Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Lesson of Prussian History

It is quite as significant to see why the Germans felt that they could change the balance of power in the world as it is to appreciate the extent and meaning of the scheme itself. They meant in effect to deprive other nations, without their consent, of territory, of influence in the world, of the practical right to decide the conditions of life in their own countries. No conqueror of antiquity had ever attempted to accomplish so much. Not even the great Napoleon in more modern times sketched out such an ambitious plan. But the Germans were convinced that it was feasible and the fact which convinced them was nothing less than the history of Prussia.

There is no more dramatic story in the world's annals. A tiny state, surrounded by powerful and hostile neighbors, somehow survived them all, absorbed several of them, and succeeded in dominating northern Europe. The rapid rise of Prussia convinced the Germans that they might accomplish anything. Consequently Germany challenged the world itself in 1914 and held out for more than four years before she was beaten. The first troops who went to Belgium wrote with chalk on the doors of the railroad carriages, "William II, Emperor of the World." There was the true German touch.

We have only to go back in imagination to a time when America was not yet discovered to see in northern Germany the tiny state of Brandenburg, so small and unimportant that it was conferred by the Holy Homan Emperor upon a certain prince of Hohenzollern. This was in the thirteenth century and for four centuries the growth of this state was very gradual. Then, about the time when a good many English people came to New England and there began to be something resembling civilization here, the Great Elector (16401688) became the ruler of Brandenburg. A remarkable man with insight and executive ability, he analyzed the position of his state and its problems and defined Prussian policy for his successors. It was a small state, and because there was no more land, only a few people could live on it compared with the population of the neighboring hostile states. The soil was poor in quality, and as agriculture was then the main occupation of European countries the people themselves were poor. This small area of poor land was in the middle of a plain, no mountains surrounded it, no deep rivers protected it from invasion. Sweden and Poland on the north and east, Saxony and Austria on the south, France in the west were large, hostile, and aggressive.

Germans in Belgium


To defend such a state, the Great Elector concluded every man must become a soldier and that the whole life of the country must be organized around the army. The entire physical force of the little state might conceivably defend it; its entire economic strength might sustain its army; nothing less could possibly suffice. The population was small and its resources relatively so inadequate that nothing but the most complete utilization of both could provide it with security.

The only real solution of the country's future was growth—not in wisdom but in size. For even at that relatively remote period the beginning of Prussian national conceit was apparent. There must be more land, so that there might be more people, and more people so that there might be more soldiers in the army. More land meant more food for more soldiers and so it must go on. More land, more men, more food, more soldiers. The better and stronger the army, the more land could be captured, and, as the physical strength of the state increased, its chances of growing still larger would be correspondingly better. It must fight for existence. It could only survive if it conquered its neighbors.

The land to be conquered was necessarily that occupied by friends and rivals of Brandenburg; waste land there was none. To all of the surrounding states the Elector was bound by treaties, agreements, promises, avowed or implicit. The country could grow only at the expense of others, only in defiance of the rights of others, and, it might be, only by breaking explicit treaties and promises. To accept such a principle as the binding character of treaties was to accept the limitations of Prussia's position and to renounce all plans for growth and security. This to Prussian kings has been unthinkable. The safety of the state was greater than the obligation of any written agreement. It was unfortunate but unavoidable.

The other principle which the Great Elector laid down as the result of the experience of his predecessors was the necessity of offensive campaigns by his army. He must never wait to be attacked. A successful defense in the absence of geographical frontiers could only be conducted on foreign territory. To allow the enemy to begin the war was to be defeated before the war began. Even, therefore, in a purely defensive war, his armies must take the offensive if possible.

The Great Elector had the ability and the opportunity to apply these principles. He organized his estates, built up a competent army, systematized taxation and administration, and increased more than considerably the area of his state. His successors continued to tread the path he had mapped out for them. In 1701, the title King of Prussia was assumed. They had been kings in Prussia for a century and more but only Electors in Germany and they wished now to have the title of King in Germany. Brandenburg is not Prussia, for Prussia proper is located far to the east along the Baltic, nor are the people of present Prussia the Prussians in a historical sense.

