From Agadir to Armageddon: Anatomy of a Crisis 
by Geoffrey Barraclough.
Weidenfeld, 196 pp., £8.95, October 1982, 9780297781745
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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.

Out of this arose the crisis of 1911, which owes its name to the German decision at the end of June to send a very small warship, the Panther, as a token of determination not to be ignored, to the Moroccan port of Agadir. Germany has usually been blamed for the ensuing trouble, and its truculent Foreign Minister, Kiderlen-Wächter, above all: this is to take for granted that the Germans ought to have been willing to look quietly on ‘while France violated the treaties guaranteeing Moroccan independence’. Kiderlen, however, was a man who believed in ‘action for its own sake’ – or rather, for the sake of creating distractions, finding red herrings, to divert a growingly critical public opinion away from grievances at home. To win the consent of the Kaiser (on the whole in 1911, unlike 1914, a restraining influence) to the Agadir coup, he underlined its likely value from the point of view of home politics. It is the book’s central argument that this was really the game all governments were playing: each feared its own people, each wanted them to be in a rage with foreigners instead of with their rulers. What Disraeli called ‘a spirited foreign policy’, and held up as the best way to turn discontent outwards, had come to be accepted by statesmen everywhere as their domestic cure-all, heedless of the fact that it was bringing a European war closer and closer.

In Spain in that era, the two right-wing parties came to an agreement to rig elections so that they could take turns in office peaceably, instead of fighting civil wars as they had been doing. It is a pity that Europe’s leaders did not hit on the notion of rigging a series of international incidents, in such a manner as to allow each of them to score a grand diplomatic victory in turn, and parade before his cheering countrymen, peacock-tail uplifted, without a bullet fired. There need have been no obstacle so far as confidentiality was concerned. Foreign policy, which James I was so adamant about keeping to himself as ‘the royal mystery’, was still everywhere the preserve of very small, exclusive circles. In London scarcely more than a dozen men knew where British policy was really going, or drifting. Parliament and public had no control over it whatsoever. This secrecy was one of H.N. Brailsford’s most trenchant criticisms in The War of Steel and Gold, published just before the Great War broke out.

Some curious features of Franco-German relations come to light, which theorists of imperialism have not taken enough account of, and which Barraclough is not concerned with on the level of theory. Businessmen often stood to gain directly by international tension, arms-dealers first and foremost. On the other hand, a Franco-German accord over Morocco in 1909 was initiated by businessmen, with Krupp and Schneider-Creusot both to the fore; and it contemplated plans for joint development, in North Africa and further afield, in Turkey. Politically the millionaires had as much relish as anyone for national feuds as an insurance against social revolt, but being out of the limelight, they were not obliged to posture as extravagantly as the statesmen, and with them at times greed for profit might diverge from political calculation.

They could find useful assistants in the demi-monde flourishing, as Barraclough writes (and still nourishing today, we might add), on the fringes of the upper-class and official world: ‘a motley crew – almost a rogues’ gallery – of adventurers, speculators, corrupt or corruptible politicians and journalists’. Prominent among these was Caillaux, about whom we learn much, a shady individual with one hairy heel in politics, the other in high finance. In 1910 he had a place in the French Cabinet, where he was one of the spokesmen of finance; and the bankers, we are told, had long favoured ‘an active colonial policy’, but wanted to pursue it in co-operation with Germany, rather than in antagonism. Caillaux engaged in secret talks with the Germans, designed to effect a settlement. ‘Compensation’ would be offered in other parts of French Africa. Unluckily, just at the juncture when the Panther was despatched to Agadir, by way of a roll of stage thunder and to make sure of the French offer being liberal enough, Caillaux became premier. He was naturally irritated by Kiderlen’s heavy-handedness; moreover it was harder for him now to commit himself to anything that would look like a French climb-down. Territory to be transferred had to be haggled over village by village.

Perhaps then we have a case here of big business being able to discern mutual interests across national boundaries, as Norman Angell was arguing in season and out of season it ought to, and of economic common sense being thwarted by exigencies of politics. What is certain is that London would do its best to thwart any Franco-German collaboration, which if it developed might lead to Britain being squeezed out of the Near East, and to worse things yet. In the decade before Agadir, British diplomacy was in one sense extremely flexible, making a number of astonishing new departures: alliance with Japan, burying of the hatchet with France and then with its ally Russia, in a Triple Entente hardening insensibly into another coalition confronting the Triple Alliance. But there had been no change of outlook or of underlying assumptions, apart from recognition that Britain, with all its tempting wealth of colonies, was no longer strong enough to stand alone. England and France continued to distrust and dislike each other cordially (much like America and Western Europe now), and England and Russia still more. A combination like theirs might be more of a menace to peace than a solider one. But as Barraclough comments, ‘in an imperialist world, no one trusts anyone, and everyone is ready to stab everyone else in the back.’

He may well be right in his diagnosis of Britain, or its ruling class, suffering from an obscure, uneasy consciousness of greatness passing away. He is unquestionably right in his dictum: ‘it could almost be said that the crisis of 1911 was made in Britain.’ This country had connived at French tampering with Moroccan freedom and international rights; on July 21 it moved, at least as heavy-handedly as Kiderlen a few weeks before, when Lloyd George was allowed to deliver his bellicose speech at the Mansion House, insisting on Britain’s right to have a hand in any game that was to be played. Lloyd George was in some personal need of a chance to make himself the centre of attention: beyond that, no more was at stake, in Barraclough’s view, than ‘concern for prestige, the most hallucinatory of all mirages’. The phrase is a memorable one: but there may have been, or the inner ring of the Cabinet may have believed there was, something graver – the possibility of Europe combining against Britain, as it had shown many signs of being disposed to do during the Boer War.

