The Baltic Sea region as a site of world history

Literary and political reflections on the “fateful year” of 1904

It lies there, the smooth sea, no shroud and yet covering so many secrets.
Walter Kempowski, Hamit

On 26 March, 1904, the German Reich navy’s first turbine propulsion cruiser was launched in Stettin. Kaiser Wilhelm II had especially issued a supreme cabinet order to commission the “Mayor of a Free Hanseatic City” with the naming of the ship. The order also called for a guard of honour and a march. The mayor of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, Senator Dr. Heinrich Klug, was subsequently chosen to fill this role and, as a result, the ship was named the “SMS Lübeck”. Klug received an assurance that the state-of-the-art cruiser would be attached to the Baltic Sea naval base in Kiel and that upon completion its first port of call would be Lübeck.

Present at the launch, and thereby underscoring the significance of the event, was the recently ennobled Rear Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State and thus director of the navy department, and—perhaps even more than the Kaiser—the driving force behind the expansion of the German navy. He was accompanied by other senior naval officers, including the Commander Reinhold Speer. As commander-in-chief of the navy during World War I, Speer would subsequently win a place in history due to his final mission order, which would have guaranteed the navy’s destruction and which sparked the mutiny by sailors that led to the outbreak of the German Revolution in Kiel at the beginning of November 1918.

The first act in the commissioning of new equipment for the navy, the launch of the first turbine-driven cruiser, was demonstratively connected with the Hanseatic League, a consortium of long-distance merchants focusing on the cities around the Baltic Sea and the organizational centre of Lübeck. However, by 1904, the highpoint of Hanseatic influence and power had receded into the distant past. The last meeting of the consortium, to which only six cities sent representatives, had taken place in 1669.

The launch in Stettin was thus linked with an evocation of this urban and mercantile tradition through a supreme decree by the Kaiser himself. However, the aim was not to revive this tradition as a way of announcing Germany’s entrance into the age of international trade but to demonstrate—or conceal—the nation’s claim to the status of a naval world power. At the behest of the Kaiser, the civil representative of the oldest German imperial city in the north led the ceremony to name a warship that had been built to compete in terms of technology and manoeuvrability with the ships of the English navy, the largest and most modern in the world.

In his speech at the launching ceremony, Lübeck’s mayor took this martial aspect into account, admonishing the vessel to “Defy storm and surge, defy the enemy! Be a guard and a shield for peaceful international commerce on the seas!” Thus, in order of priority, storm and surge—the elements that every ship must deal with—come first and are followed by the enemy, which must be braved and defied. Only then comes world commerce, which in the age of colonialism, and especially in the wake of the failed naval venture off the coast of China, was no longer a peaceful affair.

Heinrich Mann actually mentions this speech in a letter of 10 April, 1904 to his old Lübeck school friend Ludwig Ewers, referring to Mayor Klug as someone who could still speak in well-ordered sentences. Heinrich Mann uses Klug as a counter-example here in order to argue for a style based on “short sentences” as a way of expressing “our rich, diverse, surprisingly excitable experiences.” This is one of several instances of this author distancing himself from the city of his birth and its representatives.

The first ship with turbine propulsion turned up in 1897 during the great naval parade off Portsmouth in honour of Queen Victoria. The small ship arrived unannounced and flitted between the giant armoured cruisers. It was the same year in which Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Tirpitz as director of the navy and the later chancellor Bernhard von Bülow as minister of foreign affairs—both appointments were signed on the Kaiser’s yacht in the Kiel Fjord, the place Wilhelm most preferred to be.

The Baltic Sea region had long been a focus of lively economic and cultural exchange. All the wars waged on this watery northern border of the territory inhabited by the Germans had been trade wars, battles over access to the lucrative markets of the Baltic Sea region. At least from the German side, not one of them was driven by the aim of conquering and annexing territories—in stark contrast to borders in the east, west and south. The Hanseatic cities sent forth their warships, and after Copenhagen had been once again destroyed they returned to their home ports. The issue was one of market advantage not the possession of land. This was one of the differences between, for example, Lübeck and Venice—and ultimately it did not do Venice much good.

