Category Archives: Today in History

Germany and France Declare War on Each Other

Aug 3, 1914:

Germany and France Declare War on Each Other

On the afternoon of this day in 1914, two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declares war on France, moving ahead with a long-held strategy, conceived by the former chief of staff of the German army, Alfred von Schlieffen, for a two-front war against France and Russia. Hours later, France makes its own declaration of war against Germany, readying its troops to move into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which it had forfeited to Germany in the settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

With Germany officially at war with France and Russia, a conflict originally centered in the tumultuous Balkans region—with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the subsequent standoff between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Serbia’s powerful Slavic supporter, Russia—had erupted into a full-scale war. Also on August 3, the first wave of German troops assembled on the frontier of neutral Belgium, which in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan would be crossed by German armies on their way to an invasion of France. The day before, Germany had presented Belgium and its sovereign, King Albert, with an ultimatum demanding passage for the German army through its territory.

This threat to Belgium, whose perpetual neutrality had been mandated by a treaty concluded by the European powers—including Britain, France and Germany—in 1839, united a divided British government in opposition to German aggression. Hours before Germany’s declaration of war on France on August 3, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, went before Parliament and convinced a divided British government—and nation—to give its support to Britain’s entrance into the war if Germany violated Belgian neutrality.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” Grey famously remarked to a friend on the night of August 3. The next day, Britain sent its own ultimatum to Berlin: halt the invasion of Belgium or face war with Britain as well. A reply was demanded by midnight that night. At noon that day, King Albert finally made a concerted appeal for help to France and Britain, as guarantors of Belgium’s neutrality according to the Treaty of 1839. To do so earlier, to call in the French and British too soon, would have risked violating his country’s neutrality before Germany had done so. When London received no answer to its ultimatum—the first German troops had in fact crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmerich, 30 miles from the fortress city of Liege, that morning—Britain declared war on Germany.

In August 1914, as the great powers of Europe readied their armies and navies for a fight, no one was preparing for a long struggle—both sides were counting on a short, decisive conflict that would end in their favor. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm assured troops leaving for the front in the first week of August 1914. Even though some military leaders, including German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke and his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, foresaw a longer conflict, they did not modify their war strategy to prepare for that eventuality. One man, the controversial new war secretary in Britain, Lord Horatio Kitchener, did act on his conviction that the war would be a lasting one, insisting from the beginning of the war—against considerable opposition—on the need to build up Britain’s armed forces. “A nation like Germany,” Kitchener argued, “after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. This will take a very long time. No one living knows how long.”

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Italians move on British Somaliland

Aug 3, 1940:

Italians move on British Somaliland

On this day in 1940, Italy begins its offensive against the British colony of Somaliland, in East Africa, territory contiguous with Italian Somaliland.

Italy had occupied parts of East Africa since 1936 and by 1940, when it officially entered the war, had troops far outnumbering British forces in the region. Despite their numerical superiority, the Italians had been slow to make offensive moves for fear that the British blockade in North Africa would make it impossible to get much-needed supplies, such as fuel and weapons, to sustain long engagements. But if Italy was to make greater territorial gains, it had to act, while British numbers were still relatively small.

After several forays a few miles into Sudan and Kenya, the Italians were ready for a bigger push: British Somaliland. The rationale was that it was actually a defensive move. Afraid that the British could enter Italian-occupied Ethiopia through French Somaliland, the Duke of Aosta (who was also Viceroy of Ethiopia and supreme Italian military commander of the region) ordered an invasion of British Somaliland. The British defenders at the garrison put up a fierce struggle; although they had to eventually withdraw, they inflicted 2,000 casualties on the Italian forces, while suffering only 250 of their own.

Italy would not enter the Somaliland capital, Berbera, until August 19, while Britain built up its African forces in Kenya. The war for East Africa was not over.

