Meridyen Eğitim Kurumları

Ali Büyükasar


“The Leadership Issue” for Central Powers in the Great War

If a closer look is taken upon the first footsteps of the First World War (in the paper from now on, the term the Great War will be used instead), it can be seen that the ambitions of political leaders of the sides played a major role in the spreading of the war; which was at first an inter-governmental conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Especially after the retirement of Bismarck, the highly-talented former chancellor of Germany, in the late 1880s, the absolutist German rule under Emperor Wilhelm II, began to perform more aggressive actions in international politics and threw aside the carefully thought equilibrium politics of Bismarck. His moves in twenty years after 1890, made the division of Europe between two camps more and more visible. At last, with the growing tension between those two camps, war broke out in 1914.

After its beginning in 1914, several countries joined war in a short period of time, some voluntarily, each with different expectations. Britain and France, anxious about the growing power and ambitions of the Second German Reich, seemed to make a fight for keeping what they had in their hands before, and at the other side of the coin; Ottoman rulers consisting mostly of the İttihat ve Terakki Party (Committee of Union and Progress - CUP) front men (especially Enver and Talat Pashas) were making the account of gaining back the losses of decades ending with the latest Balkan Wars, and finding a cure for the continuous decline of the state.

In this brief study paper, after this short introduction some certain sections will be allocated for the mentalities of the leaders and governments of the main actors of the Central Powers, namely Germany and the Ottoman Empire.        

The first one to be analyzed will be the German Reich under the very command of Wilhelm II, the last emperor of the German Empire. His absolutist rule, his personality, aims and ambitions will be discussed with the times state administration with relation to the distribution of political power in Germany.

The second state to be analyzed will be the only non-Christian member state of the Central Powers; the Ottoman Empire, which was on the eve of its last days, literally “the sick man” of Europe. The political condition of the Ottoman Empire (in a similar course with the German Empire) will be touched and the emphasis will be made upon the political pragmatist worldview of the Ottoman rulers of that time, mainly Enver, Talat and Djemal Pasha’s.

a) Germany 

The unification of middle Europe, the German lands under one banner was something that France tried to prevent for more than two decades. This had been an official policy of France after the rule of Cardinal Richelieu with the 17th century and it was somewhat successful until the emergence of Prussia as a considerable power in the continental politics in the beginnings of 1800s. A united German state would be a possible serious threat for the French control in the middle European politics. 

However, the separatist policies of France could not prevent the rise of Prussia with the second half of the 19th century, and the Franco – Prussian War in 1870 – 1871 which was a terrible defeat for the last Napoleon (the Third) of France, also was the declaration of the foundation of the German Empire. Otto von Bismarck, who was the main architect of the German unification, pursued chess-like realpolitik policies in the foreign affairs after the foundation of the Empire which proved to be highly successful in the later period of time. 

Despite its huge power supported with wide-scale industrialism, Germany under the leadership of Bismarck until 1890, harmoniously orchestrated the continental European politics and kept a “balance of powers” which was a peaceful period for Europe of that time. This was not because that Bismarck was a complete peace lover or maker, in fact he showed in the past in several occasions that Germany could easily go to war; rather he was a highly talented statesman who calculates his moves with consistent understanding of European political dynamics. Among many of his successes, the very one that pertains to the topic is that he was prosperous in keeping the alliance between Germany and the opposite poles of each other – Austria-Hungary and Russia which were inside continuous conflicts of interest over the dominion of the Balkans. Bismarck was in a considerable amount of effort in order not to alienate Russia; since if a conflict occurs in the future with France (maybe for the “revenge” of the defeat in 1871), he did not want Germany to fight in two sides – one with France and one with Russia, which will be the exact condition that will take place in the Great War some twenty years after. He succeeded in this policy of non-alienating Russia in his rule.

However, a dramatic change in the foreign policy of the German Empire occurred after the coming of Wilhelm II to the throne in 1888. Fond and at the same time tired of his chancellors policies, Wilhelm suggested Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, and made ground for the implementation of his own policies. 

