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Easy-Going ProcrastinatorsFerdinand Mount
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Vol. 37 No. 1 · 8 January 2015

Easy-Going Procrastinators

Ferdinand Mount

5266 words
Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street 
edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, selected by Eleanor Brock.
Oxford, 566 pp., £30, June 2014, 978 0 19 822977 3
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Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 
by Anne de Courcy.
Weidenfeld, 376 pp., £20, November 2014, 978 0 297 86983 2
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The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 
by Douglas Newton.
Verso, 386 pp., £20, July 2014, 978 1 78168 350 7
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The Prince was walking up and down in silence. He caught me by the hands and said: ‘Oh! say there is surely not going to be “warr” (pronouncing it like “far”). Dear, dear Mrs Asquith, can we not stop it?’ (wringing his hands) … ‘I do not understand what has happened. What is it all about?’

Millions​ of people then and ever since have shared the bafflement and anguish of Prince Lichnowsky and have asked the same questions. If the Kaiser’s ambassador to London, a warm anglophile, felt so impotent and overwhelmed by events, no wonder the lightning onset of the Great War has remained the historical question of the last hundred years. Or rather questions, for following on the heels of ‘How did it start, and why?’ comes ‘Could it have been prevented? – and if so, by whom?’, ‘Who was to blame?’ and, for the British anyway, ‘Could we have kept out of it?’

No other event has generated such an endless line of huge books, some reaching back to the Franco-Prussian War, others obsessively going over the last few days leading up to the declarations of war on 3 and 4 August. The pace of events is so hurtling, the outcome so tragic, that for all their length most of these books are impossible to put down, and accordingly tend to be received as magisterial masterpieces, although their conclusions may be utterly different from one another. The question is never laid to rest. The hunt goes on for the smoking gun, the killer fact (these often deployed metaphors being the worst possible in the circumstances).

Margot Asquith kept a diary for 47 years, off and on, starting when she was 12 years old. Yet it is only the two and a half years from July 1914 to Asquith’s fall in December 1916 that Michael and Eleanor Brock have chosen to publish. Even within this period, they tell us, they have excluded most of her musings on her family, as well as lists of many of the guests she entertained so frenetically. On the other hand, the book is plumped out by the editors’ introduction of 116 pages, mostly sketching the domestic and international background to the crisis and occupying nearly half as much space as the diary extracts themselves. Margot’s journals too, it seems, are to be conscripted into the hunt for the truth about the war.

At first sight, this is an odd approach, for the Brocks never stop pointing out how ignorant she was, how crass, how deformed by snobbery (she insisted on Asquith shedding the last traces of his Yorkshire accent). Nor do they claim that she possessed an instinctive judgment to make up for her lack of formal education (she spent most of her youth on the hunting field, where she acquired her distinctive broken nose). She has no idea that Britain’s army is only a third the size of Germany’s, she thinks the war will be over in a year, then when it isn’t, she bets Kitchener that it will be over in another six months. Like her husband, she fiercely opposes conscription, then admits she was wrong. In April 1916, she offers the bizarre reflection: ‘I wonder if we have not got too big an army.’ She sees no political future for Winston Churchill with his ‘noisy mind’ and childish egotism, and doubts whether Lloyd George will ever become prime minister (three months before he topples her husband). In fact she starts a new volume of the diary at the end of July 1916 by claiming that ‘Henry’s position in the country and in the cabinet is stronger than it has ever been.’

Despite or partly because of all her defects, the diaries never cease to entertain, and they turn out to be remarkably enlightening too, if not always in the advertised way. Margot Tennant had always possessed the self-confidence and judgmental sweep of someone born to great wealth and social prominence. Her family were pioneers of chemical bleaching. The Tennant plant outside Glasgow was the largest chemical works in the world at the time, and its towering chimney was a famous landmark, known as Tennant’s Stalk. Until her marriage at the age of 30 to the widowed Herbert Henry Asquith, she was proudest of her role as leader of the Souls. She thought that, for all their academic brilliance, Asquith’s children by his first wife, Helen, were poor successors to her own coterie:

The clever group of nowadays is very inferior to my clever group called ‘Souls’. They are sexless and soulless, and so disloyal that they only hang together by a thread of mutual love of gossip and common capacity to say bright things, read bright and blasphemous novels, modern and very moderate poems (which crop up like weeds every day); and an unimpulsive, uninspired, dry desire to go against authority under the name of anti-cant.

