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John A. Moses, D.Phil. (Erlangen, 1965)*

The Debatte about Australian Participation in the First World War


It is a truism that historians colour their interpretation of the past by the values they have received from their parents, their education and their peer group. This happens despite our training to be as objective as possible. For example, if you are of Irish descent you will have been, in all likelihood, conditioned to be very anti-British; if you come from a working-class background you are going to be pre-disposed to be sceptical about anything that the bourgeoisie or aristocracy try to tell you. I was sensitized to all this from an early age because I had a Lebanese Roman Catholic father who was educated by Irish Sisters of Mercy in Atherton N.Q. Their stock-in-trade at that time was to inculcate hatred of the English into their pupils. My mother, on the other hand was born in Scotland and brought up a faithful Episcopalian, that is as an Anglican, and she never gave into the bullying she got from her Irish educated Lebanese in-laws to convert and bring up her children as R. C’s. So I was no stranger to both sectarian and racial conflict by the time I went to primary school.

On the First World War, my Scottish mother, who had actually seen Zeppelin’s bombing Glasgow, had no doubt that it was willed by the Kaiser and his Prussian generals. So very early I knew who the Hohenzollerns were and what they stood for. They were responsible for the atrocities that occurred on the invasion of Belgium and the execution of the English nurse, Edith Cavell carried out by German soldiers. There was no alternative but for the Empire to stand up and resist Prusso-German militarism. -- The memory of all this obviously stayed with me and it especially came to the fore, when as a post graduate student in Germany 1961-65, I witnessed at first hand the great debate on the origins of the First World War that was unleashed by the Hamburg professor, Fritz Fischer who challenged his profession to take another look at the power structures of the Reich, and to draw the inescapable conclusion that it had been gearing up for war, especially with the Russians in the East and the Western Allies of Britain and France for some considerable time. For this eventuality the now famous Schlieffen Plan had been devised which would guarantee that the German armies, in a huge two-pronged lightning attack on France which required first the crushing of Belgium, could dispose of France in a matter of weeks, long before any effective assistance could arrive from Britain. After the disposal of France the German armies could be turned east to confront the Russians and assist the weaker Austro-Hungarian allies whose assigned task it was to eliminate any resistance from the allies of Russia in Galicia.

This would happen sooner or later. It was important, though, that a pretext allowed the Germans to appear simply to be coming to the aid of Austria which was under existential threat from Serbia and her Russian ally. The assassination of the Archduke on 28th June, 1914 provided such an opportunity. It was crucial that the Germans NOT appear before the world as the guilty war-mongering party.

When Fritz Fischer presented his findings in a massive book entitled Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961 it unleashed an outraged protest among his peers as well as the public. He was denounced as a Nestbeschumtzer, that is as one who fouled his own nest, and even worse, one who had derived his methodology from Marxist-Leninist colleagues in East Germany. In short, he was a disloyal German professor and an academic heretic. Worse, still, Fischer argued that there was a continuity in German history from the First to the Second World War. Hitler’s war was only comprehensible as the continuation of war-aims that had been frustrated in 1918 and which were kept alive by the Prusso-German officer corps through the despised Weimar Republic, which explains why these officers got whole-heartedly behind the Nazi movement in order to realise finally the frustrated aims of 1914-18.

This debate is still alive and well as the conference planned at the GHIL in October, 2011, namely “Fritz Fischer after Fifty Years” indicates. I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion but have had to decline because of the ‘tyranny of distance’. Instead, I will submit a paper in absentia for the proceedings. -- My present purpose is two-fold. First, I wish to outline what is called the German Sonderweg, Germany’s separate path from the West, namely to explain why Germany was virtually a ‘rogue state’ in declaring war in 1914 and in trying to implement the Schlieffen Plan. Why and how she did this I hope to make clear. Secondly, I will outline German war aims in the Pacific to illustrate that Britain’s Pacific Dominions did indeed have a stake in the ‘Great European War’. In fact there was no choice but to become involved.