Coming to the throne and setting his absolutist rule, Wilhelm II abandoned the foreign policies of Bismarck and began pursuing a more aggressive route. Not too soon “The Holy Alliance” of three emperors (Wilhelm II of Germany, Franz-Joseph of Austria-Hungary and Nicholas II of Russia) collapsed and Russia allied with France; something which Bismarck was afraid most. And very before the Austria-Hungary – Serbia crisis which occurred after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary) in 1914, Wilhelm gave a “no matter what” guarantee of covering the back of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. 

This move, without a doubt shows that Germany was ready and in some ways willing for a war, since it seems impossible for the German rulers not to anticipate the spread of war firstly to Russia then to France and Britain as Annika Mombauer stated in the following lines :

“Most historians would also agree that Berlin encouraged Vienna to demand retribution from Serbia, and was happy to take the risk that an Austro-Serbian conflict might escalate into a European war.” (The Coming of War, 187)

However both sides were in the estimation of a quick conflict and resolution. Things did not turn out like that.

First of all, it should be stated that during the war, executive power in Germany passed from the hands of the civil authority to the military hands (headed by Wilhelm II himself). The chancellors lost most of their authority and instead besides Wilhelm II, the decisions of field-Marshalls like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff gained dramatic significance. So what do the German military rulers have in mind in entering the war? The analysis can be made upon the attempts of the Reich during the war, the documents, the choices and also personality of the ambitious emperor, Wilhelm II. 

Wilhelm II seems to be the main leader of the policies of his Reich during the war thanks to the absolute power he owed to the past applications of Bismarck who, during his rule, weakened the oppositions to the monarch. When Wilhelm II came to the throne in 1888, the background for an absolutist rule was already ready, and Wilhelm II had the enough power to realize his ambitions. So what did Wilhelm II have in his mind? That is a tough question capable of providing various different answers.    

Firstly, Wilhelm II had the wish to lead the politics of Europe since The German Empire was the most powerful state at that times continental Europe. However, the territories of the empire was not much big; the Germany of 1914 was smaller than France, Spain and much smaller than Russia. Wilhelm II seems to be in the wish of creating a bigger state through expansionist policies: 

The German MittelEuropa; which can be considered as the predecessor of the Lebensraum in the Nazi ideology.

Secondly, as the German historian Fritz Fischer discussed in his book(*), one other aim in the mind of Wilhelm II can be the pacification of France and Britain through warfare and economic games, and gaining the control of the continental Europe that were stated in the September program, a document about Germany’s “potential” aims in entering the war. The document is prone to many discussions but still important for at least giving clues about the possible thoughts of German rulers of the time. The document also includes aims about creating a “German Colonial Empire” in Africa in the expense of the colonies of France and Britain.

A third idea in the mind of Wilhelm II can be that, he might have wanted to use warfare for a tool of unification in domestic issues, and suppress democratic movements in Germany which even became stronger after the resignation of Bismarck.

However, it would also be misleading and incomplete to understand the German policies of the time without taking a look at the volatile and unstable characteristic of Wilhelm II himself. In spite of having half German and half British origin (his mother was English), Wilhelm II had a considerable hatred against Britain and the British people interestingly. He belonged to the royal family by being the grandson of Queen Victoria, (also he was the cousin of King George V of Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) but he hated the British for several reasons. In many memories he was depicted as a person with a quick wit and also a quick temper; impatient, inconsistent and susceptible on his moves; being a complete reverse of Bismarck. There can be several logical reasons for entrance to the war for Germany, but the unrealistic ambitions and emotional instability of Wilhelm II and its reflections on his state administration cannot be ignored.    