Our interest here is in what was instigated from the German side. Denmark, Sweden and soon also Russia certainly engaged in large-scale naval battles from the sixteenth century onwards with the aim of increasing their power and territory. The Reformation in Scandinavia played a pivotal role here. Church property, which in Sweden had accounted for two thirds of all agricultural land, now fell to the king. Denmark and Sweden became centrally governed nation-states for which the north German cities were no match. Sweden even developed into a major power on and around the Baltic Sea and boasted the region’s largest and most modern fleet.

I mention only in passing the episode in which Albrecht of Mecklenburg was made Duke of Mecklenburg. His attempt to establish a naval base for the House of Habsburg was stopped at Stralsund—had he succeeded the sea power of Catholic Spain would have been extended up to the Baltic.

I will also not go into the complicated circumstances that led to fighting in and around Schleswig Holstein in 1848 and which proved a prelude to the German-Danish war of 1864—the first war of conquest and annexation conducted by the Germans in the north and as a result of which Denmark lost 40% of its territory.

During this war the Danish fleet blockaded German ports on the Baltic Sea coast. Germany, which first came into being as a unified nation-state in 1871, did not have a navy at the time. The initial impetus to establish a sea-going force came from Kiel. The cause was taken up by the National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main in 1848 and then taken over five years later by Prussia, which in 1864 sent out what we can safely call little vessels to test their courage against the might of the Danish besiegers and then quickly recalled them to the safe harbor of Swinemünde. The Prussian navy’s first real warship was built in Danzig and financed by the city’s burghers, the second, the Frauenlob—which might be translated as In Praise of Women— was financed by the German women’s associations.

The concept or task of the fleet was first and foremost to provide coastal protection. This was a policy continued by Bismarck’s successor Caprivi. However, in 1888, the 29-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power, a nephew of Queen Victoria and the son of an English princess. It seems that Wilhelm may well have regarded himself as a demoted or even disowned member of the English ruling family who saw in the German Reich that fell to him the potential means of gaining the status in the world he would have achieved had he succeeded to the throne of England: the supreme representative of a world power that was exclusively a sea power. His relationship with his mother was a poor one, and it is as if he resented her for not giving birth to him in England and thus providing him with immediate access to global power. Thus, he began to create his own England, an empire at sea, indeed on board ship: the yacht "Hohenzollern", his command centre off Kiel in the Baltic Sea, which he saw as his own personal private ocean. On the "Hohenzollern" he would order his ministers to attend upon him; when on board he would receive or visit his own kind, which could only be other monarchs.

Wilhelm II’s policy had two aims: to have a fleet as big as the English and to keep England out of the Baltic Sea, his ocean. What he and Tirpitz did not understand was that England could not tolerate a fleet as strong as its own anywhere in the world, since if it could be defeated at sea its weakness as a land power would leave it open to invasion. The fact that Germany was a land power did not worry England. Up until this point its potential enemies had been France and Russia, it competitors for spheres of influence in Africa and Asia.

In 1904 things came to a head. England reacted to the massive build-up of the German fleet by radically rethinking its policy. In February John Fisher, himself a man of radical views, was appointed First Sea Lord. His first proposal to King Edward VII was to advance with the English fleet through North Sea-Baltic Sea Canal into the Baltic Sea, destroy the German fleet and occupy Schleswig-Holstein. His program for the English fleet, which included the construction of huge dreadnought ships, led Tirpitz to consider resigning.

On 8 April, 1904, England signed a treaty with France, the Entente Cordiale, after already signing a treaty with Japan. The latter agreement obliged England to support Japan in a war with Russia should a third power—and this meant Germany—side with Russia in battle, which seemed very likely on the basis of the Kaiser’s repeated statements. The encirclement of Germany had begun and in 1914 it would give rise to a war coalition of the opponents of the German Reich and Austria. Russia and France had already formed an alliance, which England then joined in 1907.

In June 1904 Edward VII attended the Kiel Week annual sailing event as a gesture of his willingness to come to an agreement in spite of rising tensions. However, during a banquet on board the Kaiser’s yacht he was forced to listen while his nephew, Wilhelm II, announced that he wanted to have a fleet that was as big and beautiful as England’s. The Kaiser went on to present the entire naval-war potential of the Imperial Navy to the king and his entourage of officers and journalists—much to the annoyance of Tirpitz, whose motto was: build ships and shut up.

