Britain is braced for the anniversary of the outbreak of world war one. Memorials and events are taking place across the country this weekend. Not so in Germany, where reticence reigns. This week’s Spectator features a piece by Antonia Oettingen, a descendant of Karl Max von Lichnowsky, the Kaiser’s ambassador in London from 1912-1914. She explains why Germany is shy about the Great War.
‘In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm had an ambitious task for my great-great-great uncle Karl Max von Lichnowsky. He sent him to London to be our ambassador there, with orders to try to ensure Britain’s neutrality (at the very least, in cases of conflict with Russia and France). Although Lichnowsky already had a sympathetic relationship with Britain’s foreign minister, Edward Grey, who also hoped to avoid a war, his mission failed. His personal objective — to deter the Kaiser from going to war — fell flat too. In a telegram sent on 18 July 1914 he pleaded with Kaiser Wilhelm to ‘spare the German people a war from which nothing can be gained but everything lost’. Less than a fortnight later he was on a ferry back home to Prussia, while Austrian-Hungarian, Russian and German soldiers were marching off to fight. When he arrived home, and broke news of war to her, Lichnowsky’s Bavarian-born wife Mechthilde took up a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm and flung it to the floor.
Ninety-nine years after Lichnowsky’s attempt to mediate between our two nations, in October last year, another diplomat from London’s German embassy tried once again to ensure Britain’s neutrality. Norman Walter, head of press at the embassy, suggested that the British commemorate the first world war in a ‘less declamatory tone’ by focusing more on the achievements of the European Union and less on who was to blame for the outbreak of the conflict. Walter was trying to encourage Britain to keep faith with the European project at a time of great unease, but his remarks also reflected the national mood. While the second world war is acknowledged to be an atrocity, Germans are not quite so happy to play the role of arch-villain of the first.’