The White Paper Secret Report
The Central Powers: German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Neutral: The United States.
Britain’s Allies: France, Russia.
The spring of 1912 Europe is the dominant centre of the civilized world, bursting with energy and power. It is also a house of cards. Cobbled together by diplomats and old dynasties at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to restore order after the devastating Napoleonic wars, this structure of nation-states has endured for nearly a century, but rumbling subterranean faults threaten to plunge all we have built into the abyss of mechanized, global war.
Despite such dangers, English liberals, intellectuals, and progressive businessmen choose to believe the sanguine writer Norman Angell. His book, The Great Illusion, has become a publishing phenomenon, electrifying the Oxbridge campuses with his postulate, “War is unthinkable.” A modern war would be terrible and so desruptive of the economic system he says, that both victor and vanquished would be devastatated . Global finance and economic interdependence is so great, he argues, that no nation will risk war.
Nothing is further from the truth, as you shall read.
In fact, peace totters on the brink, pushed near the edge by Europe’s economic and colonial rivalries and a system of competing alliances. The Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary stand toe-to-toe with a looser, more ambigous assosiation – the allies of the Triple Entente, comprising Great Britain, France and Russia. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, the contending forces of Slav nationalism and great power expansion may well provide the fuel for a terrible inferno.
There is hope, however. London politicians may be pessimists, but Brittania still rules the waves. And trade. And banking. And the realm of ordained self-confidence. Our vast overseas empire stretches from Suez to Capetown, from Persia to Burma, to treaty ports in China. We are linked by language, culture, and commerce with the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Our chief rival is Germany. Her leader, the Kaiser, has doubled her army since 1892 and races to build a navy to rival the British fleet. Germany’s trade policies, tariffs, enlightened social welfare services, and large, dynamic, well-educated labor force now boast an efficient, modern industrial system that outbids and undersells Britain around the world. To secure her position, Germany forged military alliances with Austria-Hungary in 1879. The result: These “Central Powers” now dominate continental Europe. Desperate for allies, Republican France has swallowed her principals, clasped the hand of the weak but autocratic Tsar, loaned Russia millions of francs to keep the inept, corrupt government afloat, and invested heavily in Russian industry, railroads, and expansion across Siberia to Asia. Every European power wants Asian markets, and Russia especially covets warm water ports on the Pacific. Generally Britain has stood apart. But, we have repeatedly foiled Russia’s efforts to gain access to the Meditterranean Sea, and we will continue to do so.
The Franco-Russian alliance has increased German paranoia and insecurity. The Kaiser shouts “foul,” feeling isolated and encircled, but in fact, Russia is a lumbering behemoth. Our intelligence reports that it is shackled by corruption, inefficiency and an inept autocrat. Escalating scandals swirl around the German-born Tsarina Alexandria and the mystic monk Rasputin who seems to ease her son’s hemophilia with his psychic powers. Impotent Bolsheviks dream of revolution but achieve little. Many have taken refuge in Austria and Germany. Always eager to create mischief for the Tsar, the Central Power’s state security both welcomes and encourages the Bolsheviks in the hopes they will overthrow the Tsar.
Germany is spoiling for conquest. Some insignificant African territories fly the German Kaiser’s flag – as do a few ports in China and some Pacific islands, but the American open-door policy to China and its Pacific fleet limits further German aspirations. Thus foiled in Asia, the Kaiser has paraded his gunboats in Morocco, but we and the French were there first and faced him down with a combination of guns and diplomacy. He has retreated in a fury but now makes plans for a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway to open the Middle East to German trade and influence.
In the face of German provocation, we have taken pains to cement our relationship to the French. Eight years ago in 1904, they signed the Entente Cordiale, a “friendly agreement.” France acknowledges Britain’s prevailing influence in Egypt; Britain gives her blessing to French control of Morocco, and our navies now share military maneuvers. France has also nudged us into a similarly loose accord with Russia. In 1907 we signed an Anglo-Russian convention that formalizes our separate spheres of influence in Persia and eases our historic conflict over the Crimea. We still refuse to make military commitments, but the European house of cards is now divided between the Allies and the Central Powers.
In Austria-Hungary the doddering old emperor Franz Josef has sat on the throne since 1850. His is an empire of heterogeneous people ruled by an incompetent bureaucracy and gross inequality. Intelligence reports that he is a dull fellow, old-fashioned and conservative. He tends to the elaborate rituals of the Hapsburg court, works long days like an assiduous clerk, and rules over an explosive mix of Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Italians, Slovenes, Rumanians, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Jews. Conflicts rage over language restrictions and economic discriminations based on nationality and the competiting religious loyalties of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslim Slavs. Four hundred years of Ottoman rule has left its mark on the region. Many wish it were back.
As Emperor Franz Josef dithers and Society waltzes to Strauss and amuses itself with the novel theories of the “mind doctor” Sigmund Freud, the Balkans threaten to explode with Serbia as the flashpoint. In 1908 young Turk military officers rose in revolt against the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the breach, Austria annexed the old Turk provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The annexation infuriates Serbia, which wants Bosnia as part of a “Greater Serbia”, and the Russians, who see themselves as mentors for their Slav brothers, the Serbs. It has also spurred Bulgaria to declare independence. These actions have inflamed further nationalist aspirations which led to last year’s Balkan Way when Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece joined forces against Turkey. Today terrorism flourishes. Just this year a Bosnian student, a member of a Greater Serbia secret society, tried to assasinate the Hungarian governor of Croatia. Properly financed and directed Serbian nationalist movements could create a serious international crisis.
Lastly, though it still adheres neutrality, the United States is a major force in the Pacific, seeing herself as China’s protector. Washington does face a potential problem with Mexico. The revolution there has unleashed a tiger. The new Madero government has failed to halt corruption and spur reform, and rebel leaders are staging armed raids against it. There is fear in Washington that such unrest may spill over onto American soil. Events, if manipulated, could easily direct the anger of the Mexican masses toward the US. Such an event would delight the Central Powers, which prefer the US stay out of Europe’s affairs – especially as tensions escalate here. A United States preoccupied with Mexico would offer no help to Britain and France if we went to war with the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.
As the players line up toe-to-toe, their armies are poised to defend both national honour and questionable allies while their presses rave at a feverish pitch. All that is needed is one key event to plunge Europe into war. The world watches to see which side will blink first. For nearly a century, someone always has.