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The Pity of War

By Niall Ferguson
Basic. 520 pp. $30.00

  Chapter One

Chapter One: The Myths of Militarism

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It is often asserted that the First World War was caused by culture: to be precise, the culture of militarism, which is said to have prepared men so well for war that they yearned for it. Some men certainly foresaw war; but how many actually looked forward to it is doubtful.

If the First World War was caused by self-fulfilling prophecies, then one of the earliest prophets was Headon Hill, whose novel The Spies of Wight (1899) revolves around the sinister machinations of German spies against Britain. This was the beginning of a spate of fictional anticipations of a future Anglo-German war. A. C. Curtis's A New Trafalgar (1902) was one of the first novels to imagine a lightning German naval strike against Britain in the absence of the Channel Squadron; fortunately, the Royal Navy has a lethal new battleship in reserve which wins the day. In Erskine Childers's famous yarn The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the heroes Carruthers and Davies stumble across evidence of a German plan whereby

multitudes of sea-going lighters, carrying full loads of soldiers ... should issue simultaneously in seven ordered fleets from seven shallow outlets and, under the escort of the Imperial navy, traverse the North Sea and throw themselves bodily upon English shores.

Following a similar invasion, Jack Montmorency, the schoolboy hero of L. James's The Boy Galloper (also 1903), has to leave the Prefects' room and don his Cadet Corps uniform to take on the Germans. Perhaps the most famous of all the fictional German invasions was imagined by William Le Queux in his breathless bestseller The Invasion of 1910, first serialized in the Daily Mail in 1906, which imagined a successful invasion of England by a 40,000-strong German army followed by such horrors as `The Battle of Royston' and `The Bombardment of London'. When the Eagle Flies Seaward (1907) increased the invading force to 60,000, but was essentially the same story; both stories end — no doubt to the relief of British readers — with the defeat of the invaders. In R. W. Cole's The Death Trap (1907), it is the Japanese who come to the rescue after the Kaiser's invasion force has landed. It was not until A. J. Dawson's The Message (also 1907) that the prospect of an irretrievable British débâcle — leading to occupation, reparations and the loss of several colonies — had to be faced.

In Dawson's book, significantly, the enemy is within as well as without: while pacifists demonstrate for disarmament in Bloomsbury, a German waiter tells our hero: `Vaire shtrong, sare, ze Sherman Armay.' It turns out that he and thousands of other German immigrants have been acting as pre-invasion intelligence-gatherers, ensuring that `the German Army knew almost to a bale of hay what provender lay between London and the coast'. E. Phillips Oppenheim's A Maker of History (1905) had already started this hare. As `Captain X', the head of German intelligence in London, explains:

There are in this country 290,000 young countrymen of yours and of mine who have served their time, and who can shoot ... Clerks, waiters and hairdressers ... each have their work assigned to them. The forts which guard this great city may be impregnable from without, but from within — that is another matter.

Similarly, in Walter Wood's The Enemy in our Midst (1906) there is a `German Committee of Secret Preparations' covertly laying the foundation for a putsch in London. There were numerous variations on this theme: so many that the phrase `spy fever' seems warranted. In 1909, perhaps Le Queux's most influential novel, Spies of the Kaiser, was published, which posited the existence of a secret network of German spies in Britain. Also in 1909 came Captain Curties's When England Slept; here London is occupied overnight by a German army which has entered the kingdom by stealth over a period of weeks.

Nor were such fantasies confined to penny-dreadful fiction. The traveller and poet Charles Doughty produced some quaintly archaic verses on the subject, notably The Cliffs (1909) and, three years later, The Clouds — bizarre works in which the imagined invaders express the ideas of Le Queux in pseudo-Chaucerian language. Major Guy du Maurier's play An Englishman's Home (1909) translated the same fantasy on to the stage. Schoolboys too had to confront the nightmare of invasion. Beginning in December 1913 the magazine Chums ran a serial about yet another Anglo-German war to come. In 1909 the Aldeburgh Lodge school magazine rather wittily imagined how children would be taught in 1930, assuming that England by then would have become merely `a small island off the western coast of Teutonia'.

Even Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) — one of the few popular writers of the period still read with any respect — tried his hand at the genre. In When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (1913) his hero, Murrey Yeovil — `bred and reared as a unit of a ruling race' — returns from darkest Asia to find a vanquished Britain `incorporated within the Hohenzollern Empire ... as a Reichsland, a sort of Alsace-Lorraine washed by the North Sea instead of the Rhine', with continental-style cafés in the `Regentstrasse' and on-the-spot fines for walking on the grass in Hyde Park. Though Yeovil yearns to resist the Teutonic occupation, he finds himself deserted by his Tory contemporaries, who have fled (along with George V) to Delhi, leaving behind a despicable crew of collaborators, including Yeovil's own amoral wife, her Bohemian friends, various petty bureaucrats and the `ubiquitous' Jews. Note here the strangely tolerable, even seductive quality of German conquest — at least, to the more decadent Britons. Ernest Oldmeadow's earlier North Sea Bubble (1906) also imagined the Germans wooing their new vassals with universal Christmas gifts and subsidised food. Indeed, the worst atrocities inflicted by the occupiers in Oldmeadow's German Britain are the introduction of a diet of sausages and sauerkraut, the correct spelling of Handel's name in concert programmes and Home Rule for Ireland.

The Germans too had their visions of wars to come. Karl Eisenhart's The Reckoning with England (1900) imagines Britain, defeated in the Boer War, being attacked by France. Britain imposes a naval blockade, ignoring the rights of neutral shipping; and it is this which precipitates war between Britain and Germany. A German secret weapon (the electrically powered battleship) decides the war in the latter's favour, and the joyful Germans reap a rich harvest of British colonies, including Gibraltar. In World War — German Dreams (1904) August Niemann imagined `the armies and fleets of Germany, France and Russia moving together against the common enemy' — Britain — 'who with his polypus arms enfolds the globe'. The French and German navies defeat the Royal Navy and an invasion force lands at the Firth of Forth. Max Heinrichka envisaged (in Germany's Future in 100 Years) an Anglo-German war over Holland, culminating in another successful German invasion. As in Niemann's story, victory allows Germany to acquire the choicest parts of the Empire. Not all German writers were so confident, admittedly. Sink, Burn, Destroy: The Blow Against Germany (1905) reversed the roles: here it is the British navy which defeats the German, and it is Hamburg which has to endure a British invasion.

On the basis of such evidence, it would be easy to argue that the First World War happened at least partly because people expected it to happen. Indeed, books like these continued to be produced even after the prophecy had been fulfilled. Le Queux rushed out The German Spy: A Present-Day Story in late 1914 and Gaumont's previously banned film version of The Invasion of 1910 was released under the title If England Were Invaded. Paul Georg Münch's Hindenburg's March on London, which imagined the victor of Tannenberg leading a successful cross-Channel invasion, was published in 1915.

