On the Kaiser and the Administrative State

A couple of weeks ago a buddy forwarded to me a photo that a friend of his had taken, of House Doorn in the Netherlands.  This is it:

house-doorn

As Gentle Reader might surmise from the bust in the foreground, this was the house in which Kaiser Wilhelm II spent the last two decades or thereabouts of his life.  He is buried on the grounds there, and is likely to remain there forever.  His express wish was not to be returned to Germany until it became a monarchy again, and the likelihood of that occurring is somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.0.

Being the considerate, courteous feller that I am I thanked my buddy.  I passed along that I have the two-volume biography of Wilhelm by Lamar Cecil, which I found to be very well done, and remarkably fair given the subject.  Cecil doesn’t pull punches, but refrains from gratuitous character-blackening.  But it’s his final comment on Wilhelm that sticks in the mind.  Of the last kaiser it could equally be said, so Cecil, what Wellington pronounced upon George IV:  He lived and died without being able to assert so much as a single claim upon the gratitude of posterity.

My buddy then e-mailed me back to allow that Cecil’s judgment echoed what he had read about ol’ Kaiser Bill in both Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace, both by Margaret MacMillan.  I have both and recommend them both, but the exchange with my buddy got me to thinking back to the war’s beginnings.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, the Great War has been a fetish of mine for right at 30 years.  I can’t say I have any friends I know to give a tinker’s damn about it, but for me it is a source of endless fascination and continuing reflection.  [N.b.  By an odd coincidence, a very dear friend of mine had one grandfather who was a machine-gunner for the kaiser; the other grandfather had been a machine-gunner in the A.E.F.]

I have on loan from a mutual friend the BBC mini-series 37 Days, the story of the interval between the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on June 28 and the August 3, 1914, British declaration of war.  As you might expect from the Beeb, the story is told primarily from the viewpoint of the Anglo-German dyad.  There are two brief scenes each of Franz Joseph and Nicholas II; the balance of the action takes place in London and Berlin.  The central character around whom the narrative is framed is Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister.  Ian McDiarmid plays Grey marvelously.

There are a couple of historical inaccuracies in the plot.

Franz Joseph is implied to be the motive force behind the famous ultimatum to Serbia, when in fact it was his cabinet, and above all his military Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who seized upon the assassination (which Franz Joseph greeted with, above all, a sense of relief, remarking as much in so many words) to crush Serbia once and for all, both to remove a source of agitation for the empire’s Serb minority and to re-assert Austria-Hungary’s place as a Great Power in Europe.

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm’s initial reaction is presented as being bellicose, when it was nothing of the kind.  At least at first.  For obvious reasons the Austrians wanted to know whether they had Germany’s backing in doing anything to Serbia as such in response to the assassination.  So they sent Alexander, Count von Hoyos a foreign service official, with a memorandum in hand to see the Austrian ambassador to Germany, who was then to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Reichskanzler, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.  Bethmann-Hollweg’s initial reaction during that meeting — and more importantly, the kaiser’s as well — was cautionary.  But during the Austrian ambassador’s meeting with kaiser and chancellor, Hoyos was meeting with his own German counterpart to “explain” the memorandum’s actual meaning.  Hoyos had long been, it seems, a proponent of violent reckoning with Serbia, and the gloss he put on the memorandum was that Austria wanted a short, victorious war against Serbia and it expected Germany to live up to its alliance obligations.  That “interpretation” was then communicated up to Wilhelm, and by the time dinner came around that evening, Wilhelm was wearing his war paint and declared that whatever Austria wanted to do, Germany would back it to the hilt.  Thus was the famous “blank check” given.

The final point of inaccuracy in the BBC miniseries is that it presents Bethmann-Hollweg as being much more belligerent, and much more energetic about provoking warlike measures by the Austrians, than he actually was.  He’d never served in the army and had no illusions about its out-sized role in Germany policy-making.  He had long been an unsuccessful opponent of Admiral Tirpitz’s quixotic naval construction programs.

But that’s not what this post is about.  The BBC miniseries very accurately presents the role played by the German General Staff, the Generalstab.  The generals very very much wanted a war, but not a war between Austria and Serbia.  They were looking for war with Russia, a preventive war.

What follows below is the (slightly edited) e-mail I sent to my buddy:

If you back up a half-step from the historical narrative and look at the meta-story of it, what you realize is that what was going on was that the responsible organs of government – the kaiser and the reichskanzler — abdicated a central decision-making function – how to address the continent-wide instabilities created by two decrepit, ancient political systems (Austria-Hungary and Russia) as they desperately fought for continued relevance in a notoriously volatile part of Europe — to supposed “experts” viz. the Army Generalstab. 

Everyone and his cousin knew the issue – What to Do About the Balkans, Dear – to be fiendishly complicated. 

But hist! the Generalstab more or less hijacked the decisional process.  For them the issue wasn’t the Balkans as such, it was the supposed settling of accounts (“Which accounts, exactly?” the innocent bystander might have asked) with Russia.  For decades – ever since Caprivi had let the Secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse in 1890 (I think it was), the Generalstab had assumed a war with Russia as part of Germany’s treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary.  To be true, they’d at first discounted the possibility that despotic Russia and republican France could ever find their way to the same bed, but in 1894 it had happened.  But they were “experts,” after all, and what good is an “expert” if he can’t “solve” any problem you set him, right? 

