Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Causes of the War

The true fundamental cause of the war was a belief in German national superiority. They were better; therefore they deserved more; being better, they ought easily to be able to get more, even if it were necessary to get it with the sword. They believed that they understood better than any other nation how to live, how to govern, how to manufacture, how to write music, paint pictures, clean streets, or grow potatoes. The word Kultur covered everything. The whole process of life was clearer to them than to others, they thought, and hence they were able to organize the community better, and to make more progress in industry, agriculture, the fine arts, in government itself. As the Kaiser declared, "The German people will be the granite block on which the good God will build and complete his work of culture in the world." Another important German said, "The German race—there can be no doubt of it—because of its nature and character, was designed by Providence to solve the great problem of directing the affairs of the whole world, of civilizing the savage and barbarous countries and of populating those which are still uninhabited."

Upon Germany, then, depended the fate of civilization itself! Without Germany civilization was lost. As Treitschke, one of their great historians, said, "The greatness and good of the world is to be found in the predominance there of German Kultur." Must not Germany then be a nation of people, powerful enough to defend this Kultur upon which the whole future of the world depended, strong enough to spread it to the nations that did not already have it? "Germany should civilize and Germanize the world, and the German language will become the world language."

The Germans must also develop their idea of civilization. "The German race is called by God to bring the earth under its control." To make their civilization permanent, they must make Germany powerful. "We intend to become a world power that will overtop other world powers so greatly that Germany will be the only real world power." Germany must be made the most powerful, the most wealthy, the largest, and the most important country in the world.

But it was very clear to the Germans long ago that Germany was not the most powerful country in the world, nor as rich as others, nor indeed as well situated as others to become either rich or powerful. She was not able to control the world; she was not strong enough to control even her own destinies. The thought galled them inexpressibly. They could not longer endure it. Germany must have her Place in the Sun; she must become a power on the sea; she must have colonies; she must have everything that any other nation had; she must have more than other nations had.

All this, certainly, other nations would not yield without force; so much the Germans knew. But if they must have it, if God meant them to have it, they should therefore get it as best they could and as soon as possible. They must conquer in war the nations who refused to recognize what Germany must have. The Crown Prince wrote, "It is only by relying on our good German sword that we can hope to conquer that Place in the Sun which rightly belongs to us and which no one will yield to us voluntarily."

German War Horse


And what now was Germany's position, about which they complained so bitterly? Europe is a small continent compared with America, Africa, or Asia, but in it live more large nations of people than in any of the other continents except Asia. Germany herself had some seventy millions, Austria nearly sixty, Great Britain forty-five, France forty, Russia one hundred and eighty millions. If we leave out Russia, we find these other big nations all crowded into an area nothing like as large as the United States and with about three times as many people. The land in Europe, therefore, was all occupied; there were already too many people to live there prosperously and happily. But Germany was growing very fast in numbers, and, if she was to promote Kultur as the Germans planned, the population must increase at a still faster rate. She must grow also in wealth; her people must make more to sell, so that they might have more with which to buy. But Germany could not continue to grow larger without making her people poorer.

One of two things must happen. The surplus people might leave Germany and go elsewhere to live, just as many Germans had already come to the United States. They would then cease to live in Germany and would therefore cease to be a part of the true nation, however much they might still feel that they were Germans. This was not thinkable. The alternative was that all Germans must stay in the Fatherland, which must be made a place where all living Germans and all that would be born for an indefinite number of years could live in prosperity and happiness. This could be arranged only by an astounding development of manufacturing, of commerce, and of colonies.

But Germany did not have herself any supply of the most important raw materials. Clothes cannot be made without wool or cotton, and the Germans had no supply of either. Most kinds of machinery could not be made without copper and various metals of which the Germans had only a very small supply or none at all. Electricity plays a very important part in modern life and requires a great deal of rubber; the Germans had none. Gasoline for auto-mobiles; kerosene for lamps and stoves; and all sorts of petroleum products are imperative to prosperity and comfort. But Germany had no wells of oil. Without those and a good many other things, profitable manufacturing and prosperous living could not be continued.