Then came to the throne in 1740 Frederick the Great, who reigned until the year before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. The Great Elector had left Prussia in three pieces—one around Berlin, Prussia itself, some distance to the east with Poland in between, and far off in the west along the Rhine, two or three tiny bits of territory. The object of his successors was simple in the extreme: to tie those pieces together by getting the land in between. Frederick the Great tied Prussia and Brandenburg together and added to the south the very large and rich district of Silesia. The Napoleonic wars worked havoc with Prussia but in the end at the Treaty of Vienna Prussia was strengthened and given territory on the south from Saxony and in the west from Holland and smaller German states.

After a period of slow and quiet growth and apparent humility, there came to power Bismarck, one of the ablest of all German statesmen. He undertook to unite all Germany around Prussia, and if necessary was ready to conquer Germany in order to compel it to act in concert with Prussia. Scarcely anything in history ever seemed to the people who lived through it more like a tale of the Arabian nights, like the rubbing of some lamp or the turning of some ring, than the growth in a moment of a great state and the creation of the German empire.

When Bismarck came to power, Prussia was reputed the weakest of the European powers, the least able, the least dangerous, the least well organized. Disraeli declared it ripe for partition. She had been humiliated by Austria repeatedly and it used to be said that it was idle to ask questions about Prussian policy in Berlin; one must go to Paris or Vienna for information. Apparently Prussia was hated and distrusted by the other German states; she lacked access to the Atlantic; her industrial development was rudimentary, and the poverty of the people great.

Within ten years, the situation had been revolutionized. Austria had been excluded from Germany by a rapid and successful campaign, and compelled to recognize the reorganization of Germany by Prussia in Prussian fashion. For a thousand years, Austria had been the most important German state. In 1850 it had seemed as if she might remain the most important for at least a century, and in 1866 she was excluded from Germany by force. At that same time the northern German states, who refused to come to terms with Prussia by agreement, were practically conquered and compelled to join the North German Confederation. Prussia took possession of Kiel, Hamburg, and the mouth of the Elbe, and laid the foundation of future naval power and commercial development. In 1870 war was accepted with what was supposed to be the most powerful and formidable nation in Europe, an overwhelming victory was won, and an enormous money indemnity was extorted. The offensive strategic position in Europe—Alsace-Lorraine—was taken from France and annexed to Germany, and the German Empire, uniting all German states under one extremely powerful and autocratic government, was created. In 1861 Prussia was hardly considered a great power. In 1871, the German Empire was clearly the arbiter of the destiny of Europe and likely to remain so, men thought, for half a century. There was the miracle which astounded the world, which thrilled the German people and gave them, for the first time in a century, supreme confidence in their strength and capacity. Then began the talk of German destiny to rule the world, of German supremacy, of superman, of the superiority of Kultur over all other ideas of civilization.

Then followed a miracle almost greater. The lamp was rubbed a second time, and lo! the German state, already powerful and feared, became wealthy. Ever since the Thirty Years' War, Germany as a whole had been poor, collectively and individually, and now came wealth. The railroads, the new machinery, now introduced into Germany systematically, compulsory education, all directed and developed by Bismarck, pushed Germany ahead in economic growth at a pace which was literally marvelous. The goods produced doubled and trebled in volume and value, and doubled again. The yield of farms doubled and doubled again. German ships weighed down the ocean. Presently, the German navy became formidable. German commerce, once scarcely known outside of Europe itself, now reached to the very confines of the globe. Had not the despised stone become the head of the corner? Had not the downtrodden become the favored of God? Did not such achievements demonstrate to the naked eye and the dullest brain the latent force in the German people? The extraordinary potency of their political and individual formula? 'What was left to be done? Was there anything left that could be done worthy of such a people who had achieved within the lifetime of a single generation such a political, diplomatic, economic transformation?'