Such fantasies, however, need to be seen in a wider context. Not all prophets of war expected it to be between England and Germany. In fact, hardly any pre-1900 works in the genre concerned a German enemy. With uncanny prescience, the authors of The Great War of 189 —, published in 1891 in the illustrated weekly Black and White, began their imagined war in the Balkans with a royal assassination (an attempt on the life of Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, apparently by Russian agents). When Serbia seizes the moment to declare war on Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary occupies Belgrade, prompting Russia to send troops into Bulgaria. Germany honours her treaty obligations by mobilizing against Russia in support of Austria-Hungary, while France honours hers by declaring war on Germany in support of Russia. However, there is a twist in the tale. Having initially remained neutral — despite the German violation of Belgian neutrality — Britain lands troops at Trebizond in support of Turkey, prompting France and Russia to declare war on her. There follows a major engagement between the British and French navies off Sardinia and two short, decisive battles outside Paris between the French and German armies — the second won by a heroic French charge. In Louis Tracy's The Final War (1893), Germany and France conspire to invade and conquer Britain, but at the eleventh hour the Germans defect to the British side and it is Paris which falls to Lord Roberts: a triumph for combined Anglo-Saxon might. Even William Le Queux had started his scaremongering career as a Francophobe and Russophobe, not a Germanophobe: his The Poisoned Bullet (also 1893) has the Russians and French invading Britain. The later England's Peril: A Story of the Secret Service has as its villain the chief of the French Secret Service `Gaston La Touche'.

The Boer War precipitated a spate of similar anti-French stories: The Campaign of Douai (1899), London's Peril (1900), The Great French War of 1901, The New Battle of Dorking, The Coming Waterloo and Max Pemberton's Pro Patria (all 1901), two of which featured a French invasion launched through a Channel tunnel. In Louis Tracy's The Invaders (1901), the invasion of Britain is a joint Franco-German venture. The same fearful combination features in A New Trafalgar (1902) and in The Death Trap (1907), though the French by now show an admirably perfidious tendency to desert their German confederates. The same theme attracted French writers, like the author of La Guerre avec l'Angleterre (1900).

There are similar variations in the German prophetic literature. Rudolf Martin's science-fiction extravaganza Berlin — Baghdad (1907) visualized `The German World Empire in the Age of Airship Travel, 1910-1931'; but here the principal conflict is between Germany and a post-revolutionary Russia. An ultimatum to England — prior to the complete unification of Europe under German leadership — comes as something of an afterthought and is soon forgotten when the Russians launch an air attack on India.

It should also be stressed that many contemporaries found the more febrile of the scaremongers simply laughable. In 1910 Charles Lowe, a former Times correspondent in Berlin, inveighed against books like Le Queux's Spies of the Kaiser, not because he did not believe that the German General Staff sent officers to gather information on England and other potential foes, but because the evidence adduced by writers like Le Queux was so slight. In 1908 Punch cruelly sent up Colonel Mark Lockwood, one of the most vociferous of spy maniacs in the House of Commons. A year later A. A. Milne lampooned Le Queux in `The Secret of the Army Aeroplane', also published in Punch:

`Tell us the whole facts, Ray,' urged Vera Vallance, the pretty fair-haired daughter of the Admiral Sir Charles Vallance, to whom he was engaged.

`Well, dear, they are briefly as follows,' he replied, with an affectionate glance at her ... `Last Tuesday a man with his moustache brushed up the wrong way alighted at Basingstoke station and inquired for the refreshment-room. This leads me to believe that a dastardly attempt is about to be made to wrest the supremacy of the air from our grasp.'

`And even in the face of this the Government denies the activity of German spies in England!' I exclaimed bitterly.

Perhaps the best of all these satires is P. G. Wodehouse's The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England: A Tale of the Great Invasion (1909), a wonderful reductio ad absurdum in which the country is simultaneously overrun (on the August Bank Holiday) by the Germans, the Russians, the Swiss, the Chinese, Monaco, Morocco and `the Mad Mullah'. Here the idea of a German invasion has become so commonplace that a newsvendor's poster reads as follows:


German Army Lands in England

Frantically turning to the late news column, Wodehouse's Boy Scout hero finds the fateful news inserted almost invisibly between cricket scores and the late racing results. `Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.' Heath Robinson's eleven cartoons on the subject of German spies in The Sketch (1910) are almost as funny, depicting Germans disguised as birds, Germans dangling from trees in Epping Forest, Germans in bathing costumes raiding Yarmouth beach — even Germans disguised as exhibits in the Graeco-Roman galleries of the British Museum.

Germans too could see the absurdity of war prophecy. There is an obviously humorous map of the world of 1907 in which the British Empire is reduced to Iceland, leaving the rest — including even `Kgl. Preuss. Reg. Bez. Grossbritannien' — to Germany. Carl Siwinna's Guide for Fantasy Strategists (1908) rather laboriously but effectively demolishes the war prophets on both sides of the Channel.

Above all, the more bellicose prophets of war need to be set alongside those more pessimistic writers who perceptively foresaw that a major European war would be a calamity. H. G. Wells's War in the Air (1908) — unlike its German equivalent by Rudolf Martins — offers an airborne apocalypse, in which European civilization is `blown up' by bombardments from airships, leaving only `ruins and unburied dead, and shrunken yellow-faced survivors in a mortal apathy'. One of the most influential of all British books on the subject of future war argued that the consequences would be so economically calamitous that war would simply not happen: this, at least, was how many readers interpreted Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (see below).

Nor were all German prophets of war unequivocal `hawks'. In The Collapse of the Old World (1906), `Seestern' (Ferdinand Grauthoff, the editor of the Leipziger Neuesten Nachrichten) predicted that a minor clash between Britain and Germany over a colonial question such as Samoa could lead to `crash and ruin' and the `annihilation' of `peaceful civilization'. In retaliation for the imagined Samoese spat, the Royal Navy attacks Cuxhaven, precipitating a full-scale European war. This proves disastrously costly to both sides. The story ends with a prescient prophecy (delivered, intriguingly, by the former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour):

THE DESTINY OF THE WORLD NO LONGER LIES IN THE HANDS OF THE TWO NAVAL POWERS OF THE GERMANIC RACE, NO LONGER WITH BRITAIN AND GERMANY, but on land it has fallen to Russia, and on sea to the United States of America. St Petersburg and Washington have taken the place of Berlin and London.

In a similar vein, Karl Bleibtreu's Offensive Invasion against England (1907) envisaged an ultimately disastrous German naval strike against British naval bases (an inversion of the `Copenhagen complex' of an analogous British attack which haunted the imaginations of German naval planners). Despite inflicting heavy losses, the Germans cannot hold out against a British blockade; the end result is once again to weaken both sides. Thus `every European war could only benefit the other continents of the world ... A naval war between the British and the Germans would be the beginning of the end — the collapse of the British Empire and of the European supremacy in Asia and Africa. Only a lasting friendly union of the two great Germanic races can save Europe.' Both Grauthoff and Bleibtreu conclude with ardent and rather modern-sounding appeals for European unity.

