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Two excellent arguments from a hundred years ago on whether Britain should go to war or not

The “July Crisis” of 1914 may have come as a shock to the British but that does mean they were not able to weigh their options. I was surprised by the excellence of a couple of articles I came across in The Times. One of them appeared on the editorial pages, did not have a byline but didn’t appear to be an editorial either. It was still good though. This is the key passage:

France does not threaten our security. A German victory over France would threaten it irremediably. Even should the German Navy remain inactive, the occupation of Belgium and Northern France by German troops would strike a crushing blow at British security. We should then be obliged, alone and without allies, to bear the burden of keeping up a Fleet superior to that of Germany and of an Army proportionately strong. This burden would be ruinous.

That is the best explanation from Britain’s decision to go to war I ever heard. Peace is perilous.

The other was a letter from Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion:

We are told that if we allow Germany to become victorious she would be so powerful as to threaten our existence by the occupation of Belgium, Holland, and possibly the North of France. But, as your article of to-day’s date so well points out, it was the difficulty which Germany found in Alsace-Lorraine which prevented her from acting against us in the South African War. If one province, so largely German in its origin and history, could create this embarrassment, what trouble will not Germany pile up for herself is she should attempt the absorption of a Belgium, a Holland, and a Normandy?

Rather depends on how civilised she plans on being. He goes on:

The object and effect of our entering into this war would be to ensure the victory of Russia and her Slavonic allies. Will a dominant Slavonic federation of, say, 200,000,000 autocratically governed people, with a very rudimentary civilisation, but heavily equipped for military aggression, be a less dangerous factor in Europe than a dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?

A prediction, of course, that manages to be both very wrong and, ultimately, very right.

140731p9_ProWar_s

51 comments to Two excellent arguments from a hundred years ago on whether Britain should go to war or not

  • Mr Ed

    the victory of Russia and her Slavonic allies. Will a dominant Slavonic federation of, say, 200,000,000 autocratically governed people, with a very rudimentary civilisation, but heavily equipped for military aggression, be a less dangerous factor in Europe than a dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?

    Leaving aside the ‘Slavonic’ bit, we ended up with a German threat, then the Soviet threat, then joined by the Nazi threat and then the expanded Soviet threat, worst of all worlds really. But had Germany been crushed in 1918, the World might have been thereafter united against the infant Soviet Union, but that is just a ‘what if?’.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Mr Ed
    August 2, 2014 at 9:54 am

    But had Germany been crushed in 1918, the World might have been thereafter united against the infant Soviet Union, but that is just a ‘what if?’.

    In a sense, the World was united against the Soviets: but the desultory support given the Whites in the Russian Civil War argues that it was also too exhausted to make a difference, even had Germany been ‘crushed’. And after the Civil War had been won by the Reds, the rope-sellers would inevitably have rushed in, as they did.

  • We should then be obliged, alone and without allies, to bear the burden of keeping up a Fleet superior to that of Germany and of an Army proportionately strong. This burden would be ruinous.

    Sound like the beginning of WW2. And it was ruinous. For nearly a century.

    And now we Americans are tired. We no longer wish to dominate the world. And the power vacuum is being filled with numerous wars. Interesting that Saudi, Jordan, and Israel have become de facto allies.

  • RAB

    Interesting that Saudi, Jordan, and Israel have become de facto allies.

    Have they?

  • Yes RAB, they have. And you can add Egypt to that list as well.

  • Paul Marks

    “A very rudimentary civilisation” – an absurd way of talking about one of the golden periods in Russian art and culture.

    It sounds almost like the Keiser with his demented ranting about the subhuman Slavs (perhaps he should have looked at the family tree of half the German aristocracy – including his own), and the inevitable war-to-the-death between German and Slav (which led him to throw away the alliance with Russia – once a good friend of Germany).

    Even on the Jews (who the Russian government and the terror thugs of the “Black Hundreds” treated with such terrible cruelty) it was the German Emperor (not the Russian Emperor) who went on about the need to exterminate the Jews (as the most recent biography of the Keiser makes clear) – although (hypocrite) the Keiser presented a smiling face to certain Jews who he thought he might make use of (till the golden moment came……).