Margot was a goose, but she was a hissing goose. While her judgments may not always be acute, they are almost always sharp. Of Mary Curzon, for example: ‘The latter a very good type of decorative West End furniture – beautiful, silly, idle, and wonderfully, amazingly dull; always saying she is a fool and never minding it; never getting accustomed to her beauty, therefore never really interested in anything and with little or no power of admiration.’ Mrs Asquith’s arrogance is often staggering. She treats being the prime minister’s wife as a sort of high constitutional office. When the Zeppelins raid London, she sends for the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to give her a personal report. When the government is under fire in the newspapers, she instructs the director of the government press bureau to make plans for suspending the Times and the Daily Mail. Her loathing of the reptiles rivals that of a later Downing Street consort, Denis Thatcher. ‘I hate all journalists – it’s a vile profession. Nothing is sacred; even corpses are copy.’

Her social energy and curiosity are so beguiling that at times one regrets the editors’ exclusive focus on the war and begins to wish that they had listened to Margot’s musing that it is possible that her ‘children and great-grandchildren … would rather read about the war in proper books, and hear from me of the kind of clothes and manners, foods and amusements of society than the perpetual political crises’.

Anne de Courcy’s Margot at War is lighter in tone and lacks scholarly pretensions or apparatus. But it conveys Margot’s milieu with a nice touch and takes time away from this enclosed self-regarding world to give us vivid and sharp vignettes of the harder times being experienced by other classes. De Courcy too records very well Margot’s tortured jealousy, not only of her husband’s dalliance with Venetia Stanley but of his daughter Violet’s almost incestuous passion for her father. Not that Margot had any real grounds for complaint. She had, after all, been flirting with Asquith while Helen was still alive. He wrote to her: ‘You have made me a different man and brought back into my life the feeling of spring time’ – just the sort of stuff he wrote Venetia twenty years later. Margot quickly came to believe that Helen was ‘no wife for him. She lives in Hampstead, and has no clothes.’

Yet Margot is anything but smug about herself. ‘Hurting people’s feelings seems to be my prevailing vice … I am haunted by what Mama always said: “Dear Margot! She never improves.”’ She knows why she annoys people so much: ‘Irritability, plus a very keen tongue, gets on other people’s nerves, I find, and bores them … It is really nerves and a devouring energy: I have several skins too few.’ She was quite aware of how mocking her stepchildren were behind her back.

Nor has she any illusions about her fellow Edwardians. Her diatribe against the modern age in December 1914 anticipates almost everything that George Dangerfield was to describe two decades later in The Strange Death of Liberal England:

There are a great many very rotten people in the London or England of today. This war has caught us at our worst. The Church never had less influence than it has today. Art is down – meaningless, grotesque pictures (cubists, Futurists, etc); invertebrate, washy, pretentious music (Debussy etc). Law is set at defiance – suffragettes, Carson’s army (lives threatened, churches and gardens burned, pictures in galleries torn; the gentry of Ireland, the Court and the West End encouraging, advertising, promoting and expecting ‘civil war’); the army cajoled, and here and there bribed, Field Marshals signing covenants against the King’s Government, Generals asking for guarantees (Gough in the Curragh row). Politicians losing all sight of truth and courtesy, hurling the foulest charges against their enemy and using the ugliest language; cutting, forgetting and trying to oust all their oldest friends; and Society so flippant, callous, idle and blasphemous as to ultimately arouse in the Denis dénouement a storm of indignation and letters of protest from complete outsiders.

It is significant that the comble of this catalogue should be the callous behaviour of the river party that had left Denis Anson to drown. The party had included Lady Diana Manners (later to marry Duff Cooper) and Margot’s stepson and daughter-in-law, Raymond and Katharine Asquith. Two years later, when Violet and her husband ‘Bongie’ Bonham Carter were laughing about Lloyd George’s behaviour, Margot was reminded of ‘that same laughter that rung down the river the night of the pleasure-party steamer when Denis Anson was drowned (the spectators went to bed and the opera while their friend’s body was floating and unfound)’.

