. Joffre was not a fool and did not lose his nerve like Gamelin.

The German plan reflects the combination of high professional skill in the service of half-baked and rigid general ideas. Its execution reflected a stiff, inappropriate and deeply counter-productive moralism, compounding the failure of strategic thought.

Does this sound familiar? You bet. The stereotype of the insensitive, bullying, dumb and rule-bound German has been revived, and will not die away of itself. The alliance with France, the core of the European Union, has been damaged. For the first time in my adult life, I wonder whether the European project will survive as a democratic ideal, not a technocratic club to impose an ideology as heartless as Lord John Russell’s in the Irish famine.

It’s unfortunately very easy to predict the next few years in Greece. It consists of the repeated application of the austerity policies that have failed in the past, so they will continue to do so. The economy, crippled by the double straitjacket of a large primary budget surplus and an overvalued currency, will sink deeper into the mire. The debt ratio will continue to rise to obviously unsupportable levels. There will have to be another crisis, followed by massive debt write-offs. The open question is whether these will take place inside or outside the euro. Desperation will bring to power a much harder and more nationalist leader in Greece. We pray for someone like Varoufakis, but fear New Dawn.

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Footnote on Kant’s German deontology

Kant’s categorical imperative provided a secular gloss on the moral rules inculcated by Lutheranism along with political passivity. His own life provides a charming example of the excesses of deontology. (I’m sure I’ve posted it before, but I’m getting old and will repeat myself until the young LISTEN.) Late in life, Kant discovered that his servant of many years had been stealing from him. Reluctantly, he decided to dismiss the man, who accepted this as fair – and asked for a reference. Without one the servant had no chance of getting another post and his family would be thrown into extreme poverty. Kant had written extensively on the importance of truth-telling and keeping promises, deduced from first principles. What to do? He swallowed the principles and wrote the misleading reference. But then he was more of a Mensch as well as a deeper thinker than Herr Schäuble.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]