April 7th in German History: The Algeciras Conference and the Attack on Munster

The Moroccan Ambassador to Spain signs the treaty: Image Credit: Wikipedia

Today is the anniversary of two important events in German history. The earlier one occurred in 1906. On April 7th of that year the Algeciras Conference ended when Germany, Britain, France, the US, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and several other nations signed the last act of the Algeciras Conference. The Act provided for the creation of a State Bank of Morocco which would issue gold backed bank notes. The Act also regulated Morocco’s spending and trade policies. Finally, the Act reorganized the Moroccan police force in several port cities, going so far as to appoint Spanish and French officers to command the forces and also to set salaries of the Moroccan police. The Act represented an expansion of French power in Morocco and a refutation of German attempts to increase its international prestige at France’s expense. As I mentioned in my post on the First Moroccan Crisis, Germany had opposed French expansion in Morocco and called for an international conference to discuss the administration of the nation. The Algeciras Conference, however, backfired on Germany. Of the nations there, only Austria supported Germany and so Germany was forced to sign the final treaty in order to save face. In the end, the Conference further strengthened Anglo-French relations and made the international community more suspicious of German aims. Further, Germany’s embarrassment at the Conference increased the level of jingoism among the population and made all of the political parties, with the exception of the Social Democrat Party and the Liberal Party, supportive of a war. The Conference thus set up the alliances that would become the Allied and the Central Powers in WWI, even foreshadowing Italy’s betrayal of Austria and Germany in that it supported Britain and France at the Conference. The outcome of the Algeciras Conference shows just how damaging failed diplomacy can be to a nation. In strengthening the alliance between Britain and France, Germany contributed to its own defeat in the First World War.

Germany VAN ATTACK: Munster attack photos as police confirm deaths ...
An image of the aftermath of the 2018 attack. Image Credit: Express UK

The second event in German history that happened on April 7th was the 2018 attack on Münster. On that day, a man named Jens Alexander Rüther drove a camper van into cafes and terraces in a square in the center of the city. Rüther killed four people and injured twenty. He also killed himself, bringing the total death toll to five. Authorities determined that the reasons for Rüther’s attack were conditions in his life, namely drug addiction, psychiatric illness, and possibly relationship problems. We must not forget this attack not only because it is important to remember those who died, but also because we must not forget to always be mindful of those around us and pay attention to the mental health of friends and family. Before committing the attack, Rüther had said that he wanted to commit suicide in a spectacular manner. Terrible attacks like this can be prevented from happening again if we report rather than ignore statements like those and have people who are mentally ill be treated rather than left to their own devices and potentially hurt themselves and others.

April 6th in German History: The Proclamation of the Bavarian Socialist Republic

Ernst Toller, first leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Image Credit: Wikipedia

On April 6th, 1919, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Munich. Following the First World War, a series of revolts and mutinies within the military resulted in civil unrest throughout Germany. In Bavaria, a state in Southern Germany, King Ludwig III fled and Kurt Eisner became minister president of the People’s state of Bavaria in 1918. Eisner was somewhat of a moderate, he promised to protect private property, but he was assassinated after losing the parliamentary elections in January of 1919. Following the assassination, fighting erupted between conservatives and leftists and that led to a general breakdown of government. The left was victorious and the anti-militarist former school teacher Johannes Hoffman created a parliamentary coalition on March 7th and reasserted control of the People’s State of Bavaria. On April 6th, however, a more radical force of communists and anarchists launched a coup and forced Hoffman to abandon Munich and flee to Bramber. These more violent revolutionaries proclaimed the Bavarian Soviet Republic on that same day. Initially, this state was ruled by Ernst Toller, a playwright who called on the Bavarian Red Army, which did not exist, to ruthlessly put down counter revolutionaries and protect the Soviet state. He had a penchant for nonsensical government appointments which included a criminal to the position of Police President of Munich, a part-time railroad maintenance worker as Commissar for Transportation, and a Jewish person as Minister for Education in Catholic Bavaria in which nuns ran the schools. Perhaps most amusingly, he appointed psychiatric patient Dr. Franz Lipp as Deputy of Foreign Affairs. Lipp promptly declared war on Switzerland and the German State of Wurttemberg and soon called the Pope to complain about Hoffman having stolen the key to the ministry toilet.