In 1914, the “experts” of the Generalstab offered several assurances to the responsible decision-makers:  (i)  There was a rapidly approaching, apocalyptic event – the overtaking of Germany by Russia in military and economic power – the result of which, if not stopped, was the utter destruction of Germany as a flourishing polity and puissant European power.  (ii)  Only the Army had the power to stop it.  (iii)  The only method of addressing this on-coming apocalypse was to cede authority and command over events to the experts, who were to be given free hand in crafting a salvation from it, and that salvation was a specifically military solution.  (v)  There were no unknown developments to fearfrom the experts’ be-all-and-end-all solution of provoking a general war against Russia in the east (oh, for example, the American industrial economy being effectively thrown into the scales on the other side, or Italy getting bought by the Allies with promises of Austrian territory).  (vi) Any known risks of side-effects had been fully accounted for and contained (the Schlieffen Plan and knocking France out of the war in six weeks, thereby reducing the British and more critically the Royal Navy to impotence . . . assuming Britain even bothered to come in at all). 

You will readily recognize in the above the fundamental paradigm of the modern state.  The organs pursue their own agendas, which they form internally and without reference, by and large, to the determinations of the responsible political organs.  Those agendas grow from the agencies’ own objectives, the ultimate outcomes of which, whatever other attributes they might enjoy, invariably display one common feature: the increase in the control exerted by that agency, and the protection of its insiders.  The agencies invariably present their programs never as a trade-off among competing priorities, but rather as the sole chance of staving off catastrophe.  The agencies explicitly take the position that no one from outside them can possibly understand their pet issue(s) or be morally entitled to take a position on them which must be respected and is entitled to be accounted for in any ultimate resolution.  The agencies strenuously maintain, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that they possess full knowledge of every possible consequence of their actions, have accounted for those consequences, and have so arranged everything – Everything, I tell you!! – that no meaningful harm can come from just turning the keys over to them, and if we’ll all just shut up and do as they say, the lion will lie down with the lamb and all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. 

Hold that template up to nearly every single agency of modern government, and you will see it fits like pigskin on a pig.  The legal system?  Check.  The EPA?  Check.  The Fed?  Spot-on.  The educational industry?  Oh boy yes; try making a suggestion about how classroom education might be improved to someone carrying an NEA card in her purse and see how much an Outsider gets listened to.  Pretty much any of the alphabet-soup agencies?  Like it was tailor-fit to them.  The military?  Pretty much yes, although the cultural memory of Vietnam has done a great deal to pop a lot of seams in the cloth (kind of ironic that the one aspect of modern America which doesn’t fit perfectly the paradigm of summer, 1914 is precisely the American military in its relationship with the responsible organs of government). 

And now remind me how the Kaiser’s decision to put the generals in the saddle in July, 1914 worked out.

We are glibly informed by our president that, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” and so he’ll jolly well do as he pleases and Congress be damned.

We have the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which actually isn’t a “board” at all, but rather a non-firable single administrator whose budget comes from the Fed’s surplus income and who answers to no one (mercifully, that structure was just the other day ruled to be unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit).

We have the EPA just more or less deciding to destroy the American power system through regulating carbon dioxide as a “pollutant”.  The courts, indulging the lunacy, agreed that what comes out of your chest as you exhale is subject to regulation by the EPA.  Think about that one, Gentle Reader.  The product of one of your basic life processes is subject to regulation in Washington, D.C.  You are a discharge point.  The EPA runs the National Point Discharge Elimination System (at least for wastewater; I can’t say off the top of my head whether it applies to airborne pollutants — like your breath — as well).  Can you say “residency permit” and “internal passport,” Gentle Reader?  Don’t think it can’t happen; the Army Corps of Engineers famously tried to regulate wet-weather pools on private land as being “navigable waters”.

It is an unfortunate fact of Life that it is far, far easier to do harm than good.  It took the better part of 600 years to build the cathedral at Cologne (or Köln, as we Germanophones would say it); one truck bomb lit off by an ISIS sleeper cell (and the German security services have admitted that such are already there) could bring it down with a few hours’ work.  The German Generalstab managed, with a few weeks manipulation of processes and personalities, to provoke a war which just about destroyed European civilization; in fact, it did destroy it.  If in 1895 you’d asked anyone but a raving lunatic whether it was OK to shoot and gas 6,000,000 people because of where — not just they, but their ancestors going back six generations — went to church, they’d have tried to calm you down while they quietly fetched the gentlemen bearing the straitjackets.  If you’d suggested that it was OK to kick hundreds of thousands of people off land they and their ancestors had inhabited for centuries (as happened in Poland, and eastern Germany, and the Sudetenland), they’d have very carefully put a table between you and them.  If you’d proposed that it would be a very good thing to starve to death your entire independent agricultural class, they’d have run for the hills shouting there was a madman on their tails.  And yet by mid-century all this and much, much more had happened, and had been blessed not just by the perpetrators but by “serious” third-party observers, such as The New York Times whitewashing the Holodomor.

What might an uncontrolled administrative state work by way of mischief?  I am afraid that I will live long enough to find out.  I am terrified that my sons almost certainly will.

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