At the Kiel week in 1904 a new, up-and-coming world power paid its respects to the old world and immediately demonstrated its superiority in an area especially dear to the Kaiser. In all the regattas the Americans came in ahead of the German yacht Meteor, aboard which Wilhelm II himself cut a piteous figure. He spent a good deal of time preventing his competitor’s faster boat from passing him, a case of unsportsmanlike behavior that he himself felt obliged to apologize for to the Americans afterwards.

One event that has left surprisingly little trace in the Western public mind, although it was the trigger for one of the greatest upheavals in world history, is the Russian-Japanese war, which broke out in 1904 and the consequences of which were felt until 1917 and beyond. 1904 saw the assassination of the Russian interior minister and the Russian governor-general in Finland, events that formed part of the prelude to the first, failed Russian Revolution, which ended in a bloodbath in St. Petersburg in 1905. In the Baltic provinces the warehouses of the German nobility went up in flames, and the eastern part of the Baltic Sea region continued to surge with unrest. In November 1905 Lenin returned to St. Petersburg across the Baltic Sea via Sweden and Finland.

As soon as the Russo-Japanese war broke out the conflict threatened to spread. The Russian Baltic Sea fleet caused in incident in the North Sea that almost led to England to declare war on Russia, a step that was only prevented in the last minute by French mediation. Russian ships had fired on English fishing trawlers. England suspected that Germany had deliberately spread the rumor among the Russian fleet that Japanese torpedo boats were present off the English coast.

As it turned out, Wilhelm II had encouraged and even pressed the Tsar to embark on this military venture. Before the entire Russian Baltic Sea armada, which consisted of 43 ships, resolutely steamed off towards East Asia in September 1904, where it was annihilated six months later in the Battle of Tsushima, the German Kaiser had assured the Tsar that he would completely fill the Russian vacuum in the Baltic Sea.

This brings us to another chapter in the dangerous game connected with Wilhelm’s obsession with blocking English access to the Baltic Sea. His chief tool here involved communicating via all diplomatic channels and finally in direct conversation to the Danish king that in case of war he expected strict Danish neutrality. What this meant was that Denmark was not to allow the English fleet passage through the Danish Straits, and since Denmark was not in a position to enforce such a blockade he offered to send German troops to help, in other words to occupy Denmark.

At the time the Kaiser claimed to be speaking in Russia’s name and argued that the Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea felt threatened by the English navy—while also manipulating the Tsar, who was related to the Danish royl family, by claiming to represent Russian interests while in reality pursing his own. The Kaiser had his admiralty devise a plan to land troops on the Danish island, a scheme that the head of the German admiralty, Büchsel, pursued enthusiastically for some time. The fact that the idea was dropped at the end of 1904—although it was postponed rather than abandoned—was not due to any concerns about international law but because the chief of the German general staff, Schlieffen, was in the process of elaborating his

infamous Schlieffen Plan. This scheme, which was subsequently put into practice in 1914, entailed an attack on France via neutral Belgium in complete defiance of international law. Schlieffen argued that his plan required all of Germany’s land-based forces. Moreover, he was afraid that German troops stationed on the Danish islands could be cut off and annihilated by an enemy naval attack.

Although hardly identified as such, 1904 thus represents a threshold year, one located precisely in the middle of a period of world-historical significance, 1864 to 1944, i.e. the beginning and the end of an escalating series of German wars of conquest that battered the Baltic Sea region and resulted in the nation-state borders we are living with today.

Even if we ignore the temptation to invest numbers with magical significance and we refrain from construing some sort of inevitable connection between the wars that erupted between 1864 and 1944, while also ignoring the question of whether Wilhelm II should be seen as an initiator or a catalyst within the historical process that led to catastrophe—the fact remains that the “paradigm shift” in English foreign policy in 1904 and its far-reaching consequences were a response to the build-up of the navy of the German Reich. And if we are looking for ironies of history, then the fact that monarchy in Germany received its death blow from the Kaiser’s pampered fleet in Kiel in November 1918 must surely rate high on the list. Moreover, when we speak of the Baltic Sea as an arena of world history, we should remember that this is where the Second World War began: with the shelling of the Westerplatte peninsula, a Polish enclave in the Danzig harbor area, by the cruiser “Schleswig-Holstein” on 1 September, 1939.