The result consecrated the method. The army had made possible the war with Austria and German unity; it had made possible the war with France and the domination of Europe. The two had fathered the economic development and made possible national wealth. The Empire was an autocratic militaristic government which did in truth cramp and fetter the individual, which led rather than followed. But had it not led to a purpose, had it not achieved that end dearest to German hearts?

Bismarck had at first been opposed by the all but unanimous opinion of the Prussian people; he had pushed forward his plans despite them; he had worked in secret but his achievements had been public and the end had been glorious. The people became accustomed to the idea that they would not understand all that transpired, that they might never know at any time what the state planned to accomplish. They came to feel that it was not wise to ask to know; better far to accept the guidance of the men who had achieved so much, better to obey without question. They shuddered to think of what might have happened during the sixties as a result of the acceptance by Bismarck of the opinions they had then held.

This attitude of the German people toward the German government made easy the planning of Pan-Germanism, guaranteed its acceptance by the people in advance without examination of its merits. The result of the previous generations' success made it a foregone conclusion that the German people would believe what was told them from Berlin; would accept the version of European politics which the state provided.

England, they were told in the schools, in magazines, in newspapers, and novels, was a hateful, hostile enemy doing its best to strangle Germany. France was better but faithless, always ready to undertake a war of revenge to recover Alsace-Lorraine. Russia was dangerous because of her size, but to be despised for her stupidity and incompetence. The real text was the greatness of Germany, the mission of Kultur, contempt for the rest of mankind, and the contention that the other nations of Europe were leagued together to destroy the results of Bismarck's success, to conquer Germany, cramp her, make her poor and humble once more.

Indeed, Germany had accomplished so much which was clearly contrary to the rights of others that the Germans became suspicious of all their neighbors. In every international event they saw subtle schemes to undo their greatness, but most of all they visited their hatred and suspicion upon England. She, most of all, they felt would gain by their downfall and by the ending of their era of prosperity. Soon after the war broke out a common method of greeting in Germany was the phrase "God punish England." And a chant of hate was written which was sung and recited with extraordinary demonstrations of approval at public meetings and theaters.

[Illustration] from Story of the Great War by Roland Usher


French and Russian, they matter not,

A blow for a blow and a shot for a shot;

We love them not, we hate them not,

We hold the Weichsel and Vosges-gate,

We have but one and only hate,

We love as one, we hate as one,

We have one foe and one alone.

He is known to you all, he is known to you all,

He crouches behind the dark gray flood,

Full of envy, of rage, of craft, of gall,

Cut off by waves that are thicker than blood.

Come let us stand at the Judgment place,

An oath to swear to, face to face,

An oath of bronze no wind can shake,

An oath for our sons and their sons to take.

Come, hear the word, repeat the word,

Throughout the Fatherland make it heard,

We will never forego our hate,

We have all but a single hate,

We love as one, we hate as one,

We have one foe and one alone—


In the Captain's Mess, in banquet-hall,

Sat feasting the officers, one and all,

Like a saber-blow, like the swing of a sail,

One seized his glass held high to hail;

Sharp-snapped like the stroke of a rudder's play,

Spoke three words only: "To the Day!"

Whose glass this fate?

They had all but a single hate.

Who was thus known?

They had one foe and one alone —


Take you the folk of the Earth in pay,

With bars of gold your ramparts lay,

Bedeck the ocean with bow on bow,

Ye reckon well, but not well enough now.

French and Russian they matter not,

A blow for a blow, a shot for a shot,

We fight the battle with bronze and steel,

And the time that is coming Peace will seal.

You will we hate with a lasting hate,

We will never forego our hate,

Hate by water and hate by land,

Hate of the head and hate of the hand,

Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,

Hate of seventy millions, choking down.

We love as one, we hate as one,

We have one foe and one alone