Germany, Britain & the Coming of War in 1914: Richard Wilkinson Explains What Went Wrong in Anglo-German Relations before the First World War. (the Unpredictable Past)

By Wilkinson, Richard | History Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Germany, Britain & the Coming of War in 1914: Richard Wilkinson Explains What Went Wrong in Anglo-German Relations before the First World War. (the Unpredictable Past)


Wilkinson, Richard, History Review


Just suppose that, every time a war broke out, all the diplomats and soldiers involved were hanged. Even more fancifully, suppose that diplomats, generals and heads of governments were gifted with second sight. If either of these scenarios had applied in August 1914, there would have been no World War One. The German, Austrian, Russian and Turkish empires would have survived at any rate in the short term, while in the longer term the British and French empires would have escaped the wounds inflicted by that terrible conflict. Millions of young men would have lived, millions of folk at home would have been spared bereavement. As for the economic damage caused by the War, who knows what benefits to mankind might otherwise have accrued?

`If only' must especially apply to Britain's role. Of all the great powers, her involvement seems the most unnecessary. After all, she had kept out of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Why not in 1914? This is a good question, as Britain's relations with Germany were mainly cordial. Indeed Joseph Chamberlain had pursued the possibility of an alliance between 1899 and 1901. By the summer of 1914 contentious issues such as the Berlin-Baghdad railway and the Portuguese colonies had been resolved. The royal families were closely connected. When Cecil Rhodes founded his scholarships at Oxford, he decreed that candidates should come from the British Empire, the United States - and Germany. Trade flourished - and while British manufacturers were encountering increasing German competition, no sensible businessman ever wants war.

Wrong Enemy, Wrong Allies?

`How German and how right!' sums up the widespread admiration in Britain for everything German. R.B. Haldane, the War Minister, was not alone in recognising Germany as `his spiritual home', for many shared his enthusiasm for German culture and philosophy. German secondary and tertiary education was correctly perceived to be decades ahead of Britain, especially in the realm of science and technology. At German universities the seminar prevailed over the absurd one-to-one tutorial in vogue at Oxbridge. Left-wingers admired the German Social Democratic Party as the wealthiest and most influential socialist party in the world. C.P. Scott, the Editor of the Manchester Guardian, spoke for enlightened Britain in opposing the very idea of war against `our German cousins'. While he attacking the general `neurosis' with regard to the balance of power, he insisted that if Britain did have a natural enemy, it was Russia. The vast majority of the Liberal Party cordially agreed.

Indeed Britain's relations with both Russia and France had been tense for most of the nineteenth century, and had only recently - and haltingly - improved. Particularly by the British left, Russia was seen as a police state; nor had Bloody Nicholas' suppression of the 1905 revolution been forgiven. As for France, unlike Protestant, hygienic Germany, she had a bad reputation for decadence and corruption, typified by the Dreyfus affaire. Such hostility was cordially reciprocated by both powers. Russia continuously threatened India's north-west frontier, and never forgave Britain's encouragement of Japan in 1904. The French could not forget Britain's seizure of Egypt in 1882 and humiliation of France at Fashoda in 1898. When the colonel of a Breton regiment was congratulated by a British staff officer for its gallant assault on the German lines in 1915, he replied, `I've told them that they are attacking the English!'

So why the quarrel between Britain and Germany? What went wrong? Who were the Guilty Men in 1914? This article considers the role of the Kaiser, pilloried at the end of the war as a war-criminal. It looks critically at the Anglo-German naval rivalry, considered by most historians to be the prime cause of hostility between the `two white races' (to quote the toast proposed by the Kaiser at the Kiel naval review in 1909). First, however, Britain's responsibility must be assessed as against Germany's. …

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