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On 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The Serb government declared that the political strategy was not concerned by an event that was internal to Austria-Hungary because the authors of the attack were all Bosniacs and thus Austro-Hungarian subjects. Austria was increasingly weakened by pressures from north and south, and would be incapable of following Germany into a war. The German rulers were convinced that rapid action would prevent the other powers from intervening in the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. If Russia did not fall in with the wish for localisation and acted militarily in support of Serbia, it would show proof of its war-mongering and pan-Slavist aims. In the end, if a climate of risk of war had developed, it was indeed the army leaders who provoked the outbreak of the war, applying pressure on hesitant or paralysed civilian powers.
‘The Beast of Berlin’ was the name of an American film, made in 1918, which depicted Wilhelm II as a militaristic monster. This title reflected public opinion among the Allied Powers at the end of the First World War. ‘Hang the Kaiser!’ was the motto which won Lloyd George the election of 1918. And in Article 227 of the Versailles Treaty the victorious powers in the First World War called for Wilhelm II to be publicly indicted for the ‘most serious infringement of international moral law’. He was never brought to trial, only because the Netherlands, where the ex-Kaiser had fled, refused to extradite him.
The desire to punish the Kaiser for the war was based on the assumption that, as the highest-ranking person in charge of German policy, he was partly to blame for the war, and responsible for its bloody course. This assumption did not seem to be unjustified. After all, Wilhelm II had been astonishing and irritating his contemporaries with his autocratic and militaristic pronouncements for decades. His unpredictable volatility, in particular, raised doubts. Bismarck once disapprovingly remarked that Wilhelm II had an opinion about everything, but that it was a different one every day. And indeed, the Kaiser was known to the people around him as Wetterhahn (weathercock) or Ballon (balloon), who always blew with the prevailing wind.
“There's going to be a battle here, the likes of which the world has never seen,” wrote a young Hessian soldier to his mother as he prepared to attack with his companions in the early afternoon. The heaviest artillery fire ever seen had already begun some hours earlier. More than 1,200 artillery pieces, including those of the heaviest caliber, fired in continuous bombardment a large share of the more than 2.5 million shells that had been brought to the front in 1,300 ammunition trains over a period of seven weeks. French reconnaissance planes were helpless as they tried to locate the batteries that delivered this heavy fire. They could provide no precise information, for wherever they looked, German artillery was firing. The forests surrounding the battlefield had been transformed into a blinding, deafening firestorm.
On this day, February 21, 1916, Wilhelm, the crown prince of the German Empire, personally ordered a naval gun to fire the first shot. He thus gave the signal to begin the German strike against Verdun. The young Hessian soldier was proved right. Soldiers later called this battle the “hell of Verdun.” It turned into a type of warfare that the world had never seen before, nor has seen again - despite World War II, despite Stalingrad. It was the most terrible battle of attrition (Materialschlacht) of World War I, and it offered the most dreadful conditions that fighting men had ever encountered. The soldiers were situated in a fighting zone visible from all sides, and they were bombarded from all directions; they had no trenches, for they had no opportunity to dig them under continuous fire. The ground was littered with bodies in all stages of decomposition.
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