From Morocco to Sarajevo was a long journey, but ‘the path, even if indirect, was unmistakably marked out.’ In that same July Sir Henry Wilson, ‘the fire-eating Director of Military Operations’, made a visit on his own initiative to Paris, and entangled the Government further in the schemes taking shape for future British participation in war on the Continent. In power in Rome was Giolitti, who ‘governed Italy like a Chicago gangster’. Crisis over Morocco was an opportunity for long-nursed Italian greed in North Africa: it was now or never, and at the end of September an attack on Lybia, a province of the Ottoman Empire, was launched. Grey, at the Foreign Office, was ready to condone Italian aggression, as he had done French, and as his successors a generation later were to do when Mussolini attacked Abyssinia, from a desire to keep Italy wriggling away from Germany. Barraclough speaks of his policy of ‘neutrality and non-intervention, which, as usual, favoured (and was meant to favour) the aggressor’. Conflict could not be quarantined in Africa: Giolitti’s breach of the peace was the signal for the Balkan states to prepare for war against Turkey, a long stride towards 1914.

At the outset of the Great War, when Grey and the French Ambassador were weighing up the Allies’ assets and resources, the Ambassador ended with French theatricality: ‘Il y a aussi la justice.’ There is such a thing, and it was about to cost France a million lives. But as Barraclough says, ‘the ruling classes everywhere – the new Machiavellians in the seats of power – were all implicated.’ There is much room for debate in his presentation of the European élite then politically dominant as neither aristocratic caste nor business oligarchy, but a rentier class, a ‘bourgeoisie’ of the ‘established, educated, well-endowed people of independent means’. But whatever their precise composition, all the summit classes were devoted to ‘the perpetuation of their own interests and the maintenance of a social order which played into their hands’.

Their individual representatives are inspected with detached insight; the study is far less of these puppets than of the strings jerking them, in the light of a recognition of how hard it would have been for any of them to behave differently. They were all prisoners of their society and its patterns of conduct. Intellectually they were, Barraclough emphasises, an excessively mediocre lot; the same can of course be said of their cousins, the generals of 1914-18. One motive for the secrecy in which diplomacy was enveloped, we may suspect, was to conceal its poverty of thought, and enable its practitioners to look like so many Wizards of Oz. Grey’s reputation was built, as shrewd observers saw, on commonplaces or half-truths delivered to the House in tones of deep and impressive conviction.

Besetting these self-appointed élites were ‘social and economic tensions with which they failed to cope’. Barraclough has much to say in his early chapters about a slowing down of European economic growth in 1911, with sundry symptoms familiar to us today, among them ‘speculative fever’; and it is here that he finds the ‘underlying explanation’ of the crisis. Social unrest was throwing the propertied classes into hectic alarm. There may be disagreement at some points with the estimate of how bad the economic situation was and how far 1911 deserves to be called ‘a year of revolutionary ferment’. In France the wine-growers’ revolt was a local phenomenon with special causes. The coming of social insurance in Britain may be dismissed in Chapter Four too summarily. Old-age pensions transformed life for the old, Flora Thompson remembered in Lark Rise; and they must have been a blessing also to a great many younger families with old folk to support. But what matters is that Europe’s ruling classes – like all outdated social groups, far removed from ordinary life – may easily have been more frightened than there was need for them to be. There was a neurotic streak in them, Barraclough remarks. Studying the record of July and August 1914, one is struck by the number of responsible men who gave way to fits of hysterical tears, as the consequences of what they had been doing dawned at last on their blinkered minds.

‘Western society is suffering today from tensions and discontents even more severe than those European society was experiencing in 1911.’ Once more we are faced by ‘the crumbling of a system, the crisis of a society in the throes of irresistible change’. Both superpowers are badly in need of an economic overhaul; in America’s case this would involve ‘a deadly blow to powerful business interests which Reagan cannot afford to offend’. It is clear to Barraclough – who knows America from a long spell of teaching there – that the deliberate threat to peace comes from the West, aided by a swing of American opinion against détente. Unemployment in the USA has lately passed 12 million, and some of his readers may have been recalling that the last time this happened it set Roosevelt manoeuvring towards a challenge to Japan and entry into the war. He had, it must be allowed, far better moral ground than any of his epigones today. General Galtieri and Mrs Thatcher have both shown their understanding of how to ‘play the national card, rallying support against the enemy outside to fend off discontent and criticism at home’.

We are left with the baffling question of how it can happen, seven decades and two world wars after Agadir, that the same nations, and now America with them, are still being managed on the same lines, by the same sort of people, but mischief-makers with far worse than gunpowder to play with. Reagan bears an unnerving resemblance to the Egyptian mummy in Conan Doyle’s grim story, brought back to life to carry out its owner’s sinister purposes. History, it often seems, weaves every day its lessons, and every night, like Penelope, unpicks the web, leaving men’s minds as blank as ever.

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