David Cameron thinks it was. David Cameron thinking anything is reason to believe the opposite.
Seumas Milne thinks it wasn’t. Seumas Milne thinking anything is reason to believe etc, etc.
Up to now I’ve tended to the Cameron line: appalling war, unsatisfactory conclusion but still worth fighting. But is that true?
We can begin by throwing out some of the canards that Milne so usefully supplies. The fact that Belgium’s government had acted appallingly in Congo does not mean that Belgians had no right to self-defence. It also does not mean that Britain was wrong to aid that defence.
Incidentally, I would be curious to know, were the imperial regimes any more or less brutal than the regimes that either preceded or followed them? Was George Washington really an improvement on George the Third? If commenters plan responding to that last one I would appreciate if they come armed with some comparative facts.
Milne also seems to confuse causes with justice. It may be true that the war was the result of imperial rivalries but that does not mean there weren’t good guys and bad guys – or perhaps more accurately, bad guys and worse guys. And in a fight between bad guys and worse guys I favour the bad guys. Human progress is almost never a case of the good taking over from the bad and almost always the bad taking over from the worse. For example, Deng taking over from Mao.
Getting back to the subject in hand and talking of imperial rivalries – I really don’t think that was a major cause. Europe was going through a political revolution. The masses no longer accepted that monarchs had a god-given right to rule. Ideas such as socialism, nationalism and democracy were challenging the old order and the old orders were scared. Even in liberal, prosperous Britain, suffragists were breaking windows, trade unionists rioting and Irishmen preparing for civil war. When there’s trouble at home regimes start making trouble abroad.
Anyway, back to those canards. Germany was far more of a threat to Britain in 1914 than it was in 1939 (note to Seumas: the second world war started in 1939 not 1940). In 1914 Germany had a powerful navy and it was coming our way. Moreover, in 1939, Germany had a clear ideological commitment to expanding to the East. In 1914 it was far from clear what it was trying to do.
That Britain had a right to defend Belgium is not the same as saying it had the obligation to do so or that doing so was sensible. However, if you are going to go to war with one of the most powerful countries in Europe it is usually a good idea to do so as part of a coalition. In that regard the prospects in 1914 were much better than in 1939. Really, can anyone think of a worse decision in the 20th Century than the Soviet Union signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany?
So, if there ever was a time to go to war with Germany, August 1914 was that time. But that is not the same as saying it was sensible. Two Liberal cabinet ministers, John Morley and John Burns, resigned over the declaration of war. In looking into Morley’s reasons I came across this and then this. I haven’t finished reading either but they do put a rather different perspective on things. Was the Triple Entente as much to blame as the Triple Alliance?