Obviously, the fact that so many different authors felt the need to imagine some kind of future war tempts us to conclude that a war was likely in the second decade of the twentieth century. But it is worth noting that of all the authors discussed above, not one accurately foresaw what the 1914-18 war would be like. As we shall see, the idea of a German invasion of Britain, the most popular of all scenarios, was entirely divorced from strategic reality. Ninety per cent of war fiction betrayed a colossal ignorance of the technical constraints with which armies, navies and air forces on all sides had to contend. In fact, only a handful of pre-war writers can be said to have forecast with any degree of accuracy what a war would be like.

One was Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels, who in 1887 envisaged a

world war of never before seen extension and intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits ... [E]ight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent; famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.

Three years later, in his last speech to the German Reichstag, the Elder Moltke, the retired chief of the Prussian Great General Staff, conjured up a not dissimilar conflagration:

The age of cabinet war is behind us — all we have now is people's war ... Gentlemen, if the war that has been hanging over our heads now for more than ten years like the sword of Damocles — if this war breaks out, then its duration and its end will be unforeseeable. The greatest powers of Europe, armed as never before, will be going into battle with each other; not one of them can be crushed so completely in one or two campaigns that it will admit defeat, will be compelled to conclude peace under hard terms, and will not come back, even if it is a year later, to renew the struggle. Gentlemen, it may be a war of seven years' or of thirty years' duration — and woe to him who sets Europe alight, who first puts the fuse to the powder keg.

The most detailed of all these more accurate forecasts of future war, however, was the work of a man who was neither a socialist nor a soldier. In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a way which ruled out swift victory for an attacker. `The day of the bayonet [was] over'; cavalry charges too were obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece battles would not occur. Instead of hand to hand combat, men caught in the open would `simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything'. For this reason, `the next war ... [would] be a great war of entrenchments'. According to Bloch's meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide `fire zone'. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting `spread over an enormous front'. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), `the next war [would] be a long war'. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be `the dominant and decisive element in the matter'. War would mean:

entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply ... the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organisation.

The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.

All this was singularly prescient, the more so when one compares it with the rubbish written by the scaremongers. Yet even Bloch erred in a number of important respects. He was wrong, for example, to think that the next war would be between, on the one hand, Russia and France and, on the other, Germany, Austria—Hungary and Italy — though the error was entirely understandable in 1899. He was wrong too when he suggested that `the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed positions as the peasant', and that for this reason, and because of her agricultural self-sufficiency, `Russia [would be] better able to support a war than more highly organised nations'. Bloch also overrated the benefits of British naval power. A navy smaller than the British, he argued, was `not worth having at all ... a navy which is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme'. This put Britain `in a different category from all the other nations'. Logically, this seems to contradict Bloch's argument about the likely stalemate on land. After all, if one power could establish unrivalled dominance on sea, could not something similar be achieved on land? Alternatively, what was to prevent another power building a navy large enough to challenge Britain's? And, of course, though he was right about how terrible a European war would be, Bloch was wrong that this would make war economically and socially unsustainable. The conclusion he drew from his analysis was ultimately too optimistic:

The war ... in which great nations armed to the teeth ... fling themselves with all their resources into a struggle for life and death ... is the war that every day becomes more and more impossible ... A war between the Triplice [Germany, Austria and Italy] and the Franco-Russian Alliance ... has become absolutely impossible ... The dimensions of modern armaments and the organisation of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility, and ... if any attempt were made to demonstrate the inaccuracy of my assertions by putting the matter to a test on a large scale, we should find the inevitable result in a catastrophe which would destroy all existing political organisations. Thus the great war cannot be made, and any attempt to make it would result in suicide.

In fairness to Bloch — who is sometimes misrepresented as a naive idealist — he added a crucial rider: `I do not ... deny that it is possible for nations to plunge themselves and their neighbours into a frightful series of catastrophes which would probably result in the overturn of all civilised and ordered government.' (It is a rich irony that the book received its strongest endorsement from the Russian government; it was supposedly Nicholas II's reading of `a book by a Warsaw banker named Bloch' which inspired his `Appeal to the Rulers' in 1898 and the subsequent Hague Peace Conference.) Where Bloch erred most was in overlooking the fact that such revolutions were unlikely to happen in all the combatant states simultaneously; whichever side put off social collapse longer would win. For that reason, if a war were to break out, there would be an incentive to continue it in the hope that the other side would collapse first. And that, as we shall see, was more or less what happened after 1914.

Hacks and Spooks

Those who attempted to visualize a future war generally had two motives: to sell copies of their books (or the newspapers which serialized them) to the reading public; and to advance a particular political view. Thus William Le Queux's paranoid fantasies were useful to newspaper proprietors like Lord Northcliffe (who redrew the route of his fictional German invasion so that it passed through towns with large potential Daily Mail readerships) and D. C. Thompson (who ran Spies of the Kaiser in his Weekly News, preceded by advertisements offering readers £10 for information about `Foreign Spies in Britain'). `What sells a newspaper?', one of Northcliffe's editors was once asked. He replied: `The first answer is "war". War not only creates a supply of news but a demand for it. So deep rooted is the fascination in a war and all things appertaining to it that ... a paper has only to be able to put up on its placard "A Great Battle" for its sales to go up.' After the Boer War there was a shortage of real wars of interest to British readers. Le Queux and his ilk provided the press with fictional substitutes. (One has a certain sympathy with the German official who refused to issue a passport to a Daily Mail stringer in Berlin in 1914 `because he believed he had been largely instrumental in bringing about the war'.)

The scaremongers also served to advance the political case for some form of army reform. Le Queux's Invasion of 1910 was quite explicit in its propaganda for a system of national service, the scheme which Field-Marshal Lord Roberts had resigned his post as commander-in-chief to promote. `Everywhere people were regretting that Lord Roberts's solemn warnings in 1906 had been unheeded, for had we adopted his scheme for universal service, such dire catastrophe would never have occurred.' These words were carefully chosen; it had in fact been Roberts who had encouraged him to write the book. Others who were attracted to Le Queux included Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who pursued a parallel campaign against Sir John Fisher's deployment of the Channel Fleet. The scaremongers could also implicitly argue the case for immigration restrictions by equating foreigners and spies: `This is what comes of making London the asylum for all the foreign scum of the earth,' exclaims the hero of Oppenheim's A Maker of History.

Writers like Le Queux also played an extremely important role in the creation of Britain's modern intelligence service. An unholy alliance developed between hack writers and military careerists like Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds (later the author of the British official history of the Western Front) and Captain Vernon Kell (`Major K'). It was principally due to their combined lobbying that a new counter-espionage `Secret Service Bureau' MO (t) (later MO5 (g)) was set up as an offshoot of MO5, the Special Section of the War Office's Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence (and forerunner of MI5). It was also in large part the fault of this unholy alliance that so much British pre-war intelligence on Germany was distorted by journalistic fantasy and the wishful thinking of would-be spycatchers.