To the ferocity of her opinions, Margot added an unquestionable courage. She lost no time in going out to Belgium in December 1914, and gives as good a description as any war correspondent of what she saw:

The Belgian trenches look very amateur to my unaccustomed eye. They are like rabbit hutches … The whole country for miles around inundated with sea water and the roads where they are not pavé are swamps of clinging nasty mud on each side. The only dry fields are full of the holes of German shells like a solitaire board … the houses are all smashed – avalanches of brick and window frames standing up in the walls like dolls’ houses – no inhabitants, but soldiers smoking or cooking in the open doorways of less ruined houses. Every church – and some beautiful – littered with bits of bombs and debris of broken stained glass and twisted lead ribbons – tops of tombs, heads of stone saints, all pell mell in the grass of the cemeteries … The Ypres cemetery will haunt me till I die. No hospital full of wounded ever gave me such an insight into war as that damp crowded quiet churchyard. Most of the names scrawled in pencil on bits of wood were English; where the names had been washed off their little forage caps hung on a stick … A Tommy was digging a grave. Two English officers with their caps in their hands were looking at a grave, just covered.

By contrast, despite her pleas and those of the C-in-C, Sir John French, it was not until the end of May 1915 that Asquith himself visited the Front – one more indication of how wrong his wife was when she claimed that ‘Henry was born for this war.’

The Brocks​ repeatedly tug our attention to Asquith’s hopeless incapacity as a war leader. He failed to set up a War Council until three months had passed, nor did he set up any sort of secretariat for reporting the decisions of cabinet. He resisted conscription until forced to give in by a public and Parliamentary outcry. He resisted coalition too, dreading the prospect of working with the coarse and mannerless Tories almost as much as he dreaded the war itself. Even when coalition too was forced on him, he did all he could to keep the Tory leader, Bonar Law, off the War Council, sharing every bit of Margot’s disdain for Northern businessmen although they both came from that background.

Worst of all, though he was famous for his mastery of the House of Commons and his subtle and unflappable chairmanship in cabinet, he was utterly lacking in drive. Even his adoring daughter Violet was obliged to concede in October 1915 that ‘I have felt sometimes lately as if his clutch hadn’t got in – as if the full force of his mind was not in it and driving it forwards.’ (Is this the first recorded use of the clutch metaphor?) The unaltered tenor of Asquith’s life during the war brings to mind Hilaire Belloc’s quatrain on the Liberal election triumph of 1906:

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke – and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

As the casualty lists lengthened, so did the card games and the PM’s drives through the Thames Valley with one of his ‘little harem’, hands entwined under the rug, or worse. The Brocks, who also edited Asquith’s letters to Venetia, describe their tone as that ‘of courtly rather than carnal love’, an amitié amoureuse. They seem rather more erotically charged than that. It would be amazing if a man of Asquith’s appetites had not insisted on physical liberties, at least up to the limit of prudence. He was, after all, a notorious groper, not safe in taxis or anywhere else. Anne de Courcy points out that of the 243 letters he wrote Venetia in 1914, more than half were sent after the outbreak of war. Asquith spills out his heart and military secrets in equal measure. What still seems shocking is how many were written during cabinet meetings, the most notorious being that of 13 January 1915, written during the all-day meeting of the War Council at which Churchill revealed his plans for a naval attack on the Dardanelles.

The duty to amuse oneself did not slacken with the approach of war. When Sir Edward Grey went to Number Ten with Haldane and Crewe bringing news of the German declaration of war on Russia, ‘he found the PM and ladies playing bridge – and Lord Crewe said it was like playing on top of a coffin. They waited till they had finished – about an hour.’ The same code applied on the Tory side. When some MPs went to haul Bonar Law back to London from a Thameside weekend party in order to denounce the government for its failure to support France, they had to sit on a grassy bank and wait until the Tory leader had finished his set of tennis.

Then there was the drink. Margot denounces F.E. Smith for drinking too much, ‘which is always ruinous to anyone’. She cannot have been unaware that her husband was lightly pickled a lot of the time and on a couple of occasions too soused to wind up a debate in the Commons. Not for nothing did George Robey, the Prime Minister of Mirth, warble: ‘Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm,/Another little drink won’t do us any harm.’ Churchill certainly matched Asquith glass for glass, but it is seldom recorded that he was incapable. Drink only made his speech more belligerent and oracular: Old Squiff became incoherent.

