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Imperial Germany and America

There was no ill-will between the American people and the people of the German Empire. They were friends, as they had always been. But the official class in Germany disliked all that was American - the easy-going ways, the democratic manners, and, above all, the material success of the American Republic. The German military caste had been humiliated by the stubborn resistance offered to German ambition in Samoa, and by the subsequent defeat of Bismarck in his negotiation with American commissioners at Berlin. The German Kaiser, with his colonial ambition, had long been vexed to find that the sturdiest of his subjects refused to go on any terms to Kamerun or to Tasmania, while every ship that sailed from German ports to the United States bore hundreds away to that Republic whose strength they made still stronger and whose loyal sons their sons became. Hence, to the German Junker, to the arrogant representatives of militarism, and to the monarch who believed in the divine origin of his own power, America seemed a land that existed only to unsettle the minds of the lowly and to mock by its prosperity and contentment the basic principles of autocratic rule.

For many years, therefore, the official German feeling towards the United States had been one of smoldering dislike. Moreover, the General Staff at Berlin entertained the lowest possible opinion of American military power. The mighty contest which was waged on American soil during four years of the American Civil War made no impression upon the German experts. It was Von Moltke himself of whom a visitor once inquired "Have you given much attention to the battles of the American war?" And he replied, with an icy stare "I have no time to waste in studying the struggles of two armed mobs." So spoke Von Moltke, and so thought all the disciples of that great tactician. Americans were highly prosperous. They were good at trading and at slaughtering hogs; but they deserved serious notice only when they made themselves offensive to the Hochwohlgeboren [ie high born].

In 1898, a new motive swayed the restless mind of William II. He was now carrying out with vigor his favorite project of a great colonial empire and of a navy able to defend it. His attempts at colonisation in Africa had not met with much success. His subjects could not be induced to go out as settlers to lands so utterly unlike the land in which they had been born. In the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul, however, many Germans had found homes and had formed the nucleus of what might with careful nursing become a German State. Brazil was weak. What, then, stood in the way of finding in South America an outlet for German emigration, in a country over which the flag of imperial Germany might be ultimately raised? Nothing, save the fixed purpose of the United States that no part of the American Continent should be regarded as subject to future colonisation by any European power.

But how far, so queried the Kaiser, was a nation of traders and money-grubbers able to maintain this doctrine in the face of a great military State like Germany? Of how much importance was the new American navy? What fighting power was there in the sort of "armed mob" which Americans were satisfied to call an army? These questions flitted through the Kaiser's mind at the moment when war seemed to be impending between the United States and Spain. Here was a rare opportunity for testing the American capacity for war against the fleets and armies of a European nation. The theoretical soldiers at Berlin knew that Spain had two hundred thousand regular troops in Cuba; they knew, also, that Spain possessed on paper a navy not much inferior to that of the United States. They argued, therefore, that the war must be a fairly long one, and that if the Americans invaded Cuba with their motley forces equipped with small arms that were obsolete, and unprovided with siege artillery, they must inevitably be defeated by the Spanish regulars. As to the navy, the Germans were not so sure; but at least they thought that the contest on the sea would be fairly even.

Hence the Kaiser looked for a prolonged contest, with the odds somewhat in favor of Spain, at least at the beginning of the war. In order that these odds might be quite overwhelming, the officials in the Wilhelmsstrasse conceived the plan of a diplomatic demonstration by the chief Continental powers, which should hint at intervention on behalf of Spain. This scheme to embarrass the American Government appears to have found a ready acceptance at the French Foreign Office and undoubtedly at Vienna. Its consummation must, however, be carried out in Washington. There remained, however, one factor in the situation with which these three pro-Spanish powers had still to reckon. This was the attitude of Great Britain, which was of the very last importance. If that nation, with its mighty fleet, should give even a passive support to the scheme of intervention, then the United States might well be forced to halt and to recede from aggressive action. The British Ambassador gave a flat refusal. Great Britain would not, by word or deed, do anything to mar the very cordial relations which now existed between her and the United States. Back of this plain assertion there lurked something even more significant - a veiled intention on the part of her Majesty's Government to give the United States an entirely free hand.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:40 ZULU