This is not to say that spying was not going on. The German Admiralty certainly had a number of agents whose job it was to relay intelligence about the Royal Navy back to Berlin. Between August 1911 and the outbreak of war, MO5 arrested some ten suspected spies, of whom six received prison sentences. The spycatchers also identified a ring of twenty-two spies working for Gustav Steinhauer, the German naval officer in charge of intelligence operations in Britain; all but one were arrested on 4 August 1914, though only one was actually brought to trial. As Christopher Andrew has said, Kell and his staff of eleven had `totally defeated' the German spy menace, even if it was a `third-rate' menace. A further thirty-one alleged German spies were caught between October 1914 and September 1917, of whom nineteen were sentenced to death and ten imprisoned; and 354 aliens were `recommended for deportation'. The Germans also had a network of military agents compiling similar evidence for both their western and eastern borders in the areas where German troops would be deployed in the event of war. These proved crucial in alerting the German government to Russian mobilization in August 1914.

On the other hand, Britain had its spies too. In 1907 the War Office began to make surveys of the area in Belgium, near Charleroi, where a British Expeditionary Force might have to fight in the event of a war with Germany. At the same time, Edmonds was attempting to organize a network of spies for MO5 in Germany itself. From 1910 Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming (a retired naval officer with a fondness for fast cars and planes) was formally entrusted by MO5 with the duty of espionage abroad: this Foreign Section was the embryonic SIS (later MI6). In 1910-11, his agent Max Schultz (a naturalized Southampton ship-dealer) and four German informants were arrested in Germany and imprisoned. Another agent, John Herbert-Spottiswood, was also arrested, as were two enthusiastic officers not under MO5's orders, who decided on their own initiative to inspect German coastal defences while on leave; and a madcap Old Etonian lawyer who unsuccessfully attempted to become a double agent. There were also British spies in Rotterdam, Brussels and St Petersburg. Regrettably, the Foreign Section's files remain closed, so it is hard to be sure how well informed Britain was about German war planning. (Not well, if the British Expeditionary Force's difficulties in finding the enemy in 1914 give any indication.) In fact, most of the intelligence gathered by British agents seems to have concerned submarines and Zeppelins. No one, however, thought it worthwhile (or sporting) to crack the codes in which foreign military signals were transmitted — a grave omission.

The extraordinary point is how seriously the scaremongers' allegations were taken by senior British officials and ministers. In a report submitted to the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1903, Colonel William Robertson of the War Office's Intelligence Department argued that, in the event of a war against Britain, Germany's `best, if not only, chance of bringing the contest to a favourable conclusion would be to strike a blow at the heart of the British Empire before the British Navy could exert its full strength and throw her upon the defensive, blockade her fleet, destroy her mercantile trade and render her huge army useless'. Although Robertson acknowledged `that oversea invasions are very difficult enterprises under any circumstances; that the adversary is bound to receive warning, since he cannot be kept wholly in ignorance of the preliminary preparations; and that, even if the sea were crossed in safety, a force invading England would eventually find its communications severed', he nevertheless insisted that the Germans were capable of landing `a force of 150,000 to 300,000 men ... upon the British eastern coast':

[T]he invading force, once landed, could live upon the country and maintain itself unsupported for several weeks. In the meantime it would be hoped that the moral effect produced on the densely-crowded population of England, and the shock given to British credit, might lead, if not to complete submission, at least to a Treaty by which England would become a German satellite.

Even Edward VII worried in 1908 that his cousin the Kaiser might have a `plan' to `throw a corps d'armée or two into England, making proclamation that he has come, not as an enemy to the King, but as the grandson of Queen Victoria, to deliver him from the Socialistic gang which is ruining the country'. Senior officials at the British Foreign Office shared the same fear: the permanent under-secretary of state Sir Charles Hardinge, the German-born Eyre Crowe and the Foreign Secretary himself, Sir Edward Grey, all accepted that `the Germans have studied and are studying the question of invasion'.

Grey also had no doubt that `a great number of German officers spend their holidays in this country at various points along the East and South coast ... where they can be for no other reason except that of making strategical notes as to our coasts'. Richard Haldane, the War Minister, also became a believer, though his views may have been coloured by the increase in the number of recruits to the Territorial Army — his creation — which followed the opening of du Maurier's play An Englishman's Home. Although his predecessor as prime minister had publicly rubbished Le Queux's claims, in 1909 Asquith instructed a special sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to investigate his and others' allegations of foreign espionage. It was on the basis of this sub-committee's secret report that MO (t) was set up. In the words of the report: `The evidence which was produced left no doubt in the minds of the sub-committee that an extensive system of German espionage exists in this country.' As Home Secretary in July 1911, during the second Moroccan crisis, Churchill ordered soldiers to be posted at the naval magazine around London, lest `twenty determined Germans ... arrived well armed upon the scene one night'. In reality there were apparently no German military (as opposed to naval) agents in Britain, despite the efforts of Kell and his colleagues to find the feared horde. In any case, most of the information which Le Queux and his associates suspected German spies of trying to obtain was readily available for a small price in the form of Ordnance Survey and Admiralty maps. In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of war, some 8,000 suspect aliens were investigated on the basis of a list of 28,830 immigrants which had been completed the previous April; but it soon became clear that there was no military organization controlling them. As late as December 1914 the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, Maurice Hankey, was still warning that `25,000 able-bodied Germans and Austrians still at large in London' might be capable of `knocking on the head simultaneously most of the Cabinet Ministers'. The secret army never materialized. Equally vain were the searches for concealed concrete platforms on which, it was claimed, the Germans would be able to position their mighty siege artillery pieces.

In Germany too bellicose writers usually had a political as well as a commercial motive for their work. The classic example of this was General Friedrich von Bernhardi, whose book Germany and the Next War (1912) did much to fuel British anxieties about German intentions. Bernhardi, a former cavalry general who had worked in the Historical Section of the Great General Staff before taking early retirement, had close links to August Keim, the leader of the German Army League, a lobby group which favoured increasing the size of the army. Often cited as a classic text of Prussian militarism, his book really needs to be read as Army League propaganda, attacking as it does not only the pacifism and anti-militarism of the Left, but also the German government's pusillanimity in the second Moroccan crisis and — most importantly — the arguments advanced by conservatives within the Prussian military for the maintenance of a relatively small army.

The Politics of Militarism

Yet the important point to note is that in both Britain and in Germany the advocates of increased military preparedness enjoyed only limited success, and certainly failed to win over the majority of voters. In Britain, arguments for improving `national efficiency' undoubtedly attracted widespread interest right across the political spectrum after the embarrassments of the Boer War. Yet when concrete proposals were made for improving Britain's military preparedness — such as conscription — they proved politically unpopular. The National Service League founded by George Shee had at its peak in 1912 98,931 members and another 218,513 `supporters (who paid just a penny). No more than 2.7 per cent of the male population aged between fifteen and forty-nine were members of the Volunteer Force. Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts had 150,000 current members in 1913: a tiny proportion of the nation's male youth. Conscription appealed to a curious mix of retired officers, journalists and clergymen (like the Hampshire vicar who circulated two thousand parishioners with a pamphlet entitled `Religious Thought and National Service'). As Summers has conceded, the various patriotic leagues had virtually `no electoral presence'. Even the frequently cited Mafeking celebrations following the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War should not be taken as unambiguous evidence of widespread working-class `jingoism'.