And the Germans still lacked customers to whom they should sell the new goods they were to make. If they were to make more and more goods every succeeding year, they must sell more and more each year, and they could not sell any such increase in Germany. Customers they found in France, England, the United States, South America, Asia. But how could they be sure they would continue to buy? Raw materials they found at long distances from Germany. Cotton, copper, and oil came from the United States, rubber from South America, wool from Australia. How could they be sure the supply would continue to arrive?

To reach both raw materials and customers, the Germans must cross the ocean. Ships must take their exports out and ships must bring imports back. Yet neither Germany nor Austria was placed on the ocean itself. The greater part of the German sea coast was on the Baltic Sea, which had a very narrow entrance controlled by Denmark. While there were many rivers in Germany, only one flowed into the North Sea, or what the Germans call the German Ocean, and Germany had only one good harbor, Hamburg. The river Rhine was a very great German river, but it was controlled by Holland. The German railroad system, which connected German trade with the rest of Europe, really centered in Belgium. All German trade, therefore, found itself a long way from its ultimate market.

Other nations were in a position to prevent the Germans from using the sea and thus could stop the stream of raw materials into Germany and of manufactured goods out. Those German ships which must go through the Baltic might meet opposition from Russia. All German ships must go through the English Channel, controlled by England on one side and by the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts on the other side. The Germans had no coast on the Channel and no harbor there.

When the German ships got into the open ocean, they found it controlled by the British navy. Being the largest fleet, it controlled as well all water highways which German ships must take going to America, South America, and Asia. If they wished to go through the Mediterranean, they found it in the hands of the British and the French, and the Suez Canal, through which ships going to India and China passed into the Red Sea, was held by Great Britain. If they sailed around Africa, they found the Cape of Good Hope controlled by the British. If they went to the Gulf of Mexico, they found the Panama Canal owned by the United States. No water routes which the Germans must use to reach the necessary raw materials or their own customers were within German control.

But were the Germans unable to get raw materials in these countries or to sell to customers in England or in America, in India or in South America? Did any German ships ever fail to get through the English Channel or to reach a port across the Atlantic because of opposition from the British, the French, or the Americans? The Germans never claimed that any such case had occurred. German ships sailed where they pleased; Germans had customers in every country in the world, and they had never sold so many goods as in the ten years before the war. They were doing proportionately more business in fact than any other nation.

Where then was the trouble? What were they complaining about? They said that the nations who did control the sea and its approaches might  close it and might  refuse to let German ships go through. The British might  close the Suez Canal, or the United States might  refuse the Germans the use of the Panama Canal. The British might  close the English Channel, and the Germans would not be able to go around the British Isles because there were so many rocks and storms that a ship was almost certain to be wrecked. Their customers in these nations might also refuse to buy German goods, not because they did not want the goods but because they wished to hurt Germany. The fact that Germany was great, that other nations were jealous of her civilization and did not wish to be taught by Germany how they ought to live, would cause them to injure Germany by refusing to sell to her raw materials or to buy of her manufactured goods or by closing the seas. The Germans must therefore create a situation which would make it impossible for any nation or any number of nations to prevent Germany from getting as many raw materials as she wanted or from selling as many goods as she could make. Germany must not depend upon the good will of other nations nor conduct a trade which others had it in their power to stop.

The difficulty was that in Europe Germany had enemies. There were many people, the Germans felt, who hated them. They were surrounded by enemies. There was France on the west, and Russia on the east. South of Austria-Hungary was Italy. Beyond the Channel were the British Isles. See, implored the Germans, we lie between two enemies. On one side is France, whom we defeated in the war of 1870 and from whom we took Alsace-Lorraine, for which the French have ever since longed to revenge themselves on us. Then on the other side is Russia, millions of people occupying a huge country, with vast resources. How can we cope with both France and Russia?

