Here’s Part 2 (well, part “2c”) of Ben Knaak’s Alternate Histories project exploring how to model a materialist conception of history through video games. Be sure to follow along on his blog and YouTube Channel!
Shit I Don’t Really Know, But Can Fake, Part I: How’s the Game Going?
It is on its face absurd that the crisis over the Panama Canal Company could by itself lead to the largest and bloodiest war the world had ever known. That the two-headed monster of Boulanger and Déroulède would make their usual hash of things was no surprise. That the Panama Scandals would bring about the peaceful downfall of a government which, after regaining Alsace-Lorraine, had no further reason to exist, might have been predicted. That the departure of the pro-British Boulangists, combined with the refusal of the Colombian parliament to approve the sale of the canal concession to Britain, would pit France against her traditional enemy is perhaps understandable. The American invocation of the Monroe Doctrine is practically reflexive. But without recourse to other causes, Britain’s insistence on backing the cause of Panamanian separatism to the point of worldwide destruction makes absolutely no sense.
It is to this end that we must go back to the beginning of this work. Every aspect of the global stage must be understood in terms of the Great Russo-Turkish War of 1873, which brought a decisive answer to the Eastern Question and an even more decisive end to the last traces of the Congress of Vienna. The nationalist movements of the Balkans seemed now to be resolved. Russia had gained the independent allies it sought in the region. Constantinople was now Tsargrad. With the Tsar’s greatest ambitions achieved at a relatively low cost, the time seemed right for peace and rapprochement between the Great Powers.
For a time, it must have seemed that such a state of affairs would endure. Britain and Russia would sign a treaty of mutual defense. Though this closeness lessened after the Russian Revolution of 1884, there would be peace among the Great Powers for more than twenty years. But already the groundwork for the next war was being laid, and the three central questions that turned the Panama Crisis into the Great War were now being raised.
The first of these questions stems from the ethnic and border conflicts which arose immediately among the newly-minted Balkan states. We might call this the Balkan Question, or (following Hobsbawm) the Second Eastern Question. It may be simply stated as follows: How shall the ethnic and national lines of the new Balkan nations be drawn, and where shall the demarcation line between Russian and Habsburg domination be drawn?
The subset of the Balkan Question that raised itself most quickly was the border in Thrace. The Greeks quickly realized that Russian demands for an allied port on the Mediterranean would lead them to back Bulgarian claims to Thrace and Macedonia over their own. They would throw their hats in with the British, even forming a short-lived alliance with the Turkish Republic, in multiple failed attempts to seize Thessaloniki. It would not be long before Piraeus would become a Royal Navy port of equal importance to Alexandria, and the declaration that Macedonia was an inseparable part of Greece’s history and heritage became boilerplate British policy.
The more complex and significant crisis would emerge in the South Slavic lands. King Alexander I of Serbia was a staunch ally of Russia. Believing that the collapse of the Ottomans meant that the pan-Slavic moment had come, he declared that his now-enlarged kingdom would henceforth be known as Yugoslavia. This name carried with it obvious territorial claims on Austro-Hungarian land. However, Austria-Hungary had not sat idly as the new borders of Europe were being drawn. From the old Bosnian lands, a new Austrian client state called the Kingdom of Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed which would exist in personal union with the Habsburg crown. The new borders of “Yugoslavia” would extend no further than Montenegro.
This decision, made behind the Serbs’ backs, infuriated the king and severely strained relations with Russia, particularly in the early postwar years when still-Tsarist Russia maintained warm relations with the Habsburg Monarchy. Indeed, Yugoslavia would even declare war on Bulgaria (and its Russian allies by extension) in a failed attempt to claim Northern Macedonia.