This regime was replaced by an even more radical one when the Communists, led by Russian emigres headed by Eugen Levine, seized power on April 12th with the blessings of Lenin. This new government implemented more radical policies like the commandeering of churches, the implementation of worker-owned factories, and the confiscation of food and private guns. The government also took aristocrats as hostages. There were shortages of almost everything, especially milk, under this government and there was an attempt by the Hoffman government and the Thule Society, a predecessor to the NSDAP, to depose Levine, but this was put down. Soon after, though, the Freikorps, a right wing paramilitary group, in concert with Hoffman’s government laid siege to Munich after taking Dachau. The Freikorps broke into Munich on the First of May and took the city. At least 606 were killed in the fighting. Once the Feikorps took control they imprisoned or killed most of the Communist leaders; Eugine was executed by firing squad. The leader of the Freikorps, Lieutenant General Burghard von Oven, declared Munich secure on May 6th and the Bavarian People’ State was nominally returned to power. This was, however, illusory as actual control shifted to right wing parties and Bavaria was made a free state within Weimar Germany on the 14th of August.

The main result of the short-lived Communist control of Bavaria was the creation of a right-wing and ultraconservative Bavaria. The population, even the workers and peasants, feared and hated communists because of the shortages and repression that resulted from their rule. This climate fostered the rise of extreme right parties. Capitalizing on the fear of communism, a fear entirely justified given recent events, parties like the German Worker’s Party, which later became the Nazi Party, grew in strength and popularity in Bavaria. Munich, after all, was where Hitler tried to overthrow the government in the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolution also split the left. The Social Democratic Party viewed the Communist Party, the KDP, as Russian puppets, which they largely were, and the KDP thought the SDP were traitors to the revolution. This only further facilitated the rise of Nazism in Germany. Not only was the political climate made easier for the Nazis, but members of the Nazi Party, most notably Rudolf Hess, gained experience fighting in the Freikorps. The failure of the Communist Revolution in Bavaria is yet another instance of a pattern of European revolutions leading to more authoritarian governments than the ones they overthrew, or at best a government only somewhat more liberal than the one it replaced. The French Revolution led to Napoleon and then to the Bourbon Restoration, the 1848 revolutions led to Bismarck and Napoleon the Third, and the Russian Revolution precipitated Stalinism. Extreme revolutionaries, filled with lofty ideals of perfect societies of abundance and plenty, are generally confounded by a populace that cares little for grand theories and simply wants food and security, and by their own inability to provide either. The revolutionaries’ only choice, then, is to create a system far worse than the one before it in order to maintain power, or else see reactionaries reassert control. In seeking to create a utopia, radicals only create chaos and dystopia.

April 5th in German History: Lothair the First Becomes Holy Roman Emperor

Lothar I.jpg
Lothair the First. Image Credit: Wikipedia

April 5th is the anniversary of one of the far less known events in German history. On April 5th, 823, Lothair the First was made Holy Roman Emperor. Lothair was the son of Louis the Pious and he ruled along with his father until 840. Louis was the son of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Before he was made emperor, Lothair was the governor of several provinces in his father’s realm and feuded with his father over the division of the empire between Lothair and his brothers. Lothair even rebelled against his father at one point, and at other times fought his brothers. Despite his varied relationship with his father, Lothair was kept as the principal heir and was meant to rule the Holy Roman Empire in conjunction with his father and then alone after his father died. However, early in his dual rule he was deposed along with his father by his three brothers. Louis was reinstated in 831 and deprived Lothair of the title of Emperor. Lothair was deposed again in 834. However, he was able to maintain his title through all of the later revolts due to the loyalty of the Lombards and reconciliation with his brothers. In 840, Louis sent the imperial insignia to Lothair while on his deathbed, and Lothair became the sole Emperor after Louis’s death. Lothair claimed the entirety of the empire for himself but was subsequently defeated by the superior forces of his brothers and his capital at Aachen was occupied in 841. Lothair met with his brothers to negotiate peace in 842. As a result of the negotiations, Lothair retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor and the middle of his father’s empire, stretching from Northern Italy to the North Sea. However, the eastern and western segments of the Empire would go to his brothers. Lothair spent the rest of his reign putting down rebellions and fending off Viking and Saracen attacks. Lothair would abdicate in 855 when he became seriously ill and divided his realm between his sons on his death.

Lothair the First may seem like an insignificant figure in history, but his reign had major long-term consequences for Europe and the world. The immediate aftermath of Lothair’s reign was the destruction of the middle kingdom that was created from the peace treaty with his brothers. Lothair’s kingdom was divided among his sons and many of the resulting kingdoms would be further divided by invasion and rebellion. His failure to keep the empire of Charlemagne together would split Europe into smaller states and forever end the possibility of a united Europe in the Middle Ages. Out of these states would rise the nations of France and later Italy and Germany. Lothair’s failure as Emperor would set the stage for the formation of the separate nations that characterize Europe today. Lothair the First is an example of a historical figure who through failure and mediocrity influenced Europe more than many did through success and brilliance.