b) Ottoman Empire 

The situation was pretty different in the Ottoman Empire which was living in its “retirement” period as it was called by the rest of the Europe with the nickname sick man. At the ending of the decline that observably began in the 16th century, it was widely acknowledged among the Ottoman rulers that European states were much advanced, and the Devlet-i Aliyye must change and reform itself in order to survive. These wide scale reforms began with the Tanzimat after 1840s and coming to the 1870s, a power shift began to be observed in the empire. The political authority of the former sultans (last of them can be considered as Mahmud II) slowly passed to the hands of the new ruling elite. These new section of authority even managed to dethrone Abdulaziz in 1876, announced the first constitution of the empire and gave the crown to Abdulhamid II who gave his word to support the new regime. However, being a more self-confident and artful sultan than his predecessors, Abdulhamid II in time, got rid of the strong statesmen in the Ottoman rule one by one and took the control of the empire in one hand again. 

              During his rule from 1876 to 1909, Abdulhamid II gave priority to modernization processes and via his close relations with the German Empire, he supplied modern arming technology from them. He founded many western-type schools, and ironically the staff educated in the modern military schools he founded soon dethroned him in 1909, namely the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) of later time. With the fall of Abdulhamid II, Sultan Mehmed V. Reshad came to the Ottoman throne in 1909, but there was little from the authority of the former sultan remained. CUP and its leaders began to take control of the Ottoman state administration after that time and when the calendars were showing the year as 1914, CUP leaders mainly Enver, Talat and Djemal Pasha’s were the main authorities in the empire. 

Those true leaders of the empire of that time were pretty aware of the polarization in Europe, and they aimed to side with one of the camps in their policies. Djemal Pasha was on the side of France, however Enver and Talat Pasha’s were trustful against Germany, and soon they attracted Djemal Pasha to their side. Enver Pasha was anticipating a German victory in case a war occurred, so the Ottoman government secretly allied and sided with Germany in that polarization. 

Following the process of the crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in 1914, eventually war broke out in Europe. But the de facto entrance of the Ottoman Empire to the war had been with the Goben and Breslau incident. 

Looking at the choices of the Ottoman rulers, it can be said that the empire joined the war willingly. Enver Pasha, who was the military chief in the empire at that time, was in the plan of a capitalistic modernization process together with a territorial revisionist foreign policy. He was in the search for the cure that would bring back the old empire to its golden days in the past, and he seems to think that he had found the cure in being on the winner’s side which he anticipated to be the Germans. He, together with Talat Pasha, bore a huge trust against the Germans, and during the war he brought this trust much further by appointing German officers to some vital military positions (like the case of Liman von Sanders who was made a “pasha” in the Ottoman army).

While Talat Pasha took control of the inner affairs, Djemal and especially Enver Pasha’s directed many of the military expeditions. Djemal Pasha had also been in several failures like the ones against the British forces in Egypt, namely the Suez Offensives which aimed to invade the Suez Channel then Egypt, and ultimately cut the main connection line of Britain with its eastern colonies. 

During the four-year long war, one defeat followed another in most cases. The Ottoman armies achieved limited success only in some fronts like the Dardanelles War. In some sense Enver Pasha, who can be considered as the main actor behind the entrance of the empire to the war, lead the empire to its end by this move, ironically with the aim to stop its decline.

Other than the Three Pasha’s, there was also the Sultan Mehmed V Reshad in the rule. But his power was so severely limited and his only considerable action during the period between 1914 – 1918, had been his unsuccessful declaration of Jihad in 1914. He died a few months before the end of the war, without seeing his empire’s surrender. So the Sultan’s existence in the Ottoman rule during the war was somewhat of no considerable effect.

There are some certain similarities between the rulers of both of the empires. Likely with the German Empire in which the political authority was centered in the hands of some certain military leaders, the political power in the Ottoman Empire was collected in the hands of the military elite. As a second similarity, there is a strange common point between the ones who hold the power in their hands in both of these empires, they both lead their empires to destruction and caused the first greatest disaster in the 20th century which would be one of the main reasons of the other.