Three Dumb Emperors
Three Dumb Emperors
Much has been written and said about the start of the First World War. As we remember the 100-year anniversaries of the horrendous battles of that war, it’s worth noting what caused the war: Three dumb emperors. Two of them are shown in the photograph to the right, wearing each other's uniform. These guys were into fancy uniforms, big-time.
Czar Nicholas II. The Czar Nicholas the Second of Russia made the momentous decision to back Serbia, even though Serb Black Hand assassins killed the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If Czar Nicholas had really wanted to support royalty, he might have ignored Serbia and left them to their fate. But it seems he wanted to support his Slav brothers against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nicholas was hung up by the past, and very inflexible when it came to the world changing all about him. He wanted to preserve his autocratic powers, authority he was singularly incompetent to wield. Indecisive, not very personable with the public, shy, and sometimes dominated by his German wife, Nicholas tended to follow the advice of the last person he consulted. As a result of losing the Russo-Japanese War, including nearly his entire fleet, revolution was threatened in 1905. Nicholas was forced to allow a legislative assembly, the Duma, which he then proceeded to undermine. Nicholas should’ve realized that his vast country was still backward compared to the more advanced Western European powers and stayed out of any war.
Russia was just starting to industrialize compared to the other powers. Russia did not have enough rifles, machine guns, railroads, artillery or ammunition, although they had millions of troops. In a vast agricultural land, they eventually did not have enough food. The imperial bureaucracy was corrupt, lacking the necessary checks and balances provided in more democratic regimes. The inefficiency of the government resulted in enormous suffering for the troops. When the war started going badly, the Czar assumed personal control of the Army, which was a big mistake. Nicholas simply was not that bright. While at the front, Nicholas allowed his German-born wife to exercise great power, which is not a good idea when the common people suspect the Czarina of being a German spy.
The crowning stupidity of Nicholas’s reign was reliance upon a vulgar, skirt-chasing alcoholic monk who appalled educated Russians. Rasputin’s value to the Imperial family was that he could stop the crown prince’s hemophilia with psychological techniques that can be replicated today. His treatment of the crown prince was the only thing that worked, and from that point forward, the Czar and Czarina regarded Rasputin as a messenger from God. They took the divine right of kings seriously, so anyone who supported the throne had to be from God. Overreliance upon this mad monk undercut the Romanovs and highlighted the backward and unscientific methods of the autocratic and oppressive regime.
German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. Kaiser Wilhelm inherited a modern industrial state and a militaristic tradition dating back centuries. The Kaiser loved his many uniforms and took great care to support the army and expanding High Seas Fleet. His withered arm undoubtedly resulted in a need to compensate, and his British cousins, particularly Edward VII, stoked his competitive naval and international aspirations. The Kaiser had a bad habit of shooting his mouth off in foolish, arrogant, chauvinistic, militaristic and obnoxious ways, and by no means was any diplomat. Kaiser Wilhelm accepted the German military doctrine known as the Schlieffen Plan, a way to cut through Belgium and France rapidly to envelop Paris and bring a quick end to a war. Prussia and her German allies achieved victory quickly in their previous two wars. Unfortunately, the Schlieffen Plan was predicated upon the invasion of a neutral country Germany had pledged to respect. The Kaiser understood as gospel that Germany would once again have to have it out with France while keeping Russia at bay. Otto von Bismarck advised always remaining friends with Russia, but Kaiser Bill went his own way. Wilhelm’s unflinching support of the military translated into the inevitability of its use. He tried to withdraw the blank check he gave Austria to invade Serbia, but it was too late. Wilhelm never visited the trenches. Towards the end of the war, the Kaiser’s ineptitude and mismanagement of the war effort resulted in generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg assuming virtual dictatorial powers over the war effort.
Emperor Franz Joseph. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary liked to dress up in a multitude of military uniforms, too. He fought nationalism his whole adult life and tried hard to hold onto his polyglot empire of Austrians, Hungarians, Slavs, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Italians and others. But instead of consolidating his diverse empire and keeping it together, he made it more diverse by annexing Bosnia, Herzegovina, and then finally tried to punish and annex Serbia. This pressure against Serbia was a major cause of the war. The assassins killing the Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife were themselves stupid, since the Austrian crown prince was much more enlightened than the Austrian emperor. Austria escalated to an ultimatum, made to be unacceptable to Serbia. Typical bully. Serbia could not accept every single term of it, but they accepted the lion’s share of the ultimatum Austria-Hungary demanded. This wasn’t good enough, so Austria-Hungary decided to attack Serbia, which caused Russia to back Serbia, which caused Germany to back Austria, which caused France to support Russia, and which caused Britain to support France when neutral Belgium was invaded by the German Army. Franz Joseph, nearly senile in 1914, had the good luck to die during the First World War, meaning he did not live to see the disasters caused by it. Nobody foresaw the stalemated slaughter to come or involvement by the growing democracy on the other side of the Atlantic.
Many books have been written on the stupidity of the three emperors that largely caused the First World War. Absolutist and militaristic emperors tend to make stupid decisions because they are not guided by legislatures, do not permit a free press or judiciary, refuse to share power and are not bound to the best interests of their peoples. Almost all humans make very stupid decisions from time to time. The three emperors caused havoc because they possessed limited intelligence and poor understanding in a changing world. They didn’t know that powerful monarchies were on the way out. They were imprisoned by the past. But as stupid as these three emperors were, their shortcomings were almost quaint compared to the totalitarian dictators succeeding them. Instead of three dumb emperors, the world got two cunning, immoral, ruthless, power-hungry ideologues who instituted systems of mass murder and produced a war that has never been exceeded in its ferocity, destructiveness and extent. There are worse things than being stupid.