The Importance of Learning in an Excess of Time

While Coronavirus has certainly already done a great deal of harm and will continue to do more, it has also given us a once in a life time opportunity to gain knowledge and learn skills that we otherwise would never have had the time for. It is important that we do not waste this surplus of time. While entertainment and mindless relaxation certainly has it value, we should all spend some of this time enriching ourselves. In one of my recent posts, I listed a few books that I think provide a great deal of interesting information and help the reader better understand German history. More than just reading, though, I think that writing about history, not necessarily in any kind of formal manner, is critical to truly understanding it. The thought process that goes into writing improves one’s understanding of a subject far more than reading about it ever can. I hope that some of you will take this advice and read and write history in the coming weeks and months of quarantine. There is value in historic knowledge, but even more value in the ability to communicate that knowledge to others through the written word.

April 3rd in German History: The Death of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms | Biography, Music, & Facts | Britannica
Brahms. Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

A few weeks ago, I discussed the life and accomplishments of Beethoven on the anniversary of his death. Today is the anniversary of the death of another composer who, while perhaps not as well known as Beethoven, is still famous in his own right and is still important today. One April 3rd, 1897, Johannes Brahms died. Brahms was a German composer and conductor in the Romantic period of music. This period lasted from the late 18th to the 19th centuries, and Brahms’s life, he was born in 1833, spanned the majority of it. While Brahms is generally considered to be a traditionalist and his music based on standard classical roots, he is still recognized to be the basis for the work of many later composers and so contributed to the development of classical music. Brahms was born in Hamburg and received musical instruction first from his father. He studied the piano and composition with several teachers and in 1848 first performed in public. Over time, he composed more and more pieces and became a prominent figure in the musical world. His first symphony, Op. 68, came out in 1876 and he followed it up with a second symphony soon after along with concertos and Quartets. Brahms received many awards, including the Maximilian Award for Science and Art from the King of Bavaria. It is at this time that some quirks of Brahms’s personality become evident. He was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed several of his own works that he felt were imperfect, and even his First Symphony, Op. 68, which was started in the 1860s was so heavily revised by him that it took over ten years to make. Brahms was also prone to surprise decisions, deciding to grow a beard in 1878 after a life of being clean shaven. In the late 1880s, Brahms began to compose less and in the 1890s he essentially retired from composition. He died in 1897 of jaundice.

Brahms’s impact on modern music and culture is still felt today. His pieces are still played in orchestras around the world and feature in classical music channels on radio stations. His pieces are also used in movies and other forms of media. It is noteworthy that the music of Brahms and his colleagues has persisted for so long after their genre fell out of the mainstream of popular music. Music from 150 years ago is more commonly played and heard than music from 80 years ago or even 60 years ago, and will probably still be a significant part of music 100 years from now.

German History Books that I Recommend

Amazon.com: The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France ...
My favorite book on the Franco-Prussian War, Image Credit: Amazon

While sequestration in one’s house for weeks and months at a time is certainly frustrating, it does give us a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world. Taking a break from the discussion of German history for a day, I wanted to offer up some books on the subject that I have read that I think are interesting and informative. 

While researching the Franco-Prussian War, I read a great many books on the conflict and the years before it. The most significant of these was The Franco-Prussian War by Michael Howard. The book provides an unbiased, accurate, and very detailed analysis of the Franco-Prussian War. It analyzes the military and political situations of both nations, but spends the vast majority of its time on the course of the war, going into detail on even the most minor of conflicts. For those who are not looking for such an esoteric analysis of the war, but still significant detail and depth, there is the similarly named The Franco-Prussian War by Geoffry Wawro. This book is about half as long but is still very informative and an interesting and challenging read. If one wants to learn about the diplomacy of the war, A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871 provides in-depth analysis of the diplomatic factors that caused the war and also France’s attempts to bring other nations in on her side and Germany’s efforts to keep nations like Italy and Great Britain neutral.

The war itself is only one part of German and French history in the 19th century. For information on the leaders of the nations at that time, I suggest The Long Nineteenth Century, the History of Germany from 1780-1918, by David Blackbourn. The book explains many of the trends in Germany history and details the events that determined the course of the nation from Napoleon to its unification to its defeat in the First World War. For France, there is Napoleon the Third and His Carnival Empire by John Bierman or The French Second Empire, an Anatomy of Political Power by Roger Price. The latter book goes into astounding detail on the way that Napoleon the Third’s France worked and how it developed over its twenty year existence. Finally, the leaders of the two nations are themselves very interesting. Bierman’s book provides a lot of good information on Napoleon, but his Prime Minister, Emile Oliver, is also important. Emile Oliver and the Liberal Empire of Napoleon the Third discusses who Oliver was and Napoleon’s use of him as a tool to unify France. For Bismarck, there is Bismarck: Profiles in Power, which examines the course of Bismarck’s life. Finally, for the military commanders I recommend the writings of Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian commander during the war, and The Two Marshalls for French Marshal Bazaine. I hope that the reader will look into these books and give one of them a read. If you do, please tell me what you thought of it and maybe recommend to me some books that you like. 