This was an indolent, pleasure-loving elite, a clique of easy-going procrastinators. Asquith’s famous ‘wait and see’ might be taken out of context, but it expressed an essential truth about him. When war came he was genuinely grief-stricken, like almost everyone else, and until the last few days had hoped to keep Britain out of it, again like almost everyone else. For it is clear that, though the British public soon rallied to the cause, the vast majority, contrary to the old myth, contemplated the prospect of war with deep foreboding. The supposed upbeat view, that it would all be over by Christmas, where voiced at all, was mostly to keep people’s spirits up.

There was one notable exception to this universal gloom. Churchill wrote to his wife on 28 July: ‘everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared-up and happy.’ Lloyd George recalled that when he and Asquith were sitting in desperate silence in the cabinet room waiting for the British ultimatum to Germany to expire, the double doors were flung open, and in bustled Churchill to tell them that he was about to send telegrams to every British warship informing them that war had been declared and that they were to act accordingly: ‘You could see he was a really happy man. I wondered if this was the state of mind to be in at the opening of such a fearful war as this.’

Churchill’s​ joie de vivre was undiminished as the slaughter intensified. Sitting next to Margot at dinner on 10 January 1915, he could not help saying: ‘I would not be out of this glorious, delicious war for anything the world could give me … I say, don’t repeat that I said the word “delicious” – you know what I mean.’ Then as later, he was anxious not to be thought a warmonger. But his actions could not be erased from the record. It was the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, acting on the wide discretion Churchill had given him, who had on 26 July ordered the fleet not to disperse after its exercises off Portland; and it was Churchill and Battenberg’s orders (not brought before cabinet) on 28 July to take up war stations, followed by full mobilisation on 1 August. Not surprisingly, those historians who believe that the blame for the war should be spread among all the Great Powers have Churchill as their Exhibit A for Britain. ‘The truth is that Churchill succumbed to a temptation to frogmarch events,’ Douglas Newton declares in The Darkest Days.

Newton’s close-focus examination of events in Britain over the week leading up to war has an overt polemical intent: ‘This book is meant to unsettle. It attacks the comforting consensus.’ It is a myth that war was irresistible.

The larger truth of the tragedy of 1914 is that the economic, political and diplomatic systems across Europe were defective, and all the Great Powers shared in these systemic defects – the New Imperialism, Social Darwinism, economic nationalism, ethnically conscious chauvinism, a creeping militarism that looted national treasuries, weak international institutions, and a new popular press that debased political culture and poisoned the popular mind.

The whole system was rotten, and ‘the blunders of the German elite’ can’t be made to shoulder all the blame.

In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark deploys on a grander scale and over a much longer timeframe essentially the same argument.* ‘The protagonists of 1914,’ he writes at the end, ‘were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’ What was Britain’s share in this collective catalepsy? Newton points out that in the run-up to the war Asquith’s cabinet had a majority opposed to intervention and that when war broke out, four of its members resigned (there might have been more if Asquith had not exercised all his manipulative charms to keep the cabinet together). Nowhere else in Europe were there any such resignations. This neutralist mood was widely echoed by the public at large and by many newspapers.

Newton argues that Asquith and Grey had supplied the first fatal link in the chain by their secret naval collaboration with France, which firmed up the Entente Cordiale and was taken by the French as an implicit commitment to come to their aid. All this encouraged the pugnacious Poincaré to bolster France’s alliance with Russia. Accordingly, the Germans had some reason to feel ‘encircled’ and to conclude that a ‘preventive war’ was the only option if they hoped to remain a great power, let alone become a greater one. A similar argument is to be found in Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (1998), where he offers a relatively benign counterfactual alternative:

If the First World War had never been fought, the worst consequence would have been something like a First Cold War, in which the five Great Powers continued to maintain large military establishments, but without impeding their own sustained economic growth. Alternatively, if a war had been fought, but without Britain and America, the victorious Germans might have created a version of the European Union, eight decades ahead of schedule.

What the Pan-Germans dreamed of, in those hectic years before 1914, was a stiller Führer of Mitteleuropa – an Angela Merkel before her time.