    The Keiser also throw away (with contempt – and with the full support of the German political and academic elite) the offers (from Lord L. and others) of an alliance with BRITAIN (oh yes it was offered).

    The German elite viewed Britain as a rival to be destroyed – not a friend to be allied with.

    So the option of peace (long term peace) just was not on the table.

    On paper peace between Britain and Germany was a wonderful idea (I fully agree with Norman Angell there) – the trouble is that the German elite had no intention of SINCERLY offering Britain long term peace.

    Just a tactical truce – whilst they finished off France and Russia.

    Then Britain’s turn would come…..

    Nor did the Keiser mellow with age – he went to his tomb (during World War II) hoping for the destruction of “Juden Britain” and the death of the Zionist Winston Churchill.

  • Paul Marks

    I will believe in a (tactical) alliance between Israel and the House of Saud when and if there is a real attack upon Iran.

    And not a moment before.

    As it is the world is waiting for announcement from the Prime Minister of Israel.

    The word is it will be an exercise in snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory.

    I hope “the word” is wrong.

  • Paul,

    The tactical alliance has been in evidence since 2006. One Saudi came out and praised Israel fighting Hezbollah in that era. Quickly walked back the following day.

    Here is a report from a notoriously anti-Jew site. There are plenty more.

    http://rense.com/general96/anirr.html

    Here is a pro-Israeli report.

    http://www.truthrevolt.org/israel-revolt/krauthammer-kerry-acting-essentially-lawyer-hamas

    There’s a miracle happening in the Middle East which is a tacit alliance between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority of all people, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Gulf Arabs, all of them are our friends who want to see Hamas squeezed, who supported the Arab league, supported the Egyptian peace plan and this entirely undermines [it]. It’s a peace plain that all the Arabs had supported and this undermines it. If I could add one point. The Palestinian Authority leader attacked the plan and said what was Kerry doing in Paris negotiating with Qatar and Turkey and leaving out the P.A. and leaving out Egypt?

  • Michael Jennings

    Israel is extremely predictable in foreign policy terms: don’t attack them and they won’t attack you. Given that every country in the Middle East (including Israel) is faced with other enemies that are much less predictable (or are predictable in the sense of being unequivocally hostile) much follows from this.

  • Regional

    No government likes extremists in their ranks.

  • joel

    The real problem with WW I was the American involvement. We intervened, shifted the balance of power to the Western Allies, which won the war, and then we left.

    If you read about the 20 years between WW I and WW II, it was a story of France trying to hold Germany down or at bay, whatever, since Germany was a stronger power.

    Our policy makers learned the lesson. We still garrison Europe almost 70 years after the end of WW II. Guess what? Peace.

    Of course, we never can be sure. If Hitler had not come to power, with about 33% of the vote, WW II might never have happened. Only in retrospect are things certain.

  • Regional

    The British High Seas Fleet holed up in Scapa Flow went for a works outing but their ships kept blowing up so they returned to base, one of the primary causes for the First Transnational Unpleasantness was the Naval race and they were never used.

  • Jacob

    “dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?”

    Highly civilized ???
    Highly barbarous, behind a thin veneer of Beethovens (of Belgian origin) and Goethes.

    Strange how people can still claim “highly civilized” AFTER having full knowledge of German barbarity in both Wars.

  • Rob

    I think they meant ‘civilised’ in the Roman sense, ie a high culture, organisation, etc. Rome was considered supremely civilised even though they frequently massacred civilian populations who resisted them or rebelled.

    Not to mention their choice of entertainment, though that was not particularly barbaric for the times (or even a thousand years later).

  • Jacob

    The Roman civilization happened some 1700 years before WW1. So, yes, maybe the German were civilized by Roman standards, having missed some 1700 years of evolution…

  • Jacob

    Norman Angell wrote his letter before WW1, so maybe he can be excused for his error of ignorance about the true character of the German nation.

    It is still strange how some people (revisionist historians) can make such claims even now.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “Civilized” means “city-dwelling:” it doesn’t mean “nice,” although the presumption is that it involves some degree of ‘niceness’. Angell may have over-presumed, but the fact is that all cultures are somewhat indifferent to the well-being of non-members.

