As regular readers know, on January 27 of every year I telephone my reporting senior, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to congratulate him on his birthday. I always start with the number for the Neues Palais in Potsdam, but der Reisekaiser is often traveling and my call must set out in hot pursuit of him. Such was the case again this year, when the first words I heard were, “Verspätet! Verspätet! How can the Imperial Train be later? Are Poles now running the Prussian State Railways?” The voice was Bismarck’s. It was coming from a distance, but there was no problem hearing his words or his mood.
“Who the hell is this?,” said the voice, now directly into the telephone. “If its the head of Prussian Railways calling to apologize, you lost your job 25 minutes ago.
“It is only Oberst i.G. Lind, Herr Foreign Minister, calling to wish His Majesty a happy birthday,” I replied. “I take it his train is late into Friedrichsruh. today’s Bundesbahn that would be the norm, but I share your puzzlement how such a thing could happen in your time.”
“Wait a minute, I think I hear an engine,” said Bismarck. “I’ll take your call with me out onto the platform. Hey, Guderian, give me more wire on this thing. Yes, you, you’re a communications officer, aren’t you?”
General der Panzertruppe Heinz Guderian muttered something unprintable but he got the wire to play out, so I went with Bismarck out to meet the train.
To my surprise, not only our Kaiser but Tsar Nicholas II of Russian and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary off,the/train and from the engine, or so voices in the background suggested. It seemed our Willi enjoyed running steam locomotives and running them fast, so fast that he had caused the last car to jump the track, hence the delay.
“The story of my life,” I heard him mutter.
“Hallo, is this our poor marooned General Staff Oberst, stuck in a crazy century in an insane country? “His Majesty asked.
“It is, and happy birthday,” I replied. “But it seems I’ve caught you at an awkward moment.
“Not at all, ” he replied. “I enjoy making Bismarck wait. Reminds him who’s boss, well, sort of. As my grandfather said, sometimes it’s a hard thing, being Kaiser under Bismarck. Besides, my guests need to collect themselves. It seems they’re not accustomed to riding the footplate at 150 kilometers. Great fun!
“May I ask what’s going on?”
“You may. The situation in Russia in your time is serious, very serious.
Bismarck has done what needs to be done, namely call a conference of the relevant Great Powers. It’s something the current German Foreign Minister seems unable to do, so we’ve jumped into the breach. Remember, we’ve been through this before, and we see the players in your world making the same mistakes we made. We can’t just sit by and watch. Anyway, I’m going to put you on hold until we three kings and Bismarck have washed up and are drinking some good Mosel wine around a table.”
Time in their world is fluid, so it was only a few minutes before I was on speakerphone and taking part in the meeting. The Tsar kicked it off.
“Europe and America must both understand that Russia cannot lose this war. I say that in two senses. First, Russia is much stronger than Ukraine. The Russian Army has started the war badly, as it usually does. But it learns, and in a war of attrition it always prevails by sheer numbers.
Second, Russia will do anything it has to in order to win. A defeat by Ukraine could bring down the Russian state, what’s left of it. Moscow will not let that happen again as I let it happen the first time.’
Emperor Franz Josef chimed in. “Austria again finds itself representing Europe. How? By remaining neutral. It’s bad enough that your Europe now has a war under way on its own soil. But the lesson of 1914 is if that happens, all diplomacy must focus on keeping it local. Had my own Foreign Ministry worked to keep it just between the Serbs and ourselves, the world order we represented, we three monarchs, would have lived.”
It was now our Kaiser’s turn. “I knew that and I told my Foreign Minister, when Austria declared war on Serbia, to telegraph Vienna and tell Austria to take Belgrade and then stop. That telegram was not sent, and the situation ran away with us all. That is now happening in your world, which, like ours, will find itself in a vast, destructive war no one wanted.
It was now up to Bismarck. As always, he saw the solution more clearly than anyone else and knew what to do. “Washington, Berlin and Moscow have made the same fundamental error the three Christian, conservative monarchies, Russia, Germany and Austria, made that brought them all down. They are operating inside an obsoløete paradigm. Then, each was focused on which ruling dynasty, Romanov, Hohenzollern or Hapsburg, would win this latest struggle. They did not see that they all faced a common foe they needed to unite against secular democracy.
So the winners in 1918 were Wilson and Lenin. Now, the winners will be the non-Western world as the West fights its last civil war.”
“So what does Berlin need to do in my time?” I asked, knowing Washington was a hopeless case.
Bismarck replied, “Do what I did and call a conference of the Great Powers. Then come up with a solution the Great Powers can live with, and tell Ukraine what it’s going to do. Stop letting the tail wag the dog. My proposal would be that Russia gets Crimea and the Donbass but has to buy them from Ukraine, while Ukraine gets Russian-held East Prussia and a heavy-haul railway connecting itself to the port of Königsberg, giving it two directions from which it can export its grain. But the key is to act now, before Germany is dragged into a final, fatal Western civil war that leaves nothing but ashes.
And with that he rang off. My voice in today’s Berlin is small, but Bismarck is right. Berlin’s role is not to be Washington’s dachshund but, with Vienna, to represent Europe. Europe’s most vital interest is peace in Europe. That means de-escalating the war in Ukraine, not fueling it further. Call a conference, decree a cease-fire, and work the Ukraine situation out around a table.
Does Germany want a third disastrous war? I can say with certainty that its Kaiser does not.