Christopher Clark (Cambridge University) - Dynasty and Decision Making in 1914 (Special lecture)

seminar report

In 1914 Europe remained overwhelmingly a society of monarchies, where modern technology stood in contrast to the enormous dynastic and constitutional authority of monarchs. This was especially true of the three great central and eastern European dynasties: the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, and Romanovs. Monarchs carefully choreographed their frequent gatherings to mark dynastic, diplomatic and national festivities, often including celebrations of technology and commerce. Gatherings such as the 1913 wedding celebration of Victoria Louise, daughter of emperor William II, attracted extraordinarily wide public attention, even in the socialist press. In the four great imperial monarchies (including Britain’s), princes could have a significant impact on policy and diplomacy, though the extent of their influence varied from one system or reign to another. The intelligence or energy of the ruler and his/her personal experiences or inclinations could have a powerful impact on government, especially foreign policy. In Britain, Edward VII’s personal suspicion of the Germans was very important in promoting anti-German sentiment and groupings; his Francophile enthusiasms had a powerful impact on British perceptions and policy-making. Similarly, his desire for a rapprochement with Russia, supported by powerful Whitehall figures, proved crucial. In contrast, George V distanced himself from any personal role beyond whatever his foreign ministers required. Thus, after 1910 the diplomatic authority of the British monarch declined sharply. In Russia, Nicholas II, inept and often ill-informed, was convinced that Russia’s future lay in East Asia. Supported by aggressive promoters of expansion, he played a vitally important role in pushing confrontation with Japan. The Tsar never accepted the elimination of his personal authority after the Russian military defeat by Japan. With neither clear direction nor consistency he continued to interfere secretly in Balkan diplomacy during the pre-war years, to no positive effect. In Germany, William II’s interventions proved disastrous, mainly because of his extreme personal idiosyncrasies. His utterances were often grossly inappropriate; his schemes hare-brained; his emotions and instincts undisciplined. His often incoherent babble alienated his ministers, diplomats, foreign royalties and his own German people. His fantastic, often paranoid talk appalled, hurt or frightened many. He came to symbolize the limits and vagaries of German foreign policy while his ministers worked to distance him whenever possible from diplomacy. Normally, however, European statesmen and diplomats counted on their monarchs to play a constructive role in foreign policy, expecting them to help impose order and coordination in government and diplomacy. But across Europe, by 1914, the princes had failed to join their systems up. Disastrously, instead of fulfilling this vitally crucial role, they relied too often on rhetorical and ceremonial excess. CCN