05 August 2014

Peter Hitchens' War on 1914

Unlike most of my associates, I imagine, I do not regard Peter Hitchens' views as wholly disreputable. He seems to think about things, which is a good quality, even if one may decide he reaches the wrong conclusions. He is part of a group of British media personalities who have been banging on about the idea that Britain should have stood aside in August 1914, and let a general European war run its course. As a result, he has kindly created not one but two blogging opportunities for me!

Today, I want to deal with the argument that Britain had no obligation to intervene in a general European war. In a post published today, he builds a case out of quotations from Douglas Newton's The Darkest Days. Hitchens reports that the book has been subject to some criticism, although a quick google didn't offer any reviews.

The problem is that Hitchens puts more weight on the idea of an obligation than the handful of men who took Britain into the war would have. The 1839 treaty that Hitchens links to was a pretext for war. That Britain was likely to take part in a general European war in 1914 was the inevitable consequence of a series of individual decisions taken by groups of men over the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It was because Britain had no formal alliance demanding she participate on the side of France and Russia in a war with Germany, that the British government had to identify such a pretext. But I'm sure Hitchens realises that. He is addressing what we are taught. Britain went to war because plucky little Belgium, which subsequently would be the scene of German atrocities, refused to allow German armies passage across its territories to France. Britain went to war against German militarism, which had been disturbing the peace of Europe since 1870. And, by the way, Germany was the foe of liberty. This is, one might say, the Lloyd George school of interpretation. George, an adept politician as the war would prove, was seeking to justify his own betrayal of the non-interventionist position, where one might have expected him to end up.

Hitchens doesn't quote a much earlier statement (February 1906) by Sir Edward Grey, quoted in Decisions for War, 1914-1917, a distillation of a much longer academic work. Grey cites the increasing closeness between France and Britain, and its implications in the case of a war between France and Germany, then notes

If this expectation is disappointed, the French will never forgive us...
What created this closeness was a series of steps starting in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War. Japan was Britain's ally, while Russia was allied to the French. So the first step towards Britain's entry into war in 1914 was the desire for peace with France, in the context of a war between Russia and Japan. Other steps followed, but in each case a specific action was taken in response to a specific problem. And the accumulation of steps made by small groups of men responding to particular problems closed down alternative avenues, because men were dealing with men. 'France', in this context, was the ministers and officials with whom men like Grey had to deal with. Grey and other men in the British government, I would argue, could not escape their human condition, and disregard entirely the promises made to other men in public life, any more than they would have been able to in private life, without a pretext that good faith had already been broken. In the same way the British government needed a pretext to go to war, so they needed a pretext not to.

Without doubt, the evidence shows that a good portion of the Cabinet in those last days of peace wanted a pretext not to intervene. Three things derailed such a pretext. The first was the difficult situation in Ireland, where the army appeared to be out of step with government policy of a devolved Irish parliament, and which seemed to be an existential crisis for the British state. The second was the remarkable slowness with which Grey responded to the start of the crisis at the end of June. The Cabinet first discussed the crisis on 24 July, as a new issue, almost a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was only in a series of meetings over 29 July-2 August that the Cabinet really came to grips with the matter. It was literally a 'rush to war'. The third was Grey's threat to resign, which would have created a political crisis at a time of a grave diplomatic crisis and a grave political crisis, something the opposition Conservative and Unionist party could easily have exploited.

The Liberal cabinet was trapped by a political situation that itself was the product of several steps that had created the current unstable political situation. The Liberal party had already split over the issues of the Boer War and then Home Rule some years earlier. Four years earlier it had led the country into a major political crisis over the powers of the House of Lords, which resulted in a major constitutional reform. On 2 August the Conservative and Unionist party's leader privately expressed support for Grey's position, a neat manoeuvre that encouraged the Liberals to adopt the Conservatives' more aggressive attitudes towards the Germans in order to avoid the previously mentioned political crisis. (The then-Liberal Winston Churchill himself explored the possibility of a coalition between pro-war Liberals and the Conservative and Unionists.) Grey had approached both Russia and Germany with a proposal for a conference over the crisis, the traditional European solution to diplomatic problems. It was the German unwillingness to entertain this that denied those Cabinet members opposed to intervention a pretext. Had a conference been held, and had France and Russia still opted for war, it seems plausible that enough of the Liberal ministers might have risked the political crisis that would have resulted from non-intervention.