These are​ beguiling scenarios, but they in their turn deserve a little interrogation. Suppose, to start with, that Churchill had let the British fleet disperse and the German Navy had nipped in and steamed up the Channel to support an invasion of Belgium and Northern France. Would the First Lord not have been found guilty of feckless negligence? Suppose that Grey had refused to make anything concrete out of the Entente, not even a few joint naval exercises with the French, and had thereby encouraged the Germans to think that Britain would stay neutral in any Franco-German war. Why would that have deterred the German High Command from planning a war on two fronts?

Suppose Prince Lichnowsky had secured from Grey the guarantee he sought on Saturday, 1 August: that Britain would undertake to remain neutral if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality. This was the conversation reported by Grey to the British ambassador in Berlin in the famous Document 123, which non-interventionists such as Bertrand Russell made much of when it was first published and which is still made much of today. Grey refused to give any such promise: ‘I could only say that we must keep our hands free.’

Was this a fatal missed opportunity? It doesn’t look much like one. First of all, Lichnowsky had no authority to launch that kite. France and Germany had both already been asked to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium: France had agreed, Germany had not, and was no more likely to do so now that its troops were already moving up through Luxembourg.

Newton and Clark make even more of a further thought floated by Grey to Lichnowsky that same Saturday: that Britain would be happy to stay neutral if France and Germany could stay facing each other under arms without attacking each other. For a few hours that evening, the Kaiser wobbled frantically, attracted by the idea of confining hostilities to the East, but Moltke and the rest of the High Command soon argued him off it. The preparations for war on two fronts had gone too far to be called off.

In any case, whatever the inconsistencies and ambiguities of his policy, Grey was right when he said that he was in no position to guarantee Britain’s neutrality. Here the political facts that both the diplomatic and the military historians tend to underplay have to be taken into account. Asquith’s biographers, Roy Jenkins and Stephen Koss, both casually assert that Asquith ‘won’ three general elections. In our modern sense, he never won one. Campbell-Bannerman was the party leader at the Liberal landslide of 1906, and Asquith’s two elections of 1910 both produced badly hung Parliaments, with almost identical results: the Liberals and the Conservatives each had 271-274 seats, and the Liberals continued in office only with the support of the eighty-odd Irish MPs and the forty Labour members. With his effortless Balliol superiority, Asquith carried on as if he had a majority of a hundred. But his only way of surviving was to keep the Irish on side by delivering the Home Rule Bill, against the deepest instincts of many of his own members. The Curragh Mutiny of March 1914 showed just how badly the country was split over the Irish issue, encouraging Lichnowsky and others to report back that the British army might even refuse to fight a Liberal war.

Asquith’s government was incurably fragile. If Grey had openly declared Britain’s neutrality, the government would surely have fallen as soon as the Germans crossed the Belgian border, let alone the French one. A coalition dominated by the Conservatives, but led by Lloyd George, would have taken over. This isn’t a what-if. It is what happened just over two years later. So it is extremely difficult to see how British neutrality could actually have come about. Nor, even then, is it clear that Britain with its ‘contemptible’ army (to use the kaiser’s unforgettable epithet) could have been a key influence in deterring the major land war that was breaking out at the other end of the Continent.

These exercises in alternative history don’t really allow us to escape from the same old questions about underlying German intentions. For fifty years the scene has been dominated by the arguments of Fritz Fischer and his school: that ever since Bismarck the Germans had been dreaming of a Mitteleuropa under German military and economic supremacy, with boundaries enlarged to allow German settlers to occupy lands in the East. Poland, the Baltic States, the Ukraine, Romania and Belgium would all be vassal states, controlled by if not formally annexed to the Greater Germany. According to Fischer, these aims were held consistently throughout the First World War, and shared by the diverse actors – the erratic Kaiser, the fanatic Moltke and the supple Bethmann-Hollweg. Large parts of the programme were actually realised at and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, as a result of the collapse of Imperial Russia and Germany’s support for Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The second, inseparable part of Fischer’s thesis is that most influential Germans believed that their country’s legitimate aims could be achieved only by war, because it was encircled by the early starters in the race for empire. There would, as Moltke put it, have to be a final reckoning between Teuton and Slav. Naturally, the politicians would have to decide the timing, and the diplomats would have to present it as a defensive or preventive war, but war there would have to be. Thus the Schlieffen Plan for the war and the September Programme for the peace belonged together.