Perhaps also of interest is the fact that 1904 was also the year of the bloody repression of the Herero uprising in German South-West Africa, which is regarded by historians as the first genocide of the new century. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, died in 1904. Ben Gurion, co-founder of the state of Israel, spoke in 1948 of Herzl as a “sun” under whose rays the national rebirth of the Jews first became possible—the beginning of secular Jewish Messianism as a political theology.

It is understandable that these many upheavals were reflected and continued in the world of literature. Nevertheless, it is astounding how many writers producing work in 1904 speak of a turning point, a change that has occurred or should occur in their lives. Erich Mühsam, who was born in Lübeck, published his first volume of poetry in 1904, under circumstances that would require their own, longer story to relate. In the same year he suffered a personal crisis, which he attempted to escape by fleeing to Italy. In Munich he was a witness to the dispute, indeed falling out, between Stefan George and the so-called Cosmic Circle and to George’s proclamation of Maximilian Kronenberger, known as Maximin, as “master of the turning point”. For George, the death of his beloved on 10 April at the age of 15 divided world history forever into an epoch before and after Maximin’s death.

At the same time, Rilke set out in the opposite direction to Mühsam. He left Italy to travel first to Denmark and then later to Sweden, promising himself that this would be a turning point in his life. He began to write his only novel, “Malte Laurids Brigge”, a declaration of love for the lost, old aristocratic Denmark, one that took a complicated Rilkian form, as did his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé, who at this time was reporting on the Russian-Japanese War from St. Petersburg. Rilke himself already knew what war was, how he understood it, in the way writers know such things: from the literature of other writers—in this case from the war accounts of the Russian author Garschin, who had been severely wounded in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877.

However, the most spectacular story of change was played out between the Thomas and Heinrich Mann. The conflict between the brothers was triggered by a letter written by the younger Thomas in December 1903, in which he accused Heinrich of writing abysmally poor books that he found offensive due to their straightforward presentation of sexuality, their promotion of what he called a Renaissance cult, their colportage style and a number of other things.

Much has been written about this dispute. What is interesting for us here is Heinrich Mann’s renunciation of the aestheticism that had characterized his novels up until this point and the beginning of the phase of the political writer Heinrich Mann in 1904. It was in this year that he wrote the novel “Professor Unrat,” the portrait of a Wilhelmine tyrannical schoolmaster. In any case, this is the label he gives to the protagonist of his novel, and he equips him with the mannerisms and habits such a label implies. However, the story of the schoolmaster Rat, who is ridiculed with the name Unrat (garbage), turns out to be a case of unwilling dependence on the opposite sex, or put another way, of sexual bondage. This also applies to the figure who acts as the professor’s antagonist, the pupil Lohmann. The latter’s difficulties in school also have nothing to do with political rebelliousness—in complete contrast to the pupil Erich Mühsam, who was expelled from the same school that Heinrich Mann had attended for “socialist scheming.” Lohmann’s opposition and obstruction are based in the blasé attitude of a patrician offspring. As a whole the book ends up as a satire of the seducibility of the upper Lübeck social circles, from which the author of course came himself.

1904 also saw the publication of Heinrich Mann’s first work in which the author took a deliberately political stance, the novella “Fulvia”. The story is set in Italy, in the revolutionary year of 1848. Fulvia is now an old woman who looks back on the events of her youth. As though the writer can barely wait to announce his coming out as a political author, in the first very sentences he has the eponymous heroine instruct her daughter that it is not love but freedom that is the most important thing in life—a message that brought the writer immediate praise from his brother. In the same year Heinrich Mann wrote his first essay, one of his most programmatic in comparison to all those that would follow, “Flaubert and George Sand”. Here the author distances himself from the dedicated writer and art-ascetic Flaubert, and thus from himself and his concept of art up until this point. He contrasts, or opposes, this figure with that of the writer and contemporary of Flaubert George Sand as the voice of the people and the revolutionary—and places himself firmly in her camp.