In France Raymond Poincaré's premiership (January 1912-January 1913) and subsequent presidency saw not only talk of a réveil national (symbolically, a national holiday in honour of Jeanne d'Arc was introduced) but also action. General Joseph Joffre became Chef d'état-major général, a new post which gave him supreme command of the army in wartime, and a law extending the period of military service from two to three years was passed. The Teachers' Union (Syndicat des instituteurs) was also dissolved for giving its support to an anti-militarist society, the Sou du Soldat. But even this nationalist revival should not be exaggerated. It had far less to do with foreign affairs than with the internal struggles over electoral and tax reform, and in particular the need for an unlikely cross-party alliance against the Radicals on the question of proportional representation (introduced despite Radical opposition in July 1912). There was no attempt to undo the commercial treaty with Germany negotiated by Joseph Caillaux, minister of finance under Georges Clemenceau, in 1911; indeed, it was Italy not Germany which Poincaré confronted following a minor naval incident in early 1912. The most obvious choice as an anti-German premier, Théophile Delcassé, was passed over. In reality, only a minority of deputies — just over 200 out of 654 — can really be identified as supporters of the nationalist revival, and no fewer than 236 deputies failed to give their support to the Three Years Law.

Inevitably, there has been a good deal more research on the German radical Right, since its components can be portrayed as harbingers of National Socialism. The work of Geoff Eley, Roger Chickering and others on the character of the radical nationalist organizations which favoured increased armaments before 1914 has certainly done much to challenge the view that these were mere ciphers of conservative élites. Even when (as in the case of the Navy League) they were established to generate public support for government policy in a way which could legitimately be described as `manipulative', such organizations attracted supporters whose militarism so outstripped official intentions that they gradually came to constitute a kind of `national opposition'. According to Eley, this reflected the mobilization of hitherto politically apathetic groups mainly drawn from the petty bourgeoisie — a populist element challenging the dominance of `notables' in bourgeois associational life. This was part of that `reshaping' of the Right which, in his view, prefigured the post-war merger of traditional conservative élites, radical nationalists, lower-middle-class economic interest groups and anti-Semites into a single political movement: Nazism. Yet the idea that the plethora of political lobbying organizations involved were gradually fused into an increasingly homogeneous entity called `the Right' understates the complexity, even ambiguity, of radical nationalism. Moreover, attempting to identify the radical Right with a specific social group — the petty bourgeoisie — is to ignore the continuing dominance of the élite Bildungsbürgertum not only in radical nationalist organizations, but also in the evolution of radical nationalist ideology.

At their respective peaks, the principal German radical nationalist associations claimed 540,000 members, the majority (331,900) in the Navy League. However, this figure exaggerates the level of participation: some people were enthusiastic members of more than one league or association, while many other members existed only on paper, having been induced merely to part with the insignificant membership fee. The social composition of the Army League does not bear out the theory of a lower-middle-class mass movement. Of the twenty-eight men who were on the Executive Committee of the Stuttgart branch, eight were army officers, eight were senior bureaucrats and seven were businessmen; and as it spread to towns in Brandenburg, Saxony, the Hanseatic ports and beyond, it attracted similar `notable' types: bureaucrats in Posen; academics in Tübingen; businessmen in Oberhausen. The picture is not dissimilar in the case of the Pan-German League, two-thirds of whose members were university educated.

By contrast, the one truly `populist' nationalist association, the Veterans' Association — which anyone who had completed his military service could join — was anything but radical in its nationalism. This was the biggest of all the German leagues: with 2.8 million members in 1912 it even outnumbered the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the biggest political party in Europe. Yet, with its oaths to the crown and its Sedan Day parades, the Veterans' Association was profoundly conservative in ideology. In the words of the Prussian Minister of the Interior in 1875, it constituted `an inestimable means ... of keeping the loyal attitude ... lively in the lower middle classes'. This will hardly come as a revelation to anyone who has read Heinrich Mann's Man of Straw (1918), with its craven anti-hero Diederich Hessling.

An important point sometimes overlooked is the importance of radical forms of Protestantism in Wilhelmine radical nationalism. In Protestant sermons on the theme of war between 1870 and 1914, `God's will' (Gottes Fügung) gradually evolved into `God's leadership' (Gottes Führung): a very different concept. It is worth noting that militarist sentiment was by no means monopolized by orthodox pastors like Reinhold Seeberg: liberal theologians like Otto Baumgarten were especially prone to invoke `Jesu-Patriotismus'. Faced with such competition, German Catholics felt obliged to demonstrate that, in the words of one of their leaders: `No one can out-do us when it comes to love for Prince and Fatherland.'

Such sentiments from the godly were influential. Much of the rhetoric of the Pan-German League, for example, had a distinctly eschatological quality. Heinrich Class, one of the League's most radical leaders, declared: `War is holy to us, since it will awaken all that is great and self-sacrificing and selfless in our people and cleanse our souls of the dross of selfish pettiness.' The Army League was overwhelmingly a Protestant league, set up in the Protestant enclaves of largely Catholic Württemberg by a man who had been expelled from the Navy League for attacking the Catholic Centre Party. Nor was it merely radical nationalists who reflected the tone of contemporary Protestantism. The Younger Moltke had become involved through his wife and daughter with the theosophist Rudolf Steiner, whose theories derived largely from the Book of Revelation — a stark contrast with the austere Hutterian-Pietism of his predecessor Count Alfred von Schlieffen.

Nor is it without significance that Schlieffen liked to sign himself `Dr Graf Schlieffen' in correspondence with academics: many elements of pre-war militarism and radical nationalism clearly had their roots in the universities as well as the churches. This should not be overstated, of course. German academics were far from being a homogeneous `bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern'; and Wilhelmine media dons, like the Pan-German Dietrich Schäfer, were in many ways exceptional in striking radical nationalist postures even in their inaugural lectures. On the other hand, there were many faculties which made significant contributions to the evolution of radical nationalist ideology, not least history. Geopolitics, a derivative of geography and history, was immensely influential, particularly in giving currency to the idea of `encirclement'. A student of philosophy like Bethmann Hollweg's private secretary, Kurt Riezler, could see the inevitable `conflict between nations for power' in terms derived from Schopenhauer. For others, racial theories provided a justification for war. Admiral Georg von Müller spoke of `upholding the German race in opposition to Slavs and Romans', as did Moltke; while it was university Germanists who held a 1913 conference on the subject of `The extermination of the Un-German ... and the Propagation of the Superiority of the German "Essence"'. The Army League's members included archaeologists and ophthalmologists. In short, when the Pan-German Otto Schmidt-Gibichenfels — writing in the Political-Anthropological Review — described war as `an indispensable factor of culture' he perfectly summed up its significance for the German educated élite. During the war, the Army League member von Stranz was stating something of a commonplace in such circles when he declared: `For us it does not matter whether we win or lose a few colonies, or if our trade balance will be 20 billion ... or 25 billion ... What really is at issue is something spiritual ...' Thomas Mann's Reflections of an Unpolitical Man would become the classic wartime statement of the belief that Germany was fighting for Kultur against England's dreary, soapy, materialistic Zivilisation.