In time, however, the Karadjordjevic dynasty would remember their longstanding friendship, and the crisis would settle into a slow-boiling debate over how the South Slavic peoples should govern themselves. On one side were the Yugoslavists, who favored an independent, unified state for all Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats, and Slovenes. This faction, for obvious reasons, found much support from the Russians, particularly as the new Russian Republic grew more conservative and nationalist in character. On the other side were the Austroslavists, who sought instead greater cooperation and autonomy within Habsburg lands. This was a more viable and popular alternative than it may have first seemed. The Habsburg Monarchy had become considerably more liberal and willing to delegate regional authority since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise. Many were much more willing to take their chances working through the system than risking their lives and homes for a Serbian monarch they weren’t certain they could trust. Even as early as the Frankfurt Assembly of 1847, the Czech Austroslav František Palacký famously declared that “if it were not that Austria had long existed, it would be necessary, in the interest of Europe, in the interest of humanity itself, to create it.”
Unfortunately, the attitude of Vienna and Budapest toward Slavic nationalism was rather more ambivalent than this. Although the Emperor-King Franz Josef had been convinced that constitutional monarchy was the way forward for a large and diverse empire, he and his government still considered the nascent movement a threat to the state. The autonomous state of personal union for Bosnia was abandoned in 1893 in favor of a state of condominium between Austria and Hungary, albeit with representation for the Bosniaks in both diets. Some abandoned the Austroslav political project altogether, while others redoubled their efforts. But the Russians would formally protest this arrangement, declaring it to be “another in a long line of Habsburg encroachments on Slavic liberty.” From here the rhetoric would only intensify, between Austria and Serbia, between Austria and Russia, and between Slavs and other Slavs. In 1905 small uprising by a militant group called the Black Hand arose in Sarajevo. It was swiftly crushed, an act greeted by yet more Russian protests.
The second of the questions of the Great War, which I have termed the Mitteleuropa Question, overlaps greatly with the first, and differs from it mainly in terms of geography. This question concerns the fate of certain ethnic enclaves within the Central European portions of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the ways in which they overlapped with the interests of the powers involved. To a lesser extent, it also stems from the very different ways in which Russia and Austria-Hungary conceived of federalism.
Romanian claims on Transylvania, Banat, and Crisana in fact predate 1875, dating back to its formal declaration of independence after the Russian victory over Britain and its allies in the Caucasian War. Southern Transylvania was successfully incorporated into Romania in 1858. But the final defeat of the Ottomans turned the focus of Romania squarely toward Austria-Hungary, and vice versa. Even as the Turkish War was still being fought, Austria was quietly re-seizing South Transylvania. Soon after, a tense peace was established. Demonstrations from ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians in the region remained peaceful, for now. But no one on either side of the border would ever forget it.
More difficult were the issues of Galicia and Poland. Galicia and Lodomeria were Habsburg lands in which ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, and Ruthenians lived. Many Russian politicians of the Slavophile coalition, which was for some decades the governing party of the Russian Federative Republic, therefore considered them to be rightfully Russian territory. On the other side of the border was the former nation of Congress Poland. The Russian-ruled Polish lands had briefly been independent following an intervention by the Germans, but the Tsar had reconquered them in 1865. An independent Poland would make a valuable ally to any of Russia’s enemies.
Exacerbating this issue is the fundamentally different view these two nations took of ethnic minorities. During the Slavophilic era of the Russian Federative Republic, the federation was considered primarily to be an incorporation of Greater Russia. The Belarusians were the White Russians, the Ukrainians were the Little Russians, and the Poles could just shut up and do as they were told. Federalism was simply a means to administer to peoples who were rightly ruled from Petrograd. Though the Slavophiles were no longer in power when the Great War broke out, traces of this attitude remained even under the Menshevik government, which granted Poles the vote.
By contrast, federalism in the liberal period of Habsburg rule was considered a kind of function of noblesse oblige. The person of the monarch, that ancient institution which had endured for centuries, was what held the empire, and indeed all of Europe, together. It was not some cultural blood quanta that held a people together, but the tradition embodied by the monarch himself. It was therefore the foremost duty of the Emperor-King to hold these people together. The Russians, with their imposition of nationalistic fantasies of Slavic blood and Orthodox religion upon a Catholic people, were not good stewards of the Polish people. Clearly a change in leadership was needed.