I said Prusso-Germany was virtually a ‘rogue state’ in 1914, and that was because of the constitution bestowed by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871. This was already known to those German scholars who had not been brain-washed by the methodology bequeathed to the guild of historians by the philosopher Hegel and the historian Leopold von Ranke. Their doctrines had been re-enforced by Ranke’s successor in Berlin, namely Professor Heinrich von Treitschke from 1884 to his death in 1898. He was succeeded by a group of so-called neo-Rankean professors who taught that Germany’s rise to world power status at the expense of the other Great Powers was an immutable law of history. Their ideological influence on German educators had been unprecedented. My own professors 1961-65 in Munich and Erlangen all conceded that this had been politically disastrous for Germany. In particular Franz Schnabel in Munich initiated the Bismarck revisionism that has taken so long to be registered by the post-war guild of mostly very conservative historians, including even Jewish ones, who had by then returned from their exile in the West.

In what way was Bismarck’s Prussian solution to the German question and the ideas of the history profession disastrous? First, the constitution was intended to prevent access to political power by Social Democrats. The electoral laws in Prussia, the largest state in the Reich, indeed larger than France, were based on tax returns. If you were in the highest tax bracket you got three votes, in the middle, two, and the lowest, one. Prussia was thus structurally prevented from becoming a modern parliamentary state. And in the Reichsrat, that is the Senate, Prussia had an unassailable majority over the representatives of other states. So Bismarck had ‘Prussified’ Germany. And that meant also, militarising it by insuring that the army budget was only debated every seven years, the Septenat, thus effectively removing it from parliamentary control, In 1893 it was replaced by the Quinquenat, meaning the military budget that was 4/5 of the Reich budget could be voted upon every five years, that is within a legislature period. That was something of an inconvenience to the Chancellor who had to engage in considerable horse trading among the parties to get a Reichstag majority for the army budget.

The point is that Prusso-Germany was a state geared to prioritise the requirements of the army. In fact it was a military state with a parliamentary façade. Bismarck intended this, first to hold the Social Democratic movement in check domestically, and secondly to be able at any time to mobilise, or threaten to mobilise, the army against principally, France. We have to remember that Bismarck’s Reich was predicated on the permanent alienation of France who would be always thirsting for revanche for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. It had to be isolated. European security depended upon Germany always being allied to two other reliable monarchies so as always to be, as Bismarck put it, á trios, among the European Great Powers. His alliance system, however, began to unravel when the Re-insurance Treaty with Russia from 1887 was not re-newed after Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890. That meant Prusso-Germany was then totally reliant on Austria-Hungry and Italy to sustain a balance of power; not a good situation because Italy would always be forced to withdraw from such an arrangement if it meant that Britain would be an enemy.

The possibility of closer ties to Britain was then considered in a desultory way, but finally abandoned at the turn of the century as hopeless since the German diplomats regarded any arrangements with a parliamentary state to be unreliable because they could be revised at the next change of government. Meanwhile the Pan-German League as well as the Navy League had already before 1900, in fact, decided that the main enemy was Britain, an idea shared by other power brokers, but chiefly by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who determined to go ahead with a massive naval building program designed eventually to out-build Britain in battleships. Interestingly, the Kaiser was sceptical of this program, preferring instead to up grade his cruiser squadrons for the protection of colonial and commercial shipping. Cruisers did not threaten the English coast line as did battleships. But Tirpitz in the end had his way and it was he more than anyone else who contributed to the alienation from Britain, and this set in place the essential pre-conditions for Anglo-German conflict, because he made the battleship program non-negotiable, despite British attempts at the highest level to dissuade Germany from implementing the Tirpitz Plan. I refer to the Haldane mission of 19 February 1912.

