Royal Mysteries

V.G. Kiernan

  • From Agadir to Armageddon: Anatomy of a Crisis by Geoffrey Barraclough
    Weidenfeld, 196 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78174 X

What is history, asks Dr Johnson, but ‘a record of wars, treasons and calamities?’ This may be too brusque a summary, but there is really not much history worth cultivating on its own account, or for the sake of keeping alive an industry made up of a swarm of academic grubbers each hidden inside his own molehill. It is only worthwhile if there is something to be learned from it. This book, by one of the most eminent of living historians, is a remarkable demonstration of how past and present can and should be studied side by side. It will be written down in some quarters, transatlantic especially, as propaganda, and dismissed by many moles as ‘moralistic’, a term dear to them, meaning that historians should not try to impart to their fellow-citizens anything useful, but should ‘stick to the facts’: in other words, be content to select and arrange facts in tacit harmony with the prevailing outlook prescribed by the powers that be. Professor Barraclough has written a penetrating historical study which is also a genuine tract for the times, a warning that our world is in deadly and imminent peril. ‘No historical parallel fits neatly and tidily,’ he is well aware, but the affinities he brings out between 1911 and today are many, and disturbingly clear. There is the same atmosphere of universal suspicion, the same ‘almost infantile preoccupation with prestige and an ingrained habit of secrecy and prevarication’. In 1911 a colonial wrangle brought Europe within sight of war: our world resounds with White House sabre-rattling, eagerly echoed by a clattering of knitting-needles from Downing Street.

The book is put together on a plan adapted to its practical purpose. Its scrutiny of the second Moroccan crisis is firmly based on the diplomatic documents of 1911, supplemented by later commentaries, but most of the customary learned apparatus is dispensed with. Absence of references will cause occasional puzzlement. On the subject of fears current in 1911 of a militant Islamic resurgence, something is quoted about the alarming prospect of its reaching ‘the Shiah Mohammedans of India’. Shiahs formed only a minute proportion of Indian Muslims. Still, Pan-Islamic agitation was indeed worrying governments, and it might not be very hard to find evidence of a connection between its growth and the French desire to get control of Morocco. At any rate, Algeria and then Tunisia having been conquered, Morocco would round off France’s North African empire. Attempts to gain possession surreptitiously, by infiltration, aroused protests from Germany, which along with many other nations had trading rights established by treaty. A first crisis in 1905-6 was only half resolved by the Algeciras conference. France was backed there by its recent opponent and new confederate, Britain: but as Barraclough says, the outcome was not altogether a defeat for Germany, and the principle of the open door was reaffirmed.

Still, the French were soon at work as unscrupulously as before, and when armed risings against their encroachments broke out they had a pretext to send troops, under colour of upholding the Sultan whom they were reducing to a figurehead. It was a display of the ‘new imperialism’, for which trade was a secondary matter (there was never much to be had in Morocco): at issue now were ‘property rights, mineral rights, mining rights, but above all else financial control’. This was acquired by means of a French loan with all the needful strings attached: ‘a classical time-honoured tactic of predatory imperialism’. The army in Africa was pressing for action, generals took unauthorised action, as often before. In the second half of 1910 they were allowed to take the bit between their teeth.

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