We have, they complained, no frontiers to defend us, no mountains to stand between us and the Russians and the French, no deep rivers which they cannot cross. Germany lacks a defensive frontier. The only protection we have is the German army, and if we should be attacked on both sides at once, we probably could not defend ourselves at all.

Triple Alliance in 1914


The Germans therefore took extended measures to deal with this peril which they believed menaced them in Europe. They made an alliance with Austria and Italy that was to provide them with help in case either France or Russia should attack them, for then Italy would attack France and Austria would attack Russia. Of course they also agreed that if Russia attacked Austria or France attacked Italy, they would help in their turn. But they were more concerned about themselves than they were about others. They built a great fleet of merchant ships so that goods going to Germany might not wait on the shore somewhere for transportation because the British refused to carry them in their ships. They then built a great navy literally to frighten the British and prevent them from closing the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, or the various ocean roads which the German ships followed.

They then concluded that a country to be great must have colonies. They had established long ago a few in Africa and some in the Pacific, but had failed to make money out of them, or to find them valuable customers. They must create a great colony which would provide not merely customers but also raw materials and which would not be open to attack from the sea. The British fleet was so large and so capable that the Germans were afraid they might never be able to defeat it. Hence they must locate their colony in some place which they could reach by land and which the British could not reach by sea.

They selected Mesopotamia. There had been some of the greatest empires of history; there some of the wealthiest of peoples had lived; there should rise a New Germany. They thought that they might raise cotton, grow wool, and perhaps cultivate rubber. Petroleum existed there and copper they would find in the mountains. There too was room for millions of Germans to settle and create a community which would produce for sale in Germany what Germans wished to buy and which would buy from Germany what the latter made and wished to sell.

And it was out of the reach of the British fleet The Germans themselves would reach it by means of the Bagdad Railroad. This would run from Berlin to Vienna, down through the mountains to Constantinople, and then through Asia Minor to Bagdad. It would provide them with transportation. But they must not forget to protect it. Bagdad was a long distance from Berlin and the railroad passed through many countries which the Germans did not control. The British fleet, too, might land troops in Syria, a very short distance from the railroad and Bagdad and Berlin and the German army would be too far away to help. A new state must be created to protect the railroad and the new colony, a federated state created out of many states. Austria would be an all-important part; Turkey too must become an ally of Germany and a part of the new state, for the Turks owned the territory in which Mesopotamia was situated and most of the territory through which the railroad ran after leaving Germany and Austria. But there were two states between Austria and Turkey, Bulgaria, with whose king the Germans and Austrians easily made an alliance, and Serbia. But Serbia declined their offers. Pleading, urging, threatening failed. To control the section of the railroad that ran through Serbia, Austria must seize Serbia itself. They must have Serbia. They must control Belgrade and the crossing of the Danube. So Serbians feared and hated Austria; so men could believe in 1914 that a Serbian would kill the Austrian Archduke.

These alliances and conquests once complete, a great empire would have been created, strong enough to be independent of Europe and of the rest of the world, strong enough perhaps to dominate the rest of the world without having to conquer it. For the Germans truthfully said that they would prefer not to be compelled to conquer the world in order to Germanize it. This great empire would also be able, they thought, to destroy the British Empire. A land attack on the Suez Canal would deprive the British of their connection by sea with India and Australia, and compel them to go around Africa. Meanwhile, the Germans themselves would proceed by land along the Persian Gulf, reach India first, and conquer it. They even thought that they might afterwards conquer the whole of Asia. This is the true Pan-Germanism. It began with an attempt to keep German those who left Germany and went to live in other countries like the United States; hence the name, All-Germans, meaning that all Germans in all parts of the world should stay together and cooperate with one another. But the plan grew from that quite simple idea into this vast scheme of world conquest and dominion.