Concurrent with and inseparable from these issues were the struggles in Northern Italy over Genoa and Venetia. However, as Italy was not a participant in the Great War, these are mentioned only briefly for the sake of completeness.
The third and most pertinent of these questions stems from the international crises that sprung up in and along the periphery of the former Ottoman Empire. It is in this question in particular that we find the deepest roots of the war. Past historians have often called this the Arab Question, but Arab nationalism constitutes only part of the scope of this decades-long struggle. Given the central status that the link to India held in British foreign policy, and how directly all of its facets stem from it, it is only fitting to call this the Suez Question, or perhaps the Third Eastern Question.
In the immediate aftermath of the Treaty of Ankara, two actions occurred, both equal and opposite reactions to the Ottoman Crisis. First, Yohannes IV of Ethiopia, claiming (probably not incorrectly) that the Ottomans could no longer adequately protect pilgrims from brigands, invaded and seized the Hedjaz, Transjordan, and Palestine, installing a protectorate with Hashemite ruler in the former two provinces, and “restoring” the Solomonic dynasty’s direct rule over Jerusalem. At nearly the same time, Britain seized on the unrest that had overtaken the debt-ridden Sultanate of Egypt and occupied it, making it a British protectorate in all but name.
The cultural and political consequences of these events were almost incalculable. Spain, which had long been France’s partner in the region, found this unacceptable, and tried in vain to dislodge the “savages” from the Holy Land. The responsibility of defending the Christians of the Holy Land should fall to the traditional Catholic powers, they argued. Britain’s concerns were more nakedly pragmatic. These Ethiopians could not have acted on their own. There was another power at work.
In fact, Yohannes had acted on his own initiative. Such a brazen act was not in keeping with Russia’s post-Ankara diplomatic stance, which sought to enforce the new borders in the Balkans but take no other action that could effect a war among the Great Powers. Nevertheless, it was no secret that Ethiopia had received much assistance from Russia in the years following Britain’s infamous Abyssinia Expedition, particularly in the form of modern arms. The Russians had been the first in all of Europe to look at Ethiopia and see something other than a land of savages to be conquered and exploited.
Their motives had been far from pure and cosmopolitan, of course. A regional ally in the Horn of Africa would make a valuable counterbalance to Britain, after all. What’s more, their acceptance and admiration of Ethiopia’s culture was heavily qualified, and stemmed from the position that Abyssinians were best considered a Semitic people, separate and distinct from the rest of the people of his benighted continent. As it turns out, upon closer inspection, the Abyssinians were white after all. (This view of Ethiopia as a quasi-Arabic ruling-class enclave surrounded by black African subjects has remained as persistent as it is inaccurate).
The contemporary writings most illuminating of this view are the field journals of the Russian cavalry officer Alexander Bulatovich, who had traveled among the court and with the armies of Yohannes. Though not a professional anthropologist by any stretch, he made careful note of what he observed. In the Amhara and Tigrayan he saw much for the Russian to admire and recognize. They kept to their traditions, but remained adaptable. They had held strong against numerous implacable foes. Most importantly, they were Orthodox Christians (albeit Coptic and not Eastern). In the Oromo he saw an independent, bellicose, and rustic people that were nonetheless incorporable into a civilized society, not unlike the Cossacks. Indeed, these Russian traits were not their only bona fides for honorary whiteness:
If I allow myself a rather free comparison, this is how I would characterize the Abyssinian. He is talented and receptive, like a Frenchman. With his practicality, with the way he deals with those he has conquered and his governmental abilities, he is like an Englishman. His pride is like that of a Spaniard. By his love for his faith, his mildness of character and tolerance, he is like a Russian. By his commercial abilities, he is like a Jew. But in addition to all these characteristics, he is very brave, cunning, and suspicious.
