30 November 1914 – Yellow Book

Every year since 1861, France has produced annual reports about the nation for the benefit of historians and journalists in a distinctive yellow cover — a ‘ yellow book.’ France isn’t the only European state to do this: Germany and the United Kingdom have their ‘blue books,’ while Portugal has its ‘white book.’ In the immediate wake of the Great War’s outbreak, combatant nations have all published their prewar diplomatic correspondence to justify their own national points of view: Belgium has produced two ‘grey books,’ Russians have their ‘orange book,’ Serbia has a ‘blue book,’ etc.

Today, the French nation becomes the last of the states at war to print its own political brief on the origins of the conflict. From its headquarters at the Quay d’Orsay on the left bank of the Seine River in Paris (see above), the Foreign Ministry has collected and prepared diplomatic papers going further back than the rest of the combatants. Beginning in 1913 and supposedly presented in chronological order, the numbered documents purport to show the voracious ambitions of German militarism. They are printed in two volumes; Germany immediately challenges two of the earliest chapters as forgeries, but of course such protests make little impression in the West. The ‘facts on the ground’ — German soldiers occupying and devastating Belgium and France — have their own merits in the court of public opinion.

The French ‘yellow book’ will be praised all around the world, including in the New York Times, as a thrilling and informative document that is as easy to read as a novel. Professors, opinion leaders, and news writers will refer to it as an authoritative source over the next four years. Only after the war ends will French historians begin piercing the veil of respectability to reveal the editing and outright invention that have made their country’s ‘yellow book’ (YB) such an easy-reading, comprehensive propaganda pamphlet.

Maurice Paleologue

Maurice Paléologue, French ambassador to Russia, whose telegram was embellished in the ‘yellow book’ of 1914

The first damaging revelation concerns a telegram from the embassy in St. Petersburg on July 31st in which Ambassador Maurice Paléologue had originally reported “La mobilisation générale de l’armée russe est ordonnée” (“The general mobilization of the Russian army is ordered”). In fact, the mobilization order had been issued on the 30th, but vacillation continued into the evening — and the order only took effect the next day, when Austria also issued its own mobilization order.

To paper over this narrative inconvenience, someone at Quai d’Orsay decided to add “on account of the general mobilization of Austria and of the measures of mobilization taken secretly but continuously by Germany for the last six days” to Paléologue’s telegram. When the Foreign Ministry admits to this fabrication under scholastic pressure, the YB instantly loses its status as a reliable source.

Being fair, every book in the wartime rainbow of diplomatic propaganda contains some amount of forgery and creative editing. Where France has left out some notes that would muddy the clear narrative of the YB, Germany has published a highly-misleading selection of documents that earns appropriate scorn even during the war. If the YB has more of these phenomena in its pages than Britain or Russia, that is because Quay d’Orsay has taken longer to accomplish its public relations task than the foreign ministries of London or St. Petersburg.

The front cover of the second French 'Yellow Book'

The front cover of the second French ‘yellow book’ as published in Britain

The postwar years see another round of contentious debate on the diplomatic failures that led to such a terrible loss of life. One of the most important figures in this fight is French diplomatic historian Pierre Renouvin, a critic of some aspects of his own country’s prewar policy who is not popular with the French left, which supports the Bolsheviks‘ attempts to spin the Great War through another series of selective releases. Renouvin is the president of the French historical commission charged with publishing documents related to the July Crisis, and that makes him the most important man in France to counter the continuing efforts of the German Foreign Ministry’s War Guilt Section to revise history and blame the government of French President Raymond Poincaré for the outbreak of war.

So it is all the more meaningful that Renouvin is the man who calls out the fabrications and ommissions of the YB. He notes that language has been altered for hyperbole: Paul Cambon‘s pleading to British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey asking England not to repeat “her error of 1870,” when she remained neutral in the Prussian defeat of France, has been changed to “the error of Europe.” He underlines chronological errors and date changes: the date of nationalization of train stations has been altered from the 3rd of August to the 5th.

To be sure, French diplomatic success has played a role in the tensions that led to war, and Paléologue hardly acted as a brake on the Tsar’s belligerent response to Austria’s ultimatum. An unknown French diplomat in Montenegro reportedly even helped one of the minor conspirators in the Archduke’s assassination to leave that country. But France cannot honestly be blamed for decisions made in Potsdam and Vienna, and thanks in no small way to the personal efforts of Renouvin, that does not happen.

