When we look back at the events of 1914, the slide into World War I seems to have an almost inevitable quality to it. Henry Kissinger describes it as “a vortex” into which Europe was sucked. It was of course caused by the decisions and actions that various parties took in the period leading up to the war, but the reality of the monster that was unleashed was surprising to even those responsible for the decisions and actions.
I have yet to come across a more compelling description of that sense of helplessness at a moment that was simply too late to prevent disaster than Prince Bernhard von Bülow’s reflection on his meeting with the German chancellor (Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg) shortly after the war began.
Bethmann stood in the center of the room; shall I ever forget his face, the look in his eyes? There is a picture by some celebrated English painter, which shows the wretched scapegoat with a look of ineffable anguish in its eyes, such pain as I now saw in Bethmann’s. For an instant we neither of us spoke. At last I said to him, “Well, tell me, at least, how it all happened.” He raised his long, thin arms to heaven and answered in a dull, exhausted voice: “Oh, if I only knew!” In many later polemics on war guilt I have often wished it had been possible to produce a snapshot of Bethmann Hollweg standing there at the moment he said those words. Such a photograph would have been the best proof that this wretched man had never wanted war.