These characteristics, he argued, made them ideal candidates for regional hegemony.
I think that having become acquainted, just in my short overview, with their faith, morals, customs and governmental structure, no one should have the slightest doubt that the Abyssinians are an old cultured race. … They are surrounded by savages.
It was clear what Russia would stand to gain from such an arrangement. Bulatovich made no attempt to hide it: “To help the enemy of our enemy, to make him as much stronger as possible — that is our goal in Abyssinia.”
Such visitors as Bulatovich had taught the emperor much about what the ferenj found impressive. So when Yohannes IV, King of Zion and King of Kings of Ethiopia entered Jerusalem, he did so in grand splendor, flanked on all sides by well-dressed troops with modern rifles, by men carrying banners, and court musicians. Most importantly, he sent for reporters and photographers from the Times, among other newspapers. Only a little more than a dozen attended, but Yohannes’s remarks to the assembled media were the first address of its kind by an Ethiopian ruler.
This flashy show of modernity was more than enough to do the job. Indeed, the next few weeks saw the West grow flush with a kind of Solomonic fever. Even the Emperor’s name drew breathless remarks – perhaps the legend of Prester John had been true after all. Some even assigned a millennarian meaning to the event. Word quickly spread among the plantations of America, and Ethiopia acquired a religious significance during the second, postbellum wave of abolitionism (helped considerably by his immediate announcement that slavery in Ethiopia would be abolished). It would not be until after abolition was achieved in the early 20th century that the American government would begin to shed its hatred and suspicion of Ethiopia, whose very existence challenged one of the central premises on which it stood. But regardless of whether he was loved or hated, it could not be denied that Yohannes IV was at this point the most-discussed monarch in the world.
More importantly, this glorious, easy victory planted a seed that would grow in the imperial imagination over the coming decades: the idea of a grand, manifest destiny for Ethiopia. Once more, as in the days of the Kingdom of Axum, the House of Solomon would stretch across the Red Sea into Yemen. Soon they would strike north at the British themselves and free the beleaguered Coptic Patriarch, bringing the whole of the Nile Basin under control. All sons of Ham and Shem would bow to the Negusa Negast. As industrialization brought about unrest and disruption of the old ways of life, and as Marxist pamphlets circulated among the Oromo factory workers and day laborers who brought their egalitarianism to the workplace, Ethiopia needed a central purpose around which all men could rally. The promise of glory for household, luba, and nation was one that could unite men of all ethnic backgrounds.
Of course, control over the world’s most important trade routes and oil fields certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
As the shine of their entry onto the world stage faded, the gulf between Ethiopia’s ambition and the perception of the outside world widened. Even as the nation shifted ever further toward modernity, Ethiopia was perceived primarily as an extension of Russian imperial ambition. They may not have needed the guiding hand of the enlightened European powers to civilize them, but they weren’t all the way white. Colonial ventures in Persia and Manchuria did much to secure new resources for their fledgling industry, but that these new concessions bordered Russia did not escape the world’s notice. As the decades passed, the chip on the Emperor’s shoulder grew larger than the highest peak in the Semiens.
Meanwhile, Arab nationalism was now even more divided than Slavic nationalism. Those who desired a caliph were split between the Hashemite king with his Russo-Ethiopian support and the British-backed House of Saud. Still others rejected both and sought a republic. Demonstrations and uprisings were a regular occurrence in all states within the region.
The British, of course, were cognizant of the danger to the Suez Canal zone. In addition to working to defend their route to India, they now sought a backup plan. With the French crisis in Panama, they seemed to have found it. If all else failed, they could sail to India via the Colombian route. By smashing the Russian presence in the Balkans and the Middle East, and either crushing the Arab revolts or installing the Sauds as puppets, the British would seek to control their possessions, by hook or by crook. As Austria-Hungary sought to defend against the same enemy and Ethiopia longed to make a name for itself as a nation, these barely-related regional crises would snowball into history’s greatest war.
No nation involved would ever be the same.