by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
“Salem People Speak Minds On War Cause” was the headline for an article in the Statesman reporting local opinion on the causes of the possible consequences of the war in Europe.
“Who is behind the terrible European war situation?” interrogated Judge Webster, ex-captain of the northern forces during the Civil war, as a faced an ardent group of grizzled old warriors yesterday in the justice court room. He thought a moment, carefully weighing his words, and then uttered his thought, which conveyed his meaning clearly – “The devil.”
The old officers shifted their tobacco around in their mouths as they deliberated over the answer. The judge continued:
“He has always been ready to step in and keep the pot boiling. When nations throw aside all semblance of Christianity and fly at each other’s throats like wolves, the devil stalks about the bloody field and instills the hatred more bitterly in the minds of the passionate fighters.”
Judge Webster’s opinion was that “the United States has had enough war. The present administration favors more the policy of apologizing for past wars than attempting to enter into any further clashes with civilized powers.”
For these “grizzled old warriors” the European war was fifty years after their own bloody experiences and fewer than twenty years after the Spanish-American War and our own problems in the Philippines. From the perspective of today that would be the equivalent of the time between the Viet Nam war and our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Charles Dailey, who had served with Captain Webster, observed that American neutrality “will be a great factor for diplomatic good.” He further observed that the belligerent powers were using up their resources at a rapid rate and that Germany, especially, would be defeated because of the eventual scarcity of food.
Planned For the Clash
They have been preparing for this conflict for years. The fact that they were able to put their forces into the field in such a short time signifies that they were expecting the impending clash. The rulers failed to consider the final effect the war would have on social forces in their lands, it appears. With the flower of the country eradicated the nations now powerful, will be forced to drop back as was Spain, to suffer for their folly.
The quarter century preceding the outbreak of general war in 1914 saw dramatic shifts among the relationships of the European powers. Britain and France were rivals in Africa and Asia. Britain faced off against Russia in Persia and Central Asia. France sought revenge for its defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. The retreat of the Ottoman Empire from Europe brought Austria into confrontations with Russia, as well as the newer states of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Italy and Austria were rivals for control of the Adriatic. Tensions existed between Italy and France in North Africa.
A patchwork of alliances that shifted and changed shape over time sought to maintain a shaky equilibrium among the European powers. The United States stayed well away and its strength grew as it drew immigrants from every part of the continent that was now at war.
Between the years of 1887 and 1914, a polarization emerged that Captain Webster presciently analyzed. From the perspective of 1887 it would have been impossible for a crisis between Austria and Serbia to drag Europe into war. By 1914 the European powers were largely aligned into two blocs. These blocs did not cause the war, but the war could not have broken out as it did without the existence of the two opposing alliances. Treaty provisions that stipulated what one party would do if a signatory went to war failed to consider why one of the signatories would go to war in the first place. The alliances addressed the consequences of going to war without factoring or weighing the validity of the causes of war.
Those present and looking at the war from the banks of the Willamette felt that “the final settlement will never be affected until such a power as the United States uses its mediatory arguments” and that the “final settlement will be made around a small mahogany table with guns and swords replaced by paper and pens.” Their assessment would come true, but only following four bloody years of war, war that eventually drew in the United States.
The Reverend Dr. Avison of the First Methodist Church argued that “the old regime has seen its last days” and that “the oppressed . . . clamor for democracy. They have long suffered heavy taxation and oppression. In the distance they see a better life.” “The crowned heads of Europe have seen the last of their power, I believe,” he added. “When the regular process of evolution is blocked a revolution results.”
Revolution in Russia resulted in that country withdrawing from the war with results that reverberated for the next seventy years. Revolution and fears of revolution affected both Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The participants seemed to think that the warring powers would soon be exhausted. Dr. Avison noted that Germany needed an outlet for her surplus population, an argument that would take on a chilling shape twenty years later when Hitler used a similar argument to justify the extermination of millions in Poland and Russia during World War II, which some (including this reporter) argue was merely the second half of the war that commenced in 1914.
As broadly correct in their assessments as they were, they were very wrong as to the length of the war: “I expect the fight to be short and decisive. In a few days I expect that a decisive battle will be fought in Belgium and probably a great naval battle in the North sea will follow.”
A German-American View
The Salem German Society, responding to their perception of a misunderstanding of Germany’s position, issued a statement prepared by Dr. G. A. Wislicensis and Col. E. Hofer. The society’s position stated in part:
To understand the European war situation it must be remembered that for at least five hundred years the Teutonic race has resisted with armed forces the invasion of Europe by Slavs, Tartars and Turks. The narrative of their struggles to keep these elements out of civilized Christian Europe constitutes modern and medieval history.
In the present war at least 80,000,000 of German speaking Christian people are arrayed against the Slav nation called Servia, supported by the Russian nation, Slav and Tartar, and directly supported by Roumania, Greece and Montenegro.
Servia, the direct cause of the present was, is at best a half civilized nation, with a king called Peter. Peter was the head of the military cabal responsible for the assassination of King Alexander, his predecessor.
War with Serbia was justified because of the apparent collusion between the assassins of the Archduke and the Serbian government. The organization asserted that “Russian press opinions were to the effect that the killing of the Austrian crown prince was a patriotic duty of the Servians, and Russia began war preparations to back the consequences of Servia refusing to comply with the demands of Austria.”
In their view, France entered the war to seek revenge for her defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and England in order to “cripple Germany as a naval and commercial power.”
The society viewed England’s entry into the war in order to defend Belgium as merely a pretext because Belgium was willing to accept French and British troops on her soil, “but never a German soldier.”
In conclusion they state that “Germany and Austria keep their historical position of alignment against Slav and Tartar barbarian encroachment.”