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Hitler Becomes Fuhrer

Aug 2, 1934:

Hitler Becomes Fuhrer

With the death of German President Paul von Hindenburg, Chancellor Adolf Hitler becomes absolute dictator of Germany under the title of Fuhrer, or “Leader.” The German army took an oath of allegiance to its new commander-in-chief, and the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled to make way for Hitler’s Third Reich. The Fuhrer assured his people that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years, but Nazi Germany collapsed just 11 years later.

Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, in 1889. As a young man he aspired to be a painter, but he received little public recognition and lived in poverty in Vienna. Of German descent, he came to detest Austria as a “patchwork nation” of various ethnic groups, and in 1913 he moved to the German city of Munich in the state of Bavaria. After a year of drifting, he found direction as a German soldier in World War I, and was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. He was in a military hospital in 1918, recovering from a mustard gas attack that left him temporarily blind, when Germany surrendered.

He was appalled by Germany’s defeat, which he blamed on “enemies within”–chiefly German communists and Jews–and was enraged by the punitive peace settlement forced on Germany by the victorious Allies. He remained in the German army after the war, and as an intelligence agent was ordered to report on subversive activities in Munich’s political parties. It was in this capacity that he joined the tiny German Workers’ Party, made up of embittered army veterans, as the group’s seventh member. Hitler was put in charge of the party’s propaganda, and in 1920 he assumed leadership of the organization, changing its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ party), which was abbreviated to Nazi.

The party’s socialist orientation was little more than a ploy to attract working-class support; in fact, Hitler was fiercely right-wing. But the economic views of the party were overshadowed by the Nazis’ fervent nationalism, which blamed Jews, communists, the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany’s ineffectual democratic government for the country’s devastated economy. In the early 1920s, the ranks of Hitler’s Bavarian-based Nazi party swelled with resentful Germans. A paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung (SA), was formed to protect the Nazis and intimidate their political opponents, and the party adopted the ancient symbol of the swastika as its emblem.

In November 1923, after the German government resumed the payment of war reparations to Britain and France, the Nazis launched the “Beer Hall Putsch”–an attempt at seizing the German government by force. Hitler hoped that his nationalist revolution in Bavaria would spread to the dissatisfied German army, which in turn would bring down the government in Berlin. However, the uprising was immediately suppressed, and Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for treason.

Imprisoned in Landsberg fortress, he spent his time there dictating his autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a bitter and rambling narrative in which he sharpened his anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist beliefs and laid out his plans for Nazi conquest. In the work, published in a series of volumes, he developed his concept of the Fuhrer as an absolute dictator who would bring unity to German people and lead the “Aryan race” to world supremacy.

Political pressure from the Nazis forced the Bavarian government to commute Hitler’s sentence, and he was released after nine months. However, Hitler emerged to find his party disintegrated. An upturn in the economy further reduced popular support of the party, and for several years Hitler was forbidden to make speeches in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought a new opportunity for the Nazis to solidify their power. Hitler and his followers set about reorganizing the party as a fanatical mass movement, and won financial backing from business leaders, for whom the Nazis promised an end to labor agitation. In the 1930 election, the Nazis won six million votes, making the party the second largest in Germany. Two years later, Hitler challenged Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency, but the 84-year-old president defeated Hitler with the support of an anti-Nazi coalition.

Although the Nazis suffered a decline in votes during the November 1932 election, Hindenburg agreed to make Hitler chancellor in January 1933, hoping that Hitler could be brought to heel as a member of his cabinet. However, Hindenburg underestimated Hitler’s political audacity, and one of the new chancellor’s first acts was to exploit the burning of the Reichstag (parliament) building as a pretext for calling general elections. The police under Nazi Hermann Goering suppressed much of the party’s opposition before the election, and the Nazis won a bare majority. Shortly after, Hitler took on dictatorial power through the Enabling Acts.