  • Johnnydub

    Re: Michael Jennings et al

    It’s quite staggering that while Europe burns with Anti-Semitism towards Israel, the Arab states are moistly supporting Israel (quietly) as they wrestle with their own problems with terrorism and Islamic Fundamentalism.

    The two that wholly support HAMAS? Turkey & Qatar. So which two states does the USA bring in to act as Intermediaries between HAMAS & Israel? You guessed it.

    I can’t believe what a wanker Obama is…

  • Johnnydub
    August 3, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    I can’t believe what a wanker Obama is…

    It was obvious to some of us in early 2008. The tell was “community organizer”. That is code in America for “Communist”. Couldn’t sell it. Ah. Well.

    And then there were hints of his Muslim upbringing. Couldn’t sell it. And besides there is “nothing wrong with that”.

    And let us not forget that Hamas = Iran.

  • Mr Ed

    And let us not forget that Hamas = Iran.

    Iran is Shia, Hamas Sunni, both regard the other as heretics. In Syria, Hamas would be most likely to be anti-Assad and therefore anti- Iranian proxies like Hizbollah. This alliance of convenience will end at some point. Of course, both hate Israel more than they hate each other.

  • Mr Ed

    Wobbly Guy, from that link, Mr Margolis:

    On one side of the debate is historian Margaret MacMillan, whose new book “The War That Ended Peace,” lays primary blame on Germany’s military and commercial ambitions. MacMillan is a nice lady – I’ve debated her on TV – but her tedious new book is so steeped in traditional British/Anglo-Saxon bias against Germany as to be of limited value.
    On the other is “The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Cambridge professor Christopher Clark. This brilliant book is the finest, most instructive, best balanced book ever written on the origins of the Great War.
    I say this as holder of a degree in the diplomatic history of World War I, and as one who has walked most of the battlefields of the Western Front.

    So we have argument by condescension, praise and appeal to dubious authority in three paragraphs.

    And the next two are horse manure too strong to put on roses.

    Prof. Clark deftly and elegantly weaves a tapestry of events that conclusively shows that Germany’s role in the conflict was no greater than the other belligerents, and perhaps less than commonly believed. Starved into submission by Britain’s naval blockade, Germany was unfairly and foolishly saddled with total war guilt, and saw 10% of its territory and 7 million of its people torn away at Versailles by the war’s rapacious victors.
    Adolf Hitler rose to power on his vow to return Germany’s lost lands and peoples who had been given to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Stalin was determined to regain Russian territory lost at the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

    I could go on, but the smell…

  • Mr Ed
    August 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Arab politics is more Byzantine than European politics pre-WW1. Way more.

    The one common thread I see these days is that no one wants a significant population of Palestinians in their country.

  • Mr Ed

    M. Simon

    Indeed, I wonder if, if Israel didn’t exist, it would have to be invented to stop all the other squabbles in the Middle East from turning into bigger bloodbaths.

    I recall at some point in the 1990s Mr Arafat was in a ‘plane crash (perhaps flying back from his native Cairo, but I am guessing about the flight and throwing in a little repeated fact about him) and he survived unscathed. The British media interviewed some of the more media-friendly PLO types including a woman who was a regular talking-head at the time, her joy at Mr Arafat’s survival was unrestrained, and I thought ‘They are happy, as if Arafat died, they might all get killed in faction fighting in the ensuing power struggle.’.

    But that was pure speculation on my part, based on my impression, not evidence.

  • Iran is Shia, Hamas Sunni, both regard the other as heretics. In Syria, Hamas would be most likely to be anti-Assad and therefore anti- Iranian proxies like Hizbollah. This alliance of convenience will end at some point. Of course, both hate Israel more than they hate each other. Hamas leadership has been residing in Damascus for many years, until very recently, and Iran is still regularly trying to send armaments to Hamas. They all hate the Jews (and Christians) more than they hate each other. M. Simon has it.

  • Ljh

    Alisa is right: it’s the order in which they want to kill each other, Jews, the rest that varies with time and opportunity.

  • Mr Ed

    Indeed Alisa, but in Syria it seems that they have taken their eyes off the ball and started killing each other, as Israelis can look on at what they both would do to them given half a chance.