This sociological fit between the educated middle class and radical nationalism explains the high degree of continuity from German National Liberalism to radical nationalism. Max Weber's Freiburg inaugural lecture remains the most famous call for a new era of National Liberalism under the standard of Weltpolitik; but there are many other such echoes. For example, an important contribution was made by the historical profession, which created a mythology of unification of enormous importance to National Liberals: Wilhelmine proponents of Mitteleuropa as a German-dominated customs union — later one of Germany's official war aims — consciously harked back to the Prussian Zollverein’s role in German unification. Above all, the National Liberal Party and the Army League worked closely together in the debates over the 1912 and 1913 Army Bills. Keim himself might claim that `military issues had nothing to do with party politics', and seek to recruit Reichstag deputies in the conservative parties as well as the National Liberals; but this rhetoric of `unpoliticism' was the stock-in-trade of German nationalists, and in practice he stood most chance of success by co-operating closely with the National Liberal leader Ernst Bassermann. The latter's slogan, `Bismarck lives on in the people, but not in the government,' gives a flavour of the National Liberal core of `radical nationalism'; the historian Friedrich Meinecke used similar language. It was the Badenese National Liberal Edmund Rebmann who declaimed in February 1913: `We have the weapons, and we are willing to use them', if necessary, to achieve `the same thing as in the year 1870'. There was remarkably little about German radical nationalism that was genuinely new: its core, as in the 1870s, was composed of historically minded upper-middle-class notables.

Of course, there were those whose revolutionary impulses took them significantly beyond the political pale of vintage German liberalism. With eerie foresight, Class argued that even a lost war would be welcome, since it would increase `the present domestic fragmentation to [the point of] chaos', allowing `a dictator's mighty will' to intercede. It is hardly surprising that one or two Army League members ultimately ended up in the Nazi Party in the 1920s. Even the Kaiser, when day-dreaming about the dictatorial power he did not have, chose Napoleon as his role model. Viewed in this light, Modris Eksteins' impressionistic argument that the First World War represented a cultural confrontation between a revolutionary, modernist Germany and a conservative England is (whatever other reservations one may have about it) to be preferred to the old view that the war was caused by a conservative Germany's determination to uphold `the dynastic ... ideal of the state' against `the modern revolutionary and national democratic principle of self-government'. That only really became true in October 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson revealed that a German revolution would be a condition of any armistice. The question nevertheless remains how far radical nationalism in Germany really differed from that in other European countries before 1914. Pace Eksteins, there is good reason to think that the similarities outweighed the differences.


Overt `pacifism' — the word was coined in 1901 — was undeniably one of the early twentieth century's least successful political movements. But to consider merely those who called themselves pacifists is to understate the extent of popular anti-militarism in Europe.

In Britain, the Liberal Party won three elections in succession in 1906 and January and December 1910 (the third admittedly with Labour and Irish Nationalist support), against a manifestly more militaristic Conservative and Unionist opposition. The Non-Conformist conscience, the Cobdenite belief in free trade and peace, the Gladstonian preference for international law to Realpolitik, as well as the Grand Old Man's aversion to excessive military spending and the historic dislike of a big army — these were just some of the Liberal traditions which seemed to imply a pacific policy, to which might be added the party's perennial, distracting preoccupations with Ireland and parliamentary reform. To these, the `New Liberalism' of the Edwardian period added a concern with redistributive public finance and `social' questions, as well as a variety of influential theories such as J. A. Hobson's about the malign relationship between financial interests, imperialism and war, or H. W. Massingham's on the perils of secret diplomacy and the disingenuous doctrine of the balance of power. Such ideas were ten a penny in the Liberal press — especially in the Manchester Guardian, the Speaker and the Nation.

Some Liberal writers were less pacifist than is sometimes thought. One of the best-known expressions of Liberal sentiment in the pre-1914 period is Norman Angell's tract The Great Illusion (first published under that title in 1910). Superficially, Angell's book is a model of pacifist argument. War, he argues, is economically irrational: the fiscal burdens of armaments are excessive, indemnities prove difficult to collect from defeated powers, `trade cannot be destroyed or captured by a military Power' and colonies are not a source of fiscal profit. `What is the real guarantee of the good behaviour of one state to another?' asks Angell. `It is the elaborate interdependence which, not only in the economic sense, but in every sense, makes an unwarrantable aggression of one state upon another react upon the interests of the aggressor.' Moreover, war is also socially irrational, as the collective interests which bind nations together are less real than those which bind classes together:

The real conflict is not English against Russians at all, but the interest of all law-abiding folk — Russian and English alike — against oppression, corruption and incompetence ... [W]e shall see at the bottom of any conflict between the armies or Governments of Germany and England lies ... the conflict in both states between democracy and autocracy, or between Socialism and Individualism, or reaction and progress, however one's sociological sympathies may classify it.

Angell also questions the argument that conscription could in any way enhance the moral health of a nation: on the contrary, conscription meant `Germanizing England, though never a German soldier land on our soil'. That he was later a keen advocate of the League of Nations, a Labour MP and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933: all this has served to accentuate The Great Illusion's pacifist reputation.

Yet this will not quite wash. For one thing, Angell wrote the book while in the employ of the arch-scaremonger Northcliffe, editing his Continental Daily Mail; and a close reading of the text reveals that it is not quite the innocent pacifist tract of popular memory. Thus Part I, Chapter 2 considers `German dreams of conquest' and concludes that the `results of [a] defeat of British arms and [the] invasion of England' would be `forty millions starving'. Similarly, Chapter 3 asks `If Germany annexed Holland, would any German benefit or any Hollander?', while the fourth chapter poses the well-loaded question `What would happen if a German invader looted the Bank of England?' In making the point in Chapter 6 that `England ... does not own ... her self-governing colonies' and that they are not `a source of fiscal profit', Angell also wonders: `Could Germany hope to do better? [It is] inconceivable she could fight for the sake of making [such a] hopeless experiment'. What Angell is really arguing, in other words, is that a German military challenge to Britain would be irrational.

In any case, he goes on, it is positively in the rest of the world's interest to leave the British Empire intact. `The British Empire', Angell loftily declares, `is made up in large part of practically independent states, over whose acts not only does Great Britain exercise no control, but concerning whom Great Britain has surrendered in advance any intention of employing force.' Moreover, the Empire is the guarantor of `trade by free consent', and hence encourages the `operation of [economic] forces stronger than the tyranny of the cruellest tyrant who ever reigned by blood and iron'. (The last phrase is carefully chosen.) Angell fully reveals his true colours when he concludes:

It is to English practice and ... experience that the world will look as a guide in this matter ... The extension of the dominating principle of the British Empire to European society as a whole is the solution of the international problem which this book urges. The day for progress by force has passed; it will be progress by ideas or not at all. And because these principles of free human co-operation between communities are, in a special sense, an English development, it is upon England that falls the responsibility of giving a lead ...