April 1st in German History: The Birth of Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck - Wikiwand

On April 1st, 1815, Otto von Bismarck was born. Bismarck was, of course, the chief architect of German unification and the most famous practitioner of Realpolitik. Born a junker noble, he first became involved in politics during the Revolution of 1848 when he staunchly supported the monarchy against liberal reformers and revolutionaries. His actions earned him notoriety, but when the dust settled and the revolution failed, he was viewed as too radically conservative for a prominent position in the new government. He was made ambassador to Russia so as to keep him out of Germany. He was called back in the 1860s, though, during the budgetary crisis of 1860, which I have discussed in more detail in another post. He was able to go around the liberal parliament which was blocking the budget by using last year’s budget in place of a new one. In the following years he orchestrated wars with Denmark and Austria to establish Prussia as the dominant power in Germany. Finally, in 1870 he manipulated France into declaring war on Prussia, thus causing the entirety of Germany, except Austria, to go to war and decisively defeat France. Following the Franco-Prussian War, Germany united into one nation centered on Prussia. Bismarck, as Chancellor of the German empire, initiated programs to suppress Socialists and Catholics in his Kulturkampf. To prevent the population from turning to socialism he created the first modern welfare state. In foreign policy, he maintained peace by not engaging in overly aggressive expansionism and he convened the Berlin conference to organize the colonization of Africa. In the end though, his nuanced diplomacy and dislike of colonial expansion frustrated Kaiser Wilhelm the Second who dismissed Bismarck shortly after the death of Wilhelm the First. Bismarck’s successors would alienate Britain and Russia and so precipitate Germany’s downfall in the First World War. Bismarck is perhaps the best example of a leader who failed to protect his legacy. His successors undid much of his good work and started the process that would end in 1945 with the breakup of Germany. Such a phenomenon is common among American presidents. The current president has undone much of his predecessor’s policies. Current leaders should take note that preserving one’s accomplishments are just as important as making them.

March 31st in German History: The First Moroccan Crisis

First Moroccan Crisis - Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

One topic that often receives little attention in American history courses are the crises that preceded the First World War but were resolved. The most important of these crises was the Agadir Crisis of 1911 which saw France and Germany clash over France’s Moroccan expansion. That crisis, though, was only the last of multiple Moroccan Crises, the first of which occurred in 1905. The First Moroccan Crisis was an event that started on March 1st of 1905 with Kaiser Wilhelm the Second’s visit to the city of Tangier in Morocco. The Kaiser’s visit was in response to France’s proposing a series of reforms to the Sultan of Morocco that Germany viewed as conflicting with Morocco’s sovereignty and French expansionism in the region. The Kaiser toured the city of Tangier and spoke with the Sultan, and declared that he supported Moroccan sovereignty. Subsequently, the Sultan rejected France’s proposed reforms and called for an international conference of all the major powers to meet to advise him on necessary reforms. The French Foreign Minister, Theodolphile Declasse, rejected the proposal for a multinational conference and the two nations began pursuing militarily. The German Chancellor, Gerhard von Bulow, also threatened war. The leaders of both nations, the Kaiser and French Premier Maurice Rouvier, however, did not want war and so the real possibility of one breaking out was not high. On July 1st, at the behest of Rouvier, the French acceded to the convening of an international conference. There were still instances of military posturing shortly before the conference as Germany called up its reserves on December 30th and France moved troops to the border on the 3rd of January. The Algeciras conference was held from January 16th to April 7th of 1906. Germany, however, found it had little support among the 13 nations present. Only Austria supported Germany against France, Britain, Russia, Italy, and Spain. The Germans were forced to sign a compromise on March 31st to prevent their humiliation. Peace, at least, was preserved for a time.

The First Moroccan Crisis, and the subsequent crises that occurred before 1914, only further shows the inevitability of the First World War. That Germany and France could come as close as they did, with the nation’s mobilizing troops and moving them to the border, to war over proposed reforms to Morocco is telling. While war did not break out as a result of this crisis, the conflicting colonial ambitions and nationalistic tendencies that caused the crisis in the first place did not go away. Rather, they would result in crisis after crisis until finally war broke out over an assassination in the Balkans. The lesson to be learned from the First Moroccan Crisis and all of the other crises that led up to WWI is to not be exultant when two nations reach an agreement or stave off conflict, rather efforts to preserve peace must not be halted until the underlying causes of international tension are resolved.

