How England Helped Start the Great War

March 01, 2012

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How England Helped Start the Great War

A vastly underexplored topic is the British government’s role in greasing the skids for World War I. Until recently it was hard to find scholars who would dispute the culturally comfortable judgment that “authoritarian Germany” unleashed the Great War out of militaristic arrogance. Supposedly the British only got involved after the Germans recklessly violated Belgian neutrality on their way to conquering “democratic“ France.

But British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had done everything in his power to isolate the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies, who were justified in their concern about being surrounded by enemies. The Triple Entente, largely constructed by Grey’s government and which drew the French and Russians into a far-reaching alliance, encircled Germany and Austria with warlike foes. In July 1914 German leaders felt forced to back their Austrian allies in a war against the Serbs, who were then a Russian client state. It was clear by then that this conflict would require the Germans to fight both Russia and France.

The German military fatalistically accepted the possibility of England entering the struggle against them. This might have happened even if the Germans had not violated Belgian soil in order to knock out the French before sending their armies eastward to deal with a massive Russian invasion. The English were anything but neutral. In the summer of 1914 their government was about to sign a military alliance with Russia calling for a joint operation against German Pomerania in case of a general war. The British had also given assurances to French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé that they would back the French and the Russians (who had been allied since 1891) if war broke out with Germany.

“The British were more hostile to the Germans than vice versa.”

Grey spurned attempts by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to woo his government away from their commitments to Germany’s enemies.

German concessions in 1912 included:

• The acceptance of British dominance in constructing railroads and accessing oil reserves in what is now Iraq
• Investments in central African ventures that would clearly benefit the English more than the Germans
• Meekly following England’s lead in two Balkan Wars where Austria’s enemy Serbia nearly doubled its territory.

The Russians and French were also vastly expanding their conscription to outnumber the German and Austrian forces, but neither German concessions nor the saber-rattling of England’s continental allies caused the British government to change direction. Lord Grey, who remained foreign secretary until 1916, never swerved from his view that Germany was England’s most dangerous enemy.

A book that makes this clear is Konrad Canis’s study of German foreign policy from 1902 until 1914. A massive volume of more than seven hundred pages, Canis’s Der Weg in den Abgrund (The Road Into the Abyss) is a groundbreaking revisionist account of the entanglements leading up to the war.

Canis makes several points one is not likely to encounter in ordinary historical scholarship:

1. The German Second Empire’s foreign policy was largely passive. This was true not only of Bismarck after German unification in 1871 but almost equally true of German foreign policy from 1902 onward.

2. The British were more hostile to the Germans than vice versa. They viewed Germany as an upstart economic competitor which had established itself as the continent’s dominant military power. Both German public opinion and German leaders were strongly Anglophilic; the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg considered English friendship to be something worth striving for even at the cost of German interests.

3. The German government and most of the German press made a sharp distinction between hoping to see their country become a world power and aspiring for dominance over all other countries. Canis’s sources suggest that influential Germans were hoping to become a power “on the scale of England,” a country they respected and had no interest in fighting.

In 1914 Russia posed more of a threat to England than either Germany or Austria did. England was struggling with Russia for dominance in Central Asia. Instead of reassessing its geopolitical priorities, Lord Grey offered Russia a third front against the Germans by promising to make British ships available for a landing in northern Germany. This was how the British government tried to settle its conflicts with Russia, as both of them were expanding into the same region. In these British commitments, it is unclear whether a distinction was still being drawn between offensive and defensive wars.

And then there’s the US. When the German ambassador approached Teddy Roosevelt to join the Germans in upholding open trade in China’s Yangtze River Valley and other regions then being closed off by the British and French, TR refused. He said he could not sign such a document before first consulting the British. This may be further proof for those who believe the US was a vassal state of England’s before the First World War.

The autocratic Russian government, which entered the war from the east, was not quite as “democratic” in 1914, but by the time Woodrow Wilson pulled us into the European cauldron, Russia had undergone the first of two revolutions, this one a democratic revolutionary change in March 1917. Thus the US could ally itself with Russia’s morally acceptable provisional government when it took up arms against putative German warmongers.

George Kennan’s The Fateful Alliance and Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origin of the First World War both document the role the aggressively expansionist Russian government played in bringing about the Great War. But such revelations are no longer surprising.

What is more of a discovery is England’s role in creating this catastrophe. This oversight may be attributed to certain obvious causes: the mistaken view that England only entered the war because of the violation of Belgian neutrality (this confounds a pretext with a cause); the Anglophilic disposition of American political and academic elites; and more recently, the tendentious notion that “democracies never fight each other.” Unfortunately for this generalization, the governments of Germany and England (and certainly their societies) in 1914 looked much more like each other than either would resemble the present American or Canadian regime.

Canis does not defend Germany’s ultimately disatrous decision in 1914. The Germans should have restrained the Austrians even after Serb agents killed Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand. The ensuing war wrecked the Old Europe. The war industries that Grey, Churchill, and others of their kidney were lavishly funding were not what the populace wanted. The war hawks were diverting revenues from social reforms. Although I am hardly in favor of the welfare state, creating one in England in 1910 may have been less ruinous than Grey’s foreign policy.


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