Why, we must ask ourselves, did Thomas Mann become so incensed at this time with the type of books Heinrich wrote. What did this have to do with him? Did he see himself as his brother’s keeper when it came to matters of literature? Informative in this regard is his reproach to Heinrich in connection with their shared youth in Lübeck. In a letter written in January 1904 he says that when he thinks back only ten, eight or five years, he remembers Heinrich’s “genteel, enthusiastic nature”. By contrast, Thomas himself seemed “plebian, barbaric and a clown”. Thomas goes on to say that even when he is scolding his brother, he still sees Heinrich as he was back then and evokes a remarkable commonality: “It is an old Lübeck Senator’s son’s prejudice of mine with which I think I have sometimes made myself ridiculous—the notion that in comparison with us everything is inferior.”

This is an evocation, if not an imputation of shared elitist arrogance, perhaps meant as flattery, but above all it is an admonishment, a call to recollect one’s roots in the Lübeck patrician class and to cease writing these obnoxious books. What had happened? Thomas Mann had met Katja Pringsheim, who he had become engaged to in 1904. The wedding took place in February 1905. Looking back he described Katja’s parents’ home, which he had begun visiting in 1903 as follows: “The atmosphere of the large family home, which brought to mind the circumstances of my own childhood, enchanted me. I found her the intimacy imbued with the spirit of mercantile cultural elegance sophisticatedly sublimated in a sumptuous artistic and literary atmosphere.” For Thomas Mann, the connection to Katja Pringsheim meant his reconnection to a milieu and promised a social status to which, as the son of a Lübeck Senator, he felt he could lay claim. And in such a situation, he wanted a brother who was aware of his social standing and not producer of “entertainments”, as he snidely called Heinrich’s novels.

Against this background, another highly significant and also “rehabilitatory” event occurred in 1904: Thomas Mann’s first reading in Lübeck. This must have been enormously important for him after all the sniffing by the Lübeck dignitaries over “Buddenbrooks”, which they regarded as a roman a clef and as the product of a traitor to his own class. The experience had been like being driven out of the city of his birth for a second time, the first having followed the death of his father and the sale of the family firm.

In Lübeck he read scenes from his only play, “Fiorenza”. He thus confronted the city of his birth with Renaissance Florence, a city-state like Lübeck, which under the rule of the Medicis, a banking family, and particularly under Lorenzo the Magnificent, owed its splendour, its fame and its international reputation to its poets, painters and sculptors—whereas, by contrast, the citizens of Lübeck did not know how to honour their artists, that is, Thomas Mann. The Lübeck audience was not enthusiastic and a local paper spoke of public astonishment at the reading from the play.

This did not seem to worry Thomas Mann. As he wrote soon after to his brother: “And now I am truly in a situation in which I can speak of a ‘novel of life’. As I said in an honestly emotional voice in a convivial discussion following the reading in Lübeck: ‘Some of you know that I have reached a significant turning point in my life. The girl [he is referring to his fiancé Katja] has accompanied me to Berlin, has agreed to become my wife, and a whole new chapter in the novel of my life should now begin.’”

It is an interesting document. When he now sets store by speaking of a “turning point” in the novel of his life in connection with Lübeck, where he obviously first used this expression, and did so in an honestly emotional voice during a discussion after his first reading as a writer in his hometown—and when he communicates all this to his brother, whom he has only recently rebuked, by quoting himself, by providing so to speak a literal copy of the original—then we can assume this must have been an extraordinary moment for him: the engagement as reconnection with his original milieu and his first reading in the city into which he had been born into this milieu—both melded into something quite remarkable, into a “turning point” in his life, which, incidentally, he had already described the previous year a “symbolic, a prestigious existence, like that of a prince”.

Thus, 1904 was also a “fateful year” for Thomas Mann, the year of a turn, a turn for the good in his case, a year of healing, of healing old wounds.


Translated by Joseph O' Donnell