The Great Illusion, in other words, was a Liberal Imperialist tract directed at German opinion. Written at a time of considerable Anglo-German antagonism over the German naval programme and `spy fever', it was designed to encourage the Germans to abandon their bid to challenge British sea power. Evidently (to judge by its enduring reputation as a pacifist tract) the book's core argument — that Germany could not defeat Britain — was so swathed in irenic language as to be invisible to many readers. But not to all. Viscount Esher — a key figure on the Committee of Imperial Defence and a man whose main `objective' (as he noted in January 1911) was to `maintain the overwhelming superiority of the British Imperial Navy' — enthusiastically took up Angell's ideas. Admiral Fisher described The Great Illusion as 'heavenly manna ... So man did eat angel's food'. The Daily Mail's chief leader writer and assistant editor H. W. Wilson put his finger on the mark when he remarked sneeringly to Northcliffe: `Very clever, and it would be difficult to write a better book in defence of his particular thesis than his; let us hope that he will succeed better in fooling the Germans than in convincing me.'

Further to the Left, in the Labour Party, there was more genuine anti-militarism, however. Fenner Brockway's play The Devil's Business, written in 1914, vividly anticipated the Asquith government's decision for war just a few months later, though it portrayed the Cabinet as mere pawns of the international arms industry. The `merchants of death' were also the targets of Henry Noel Brailsford's The War of Steel and Gold, published in 1914. Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were among those in the British Labour movement who backed the idea of a general strike as a way to stop an imperialist war. At the same time, MacDonald's hostility to Tsarist Russia and his strong sympathy with the German Social Democrats led him consistently to oppose Grey's Germanophobe foreign policy before 1914. The SPD, he declared in 1909, had `never voted a brass farthing to enable their government to build up the German navy'; the party was making `magnificent efforts ... to establish friendship between Germany and ourselves'. This kind of Germanophilia was widespread among the Fabians, who saw not only the SPD itself but also the German system of social insurance as worthy of imitation. Typically, Sidney and Beatrice Webb were about to embark on a six-month tour of Germany to study `developments in state action and in German co-operation, trade unionism and professional organisation' when war broke out in August 1914, having spent much of July debating the merits of social insurance with G. D. H. Cole and a group of inebriated Oxonian `guild socialists'. George Bernard Shaw, ardent Wagnerite, `clamour[ed] for an entente with Germany' in 1912, modifying this the following year into a typically Shavian proposal for a triple alliance against war between England, France and Germany; or to be precise, a double arrangement whereby `if France attack Germany we combine with Germany to crush France, and if Germany attack France we combine with France to crush Germany'.

Nor was it only on the Left that Germanophilia flourished in pre-war Britain. The Liberal German Count Harry Kessler's appeal for an exchange of friendly letters between British and German intellectuals elicited signatures from Thomas Hardy and Edward Elgar on the British side; Siegfried Wagner was among the Germans. As this suggests, music was important: the Covent Garden spring season in 1914 featured no fewer than seventeen performances of Parsifal, as well as productions of Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, and, despite the outbreak of war, the 1914 Proms continued to be dominated by German composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Liszt and Bach. Numerous English literary figures had German roots — indeed German names: think only of Siegfried Sassoon, Ford Madox Ford (christened Joseph Leopold Ford Madox Hueffer) or Robert Ranke Graves, great-nephew of the historian Leopold von Ranke.

Admittedly, Graves found that at Charterhouse his mother's nationality was `a social offence' and felt obliged to `reject the German in me'. In the ancient universities, by contrast, there was a good deal of Germanophilia. The anti-war stance of Cambridge's wittiest philosopher, Bertrand Russell, is well known; but the experience of pre-war Oxford is often overlooked. No fewer than 335 German students matriculated at Oxford between 1899 and 1914, including thirty-three in the last year of peace, of whom around a sixth were Rhodes Scholars. Among the German Oxonians were the sons of the Prussian minister Prince Hohenlohe, Vice-Admiral Moritz von Heeringen and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg (Balliol, class of 1908). The existence of undergraduate clubs like the Hanover Club, the German Literary Society and the Anglo-German Society, which had 300 members in 1909, testify to the belief of at least some British undergraduates in the `Wahlverwandtschaft [elective affinity] between German Geist and Oxonian Kultur'. The majority of those who received honorary doctorates from Oxford in 1914 were Germans: Richard Strauss, Ludwig Mitteis (the Dresden classicist), Prince Lichnowsky, the ambassador, and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; also the Austrian international lawyer Heinrich Lammasch. In 1907 the Kaiser himself had been so honoured. The portrait which marked the occasion of his DCL honoris causa was restored to the walls of the Examination Schools in the 1980s after a long period in ignominious storage.

The high proportion (28 per cent) of Germans at Oxford who were from the nobility also provides a reminder that links between the German and British high aristocracy — particularly the royal family and its satellites — were extremely close. The half-German Queen Victoria had married her wholly German cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; among her sons-in-law were the German Kaiser Frederick III, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and Henry of Battenberg; and among her grandchildren were Kaiser William II of Germany and Prince Henry of Prussia. Similar dynastic ties joined the financial élites of the two countries: not only the Rothschilds but also the Schröders, Huths and Kleinworts were leading City banking families which had originated in Germany; the Rothschilds in particular retained links with their German relatives. Lord Rothschild was married to one of his Frankfurt-born relatives, and their son Charles married a Hungarian.

In Germany, though pacifism had shallow roots and Social Democracy was susceptible to `negative integration' (the tendency to conform in the face of state persecution), the fact remains that only a minority of Germans were militarists, and a minority of them were Anglophobes. In 1906 the Chancellor, Prince Bülow, had effectively postponed the idea of a preventive war until `a cause arose which would inspire the German people'. One point to emerge from the Kaiser's so-called `war council' of December 1912 is that all the military leaders present doubted whether Serbia was such a cause; and studies of popular (as opposed to educated middle-class) opinion in 1914 suggest that the subsequent attempts to alert `the man in the street' to Germany's interest in the Balkan question achieved little. Alongside the Germany of the radical nationalist leagues, there was `another Germany' (in the phrase of Dukes and Remak) — a Germany whose excellence-pursuing universities, boosting city councils and independent newspaper editors seem to invite comparisons with the war's last combatant, the United States.

