War, thought the kaiser, was the natural order of the world, and only fools thought otherwise. It mattered not whether one was referring to animals, as Darwin had, or nations, as he now was. War was the lubricant that drove the successful to greatness and condemned the weak to a deserved obscurity. A nation that did not grow was doomed to shrivel and die. A nation that did not take from the weak was forever doomed to be weak herself. With so much of the world already under the jurisdiction of other powers, it was obvious that the essential growth that would spur Imperial Germany into the twentieth century could come only at the expense of others. Bismarck had understood that, but only to a point. To Kaiser Wilhelm II, it was a picture seen with utter clarity. For Germany's sake, he thanked God it was he who ruled the empire for the past twelve years. He was the grandson of the man who had, with Bismarck's help, formed the state of Germany. He was the descendant of Prussian kings whose military skills were feared; nevertheless, he had not yet fought a war. Worse, he knew that his English relatives thought him inadequate and had mocked him since his childhood. They would learn, he seethed; the world would learn.
The kaiser squinted and tried to see out the rain-streaked window of the small office on the second floor of the chancellery. On the street below, a handful of people out on the ugly night scurried for cover from the cold wet rain that had originated in the North Sea. They had, the kaiser smiled to himself, just lost a minor war with the elements. He tapped his fingers impatiently on the window ledge. He was always impatient of late. If he hadn't been so impatient, he would have convened this meeting in the more convivial atmosphere of one of his residences and resolved matters over brandy and cigars. But no, he was in this dismal and sparsely furnished little room that would have better served as the office of a postal clerk than an emperor.
Yet perhaps this way was more advantageous. The pomp of a formal meeting would have attracted the noses of the swinish liberal press, or, worse, the Socialist creatures who inhabit the Reichstag.
Behind him, he heard the door open and close and the last of his invitees take one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs. He turned and confronted the handful of men. In the poor light of the small office, they looked nothing like the powers who ran the empire in his name and at his call. All of them, however, had "von" preceding their surname. This indicated their stature as Junker nobility who came from that bleak Prussia their forebears had conquered from the Slavs so many centuries ago. Prussia was the military soul of the new German Empire.
Of the four men, the kaiser controlled three. They were all older than he by at least a decade. That fact made him slightly uncomfortable, and he often had to fight to control his insecurities.
Alfred von Tirpitz was the architect of the expanding navy they both wanted to be second to none, not even England's. Bald, burly, and grim, his face obscured by a long and full forked beard, he burned with an ambition for an overseas empire the kaiser shared with a passion. Their navy was now the second largest in the world, although still dwarfed by England's.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen, a slight, gray-haired man who looked more like a scholar than a soldier, was chief of the Imperial General Staff and led the Imperial Army, which was already second to none in quality and fighting ability, and second only to the Russian army in size. Since the Germans considered the Russians to be little more than barbarians, the difference in the size of their armies was not considered important. It was significant, however, that the mighty Imperial Army, with the exceptions of the short war against Denmark and the punitive expedition against China, had been underoccupied for almost thirty years. That was far too long. An army that does not wage war can soon forget how to fight.
For that matter, he reminded himself, his navy had never fought in all its existence.
Mustachioed Bernhard von Bulow was the kaiser's choice for chancellor. Although some considered him a sycophant and a toady, the kaiser thought him loyal and cooperative. Replacing other chancellors, particularly Bismarck, who had balked at implementing the Imperial ideas, Bulow was ideal for Kaiser Wilhelm.
The fourth person was the heavyset, enigmatic, and mysterious Friedrich von Holstein. Nicknamed the Jesuit because of his secretive ways and a preference for manipulation rather than confrontation, he had run the foreign affairs of the German Empire from his office in his home on the Wilhelmstrasse for more than a decade. The oldest of the four men, Holstein was both feared and respected, even by the kaiser. Holstein's favored way of deterring the will of the kaiser was to avoid receiving orders. Thus it was rumored that the two had met face to face only a handful of times over the last dozen years, and it was only the veiled threat of a level of force that saw the angry and uncomfortable Holstein present at this meeting. Even so, Holstein was a loyal German. If the kaiser commanded, Holstein would obey. In his younger days, he had been the protégé of the subsequently dismissed Bismarck. This, too, caused the kaiser to deal with Holstein cautiously.
The kaiser cleared his throat and began his prepared comments. "Gentlemen, the empire is at a critical point in its young history, and direct action is needed in order to ensure that the German nation continues its inexorable journey to its destiny."
The two military men appeared interested, Bulow looked enraptured, and Holstein seemed puzzled.
"The recent war between the United States and Spain has left the United States with an oceanic empire and a position on the world stage as a major player. The United States is neither ready nor worthy of such honor. It is my firm belief that what the United States has taken from the stupid, corrupt, and incompetent Spaniards rightfully belongs to Germany."
Now he had them, Wilhelm exulted; even Holstein looked intrigued.
"Consider the German Empire. Unlike England's, ours is landlocked and confined to continental Europe. Of course, we have a few square miles of useless desert or jungle in Africa and a rock or two in the Pacific, but hardly an empire when compared with the overseas possessions of England, Portugal, Holland, Spain, Belgium, and, now, the United States.
"Yet we have the greatest army in the world." He bowed to Schlieffen, who smiled. "And the fastest-growing navy in the world that is now second only to England's." He nodded to Tirpitz, a man of powerful build who hid a stern visage behind his beard. He never smiled in front of his kaiser. Tirpitz was also aware that second to England was an extremely distant second, and that the German navy was only slightly larger than those of France, Italy, or the damned United States.