On the domestic front the Reich had set its face against any compromise on social policy that would have led to a rapprochement with Social Democracy. That party had grown by 1912 to become the largest party in the Reichstag, and was regarded as the internal enemy of vagabonds without a country, vaterlandslosen Gesellen. It demanded constitutional reform chiefly in order to make the government responsible to the Reichstag instead of to the Kaiser, but the powers-that–be rigidly opposed any such change. Consequently, the Reich muddled on suffering from a perennial Konzeptionslosigkeit, meaning a poverty of ideas as to how to normalise both international and domestic politics. Instead, the old Prussian idea of strengthening the army and pursing a policy of bluff, meaning threatening to go to war if neighbouring Powers refused to comply with Reich policy, remained the accepted modus operandi.

As the later famous commentator on Reich policy, Kurt Riezler, would observe, the Prusso-German government at that time was wedded to a policy of based on bluff. But to be a good bluffer you had to have a superior army and a navy that was capable of inflicting massive damage on the potential enemy. Riezler even gave advice when he was personal assistant to the Chancellor, on what to do if one’s bluff was called, when one was festgeblufft. One had to engage in a va banque Spiel, that is to bet everything on one card. In short to take an enormous risk, ‘a leap in the dark’, as ex-Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg later phrased it.

To sum to this point: Bismarck had bequeathed to the Reich he created the most dangerous conditions for its continued existence. It was predicated on the superior strength and expertise of the army, and the ability of the diplomats to postpone conflict as long as possible. The eventuality of war in their conception of the world was a given, and it was actually desirable from time to time to prevent the ossification of Kultur, as Field Marshall, Helmut von Moltke once famously asserted. Secondly, the power elite had set its face against any concessions to parliamentary democracy as an intolerable prospect for the German nation which would inevitably descend into decadent Anglo-Saxon style mediocrity if the constitution were modified.

Thirdly, as a corollary to this, the Reich had a mission to fulfil to the world precisely to prevent it being subjugated to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. That was the basis of the so-called German Sendungsbewusstsein, meaning sense of mission that was, according to the historians and theologians, a calling from almighty God, hence Gott mit uns. In Hegelian terms, Germany was the ‘world historical nation’ which must act as the agent of Providence to unite the world under its power.

This, of course, was part of the mental furniture of the so-called German ‘power-elite’, its habitus in fact, and it even affected some Social Democrats and Liberals. The Russians were essentially Barbarians, the French effete and the British an incompetent and materialistic nation of shop keepers, (Werner Sombart). None of these were a match for the spiritually, scientifically and industrially superior Germans, and when the July crisis arose in 1914 it was handled in these terms, despite the urgent messages of caution coming from Count Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London. There had to be a reckoning, and the July crisis provided the long-awaited opportunity. War could be contemplated because Prusso-Germany had the military and naval power and Prussian spirit to meet it head on. In short, the Schlieffen Plan accompanied by the Tirpitz Plan to blow the royal Navy out of the water, would ensure German victory. If there were any doubts it was a case of ‘Apocalypse now!’ : the ultimate va banque Spiel. The literature on all this since the breaking of the Fischer Controversy is staggering, and as I indicated, the conferences on it still keep happening. -- By its actions since Bismarck founded the Reich on Prussian terms, Prusso-Germany became a ‘rogue state’ that had to be stopped. It has taken two devastating world wars to change the German comprehension of the world.


Turning now to the fledging Commonwealth’s comprehension of these developments. The German presence in the Pacific was always regarded with suspicion by the Australian colonies. The attempt by Queensland to trump Germany in the region by annexing New Guinea was a cause célèbre in 1883 because the British government intervened declaring the move as ultra vires. The colonies could take no such action in international affairs, not being sovereign states. After Federation the situation changed and Australia set about creating its own army and soon after, a navy. As scholars such as Neville Meaney and David Walker have shown there was considerable anxiety about our isolation and the build up of foreign navies in the Pacific. It was especially acute after the Anglo-Japanese naval agreement in 1902 when Britain withdrew major warships from the Eastern station to return to European waters.