    Heaven forbid that the example of Syria might spread to say, Iraq, oh, look…

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed and M. Simon.

    The difference between tactical alliances on the Islamic side (for example between Sunni Hamas and Shia Iranian regime) and “tactical alliances” on the Israeli side – is that the enemy tactical alliances produce useful things (money, arms and so on), whereas all the Saudis (and co) give Israel is a few nice words, which they then “walk back” and replace with nasty words.

    This is not a tactical alliance as I understand the term – it produces nothing of use.

  • Paul, there have actually been clashes between Egyptian forces and Hamas in Sinai and other spots during this war. And besides, diplomacy does matter, and there is lots of diplomacy going on behind the scenes right now.

  • And no, no nice words out in the open, although plenty of nasty words against Hamas.

  • Pardone

    Saudi Arabia = Al Qaeda in all but name. They are the real enemy, a nation corrupt at every level, devoted to plotting and scheming, with Western elites ever servile to their wishes, bent over and at their service, butt-cheeks wide open for the sake of cheap oil and the luscious bribes handed forth from the parasitic, scumbag House of Saud.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    So, Pardone, what will happen when all this fracking oil gives the US oil independence? Will the House of Saud fall? will the top layers emigrate and live in the decadent West, gambling their money away?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    And the next two are horse manure too strong to put on roses.

    Uh okay. If you say so. Condescension of the opposing view, hmmm…

    Nobody answered the point – what if Great Britain refused to honour its alliances? Would France have tried to take on Germany?

    In the longer term, what would Germany have tried to do? I take note of Paul Mark’s vociferous argument of the terrors of the German state, so it’s entirely possible. Still, is a world ruled by German efficiency so bad?

  • Paul,

    Of course on the surface the Saudis give Israel nothing except the occasional silence (the dog that didn’t bark). But it is more than possible that the “enemies” are trading intel. That is as valuable as an army. If you have an army that can use it.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray
    August 4, 2014 at 1:22 am

    The world demand for oil and European (and I add the British ruling classes in that although the Americans are trying hard to catch up) stupidity will keep the House of Saud in Lear Jets for some time to come.

    The current upheavals may mean that the oil is running low and opportunists see opportunity. We will know in 40 year the actual terrain of the game today.

    Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. – Hassan I Sabbah

    Wm. Burroughs: http://youtu.be/fGJ7Z6AEzpY

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    Well, the German language is a jaw-breaker. And I don’t think the Chinese would have accepted Aryan rule. And it would have been the Kaiser ruling, thus a kingdom or Empire. Yes, lots to worry about in a german victory.

  • Regional

    The Germans couldn’t take Malta, you’re over estimating them. In 1933 they had nothing, 1941 masters of western Europe, 1945 the country was in ruins.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    In my counterfactual, there are two possibilities if GB didn’t join in:

    1. France participates anyway. They are outflanked by Moltke, who nevertheless did not have sufficient manpower to decisively breach french lines to take Paris in 1914-1915. They come very close though, and eventually in several years of hard campaigning whittled the French down sufficiently through attrition that they took Paris.

    Russia still suffers horrific casualties in the East and still suffers a revolution. They still sign a treaty with the Central Powers.

    German ends the war a weary victor. It imposes punitive measures on France and the other losers, taking control of French colonies in Africa and Asia, finally realizing the Kaiser’s imperial ambitions. The UK’s empire is now directly at loggerheads with the German one.

    Russia still goes to the commies.

    Hmmm…

    2. France sits out. Probably not much change on the Eastern front – if you were a German commander, would you denude your western border with France to deploy more troops to the eastern front, knowing that they might just still declare war and backstab you at an opportune time?

    Still, some troops would have been redeployed, and Russian losses, already bad in our reality, become worse.

    Germany claims large tracts of territory in the East, but then has to contend with communist Russia and pacifying native populations. A brutal German occupation of eastern europe ensues. Germany’s imperial ambitions remain unfulfilled, but they are somewhat closer, and the Kaiser has got to be licking his chops at France…

    Hmmmm…

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    Regional, Britain’s Navy did fight German ships a few times, but the Germans always hoped to lure them close to their land guns and thus sink them, and the British saw no reason to oblige. The U-boats might have made a difference, if they had been employed earlier on, or had not sunk the Lusitania, which brought America into the war.

