Wednesday, June 08, 2005

BOOK: James W. Gerard, "Face to Face with Kaiserism"

James W. Gerard: Face to Face with Kaiserism. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918. (E-text.)

Gerard was the U.S. ambassador in Germany in the years 1913-1917. He later published two volumes of memoirs about his experiences, first My Four Years in Germany and then Face to Face with Kaiserism. Incidentally, the WW1 Document Archive web site where I found the e-texts of these two books also contains several other promising-sounding titles.

Gerard's main theme in this book is to describe the system and conditions in Germany, and to a smaller extent in other European countries, and to help persuade his American readers that the war must be taken seriously, that Germany's imperialist ambitions were practically limitless and that, if the U.S. hadn't entered into the war on their own, Germany would certainly attack them once its war with the entente was over.

This book was quite interesting to read for several reasons. Firstly there are numerous interesting descriptions and anecdotes of the way of life and the social system in Wilhelmine Germany. Many of these things must have appeared curious to U.S. readers in Gerard's time, and they appear even more curious now. Secondly there is Gerard's charming enthusiasm for the traditional U.S. ideals of freedom, democracy, and opportunity, as opposed to the authoritarianism, rigidity, and oppresion of the Prussian monarchy. It was nice to be reminded in this way that, for most of its history, the U.S. was an example to other countries and their oppressed inhabitants, something that many people in other countries looked up to and whose democratic ideals they hoped to emulate. Nowadays the U.S. is so widely (and rightfully) reviled as the abominable imperialist arch-bully it is, that it's good to be reminded occasionally that this is really only a relatively recent development, and that for most of its history the U.S. was only one of many aggressive imperialists in the world, and by no means the worst one.

Ch. 1 is a nice sketch of Kaiser Wilhelm, who is portrayed as a capable and energetic person but unfortunately also a shamelessly autocratic and imperialist ruler. Gerard is surely right in opposing autocratic monarchy (or “the king business”, as he terms it), but sometimes his anti-monarchic and pro-democratic sentiments carry him a little too far, such as when he responds to President Wilson's question about the war, “Why does all this horror come into this world?” with the absurd over-simplification: “Mr. President, it is the king business.” As if democratic countries weren't just as capable of conducting an imperialist foreign policy that leads to war! It's true that starting a war is perhaps easier for an autocrat who doesn't need to take the opinion of the people into account, but any sensible autocrat will take care to get the public on his side by the means of propaganda anyway, and the same method will also work in a democratic country: the opinion of the people and their representatives in democratic institutions can always be influenced by warmongering propaganda by those who consider a war to be in their interest.

There is a very interesting passage in ch. 1 suggesting that, after the death of Francis Joseph, Wilhelm intended to prevent his successor from becoming Emperor of Austria, so that only Wilhelm would be an Emperor, while Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and the other Habsburg lands would be ruled by kings or princes under Wilhelm's influence.

Besides the Kaiser, the main responsibility for the war must fall on the German General Staff, particularly on Hindenburg and Ludendorff (ch. 2).

Lèse-majesté, i.e. publishing statements considered offensive to (or indeed merely critical of) the Emperor or his family, was quite a serious crime in Wilhelmine Germany. There are many examples in ch. 4, showing how the courts were very quick to interpret a statement as offensive and use this excuse to persecute journalists and other critics of the government.

One reason why the Prussian Junkers, i.e. the large landowners, were so supportive of the war is that “they get, even with a high ‘stop price,’ three times as much as formerly for their agricultural products and pay only a small sum, sixty pfennig daily, for the prisoners of war who now work their fields” (ch. 6).

In several passages, Gerard calls for protectionist measures to be introduced in the U.S. to protect their chemical industry from German competition, as in Germany these industries are organized in trusts and therefore manage to prevent smaller competitors elsewhere from entering these branches of business (ch. 5). I personally have always been an ardent supporter of protectionism, but it is sort of sad to observe how the opinions regarding protectionism change in accordance with economic interests. A hundred years ago the U.S. were keen supporters of protectionism to help their economy grow, while now they are the most outspoken supporters of liberalisation of trade because it would prevent other countries from protecting themselves from U.S. competition! And of course any other country would do just the same given the opportunity.

Apparently, despite the growing anti-U.S. sentiment in Germany (chs. 5-6), many Americans, particularly U.S. newspaper reporters in Germany, remained strongly pro-German, and some even interfered with Gerard's diplomatic business (see esp. the end of ch. 6).

In chs. 7-8 there are some interesting observations of Germany's plans to attack the U.S. after the war (assuming that Germany would conclude a reasonable peace in the West, perhaps even keep Belgium and some bits of France, and keep its large territorial gains in the East). Germany also had designs to gain influence in Mexico and thus obtain a foothold in the Western hemisphere. Chapter 14 also discusses the German war aims; in particular, after all the costs and sacrifices of the war, any peace proposal that would not allow Germany to keep some of the occupied territory in the west would be quite unacceptable to Germany; it would also be difficult for the autocratic system to stay in power if it could not please the people by portraying the war as a success and a victory. (And indeed, as events have shown, there was a republican revolution in Germany following its defeat in the war. Gerard suggests in ch. 27 that even if the war ends with a German success, it won't be possible to oppress the workers to the same degree as before: having fought in the trenches, they would be ready to stand up for their rights after their war. I wonder if it would have really turned out that way, however; after all, in Stalin's Soviet Union there was a temporary loosening of the state oppression during the WW2 but a renewed clampdown after the war was over; see e.g. Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall.) If it were successful in the war, Germany would also attempt to gain colonies on other continents and obtain influence in territories not under its direct control. However, this should not be considered simply an influence of a handful of warmongering writers, but rather a genuine expression of the interests of Germany's ruling class: “I never found a German of the ruling class who had read anything written by Treitschke, Nietzsche or Bernhardi.”