For Australian politicians, this development was ominous and was the downbeat to a radical re-think about maritime security. Increasingly since 1900 the German naval presence was being observed with concern. The main base for the East Asian squadron of light cruisers was at the German treaty port of Tsingtau in northern China, but they made regular calls to Australian ports as well as to the German protectorates in New Guinea, the Island territories and of course, Western Samoa. Significantly they had installed Telefunken radio stations at Herbertshöhe, Neu Pommern, originally, and now again Rabaul in New Britain; at Apia, Western Samoa, at Yap on the Caroline Islands, and Nauru. These formed a communications network that could, in the technology then available, provide a link to Berlin via another German station in Tsingtau which could use the telegraph link via Siberia. This augmented the various cable possibilities that also went through Yap.

The stationing of a cruiser squadron in the Pacific had been Grand Admiral Tirpitz’ idea. He had personally witnessed the battle of Tsushima when the Japanese destroyed a Russian fleet in 1905. This battle inspired in fact both Tirpitz and the British Admiral Jackie Fisher simultaneously to advocate the rapid development of Dreadnought class battleships. So Tsushima had a direct influence on the incipient Anglo-German naval race.

Meanwhile the East Asian Squadron, whose activities have been painstakingly researched by my former student, Dr Peter Overlack, operated in the Pacific developing contingency war plans for various eventualities in world politics, that is, in the event of a war breaking out with the United States, with Japan and with Britain. All that was normal procedure, and the record of what was planned and what happened indicates a clear intent to do all that was possible to destroy merchant shipping plying to and from Australian and New Zealand ports. Witness the career of SMS Emden. So, increasingly in the decade leading up to the outbreak of war, the East Asia Squadron was collecting trade figures compiled by the Imperial German Consulates in all Australian ports. These were systematically collected each time a cruiser paid a visit to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. In addition other political information was assembled by the consulates via a team of so-called Berichterstatter, meaning literally, reporters, but in reality spies. Mostly these were consular officials; others were German residents, some even naturalised citizens. The data they collected were analysed by each ship’s captain and a so-called Militär-Politische

Mitteilung composed and addressed to the Kaiser but evaluated by the Reichs-Marine-Amt, that is the Navy Office.

So there was a lot going on. Members of consulate staff made extensive tours of northern Australia and New Zealand, ostensibly on holiday but in reality assessing harbour defences. Leading Australian historians such as my former colleagues, Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans in Queensland (and several others who could be named) have always strenuously denied the existence of this activity, insisting that there were no German spies in Australia, but, of course, they never took the trouble to look and never felt the need to seek advice from anyone who could read German. It was a classic case of ‘cognitive dissonance’ or what the Germans call, Was darf nicht sein, kann nicht sein, meaning literally, ‘what should not be, cannot be’, but better paraphrased, as ‘I am not letting the facts get in the way of what I prefer to believe was the case’.

The late Dr Irmeline Veit-Brause, a German trained historian at Deakin University, did pioneering research on the Imperial German consuls in Australia and established that they had made extensive tours around the country to visit centres of German settlement with a view to checking how much these people had retained of their Deutschtum, their German language and culture. They could report on good German pastors working among their German-speaking congregations, lively German language schools and in particular, flourishing German clubs in the capital cities where German business and professional men met and socialised. It was, of course, a matter of regret when ever Germans married what was called ‘English’ women because they would eventually lose their Deutschtum as would the children. But there was one remarkable instance of curious Deutschtum worth mentioning, namely the Catholic Apostolic Church settlement at Hatton Vale between Brisbane and Toowoomba which is still a flourishing farming community. In his report from 1910 to the Reich Chancellor, Consul General Georg Irmer wrote:

What has been built up out there at Hatton Vale over the past twenty years would be a veritable model for every German colony of Christian yeoman farmers and workers in foreign lands. Contentment reigns everywhere. Admittedly, the apostolic creed, if I may so describe the spiritual and ecclesiastical basis of the apostolic parishes, contains a very strong element of enthusiasm (Schwärmergeist) which today is still less understandable than it was in Luther’s time. Indeed, according to the dogmatic position of our Lutheran Church, that which these people practise is without doubt heresy (Ketzerei). Further, I find the sectarian style and the quaint antediluvian biblical exegesis of the apostolic preachers personally repellent. But despite all that , I cannot withhold recognition of the fact that the fruits of Christian discipline in the apostolic community are quite outstanding; above all, however, it may not be overlooked that this church community considers its most particular role to be the custodian of an energetic Deutschtum in Australia.