There were all too human calculations involved in Britain's entry into the European war, and nothing to do with legalistic interpretations of 1839 treaties. For the Liberal government to follow the path of non-intervention would most likely have caused the collapse of the government, and the formation of a new, pro-intervention (and anti-Irish Home Rule) Cabinet. From the point of view of August 1914, remaining in office ensured that those opposed to intervention would retain some authority over both the conduct of the war and the post-war settlement, as well as maintaining other Liberal policies. In the event, the later collapse of the government invalidated that assumption, but no-one knew that a hundred years ago. The Belgian pretext held the government together, and to put too much weight on it is to hamper our understanding of why events happen.

04 August 2014

A Hanoverian Succession?

One hundred years ago today, half of the Anglosphere went to war with the German Empire. It probably bears repeating that there was neither debate in Parliament, nor consultation with the Dominions. A few men in London had a few meetings, and issued an ultimatum to the government in Berlin during the morning of 4 August 1914. The other half of the Anglosphere had no immediate intention of joining this conflict, even though the occupant of the White House, Woodrow Wilson, was one of the most Anglophile presidents in American history. One could argue that the First World War was the inception of the Anglosphere, the moment when the idea of an English-Speaking People really became something with practical effect, despite the long debate that took place before the United States went to war. The Dominions, through their armed forces, acquired identities that were no longer mere creations of distance, prone to fragmentation by the scale of their countries, but focused on a continuing national project that required social mobilisation to an unparalleled degree. Not only could they claim to be separate, but they could now point to an effort that deserved equality. Britain began to accept that it was no longer the centre of the Anglospheric universe, but simply had a claim to be primus inter pares.

All of these developments relate to what one might call the 'lost cousin' of the Anglosphere, Germany. Given any opportunity, I vigorously promote the idea of thinking about an alternative to the Anglosphere that I call 'the Hanoverian Complex'. The United States was founded, not out of Britain, but out of the realms of King George of Great Britain, Ireland and Hanover. German-speakers were a major stream of immigration into the United States, and the era of 'Liberty Cabbage' (a re-christening of sauerkraut) during the First World War threw something of a cloak over just how prominent German was in the United States was before 1917. In this, parts of the United States fitted into what might be called a German-sphere. Even up to 1914, Germany remained something of a geographical expression. There was a king in Bavaria until 1918, and it is better to write of the German armies going to war in 1914. Bavarian, Saxon and Wuerttemburger forces all had distinct identities from the 'Prussian' force that overwhelmingly predominated. Just as the war divided the Dominions from London, the conflict united German states to Berlin more thoroughly than had been accomplished by the Franco-Prussian war. The German-Speaking people came together as the English-Speaking one drew apart.

Germany, Britain and the United States have had an odd triangular relationship during the past two hundred or so years. Germans were important emigrants both to the United States and to the British dominions, while Queen Victoria was a determined Germanophile. (Her daughter-in-law, Alexandra of Denmark, was quite hostile towards Germany, and arguably played an important role in changing British attitudes.) Changes in this triangular relationship, initially broadly friendly, at first glance coincide with the accession of Wilhelm II as German emperor. Wilhelm, whose mother was the daughter of the German-descended Victoria and her German husband, literally possessed a 'love-hate' relationship towards Britain, and his pursuit of extra-European expressions of German political power clashed with the United States' own taking up of 'the White Man's Burden'. In the five years before August 1914, the most important episode of this from the perspective of Washington, DC, came in German attempts to influence the course of the Mexican revolution, which had started in 1910 and turned into an ongoing civil war after a coup in 1913. Tension between the two also arose in China, another site of a revolution that offered an opportunity for Germany and the United States to expand their influence. For the British, German economic competition and Wilhelm's bellicose rhetoric, as well as plans for a much bigger German navy, made for an uncomfortable neighbour. On 4 August 1874, relations between the three countries were certainly cordial, if not friendly. Forty years later, Germany was perceived with grave suspicion by the English-Speakers. What remains constant is that the English-Speakers shared an opinion at both moments.