There is a curious observation in ch. 7: “State Socialism makes advances over here. A proposition is now discussed to compel the young men who are earning large wages to save a part thereof.” Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that an American like Gerard is suspicious about such a measure but it sounds like an eminently reasonable proposition to me. In fact I would go one step further; rather than making them save the money it should be taken away from them and redistributed to those with smaller incomes.

The German Empire much boasted of its culture and its intentions of exporting it abroad, but ch. 9 paints a much more dismal picture. “I know of no class in Germany which really enjoys life.” Bureaucratic efficiency made possible by the non-democratic political system, long hours and low wages in factories, a strong army as the result of a militaristic society — these were the chief aspects of the civilization of the German Empire. The subsequent chapters (10-13) contain many other interesting observations about various aspects of life, culture, and society of the German Empire. “The workingmen of Germany are more brutal than those of England, France and America, but this is because of the low wages they receive, and because they feel the weight of the caste system.” (ch. 13).

Ch. 14 contains some very interesting observations of the changes in the character of Germany and the German people. “That older, kindlier Germany was the nation tempered and softened by the suffering of the Napoleonic wars. [. . .] but all was changed by the successful wars of Prussia that gave Prussia the leadership, the right to rule Germany. Then, with the end of the Franco-Prussian war, came a period of material prosperity, the rush of the population to the cities, and the building of great manufactories, of enormous shipping interests, of powerful banking institutions, of trusts and combinations which marked the Germany of 1914. [. . .] the grasping, successful Prussian of 1914 was far removed from the ruined, chastened Prussian of 1810.” German history of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century has made Germany somewhat of a synonym for an aggressive, warlike, bloodthirsty country; it is always good to be reminded that this has not always been the case. I remember how surprised I was then I first read in Tolstoy's War and Peace (book 1, ch. 27) a character's disparaging remark about Germany: “Buonaparte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has got splendid soldiers. Besides he began by attacking Germans. And only idlers have failed to beat the Germans. Since the world began everybody has beaten the Germans. They beat no one—except one another. He made his reputation fighting them.” At the time I mostly thought of Germany as the powerful warlike country responsible for the two world wars, and the idea of Germans as having been defeated by practically everyone was most suprising to me. However, there is much truth in this if we look at German history; much of the time the Holy Roman Empire was a weak, ineffectual entity, plagued by civil wars and certainly not able to project much power abroad. And in the post-WW2 period, Germany has again become a peaceful country that dedicates its energy to economic rather than military success. Perhaps indeed the period from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century will eventually turn out to be but an anomaly in German history, rather than a typical period.

Ch. 15 is an interesting presentation of Austria-Hungary, but it also contains this bizarre report: “In Styria, in the mountainous districts of Austria to the west of Hungary, lives a race differing again from all the others, a mountain race supposed to be eaters of arsenic, a drug which they believe gives them a good complexion and stamina for mountain climbing.”

In ch. 18 he mentions “the war cry of Verdun, ‘They shall not pass!’” This reminded me of Gandalf's similar exclamation “You shall not pass!” in The Lord of the Rings; I wonder if Tolkien was influenced by the Verdun motto. He must have been at least aware of it, as he had fought on the western front during WW1.

In ch. 20 he writes about German spies, who are experts at their craft. “The easiest way to baffle them is to write nothing that cannot be published to the world.”

In ch. 22 there are some nice idealistic statements about doing diplomacy in an open-handed and public way rather than secretly and behind the curtains. “I think that the Germans just now are beginning to realise that I always told them the truth and treated them fairly, a procedure, I admit, far more disconcerting and disturbing to them than the most subtle wiles and moves of the old diplomacy.” This is another touching reminder of the days when the U.S. felt they could be an example of better and more accountable conduct, particularly in contrast to the tired corrupt old imperialistic powers (cf. also Wilson's noble efforts at the Paris peace conference, as opposed to the British and French inclination towards bartering pieces of territory like horses on the market). It is nice to remember these better old days now that the U.S. is merely the biggest bully in the playground and hardly a shining example to other countries.

A certain German regiment uses black uniforms with death's-head symbols because “Friedrich II [. . .] utilised the black funeral hangings at the elaborate funeral of his father to make uniforms for this regiment” (ch. 23).

“The Berlin lower classes are renowned for their dry wit and they find much to amuse them in the tasteless statues and monuments of Berlin.” (Ch. 23.) This corroborates the descriptions in Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall.

Ch. 21 is also very interesting and shows many examples of strong pro-German feeling in the U.S., German influence in schools, etc.

All in all, I found this book to be very interesting and readable. Some time ago I also read Gerard's earlier book, My Four Years in Germany, which was also quite interesting. If I decide to read it again I'll write a post here about that book as well.


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