Byline: Norman Stone
THE odd thing about modern Europe is that, if you look at the borders, you might think that Germany had won the First World War, which broke out a hundred years ago on Monday. The European Union and the old Soviet states are associated with a Europe that feels as if it is run from Berlin. From Scandinavia to Turkey, lorries trundle back and forth with German industrial goods; the euro is mainly German, the Deutsche Bank dominates the eurozone.
It all weirdly reflects a statement by the German Chancellor in September 1914, when he thought Germany had won: that western Europe should consist of vassal states, and the Russian Empire should be broken up.
And that is, in a way, what has happened. True, today's Germans are quite different from their ancestors of 1914, but today's post-Soviet states were originally set up by those ancestors. This was especially true of the largest of all, Ukraine, which, with its grain and coal was the jewel in their crown. The present stand-off with Russia over that country is a horribly apt way to mark the centenary of 1914.
The Anglo-German war of 1914 broke out ostensibly because the Germans had invaded neutral Belgium, which the British had guaranteed. Of course the Germans were in the wrong, but was this worth a million British dead? It's a question that hangs heavily over the centenary commemorations that are now beginning.
Belgium mattered because an enemy navy with bases there could directly threaten London, and most of British trade, and the threatening navy in this case was German.
The Germans had constructed an ultra-modern battle fleet, and its purpose was precisely to threaten the Royal Navy which, scattered all over the world, could concentrate in the Channel only with a great effort. Their purpose -- quite explicitly stated -- was to compel the British to do Germany's bidding. The plan failed badly, because the British made arrangements with France over naval defence. They even went one further: they took up an alliance with Russia, France's ally.
It was this which linked the eastern and the western wars, and it brought up a longer-term consideration. The First World War was part of the great question of British foreign policy since about 1840: Germany or Russia? The British opted for Russia in 1914, as they did again in 1941.
This was not of course the obvious choice, though it might seem so in retrospect. Britain's relationship with Germany was once very different -- and far closer. There were obvious strong bonds between the royal families -- Queen Victoria had died in the arms of her eldest grandson, the German Kaiser. Educated Britons were familiar with German culture and literature before the war in a way that has simply not been true since. The countries shared a common Protestantism.
Germany was the great European country. Three members of the British Cabinet had attended German universities, and one had even translated German philosophy. Germany ran educational and social affairs better; and though she had, parallel to the Irish question, a Polish question, at least she never let an IRA develop. …