With Russia massing troops near Ukraine’s eastern border Thursday, eyes were very much on Germany, the European heavyweight that both has the most potential leverage over Vladimir Putin and the Russian economy and the most to lose from a collapse in relations. All along, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been hard for Americans to read—on the one hand, she’s been counseling calm and arguing against sanctions, while at the same time openly suggesting that Putin has taken leave of his senses and, on Thursday, warning Putin in strikingly strong terms against further incursions into Ukraine.
If Merkel and Germany’s approach has been hard for America to follow, that may be in part because they are, quite simply, viewing the crisis through a different lens. Over here, the most popular comparisons for the current moment have been to Nazi Germany’s gradual takeover of Central European territory in 1938 and 1939 under the guise of protecting German ethnic minorities; there have also been some comparisons to Russian military incursions in the Soviet and post-Soviet era, whether in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Georgia in 2007.
But in Germany, by far the most invoked historical ghost is 1914. Sure, there are mentions here and there of Sudentenland and Munich and 1938—it’s not that the Germans are averse to Nazi analogies. But what really has them fixated right now are the parallels between the current situation and the catastrophic stumble into war that occurred a century ago with another dispute in a seemingly remote region involving a small, disputed piece of territory (Bosnia-Herzegovina), a young country with its share of trouble-making nationalists (Serbia) and a great power in long-term decline (Austria-Hungary). Some, such as Josh Marshall, have already noted Germany’s 1914 fixation, but the fixation has if anything grown even stronger in recent days. For instance, on Wednesday, the Social Democrats, which are in coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats, issued this warning, reported by the New York Times: “One hundred year after the start of World War I, military force should never again become the means of conducting politics.”
Curious just how much the 1914 fixation had taken hold, I started reading around in the German press from recent days. And indeed, the World War I analogies are everywhere. Some examples (rough translations by yours truly):
The Badische Zeitung in southwestern Germany, on Thursday’s latest developments:
Even [Merkel] begins her speech with the First World War. That Europe must recall in this year an ill-fated kind of politics, one that led to terrifying spilling of blood and the rupture of our civilization. Since then, the world has had to learn what valued goods peace, freedom and prosperity are—and along with that, “That each of us achieves less when alone than when together.”
From Bild, the mass-market tabloid (where dark warnings of world war run alongside chipper semi-NSFW pictures in the margins):
The shock waves of the Crimean crisis are leaving Europe quaking and sparking fear among more and more people!
One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, fear of war is spreading anew. Some 31 percent of Germans are telling [pollsters] that the Crimea crisis will lead to a military conflict between Ukraine and Russia…
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung grappled today with the tormenting question of whether “1914” could repeat itself. FAZ Columnist Günther Nonnenmacher wrote in an opinion piece, “Can Europe, can the World, through a chain of unfortunate developments, coupled with the partial blindness of rulers, as the historian Christopher Clark and the political scientist Herfried Münkler have described in detail in their work, once again be plunged into war?”
Nonnenmacher provides the answer himself, by going on to write: “But much suggests that the mechanisms of crisis-control that were created after the Second World War and the collapse of the East Bloc will prevent the outbreak of a larger conflict.”
Tagesspiegel, a daily newspaper based in Berlin, likewise tried to take an optimistic view of the 1914 analogy:
History holds many lessons. That of Munich 1938 is one, that of the summer 1914 another. But neither fits with the current stat of affairs. In 1914 it was Christopher Clark’s “Sleepwalkers” who gave rise to the First World War, and in 1938, it was appeasement politics that led to the Second World War. But in 2014, diplomacy is awake. And the diplomatic efforts should therefore not be discredited as signs of weakness, but rather should be required at all levels.”
Only war requires executioners.
Die Welt, a daily newspaper based in Berlin and owned by Axel Springer, the same huge media conglomerate that owns Bild, quoted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier making foreboding allusions:
“What you see,” declared the Foreign Minister, “is the picture of a breakdown – of military and political elites, but also of diplomacy.” Steinmeier was alluding to 1914, the start of the First World War 100 years ago….Even just because this anniversary, there will be much opportunity for Merkel and Steinmeier to think about aggressors and sleepwalkers…
Josef Joffe, the conservative publisher-editor of Die Zeit, a highbrow weekly, compares Russia’s invasion of Crimea to Germany’s invasion of Belgium but sees a key difference:
A territory as small as Belgium may have been worth a great war for England in 1914, but will in the nuclear age not provoke a military response. Tough sanctions? They hurt both sides and will therefore be dispensed only in small doses. That said, the coup in Crimea is a rule violation, an art of neo-imperialism, that must make anxious even those inclined to be sympathetic.
What are we to make of this? Well, for one thing, that World War I holds a grip on the German and European imagination to the extent that is hard to comprehend for Americans, whose country came into that war in its final year—it’s easy to assume that World War II is the be-all and end-all in the European consciousness, given that it lies three decades closer and that it wreaked such horror on civilians and civilian infrastructure across the continent. In fact, though, World War I claimed far more military casualties than World War II in France, England and Italy, among others. For Germany, World War I’s two million military deaths were still more than doubled in the war to follow, but every Gymnasium graduate knows full well how the disaster that was the first war set the stage for the one to follow.
But the dwelling on 1914 also helps explain why the Germans have had so little patience this month for one-upmanship by either side, whether it’s overly loose talk of sanctions or NATO troop shifts from their American friends or the less rhetorical provocations coming from Russia. The country that many (though hardly all) historians still hold most responsible for the escalations of July and August 1914 now dreads even the slightest hint of the turning ratchet. To the extent that the Obama administration is trying to persuade Merkel to a course of action, the trick will be framing it in terms unlikely to echo anything from 1914. The edict is the same as Basil Fawlty’s: don’t mention the war. But the war not to mention is a different one.