  • Mr Ed

    Uh okay. If you say so. Condescension of the opposing view, hmmm…

    Not at all, calling out bullshit for what it is. Mr Margolis made those comments, and he deploys no effective argument, unless you would like to point out his strongest points.

    Nobody answered the point – what if Great Britain refused to honour its alliances? Would France have tried to take on Germany?

    Would France have had a choice in the matter, any more than Luxembourg? German was the aggressor, it was doing the attacking, whether France, Belgium, Luxembourg or Russia liked it or not.

    And if German has Belgium, Picardy and the bulk of the Baltic, it presents a threat to the UK.

    Is there anyone out there who still believes that Germany was not the aggressor in WW1? That person might like to invest in a bridge I have acquired.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    And here I thought that Austria started it with impossible conditions imposed on Serbia! As it happens, I could do with a new bridge. How big is it, what colours does it come in, and is it safe for kiddies?

  • Mr Ed

    Nick, an Austro-Serbian War might have been contained to those parties, but Germany was the driver of the global war with its global ambitions.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I don’t think Germany would have attacked France if it stayed neutral. The Schlieffen Plan actually had a variation that accounted for this.

    I think if France stayed neutral, Germany would have been more than happy to hammer Russia as had happened in reality in a one-front war. As proud as they are, I doubt the Germans were stupid enough to invite a war on two fronts when they had the luxury of only fighting one.

    A German victory against Russia would have been foregone. The problem is what comes after.

  • staghounds

    Again, how were France and for that matter Russia supposed to stay neutral or “sit it out”? GERMANY declared war agains both of them, first- with France only after actual invasion.

  • Mr Ed

    Nick,

    It’s a rope bridge, extremely rickety, it joins two points in favour of the Kaiser but runs a deep chasm. I hope it bears your weight, but safe for kiddies? Afraid knot!

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    At least it will stop me jumping to conclusions! As for the kiddies, Libertarians believe in not mollycoddling anyone, so they’ll live and learn (we hope).
    I think it’s more like a shoot-out. Both sides turned up with itchy trigger-fingers, but we blame Germany for having an itchier finger. Lar gair, as the French Ce!

  • The Wobbly Guy

    @staghounds,

    Germany declared war against them, but not before asking if they could stay neutral. Somehow Edward Grey jumbled up the communications (if I read his actions correctly), and neither side could stand down with ambiguous information.

    Grey asked him whether Germany could give an assurance that France would not be attacked if it remained neutral in a war between Germany and Russia. Lichnowsky understood him to be offering both British neutrality and a guarantee of French neutrality.

    Gahhh, which is why everybody hates diplomats. They are so used to obfuscation that when clarity of communications is required because millions of lives are stake, they can’t speak and ask clearly!!!

    Eric Margolis and others have accused Edward Grey of being duplicitous and subtly pushing GB to pro-French and anti-German positions due to a belief in the ‘Balance of Power’ doctrine. Don’t know how true that is, because we simply don’t know what he could have done to de-escalate tensions.

  • Mr Ed

    But, Germany had no right to demand that France stay neutral, nor had it any reasonable ground for believing that the UK could offer French neutrality. This is the Germany that within four weeks committed the rape of Louvain. Why should France offer to stay neutral and in effect guarantee Germany the chance to avoid a two-front war and then proceed to knock out Russia and then proceed to trample France. Within days Germany had violated Belgium’s neutrality, I find it difficult to see anything that Germany did in the run up to the war as an effort to avoid war, it looks for all the world like an effort to maximise its chances in the War that it drove forward.

    Perhaps the best way to de-escalate tensions would have been to tell the Germans: If there is a European War, it will be the fault of the Reich government, we shall prevail and we shall hang those responsible for starting this war along with the entire Army General Staff. Assured Destruction.

  • This is interesting. An analysis of why Russia should have sided with Germany and why it didn’t:

    http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2014/0612/sw/swwwi_robinson.html

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