Towards understanding the ‘German peril’ and the outbreak of the 1914-8 war

New archival documents show the 1914-8 war’s origins were mired in political cynicism. Speaking to Douglas Newton and Andreas Rose, it is time we shelved the childish notion that Britain’s war against Germany was just, moral, and good

Fred Rose, ‘John Bull and his friends: A serio-comic map of Europe’, 1900 (Image: public domain)

Much has been made of “never forgetting” those who died to “protect liberty” in the 1914-8 war. Politicians might lament the horrors unleashed, but never warn against war itself. This fits with a striking group-think which says Britain entered the war to defend Belgium from a wicked, German despotism.

New archival findings, however, now show the war’s origins defy conventional wisdom. Australian historian Douglas Newton, whose book The Darkest Days (London: Verso, 2014) has gone somewhat under the radar in Britain, told me he is worried by the commemoration amongst western states of the 1914-18 war, which has bled into a celebration of “cathedral-town moralism,” where sceptics are banished to the wild hinterlands of ostracism.

Newton said Britain’s rush into the 1914-18 war was cynically motivated.

“Britain was in the midst of crisis.” With civil war over Ireland and splits within the Cabinet that could lead to a Tory government committed to a European war on the side of the Russian tsar, “the Liberals decided that a general war would save their skin. By wrapping themselves and the public in the national flag, they could prevent a civil war, stay in power, and stave off an international humiliation with the Russians and the French.

“The British did not simply fail to restrain the Russians [in August 1914], but actively encouraged them and escalated what began as an eastern conflict, when [First Sea Lord] Winston Churchill set the Royal Navy on a footing on 26 July, and when the government told the Entente powers it would go to war once Germany declared war on Russia, days before the ultimatum to Belgium.

“The Entente was built on the notion,” he continued, “that, given they could no longer rule the world on their own, the British had to share turf with the Russians and the French, and keep the newcomer [Germany] down. The whole international system was rotten to the core, based as it was on the assumptions of deterrence, preemption, and a steady arms race. The idea that someone will one day find the single cause of the war is just a fantasy.”

A recent collection of essays, compiled by the Oxford University Press under the title Bid For World Power? (London: Oxford University Press, 2017), is similarly worth pouring through. One contributor, the German historian Andreas Rose, argued the British government aimed to form a alliance with its most dangerous rivals, Russia and France, to relieve the empire and its security, to reduce the defence budgets to finance social reform, and to control global relations: “in a shared hegemony without German interference.”

This partially explains why Britain exported its conflict with Russia in the Far East to continental Europe against Germany instead. In doing so, Rose argued British foreign secretary Edward Grey fuelled the Russian tsar’s made Balkan policy: “Having lost control of the Entente powers, Britain was ready to please the Russians come what may. Grey became more Russian than the Russians.”

Rose told me that British policy was influenced not just by foreign powers, but the domestic press, political parties, and inter-services rivalries in the heated pre-war years. In his wonderful Between Empire and Continent (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2017), Rose has drawn attention to the blatant, self-interested, collusion between press journalists, diplomats, and territorial brass, in conflict with the admirals, to profit from ever tighter budgets.

“Deeply disappointed at the outcome of the earlier investigation and confronted with Radical Liberalism’s even more pacifist approach, Lord Roberts, Britain’s greatest war hero, and Charles Repington, military correspondent of The Times and secret promoter of the Anglo-French staff talks, supported by the spectacularly rich privateers Lord Lovat and Samuel Scott, founded a pressure group known as the Committee of Four.

“Its aim was to promote conscription and a ‘million-men standard’ based on the Prussian model. ‘The Nation,’ so their Darwinist slogan ran, ‘must be a Nation in Arms or perish.’

“Aware that traditions, political constellations, and the fiscal situation did not allow for a million-strong army, Repington first called for a smooth, concerted, well-regulated, and ongoing propaganda campaign against Britain’s alleged immunity to raids or invasion. 

“The Committee of Four gained the assistance of powerful journalists in this, including John Strachey of the Spectator, himself a hobby soldier and High Sheriff of a paramilitary unit in Surrey, the notorious anti-German Leo Maxse of the National Review, and many others from papers such as the Daily Express, The Observer, and the Daily Mail, flagship of the Northcliffe press.

“To achieve an increase in the army’s prestige and budget, the British public had to be persuaded that the Royal Navy was no longer capable of guaranteeing Britain’s security,” Rose explained.

Anti-German advocates including Charles Repington believed Russia was “irresistible,” and wanted to control or appease Russia, “along with France until Britain was militarily prepared for the worst, or diplomatically safeguarded. In the meantime, Germany served as a perfect bogeyman. In order to stir up his fellow countrymen and promote an Anglo-French rapprochement, he did not hesitate to distort information about Germany.

“The advocates of conscription somehow needed the German peril to buttress their case for higher army estimates, promotion against the navy, and to justify a strategy of entente with former imperial rivals,” he writes. “Imperial defence alone was not enough to persuade the public of the need for compulsory service or a rapprochement with Russian autocracy.

“The German peril, therefore, was a bond that united advocates of the army, sensation-seeking journalists, science-fiction writers, and spy novelists.”

If this does not begin to puncture the falsehoods and demythologise the war against the evil, hunnish Germans, then who knows what could.

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