The German Coronavirus Response

Soldiers of the German army at a coronavirus testing site in Sankt Wendel, Germany, on Thursday.
A coronavirus testing site in Sankt Wendel, Germany. Image Credit: Ronald Wittek/EPA

I thought it would be interesting to take a break from Germany history today and focus on the most pressing issue in Germany today, the coronavirus. Germany, like most nations around the world, has been hit by the coronavirus. The nation’s first case was recorded on January 28th when a man who works for a company that owns two plants in Wuhan tested positive for the virus. The German government, however, was able to contain the outbreak by quickly quarantining the man’s contacts. The virus, though, has since then spread via other outbreaks and at this point there are almost 64,000 cases in Germany. The nation has implemented similar lock down procedures to those in the US. Schools, most shops, and restaurants are closed. Further, gatherings are banned. The nation’s economy has also been damaged and many have lost their jobs. The current situation in Germany, however, is better than the one in Italy, Spain, or even the UK. Germany’s death rate of around .7%, as of Saturday, is far lower than Italy’s 11% or Spain’s 8%, and Germany has only half as many deaths as the UK does even with its far larger number of cases. The German government has done a better job of caring for the infected and also of slowing the spread of the virus, Germany reported its first case earlier than Italy and Spain did, and so can focus its already superior healthcare system on fewer patients. Perhaps most critically for the low death rate, the median age of an infected person in Germany is relatively low, 46. Italy’s median age is 63. A far larger proportion of Germany’s positive cases are young people. This is in large part due to Germany’s testing policies. The nation tests more people than Italy or Spain does, and it tests people who show few or no symptoms. Such people are generally young.

Germany must not become complacent, however, as the nation simply may be behind the curve relative to Spain and Italy. The nation does have a modern and well-funded healthcare system, but that system has not been tested before and may see shortages of beds and protective gear if the number of cases continue to rise. Even the lower fatality rate is only somewhat reassuring; it rose from .48% to .72% in just a few days last week. Germany will almost certainly fare better than Italy, Spain, China, and maybe even the US, but things will get worse before they get better and the nation must be ready for weeks and even months of economic shutdown and social isolation.

Today in German History, March 29th

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Henry Morgenthau, Jr. proposed the plan for the de-industrialization of Germany. Image credit: Wikipedia.

While the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not merciful to Germany, the retribution exacted by the Allied Powers after the Second World War was far harsher. The Allied Powers took a third of Germany’s pre-war territory, most notably the region of East Prussia. In doing so they destroyed Prussia as a sub-national entity. The Germans who lived in those territories were pushed out of them by the advancing Soviet forces during the final year of the war, and so the territories were populated mostly by Poles. Germany was, of course, split up into four occupation zones, which quickly consolidated into two. These zones became West and East Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, respectively. What is less known is that the Allies attempted, and to some extent succeeded, to implement the de-industrializing of Germany so as to prevent it from becoming the dominant power in Europe again. On March 29th of 1946, the Allies implemented the first of their plans for German industry. It attempted to implement the Morgenthau Plan, which called for a destruction of German heavy industry and much of its supporting civilian industry. Under it, German heavy industry would be lowered by 50% of its 1938 levels, its steel production to 25% of its prewar levels, its car production to 10% of its prewar levels. The aim was to reduce Germany to a standard of living equivalent to that which it had in 1932 and make Germany a light industrial and agricultural economy which could not pose a threat to European peace. The plans, however, were quickly made more lenient as the Western Allies turned their attention towards the Soviets. If Germany were de-industrialized then it could not serve as a bulwark against Communist aggression. In the end, German industry was reduced but not by as much as the original plans had called for. Only 706 manufacturing plants in West Germany were destroyed by the completion of the last plan in 1950, instead of the 1500 called for by the 1946 plan. Even these plants were quickly replaced in the economic expansion that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

I find the implications of the Allied postwar plans intimidating. We often view history as a series of continuous, almost inevitable, trends like democratization and economic growth. The Allied plans represented an attempt to reverse this course of history by undoing industrialization and turning the clock back. The very idea that an industrial nation can return to an agricultural economy is frightening. That something so mundane as politics can motivate the destruction of an economy that was the product of centuries of development suggests that any historical trend, from development to liberalization, can be halted and reversed by short-term geopolitical factors.