In the past few years, a reaction against Fischer has undoubtedly set in. Recent historians (Max Hastings’s Catastrophe is an impressive exception) tend to find the anti-German colouring exaggerated. Many of them revert to the old orthodoxy of the 1920s and 1930s that everyone was to blame, that in Lloyd George’s words, ‘the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any apprehension or dismay … not one of them wanted war, certainly not on this scale.’ They have become re-revisionists.

On the whole​ , the re-revisionists tend to walk round Fischer rather than try a direct assault on his monument. Clark says merely that ‘such arguments are not supported by the evidence.’ Newton pays tribute to Fischer, but asks ‘Why should Fischer’s searing indictment of corrupting imperialism, delusional militarism, and the recklessness and vainglory of right-wing elites be confined to Germany? … Such men stalked the gilded rooms of power across Europe.’ Really? Was there no difference at all in character, intention and humanity between Asquith, Grey and George V and the Kaiser and his circle?

Ferguson at least offers a more interesting argument: that Germany’s megalomania developed only under the terrible pressures of the war. Fischer, he says, can produce no evidence that ‘these objectives existed before Britain’s entry into the war … All that Fischer can produce are the prewar pipe dreams of a few Pan-Germans and businessmen, none of which had any official status, as well as the occasional bellicose utterances of the Kaiser, an individual whose influence over policy was neither consistent nor as great as he himself believed.’

Well perhaps, but isn’t it striking that the moment these pipe dreams were turned into official policy, only a month after war broke out, they captivated the German nation? By December, pretty much every professor in the country had signed up to the Manifesto of the 93 in support of Germany’s war aims, a document which Clemenceau denounced as ‘Germany’s greatest crime’. Is it really plausible that this general enthusiasm for a Greater Germany had no deep prewar roots?

The re-revisionists slide away from Fischer’s shadow rather too easily. As a result, their pictures of Germany’s internal politics, both before and during the war, can seem a little undercoloured. Newton is of course concentrating on Britain, but even so the Kaiser’s occasional appearances as a clumsy but sincere peacenik scarcely do justice to his unpredictable ferocity. In Clark’s superb panorama of European politics, the German background seems relatively faint, certainly by contrast to his vivid description of the Serbs and their obsessive crusade for a Greater Serbia. In the case of the Balkan Wars, Clark does not try to make out that the faults were evenly distributed, or that ‘nobody wanted war.’ The Serbs wanted a Greater Serbia and they were hot to fight for it. Clark demonstrates beyond any doubt that the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was no random outrage, but an operation carefully planned by the higher reaches of the Serbian security service, certainly including its chief, the notorious ‘Apis’, and no doubt with a nod from the elusive, unstoppable prime minister, Nikola Pašić. The assassination had two aims, and it achieved both: to remove a peace-loving heir to the throne who intended to conciliate the Serbs inside Austria-Hungary, and to foment a big war in which the Serbs could hope to gain or regain huge swathes of territory and incorporate into Serbia millions of Slavs who at present didn’t even think of themselves as Serbs. The cost was terrible: between 1914 and 1919, the Serbs lost more than 60 per cent of their regular troops, and more than a million people in Serbia died of war, typhus and Spanish flu. The reward was the lead role in the new state of Yugoslavia. The obsession with Greater Serbia continued to exercise its malign hold, culminating in the terrible wars of the 1990s – the fifth Balkan wars by some reckoning.

So there was certainly one venomously aggressive power at work in Central Europe. Might it not be reasonable to conclude that there were two and that the collision between them was what proved so fatal? What set off the wider chain of consequences was the harsh pressure that the Kaiser put on Franz Joseph to lose no time in launching a major retaliation for the assassination of his nephew. If the Serbs don’t look much like sleepwalkers, neither do the Germans. Both of them appear wide awake and full of purpose.

Douglas Newton concludes his brisk and highly readable narrative by declaring that ‘nations going to war are very like each other. Britain’s descent into war was marked, as elsewhere, by panic, manipulation, deception, recklessness, high-handedness, and low political calculation – and decisions made at a tearing pace.’ Certainly that is true if you look only at the machinery: the expiring ultimatums, the last-minute démarches which don’t come off because they aren’t meant to, the ambassadors receiving their passports, the carefully crafted statements in parliament. But what ultimately matter are the underlying intentions and mindsets of those involved. Was there really an equivalence in belligerence? Do sleepwalkers weep as Grey and Asquith wept?

