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The World-War Conspiracy

It is instructive and interesting now, August 20, 1914, before fresh great events and a new situation obliterate the old impressions, to put it on record how things seemed to some of us before the blow fell. A mental position often seems incredible when looked back to from some new standpoint.

I am one of those who were obstinate in refusing to recognise Germany’s intentions. I argued, I wrote, I joined the Anglo-German Friendship Society; I did everything I could for the faith that was in me. But early last year my views underwent a complete change, and I realised that I had been wrong, and that the thing which seemed too crazy and too wicked to be true actually was true. I recorded my conversion at the time in an article entitled “Great Britain and the Next War” in the Fortnightly of March, and reading over that article I find a good deal which fits very closely to the present situation. Forecasts are dangerous, but there is not much there which I would wish to withdraw. What brought about my change of view was reading Bernhardi’s book on Germany and the next war.

Up to then I had imagined that all this sabre-rattling was a sort of boyish exuberance on the part of a robust young nation which had a fancy to clank about the world in jackboots. Some of it also came, as it seemed to me, from a perfectly natural jealousy, and some as the result of the preaching of those extraordinary professors whose idiotic diatribes have done so much to poison the minds of Young Germany. This was clear enough. But I could not believe that there was a conspiracy hatching for a world-war, in which the command of the sea would be challenged as well as that of the land. No motive seemed to me to exist for so monstrous an upheaval, and no prize to await Germany, if she won, which could at all balance her enormous risks if she lost. Besides, one imagined that civilisation and Christianity did stand for something, and that it was inconceivable that a nation with pretensions to either the one or the other could at this date of the world’s history lend itself to a cold-blooded, barbarous conspiracy by which it built up its strength for a number of years with the intention of falling at a fitting moment upon its neighbours, without any cause of quarrel save a general desire for aggrandisement.

All this, I say, I could not bring myself to believe. But I read Bernhardi’s book, and then I could not help believing. I wrote an article in the hope that others who had been as blind as myself might also come to see the truth. For who was Bernhardi? He was one of the most noted officers in the German army. And here was a book addressed to his own fellow-countrymen, in which these sentiments were set forth. You could not set such a document aside and treat it as of no account. As I said at the time, “We should be mad if we did not take very serious notice of the warning.”

But the strange thing is that there should have been a warning. There is a quaint simplicity in the German mind, which has shown itself again and again in the recent events. But this is surely the supreme example of it. One would imagine that the idea that the book could be translated and read by his intended victims had never occurred to the author. As a famous soldier, it is impossible to believe that he was not in touch with the General Staff, and he outlines a policy which has some reason, therefore, to be looked upon as an official one. It is as bright a performance as if some one on Lord Roberts’s staff had written a description of the Paardeberg flank march and sent it to Cronje some weeks before it was carried out. And yet it was not an isolated example, for Von Edelsheim, who actually belongs to this amazing General Staff, published a shorter sketch, setting forth how his country would deal with the United States—an essay which is an extraordinary example of bombastic ignorance. Such indiscretions can only be explained as manifestations of an inflated national arrogance, which has blown itself up into a conviction that Germany was so sure of winning that it mattered little whether her opponents were upon their guard or not.

But Bernhardi’s programme, as outlined in his book, is actually being carried through. The whole weight of the attack was to be thrown upon France. Russia was to be held back during her slow mobilisation, and then the victorious legions from Paris were to thunder across in their countless troop trains from the western to the eastern firing-line. Britain was to be cajoled into keeping aloof until her fate was ripe. Then her fleet was to be whittled down by submarines, mines, and torpedo-boats until the numbers were more equal, when the main German fleet, coming from under the forts of Wilhelmshaven, should strike for the conquest of the sea. Such were the plans, and dire the fate of the conquered. They were in accordance with the German semi-official paper, which cried on the day before the declaration of war: “We shall win—and when we do, ‘Vae victis!’” With France it was to be a final account. Our own fate would be little better. It needs a righteous anger to wage war to the full, and we can feel it when we think of the long-drawn plot against us, and of the fate which defeat would bring.

However favourable the general trend of events, we can hardly hope to escape some bad hours during this war. The Germans are a great and brave people, with a fine record in warlike history. They will not go down without leaving their mark deep upon the Allies. We must not take the opening successes too seriously, or allow ourselves to have the edge taken off our resolution by the idea that things will necessarily go well with us. On land and sea vast efforts and occasional disappointments will await us. But it will not be long. It is, as it seems to me, absolutely impossible that it should be long. The temper of the times will not brook slow measures, nor will the enormous financial strain upon Germany be tolerated indefinitely. How dangerous is prophecy, and these very words may come back to mock me; but I cannot myself see how it can be over in less than six months, or how it could extend for more than twelve.

If it should happen that the military affairs of Germany are as rotten as her diplomacy, then it certainly should not last long. That, no doubt, is too much to expect, but there are many degrees of incapacity which are short of that extreme limit. For of that, at least, there can be no dispute. What has come from all this crazy science of Real-politik and Welt-politik and the rest of it? Simply that wherever it was possible to lose the trick Germany and her partner have done so. An alliance with Italy so loose that it was useless, a Mediterranean understanding with Austria so vague that it only operated after it had become of no service to the German cruisers, the drawing of Servia, Montenegro, and, finally, of Belgium, into the field against them, the dealing with England in the one fashion which must unite our ranks and cut the ground from under the feet of any party which might cause dissension—these are the results of the Wilhelmstrasse combinations, with Potsdam embellishments. Was there ever so colossal a muddle? Is there any one point which could have been worse handled? And then as a by-product the universal distrust and anger which such policy has aroused in the neutral countries—yes, it really is a thing complete.

But the German soldier may prove himself as good as ever. That he will be as brave as ever I have no doubt at all. That he will be as hardy as ever is less likely, as the population of the Fatherland has drifted largely from fields to factories, and as the standard of comfort, and even luxury, have greatly increased. The Westphalian artisan of William is very different material from the Brandenburg peasant of Frederick, even as the short-service soldier of 1914 is very different from the ten-year man of 1750. I should expect to see the German as good, but no better than his neighbours. But the whole issue of this campaign depends, from his point of view, upon his being better. He has to win against superior numbers. He must not only win, but win quickly. If an equilibrium were established, the strangulation from England must bring victory to the Allies. It is a great deal that the Kaiser has asked from his men.

And there is his much-vaunted military organisation. An American friend of mine, who had means of forming an opinion, remarked to me, “Yes, it is a huge and smooth-running machine, with delicate adjustments. Like all such machines, if a few cogwheels stuck the whole might racket itself to pieces.” A cogwheel stuck at Liége, another may stick before long, and it all depends on how the machine can adjust itself. The lesson of history is ominous. The Prussians of Jena and Auerstadt were men who had been swollen up by the tradition of Frederick’s prowess. Yet in a single day their defeat was so great and their power of recuperation so slight that they were utterly dispersed, and their country for seven years ceased to exist as a factor in European politics. They have always been great winners. They have not always been great in adversity. How will they now stand this test if it should come their way?

Arthur Conan Doyle

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