Chancellor Hitler immediately set about arresting and executing political opponents, and even purged the Nazis’ own SA paramilitary organization in a successful effort to win support from the German army. With the death of President Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Hitler united the chancellorship and presidency under the new title of Fuhrer. As the economy improved, popular support for Hitler’s regime became strong, and a cult of Fuhrer worship was propagated by Hitler’s capable propagandists.

German remilitarization and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism drew criticism from abroad, but the foreign powers failed to stem the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, Hitler implemented his plans for world domination with the annexation of Austria, and in 1939 Germany seized all of Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, finally led to war with Germany and France. In the opening years of World War II, Hitler’s war machine won a series of stunning victories, conquering the great part of continental Europe. However, the tide turned in 1942 during Germany’s disastrous invasion of the USSR.

By early 1945, the British and Americans were closing in on Germany from the west, the Soviets from the east, and Hitler was holed up in a bunker under the chancellery in Berlin awaiting defeat. On April 30, with the Soviets less than a mile from his headquarters, Hitler committed suicide with Eva Braun, his mistress whom he married the night before.

Hitler left Germany devastated and at the mercy of the Allies, who divided the country and made it a major battlefield of Cold War conflict. His regime exterminated nearly six millions Jews and an estimated 250,000 Gypsies in the Holocaust, and an indeterminable number of Slavs, political dissidents, disabled persons, homosexuals, and others deemed unacceptable by the Nazi regime were systematically eliminated. The war Hitler unleashed upon Europe took even more lives–close to 20 million people killed in the USSR alone. Adolf Hitler is reviled as one of history’s greatest villains.

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President of the Weimar Republic Hindenburg Dies

Aug 2, 1934:

President of the Weimar Republic Hindenburg Dies

On this day in 1934, Paul von Hindenburg, president of the Weimar Republic of Germany, dies, opening the door for the tyranny of Adolf Hitler, whom he had appointed chancellor in 1933.

Hindenburg’s life was one immersed in the Prussian military tradition. His father was a Prussian officer, and Hindenburg fought in the Seven Weeks’ War (with Austria) at age 19, and later in the Franco-Prussian War. He was eventually promoted to the rank of general before retiring from the military in 1911.

But it was during World War I that Hindenburg came to national prominence. He was asked to serve as the superior to Major General Erich Ludendorff, a prominent army strategist. Ludendorff succeeded in driving Russian invaders from East Prussia-but it was Hindenburg who was given the credit. As the war progressed, Hindenburg’s stature grew to epic proportions, even influencing Emperor Wilhelm II to make him commander of all land forces, despite Hindenburg’s rather dubious strategic skills. In fact, severe miscalculations on Hindenburg’s part resulted in Germany’s defeat, which Hindenburg then blamed on Ludendorff. (And which Ludendorff and the generals then blamed on the politicians.)

A monarchist fond of authoritarian regimes, Hindenburg nevertheless took the reigns of the postwar republican government as president in 1925. Fearful of social unrest (from both the far right and far left), in light of the Depression and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded heavy reparations from Germany as the terms of its surrender, Hindenburg authorized his chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, to dissolve the Reichstag (parliament) if necessary and call for new elections—which he did. Those new elections ushered in the Nazi Party as the second largest party in the Reichstag.

Re-elected as president in 1932, Hindenburg had already lost the support of many of the more conservative elements in the government, who were flocking to Hitler’s party, which they saw as the key to renewed German prestige and the bulwark against Bolshevism. After a succession of chancellors proved ineffectual in reversing Germany’s economic slide, and gaining the Nazi support necessary to keep a coalition together, Hindenburg reluctantly named Hitler chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg was never an ardent Hitler supporter, but he did little to impede him as Hitler began employing terror tactics in his drive to consolidate power for the Nazis.

When Hindenburg died, he was still a respected figure nationwide and was buried, with his wife, at Tannenberg, the sight of the great victory against the Russians during World War I. As World War II was came to a close, their bodies were removed so that the advancing Russians would not get at them. They were ultimately reburied by Americans at Marburg.

