World War One is a conflict that inspires great agony in the souls of those who study it. The numbers can wash over to the point where one becomes numb, but when one reads the stories of the men who were there, seeing their friends mown down by machine guns as they stumbled over mountains of barbed wire, asphyxiating as chlorine gas gurgled through their trench, or blown to pieces by an artillery piece five miles away, those numbers become all too human. The question that rises to mind comes simply enough; who is to blame for this crime against humanity? If you read Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, it’s the British Empire who is entirely to blame for both the beginning and length of the First World War. While I wholly agree with the second conclusion, as the French and Russians likely quickly succumb to the German onslaught without Britain in the war, the idea that the British are to blame for the war beginning and would’ve been much better served by staying out of it is a ludicrous one, and an idea I intend to dispute in this blog post.
Niall Ferguson’s argument is as follows: the Germans were not fighting a war of aggression in 1914, but rather a war of prevention, a war they did not want but were obliged to fight following ambivalent British diplomacy as the pressure mounted in late July of 1914. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in particular draws Ferguson’s ire, for his hmming and hawing over the question of British intervention in any potential conflict as the hand of every continental Great Power twitched ever closer to the mobilization order. Faced with the possibility of being jumped by the French, British, and Russians simultaneously, the Germans had no choice but to initiate the war before the Entente could. The Germans, despite being the most anti-militarist country in all of Europe, were dragged kicking and screaming into war by that most perfidious Albion, whose own fears of German aggression were completely unfounded, as the Germans posed no threat to the British Empire and indeed a German victory leaves the Empire all the more stable for the decades to come.
There are… a lot of incorrect conclusions here. But let’s do some justice to Ferguson in this regard; every nation could have done more to prevent the war, and Britain is certainly no exception. A clear position of intervention in the case of the violation of Belgium neutrality might very well have turned the Kaiser off the final order for mobilization on that awful first of August. The Germans were never certain that Britain would honor their pledge to Belgium, getting drawn into a continental slugfest over a “scrap of paper”, as German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg so eloquently called the Treaty of London of 1839. Instead, Grey refused to commit either way, either to clearly state Britain’s protection of Belgium’s sovereign borders or to declare their neutrality, and in doing so only added to the incredible stress on all parties as July ticked down into Armageddon. In this situation, it only takes one cracking of the nerves for the pin to be pulled, and the grenade goes off. The moment came on the first of August, as Kaiser Wilhelm succumbed to Von Moltke the Younger’s begging for mobilization, and the world was lit aflame with a single telegraph.
The rest of Ferguson’s argument is so much tripe, to be blunt. Firstly, the concept that Germany was the most anti-militarist country in Europe is so wildly incorrect that it is a difficult thing to even find where to begin. He bases this off a couple of ideas, the first being the presence in the German parliamentarian system of a higher percentage of socialists than any other European nation, and on the whole the socialist wings in Europe were anti-war. He then challenges the famous spirit of 1914, wherein the people of Germany supposedly exploded in euphoria at the announcement of war. Although there were far more socialists in Germany than other nations, the outcome of the vote for war would give lie to this idea that there existed a great anti-war movement in Germany’s parliament: it was unanimously in favor. Sentiment and feelings are useless without requisite action, and though there were a lot of misgivings in German government at the outbreak of war, they moved into it wholly united for the persecution of that war. Also, although the Spirit of 1914 has indeed been overblown somewhat by virtue of historical revisionism in the interwar period(tsk tsk, Mr. Hitler), this much is true: there were massive crowds in almost all major German cities, cheering the coming of the war, and although there was much apprehension to go along with the wider enthusiasm, the nation rallied as one behind the troops when the war began. Determination to see it through now that it was here was the prevailing attitude; hardly anti-militaristic, no?
So Germany wanted the war, or at least was not heartbroken to see it arrive. The British declare war and move onto the Continent on the fourth of August, after the Germans invade Belgium in their enacting of the Schlieffen plan. The concept that the German Empire posed no threat to the English is also a fallacious one, as is the idea that the continental behemoth of a post-victory Imperial Germany would have not only peacefully existed with the British, but indeed would have allowed the British Empire to continue on perhaps even into the present day. The Tirpitz plan, German’s design to attain superpower strength through naval dominance, was a direct threat to the British, whose rule of the high seas was paramount to their ability to retain their position at the top of the global pecking order. By 1914, the Germans had the second largest navy in the world, a little less than 40% smaller than the Royal Navy. The bloody nose the British were given in the opening hours of Jutland demonstrates that the German surface fleet, even without being able to strengthen to the full designs of Kaiser Wilhelm before the outbreak of war, was a dangerous opponent indeed for the Royal Navy. A swift defeat of the French(which I maintain is HIGHLY likely without the BEF’s intervention) would have allowed the Getmans access to Belgian and French ports that would have aimed that navy at the heart of the British Empire, London, in addition to the likely overtaking of French colonial holdings in Africa. To say that this would have had no effect on the global balance of power is foolish. A Germany bestriding the Channel, owning most of European Russia, and all of French North Africa knocks the British Empire right off it’s perch, and is hardly a solidifying agent in English hegemony. Mr. Ferguson’s conclusion is erroneous, naive, and wholly divorced from any kind of historical reality.
There is nothing wrong with challenging established historical narrative, it is a central tenet of the profession to investigate narratives with a skeptical eye and it is good to possess a hunger to get to the truth. But this does not allow for baseless speculation, or for crafting a story while ignoring all evidence that would disprove your account of events. Mr. Ferguson constructs an interesting tale that does make one reconsider the history, but his conclusions are simply incorrect and frankly smack of wishful thinking for a world where the sun continues to never set on the British Empire.