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.

1 comment:

Peter Hitchens said...

Many thanks. The Newton Book has been reviewed (unfavourably but briefly) in 'The Literary Review'.