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Mutiny breaks out on German Battleship

Aug 2, 1917:

Mutiny breaks out on German Battleship

On August 2, 1917, with British forces settling into new positions captured from the Germans in the much-contested Ypres Salient on the Western Front of World War I, Germany faces more trouble closer to home, as a mutiny breaks out aboard the German battleship Prinzregent Luitpold, anchored at the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven.

During the August 2 mutiny, some 400 sailors marched into town calling for an end to the war and proclaiming their unwillingness to continue fighting. Although the demonstration was quickly brought under control by army officials and the sailors were persuaded to return to their ships without real violence that day, some 75 of them were arrested and imprisoned and the ringleaders of the mutiny were subsequently tried, convicted and executed. “I die with a curse on the German-militarist state,” one of them, Albin Kobis, wrote his parents before he was shot by an army firing squad at Cologne. As Willy Weber, another convicted sailor, whose death sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison, put it: “Nobody wanted a revolution, we just wanted to be treated more like human beings.”

Discontent and rebellion within the German Imperial High Seas Fleet continued throughout the following year, as things went abysmally for Germany on the battlefields of the Western Front after the initial success of their spring offensive in 1918. It was rumored that naval commanders were plotting a last-ditch attempt, against the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reichstag government, to confront the mighty British navy and break the Allied blockade in the North Sea. The force of this rumor, combined with sinking morale, led to an even more significant mutiny at Wilhelmshaven on October 29, 1918, sparked by the arrest of some 300 sailors who had refused to obey orders.

The unrest soon spread to another German port city, Kiel, where on November 3 some 3,000 German sailors and workers rose in revolt, taking over ships and buildings and brandishing the red flag of communism. The following day, November 4, the rebels at Kiel formed the first Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Germany, defying the national government and seeking to act in the spirit of the Russian soviets. On the same day, the government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire asked the Allies for an armistice, which they were granted. An isolated and internally divided Germany was forced to sue for its own armistice barely a week later, and the First World War came to an end.

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First World War erupts in Europe

Aug 1, 1914:

First World War erupts in Europe

On August 1, 1914, four days after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, two more great European powers—Russia and Germany—declare war on each other; the same day, France orders a general mobilization. The so-called “Great War” that ensued would be one of unprecedented destruction and loss of life, resulting in the deaths of some 20 million soldiers and civilians and the physical devastation of much of the European continent.

The event that was widely acknowledged to have sparked the outbreak of World War I occurred on July 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot to death with his wife by the Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. Over the weeks that followed, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack, hoping to use the incident as justification for settling the problem of Slavic nationalism in the tumultuous Balkans region once and for all. However, as Russia supported Serbia, an Austria-Hungary declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention. This assurance came on July 5; Austria-Hungary subsequently sent an ultimatum to the Serbian government on July 23 and demanded its acceptance within two days at the risk of war. Though Serbia accepted all but two of the ultimatum’s terms, and Russia declared its intention to back Serbia in the case of such a conflict, Austria-Hungary went ahead with its war declaration against Serbia on July 28, one month after the assassinations.

With that declaration, the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers was shattered: Germany warned Russia, still only partially mobilized, that to continue to full mobilization against Austria-Hungary would mean war with Germany. While insisting that Russia immediately halt mobilization, Germany began its own mobilization; when the Russians refused the German demands, Germany declared war on the czarist empire on August 1. That same day, Russia’s ally, France, long suspicious of German aggression, began its own mobilization, urging Great Britain—the third member, along with France and Russia, of the Triple Entente alliance—to declare its support. A divided British government declined to do so initially, but events soon precipitated Britain’s move towards war as well. On August 2, the first German army units crossed into Luxembourg as part of a long-planned German strategy to invade France through neutral Belgium. France and Germany declared war against each other on August 3; that night, Germany invaded Belgium, prompting Great Britain to declare war on Germany.

