September 14

The Somme revisited

Thiepval MonumentReacting to our columns on the Somme ( “The Somme remembered” , and “The Somme: a reassessment”, both of 3 July, 2006, Mark Smale makes the following interesting comments on the international situation at that time, as well as the constitutional position in Germany.


"It is interesting that there were at least two peace overtures from the German side, both in 1916, one from Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson, Emperor William II, via his Swedish relatives (the US ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend of the Kaiser, had offered to host peace talks at Camp David), and another from Dr.Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the Chancellor. The Allies’ response to the first offer was to demand, unreasonably, an unconditional surrender or to continue to pursue a military victory, which was to cost several million more lives. The Allies policy was, in effect, ‘You started it, we’ll finish it’.


"There were at least two other peace moves, one from the Austrian Kaiser Karl (Charles) through his wife’s French (Bourbon-Parma) relatives, another from the Pope (Benedict XV), who sent his top-ranking emissary (the Papal Nuncio and future pope, Cardinal Pacelli) around the European capitals. Both floundered.


"Sadly, we are not lily-white, and the Germans are not all black. We are all varying shades of grey!


"The First World War was an unspeakable tragedy. As the British politician, Sir Edward (later Earl) Grey (of tea fame) said famously just before it happened: ‘All over Europe, the lights are going out.’ Although William II loved the trappings of the military, he was no soldier himself. Despite the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and the response which he thought perfectly reasonable but which led Austria to declare war on her, he thought that there was no real threat of a European war and went off on his usual summer cruise. He panicked when he returned to find that events had spiraled out of control. At the outbreak of the war, he appeared shaking and white on the balcony of the Berlin Schloss (the world heritage building the East Germans blew up in 1950 on ideological grounds and which is now to be rebuilt at staggering cost) and told the people to go into their churches and pray.


"The first Weimar president, Friedrich Ebert, tried in the chaotic days at the end of the war to install a constitutional monarchy under a Hohenzollern regent but sadly, failed. This was despite his being a socialist, not the traditional friends of the German monarchy. The republic failed, I think, because the German people were essentially deeply monarchist and so it was never supported by critical sections of society like the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the industrialists, and the landowners. If the Weimar democracy had been crowned by a constitutional monarch (and in the Hanoverian Duke of Brunswick-Lueneburg Ernst August (a British subject) and his Hohenzollern wife Duchess Viktoria Luise, the Kaiser’s only daughter, they had perfect candidates), it would have had the support it desperately needed – and lacked – from a wide cross-section of the German people; the Nazi catastrophe and its hideous child, the Second World War, might have been avoided.


"Heinrich Bruening, the penultimate Chancellor (Prime Minister) before Hitler’s accession to power, also wanted in the chaotic final months of the Weimar republic to install a constitutional monarchy under a Hohenzollern regent because he saw it as a safeguard against the growing Nazi menace but sadly, also failed."



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