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'.

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