Shortly after that visit to Queensland, Consul General Irmer was in Berlin where he reported that there were some 100,000 Germans in Australia anxious to preserve their Deutschtum. Irmer’s successor in Sydney, Paul von Buri was encouraged to suggest that Australia’s future could even become more German influenced, a statement that presumed that in the looming world conflict with Germany and Britain on opposite sides, there could quite conceivably be a changing of the guard (ein Machtwechsel) in Australia. Indeed, at that time German scholars were predicting this since the British had passed their peak of influence and it was time for the more vigorous and up-wardly striving younger German power to take the reins. -- Wish dreams or real possibilities? -- The neo-Rankean mental furniture of the German educated elite of the day encouraged them to see the world in these terms, as I have already indicated. And they never abandoned it as the experience of the German internees at Trial Bay shows.

There in the virtually idyllic conditions of mid-coast NSW enjoying remarkable freedoms, the intellectual elite of the male German community in Australia had been interned. While there they produced a cyclostyled camp newspaper called “Die Welt am Montag”. In it the editors, having reviewed the Australian papers each day, produced their analysis of the course of the war. Germany would undoubtedly win despite some major set backs. In short, there was nothing in the reportage of the war that would cause these educated Germans to doubt the validity of the neo-Rankean laws of history.

Of course, as the Western world has finally learned, there are no such things as ‘laws of history’; nothing in the events of the past that allows us to conclude that anything is remotely predictable. And those strenuous and indeed murderous efforts on the part of the neo-Rankean-Hegelian inspired Wilhelmine empire, the subsequent Nazi empire and the Soviet imperium, all of which operated on allegedly ascertainable historical certainties, have now been consigned to the dung-heap of deluded causes.

To conclude: I have outlined the world-political aspirations of the Wilhelmine power-elite and the educated classes, namely the Bildungsbürgertum . They had a very different idea of war from everyone else. For them it was a spiritual activity of the highest order because God was the ‘God of battles’ and Prusso-Germany was His agent on earth. Their ambitions in 1914-18 aimed at not only German domination of the European continent, but the destruction of the British Empire in the conviction that it had lost its mandate for rule and that it was time for it to give way to the more youthful and vigorous German Empire. The few German diplomats and intellectuals who opposed this world view were either ignored or persecuted as the famous case of Professor Georg Nicolai illustrated.

Australia and New Zealand in this scheme of things were to have been subjugated to the political will of the victorious Teutonic power. When German intentions became apparent, there was absolutely no alternative but to resist them. Australian political leaders leading up to August 1914 understood this.

* Dieser Vortrag wurde am 17 August 2011 im Rahmen des Programs der Emeritus Fakultät der Australian National University in Canberra gehalten. Dr John Moses war vom 1961 bis Ende 1965 Student zunächst in München (Hauptsemianr bei Franz Schnabel) and dann in Erlangen , wo er 1965 bei Waldemar Besson promovierte und Nebenfächer bei Walter Peter Fuchs und Karl-Heinz Ruffmann belegt. Seitdem hat er an der Universität von Queensland bis zu seiner Emeritierung 1989 unterrichtet. Er hat vorwiegend über die Geschichte der deutschen Arbeitbewegung, die Fischer Kontroverse, deutsche Kolonien im pazifischen Raum und die Kirche im der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik geforscht und veröffentlicht. Seine letzte Veröffentlichung ist, Reluctant Revolutionary: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Collision with Prusso- German History (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009).

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