So, thus, we come to the article that stimulated this post, Simon Jenkins' request for Britons to set aside their fascination with wars against Germany. Jenkins wants Britons to face the future, which requires remembering the friendly Germany, and not the one that was responsible for the massacre at Dinant, the sack of Louvain and other German attacks on civilians in 1914, let alone the worse business of 1939-45. The problem is that Germany appears to have been run in 1914 by a group who perceived themselves to be victims of a plot to keep their Empire from its proper role as primus inter pares in Europe, a view complicated by the fact that they believed that Russia's power could only get stronger. It is not unreasonable to connect the conduct of German soldiers in Belgium and elsewhere with this same paranoid outlook. This paranoia has turned into something of a self-perpetuating phenomenon, as the ”Stab-in-the-Back Myth” or the controversy over the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt and the 1960s' student protest movement which spawned the terrorist Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Cells can all be seen as symptoms of attitudes that were shaped around the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, it doesn't help halt the self-perpetuation when foreigners readily turn to reminders of a guilty past when angered by German policy.

Jenkins was profoundly wrong to apologise to the Germans for English-Speakers' worship of the First World War. Not only was the war was possibly the single most important event in shaping the Anglosphere, but “the problem with Germany” is really a German problem. German leaders needed to recognise that history moves slowly, and their fears in 1900 were a long way from being realised. It is the Germans who need to break out of that self-perpetuating persecution complex, and they need a certain resilience in the face of crass equations of German assertiveness with Nazi aggression. Who is to say, at this point, that they aren't already on a path to becoming more like the Germany of Bismarck, which recognised how to maintain the dignity of and knew the limits to great power status?

In another way, though, Jenkins was right that Britain may need to move on from its victories over Germany. Arguably, to adopt the mood of Berlin 1914, the Anglosphere as we know it is falling apart. The United States could already be inescapably headed out of it and into Latin America. Many Canadians seem embarrassed about their Anglospheric roots, see more in common with the United States than the 'Mother Country', and seem likely to opt for a globalised identity. Only Australia, New Zealand and Britain still value a shared cultural identity, although I am too far from Australia to judge that with any accuracy. One notes that one day Prince George of Cambridge is due to ascend the British throne, and by that time perhaps Britain will be wiser to embrace the 'Hanoverian Complex' rather than the 'Special Relationship'.

03 August 2014

The Living Dead

This post departs somewhat from the cultural history theme on which this blog is supposed to focus. Towards the end I introduce some themes that are not particular to Anglo-American Culture, but which Anglo-American culture played an important role. So if you read the posts on this blog for their historical content, I recommend you skip this and wait for tomorrow's contribution.

In recent years, I have become more acquainted with cancer than one might find comfortable. Cancer was responsible for the most formative event in my life, the death of my sister when she was twenty-five, just as my childhood was ending. The rest of my life has taken place in the context of this event, in ways almost none of my family nor my closest friends had or have any real appreciation. Six years ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Although she survived, in mutilated fashion, one has had to live through treatment and through almost annual scares in the years since. This year, my mother died as a result of a cancer. As I get older, and the probability of me developing cancer increases, I feel like a member of a herd of animals, a herd attacked by predators who pick off individuals. The survivors are relieved, but fearful. I do not claim any special status in writing this. I expect that at least a million individuals in the world can share a story similar to mine, if not millions.

That's why I recommend this podcast, in which a literary critic, D G Myers, mortally ill with cancer, talks about how he copes with a death sentence, and what it tells him about life. His advice is sound, speaking as a witness to cancer, and I recommend those who have need of such advice to pay heed. However, I'm more interested here in discussing other things that the podcast raises.