In addition, there was the Germany of the organized working class, whose leaders were among the most critical of militarism in Europe. It must never be forgotten that the most electorally successful party of the pre-war period was the SPD (which also attracted a considerable number of middle-class votes). It was consistently hostile to `militarism' throughout the period until 1914; indeed, it won its biggest election victory in 1912 campaigning against `dear bread for militarism', an allusion to the fact that increased defence expenditure tended to be financed by indirect taxation in Germany (see Chapter 5). In all, the SPD won 4.25 million votes in 1912 — 34.8 per cent of the total vote — compared with 13.6 per cent for the National Liberals, the party most committed to an aggressive foreign policy and increased military spending. No other party ever secured such a high proportion of the vote in the Second Reich.

Of all the SPD's theorists, Karl Liebknecht was among the most radical anti-militarists. For Liebknecht, militarism was a dual phenomenon: the German army, he argued, was at once a tool for the advancement of capitalist interests abroad and a means of controlling the German working class, directly through coercion or indirectly through military indoctrination:

Militarism ... has the task of protecting the prevailing social order, of supporting capitalism and all reaction against the struggle of the working class for freedom ... Prussian-German militarism has blossomed into a very special flower owing to the peculiar semi-absolutist, feudal-bureaucratic conditions in Germany.

(As if to illustrate the validity of this theory, Liebknecht was murdered by soldiers when he attempted to stage a Bolshevik-style coup in Berlin in January 1919.)

The problem for historians is that the SPD's campaign against militarism, though it failed ultimately to prevent the First World War, has nevertheless been hugely influential on subsequent scholarship. Paradoxically, the anti-militarists in Wilhelmine society were so numerous and so vociferous that we have come to believe their complaints about the militarism of Germany, instead of realizing that the very volume of their complaints is proof of the reverse. Thus there is now a dauntingly large literature on German militarism, not all of which acknowledges that the term itself originates in left-wing propaganda. Historians writing in the Marxist-Leninist tradition were still parroting Liebknecht's arguments as recently as 1989-90: militarism, according to Zilch, was an expression of `the aggressive character of the bourgeoisie, allied with the Junkers' and their `reactionary and dangerous strivings'.

More influential in non-Marxist historiography has been the analysis of Eckart Kehr. A kind of German Hobson, Kehr accepted the pre-war SPD argument that there had been an alliance of agrarians and industrialists in Wilhelmine Germany which had encouraged, among other things, militaristic policies. He entered two qualifications: first, the Prussian aristocracy had the upper hand over their junior partners among industrialists and other reactionary bourgeois groups; second (and here he also resembled later Marxists like Antonio Gramsci), militarism was in part the creation of autonomous state institutions. In other words, his was an argument which left room for bureaucratic and departmental self-interest as well as class interest. Yet these qualifications do not radically differentiate Kehr from orthodox Marxists. When carried away with his own fundamental thesis — that all foreign policy decisions were subordinate to domestic socio-economic factors — Kehr was perfectly capable of writing in language scarcely different from that of his Marxist contemporaries.

Kehr's arguments, which were effectively buried by the German historical profession after his early death, were revived by Hans-Ulrich Wehler in the 1960s, and adopted by Fritz Fischer. According to Wehler's classic `Kehrite' textbook on Wilhelmine Germany, militarism served not only an economic purpose (arms contracts for industry), but was also a weapon of last resort in the struggle against Social Democracy and a rallying point for popular chauvinism, turning attention away from the Reich's `anti-democratic' political system.

To be sure, the idea that an aggressive foreign policy could help the Reich government overcome its internal political difficulties was not a figment of Kehr's (or Liebknecht's) imagination, but a real governmental strategy. The Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Miquel and Prince Bülow, Bethmann Hollweg's predecessor as Reich Chancellor, undoubtedly did engage in sabre-rattling to strengthen the position of the `state-supporting' parties (the Conservatives and National Liberals) in the Reichstag, just as Bismarck had done before them. And there really were those in 1914 who believed that a war would `strengthen the patriarchal order and mentality' and `halt the advance of Social Democracy'.

But there is a need for qualification. The idea that an aggressive foreign policy could weaken the domestic political challenge posed from the Left was hardly an invention of the German Right; it had become something of a cliché in Napoleon III's France and by the turn of the century was an almost universal justification for imperial policies. Moreover, there was a good deal less agreement than has sometimes been claimed between German politicians, generals, agrarians and industrialists. Typical was the fact that at least two National Liberal deputies for rural constituencies (Paasche and Dewitz) were forced to resign from the Army League by their local Agrarian League supporters, who regarded the Army League's argument for a bigger army as dangerously radical. This illustrates an important point to be returned to below: there was anti-militarism even within the ranks of Prussian conservatism itself. Nor is it persuasive to attribute decisions taken in Potsdam and Berlin during July and August 1914 to the influence of a radical `national opposition'. As Bethmann said of the far Right, `With these idiots one cannot conduct a foreign policy'; the memory was still fresh of the second Moroccan crisis, when the then Foreign Minister Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter had been acutely embarrassed by the intemperate demands of the radical nationalist press.

Finally, and most importantly, successive German Chancellors were well aware that militarism could backfire, particularly if it led to war. In 1908 Bülow told the Crown Prince that:

Nowadays no war can be declared unless a whole people is convinced that such a war is necessary and just. A war, lightly provoked, even if it were fought successfully, would have a bad effect on the country, while if it ended in defeat, it might entail the fall of the dynasty ...

In June 1914 his successor Bethmann Hollweg himself accurately forecast that `a world war with its incalculable consequences would strengthen tremendously the power of Social Democracy, because they preached peace, and topple many a throne'. Both men had the experience of Russia in 1905 in mind — as did the Russian Minister of the Interior Pyotr Durnovo when he warned Nicholas II in February 1914: `A social revolution in its most extreme form will be unavoidable if war goes badly.'

Militarism, then, was far from being the dominant force in European politics on the eve of the Great War. On the contrary: it was in political decline, and not least as a direct consequence of democratization. Table 1 shows how the franchise had been extended in all the key countries in the last half of the nineteenth century; on the eve of the war, as Table 2 shows, overtly anti-militarist socialist parties were in the electoral ascendant in most of the future combatant countries.

In France the April 1914 election returned a left-wing majority and Poincaré had to let the socialist René Viviani form a government. (It would have been Caillaux if his wife had not taken the unusual step of killing a newspaper editor-in-chief, Gaston Calmette of the Figaro, to prevent the publication of some of her husband's letters to her.) Jean Jaurès, the Germanophile socialist, was at the height of his influence. In Russia there was a three-week long strike in the Putilov works in Petrograd which after 18 July spread to Riga, Moscow and Tbilisi. Over 1.3 million workers — around 65 per cent of all Russian factory workers — were involved in strikes in 1914. Even where the socialists were not especially strong, there was no militarist majority: in Belgium the dominant Catholic party strenuously resisted efforts to increase the country's readiness for war. But nowhere was the anti-militarist Left stronger than in Germany, which had one of the most democratic of all European franchises. Yet so enduring have the arguments of Germany's pre-war anti-militarists proved that one can still read them in history textbooks; with the perverse consequence that we understate the extent of that very anti-militarism at the time. The evidence is unequivocal: Europeans were not marching to war, but turning their backs on militarism.

© Copyright 1999 Niall Ferguson

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