Gott Strafe England: World War I and Guilt [1914 CE – 1985 CE]

I remember my surprize as a boy to learn what enduring hatred two elderly German Americans I knew held for Great Britain and its role in World War I.  Gott strafe England [‘God punish England’] came from their lips with a bitterness that was not expected from a cheerful couple who had immigrated in the early 1920s CE and become loyal American citizens.

During the First World War [1914 – 1918] the husband had been a mariner deployed, among other places, in the Ukraine.  The wife experienced postwar communist and anarchist revolutions while working in the municipal offices of Munich. Communist guards used to amuse themselves by seeing if they could make her hurry or run for cover by firing machine gun bursts slightly behind her as she walked home from her job. She felt that her refusal to speed up probably saved her life.

My high school introduction to the history of the run-up to the First World War did not provide much insight. The events leading up to the start of fighting in 1914 were explained away as the tragic but inevitable results of secret diplomacy, German bullying, French pretension, hopelessly unrealistic dreams on the part of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, and, incredibly, English and American altruistic idealism.

Later readings provided more plausible accounts of events. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 was by no means the sole reason for the outbreak of World War I, but as a proximate cause it merits attention.

Underappreciated points abound.  Among them, Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo was planned in part because his Czech wife Sophie could there receive ceremonial honors that were denied her in Vienna because she was not of pure Germanic stock. Their car stopped in front of the 19 year old shooter Gavrilo Princip because of confusion regarding changes in the day’s agenda that had never been adequately communicated to the chauffeur.

Princip took the dubious honor of being the youngest person to trigger a World War by his actions away from George Washington, who had previously held the record on the basis of an unprovoked attack on an armed French diplomatic mission in 1754.  Washington was 22 years old at the time.

The key point, however, is that Serbia was deeply complicit in the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Serbian Colonel Dragutin Dimitrievich, in response to Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded the secret society Ujedinjenje ili Smrt [“Union or Death”] in 1909.  The organization is more widely known as the Black Hand.  Dimitrievich was the real power behind the Black Hand’s covert operations, including assassinations. He was also head of Serbian military intelligence.

Austria and Germany were correct in blaming the killing of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a Serbian conspiracy. Members of the Serbian Cabinet had known about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand four weeks before the assassination.  Britain, when it joined the conflict, came in on the side of state-sponsored terrorism.

It is an oversimplification to say England by its participation in World War I pissed away world dominion in a misguided effort to uphold the putative honor of the House of Karageorgevich [“Black George,” the Serbian dynastic name], but there is uncomfortably more than a small kernel of truth in the observation. Britain sleepwalked into disaster.

Princip tried to kill himself with a cyanide capsule, which did not work, and by shooting himself before he could be captured. His pistol was wrestled away from him, and police kept him from being lynched by the crowd that had come to see the Archduke. Too young to be executed by the standards of Austrian law, Princip died of tuberculosis in prison in 1918.

Colonel Dimitrievich knew too much.  He was judicially murdered on trumped up charges by his own government in 1917.

The slogan “Gott strafe England” was the brainchild of the German Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer, a friend of bestselling author Stefan Zweig.  It was hugely popular in German speaking lands during the First World War, which generally agreed the conflict would not have spread so far nor lasted so long if Britain had not meddled in affairs it did not understand.  Lissauer also wrote the Hassengesang gegen England [Hate Song against England] which even during the war many felt went too far.

By 1916 both the slogan and the song were being mocked in English music halls.  The slogan gave rise to the verb “strafe” in English, meaning to attack ground targets with low flying aircraft firing automatic weapons. Lissauer was later deprived of his citizenship and expelled from Germany by the Nazis, dying in Austria in 1937.

Germany’s actions during the First World War are often viewed through the prism of Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. In many ways this is understandable. Much of the horrific behavior in World War II, on both the Axis and the Allied sides, had its origins in hatreds, grievances, and injustices exacerbated by the earlier conflict.  Auden’s poem September 1, 1939 is still an uncomfortable read in its prediction and explanation of German atrocities without any attempt to exculpate German guilt:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

An impartial observer in 1939 could well assume the U.S.S.R. would be more likely to commit atrocities than Hitler and Nazi Germany:  Stalin’s reign of terror throughout the Soviet Union, and his genocidal attempt to starve Ukrainians [1932 – 1933, probably 3 to 7 million deaths], went far beyond any barbarities Hitler had committed at the time.  Stalin took an early lead in wartime crimes against humanity as well with the Russian murder of approximately 22,000 captured Polish officers at Katyn in the spring of 1940.

Americans often conflate the errors of the Wilhelmine German Empire with the evils of the Nazi regime.  Usually they tar the earlier Germans with the sins of the later.  One of the most striking examples of American ignorance regarding such matters, however, occurred in 1985 when Ronald Reagan visited the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, making the opposite mistake by honoring Nazi war criminals along with Imperial German soldiers of the First World War.

It seems Reagan wanted publicity similar to that accorded to recent visits of German and French leaders to World War I burial grounds.  Unfortunately, in addition to many WWI dead, the cemetery in Bitburg also contained the graves of 49 members of Hitler’s Waffen SS, including soldiers of a unit infamous for massacring American prisoners of war captured during the Battle of the Bulge.

Michael Deaver, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, should have sounded an alarm at the potential public relations disaster, but he was in a prolonged alcoholic stupor at the time, and focusing his energy on importing a German luxury automobile to the United States for his personal use while avoiding paying taxes on the purchase.

Deaver was fond in other contexts of explaining that Californians like himself did not bother much with East Coast intellectual concerns or history, to which we can add much less European.

Deaver attempted to justify the President’s laying a wreath at Bitburg saying “I mean, we won! The war’s over.  And they certainly have not tried to bury their past and have publicly recognized the atrocities and the horrors of Nazism.”

Reagan’s defense, which equated Nazi soldiers with victims of the Holocaust, was widely criticized:

“These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Deaver was convicted on three unrelated counts of perjury in 1987, for which he blamed his alcoholism. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation and 1,500 hours of public service.  He had worked over 18 years for Reagan.

Further Reading:

  • J. Goodspeed’s The German Wars, 1914 – 1945 provides a detailed and accurate narrative of the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the continuation of that conflict in World War II.
  • Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939 – 1945 is a useful if uneven corrective to views of the triumph of the Allies over the Axis powers as a simple morality play in which good vanquished evil.
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