Myers and his interlocutor, a Stanford University economics professor named Russ Roberts, both raise a point about what one might call a history of perception. Roberts mentions how in the nineteenth century children might be taken on visits to cemeteries as a kind of exercise in memento mori, a concept I haven't observed used by a living person in a non-monumental environment since 1983 and even then in a proto-hipsterish ironic way. Death, of course, was a much more familiar rite of passage to people a hundred and fifty years ago because of infant mortality, shorter lifespans and a poorer understanding of the causes of disease, as well as a general lack of safety measures on trains, ferries or even the street. Mourning was expected in a more religious society, as was a cult of the dead, who were seen to have a role still in life. We were expected to pray for them both on their behalf, and to intercede on ours. Nowadays, however, we tend to obey the Gospel injunction of the Lord of Life in Matthew VIII:22. Except on officially sanctioned occasions that serve to commemorate service to the state, such as Armistice Day, we are encouraged to put mourning behind us quickly. This was most significantly observed by Geoffrey Gorer, a friend to George Orwell, an anthropologist, and a decidedly Anglo-American figure. Gorer held that mourning, by the 1960s, had become like sexual urges during the Victorian era. To be too open about it was something shameful, a burden to those around one. This attitude still persists today. Yet, as Myers points out, death and the accompanying grief are important reminders to us that our time has value, We are only allowed so much of it, and we should consider carefully what matters, before the doctor's diagnosis forces us to consider what matters.

As Roberts negotiates his way past the mortality of Myers, asking about lists of good novels or forgotten writers (which, to digress, tragically includes Graham Greene, according to them) he comes to discuss the environment that both work in, the Groves of Academe. Myers throughout makes some telling points about the difference between 'creative writing' and 'literature', and the problem of having practitioners of the one teach the other. They conclude with a discussion of the transformation of the Groves, into corporate bureaucracies that have reached the conclusion that an English Literature degree does not require the study of Shakespeare, let alone Milton or Chaucer. As a Classicist, I could have told Myers that this was inevitable once the study of Latin and Classical Greek had been marginalised, instead of being the bedrock of a humanistic tradition in education that reached back to the fifteenth century in Europe. 'First they came for the Classicists, &c'. What students get, more or less, is an offering of lecturers' hobbies, and the student can pick and choose amongst them, and thereby reach a personal connection to English Literature that in its essence divides him or her from fellow students. Whereas in the past the completion of the degree was to share in a tradition, now the object is to satisfy appetites of both teacher and taught.

I don't think I'm wrong to connect the reduction of a societal emphasis on marginalising a continuing connection to the dead with the reduction of personal emphasis in education from shared experience to individual development. Both are a consequence of Modernity, that condition that marks our own time from that of the now-dead. The themes of Modernity are The New, The Young, Fashion, Consumption (or as I prefer to designate it, Appetite), Celebration and The Individual. Before was about The Tradition, The Mature, Ritual, Preservation, Duty and The Group. To connect to the past is dangerous, because it delays The New, reminds The Young that they will be old, shows us that Fashion will fade, that Appetite will impoverish, that Celebration must end and that The Individual to dust shalt return. Paradoxically, the more that the centres of power shift from the individual to the corporate, the more that this individualist collection of themes comes to dominate cultural discourse. The family-owned shop or diner is replaced by the chain or franchise. The Anglosphere led the way in supplanting individual investors with shareholding capital organised through 'unit trusts' or 'mutual funds'. Even in sports, the local team becomes secondary to the Major-League one.

The corporate entities that dominate Modernity are themselves in principle eternal. They have the potential to outlast their personnel, to stand as paper assemblages of capital as long as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. The monarch may die, but the Crown endures. In this way, and in this only, Modernity has a capacity to resist change. Modernity's desire for change is only motivated by its need to control, and by continuous rupturing of the social environment its to disorienting changes transform us from people with a past and with traditions into goldfish living in a perpetual now. Looking out of our bowls we are frightened into a false obliviousness of our inescapable end. Traditions and rituals connect us to a death that renders all that Fashion, all that Appetite, meaningless. Modernity ignores the final change of all, Death.

Yet when confronted with death-change we identify what is important and we focus on that. These important things, if Myers is to be believed, are tied to friends and family (a group), habitual pleasures (rituals) and a request to be treated with honesty as the same person as one was before the diagnosis (preservation). Tradition connects us not only to the past, but also to the future. Those cultural traditions that we share with those who came before are ones we can also share with those who shall come after. I don't think it is any accident that that Dante Alighieri was led from the Inferno to Paradise by a poet who had been dead for 1300 years at the time he found himself in a dark wood wandering.