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Vol. 37 No. 2 · 22 January 2015

Ferdinand Mount questions the revisionist critique (led by Christopher Clark) of the Fischer thesis that German expansionism both underlay and triggered the outbreak of war in 1914 (LRB, 8 January). However, he seems to have misread some of the evidence deployed by modern historians.

Document 123, in ostensibly revealing German feelers for British neutrality on Saturday, 1 August 1914, was an artful part of the carefully constructed White Paper (or ‘dodgy dossier’ as Douglas Newton labels it) issued by the British government the day after its declaration of war on Germany. In fact, the German proposals designed to secure British neutrality had emanated from Chancellor Bethmann on Wednesday, 29 July, not from his ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, in London on 1 August. Unfortunately, the offer to respect French territorial integrity in exchange for British neutrality wasn’t sufficient. What was required was respect for Belgian neutrality (not to mention French colonial possessions). As Germany’s defence against the Franco-Russian alliance – and the threat of a two-front war it represented – relied on a massed assault on France, passing through southern Belgium, there was little that Bethmann could say other than that Belgium would be fully compensated after the war if it denied passage to German armies and Germany was thereby compelled to invade. France, which had no plans to attack Germany through Belgium, could give unequivocal assurances to Britain with regard to Belgian neutrality.

What actually happened that Saturday was not revealed in the White Paper, and Mount misconstrues it. Lichnowsky was approached twice by the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, with a proposal that Britain would remain neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France in the event of a war between Germany and Russia (Grey offered to guarantee French neutrality). The proposal was confirmed in a telegram Grey sent to his ambassador in Paris. Far from ‘wobbling’ when confronted with this possibility, the Kaiser grasped it with both hands, insisting that Moltke abandon the long-established plan (first drafted by his predecessor as chief of staff, Schlieffen) to march through Luxembourg and then Belgium en route to France. Refusing the order, Moltke burst into tears and went home. A telegram from Berlin to George V, seeking confirmation of this démarche flushed out Grey’s foolishness: there was, after all, no prospect of France abandoning its treaty obligations to support Russia in a war with Germany. Grey was forced to draft a reply citing a ‘misunderstanding’. A deflated Wilhelm recalled Moltke, and confirmed the original plan.

Of course, it could be argued (as it was by A.J.P. Taylor) that the Schlieffen Plan itself ‘caused’ the war: but it can equally be argued that it was the encircling Franco-Russian Treaty that ‘caused’ the Schlieffen Plan. Surely what matters in the Fischer debate is what was in the minds of the German leadership that July.

Mount claims that the Kaiser put ‘harsh pressure’ on the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, to launch a major retaliation for the assassination of his nephew. Actually, at a lunch with the veteran Austrian ambassador to Berlin, Wilhelm somewhat off-handedly assured his guest that the emperor’s request for support in taking steps against Serbia would be granted, subject to Bethmann’s approval (which duly followed). Yet the next day, 6 July, Wilhelm set off for a three-week Baltic cruise, having assured those military advisers who were not yet on holiday that no special preparations for conflict were required. Moltke himself was taking the cure at Carlsbad, as he did every year. Bethmann was about to return to his country estate in Hohenfinow. His deputy, Jagow, was on honeymoon in Italy. Tirpitz was summering on his own estate. If the provision of the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria was part of some carefully conceived plan of aggression, the German leadership disguised it well.

The main message from Berlin to Vienna had been to act quickly after the assassination, if action there was to be. But a large part of the Austrian army was engaged on harvest duty: so even a threat to Serbia couldn’t be issued till late July. By the time Wilhelm returned from his cruise, Austria had issued an ultimatum, and had rejected Serbia’s reply. Wilhelm (like Edward Grey) found the Serbian reply conciliatory – sufficiently so that he offered to act as a mediator between the parties. Later, he urged the Austrians to ‘halt at Belgrade’ (just across the border) as the sole token of military action. As evidence piled up that Russia was pushing Serbia to resist, Bethmann urged the Austrians – at whatever cost – to accept British mediation: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged by Vienna, wantonly and without regard to our advice, into a world conflagration.’ Wilhelm was still writing to his cousin the tsar on 29 July, offering to mediate between Belgrade and Vienna.

