Heading for the Abyss

Reminiscences by Prince Lichnowsky. New York: Payson &: Clarke, Ltd. 1928. 8vo. xxvi+471 pp. Illus. $7.50.
‘THE World War was due to spontaneous infernal combustion,’ said my wife in a moment of inspiration. A hundred years hence the historians will scarcely improve the verdict. And at the same time they will not be improving on Prince Lichnowsky’s verdict on Germany’s part in setting the blaze. ‘Autocracy, incompetent statesmanship, militarism as a state within a state, the post-Bismarckian glorification of war, and, last but not least, our alliance with Austria, lay at the root of the catastrophe. To these one may add Herr von Holstein.’ Thus speaks His Serene Highness, who, ranking with royalty, remained a gentleman, whose serenity was not only titular but genuine, and whose mental processes were not only honest but clear.
Prince Lichnowsky was German ambassador to London from November 1912 until he received his passports as a result of the outbreak of the war in August 1914. His brochure. My Mission to London, written privately in 1916 and published from a pirated copy in 1918, caused his temporary banishment, and started a controversy which had not ended with his death on February 27, 1928, in his sixtyeighth year. This book was the final form of his side of the argument. And his verdict was and remains: ‘To cause a war without having willed it is an offense unpardonable. No worse accusation can possibly be brought against a statesman. We just blundered into the World War by mistake! ’
Lichnowsky was a descendant of minor royalty, mediatized but retaining the social perquisites of royalty. Yet he was no conservative and clearly perceived that ‘ Europe’s transition to the democratic principle inevitably involved Austria’s disintegration.’ He was wise enough to try to save Germany from betting not only on a wrong horse, but a spavined one. Always writing in good temper, and even suavely, his judgment is the more weighty because it is so evidently against his traditions, his friendships, life training. But, as he says, ‘tradition is the hobbyhorse of all indifferent riders.’
The prince’s thesis is simple. Bismarck after a great career overstayed his hour, acquired a grouch against Russia,— or rather against Gorchakov,—played foolishly with and finally allied Germany with Austria-Hungary for no adequate reason of statesmanship. Pin pricks at Russia and France amused the great man for a time. Lesser men—not to say numskulls — made these ineptitudes worse, adding the ‘mailed fist.’ the ‘shining armor,’and other paraphernalia of the braggart and bully. Holstein, who ran the Foreign Office, was a pathological nearcriminal, putting his satellites of inferior ability in superior places and fulfilling Bismarck’s prediction that he would ‘make a complete mess of things.’ All this, hardened into a system, ‘was bound sooner or later to land us in the ditch.’
Do not mistake Lichnowsky’s patriotism. He writes with the qualities that he attributes to statesmanship, ‘profound insight, independent judgment, and an unfettered soul,’ but never disloyally. Even the Kaiser’s marginal notes on momentous dispatches agreed with Lichnowsky. The trouble was that Lichnowsky had insight, judgment, and a soul, and the Berlin crowd seemed to have none of them.
After reading this book one can dispense with the ‘war guilt’ controversy.