We say that history is written by the victors, but this is not always the case. Confederate ‘heritage’ and apologetics remain powerful forces in American political and social discourse long after the South supposedly lost the Civil War, and that is largely because of successful resistance to postwar reconstruction. Such an outcome was certainly possible after the Great War. If the YB had been exposed by anyone other than Renouvin, German denialism might have gained a more general acceptance in the West, and history might have been written by very different victors.

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    The Bryce Report on German atrocities in Belgium was considered the gospel until errors, embellishments, hearsay and outright lies discredited it, too.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      Did the Germans commit atrocities in Belgium? Absolutely. Were those atrocities exaggerated? Undoubtedly. It is curious that the truth was quite compelling enough all on its own, but the allies’ efforts to improve the true story, both with Belgium and with prewar correspondence, actually harmed their cause in the long run. It also encouraged denialism and conspiracy theories.

      Stay tuned, as I’ll be covering the Bryce Report when the time comes.

      • dbtheonly


        The question of the authenticity of the various atrocity reports becomes a major “talking point” for right-wing politicians, especially in Germany, to blame the war on, England, the Jews, the Socialists, etc. As such, it’s important to understand, and sort out, as best we can, the reality of the situation.

        And I think you underestimate, “German denialism might have gained a more general acceptance in the West,”

        But you’re right, we’ve got four years to work on it.

        • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

          As far as I know, there has never been a comprehensive study of postwar resistance comparing the CSA to the Freikorps and studying the commonality of conspiracy theories. Maybe there ought to be one. I see similarities that have lessons for us today, including the way Prussians would simultaneously import Polish labor and stir up ethnic resentment of Poles along “the impossible border.”

          One disturbing side to the denialism, then as now, is the rather pathetic participation of pacifists who express the most deranged admiration for history’s worst killers in order to justify their opposition to the wars those villains create. I have watched supposedly-liberal persons say ridiculous things about how poor little Moammar Ghaddafi was misunderstood, and how all those Libyans just didn’t know how good they had it. The Syrian WMD program was a known, documented thing for decades before Assad started dropping sarin on centers of resistance, but the pacifists of our time keep promoting the alternative notion that a notional, undocumented Al Nusra WMD program took place, and that the resulting magic invisible sarin was used to frame the Syrian regime in a complicated Rube Goldberg-machine conspiracy. And before that, there was 9/11 “truth” acting as a toxic catalyst for the antiwar movement, despite the best efforts of yours truly and other opponents of Bush’s ill-advised wars to expunge those conspiracies.

          In our time, these insane ideas are openly promoted by the right wing glibertarian set (Pat Buchanan + Antiwar dot com + Bitcoins from charlatan Roger Ver), which understands much better than the left how these sorts of falsehoods ALWAYS work out for the benefit of authoritarians. “The left” keeps putting itself in the reactionaries’ anti coalition-center thinking it will advance the progressive cause, but it somehow never works out that way. Instead, this arrangement invariably works out for the benefit of the right, who default to that setting from their own supposed “antiwar” fringe as soon as they are restored to power. It’s incredibly frustrating.

          ADDING: I’ve got a post in a couple of days about that last point.

          • dbtheonly

            A major difference would be that the Confederate states Government ceased sometime in April 1865 while there was a legitimate Government in Germany on November 12, 1918. Perhaps a better comparison would be the filibusters who left the (now whole) US to engage in the Mexican problems.

            By and large unreconstructed Confederates muted the actual point of the war which lead to the joke of the late 40’s. Asked if he or any member of his family advocated the violent overthrow of the US Government, the guy replied that Grandad fought for the Confederacy.

            The RW, then as now, is unwilling to have the US engage in wars against RW regimes, but is more than eager to have them attack regimes perceived as LW. The isolationists of the 1930s are more than eager to join the Anti-Communist Crusade of the 1950s.

            Totally unrelated, I’m surprised you didn’t comment on George V’s resemblance to Tsar Nicholas II in tomorrow’s post.

          • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

            I’ll get to that resemblance, don’t worry :)

            In my ideal paper, the Weimar government would be compared and contrasted to the reconstruction-era state governments of the South, and in that context the actions of National Socialists and Southern revanchists would be analyzed for commonalities and differences. I might not write this paper but I would certainly read it, since I’m keenly interested in how “victors write the history” fails as a rule in both cases.

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