That was the day, according to another revisionist historian, Sean McMeekin, when a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany. This could not be reversed, and finally forced Germany’s hand on 1 August, when Nicholas refused to halt the process. McMeekin concludes, in words echoing Clark’s, that ‘the idea that Germany “caused" or “intended" or “willed" the First World War … is not supported by the evidence.’

Mount cites Fischer as claiming that dreams of a greater Germany – nurtured since Bismarck’s time – ‘were held consistently throughout the First World War, and shared by the erratic actors’: of whom Mount names the Kaiser, Moltke and Bethmann. Moltke, as it happens, was removed from office in September 1914; Wilhelm was sidelined by Hindenburg and Ludendorff in 1916; and Bethmann became a cipher well before he departed in 1917. The generals, of course, were fully signed up to Mitteleuropa, but it was not they who had stumbled into war in August 1914. Meanwhile, there were plenty of non-Germans who dreamed of a smaller Germany: Tsar Alexander told his ministers in 1894 that the point of the Franco-Russian Treaty was to ‘destroy’ Germany in its current form, and replace it with ‘a number of small weak states’. The wife of Alexander’s nephew told the French ambassador in St Petersburg on 22 July 1914 that ‘there’s going to be a war … our armies will meet in Berlin … Germany will be destroyed.’ Blame for the war may not be shared equally, but it was certainly shared. It is time to let go of Fischer.

David Elstein
London SW15

Sorry to pull at a loose thread in Ferdinand Mount’s excellent analysis, but I had understood the phrase attributed to the Kaiser about the contemptible British army was propaganda made up in the War Office.

John Taylor
London SE16

Vol. 37 No. 3 · 5 February 2015

David Elstein writes as if there were only two positions to take on the matter of whether Germany was to blame for starting the First World War (Letters, 22 January). Either the growth of German power and hubris was the driver and trigger of the war; or the responsibility was shared equally among all the great powers, which would repudiate the idea of German war guilt enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. But there is a third way to consider, which is Niall Ferguson’s thesis that Germany, though the weakest of the major powers, nonetheless bore the primary responsibility.

Germany’s main fear wasn’t so much Franco-Russian encirclement as Russia’s industrial prowess and its plan to build strategic railways terminating in Poland; these would be completed by 1916 and would pose a grave threat to German security. The solution was a pre-emptive war against Russia, but one in which the onus for its outbreak would be made to fall on Russia. Elstein writes, citing the revisionist historian Sean McMeekin, that ‘a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany.’ In fact Russian mobilisation occurred in stages, and this critically affected the actual outbreak of the fighting.

Russia began with a partial mobilisation that it intended only as a feint to warn Austria not to proceed to the occupation of Belgrade. Russia notified Germany of its intentions, and received assurances from the Kaiser that Germany would not regard this move as a reason to declare war under the terms of its Austrian alliance. But as the Russians mobilised, Germany did declare war, catching Russia flat-footed. It was no easy matter logistically for the Russians to pivot from a partial to a full mobilisation at such short notice, and the Germans knew this. Germany hoped to keep the conflict local by securing British neutrality and warning France to back off, without any real expectation that France actually would. If France did get involved, Germany had the Schlieffen Plan, which had been updated from its original formulation in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and was intended as a defensive measure.

Elstein and other revisionists act as if the Kaiser was in control of the decision to go to war. He was in fact a notorious vacillator, having backed down twice before in the two Morocco crises (1905, 1911), much to the chagrin of his generals, who found such behaviour dishonourable. The generals were determined this time to hold the Kaiser’s feet to the fire. ‘It was not they [the generals] who had stumbled into war in August 1914,’ Elstein writes, but in fact they were the ones determined that war would break out when they disingenuously told the Kaiser, in response to his panicky entreaty to pull back, that the timetables governing mobilisation had taken on a life of their own and could not be reversed.

Fischer may have mischaracterised the growth of German power as the long-term driver of war and underestimated the responsibility of other powers in this regard, but clearly Germany did trigger the outbreak of war, which makes it the prime guilty party. Why was it that this crisis, unlike previous ones, could not be settled among the great powers? Because this time, Germany, its general staff in particular, was keen to have the issue finally joined.

Albion Urdank
University of California, Los Angeles

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