The kaiser continued. "The great Bismarck did not understand this. He cared nothing for overseas colonies and let many opportunities slip through his fingers. Fortunately, it is not too late. We are building a great navy to protect our overseas interests. But we do not yet have many overseas interests to protect. It is even more appalling that our warships must refuel and resupply in British-controlled ports. We do not have enough coaling stations to permit our fleet to sail without begging permission to dock from some other European power. If the time ever came that Britain decided to deny us entry to their colonial ports, we would be unable to leave Germany. That, gentlemen, is intolerable!"
Holstein stifled a yawn as the kaiser recited a litany of perceived slights by the United States, culminating in the failure of the quiet and unofficial negotiations to purchase the Philippines along with Puerto Rico and other lands. Good lord, Holstein thought, suddenly chilled, what was the kaiser planning to do?
The kaiser paused dramatically and rose to his feet for effect. When the men started to rise with him, he waved them down with his good right hand. The withered left one he kept permanently resting on a sword handle or in a convenient pocket. It was the only flaw in his physique, and he had spent a lifetime hiding it. It was particularly difficult for him to ride a horse, since his weak hand somehow affected his sense of balance. Daily he cursed the fool doctors who had hurt him with carelessly applied forceps at his birth.
"Gentlemen, let me conclude. Some time ago, the Imperial General Staff was directed to develop plans for war against the United States. It is my wish that those plans be updated immediately and implemented as soon as possible. We will be ready to commence war against the United States in the late spring or early summer of 1901 at the latest."
Holstein spoke. "We will declare war?"
"No, Holstein, we will present them with an ultimatum. Our fleet will then announce war with its presence off New York and its guns firing. The United States has had enough warnings."
"All Highest, the United States is huge, larger even than all of Europe. We could never conquer it."
"Such is not the idea, von Holstein. The plans that were developed so long ago called for attacks at the American jugular. As predators, we are entitled to go for the throat." Wilhelm smiled at the picture. "We will land near New York City, take it-thus damaging their economy-and move eastward into Connecticut. If the Americans do not see reason and refuse to concede to our demands, our army will continue in that easterly direction and take both Hartford and Boston."
The kaiser laughed quickly. He pictured his invincible armies overrunning frightened Americans. "We do not feel that it will be necessary to march all the way to Boston, although that is included in the plans. We anticipate a quick and limited war and an early peace. General von Schlieffen's preliminary estimates call for only three or four corps and other supporting units-all in all, less than two hundred thousand men. Admiral von Tirpitz has assured me that he can land at least one corps of thirty thousand without difficulty as our initial attack force, and both sustain our army and enable it to grow through a continuous stream of reinforcements protected by our fleet. Our ability to transport a major force to China last year proved that beyond a doubt."
Holstein was persistent. "But I seem to recall that the Americans, at the end of their Civil War, had almost a million men under arms and more than a thousand warships."
Tirpitz snorted in exasperation. "First of all, von Holstein, it took them almost four years to reach those levels, and even then, those million men were a rabble with rifles. Our army would devastate them. As for the thousand ships, the majority were converted merchant ships, coastal vessels, or small craft designed for going up rivers. No, their navy will not overwhelm us. But they are now building a number of major ships, and many others are authorized to be built in the coming years. When that construction is finished, the United States will no longer be vulnerable."
Holstein looked at the others in the room. The military minds were intrigued by the possibilities of the first taste of combat in more than a generation. Bulow, of course, was looking at the kaiser in much the same way a spaniel looks at his adored master. Holstein was cornered and would have to acquiesce in his kaiser's desire for his first war. But one more thought.
"And what about England? As you say, All Highest, she has been the enforcer of the Monroe Doctrine, not the United States. Will England stand by?"
This time it was Bulow who countered him. "The English are preoccupied with wrapping up their war in Africa against the Boers. They will not like it, but they will not interfere."
The kaiser smiled at Holstein. "My beloved grandmother Victoria is gravely ill and likely dying. When she does pass on, I shall grieve and miss her. But with her passing, the empire will fall to her overweight and corrupt son, Edward, my uncle. No, England will not oppose us. They are too busy elsewhere, and," he laughed harshly, "my kingly uncle is more interested in parties than in warfare."
"How long will our war last, All Highest?" Holstein asked.
Kaiser Wilhelm recognized the shift in attitude and smiled. Holstein would not oppose him. "It will be over within three to six months. Along with the lands in question, we will also insist that the United States not build a navy. After all," he laughed hugely, "without all those islands, why would they need one?"
They all laughed with their kaiser. The meeting concluded and they departed with their instructions. Holstein walked the dark corridors of the chancellery alone and in thoughtful silence. What if the kaiser's first war lasted longer than the kaiser anticipated? Was an army that had not fought in so long really up to the endeavor? And how would the kaiser's shiny new navy fare? Only a little more than a generation past, there was no such thing as a German navy. The army would certainly win battles, but it would be the navy whose success or failure would determine the course of the campaign. Holstein could see a land war in North America as a pit into which the wealth and manhood of the Reich would plummet.
Holstein also knew there was no dissuading the kaiser from this unhealthy scheme; nor would he wish to try. That could be very dangerous indeed. He could be dismissed and banished as abruptly as Bismarck had been. Banishment from the court would be a devastating fate. What to do? Although he had avoided personal contact with the kaiser, a coterie of aides and informants had kept him abreast of events. He felt he had a clear picture of his kaiser: the man was desperate to reinforce his image as a warrior king in the grand manner of his Prussian ancestors. Also, he wanted to show the English, whom he both admired and hated, that he was their equal. His kaiser, Holstein thought ruefully, was insecure and lethal, and he needed to prove his manhood to a world he felt did not take him seriously. As a result, thousands would pay. What to do, what to do?