For the most part, the people of Europe greeted the outbreak of war with jubilation. The great majority of people—within government and without—assumed that their country would be victorious within months, and could not envision the possibility of a longer conflict. By the end of 1914, however, well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and there was no final victory in sight for either the Allies or the Central Powers. On the Western Front—the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium—the combatants settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition, which would continue, in Europe and other corners of the world, for the next four years.

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Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia Exchange Telegrams

Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II circa 1913

Jul 29, 1914:

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia Exchange Telegrams

In the early hours of July 29, 1914, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, begin a frantic exchange of telegrams regarding the newly erupted war in the Balkan region and the possibility of its escalation into a general European war.

One day prior, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, one month after the assassination in Sarajevo of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist. In the wake of the killings, Germany had promised Austria-Hungary its unconditional support in whatever punitive action it chose to take towards Serbia, regardless of whether or not Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, stepped into the conflict. By the time an ultimatum from Vienna to Serbia was rejected on July 25, Russia, defying Austro-German expectations, had already ordered preliminary mobilization to begin, believing that Berlin was using the assassination crisis as a pretext to launch a war to shore up its power in the Balkans.

The relationship between Nicholas and Wilhelm, two grandsons of Britain’s Queen Victoria, had long been a rocky one. Though Wilhelm described himself as Victoria’s favorite grandson, the great queen in turn warned Nicholas to be careful of Wilhelm’s “mischievous and unstraight-forward proceedings.” Victoria did not invite the kaiser, who she described to her prime minister as “a hot-headed, conceited, and wrong-headed young man,” to her Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897, nor her 80th birthday two years later. Czar Nicholas himself commented in 1902 after a meeting with Wilhelm: “He’s raving mad!” Now, however, the two cousins stood at the center of the crisis that would soon escalate into the First World War.

“In this serious moment, I appeal to you to help me,” Czar Nicholas wrote to the kaiser in a telegram sent at one o’clock on the morning of July 29. “An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.” This message crossed with one from Wilhelm to Nicholas expressing concern about the effect of Austria’s declaration in Russia and urging calm and consideration as a response.

After receiving the czar’s telegram, Wilhelm cabled back: “I…share your wish that peace should be maintained. But…I cannot consider Austria’s action against Serbia an ‘ignoble’ war. Austria knows by experience that Serbian promises on paper are wholly unreliable. I understand its action must be judged as trending to get full guarantee that the Serbian promises shall become real facts…I therefore suggest that it would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro-Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed.” Though Wilhelm assured the czar that the German government was working to broker an agreement between Russia and Austria-Hungary, he warned that if Russia were to take military measures against Austria, war would be the result.

The telegram exchange continued over the next few days, as the two men spoke of their desire to preserve peace, even as their respective countries continued mobilizing for war. On July 30, the kaiser wrote to Nicholas: “I have gone to the utmost limits of the possible in my efforts to save peace….Even now, you can still save the peace of Europe by stopping your military measures.” The following day, Nicholas replied: “It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilization. We are far from wishing for war. As long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia’s account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this.” But by that time things had gone too far: Emperor Franz Josef had rejected the kaiser’s mediation offer, saying it came too late, as Russia had already mobilized and Austrian troops were already marching on Serbia.

The German ambassador to Russia delivered an ultimatum that night—halt the mobilization within 12 hours, or Germany would begin its own mobilization, a step that would logically proceed to war. By four o’clock in the afternoon of August 1, in Berlin, no reply had come from Russia. At a meeting with Germany’s civilian and military leaders—Chancellor Theobald Bethmann von Hollweg and General Erich von Falkenhayn—Kaiser Wilhelm agreed to sign the mobilization orders.

That same day, in his last contribution to what were dubbed the “Willy-Nicky” telegrams, Czar Nicholas pressed the kaiser for assurance that his mobilization did not definitely mean war. Wilhelm’s response was dismissive. “I yesterday pointed out to your government the way by which alone war may be avoided….I have…been obliged to mobilize my army. Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.” Germany declared war on Russia that same day.

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